Horseshoe Bend is a beautiful section of river that has seen relatively little boating use in the past. It only has boatable flows during periods of spill; typically late Winter and Spring of an average to high water year. Many years there is no spill at all and therefore no boatable flows. Scheduled weekend recreation releases will happen in the future if certain fishery studies allow it. In the meantime SCE started providing real time flow information in the summer of 2006, which will allow boaters to use this reach whenever there is boatable flow.
The river character is classic pool drop, with long pools separating relatively short steep drops. The streambed is a deep granite trench and many rapids are formed by large boulders. Most rapids, even the small ones, have distinct horizon lines, which hide any view of the correct route until you are just about entering the rapid or have in fact committed to the rapid. Low cliffs or sculpted boulders form much of the shoreline, but all rapids are easily scouted from shore. There are a few small beaches along the length and one large beach at about the halfway point. It is a very pretty section of river.Time required: One can enjoyably spend all day, but fast trips are also feasible. A recent kayak trip at 2000 cfs with 3 boaters, doing 4 scouts, two portages, 1 swim, and numerous rolls, took 2 hours and 15 minutes from put-in to take-out.The Horseshoe Bend Trail is on river right. It comes close to the river in a couple spots, but usually it is several hundred yards up on the hillside. Sometimes its path is obvious but in many other areas it is faint. The downstream end of this trail starts where the road to the powerhouse is gated. The upstream end starts from a level area a mile before you reach Willow Creek. At the upstream end, there is a sign for the trail and a dirt road leading to a power tower. Vegetation in the area is grasslands, brush, oaks and some Digger Pines.Getting there: From Fresno, take Highway 168 (or highway 41 to Friant Rd to Auberry rd), to Prather. Continue a couple miles then turn left onto Auberry road and go to the town of Auberry. In town veer left at the school onto Powerhouse Rd. Drop down to Kerchoff reservoir, cross the bridge and immediately turn left into a parking area which is the take-out. Allow 1 hour and 10 minutes from Fresno. Continuing to the put-in, cross the highway to a small but paved road. Drive 4.5 miles to Willow Creek below Redinger dam.
From Madera take highway 145 to Friant, to Auberry rd, to Prather and Auberry, etc. Alternatively, one can take 145 to highway 41, north to North Fork Road to Auberry Road (Rd 222), to Kerchoff reservoir. Put in: Is easiest at Willow Creek just downstream of the dam rather than at the dam itself. Drive on a dirt road on the left side of the creek to where a huge pipe comes out of the hill and crosses the creek. Duck under the pipe and follow the trail out to the main river. Kayakers often just launch into the creek itself and fight through the trees on the way to the river. Trees are thick in the creek just below the bridge and again very thick at the mouth. A new trail is to be constructed someday, but as of 2013, we are still waiting.
You can launch near the dam by walking down a short road then descending slabs to the pool below the spillway. However, the slabs below the spillway tend to be very slippery from the spray and algae. There is a safer trail and stairway that leads to a gauging station. Look for this trail at the gate blocking the short road down to the dam. Launching here allows you to run a big serious drop in Reddinger Gorge.Take out: any where at Kerchoff Reservoir. There is a large turnout on the northwest side of the highway bridge and a decent take out underneath this bridge. It is a short carry with kayaks from the water up to the road, but rafters usually paddle across the reservoir to good beaches with easy car access. The shuttle is about 4.5 miles on a paved one lane road. Allow 15 minutes driving time each way.
Toilets and primitive campsites are available at Smalley Cove campground on Kerchoff reservoir. People also seem to stay overnight at the several obvious places along Kerchoff reservoir. Toilets are also available near the boat ramp on Reddinger Reservoir, just past the dam. There are a number of areas suitable for primitive camping near the put-in, but signs discourage camping outside of "designated campgrounds". No "designated campgrounds" are marked at Redinger and the areas near the toilets are barren parking areas suitable only for motorhomes.
