Redwood Creek above Orick
This seldom-run run is seldom run, apparently. We never see anyone, except hikers down near Orick. Campsites and portage trails look underused.
Although often considered a classic run, Redwood Creek has two problems: it is a long drive from population centers, and there is a difficult portage at Rocky Gap. If you live in Eureka, the first problem is not a problem. The portage keeps class II-III boaters off the river, and the long stretches of mellow but scenic class I-II keep class IV-V boaters off the river. Of course this makes for superb solitude in forested parkland that is stunningly beautiful in sunny weather, which often occurs in April and sometimes in March. As an overnight wilderness trip suitable for intermediates (with supervision) Redwood Creek is in my opinion the best in California. At low flows water quality is excellent, but higher flows greatly increase turbidity.
It is difficult to measure your progress on Redwood Creek, because lovely sidestreams cascade into the creek every kilometer it seems. The redwood log bridge that was once a landmark has been removed, probably as timber. If you put in above Stover Creek, you will likely want to camp at a fine large open gravel bench on river left about 11 miles below Lacks Creek. National Park regulations apply to camping within park boundaries.
The guidebooks all describe a put-in on private property at Stover Ranch, but the young Stover generation refuses permission, and they usually answer the phone now. My opinion is that it's not worth calling John Stover for permission, because it just draws attention to yourself. My recommendation is to call shuttle driver Kathy Gifford in Orick. If you can't find her phone number, call Orick's Palm Cafe 707-488-3381 and ask them to put you in touch with Kathy, or another shuttle driver. The 2008 rate was $80. The Palm Motel in Orick has a nice heated indoor swimming pool, and the next-door Palm Cafe serves excellent breakfasts.
Landowners in Redwood Valley (who own ranches near put-in) do all they can to prevent river access. The turnoff from highway 299 is marked with a “No Redwood Creek Access” sign. Bair Road is county maintained, so the bridge across Redwood Creek most likely has a wide public right-of-way, although a sign says “No River Access.” Bair Road continues, climbing and winding over a mountain range on its way to Hoopa. On the east side of this bridge, Stover Road turns north along Redwood Creek. A bit after 4 miles the road comes very close to a creek, and you can put in where a “navigable” stream goes under the paved road thru a culvert. However this put-in involves 5.5 extra river miles versus the traditional Stover put-in, making a 2-day trip feel rushed. The road then climbs a hill past the local school, and after about 2.5 miles descends to Cookson Ranch, an arched community (marked Beaver School on the USFS map) one mile upstream of Stover Ranch. The road then climbs a small hill, passes a house, curves left to a roadcut well above the river, and changes to dirt. Stover Creek passes under the dirt road thru a large “navigable” culvert. In about .5 mile you reach a turn-around at Stover Ranch, where a dirt road descends to the former put-in. That put-in was not super great anyhow, because you had to carry boats downhill a long ways past where the road was overgrown. Please respect the Stover family's privacy.
For a 3-day trip, you could put in at the highway 299 bridge. This involves 5.4 miles of class II from there to the Bair Road county bridge, and another 10.5 miles of flatter water from Bair Road to Stover Ranch. About 10 miles below highway 299 are some nice campsites (some below high-water mark) among the horseshoe bends away from Stover Road, a few miles past the “navigable stream” put-in.
My friends always find this run to be much more fun and scenic than the guidebooks make us expect, especially Chuck Stanley's negative description. For many miles the river drops thru class II rapids amid mixed Douglas fir and second growth redwood, apparently managed as a sustainable-harvest forest by Simpson Lumber. At low flows the water is green and crystal clear, with steelhead and salmon sometimes visible. Also otters, who eat the fish!
Below Coyote Creek at mile 6.2, there is much evidence of clearcutting, but vegetation has grown nicely in the last 30 years, so this area is now covered with alders and small redwood trees. In 2008 there was one logjam that required portaging. The class III rapids don't really begin as soon as mile 10, like Cassady & Calhoun say, but perhaps this is because they ran it at higher water.
