The Middle Fork of the Kings River is one of the most highly regarded whitewater kayaking expeditions in the world. In 29 miles from LeConte Canyon to the confluence with the south fork, the river drops over 6,500 feet. However, once at the confluence, it is necessary to continue another 12 miles through Kings Canyon to get to a spot where a road reaches the river. This makes the trip over forty miles through a wilderness area with a total elevation loss of 7,470 feet, a very intimidating trip to say the least. Add to this the fact that the approach involves a 13 mile hike over the 13,000 foot Bishop Pass and an eight hour one way trans-Sierra shuttle, and it is easy to see why this stretch of river escaped a full raft descent until now.
Dan McCain and I originally planned to use mules to get our 200 plus pounds of gear into the canyon. Unfortunately, with the abnormally low snow pack, the river would be too low to run by the time the packers started their operations. This left us to do the best mule impressions we could, with Dan strapping the raft and paddles to his pack while I took all the rafting and camping gear. There is no sugar coating the hike; it was hard and took us a day and a half to make it to the river.
Once on the river the going really got tough. The first 3.4 miles to Palisade Creek are pretty manky, with quite a few wood portages and rapids that are too low and rocky to raft very successfully. It was difficult and tiring work but also nestled deep in the high Sierra, we were rewarded with unbelievable views in an area only lightly touched by man. We made it to Palisade Creek and the added water cleaned up the river significantly, but large rapids and a few more portages made for slow going. Tired from two days of slow, difficult going, we camped above a large slide we knew we would have to portage.
The morning of the third day started off with a portage but we quickly came to one of the signature drops of the trip. When we got to the Middle Kings Money Drop, we knew from photos we have seen that the river was high. We ran it successfully and continued down into one of the steepest sections.
Unfortunately, as we pressed on we realized that the river was much higher then we had hoped. After another portage, we discussed the situation with the lone kayaker on the trip and decided to leave our gear, hike out, and come back with more time in a few days. The hike out was close to 20 miles and we camped above the tree line in Dusy Basin that night. The hike out and drive back was tense. We were happy with what we accomplished thus far but worried about the possibility of not being able to finish the trip, or how difficult it would be if we did.
Five days later we hiked back in with two more kayakers and extra food. We made it to the river in one day and camped at the put in. The next morning the kayakers put in and Dan and I spent the morning getting down to the raft and getting it pumped and rigged. The river was super clean and super steep from the start. We were running gradients of 360-500 feet per mile and it was amazingly runnable. cfs was around 1300 cfs. This day we ran the incomparable Devil's Washbowl slide, a 200-foot long medium angle slide that is incredibly clean. We also ran an amazing Class V mini gorge that ended in a perfect 20-foot waterfall. Right after this falls is a portage, followed by another incredibly steep section. As it was already late in the day, we decided to camp at a great spot right below the portage.
The third day of the second trip we had a long portage up and around a large waterfall in a gorge, then wound up running a gorge with mandatory rapids that is often portaged. After that there was beautiful meadow paddling through Simpson Meadow. The second half of the day we paddled through a section kayakers call "The Middle Four". It consists of continuous Class V boulder gardens for four miles and the largest slide on the trip: The Big Bad Beaver. We found the Middle Four to be some of the most consistently fun and runnable whitewater on the trip. We did not run The Big Bad Beaver in the raft, but both Ben and Willy Dinsdale ran it in their kayaks. We camped that night near Tehipite Valley, with hopes of getting into The Bottom Nine early the next day.
Day four started with breathtaking views of Tehipite Dome. Less well known than other Sierra granite domes because of its remote location, it is actually the largest in the Sierra. Seeing it rising over 3500 feet from the glacially carved Tehipite Valley is a truly spectacular sight. Equally inspiring is the nine miles of absolutely brutal whitewater required to finish the Middle Kings from the bottom of the valley to the confluence with the South Fork. The gradient averages over 250 feet per mile with miles as steep as 320 feet per mile. The character is big sieved out boulder gardens with tough moves, big holes, and bigger consequences. Dead end channels abound and eddys are small and often hard to get in to. It has a reputation for beating down tired kayakers and I can see why, as it is an unrelenting stretch of river. We pushed as far as we could into this section and wound up camping a couple miles from the confluence, tired and glad to have the steepest miles behind us.
The last day found us up early and eager to go, as we really wanted to make it off the river. We had the last two to three miles of the bottom nine along with the Garlic Falls section of the Main Kings, which is still considered to be a two-day run by rafters. Fortunately, the gradient eases as the Middle Fork approaches and we found some enjoyable, but still Class V boating; some of our favorite drops were in this section. We were elated when we reached the confluence around 11 am. The feeling of completing such a difficult, long, and remote trip was truly wonderful. After the difficulties encountered on the Middle Fork, Kings Canyon did not offer too much undo difficulty. We didn't portage anything and were able to make it through in less than four hours.
Every day on the Middle Kings is incredible. The quantity and variety of difficult whitewater must be seen to be believed. Trying to describe all of it is pointless. As you drop down, the scenery changes gradually from beautiful high Sierra to foothill desert. From open granite to tight mini gorges to the second deepest canyon in the country, the river has amazing scenery the entire way down. It is an experience that is almost impossible to relate to people who haven't been there. Though I doubt Dan or myself will ever raft it again, it is an experience I will never forget. To anyone who would try to do it again I would say be ready. It is every bit as difficult and scary as you can imagine, but also as beautiful and rewarding as you could hope.
Kayakers: Matt King, Willy Dinsdale, Ben Dinsdale
Rafters: Dan McCain, Jeff Compton
River Flows: 1800 cfs upper 7 miles (frist part of the trip), 1360cfs after hiking back in.
Total Days on the water: 4.5