Royal Gorge is a well known
run in the class V set, yet beta remains
unpublished in print and online mentions subsist of "check out how cool
we are this
run is". Access is a juxtaposition of easy-impossible for this section
of river. If conditions are right, it's an easy drive to a bridge over
the river, but some years snow is on the road until after the flows
have dropped too low.
There is interesting history behind Royal Gorge.
paddlers grew bolder, they explored further and further up the North
Fork American. Chamberlains Falls was first cutting edge, but swiftly
fell to the fourteen mile "Giant Gap" section, which kept paddlers
satiated for a while. Eventually the bar was raised again, with
paddlers entering the river ten miles higher up for "Generation Gap"
which required paddling both the new run and Giant Gap, commonly done
as a twenty-four mile overnight trip. The standard was set for many
years, but in the natural evolution of the sport, an even higher put-in
was destined. Sixteen miles further upstream, Soda Springs road crosses
the mild looking North Fork American and the start of an epic journey.
In the past, unfriendly, monetarily enabled land
used to try to
block access to the Royal Gorge, but after years of calling local
authorities, they have finally realized that the general public does
indeed have legal access to using the river. It's still best to have a
shuttle driver, as finding legal parking is next to impossible.
This sign sugar coats their attitude.
We put on to a river river
meandering through a meadow below the
bridge, giving no foreshadowing of what lies below. At the end of the
meadow things change gears quickly. A man made dam marks the first
portage of the trip and the beginning of the first and steepest mile,
which cascades through what is affectionately known as the "mank
gorge". Paddling over the lip of the first and tough drop, the North
Fork American lets us know it means business, rear endering most of our
team. We paddle on through two more significant drops and get out to
scout a larger series. I personally choose just to start hiking the
rest of the mank gorge on the left, but others continue on for a few
more rapids at river level before portaging the final, rarely run
Devin Knight seal launches in below the mank gorge "warm up".
Below the mank gorge, water tumbles through nondescript
gardens until a nice double set requires a quick scout and fun lines.
Nothing like talking about yourself in the third person: Darin McQuoid
on the first photogenic rapid.
Chris Korbulic runs the same.
Looking downstream below the double drop, typical day one boogie that
is just a bit chunky.
More boulder gardens set the pace, with a few bedrock rapids full of
munchy holes intermixed to spice things up: Jonas Grünwald.
We kept our heads down through the boulder gardens, knowing that the
effort would be rewarded.
If you have a desire to run large waterfalls, Royal Gorge is the place
to go. Heath Springs is the first juncture where desire and possibility
Darin McQuoid enters a special place.
Springs is an incredible set of
waterfalls, the end of private
land and the true start of the Royal Gorge, an awe inspiring crack in
the earth for several miles. The
first falls, known simply as Upper Heath, is a near perfect forty
foot falls with a large and optional lead in.
Jonas Grünwald runs Upper Heath with the bottom of the lead in
Upon initial inspection the
most significant hazard in Upper Heath is
the wall, but in reality it's only a small player in the drama. The
big player in the drama
is Lower Heath, a fifty to sixty foot falls
which lands in a tight gorge and contains a large and very undercut
cave on the left. If things go wrong on Upper Heath, time for recovery
Upper Heath and the lip of Lower Heath.
Lower Heath is one of the
more commonly run "big ones" on Royal Gorge,
although as of 2010 that focus is shifting to a larger and cleaner
falls downstream. Lower Heath has significant hazards, one with which
I've had personal experience. You can read about that experience here
listen to it on inbetweenswims.
Chris Korbulic charging Lower Heath in 2009.
Darin McQuoid a few seconds away from an epic rescue.
While the Royal Gorge is
large, a portage on the left is easier than I
had any right to expect. Below Upper Heath we eddied out and climbed up
to the bench above Lower Heath. From there we traversed for ten to
fifteen minutes, until we reached a rocky gully and followed it down to
the water. Partaking in the portage put us below not only Lower Heath
falls, but the toughest rapids of the Royal Gorge. Because Chris knew
the river so well, we stayed in our kayaks for the next hour, bombing
through many complex boulder gardens and slides. I'd like to go back
and take my time in here, I could spend time contemplating and trying
to capture the immense gorge walls that line this whole section.
Past countless rapids the walls of the Royal Gorge
back and we
floated above the "white rock" gorge. At the top of the gorge we
started portaging on the right around a series of slides that lead into
an un-run (and very dubious) falls. Tired from the miles we'd put in,
and our whitewater thirst quite satiated, we started to walk the final
twenty footer above camp. At our flow level the sloping falls had a
We spent a few minutes soaking in the afternoon
backpackers. A trail crosses the river here just above Rattlesnake
falls, but it's quite a hike. Motivated as always, Ben decided to give
the sloping falls a go while we set safety and did the media thing.