There is a grocery store, several decent resteraunts, even a library in the nearby town of Auberry, up the hill to the south of the take out. Ten minutes further are more stores and restaurants at the shopping mall in Prather, at the junction of Auberry Rd. and Highway 168. To the north, are store and resteraunts in the the town of North Fork. Cell phone reception is pretty good (for some networks) at the top of the shuttle road, but there is no reception at the put in or take out.FERC Information: Redinger Reservoir and Big Creek #4 powerhouse operate under FERC license # 2017 reissued in December 2003.
Scheduled whitewater releases were negotiated as part of the license, but their implimentation is dependant on the outcome of ongoing studies of the native aquatic species. Below are links to the study reports:2010 Study Report2012 Study Report2013 Study Report
Threats to the River:
The downstream area of the San Joaquin is presently under study for several potential large dam and reservoir sites which could also affect this section of the river. See: Upper San Joaquin Basin Storage Investigation Three sites are under serious investigation! One site is about one mile upstream of the confluence with Finegold Creek and could have a maximum size of around 2.1 million ac/ft. Another site is downstream of Temperance flat and could be as big as 2.7 million ac/ft. The last site is upstream of Squaw Leap about halfway through the Patterson Bend section. This would only contain 1.4 million ac/ft. Despite their size, maximum annual yield is only 200,000 ac/ft. All of these reservoirs will bury the Patterson Bend section and will also bury some or all of the Horseshoe Bend section. Maps from the study showing the sizes of the proposed reservoirs are linked below.
A speech by Gary Bobker of the Bay Institute, gives some arguments against building new dams at these locations.
Guidebooks: Cassady & Calhoun, Holbek & Stanley
Chris Labounty comments:
Ran Horseshoe on Sunday (May 29, 2005) with a stomping flow (10,000 cfs). Redinger had one door full open, and a second maybe half way. Big water, confusing currents, and random whirlpools that liked to try to turn you sideways or backwards right above holes. I can't recall a time I've ever had to fight so hard to catch eddies, but I scouted about 5 times. Scouting Big Dog was near impossible, as the big river right eddy appeared to be at a higher elevation than the current going past. There was one enormous hole a little ways before Little Dog that took most of the right half of the river. An exciting run to say the least, and I look forward to doing it again at a downshifted flow. Interestingly, later in the afternoon, they had shut off the second door of the damn and took things down a notch from the looks of the 1st rapid.Local Clubs:
For more information on this and other local paddling areas, please feel free to contact these local clubs: NEW Kayak Club, or Gold Country Paddlers.Online:
You can get more information from California's Whitewater Community at boof.com.
Redinger Dam diverts 3,600 cfs to the Big Creek #4 Powerhouse and controls flows into Horseshoe Bend. One gate open is typical. Two gates open means really big water and only the hard core will want to challenge themselves.
Some people do or have launched just downstream of the dam, but getting to the river requires descending steep and very exposed slabs that are very wet and very slimy. A better put in is to descend a trail from the access road gate to the gauging station,
This is the best put in option for paddling through the Redinger Gorge. Look for the gated road leading down towards the base of the dam. A sign on the gate says, "Dam #7" The trail starts just outside the gate and leads straight down the hill. The trail is not in great condition but it is discernable. There are some stairs and ladders near the bottom.
A moderate rapid leads to a very big rapid, class 4+ to 5. It can be portaged over boulders on the left. There is a big splat rock in the middle of the rapid and the release flows of 1600 cfs are too low to provide a good line around it.
A loop road on the east side of Willow Creek leads to a fairly large unloading area by the auquaduct pipe. A trail leads underneath the pipe and out to the main river. This trail is narrow and awkward for groups carrying rafts, but it is the best we have for the time being.
During busy times, please use this area for unloading only. There is a very large parking area just on the other side of the paved road.
A new parking area and raft put in has been in the works, but has not yet been constructed.
This is the standard and easiest put-in location to use. Kayakers often launch into the creek at the road bridge and boat the .35 of a mile to the river. Others park by the pipe on creek left and carry 0.2 mile to the river.
There is often a thick growth of bushes across the river downstream of the mouth. They grow in the shallow sediment that gets carried down Willow Creek and deposited in the relatively wide and slow main river channel.
Look for a boulder on river right just downstream of Willow Creek. A staff gage is affixed to the downstream face. It is marked in 500 cfs increments and goes up to 5,000 cfs.
