Merced, N. Fork, California, US
|Usual Difficulty||IV-V(V+) (for normal flows)|
|Avg. Gradient||86 fpm|
|Max Gradient||305 fpm|
First Descent: Paul Martzen Report: Sun, 2 Apr 1995
On March 24 & 25, 1995, Richard Penny and I made a difficult two-day descent of the North Fork of the Merced River in California. Richard had scoped out a 17-mile section from Greeley Hill road to the confluence with the main Merced. This creek does not have a big drainage and its headwaters are not very high. It is only boatable in the winter after fairly big rains. Not a sure thing in California. This winter, however, has been very wet and all kinds of creeks have been raging.
There is a gauge on the upstream river right of the bridge where Greeley Hill Road crosses the North Fork. It was reading 4.9 when we put in and 4.8 when we came back the next day to get my car. It was probably a few hundred cfs. Small tributaries came in often along the way and Bull Creek, 5 miles downstream, doubled the flow. By the time we got to the Main Merced, the flow on the North Fork felt like at least 1000 cfs.
The run can be considered in two sections. The first five or six miles from Greeley Hill Rd., past Bull creek to Ponderosa Way, cannot be recommended. In this section the creek is steep, often over 100 feet per mile, and quite technical. Normally that is nice but something about this streambed allows alders to grow everywhere, especially in the middle of rapids. It took us all day to make a bit over 5 miles, with one close call after another.
From Ponderosa Way on down to about one mile of the confluence, the run was much more reasonable. The gradient was much less, 20 to 60 feet a mile. We almost always had a relatively clear channel which we could see, through the trees lining the creek. We made good progress in this section, covering about 10 miles in two hours. We passed a lot of mining claims and cast-offs of mining equipment in this section.
About a mile upstream of the confluence with the main, the gradient increases to over 300'/mile as the river drops over a series of waterfalls and huge cascades. Fortunately, there is an old trail high on river left, which gave an excellent view as we carried our boats around the whole section. When the river eased back to class 4-5 respectability we finished boating down to the confluence with the main.
Then we continued the six miles on the main Merced down to Bagby. This section is only class 2 but at the high flow we had it was still pleasant--at least till we hit the Reservoir and had to paddle.
The section from Ponderosa Way down to the confluence and then out is a reasonable one-day run. Its primary attraction is the interesting mining relics and the spectacular falls near the end. Ponderosa Way is an old dirt road which fords the river and is marked on the forest service maps. I have no idea how passable it is, especially in the winter. If one can get reasonably close to the river by this road then the run would be worth doing from that point down.
This trip may have been the first descent, but if anyone knows of previous descents please drop us a note.
Report Copied From Newsgroup: rec.boats.paddle
Paul Martzen, Fresno, California
First Descent: Richard Penny Report: 26 Mar 1995
On March 24 and 25, after several days of heavy rain and snow, Paul Martzen and I completed what we believe to have been the first descent of the North Fork of the Merced, from Greeley Hills Road to the confluence with the main Merced.
The gage at the put-in read 4.9 feet, and this proved to be a high volume of flow. The first six miles were extremely difficult. The rapids were choked with willows to a dangerous degree. Beyond Mile 6 and on our second day, the difficulty eased substantially. There were long, obvious lines to follow through the willow jungles.
We made about a dozen portages. Most were around willow-choked rapids. Around Mile 6 (near the confluence with Bull Creek), in order to pass a series of big waterfalls, we made two long, arduous portages through chapparal high on the canyonside. At Mile 17, we portaged along a trail on river-left for about a half mile around a series of tremendous waterfalls and Class VI rapids. We called this stretch the Devils Gate, after the more famous Devils Gate at the mouth of Sespe Creek Canyon. Below the Devils Gate we boated for about half a mile on high-volume Class V to the confluence with the main Merced. We continued for six miles on the main Merced and Lake McClure to Bagby.
The mile-by-mile gradients on this 17-mile stretch of the North Fork are 95, 125, 140, 75, 105, 165, 85, 45, 50, 45, 35, 30, 30, 25, 55, 60, and 305 feet per mile. We would rate the overall difficulty of the first 6 miles as Class V+, primarily because of the difficulty and danger posed by the willow-choked rapids. Below Mile 6, the difficulty is Class IV-V.
Considering the increasing difficulty and steepness of rapids being run these days, the last mile of cataracts may be feasible for top notch boaters. The most expedient way to inspect these falls, would be to boat down the main Merced, then hike up the good trail on the east side of the NF Merced. (Paul M. 2005)
There were also large bedrock falls in the area near the confluence with Bull Creek that might be worth investigating. Modern short creek boats will reduce the danger of broaching on trees but would not eliminate it, I think. (2009)