South Fork of the Merced River (Lower)
|Stretch:||Snyder Gulch to 140 Bridge|
|Difficulty:||Class III+ to IV|
|Flows:||500-1500 cfs Current Dreamflows est gauge|
|Gradient:||58.2 (80 for the first 4 miles) fpm|
|Put-in:||Snyder Gulch Trail|
|Take-out:||Highway 140 Bridge|
|Shuttle:||~25 miles (2 on dirt, then 3.5 hiking) one hour one way|
|Season:||Spring and Summer from snowmelt|
The South Fork of the Merced is a staple of class V boaters looking to push their limits on the of the most challenging multi day runs in the state. The Stanley and Holbek book only briefly mention that there is a trail leading down to the river allowing for the significantly easier final 7 miles to be run. Cacreeks has a write up that has always enticed me, but also lacked photos of what to expect. With that, this past weekend (5-24-08) with flows dropping all over the state due to a cold snap, I jumped at the chance to boat this when Bob expressed he too had a long time interest in this run. With that we rallied some other folks, who then nearly all backed out at the last moment, and we were set.
The day started with the last minute addition of two more boaters who were in the same campsite as us. This addition caused us to need to drive Bobís car to the put in. This is a common enough occurrence in boating, but the result was less than common. So, after a little bit of work we found our way to the trail head and began to hike. About 10 feet into the hike the rain began as a light sprinkle, it felt good, cooled us off, what a blessing we all thought, let us focus on avoiding the copious and unavoidable poison oak over growing the trail. Once down to the river, we instead found a small creek, not sure how much further it was to the river, we began to question our right turn at the last junction on the trail. After 3.5 miles though none of us felt like walking the whole 100 yards back to the trailhead (I know, lazy), so we put on the creek and paddled 100 feet and were pleasantly surprised by the river right there. And so the day began.
The rapids were better than any of us expected. We found the first 2 or 3 miles to be fun class III+ to IV. Near the end of those miles was a rapid with a tree spanning the entire river that we walked easily on the right. The tree was vibrating on the shore so I doubt it will be there long. Note however, from the top of the rapid it appears the tree is only part way into the channel, it actually spans all the way to the center rock so be aware, there is a last minute eddy on the right mere feet above the log that could be used if you drift into the rapid unaware, at higher flows this eddy may become bad news. At 600 cfs it was ok though. So anyways, after that the rapids eased and we thought the canyon was opening up. Each time the canyon opened up, we came around a corner and saw we had at least 1 more bend before the main Merced, this happened 3 or 4 times. In the last 2 miles the rapids pick up a bit again giving some nice class III and one class IV before again becoming easier to the take out.
Once at take out, you might find it is raining harder on you. You might drive up to the put-in, you might pick up the 2 cars left there. Due to the heavy rain that is now falling you might find the road is slicker than it was even just 5 minutes prior when you drove into the road to get the cars. You might find that the car that was only there for your two additional boaters canít make it up the slick road. You might find that the car owner then has to sleep in the back of your car under your coats and wearing a femaleís skirt to stay warm. You might find that tow truck companies will procrastinate their robbing you of $140 an hour which results in you enjoying Mariposa more than you ever thought possible. Finally, you may get sick of waiting for the tow company to take your money so you may drive the one hour to put in and deal with it yourself. Upon success of foiling the tow companyís profit machine, you may find your women being hit on by tow drivers for a different disaster. This all MAY happen, so be warned, donít drive a 2 wheeled car down the last road (1/4 mile long) if you think it might rain hard that day.
Ok, enough story time. So there is also a 4-wheel drive trail leading down to Hite Cove about 3 miles into the run. I personally wouldnít bother doing this, for one the road is apparently totally messed up, and two, the best rapids were all above Hite Cove. If you still decide to do the road option, donít take anything other than serious 4-wheel drive cars in. The tow drivers that hit on our ladies were going in to tow out a Acura sedan and a Rav 4. OK, so the Acura is ridiculous, but still, serious 4 wheel drive.