Because of the trees growing across the exit from this pool, the gage always reads high, typically by 500 cfs or so. However, the error may vary from year to year as trees grow bigger in low flow years or get washed out in wet years.
FERC Article 402, required the installation of a staff gage marked in 500-cfs increments at a location downstream of the confluence of Willow Creek and the San Joaquin River.
After a mile of flatwater, small holes and ledges, cliffs develop, especially on the left. A group of large boulders block the channel. To scout, take out upstream on the right. At low flows the center slot is clean and the right side develops a route. At high flows the left side cleans up while the center develops into an ugly hole.
Granite cliffs rise on both sides of the river, creating a long scenic section. A series of moderate rapids are scattered throughout. Many of these rapids have holes to avoid, and most create weird and strong hydraulics in the tail water. There can be fantastic play spots at some flows.
Boulders on river right block your view of this sharp right turn. Rocks in the middle of the entrance force boaters to go far left or down a steep drop on the right. The current pushes boats towards a big hole on the left. Paddle hard to get right. Another large hole hides in the middle in the tail waves below. Scout or portage on river right. Boat scout on river left. There is a long recovery pool below. A few boaters have had deep dark swims here after being separated from their gear. One boater reports swimming underneath a boulder after dropping into the upper hole.
At 1600 cfs both holes are exposed bolders and there is even a narrow waterfall route to the left of the first boulder.
At higher flows (4000 cfs) the lower hole washes out and dissapears, but the upper hole gets bigger and bigger.
This is a relatively big but clean drop. There is a fairly obvious ledge hole near the top, just right of center that is easy to avoid. I think it is top right, but keep your eyes open! The main line is down just left of center, but there is also a narrow line down the right edge between the hole and the cliff.
The river banks spread out and flatten out to some extent in this area. There is a blocky island in the middle with an overflow channel on the left and the main channel on the right. Obvious obstructions under the surface create complications in the center and right. Boaters must enter near the center but most charge to the left edge to avoid the obstructions at the top. This lines one up perfectly aimed at an ominous spray/splat rock. Most seem to shoot over it, but getting to the right seems wise. One can wander farther a field if they wish to punch weird diagonal ledge holes. If one tips over in this rapid, expect to hit rocks. Tuck up and stay in your boat till it cleans up. A good size hole also waits in the middle right of the tail waves.
At 4000 cfs this rapid cleans up into a fun big wave train.
Below this rapid, flat water and small rapids lead to the far portion of the "Bend".
The river turns right into the bottom of the horseshoe and heads west. The small Backbone Creek comes in on the left and forms the nicest sand bar on the section. Flat water allows one to enjoy the beautiful cliffs and scenery for the next .3 of a mile.
Big rocks obstruct the middle and left at the top of this steep drop. Enter on the far right, aiming diagonally left between a big hole on the right and the turbulent recirculation from the rocks blocking the middle top. Once past the right side hole, immediately cut back right to avoid a huge ledge hole on the left. Once past this left side hole, aim either far left or far right to avoid the big hole in the bottom middle.
The river turns back north and immediately comes to "Little Dog", the lead in rapid to "Big Dog". An easy take-out for scouting is on river left. Scramble over some boulders to reach a sloping ledge that runs some distance along the river. You can scout all of Little Dog from this ledge and get a fair view of the entrance to Big Dog. With some rope work or strong climbing skill, you get onto the next ledge and probably scout Big Dog as well.
There are left, center and right routes through Little Dog. The center has more water at lower flows, but the side routes look easier at higher flows. A second drop just downstream is down the center but steep and very turbulent. WARNING! Only about 40 yards of swift water separates the end of Little Dog, from the beginning of Big Dog. If someone swims out of Little dog there is a danger of also swimming Big Dog. At 3000 cfs the two rapids are starting to run together.
The most commonly run line is to take the narrow center chute and paddle hard towards the right. If you do not make the move properly, the current will push you back to the left towards an undercut boulder. If you eddy out on the left above the rapid, you will be perfectly set up to enter the rapid at the right angle and with enough momentum.