Around mile 11 boaters encounter a long curving class III rapid along an open bench on the left that makes an excellent campsite. This is followed by a more difficult class III in the shadows of tall trees. Perhaps clearcutting has worked to the advantage of river runners. In 2008 there were no impassable log jams in this section, until the river becomes class I below the tough rapids. Of course this could change from year to year.
False Rocky Gap (class IV-) comes around mile 12, and from the top looks a heck of a lot like the genuine Rocky Gap downstream: the right bank is eroded, and a square rock outcropping juts up from the right shore below. FRG turns out to be a fun boulder garden followed by a narrow one meter falls.
After a short distance comes the class IV- lead-in to Rocky Gap. Until the river changes again, first-time boaters are encouraged to scout on the right, where it is relatively open and unobstructed by trees. However you probably need to cross the river and eddy out on the left. At low flows, the easier portage/line is on the left, although you could portage on the right by climbing some high cliffs.
Rocky Gap (class V+) has a feasible route. A narrow twisting one meter falls leads into a badly undercut rock, where the current flushes left into a large plug rock, sometimes with a log jammed at or below water level. All of the current goes left again, over another 2 meter falls. Boats could be lined, if it were not for a one meter crack across the channel from the undercut rock. Some current flushes leftward down this crack, then thru a tunnel under the rocks. At high flows the portage is harrowing, since it involves jumping from one level to another over this crack. One slip and you either die or have fun swimming a tunnel! At moderate flows (>1000 cfs at Orick) and higher, the reversal at the base of the second falls is very sticky.
Once a member of our party almost didn't make the ferry from right to left; fortunately a throw rope saved him. There is a body trap chute about three meters to the left of the main drop. We don't know where it leads. This is why I recommend portaging on the left. After everybody makes the eddy, you can establish an assembly line. Drag your boats a short distance, then pass them over the tunnel crack. A portage trail leads upwards, over a rocky crag, and down a wet muddy slope back to the river below the tunnel crack. Especially at higher flows this trail seems safer than seal launching.
Below Rocky Gap is another class IV- rapid, usually run slanting right over a gravel bar, then sharp left thru a narrow slot on the far left. You might want to scout for logs before running this one. After that are a few class III rapids, then the gradient eases. The slowing of current has formed a sandy beach on river right, and a high grassy bench on river left, just below the canyon. These make excellent campsites (NPS fire permit required). The grassy bench offers morning sun.
When the river becomes class I, things really get dangerous! There are often logjams that may require getting out of your boat, one just below the grassy bench camp (2008). The creek bed widens and becomes a river, even if not so named. The river sand is gray instead of white, lending the bottom an unusual color. In spots, roots have completely engulfed the river bank. In most places the river is 1-2 feet deep, moving quickly over sand and gravel bars. This section is navigable at very low flows.
Tall Trees Grove, 16.5 miles below Lacks Creek, is the site of the Howard Libbey Tree, formerly the tallest tree in the world that hasn't been cut down yet. It lost its crown after a lightning strike in the late 1990s, and was supplanted as the tallest tree (etc.) by the 370' Stratosphere Giant in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. In summer 2006, three taller redwood trees were discovered in Redwood National Park, the tallest of which is the 378' Hyperion tree, followed by the 376' Helios and the 371' Icarus tree. The location of these trees is nonpublic information, but I suspect they are located near the river upstream of Rocky Gap.
You can take out at a gravel bar near the lumber mill, or at the 101 bridge in Orick. Cars seem safe in both places. Alternatively, you can continue on to the ocean. The feeling of seeing the ocean ahead is incomparable, although the Carmel and Big Sur rivers have prettier estuaries.
Three stars *** Billy Bo Jim Bob sez check it out.
