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Devil's Postpile of the Middle Fork San Joaquin.

The Beta

   The story of my first trip down the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin is here. This is going to be strictly beta. There are many opinions about sharing beta for rivers of this caliber. That short answer to me is that knowledge is power.  People will venture into these rivers sooner or later, and knowing where & how to avoid specific hazards may just save a life in the long run. Like all things in kayaking, use your own judgment. Each river is a complex puzzle, this one especially so. These are just tips for the puzzle, not a how to guide.

A typical portage on the San Joaquin.


   The Devil's Postpile run on the Middle Fork San Joaquin is the most dangerous of the classic High Sierra rivers. It's also simply grueling because there are few "granite sidewalk" portages. Most are over  massive rock piles and require repeated raising and lowering of boats. From top to bottom the river has an incredible amount of sieves and hazards. It has mandatory rapids with moves around or above sieves, sometimes several  in a row.  It's also the most remote, there is no riverside trail, and in only two places during the twenty six mile journey do trails cross the river. All that said, it's also one of the most rewarding journeys because of its remote, challenging and beautiful nature. This is not the river to go into if you think you might be up to it. If a paddler had a breakdown on the San Joaquin there are many places where the only option is to pull it together and run more rapids to exit a gorge.

   It is also a river that can be made much safer by going with people who know it, but that's not always possible and is why I'm writing this. The hazards are still there, but sometimes just knowing where to walk can save some extreme exposure.

   The run starts just below the Devil's Postpile National Monument. Park at the Reds Meadow trailhead and hike ~1 mile downstream to Rainbow Falls and put in below. Beware of at least one mandatory wood portage in the first mile. The first notable rapid is "Lower Falls". If the entrance looks good, flows are going to be high downstream. If it looks questionable because of a barely covered sieve in the entrance flows are a bit more medium. A quick partial portage is possible and the safest option.

Shannon Carroll runs Lower Falls at medium flows.


   For quite some time groups would put-on, run through Lower Falls and start portaging on the right as the river sieved out. Our group did this on my first trip and tried to run as much as possible. This is not the thing to do. When you see the river drop into a gorge below Lower Falls, get out on the left about 100 yards above the gorge and start portaging on the left. In general you just try to stay on the ridge line closest to the river. Doing this only requires a few spots of thick bushwhacking. Eventually the ridge closest to the river will end in a ravine. If you follow this ravine to the river you'll be at the first good drop. It takes about an hour and a half to portage on the left, and three on the right.

Google Maps Marker for the Triple Drop Put-In.

The first triple drop needs no explanation, it's unique and one of the best boofs in the world. Kevin Smith reaps the rewards.


David Maurier exits the same.


Shannon Carroll exits.


  Beware of the next rapid, in 2011 a boat was pinned in a sieve on the left.  We walked right since the drop after that one is a portage too. There is a bit of read and run with the occasional scout/portage before the next bedrock drop. This slide goes better at low flows, the bottom is very retentive at medium or higher water levels. It's possible to make a fairly quick portage on the right and run the next fun slide.

Thomas Moore drops in.


   Below the two slides is a portage at medium or higher flows. Mr Hilikie's line in the Seven Rivers dvd is very memorable as he barely escapes the pothole. To run the next slide, seal launch in on either side. The right is a little harder for everyone, while the left is easier except for the last person who gets stuck with a rather tough seal launch at the lip of the slide. Scout this whole gorge because the next three rapids are walled in. We went left, and left. After the three distinct horizon lines is "Clay Wrights Drop". It looks mellow but has a nasty sieve in the middle. It's an easy portage on the left and worth doing.

Shannon Carroll getting busy.


Just after Clay Wrights Drop is a nice slide, that ends in a possible camp site if you are having a slow first day. This site is not ideal because the next day will be quite long.

Kevin Smith and Dave Maurier below the slide.


This is the midst of one of the best sections of river, as there are several fun slides.

Kevin Smith and Thomas Moore.


One of the most memorable, a hundred yard long slide into a five to ten foot falls.