When boaters exit Little Dog, they have a choice. Paddlers can head right to a small take-out, from where it is easy to scout, and easy to portage if so desired. At higher flows it can be very difficult to get into this eddy. Alternatively, boaters can paddle left towards several different eddies behind boulders. The lowest left side eddy situates one perfectly to run the center chute.
During busy releases when flows are 1600 cfs, the take out here can get very crowded. Rafts can tie up about 30 feet upstream where ledges come down to water level.
At the 1600 cfs release level, the most commonly used line by kayakers was to take the center entrance and drop into a narrow seam between the big rock on the left and the big hydraulic on the right. From there they paddled through a narrow gap to the right of a yellow rock.
A few kayakers got stuck in a backed up hole halfway down on the right which discouraged others from going that direction.
Rocks and holes and maybe a tree in the middle encourage boaters to enter far right. The rapid curves gradually to the left past an overhanging right wall. Boaters must paddle to stay away from the overhanging right wall, without going so far as to end up in a big hole on the bottom left side.
The river enters a large round pool with a very narrow exit. The rapid is a single steep drop. It is impossible to see the drop from a kayak, before committing to it. Always scout if unfamiliar with the drop or the flow as there tends to be strong recirculation at the base. Boats have to punch one side or the other of the hole, but the exact best line may vary with flow. Down the left side is usually best, but I am not sure if it is always best. Scouting from river left is easiest at higher flows but easier on the right at low flows. The right wall below the drop is very undercut at medium high flows and there is a strong eddy current going under it. If swimmers or equipment get pushed into this eddy, it can be awkward to reach them. Because of the undercut right wall, I think it is safest to always run the left side when possible. Scout to be sure.
The danger of the left side run is that the current often pushes boaters into an outcrop on the left. It takes some effort to push off and into the current. Kayakers can flip against this wall and get stuck there.
Constriction Rapid from Paul Martzen on Vimeo.
This is the 3rd large rapid below Big Dog. It is fairly steep and pushy, but relatively clean. As usual, the horizon line and a wide green wave near the top hide any view of the route until one is committed, at least for kayakers. You may get a little better view entering from the left side.
The big wave at the top is reportedly good for surfing at release flows around 1,600 cfs. There is a good eddy on the left to drop into the wave. But, once you come off, you are into the rapid. This wave is very wide and probably the biggest wave on the run at release flow.
At flows above 3,000 cfs and probably a bit less, this rapid funnels into a large wave. At lower flows the wave has a strong reversal, fills the channel and is an automatic boat flipper. Kayaks are cartwheeled and flushed once empty. Rafts can be flipped and held. Swimmers flush immediately but deeply. There is an easy scout or portage on the left, but it can also be scouted on the right.
There is also a man made side channel to the right which offers a fairly easy sneak route. The exit from this side channel can get choked with bushes, so stay straight when you bash through them. Also there may be some bolts or rods in the streambed that damaged one kayak. We hope to remove them at low water.
The powerhouse often adds 3,600 cfs of additional flow. The water wells up from underneath then pushes everything over to the left. Relative flat water continues one mile to the highway bridge at Kerchoff Reservoir.
During scheduled releases, the powerhouse will be off and a class 2 rapid appears, leading into the powerhouse pool. There can be a good surf wave at the top of this rapid.
Boaters can hike down the road to the powerhouse and launch into the river here, if they wish.
Take out under the bridge on river right. Carry back upstream along a more gradual trail, up to the old road and then back across the highway to the parking area. Avoid going straight up the hill next to the bridge.
Some rafters prefer to paddle across the lake to a beach where it is easy to unload. There is plenty of parking close to the water and boats don't have to be carried very far. There is a modest current across the reservoir, so if you are patient, you don't even have to paddle much.
I just did an evening run on the Horseshoe Bend section of the San Joaquin River on 7/26/06 at 2400 cfs. I ran it with Dan and Evan, and I have to say they did a great job showing me the lines. I must also say I was quite nervous. I was happy to discover that all the holes that I encountered, or watched those guys try to punch through and then get flipped, were all washing out. There were a few really large and nasty holes, but they were easy to see and avoid as you paddled down the rapids. The bottoms of most of the rapids were made up of these crazy lateral waves that were bouncing off the sides of the canyon, along with some very strong boils. This all helped add to my excitement and nervousness. Once I got over my fears, I was able to enjoy this incredibly scenic river that included some beautiful granite gorge walls. We also saw three large owls near the put-in, a first for me, after living in the area for seven years. I uploaded pictures and videos for your enjoyment, and I hope it encourages you all to take a trip down this section of river.
