San Joaquin - 2. Chawanakee Gorge (Dam 6 to Reddinger Reservoir)

San Joaquin, California, US


2. Chawanakee Gorge (Dam 6 to Reddinger Reservoir)

Usual Difficulty V (for normal flows)
Length 8 Miles
Avg. Gradient 137 fpm


Photo by Paul Martzen taken 05/05/03 @ 600 cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
San Joaquin Chawanakee Gorge
dream-441 280 - 1000 cfs V 02h14m 311 cfs (running)
Latest estimate

River Description

Chawanakee Gorge may be one of the best 1 day, class 5 runs in California or in the USA, or in the northern hemisphere according to some of a team of boaters in 2003, who paddled this section to study the recreational potential and quality of the river. Others in the group just said, "Wow!" They reported that there are as many as 40 to 50 big drops in the 5.6 miles of river.

John Gangemi says, "If the creation myth is true, then God was a boater! Boating just can't get much better than Chawanakee. Mix up 50-60 Class IV to V drops, smooth Sierra granite domes, tributary waterfalls tumbling 400 feet into the gorge, lots of house-size boulders, water and you've got a paddler's mecca."

There were only a couple mandatory portages. All class 5 drops were potentially portagable, but some class 4+ drops might not have portage routes. Portages are sometimes over very large boulders.  First potential portage is an island rapid at ~mi 1.5 where a metal staircase come down from river left.  Beware the hole on the right channel and shallow rocks lurking in the landing of the left channel.  Second, potential portage is a steeper series of drops (substantial backed up ledge hole followed by a choked up boulder garden (beware sieves) in a slight left bend in the river, approx .75 mi below the stairs.  Third potential portage is a series of 3 drop pools. first is a pinch on the right with an ominous looking "tombstone" leaning against the left wall.  Fourth potential portage is very late in the run and is recognized by it's lack of boatable channels.  NOTE: at flows above 600-700 beware of holes in constricted bedrock gorges.
Though the river is pool drop at the optimum flow, the difficult rapids are unrelenting, with amazing class 5 drop after class 5 drop.

There is a very pretty bicycle ride along the rim of this gorge on a gated, paved road. You can see perhaps 50% of the rapids from this road. There is also access between road and river by a stairway to a gauging station, about 1/3 of the way into the run. Escape from the gorge at other points would be very difficult.

American Whitewater continues to work with SCE to see that boaters have reasonable opportunities to paddle this reach.


275 is boatable but more Southeastern than CA. 

400-500 is med-lo; Class V

600-700 med-hi w/ some V+

700-1000 V+

Above 1000 use your own judgement.  The road is always above you, but not often accessable.

Best guage: Southern California Edison (THANK YOU!)

Edison Big Creek Gauges


What to Expect:

Whitewater is similar in character to SF Yuba, NF Feather, etc.  Scenery is similar to Bald Rock.  Expect most experienced class V boaters to complete a blind run in ~6+ hours with lots of scouting both in and out of boats. 

Take-out: Italian Bar Road bridge across Reddinger reservoir. It would be nice to get out closer to the mouth of the river near the powerhouse, but there is no public access to the river or reservoir in that area. Paddle about 1.4 miles from the river across the reservoir to this bridge access point.

Put-in at the bridge at Mammoth powerhouse. Paddle down the reservoir about 1 mile, to the right side of the dam. Get out on rocks a few feet from the lip of the spill and walk across the spill to an awkward downclimb through bushes, poison oak, and over steep rock. Once at the water the difficulties begin.

The 8 miles given as total length of run includes 1 mile of flatwater to start, 5.6 miles of river and 1.4 miles of flatwater at the end.

Driving Directions: It really helps to have a good map of this area. From Fresno take highway 168 through Prather. Turn left onto Auberry Rd to Auberry. In Auberry, at the junction of Powerhouse Rd and Auberry Rd you have a choice of scenic routes. You can stay right on Auberry Rd, then in a few miles turn left onto Jose Basin Rd (towards Mono Winds Casino). Stay left in the small community and follow Jose Basin Rd to Chawanakee Flats and Redinger reservoir. Alternatively, in Auberry, you can bear left onto Powerhouse Rd and follow it to Kerchoff Reservoir. Just across the bridge at Kerchoff turn back right onto Road 235 which winds over a hill to Reddinger Reservoir. Continue a long ways around the reservoir past the junction with Rd 225 to Italian Bar Bridge.

From Reddinger to the put-in: Turn north onto Rd 225 towards North Fork. Turn right onto Minarets Road towards Mammoth Pool. Turn right onto forest service road 8S03. (if you see Clearwater ranger station, you have gone too far) Drive down this steep and very windy road to the Put-in.