   Below the long slide get out asap on the left. It can be a little tricky to get out if flows are high, but the next rapid falls ten to fifteen feet onto rock. Make a quick portage on the left by passing boats, it's very slippery to get down into the pothole. The horizon after the portage is blind, go far right. Then scout far right for the twin falls. The twin falls is one of the most amazing places I've ever been. Two tributaries come in to join the river, each on their own waterfall, but at the top and bottom of one rapid. I don't know if this one changed over the years, but on my first trip we all walked it. It's a tough, brushy portage high on the right. At medium flows most the group ran it, and one wished they had. It goes a lot better than it looks.

Kevin Smith makes the entrance move of the twin falls rapid.


Shannon Carroll finishes the twin falls rapid.


Below twin falls you are locked into running two significant but fun rapids. The first is a slide where it's possible eddy on the left above. Run the slide on the far left, then stay right for the final drop and end of the first gorge.

David Maurier exits the gorge.


   River character changes below the twenty footer. The granite bedrock gives way to boulder gardens, and most are not granite. The majority are read and run, but stay on your toes as this is an unstable region and the rapids can change yearly. The further you get into the boulder gardens, the steeper the gorge walls get. Eventually comes a portage on the left, which is followed by two mandatory rapids both run left of center, before the highlight: boof-a-matic.

Boof-a-matic falls. Mandatory and very, very fun. Thomas Moore.


   There is a large pool below boof-a-matic, then the river goes over a small slide. The next two rapids after the slide are significant, tough to portage and tough to scout. Go right on the first one, about four feet off the wall. Boof hard and fast, the hole is sticky. If you get past the first hole, go slightly left of center through another hole (try not to get stuck in the eddy on the left) and go left for the final ledge. There are eddies on both sides above the final drop, which has caused a number of swims (the drop not the eddies :) The secret of the final drop is running the first tier on the far right, staying up on a pillow then boofing around a hole. Follow this with another boof over the second larger ledge.

Shannon Carroll exits the final exit rapid of boof-a-matic gorge.


Significant inflow is added with the addition of Fish Creek and the North Fork San Joaquin. We found a lovely site above the North Fork confluence.


    The next half day the river is very read and run, except for two portages, both have been run but are very marginal. Both are portaged on the right. Scout where appropriate as always, there are sieves and some large holes in this section. Most of it is open to Cassidy Crossing with the exception of the "Class IV/Big Water Gorge" which is walled in and has a few mandatory rapids in it. The bridge at Cassidy Crossing is obvious and marks the start of the Crucible section. Although not particularly long, about two miles, this section can take most to all of a day. Watch out for an undercut on the right wall of the first rapid below the bridge. The second rapid is portaged on the left. It's technical and requires climbing over a nasty exposed sieve. An alternate route is taking out at Cassidy Bridge,  using a trail on river right and putting in below this first gorge. We guessed doing this would take about twenty minutes, be more work but safer than portaging at river level.

Continue into the Crucible, scouting & portaging when necessary. One of the good things about the San Joaquin is you won't have to debate about portages, because most of them just go underground. The one pictured below absorbs all the energy of the rapid, and ends in a flat green pool.



David Maurier at the base of the above portage.


   Where the river turns left in the above image is the crux portage of the Crucible. There is a run-able V-V+ rapid there, but it's best to start the portage above it (hard to get out once run). From above the portage looks much easier on the left, and initially it is. Unfortunately the left portage turns into a thin ledge high above a sieve, where a mistake would likely end in  fatality.  My first two times we made the mistake of portaging on the left, it was terrifying. Thankfully Kevin Smith has found a good portage on the right. It's tougher at the beginning, requiring a steep friction climb up a mini granite ridge, and then a long traverse. Thankfully the footing is good, and the portage route gets better rather than worse the more you continue downstream. The next drop is portaged on the right too. Rope boats 20' up to the obvious ledge to portage the whole thing, or portage near river level for half the rapid and run the bottom half. It's quite sievy and it doesn't take much longer to just portage the whole thing.

