South Fork of the Salmon, California: Class IV+

The Cal-Salmon area has a huge variety of rafting and kayaking runs. Upstream from the popular commercial runs on the main fork, the South Fork offers a steeper, more creeky style of whitewater. The gorge run described here is simply referred to as the South Fork. Downstream is a class III run known as the Methodist Creek run, named after the creek at the put-in. The South Fork is generally considered a step up from the Nordheimer Run on the Salmon and rated class IV+ to V depending on the source. At low flows, the run is good class IV, but nothing is really class V. With more water, everything gets pushier and some of the rapids develop some major holes. Duh.

Blue skies at the put-in for the South Fork

The run starts out with a great warm-up of class II riffles for a couple miles. The scenery through here improves as the river approaches the gorge.

The mellow first half of the run.

The South Fork has a great tempo to the run. The beginning has a great warm-up grading from class two up to a few class III chutes and then a great class IV drop. The class IV is a long boulder garden that leads into horseshoe-shaped ledge pictured below. The middle is a nasty hole but has great boofs on either side

Peter below the first class IV

Here the run calms down again for a half-mile or so until a short twisty class IV that deserves a scout if you don't know the run well.

Above: Shaun in the entrance to a short class IV. Below: Michael finishing the same rapid

The action continues for quite a while from here with too many class IV drops and good boofs to count. Another rapid to be aware of is The Sieve. It's a fairly easy rapid, but consequences have been fatal in the past. On a recent trip, one paddler missed the move and had to eddy out just above the sieve. We spent about 20 minutes carefully getting him and his boat through the 6-foot portage. In the photos it looks pretty innocent, but there are enough stories to make a lot of boaters walk this one.

Chris corrals Peter's boat and Peter holds Adam's boat while Adam scrambles around the sieve, which looks harmless from all angles: until you're stuck inside it.

Action continues with boat-scoutable rapids until you get to Disneyland. Disneyland has got to be one of the most fun rapids out there. It can be intimidating from the scout (I know class V boaters who've always walked it) but is fairly easy once you get the hang of it. It's the only rapid I know where the more defensive you are with pry strokes and draw strokes, the better your run will be. The trick is to just go with the flow and ride the pillows around all the nasty spots and through the tight run-out.

Working the first pillow in Disneyland

Damon in the run-out of Disneyland.

After Disneyland comes a fun boulder garden that's a great one to practice boat scouting and hand signals in. The run ends with the final gorge, containing three rapids. The first is the infamous hole from the Oregon Kayaking write-up. The hole has been pretty benign every time I've seen it, so we just paddle hard down the right side. I tried the left boof once and it was one of the worst lines I've ever had.

The very last rapid has some nasty holes in it, but there is typically a fun and easy sneak line around the right side.

Peter finishing off a great day on the South Salmon

The run is fairly short (5 miles) and packs a lot of good rapids into the short distance. Some people shorten it further by hiking in to alternative put-ins and do laps.

The take-out is at Matthews Creek Campground, a free campground maintained by the Forest Service. It's right along the South Fork Road between Forks of Salmon and Cecilville. To reach the put-in, just drive upstream and look for a road dropping off to the right. Some people put in at Cecilville, but that only adds to the class II warm-up. Bike shuttles on this run are highly recommended due to the paved road with minimal traffic and great fresh air.


brthomas said…
Excellent pictures!! After many years of kayaking in California the Cal-Salmon is one of the rivers that I haven't yet boated. Maybe I'll get out there in 2009!!

Cal Salmon River - Whitewater Guide - BRT Insights.

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