Putah Creek above Berryessa reservoir


Stretch: Middletown to Berryessa Reservoir
Difficulty: Class IV+ brush with long class II stretches
Distance: 16 miles, 1 or 2 days
Flows: kayaks 1000 - 6000 cfs, IK minimum 500
Gauge: measured along this run near Guenoc (PCG)
Gradient: 32 fpm average, 110 fpm in canyons
Put-in: west bank highway 29 bridge, 960'
Take-out: upstream on Butts Creek along Berryessa Reservoir, 460'
Shuttle: 15 miles (20 minutes) one-way, bicycle OK
Maps: AAA Sonoma and Mendocino
Season: winter, shortly after significant rain
Agency: private, US Coast Guard
Notes: © 1998, 2002, 2012 Bill Tuthill, CreeksYahoo

For a guide to Putah Creek below Berryessa Reservoir, see the Lower Putah writeup on this website.

In the late 1990s I enjoyed Putah Creek so much that I rated it a semi-classic. It had two fine class IV gorges, brushy in places, and some scenic class II stretches. However like most California rivers the brush has gotten worse in the last decade. Here is a 2012 trip report from Jeff Pflueger:

No way is Putah close to a semi-classic at 1000 cfs. Maybe the story changes at higher flows, or maybe the brush situation has gotten much worse since you last paddled it. But at 100 cfs the brush is really bad. There are maybe 3 good rapids, and a huge amount of flatwater. I do not remember much class II, only endless paddling on lakes punctuated by really bad brush situations, some that required portaging. Minus the brush, there would be 2 class IV rapids, 4 class III rapids, maybe 6 class II rapids, and many miles of flatwater. Temper your enthusiasm.

Anyone who has studied Spanish knows that puta means “whore” (though not in the official dictionaries). California history books, despite boring us with tales about gold miners despoiling the environment, are remarkably silent on the Putah Creek issue. Locals in Winters say the Vaqueros used to take young native women to keep their fires going, and return them pregnant the following spring. Ethnographers inform us that Putah is a Spanish spelling of a Wintun settlement name: Poota-to means people living along this creek [A.L. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, 1925,1953,1967]. Later authors say Puta Wuwwe was a Lake Miwok name for grassy creek [California Place Names, UC Press, 1998, page 304].

To commemorate early colonialism, and in violation of California State English-only laws, the class IV rapids on this run have been named en Español.

The class IV+ rating is for brush. If someone would “maintain” a boating channel by cutting a path through willows in the streambed, this run could be rated class IV. The two gorges are steep enough in places to require scouting, because routes are not discernible from river level. But brush can also be your friend: we often held onto willows while boat scouting, and I remember holding onto one branch for over 10 minutes while someone self-rescued out of the only channel.

After mile 4, this area is relative wilderness, making rescue difficult. Get an early start and please avoid causing trouble for local ranchers.

Put in on river left upstream of the highway 29 bridge, 5 miles northeast of Middletown. Just across the bridge (on river right) there is a gas station and cafe. The valley is very wide here, so the creek crossing is not obvious. Note that land on both sides is private, so bank access is not permitted.
Creeping suburbia on the left and ranchland on the right, until the river drops around a sand island over a class II rapid.
Gauging station on the right, perhaps the source of PCG flow numbers. The creek leaves Coyote Valley and basalt cliffs close in. Class III rapids begin, and you might think the infamous brush isn't so bad.
Putah Creek near Middletown CA Putah Creek near Middletown CA
Eastern Oregon style basalt canyon begins One of several fun class III rapids
A basalt cliff towers overhead on river left, announcing the start of the first class IV gorge at the upcoming right bend.
Putah Creek near Middletown CA

