Rubicon River (Lower)
|Stretch:||Ellicott to Ralston Powerhouse|
|Flows:||~500-1,500 cfs. Current Dreamflows gauge|
|Gradient:||102 fpm average (Half the miles are 120 fpm+ up to 160 fpm)|
|Put-in:||11 Pines Rd Bridge (at Ellicott Trail)|
|Shuttle:||26.8miles (1 hour 1-way, paved)|
|Season:||Spring/summer from snowmelt causing spill. Rare.|
|Featured in Video A Wet State #47|
To start with, a little History of the name of the Rubicon River that Matt Parker pointed me to. The Rubicon River is a river in Italy that in 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed with a legion of his soldiers in an act of treason on his way to push out of the Roman Senate those who wished to prosecute him for acts he committed while assigned as Governor of what is modern day Northern Italy, Southeastern Europe, and Southern France. As he crossed the Rubicon River which was the northern most border of Italy at the time, he said “the die has been cast” in reference to the series of events that was set in motion and the inevitable conflict that would ensue. To this day, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” has survived to refer to someone passing the point of no return. It is thus, fitting that the Rubicon River in California is named such.
From the time that you push off of the shore, you are committed to downriver progress. The canyon immediately climbs tall, locking you in between 2,000 foot mountains on either side of you, blocking you from any possible departure from the river. For most of the river, a hike out of the gorge would be more than difficult, I would say it is impossible (or at least on par with nearby Giant Gap). If that isn’t enough, the entire length of the run is filled with class IV+ and V rapids. Other than one brief section in the middle, the river is game on start to finish. The only reprise comes from a six mile section stacked full of class IV and IV+ rapids but relenting in class V. This is the type of river that you will certainly walk away from with satisfaction on how many rapids you paddled and how many strokes you took.
This river is classic. The scenery is top notch. Imagine the best parts of Giant Gap or Burnt Ranch, and stretch that for 21 miles. The whitewater is challenging and unique. Though mostly boulder bars, there are some bed rock drops thrown in. The rapids have distinct moves and individual character despite occasionally stretching for what seems like a mile at a time. Finally, the camping is plentiful. The only section that seemed to be lacking in camping, was the few miles above One in a Million. Everywhere else in the river was sandy spots of land that were among the best river side camping I have seen. And due to the infrequent flow of water and lack of boaters being present, most have more than enough wood for 100 campfires!
The last point brings me to the downside of this river. Hell Hole Dam. Due to a massive diversion capability on it and nearly all of its tributaries, the Rubicon flows once every 5 years on average, and usually for only a brief window. 2011 was very different in that it flowed well in excess of boatable flows for a month. Folks found that 1,100+ cfs makes the run a serious class V adventure. Many A-Team boaters had epics, swims, and even one 2 miles egress upriver to hike out. At 900 cfs, I thought the run was still class V, though with a handful of walks (5-8) you could make it an easier class V adventure. Folks also reported that flows of 600 were low but enjoyable while flows of 450 cfs were too low. I think that 800 cfs probably is about ideal. The rocks are covered, while the holes are not as punishing. As the flows increase the rapids become pushier and the holes larger while at low water the water disappears in and amongst the rocks. At the 900 cfs I would say it was similar in difficulty to low water Golden Gate though less consequential. We all agreed it was harder than 49 to B and harder than Cherry Creek, not to mentioned more than twice as long. So plan accordingly, bring your probe unit and be ready to scout if it is your first time. My group had someone who had just got off the river. Thus, we ran all but 5 drops on beta. The 5 that we looked at, I choose to walk, though all are runnable depending on the flow. In total, we spent 8 hours paddling so you can imagine with scouting an additional 10-15 times the time required to paddle could increase quickly.
Another historical note, I do not know when the river was named in California, but apparently (though I couldn’t find any source documents to corroborate this) wiki states that the river was historically known as the South Fork of the Middle Fork of the American, though it is a larger river at the confluence than either the Middle Fork and the North Fork of the Middle Fork, so I am not sure why it is not the main the stem.
