Top 6 Whitewater Runs on California's Smith River
BoatSmith is a few weeks away, which means whitewater paddlers from across the west will be migrating to Northern California’s Smith River. This is the only watershed in California with no dams, so nearly every fork of the river and every creek can be paddled by whitewater rafters and kayakers.
Incredibly, 325 miles of the Smith River is designated a National Wild and Scenic River. Among those miles are countless sections of challenging whitewater. Check out my favorite places to paddle in the Smith River watershed below.
North Fork of the Smith River
This classic section of the North Fork of the Smith River begins near the Oregon border and flows south through a majestic serpentine canyon. This unique geology presents a canyon that feels more like a desert or Martian landscape than a place that receives over 100 inches of rain each year.
The rapids on the North Fork are fun Class IV at most flows; however, at higher flows the rapids are considered Class V due to some huge holes and the river’s remote character. Paddling the North Fork of the Smith is a full-day event since the river is 15 miles long and the drive to put-in is about 90 minutes.
Upper South Fork of the Smith River
The upper section of the South Fork of the Smith is an incredible run with challenging rapids and remarkable scenery. This run is not often done since it’s a mile hike down the South Kelsey Trail to the put-in and it has some challenging rapids. This is a special gem for those willing to put in some extra work.
Oregon Hole Gorge
Also known as the “Middle Fork Gorge,” this is one of the classic runs on the Smith River due to its classic Class IV+ rapids and easy access. Most of the rapids can be scouted from turnouts on Highway 199 while driving to put-in. Once in the canyon, the rapids appear much bigger than they do from the road.
This is truly a gorge, and if you have the presence of mind to look around, the scenery is incredible. If you’re lucky enough to catch the Oregon Hole Gorge on a sunny day, this is a great place to experience the Smith River’s gin clear water.
South Fork Gorge
The South Fork Gorge is Oregon Hole Gorge’s bigger brother. At most flows, the rapids on the South Fork Gorge are slightly harder than the Oregon Hole Gorge. These two gorges are just 5 miles away from each other, so you can easily paddle them both multiple times in the same day.
Goose Creek is a tributary of the South Fork of the Smith that very few people paddle due to some difficult Class IV+ and V rapids and challenging access. There are some narrow channels in the creek, making this run tough for rafts. Compounding the challenge is that the run requires map work to find and it is quite a hike to the put-in.
If you’re a kayaker looking for an adventure, then this run should be at the top of your list.
Middle Fork of the Smith River below Patrick Creek
There are many great whitewater sections on the Middle Fork of the Smith River. My favorite begins just below the confluence with Patrick Creek. At normal flows, this is a run with a solid Class IV paddle.
The biggest rapid can be seen from Highway 199 and is aptly named “Highway Rapid.” It’s an intimidating rapid that can be scouted and portaged on the left side. Easy access makes this a fun run that can be done in half a day.
So there you have it, my 6 favorite runs on Smith River. I hope you all enjoy your time on the legendary Smith River in just a few short weeks!