Willow clumps often dot the channel
Putah Creek near Middletown CA

The first IV is at the base of this cliff
Numero Uno, class IV, scout right or left
The right side is a bony boulder bar, the left side is a long curving chute ending in a 1.5 meter falls. Choose your scouting side according to which you would prefer running.
Putah Creek near Middletown CA Putah Creek near Middletown CA
Bumping down the bony boulder bar Darren goes vertical in Numero 1 falls
Numero Dos, class IV+, possibly scout left
The current innocuously enters a narrow channel among willows, as it has done before, but this time the channel culminates in a major class IV rapid. Scouting is difficult but possible on the left bank. The crux of the first section is a huge rock lurking in the middle of the channel. The best route (1998) turns sharp left near the big rock, although some of us went right, causing carnage. I didn't get any photos here because I was hanging onto a willow branch for dear life. After this crux, things mellow out a bit, giving you a chance to scout the second crux, a steep drop among boulders. In his 1974 guidebook, Dick Schwind recommended portaging Numero Dos on the right.
Putah Creek near Middletown CA Putah Creek near Middletown CA
Second crux of Numero 2, post carnage From below, kayaker dwarfed by Numero 3
Numero Tres, class IV, possibly scout right
The current lulls you into entering this on the left, but that is the wrong side. This one is basically a class III+ boulder drop obscured by a willow fence at the top. Although I'm not positive, I believe there is a workable entrance on the right side. We all entered on the left and were forced to wallow though willows into the main drop. 2006 note: Derrick Wydick says yes the proper way to run this is to start right, bump or portage over a few rocks, then enter the best channel on the right side. Dick Schwind's guidebook says Numero Tres can be portaged easily on the flat above the right bank.
Soda Creek enters on the left, probably causing all that brush. The gradient settles down, and brushy but easier rapids continue for a distance.
Coast Guard pumphouse on the right bank, an emergency take-out. The creek flattens out to only 20 fpm for the next 6 miles.
Putah Creek near Middletown CA Putah Creek near Middletown CA
One of many fine wilderness vistas Cows on distant hill as the gorge deepens
The river enters another gorge, this time of ragged rock with unknown composition, and class II-III rapids are a welcome change.
Where a tall cliff obscures the afternoon sun, the river bends left, announcing the start of class IV rapids just around the corner.
Putah Creek near Middletown CA Putah Creek near Middletown CA
Tall cliff where 2nd gorge gets serious Numero 4 from above, Numero 5 in distance
Numero Cuatro, class IV, scout left
Three diagonal ledges and much boulder dodging among big hydraulics. Fortunately brush is absent, or else this would be a class V rapid. Schwind says a difficult portage is possible on the left.
Numero Cinco, class IV, possibly scout left
Somewhat obscured by a willow fence, the river splits around an island. The right side becomes a boulder garden, perhaps runnable at higher flows, and the left side tumbles steeply over a boulder bar. In 1998 we ran a narrow channel among willows on the far left, but there is no guarantee that a channel will be available in the future. Schwind recommends portaging across a narrow island towards the left side, reachable from the righthand boulder garden.
Numero Seis, class IV-, possibly scout left
The river drops past some cabin-size boulders and surges into a hole against a cliff on the right. This hole gets very big at high flows.
Putah Creek near Middletown CA Putah Creek near Middletown CA
Below Numero 5 with flare from sunset Wise kayaker avoiding Numero 6 hole
15 ?
Slack water of Berryessa Reservoir begins.
Butts Creek enters on the right.

To reach put-in, drive 43 miles north of Napa, thru Calistoga and over a pass near Mount Saint Helena, to the small town of Middletown. Drive another 5 miles to a low bridge over Putah Creek. Parking is available on the northwest side of the bridge, and a gas station and cafe on the southeast makes a good meeting spot (1998).

To reach take-out from there, return 4.2 miles towards Middletown, and turn left onto Butts Canyon Road. Take this road 10 or 11 miles southeast, passing Guenoc Winery, then following Butts Creek. Where the creek goes east, turn left onto Snall Valley Road, and follow this road to Berryessa Reservoir.

The traditional take-out was along Butts Creek, but this land is private, and gated since the late 1990s. We parked on public right-of-way near the road bridge across Butts Creek, and found this note on our windshield when we returned: “This is private property all of it the fish + Game will be Notified and so will the Sheriff Next time your car is seen here.” [sic] Unless you have a motorboat to meet you on the reservoir, the most practical take-out is to paddle upstream on Butts Creek to the public bridge where we parked.

Below Berryessa Reservoir, Putah Creek continues as described here. Low but boatable flows continue all summer long.


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