Thanks to Jonas Grunewald for sharing photos.
- The Action starts immediately, class IV to IV+ rapids begin around the first corner from the bridge. After a mile, you get to the first couple harder rapids.
- Right Chute (IV to IV+). A willowy channel leads to a congested drop best run right. If you realize early enough, scout on the right. Willows are a problem here.
Big Curler (IV+ to V). It was really just one feature, but it was big and flipped half of our group (worked me over pretty good) as well as swimming a very capable friend of mine on an earlier trip. The river drops right down a narrow class II channel and then bends left. You will see a bus size rock forming a massive curler feeding a hole on the right. Drive left onto the curler and around the hole all the while avoiding the rock below.
A few boogies rapids before you get to the first big drop
First Drop (V). We entered right and boofed the obvious rock in the center of the rightmost channel over the 8 foot ledge. Below are several big holes to negotiate. Scout right before entering the rapid.
- Island Drop Portage (V+). The main line was run by Jonas and it may have been the first decent of it (though I really am only basing that on this year’s reports). If the water is up there is a class V sneak on the right, but even at 875 cfs it was marginal. When the river splits around the obviously steeper rapid you can catch the big eddy on the left. Then ferry across to the right and stay high up in the channel. The portage is not bad, though not a 1-minute carry either.
- Ripple Rock Falls (V to P). The lead in should be portaged when the water is up. A very large hole with tricky lead in and trickier lip also has an undercut wall to boot. When you see you are dropping into a granite gorge, quickly eddy out left to walk. There is also the most epic sandy camping area on the granite bench on the left. The second and third drop also have stout holes. Both are best run far right. The bottom hole is occasionally walked at higher flows.
The boogie continues relentlessly though the run gets less steep. We had a swim here in a rapid where the right wall is badly undercut. The boof on the right had a rock in the landing to piton and send you into a surf. So go center before working right.
- Slide Then Hole (IV+ to V). Also an occasional portage, this rapid has a steep slide into a powerful hole. We hugged right on the slide to set us up to hit the right side of the hole. The portage is only possible on the left and requires some exposed friction climbing.
- Pinch into Rock (V). After a long lead in, catch the eddy on the left or right near the lip. The river drops steeply and turbulently into a hole that has a shallow rock which then drops you into another hole before exiting you into the pool below. At high water you can sneak left. Portage either side though right is easier.
Post Lunch (V). We took lunch (3:30 pm) in the pool after the above drop and scouted this drop (there was also a nice sandy camping spot here). Then three of us portaged it. There was a big hole in the lead in which then led to a boulder congested drop with deep powerful holes. It went, but flipping would result in some hits, as one in our group found. Scout right.
Jonas’ Sieve (IV+). Just a quarter mile downriver is a blind drop, Jonas had run the center chute at higher water. At 875 cfs we were all following him as he dropped over the lip again thinking it would all be good with 200 cfs less. Gareth was immediately behind and saw Jonas stuck between two rocks in the center, somehow he managed to boof onto him and clear through though that likely engaged Jonas’ back end. As Darin boofed in, he saw Jonas get sucked under backend first into the sieve, as he boofed the exit Jonas resurfaced only to have Darin land on his face upon trying to roll up. I was immediately behind and got through without problems. Diane behind me pinned briefly in the exit but got through with only a caved in boat. The rapid was completely blind even with people below pointing, it wasn’t until you were at the lip that you could see either the danger or the warnings. I honestly don’t know which route is best, I think the far left may have gone. Just be aware.
Boogie continues for the next 4 miles. It takes a step down though and stays below the class V range for the next 5 miles. The scenery is really great in here though and there are still some holes to fight through and some boofs to hit. In all, some really fun boat scoutable read and run.
- One in a Million (V). On a left turn, you will see a massive landslide on the right bank. Scout right. We however didn’t even get so much as verbal beta. Instead we were bombing down. I remember the crux being a large undercut on the left shore, avoid it to the right though in the left channel. There was a slight lull to the rapid before the second step. We ran down the far left and then worked back center.