Ben Stookesberry lines it up.
the mini-gorge under the bridge is
one of the most cliche Royal
Gorge photographs, normally a sweet boof over a small ledge. We'd put
on with somewhat high flows and were at the high point of the diurnal
cycle, and the small ledge had a significant hole too.
The author boofs the bridge ledge..
Tight like a tiger; the mini gorge was full of powerful currents making
us work hard to stay off the walls.
The mini gorge drops right
into a large pool and the Rattlesnake
campsite. Nothing better than a relaxing evening after a big day of
challenges and excitement. Camp is right above Rattlesnake, a fifty
foot waterfall notorious for disrupting sleep patterns of bold paddlers
contemplating the plunge. I had no real plans for running it and
enjoyed a night of unaffected sleep.
Ben Stookesberry, Jonas Grünwald and Chris Korbulic living the
Game on. A typical, but
applicable cliche for day two of the Royal
Gorge of the North Fork American River. If you ever want to go
somewhere with more than ample opportunity to go big, the second day on
Royal is the place. Waking
up at camp it's a short walk downstream to the lip of fifty foot
Rattlesnake falls. A good, but not perfect fifty footer. Outside of
height considerations, Rattlesnake has the choice between a subtle but
complex lead in, or tough ferry from an eddy. Flows tend to dictated
the choice of options. Doing either move the focus is avoiding a shelf
at mid point on river left, and then dealing with the wall at the
bottom, because the landing makes a ninety degree turn. As Americans
it's a common tradition to start our day with something to
"get you going" like a cup of coffee. I'm not sure if running
Rattlesnake, or getting bit by an actual Rattlesnake would get the
adrenaline going more.
author lines up Rattlesnake on Royal Gorge.
Grünwald runs Rattlesnake.
At camp I'd not really thought about the falls too much. I find it best
to make my decision when I am standing at the lip. It lets me sleep at
night. Scouting in the morning I saw no reason not to run the falls. I
was ok with the potential hit, liked the lead in and felt like I
could deal with the wall.
It's tough to get photographs of the "in between"
on a run like
this, and following Chris and Ben made that exceptionally tough. We
occasionally got verbal directions, but spent most of the next hour or
two just following them through amazing rapids and a few nice
waterfalls. The section between "Rattlesnake" and "Scott's Drop" is the
most classic of Royal Gorge, but due to the nature of our descent no
opportunities to get images. All I remember is that the end of some
fantastic whitewater, including a perfect twenty foot falls, we were at
the lip of a gargantuan horizon line, Scott's Drop.
Knowing the history of the cascade I started
from the top.
Scott's Drop is named after Scott Lindgren, who
of of this two tiered falls in an Eskimo Diablo during 1997 or 1998.
Despite countless descents of Royal Gorge over the next eight years, no
one stepped to the drop until Charlie Center ran it in 2006, followed
two days later by Pat Keller.
Jonas Grünwald's thoughts on Scott's Drop.
After three clean descents,
the next three descents provided
considerable carnage; broken paddles, boats and bodies. The six
previous descents had all been done at lower flows, because the two
falls are stacked incredibly close. With high flows I didn't think
anyone in our group was giving it a look, but Chris had that serious
look on his face.
Chris committed to giving
it a good look, so Ben and I hiked around
trying to find a good angle, while Jonas completed the portage and set
safety at the bottom while Chris ferried across up top and scouted from
the other side too. The top move of Scotts is tough, and people always
disappear in in the
fold and mist.
I held my breath as Chris vanished halfway down, and
watched intently to see what would happen next.
seconds passed and nothing was
visible, then slowly Chris
emerged upright, paddling away from the base of the falls. Now for the
crux move. The Crux of the drop isn't the tough forty foot lead-in
falls, but a
shallow shelf on the bottom right. The nature of the bottom slide is to
push anything to the bottom right, necessitating a tough, technical and
big right to left move.
Chris Korbulic lines up the tough move.
At the bottom, Chris finishes with a good line about as far left as
Ben and I breathed a big
sigh of relief over Chris's perfect line, and
finished the long but easy portage. Below Scotts was a quick section,
full of boulder gardens and ending in another twenty footer, that
placed us just above the lead in to Wabena.