From the north, take highway 99 to Madera. Exit at the Millerton Lake - Yosemite turnoff. In Madera turn left onto W. Cleveland Ave, then turn left onto E. Yosemite Ave / highway 145. Follow highway 145 east to Friant. Turn left on Friant Rd and follow signs to Prather and then Auberry.

----------------- More Comments --------------

Nathan Hunkapiller writes:
Chawanakee was a challenging and fantastic run. 350 cfs (if that's what we had) was a sufficient flow although 100 or 200 more wouldn't have hurt. A little extra would certainly have cleaned some drops up but may have made others more scary. It only felt bony in a few places. I think you were right about 350 cfs feeling a lot more like 600.

The scenery within the gorge is on a grand scale. Just amazing! It's such a steep walled gorge that once will be there till the end...except for a freakishly steep staircase that drops all the way down into the canyon at mile 1.6 courtesy of SCE. With the exception of all the powerlines that line the canyon rim, Chawanakee was very reminiscent of Bald Rock Canyon. The whitewater was certainly on a similar level. The definining character was pool drop with a relentless mix of boulder gardens, 6-10 foot ledges, and a few nice slides.

Around the end of the first mile, the gorge becomes very narrow and deep for about 1/4 mile. This was my favorite stretch, although it was certainly intimidating...see picture.

Around mile 3 the whitewater intensifies and one encounters a trilogy of BIG drops. Perhaps all of them are runnable with the right mindset but they looked pretty full on. Portaging this stretch was a serious undertaking and took us nearly 45 minutes. The Class V continues most of the rest of the run but eases considerably in the last mile.

Not including reservoir paddling, the two of us took about 6 hours to complete the run at perhaps an average pace. Prior knowledge of drops could reduce that by a few hours as there are somewhere in the range of 40-50 class IV-V drops. We were in and out of our boats countless times.
May 2, 2005 -------

Cgoold writes:
We did it this friday (July 28, 2006), with no 3000 cfs flow spikes or other insurmountable obstacles to report. for the record, we'd call the run a "hard 5/easy 5+" ranking at 680 cfs. Maybe the rapids aren't the hardest ever, but the walled-inness adds a healthy dose of stress. Will I be able to scout or portage this drop? Should I go to the next eddy? In my opinion, 1000 cfs is going to be full-on in here. then again, if you knew what was below all those horizon lines with smooth walls on either side, you'd be much more comfortable at higher flows.

Having done the run at roughly 350 and 680 (cfs), I think most class 5 boaters would prefer flows in the range 400-500 for a mellower run. Only a few of the rapids needed the extra juice of 680 to be good.

Stevenson creek had 300-350 cfs. the river's much less congested below this confluence though except for one rapid with a huge hole; call the run 5- below the confluence even at 1000 cfs.

In March of 2010, Kevin Smith reported that 950 cfs "was on the juicy side, but still a great flow- not pushy or overly sticky. It took us 5-6 hours start to finish moving at a consistent pace. We ran into an Edison employee at put in who was very courteous and helpful (checked flows for us). Be sure to bring your "A" game into this beautiful place."


StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2016-03-07 15:38:36


Rapid Descriptions

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User Comments

Users can submit comments.
August 19 2010 (3078 days ago)
Paul MartzenDetails
300 cfs is coming down Stevenson Creek to the halfway point in the gorge. This flow will continue
till the middle of September.
March 29 2010 (3220 days ago)
Chris TulleyDetails
280 is low but still good. Spring of 2010 -- SCE maintance providing sporadic day to day flows. We
started w/ ~280 and ended w/ ~420 CFS. 280 was low but we all agreed well worth doing. Great mix of
bedrock and boulder gardens. Similarities to SF Yuba, Tobin, MF Feather, Rubicon. Easy Class V.
Expect 450-500 to be ideal first time class V flows. I expect I would be gripped at 1000. We hit
the run twice in 2 days -- Day 1 was ~6 hours w/ lots of scouting. Day 2 was down to 3-4 hours. ~4
portages including (in order) "Taylors Tumble", Dragon's Back, Trilogy, and "No Doors". Scenery was
outstanding! This run is a true classic (a big statement in CA). Predictable flows would cause an
amazing transformation into a true whitewater destination.
March 22 2010 (3227 days ago)
Paul MartzenDetails
Thomas M reported on "I got in there with two other friends on Saturday the 20th.
According to DF we started with 600 and had a high spike of 1000 towards the end of the day. We all
felt that the flows that day were great. I would guess that 600-900 is ideal. There were some big
holes but there were many possible routes from super big to nice little sneak lines. In my opinion
at our flow this is one of the best one day class V runs in Cali for sure! It felt like a
combination of Purdons, Golden Gate, and Bald Rock. The character of this run is very consistent.
You get to run awesome rapids all day."