Cuyama - Highway 166 to Twitchell Reservoir

Cuyama, California, US


Highway 166 to Twitchell Reservoir (Lower Canyon)

Usual Difficulty III-IV (for normal flows)
Length 15 Miles
Avg. Gradient 35 fpm

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-11136800 500 - 5000 cfs III-IV 01h21m 0 cfs (too low)

River Description

From Rocky Contos, posted to RBP 1998/02/16:

Cuyama River: Lower Canyon
class III-IV
length: ~15 miles*
gradient: ~30-40 ft/mile
drainage area: ~500 sq. miles
elevation: ~1400 ft (put-in), ~750 ft (take-out)
shuttle: 12 miles, highway 166
minimum flow: 500 cfs
optimum flow: 3000 cfs

* note that numbers with squiggles by them are crude estimates and will be determined in detail later

The Cuyama River (pronounced Qwee-ah-mah) flows in an east-to-west direction in the coastal Central Califonia mountains. It is located north of Santa Barbara and south of San Luis Obispo, between drainages for the Salinas River to the north and Santa Ynez River to the south.
The river is impounded approximately 24 miles from the ocean by Twitchell Dam (el. 687ft). Approximately 7 miles below Twitchell Dam is the confluence with the Sisquoc River, which has a smaller drainage area, but carries more water. After the confluence it is called the Santa Maria River, and flows through the city of the same name.
On February 7, 1998, our group of five kayakers put-in about 35 miles above Twitchell Reservoir (13 miles east of the town of New Cuyama), in the main Cuyama Valley, at a bridge that crosses the river.
Our first attempted put-in was 5 miles below this point at a very small creek that entered the river 100 yds from the road. A sheriff passing by stopped and made us re-load and put-in upstream to respect private property rights (I was already on the small creek). It had rained an inch or two the previous day. The river was flowing ~1000 cfs here.
The first ~18 miles of paddling in the valley was mostly flat and fast moving, sand waves here and there, and a few class II rapids with a couple little play spots. Sometimes we would be frustrated by getting stuck on a part of the river that was too shallow (it was difficult to discern depth in many places). The water was extremely silty (siltiest I've ever seen), and felt smooth rubbing one's fingers with its residue. Visibility through it was about 1 mm. After rolling in this muck, the residue on one's face would get into the eyes and make everything foggy for a while. Incredible amounts of dirt would remain in our hair, ears, and eyes after we had finished the run. It was so bad that our eyes ached horribly that evening, and the next morning we awoke to them being pasted shut from all the gunk that was being cleaned out as we slept. The sandy banks along the river would rise vertically 1-10 ft and would occassionally topple in (erosion in progress).
Initially I tried nudging this along by paddling the nose of my boat into the bank (which really didn't do anything). Having angered the river Gods at me, a little while later I was paddling by one of the banks (not nudging it at all), and a huge chunk of a couple hundred pounds of dirt slid into the river at my side, splashing dirt in my eyes, and nearly tipping my boat over. I showed a little more respect after that. This run through the valley would be very fun with high water - up to flood-levels. It was raining pretty steadily on our run through the valley.
The river flows north of the highway at the next bridge crossing of highway 166 (~15 miles above Twitchell Reservoir), and enters a canyon. We were all glad to enter it after paddling for over three hours in the flatter, open valley. The river's character changed quickly after its entrance. Being much more constrained in its width, there were no more spots where we would get stuck on sand. Class II rapids started immediately - waves were larger, play spots abounded, and the scenery was striking - reminiscent of the Eel River Canyon in Northern California. Along this line, several miles down is a great rock spire several hundred feet above the river, clearly visible from river level, similar to the Spyrock on the main Eel run. In places there were small yucca-type plants covering the canyon wall, but mostly it was green grass, and some oak trees. The highway, which runs near the river a couple hundred feet above it and often separated by granite walls, was unobtrusive. It continued raining, and at some times the downpours and winds were incredibly strong. The water began rising. Side-creeks carried hundreds of muddy cfs into the main river. Small clear streams of water poured down the canyon walls. With a steeper gradient and rising water level, we found ourselves paddling in class III, and soon after class IV. Huge sand wave trains (up to 8 vertical feet) gave some of us great surfing fun. Long rapids with holes lurking in them kept us all on our toes. A few of the rapids we gave names to: Willy Wonka's Chocholate Factory (at a nice surfing wave at a right hand bend in the river), Chocolate Dreams, and the like. At one point my skirt popped (as it had done several times that day) when I was in a large hole, and I took a swim in the fast river. Thankfully my partners got everything to the side quickly. Our estimates on the flow were about 3000 cfs. It moved you very quickly through the beautiful scenery. Showers would occasionally stop and the crisp clean clear air would allow us to see and feel what a wonderful canyon and river this was.
There were two more highway 166 bridges across the river about 10 miles into the canyon, and the last one was five miles further (where we had left the shuttle vehicle). Twilight came upon us and we still were uncertain how far it was to the truck. Two of our party decided to quit then, as it was still class III-IV (about 4 miles from the take-out) and carried up to the road to await our arrival with the truck. The rest of us continued down. About 3 miles from the take-out the rapids eased down to class II and it was pretty mellow as we finished our way in the nearly dark conditions. What a run!

Because this river is centrally located, I have the feeling that some Central California boaters may have run it previously. Please inform us if you know this to be true.

Rocky Contos
Tom Diegel
Preston Holmes
John (?) from Santa Paula
Don (?) from Patagonia
Lat/longitude coords of putin and takeout are approximate, guessing from the above description.
StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2001-08-20 17:40:16

Rapid Descriptions

icon of message No rapids entered. If you know names, and locations of the rapids please contact and advise the StreamTeam member for this run.

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
December 27 2007 (4001 days ago)
x (1)
Born & raised in this country (family ranch & farm). I have rafted this since 1976. Taught by Chuck
Richards & guide on the Kern River. BE CAREFUL, this river does not run year round. Many places go
underground. Rocks are sharp, not rounded, spring rains bring down alot of debris (strainers).
Watch out for wire fencing! Do not kid yourself, you will be trespassing on my place, relatives &
friends. From his putin in Upper Cuyama Valley down to Miranda Pines Road is private. From Miranda
Pines it is private & USFS combined for 6 miles to the Miranda Pine Forest Service Station. Then it
is private all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Twitchell Reservoir (for flood control) is on the
Rancho Suey, not open to the public. If the river has tall rolling waves, class 4/5 maybe class 6.
STAY OUT! Mother nature is scouring out all the side canyons of her debris (spring cleaning). This
river has claimed many since my childhood, not to be recovered. I have particpate in a few rescues
& recoveries, due to our equipment and experience guiding on the Kern River. Yes, I have myself
used a splash yak / paddliac from Hyside, as it is more forgiving, flexiable raft. Be Careful, Be
Judicious, Have fun. P.S. We have gone down the Santa Maria River to the Pacific.

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