Noyo River above Fort Bragg


Stretch: Northspur to Company Ranch near Fort Bragg
Difficulty: Class II+ with some log portages
Distance: 12 miles, 1 or 2 days
Flows: kayaks 300 - 900 cfs, IK minimum 200
Gauge: measured near Fort Bragg (USGS site)
Gradient: 22 fpm average, fairly continuous
Put-in: Northspur Train Station, 335'
Take-out: Company Ranch bridge, 70'
Shuttle: by train, about 1 hour 15 minutes
Maps: Delorme N California, AAA Northern California, Topo
Season: winter and spring, after recent rain
Agency: private
Notes: © 1998 Scott Cochran,

This is a beautiful stream that is seldom run despite its top-notch scenery. It is not described in the Holbek/Stanley guidebook, and it is only briefly mentioned in the Cassady/Calhoun guidebook.

The Noyo is a small river whose mouth empties into Fort Bragg harbor. Though the region is filled with small streams thru redwood forests, the Noyo is unique in that the shuttle, typically a time-consuming bother, can be accomplished by a quaint train ride. Though the river rated only class II+ (and 95% of the rapids are class I) and would be very suitable for canoes, the Skunk Railroad is reluctant to transport rigid boats, so small inflatables such as IKs or Pumas are the craft of choice. The exception is that sometimes a Kiwi Kayak group makes special arrangements for the train to pull a baggage car.

There are three trains departures a day on weekends, and costs vary dramatically. Round trips for trains 2 and 3 is $25. A one way to Northspur is $6.50 if you are leaving a car at the Ranch, but if you are being picked up by the train, you will need a round trip ticket. These fares can easily be fractionalized so if you are sure of your schedule, you may be able to secure a better deal, but talk to a supervisor. If you don't like the first price quoted, ask the exact same question in a different way and you might get a different price.

The schedule is as follows (times are approximate, and subject to change). Call the Skunk Railroad at 800-777-5865 for more information.

            Fort Bragg  Ranch  Northspur  Willits
train 1 ==>     9:20     9:50    10:30    noon
train 1 <==     4:00     3:30     2:30    1:20
train 2 ==>    10:00    10:30    11:15    turns around at Northspur
train 2 <==     1:30     1:00    12:00    turns around at Northspur
train 3 ==>     2:00     2:30     3:15    turns around at Northspur
train 3 <==     5:30     5:00     4:00    turns around at Northspur
The run, as well as the railroad can be divided up into 3 sections. The railroad starts on the west side of Highway 1, follows Woody Creek for a couple miles, and then crosses under a tunnel into the Noyo drainage at about river mile 18. The first official stop is at the Ranch stop, around river mile 12. This is the furthest upstream that you can drive on a public road.

The Ranch makes a good take out, because a bridge over the river creates good access, and it is only a short walk uphill to the junction with a public road. In 1998 a large Kiwi Kayak trip took out there and, owing to the presence of about 25 parked cars, irritated the local landowners. Smaller groups and a low profile should alleviate this problem. The Ranch, not the train depot, is the ideal take-out for two reasons. First, the river mouth is quite a distance from the depot, so you would need to do a car shuttle anyway. Second, the lower 9 miles are the least scenic, the flattest, rather populated, and generally not worth running, especially in the afternoon, when upstream winds easily overwhelm the slow current.

There are several stops between the Ranch and Northspur: two at a Boy Scout and an inner city kids camp (vacant during the winter when this river runs) and a couple others. Keep in mind however, that you can enter and exit the train at any point just by asking the conductor to stop, or flagging down the train from near the track.

Requesting that the conductor look out for you, and standing in an area visible to the train is requested, but not, as we proved while standing around a blind corner, absolutely necessary. Though the river and tracks are always close, there are small gorges that make access inconvenient, so a put-in or take-out at one of the stops is recommended. Lastly, you cannot hear the train from the tracks, much less the river, so if you need to catch the train out, carry a watch, don't as I was tempted to do, listen for the up-river train knowing it will turn around and be back at your spot in half hour.

Two of the larger rapids can be seen just before and after the Twin Bridges section, at about mile 5. Better access (more bridges) and beaches exist below this point.

Northspur is little more than a spot where one can buy trinkets, hot dogs, and beer for tourist prices. It does however, have flush toilets, fresh water, though camping is not an option. Train 1 continues on to Willits, whereas trains 2 and 3 turn around here. There is a good put-in here, just below where the river forks; kayaking upstream of this point would likely be too tight and brushy. A good campsite is on river right about 1.5 miles down, especially since it is invisible from either the tracks or any of the dozen or so isolated cottages along the run. The few beaches in this first 5 miles of this section are usually uncomfortably close to a local resident.

Camping and Scenery

Though signs of logging abound, this far worse than it sounds: logging is done by sustainable harvest, so there are no clearcut eye sores. The canyon is very pretty, wildlife is common, and the river runs cold and clear except after heavy rain. Camping is discouraged, because Georgia Pacific owns most of the land, and is worried about liability. I have talked with Stacy Bradley, the Resource Secretary of the Forestry section, 707-961-3302, and she states that people camp there all the time, and while GP would prefer that they do not, GP is aware that the riverbeds are public domain, and do not have anyone there to enforce their preference. Occasionally, it officially permits large parties to camp there if each member is covered with a million dollar insurance policy, which some of the whitewater clubs and groups may have. But, as we know, within the river corridor it is public domain, so boaters have the legal right to camp there. The stumbling block is that the Skunk railroad leases the railway from GP, so they don't want to run low on favors. Your best strategy if you want to camp, is to put all your stuff (boats and camping gear) into large duffel bags, and leave a car at the Ranch stop so they are not looking for you on the way out. They'll have no way of knowing if you spent the night or not. Most of the better beaches are visible from the tracks.

A distance of 12 miles may not sound like much, but it took us almost 4 hours to cover 5 miles at 250 cfs. Strange, because the smooth sandstone river bed makes for a surprisingly swift current given the low flows and gradient. This means a Northspur to Ranch trip is a long day at flows below 500 cfs. The best Whitewater is from the lower camp to a couple miles below the twin bridges area, so this would make the best day trip if flows are low. Optimum for IKs is about 300 cfs; 200 is the functional minimum. The only upper barrier would be the brush and log portages. Though it would be washed out, you could easily boat up to 1500 cfs. Do note however, that despite a respectable watershed, flows can drop suspiciously quickly: too high to run one weekend and barely runnable the next.

The season should be from December to late March in normal years. Dress for cool weather.


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