We camped half a mile below on the left. Wood was plentiful. This camping was not the most epic but could fit 6 folks on sand nicely.
- Possible Portage (V). Little did we know that 100 feet downriver from camp began the class V- lead in to a common portage. No warm up for us. We ran down the left channel and caught the eddy on the right at the lip of the falls. A big (really) in the middle and right allows a hero line down a double step on the left. Though even that line has a big hole. Jonas ran it, the rest portaged right.
- Waterfall (IV to IV+). Big but totally easy. Although S/H say this drop is 15 feet tall I think 10 is being plenty generous. Some run center making sure to boof, others run far left to skip down and over the hole. There is an eddy at the lip that allows scouting on the left.
The boogie below here is the biggest boogie of the run. Several class IV+ and V- rapids keep you on your toes.
One in Particular (IV+). In this section of boogie, there is one rapid in particular that has a very large hole. The river bends left and drops into a slide, the bottom of which is a macking hole that swam Diane. While she was surfing it, I smacked into her though I was fine and managed to flush directly out.
Boogie then continues.
- Pilot Creek. The creek enters on the left, though none of us saw it. Because of that, I am not sure if the Orange Rock Rapid occurs before or after it.
Orange Rock (IV+). A blind drop with several lines. The left slide to falls line ended up with small carnage. The far river right line worked ok, as did a less far right to a hard left line. The danger is a sieve pile in the middle of the river with lots of the river right water moving into it.
- You enter the last section of stout drops, two of which stand out.
Boof the Hole (V-). A long lead in leads you to a sloping into a very large hole. Most plugged deep, but my Villian kept me high and dry for the umpteenth-million time on this trip. Just below is another small ledge which is no problem.
Would Have Portaged (V). If I had more than, “boof to the right, directly next to the big rock,” I probably would have portaged. The drop was 6-8 feet into one of the largest holes I have entered. Though, it quickly moved all of us through upright, it gave my heart a scare as I approached the lip. I think if I had scouted, I would have chickened out.
- Lost Canyon. The creek enters on the right. Almost done. Just downriver is a smaller rapid boofable on the right.
Pinch (IV+). A good size lead in ends in a pinch on the right the large midriver rock, it looked back to miss the pinch and flush off to the left. Below is some run out.
- Big Hole (IV+). Within sight of the powerhouse water tubes is one last rapid that packs a huge hole. The lead in is simple, so gather some speed and boof center. Less than a half mile of current later, you arrive at take-out.
Take-out: From Auburn, take Foresthill Rd 16.7 miles. Turn right on Mosquito Ridge Road. In 11 miles turn right towards Oxbow Powerhouse. Stay left, drop down and cross the Upper Middle Fork of the American, and continue another few hundred yards to Ralston Powerhouse.
Put-in: Continue on the road passing Ralston Powerhouse, quickly climbing steeply away from the river. In 9.0 miles, stay right (road 23) at the only fork of two paved roads. Continue for 5.9 miles at which time a small paved road drops down to the right into Long Canyon, this is a short cut that saves 20 minutes of driving, so take the right and drop quickly down (200 yards) and cross Long Canyon and climb 1.5 miles out of the canyon. At the top, turn right (this is the road we turned off of to cross Long Canyon). Continue 10.0 miles more to the bridge over the Rubicon. Just before you cross the bridge, there is a dirt road on the right with nice parking for hikers and kayakers just 100 feet down the road. The trail down to the water is on the left side of the road before the bridge. The hike is only a few hundred yards. The map makes this shuttle look hard, but all roads not mentioned here are dirt roads and can be ignored. Also, at the end, it is only 1.5 hours to get to Placerville from put-in rather than going back 2+ hours to Auburn, in case that helps you. It is easy, look at a map, stay straight on the road, turn right after 4 miles at the T onto the major road, follow 22 miles and turn left on Highway 193.
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