The snowpack is not big enough to produce a spill this year (2016) and there is not going to be a scheduled recreational release either.
The tree that was wedged on the left side of Big Dog in 2009 is no longer there, thankfully.
Flow in Horseshoe Bend is a combination of spill from Redinger, now posted by Edison as San Joaquin River Above Willow Creek-Spill and the flow in Willow Creek. Willow Creek often contributes 100 cfs or so early in the season, but decreases to almost nothing by summertime. Willow can contribute huge amounts during some big winter rainstorms. Click on the "Show List" button and you can see flows for some other river reaches in the basin as well as reservoir elevations. See also Dreamflows for this flow and many other rivers.
There is a staff gauge behind a rock at the downstream side of the mouth of Willow Creek. The staff measures increments of 500 cfs, up to 5000 cfs. As of 2010 the staff gauge is reading very high and was a few inches underwater at 4000 cfs.
Horseshoe Bend will occasionally have flows in the winter and early in the Spring from low elevation runoff. It will also receive any spill from Mammoth Pool, which usually occurs if the Snow pack in the basin is 100%. The probability increases as the snow pack rises above 100%. Depending on weather patterns, spill can sometimes occur with less snow pack.
If the SCE links above do not work go to: http://220.127.116.11/SCEpublic/# to see if you can track down the correct pages. Seems like the url of the actual data sometimes changes.
Edison Big Creek Office: This phone number keeps changing.
This USGS pdf schematic of the dams, diversions and gauges is helpful for understanding the plumbing system in this basin.
Historical flow information (daily mean flows) can be found at the following USGS pages.
San Joaquin above Willow Creek, USGS #11242000
Willow Creek at mouth, USGS #11246500
Big Creek #4 PowerHouse, USGS #11246530
Willow Creek now has several gauges that measure stage. These can be handy to corroborate flow info at the Edison gauge; Willow Creek at Mouth.
Willow Creek below Bass Lake
Willow Creek below Manzanita Dam
Willow Creek at Rex Ranch
We have had releases on this reach but don't show any currently. This information is gathered by the public. If you know about releases then contact us about them. If you would volunteer to enter the releases, then reach out to us.
Permits are not required for this reach.
The shuttle road between take out and put in is short, but windy and narrow, so it takes around 15 minutes drive time each direction. The road is paved.
From the south, the take out is about one hour drive time from downtown Fresno on excellent highways.
From the north take highway 99 to Madera and cut off to 145 to highway 41. It appears to be about the same amount of time to go north on 41 to North Fork road and then south to Kerchoff reservoir, or to continue on 145 to Millerton road to Prather, then north to Auberry and down to Kerchoff.
Avoiding Powerhouse Hole
Scouting Powerhouse Hole
Jean Luke entering Constriction
Big Dog, Little Dog
Jeff beyond the 4th hole
Jeff passing 3rd hole
Jeff passing 2nd hole
Mitch between 1st & 2nd hole
Mitch entering Four Holes
Scouting Four Holes
Where is the lower hole?
No Problem Now
Hoping to avoid the hole
Redinger dam spilling 3,500 cfs
Little Dog and Big Dog
Little Dog and kayak
Two Holes from below
Upstream of Study Rapid
Potential Raft put in.
Raft put in.
Bridge at Kerchoff Reservoir
# 4 Powerhouse
Scouting Big Dog
Under Cut Rocks
Below Little Dog Rapid
Four Holes Rapid
A Beautiful Gorge
Evan and the Pipe
Big Dog Overview
Get out of my way ROCK!
Get Out of My Way!
Evan and the Bottle
Raft in Little Dog
River Board in First Falls
Raft in Test Rapid at 1,600 cfs
Raft above Test Rapid at 1,600 cfs
First Falls at 1,000 cfs
San Joaquin proposed reservoir: mile 286
Horseshoe Bend, San Joaquin
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