South Fork of the Kings River
out of Kings Canyon National Park, the South Fork of the Kings River is
roadside for 15 miles before carving its way into Horseshoe Bend.
Geologically it's one of the most interesting rivers in California.
After the incredibly steep headwaters the river meanders through
meadows in a classic glacial U shaped valley with granite walls in the National Park.
A band of marble passes north to south through Sequoia and Kings Canyon
National Park with over 190 caves, some of the most notable being;
Palmer Cave on the South Fork Kaweah, Crystal Cave on the North Fork Kaweah and Boyden Cave
on the South Fork Kings. As the river passes Boyden Cave the character
changes. It flows through a tight inner gorge, and one of the deepest
canyons in North America with Spanish Mountain rising 8,200' out of the
right side of the river as the river makes a horseshoe bend.
Horseshoe Bend. Fear and Loathing. This section of river has lived under both names. The origin of the first is obvious. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
is a novel written in 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson. In 1998 it was made
into a film with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. When first run, one
rapid in the Horseshoe Bend of the South Fork Kings inspired both fear
and loathing. It can't be scouted or portaged, and bordered on
unrunable. Very few ventured in to run this section, even though
putting in below the Fear and Loathing rapid is possible by utilizing a
poison oak infested fisherman's trail at Convict Flat Campground. It
was also typically run from 1,000-3,000cfs at the Rodgers Crossing Gauge.
Never a popular run, it didn't see a modern media capturing descent
until 2012, at a more manageable flow of 900cfs at Rodgers Crossing.
The team came out with word that Fear and Loathing was no more, the
rapid had changed and was no big deal. That in combination with modern
creek boats and lower flows the run was quite enjoyable. They
proclaimed it to be one of the best two night trips in California,
if not the best. That's a bold statement, and the run was put on the
must do list.
Logistics for this run are no joke. One option is to paddle the 4.5
miles down to the confluence of the South Kings and Middle Kings, then
hike up almost two miles climbing over a thousand feet to Yucca Point
trailhead, or continue ten miles downstream through Garlic Falls, which
results in no hiking but a three hour one-way shuttle. We decide to
shuttle and paddle more, meeting at Garnet Dike Campground on the Kings
River at nine in the morning. From here we have two options. Stick to
the paved road and head back where we came in on the long, painfully
winding road around Pine Flat Reservoir to Highway 180, all in all a 95
mile three hour shuttle, or taking the "shortcut"; a dirt road trek up
the final segment of Trimmer Springs Road, through Goat Saddle and
eventually to Highway 180 after 25 miles of dirt road. This route
should be faster and is 50 miles shorter, but that all depends on the
condition of the dirt road.
Of course we're here to adventure, so we load up my little Subaru and
head up the dirt road. It's a good thing it has a small lift on it,
because the road is rough this year and I still struggle to get up a
few steep rutted sections and bottom out a few times. Paved road is a
welcome sight as we turn onto Highway 180. Flows are an estimated 1,200
at Rodger's Crossing.
The river flows from right to left. South Kings in the big canyon on
the right, Middle Kings from the big canyon left of center, and the
main Kings moving left after the confluence. The immensity of the scene
is hard to grasp, look for the red roof of a lodge down in the trees.
One of the most scenic river access spots in the whole state; Boyden Cavern.
Eric Giddens under the Highway 180 bridge. We put on around one in the afternoon. Shuttle took about three hours.
Some of the best gorge scenery in California although it looks nothing like what you'd expect for the state.
Eric Giddens boofing through our first scout of the day. Look at all that crazy rock on shore.
slip into a comfortable rhythm of scouting, setting safety and running
rapids. We're setting safety a lot more often than normal, but the
river character requires it. Hazards are all over, and rapids would
link together for a swimmer. Plus the rock is a bit chunky, which is
unsurprising considering the road high above, all that blast rock was
probably pushed off the cliffs.
Ian Janoska in some read and run.
Upstream you can see the band of marble as Ian Janoska boofs a serious ledge.
Turn around and Joseph Hatcher heads into what turned out to be
everyone's favorite rapid, a very unique sliding tongue to boof affair.
we head into what was Fear and Loathing. It's walled in, but we have
two nice options. It's not so mellow, but it goes well for the whole
group, half taking a left line in the right channel, half a left line
in the right channel. Below most portage Porter Falls as the
consequence of a mistake is too high. Two rapids downstream and
portaging again is the popular option as the river pushes into siphons.
Ian Janoska, Joseph Hatcher and Eric Giddens in the heart of the gorge.
Eric Giddens on a nice read and run boulder garden.
the Horseshoe Bend rapid we run into our first issue of the trip as the
last person in the group pins in the first move. They escape to shore
quickly but their kayak is submerged. We're lucky, this is one of the
few spots in the canyon where we can make our way back upstream to
help. It takes us nearly an hour to get it out with some creative rope
work. Thankfully nothing is lost and we're able to continue downstream.
Ian Janoska runs "the waterfall" as we've been on the water almost five hours.
Scouting one last nasty rapid.
Joseph Hatcher runs the last significant rapid of Horseshoe Bend.
At the exit of the canyon is a final fun boof, a good finish and one of the cleanest rapids of the run.
there on it's read and run III-IV. We pull into camp just above the
Middle Fork confluence and it's just before 7pm. It was a longer day
than expected, but we still have a few minutes to enjoy sun before the
mosquitoes come out.
around the fire we talk about the day. Our groups consensus is that the
whitewater was good but not great. The scenery is fantastic, while it's
rare to get a feeling for the overall depth of the canyon the inner
gorge has incredible rocks. It's well worth doing just for the scenery
and approach the whitewater as a bonus. One of the best two day runs in
California? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There actually are
not many often run two-day class V sections in California. The common
ones are Dinkey Creek, South Merced and Upper Cherry Creek.
It's a tough list, in any other state maybe South Kings could be one of
the best, but of on this one I'd always choose South Kings last for
pure quality of whitewater. The scenery on the other hand is right up
there with Upper Cherry Creek, and there is no hiking. Perhaps the run
is more fun and less stress at lower flows as it forms channels and
reveals the barely covered rocks we seemed prone to hitting.
The best whitewater of the two days is Garlic Falls, which can be accessed as a day run, but that's a different story.
Hike Out to Yucca Point or Continue on to Garlic Falls.