For a side story, the tow drivers said the Rav 4 actually went around the broken down Acura and made it another 0.5 miles before it too broke. Now the Acura Drivers were borrowing the car from a friend. The got stopped when both front tires blew. The Rav 4 was a rental car and although I am not sure how they had their plans foiled, their story is entertaining for the fact that when they did get stopped, instead of hiking back up the trail to civilization, man, wife, and baby in a baby carrier decided the best plan was to head down the trail to the river, hoping to cross the river and hike their way to Yosemite. AmazingÖ
So I loved the run, the 1 hour shuttle and 3.5 mile hike will keep this run from every becoming a crowded river. And who knows when I will muster up the energy to do it again, but it was well worth the effort to be in there at least the one time. The hike starts off with a gradual decline for about 2 miles. It then drops steeply (think Giant Gap hike) for about 1 mile, then is up and down near the creek for the remainder. Not bad, only took about 1 hour. Most of us elected to hike the playboats in carrying them on our shoulders, but a few backpacked the creekers in. At our flows playboats were totally fine although I could see as the flow rises 500 cfs more that several holes would become stompy and perhaps a creeker would be preferred. Also, there are many rapids, I made note of the most significant, but donít be surprised if 1 or 2 get through. We boat scouted everything and none of the lines were blind, you might just have to eddy hop a bit down to the lip, for class IV boaters this may push your comfort on a rapid or two, scouting was never a problem though if you so desired it.
Brush (III-). The first rapid is a bit brushy at the top before it converges all together and drops into a few small holes.
First (IV-). At our flow there were three distinct parts of the rapid with eddies between the moves. It was busy and fun with no big moves but several moves to make around rocks. At higher flows I could see some fun holes forming.
Second (IV). A rocky and brushy entrance on a strong left turn marks the beginning of this rapid. We started right around the brush before relizing that it closed off. We then ferried to the middle to spot a clean line. Near the bottom of the first cascade all the water piles up into a sieve. Up right, the rock pile is easy to avoid, but with the moves upstream of it, that is not guaranteed. Either right or left of the rocks works, below is a little but of run out.
A short section of easier rapids.
- Ledges (IV). The river bends right and splits into 3 separate channels. The right looks bad from the top and pretty much is. The center allows you to drive right into an eddy at the lip of the drop. The drop is a bit rocky, and two tiered. In between the two tiers the water pushes you right, this is fine just drive left afterwards as there is an undercut waiting just downstream. I could see this rapid becoming bad with large holes as flows increase.
Holes (III+). A really fun rapid keeps you busy working your way through holes and leads you down into a boxed in hole that stood us straight on end even at 600 cfs.
Channels (III). Several channels, far left has a ledge and hole, center has a undercut to avoid. All go.
- Tree (IV-). We portaged the top of the rapid due to a tree in the river. Below it the river dropped over a ledge that could be sticky as flows come up, a sneak was on the right. The river then dropped over another ledge which could become a huge hole at higher flows. Best was to stay right on it.
- Biggest and Most Fun (IV). The rapids pick up again and you will find a blind rapid with a rock fence at the top. From a right eddy we thought the far left went and we were correct. The far left line dropped into a hole, you then worked right through a few more holes to avoid the monster hole at the bottom.
Looks Big (III-). On a right bend there was a rapid that looked big from the top but turned out to have a ramp the whole way down the right side.
- Final Ledges (III-). There was one last drop with stickiness to it. We went left to right finishing the final drop on the rightÖ the only spot that looks even remotely inviting to be.
Take out: Take out at the Highway 140 bridge near Red Bud maybe 10 miles up the Merced from Briceburg.
Put in: Take 140 back towards Mariposa. Maybe 8 or 9 miles away from the river you will get to Triangle Rd. Turn left and follow for 6 miles. Then take a left on Jerseydale Rd (to the right is Darrah Rd). Follow another 6 miles and bear right on Scott Road (you may not even notice). Once the road turns to dirt, continue 2 or so miles. At one point the road climbs steeply and turns left, another road drops off right, donít go right, continue left. Shortly you will get to a green gate which may or may not be blocking the road. If you turn 90 degree right you will notice a small dirt road. Take that road. It is narrow and bordered by poison oak so roll up your windows. After about 20 feet you will see the sign that reads 3S, O2C which lets you know you are on the right path. Continue down about 0.5 miles to the dead end. The trail leaves off to the right but the trailhead sign appears to have been destroyed. If you instead prefer to drive to the river, go through the green gate mentioned above and follow down to the water.
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