Dec 30, 1995: REDWOOD CREEK 10000 cfs
This run was somewhere between 40-45 miles. I did it solo. The gradient is about 20 ft/mile total, but divided into sections, is probably 18 fpm for first 25-30 miles (mostly II, and some III-IV), then 30-50 fpm for about 3 miles (in the Rocky Gap section, class IV-V), and finally about 10 fpm in the final 12 or so miles (class III-II-I). It had been raining the past 3 days when I was on the Salmon and Klamath rivers. Kflow reported about 5000 cfs at Orick for Dec 29. It was raining heavy when I arrived at the 299 bridge as dusk settled in. Taking a quick look under the bridge, it seemed like there were no flat areas. I was cold, tired of rain, and would enjoy having dry kayak clothes to put on in the morning, so I drove toward Arcata/McKinleyville to find a cheap hotel. A call to an old friend who wasn't there, and finding that all hotels were $30+ dollars (though not that expensive, I was looking for something $20-25), I decided to go back toward Redwood Cr and camp out again. I went back to the 299 bridge, and after looking around with my headlamp, found that indeed there were relatively flat areas under the bridge (these were missed before because I had used only daylight to look under - the flat areas remain dark during the daytime, as I realized the next morning). The occasional vehicles above didn't bother me. I set up my tent under the bridge and hung up the clothes on the convenient thick wires (though they didn't dry much) and settled in to eat a hearty Mexican tortilla/bean/chip/salsa dinner with a couple cheap beers. I felt like I'd be ready to conquer the creek at sunup. The next morning I didn't get going until after 8 am, partly due to the dark nature of camping under the bridge where I did. The rain had become very light and would stop shortly later. The creek was a muddy torrent of water with no banks - only deciduous trees and blackberry bushes for the sides. I loaded up the boat with all my camping gear, expecting to take two days for the trip, and probably boat out to the ocean and down to McKinleyville in order to ease the shuttle and see some N Cal coastline. This would have made the trip about 70-80 miles, almost half of it ocean paddling. I started dragging the Mirage down to the creek to launch. As I was doing this I sent it down in front of me for a short fall, but it decided to go further than I expected! It went the extra 20 ft into the creek and started floating downstream!! I quickly struggled down through the 5 ft blackberries and into the water to rescue the boat. It only went downstream about 30 ft and was lodged sideways, upright on some trees/blackberries, though with swift water moving all around it. I went down to retrieve it, and losing my footing in the waist-deep water, fell into the current and accidentally tipped the boat over. Now it started filling with water, and then off its lodge and downstream. I lost the paddle and decided to go swimming after the boat, which I managed to get to shore. Luckily, the paddle was stuck on the trees just upstream where this happened. I finally got everything together, emptied, and was ready to take off about 9:15 am. In this little mishap, I lost my throwbag. I estimated the flow at the put-in about 5000 cfs, and was confirmed later that day by the fact that other coastal rivers had doubled in flow from the previous day. I was taking a big chance running the section from 299 down to Lack's Creek, since this section isn't described in either of the guidebooks and I had no idea of the gradient. A rally bad feeling about doing it gripped me with memories of my swim on the similar flooding muddy Santa Ysabel Creek in Southern California the previous winter. I figured I would deal with anything that was there. I was rather tense for those first 20 miles or so, always peering around the bend to see if there were some unseen regions where the creek could drop into class V-VI strainer messes. As I ran this first section and got closer and closer to Lack's Creek, I felt better and better. It took about 1.5 hrs to get to Lacks Creek. The swift water was class II for the most part, with some class III rapids at the turns and class IV holes here and there. The bigger stuff was found in the first 6-8 miles. Then down to Lack's Creek it was much tamer. Lots of big waves were everywhere, but I only stopped once or twice to ride them, as the Mirage's hole in the front was open again and it would take on water extra fast from surfing. The creek (river?) was very wide and usually unobstructed in most areas. There was always a wide passage through any potential strainer areas, though one had to keep an eye out to prevent from floating into the wrong spots. Logs and debris floated down the muddy water with me. There were some people on the right side several miles past the first bridge. Coming up into the eddy by them, they said that a mudslide had blocked the road into their home, thus they were stuck there. Asking how the water level compared to the last big rain 3 weeks ago, they