Balloon Dome and  the calm before the storm. There is a very nice campsite on the left below this.


Making the last long portage into the Crucible. Start high on the right and finish at river level.


David Maurier entering one of five.


   The Crucible proper, at least that part that you kayak, is a series of five rapids. The first can be portaged on the right but it takes rope work and is time consuming. The others have apparently been portaged, but it would take considerable rock climbing skill and is "blitzed" in six hours...

  The second rapid, Broken Arrow, is the first of the "no scout" rapids in the Crucible (although it can be scouted with delicate friction climbing on the right). There is really no need to scout it, the line is right of center moving slightly left. It's just a fun, arrow-head shaped slide. Err to the right rather than the left, which would be nasty.
 
  There are two options for the next two rapids. Take the right channels: Drive up the right wall and around a hole, go fast down a hallway and go fast into the bottom hole. Roll up and paddle hard to your left to avoid a sieve in the final rapid. This route gets more dangerous as flows increase.

   
   The other option for the rapids is the center channels, which look bad from in your boat. Run the center channel charging hard to the right. A lot of water goes into a sieve on the left, but a pillow keeps you away from it. Then go down right and boof the second drop. The beauty of this line is that the second drop lands you in the eddy away from the sieve in the final rapid.


   The optional lines are kind of six one way - half dozen the other choice, although personally I think the center route is easier at higher flows. At low flows I think you'd have to go right.

Shannon at the exit of the first rapid. The next horizon with the pyramid rock in the center is Broken Arrow.



   The beautiful Shangri-La waterfall of Granite Creek is worth spending a few minutes at if you have the time. On the water again, take out on the right above the next gorge. Portage through the saddle between the gorge dome and the real canyon wall for fifteen to twenty minutes, putting into the pool below.

David Maurier enjoying a scenic section below the portage.


   Stay on your toes for the next horizon line below the portage. Get out early on the right to scout, as there is a tempting eddy at the lip on the right, but it commits you to the more dubious right line or make a portage back upstream to get over to the better left line. Scout and run one or two more rapids before making a portage or two around sieves. There is a very nice campsite hidden away on the right in here. Google Maps Marker. Below this campsite is a fantastic boof on the right, followed by some read and run out of the rapid.

Kevin Smith enjoys a good morning boof.


  Soon another portage comes up, which can be done on the left or the right. Paddle down the pool below the portage and get out on the left to portage again. Both of this portages are through rock piles, but the river goes underground so there is no need to scout. After the second portage seal launch into the class IV run out. Run the last rapid on the far left and enjoy the calm of the South Fork San Joaquin confluence. Below the confluence there are only three more mandatory portages, but several rapids that look like they'd be portages but actually go just fine. Scout when necessary. The last portage ends just above the lakes high water line. Normally at least one rapid is uncovered below the high water line, beware of a sieve on the bottom right of it.

Kevin Smith riding the Bucking Bronco II.


   Take out is at Mammoth Pool Reservoir. The best way to get there from Oakhurst: Highway 41 North. Right on Bass Lake Road. Left on Road 07/Beasore Road. Stay on Beasore Road until you see Jone's Store on the left. It's the only building for miles. If you need food get some here, the owners are awesome. Just past Jone's Store make the next available right turn on a paved road. Follow this road (staying to the right on the paved road) until it T's into Minarets Road. Turn left on Minarets Road, and in a few minutes take a right on Mammoth Pool Road. Stay left at the Y and you'll end up at the boat ramp.

Some maps show a dirt road to a campground further up the reservoir. It doesn't exist, so ignore it.

   Put-in: Retrace your steps to Highway 41. Turn right (North) and head into Yosemite. Stay North on Highway 41 until a right turn onto Highway 120 East. Follow 120 East until it T's into Highway 395. Take a right on Hwy 395 South and follow it to Mammoth Springs. Follow signs to Devil's Postpile and Reds Meadow.

 Flow range is roughly 100-200 on the gauge, but a lot of tributaries come in below it. All images taken with medium flows of 160-180 on the San Joaquin at the Devil's Postpile gauge.