It's rather bewildering to think that while Lower
Drop had been run, Wabena was the last of the big ones to see a
descent, first run in 2002 by Ben Stookesberry. It also so a long gap
before a second attempt was made by Rush Sturges in 2006, to be
followed by Evan Garcia and Chris Korbulic in 2009. It was once
estimated at at ninety feet, but current estimates tend to say around
Wabena is very clean on a relative scale. There
death caves or
shallow spots in the landing. A class V lead in drops into a small pool
at the lip, and a slight off-kilter slope of the ramp complicates
things. Thankfully the ramp is long and sets up the perfect angle, so
going over the handle bars or boofing isn't too much of a threat.
During the scout and lunch break we'd decided to go in groups of two,
and by the time Ben rolled up, Jonas Grünwald was in the eddy
ready to go.
Now it was our turn. Chris
and I put out gear on and made the traverse
back up to our boats. We took one more look at the lead in from river
level, and even with the higher flow it did look possible to portage
the lead in on river right, and seal launch into the pool at the lip.
Regardless, we both wanted the lead in too. Chris went first and
paddled out of sight through the boulders, while I tried to be patient.
Time is a very subjective thing, and after what
ages I peel
out and headed down the lead in. The crux of the lead in is a tough
right to left move across the current. Guard rocks extending from the
left to center right make the line narrow. The final move is boofing a
river wide hole backed up by the left wall.
Coming through the first hole I was pretty sloppy
as far right
as planned. I quickly got pushed downstream and bumped a guard rock at
the lip, losing momentum before squeezing into the right channel,
driving right as hard as I could. I didn't get much of a drive to the
right, but did get a lot of right angle, and as I went into the hole I
quickly flushed out the right side and was in the pool staring at a
gigantic horizon line.
I drift down the pool, moving left while
entrance to Wabena is narrow, and I enter it far on the left, quickly
gaining speed down the ramp, feeling it pull me further right than I'd
like. In a flash the ramp is behind, I toss my paddle and brace for
The moment of free fall is
always incredibly brief, yet somehow longer
than expected. Impact there was, as I hit the pool the wind was knocked
out of me and I resurfaced upside down and attempted a hand roll.
but no cigar. Two more quick attempts, one gets me a little air. I
can't swim, it's a huge pool! One more try and it's close, I'm almost
all the way up but go back over for a final try. Why isn't anyone
t-rescuing me? I make one last strong attempt to get up, and do just as
I enter the rapid below the pool. There are some willows on the side,
which I quickly grab onto as Chris runs over and grabs my bow.
Well, that was entertaining, but we don't have
contemplate as I
throw together my breakdown and head downstream to see where my paddle
Below Wabena the river continues through another
gardens, before suddenly the gradient eases and we paddle mellower
rapids above Generation Gap, making one portage on the left and
starting the search for a campsite.
Royal Gorge is not a run infamous for mosquitoes,
many of the
other High Sierra classics. We weren't too concerned when there were a
few mosquitoes where we pulled out. Thirty minutes later we had a
campfire going and the attack was on. The mosquitoes were massacring
us. Most likely due to how late in the year (compared to normal) it
was, they were unavoidable. We all ducked out for an early night
knowing we'd have to paddle over twenty four miles: both Generation
Ben Stookesberry in Generation Gap.
Chris Korbulic on the final rapid of Generation Gap.
Happy to have finally
completed the whole of Royal Gorge, and watch
Chris Korbulic become the first person to run all the big ones, we took
out at noon and returned to our normal lives. I found Royal to be one
of the most unique of the High Sierra runs, both in whitewater and
scenery. It is a beautiful place that deserves to be reveled in. It's a
place that deserves the utmost respect for both the remote wilderness
setting, and whitewater. As I learned my first trip, just because you
can go big doesn't always mean you should.
Logistics: Royal Gorge flows in the spring and tends to have a brief
window. Ideal flows are 800-1,200 inflowing
to Lake Clementine
had around 1,200 putting on.
Take-Out from Sacramento: Highway 80 East, Canyon Way exit and turn
left. Follow to the top of the hill and turn on Iowa Hill Road. Follow
this road down to the river. Parking on river left is $10 a day, and
free on river right for the time being.
Put-in: Return to 80 East, staying for I-80 for over 30 minutes, until
exit 174/Soda Springs. Turn right onto Donner Pass Road, and follow a
short distance until another right onto Soda Springs Road. Continue
down Soda Springs road, it will turn to dirt and eventually cross the
river at the elitist, private land of "The Cedars". It's best to be
dropped off, or leave your car further up the road on a spur to avoid
the possibility of being towed.
out until you see the Green Arrow)
out until you see the Green Arrow)
out until you see the Green Arrow)
out until you see the Green Arrow)