replied that this was much worse (i.e. higher, or in my mind BETTER!!). Past Lack's Creek the action started picking up a bit again, with class IIIs here and there and some large holes again. My anxiety grew as I knew I would eventually come to the Rocky Gap (Redwood Falls) section, which is class IV at normal water levels, and probably class V at these flows. I came to a rougher section of class III-IV for a mile or two, and proceeded cautiously. By about 11:15 or 11:30 I reached a point where the creek dropped over something and out of view. The Cassady/Calhoun guidebook describes Redwood Falls as being 12.3 miles past Lacks Creek, and after 2 miles of class III/IV rapids. I got out on the right to scout this drop, which most likely was the Rocky Gap. Climbing up and around, over fallen redwood trees and across a small stream to get a view of the drop from downstream, I saw it!! One MONSTROUS CHOCOLATE HOLE. Three-quarters of the river poured smoothly over on the right down about 10 vertical feet and into this maelstrom!! I figured this must be it. "This definitely is class V or V+ at this flow" I thought to myself. I scrambled further to get an even better view. On the far right was a diagonal crashing wave that started near the top of the drop and went into the hole. On this right side the hole flushed out much more than in the middle or left. The hole was very turbulent, but was so big that I figured if a kayak were stuck in it and flipped, it would probably come out (but it would probably hold a 18 ft raft). I was considering portaging, but looked more at the left side of the river. There it appeared more gradual, but technical maneuvering was required. This was what my route was going to be until I got back to the boat and looked at the left side from above. A couple trees sticking out of the water made that route extremely dangerous, more so than the hole, in my opinion. After a total of about 40 minutes here, I got in the Mirage, still undecided, then just went for the far-right side of the hole. This turned out to be a good route, as I did exactly as planned and punched through the diagonal, coming out of the hole's sucking grasp. Indeed, even with control, as I was able to maneuver toward the center just after that and miss another large hole just downstream on river right. Just past here was a mile or so of a lot more big water - mostly class III-IV, and very fast. I maintained control through it all, until I came quickly through some class IV and upon another big GAP where the creek dropped out of view!! Oh no. There weren't good spots to eddy out, and this really looked like a GAP, with the rocks on either side of it rising 20 ft above the water level. It wasn't like the previous drop where there was a left channel as well. This was all down one wide slot. My apprehension grew as I approached and committed to running it. I think I managed to stop above to boat scout what I could, and it turns out it was a huge drop. This definitely was the ROCKY GAP! I went over to find no obstructions and no hole. Just giant crashing waves on either side and for some ways downstream of it. As I quickly floated downstream I looked back to see that it indeed was a 10-12 ft vertical drop. It was class V, though not nearly as bad as the PSEUDO GAP I had come to before. [Editor's Note: at lower flows the real ROCKY GAP is much worse than PSEUDO GAP.] In my mind this whole time was the story by Jim Cassady in his guidebook where he came upon what he thought was Rocky Gap and lullabied on down after it, only to find the real thing downstream, with a horrendous portage. From what I could discern it looked like it would be difficult trotting around there. Past the Rocky Gap I was really relieved and took the remaining rapids easily. Soon the creek got very mellow and all that was left was swift class I-II water. I went very fast and missed the Tall Trees Grove, even though I had been there a couple years before (via hiking down the trail though). I did stop and walk around the beautiful forest at Boon? Creek on river left. Here there was a bridge across the side creek thus I knew there was a trail up there, and it was extremely beautiful there. Water everywhere - green, soft redwood mulch, the scent of the forest. I was tempted to stay the night right there, but it was still so early (1:45 pm) and raining, that I pressed on. By 2:45 pm I was at the 101 bridge and tried hitching a ride in my wet kayak clothes for about an hour, and was almost ready to give up and continue to the ocean to camp when Bill Hogoboom came by in a pickup with his kayak strapped on and gave me a ride all the way back to my car (took my kayak as well!!). Thanks Bill! I thought for sure I'd have to do a second hitch up 299. A part of 299 had fallen away down the cliff, mandating one-lane travel here and CalTrans directing traffic. What a day! Rocky Contos firstname.lastname@example.org Neuroscience PhD program “A kayak nutcase, you say??!!”
-James “Rocky” Contos, email@example.com, Neuroscience PhD program
Map of Rivers