Eel River below Middle Fork confluence


Stretch: Dos Rios to Alderpoint or Fort Seward
Difficulty: Class II with about 6 class III rapids, harder at high flows
Distance: 47 or 53 miles, 3 to 5 days
Flows: rafts 1500 - 10000 cfs, kayaks 1000 - 10000, IK minimum 800
Gauge: flow measured at Fort Seward (FSW)
Gradient: 13 fpm average, steeper in places
Put-in: near confluence with main Eel at Dos Rios, 860'
Take-out: Difficult access at Alderpoint, 270' or easier access at Fort Seward, 200'
Shuttle: 86 miles (2.5 hours) one-way
Maps: USFS Mendocino NF, AAA Northern California, Topo
Season: winter into early summer, rain and snowmelt
Agency: BLM, Indian, private, guided Whitewater Rafting
Notes: © 1995, 2000, 2010, 2015 Bill Tuthill, CreeksYahoo

Springtime of a cold snowy year is an ideal time to run the main Eel. Although flows might be low, Memorial Day offers a good long weekend. As long as the middle fork Eel contributes moderate flows from snowmelt, this stretch remains runnable in canoes or kayaks, sometimes well into June. The water is greener and swimming better at low flows, but float times are longer. A train track follows the river, but was shut down (permanently?) in 1998. Railroad debris in the channel often detracts from the scenery, but could be considered historic.

Rapids on the Eel can change radically from year to year. For example, at low flows in May 2000, we encountered several class III rapids in the so-called easy section before Spyrock. In his 1974 guidebook West Coast River Touring, Dick Schwind alludes to a rapid that moved 300 yards downstream between 1967 and 1969! Probably the description on this page is already outdated.

Old guidebooks claim that the Eel became class IV at higher flows. The Holbek/Stanley book pegs the dividing line at 3000 cfs, but that is no longer true and perhaps never was. Even the 3rd edition of the Cassady/Calhoun book recommends 10000 cfs as the maximum flow, but because of the wide streambed, safe trips are possible well above that level. (See Trip Report below.) It is true that several rapids become class IV at high flows, but which rapids and at what flow may vary from year to year.

Camping and scenery are good, as advertised, with plenty of sandy beaches that make for fine camping in dry weather. The Eel offers plenty of excellent hikes up side canyons, an often ignored aspect of this trip. Streams on the left bank are cooler and better for purification. The infamous afternoon headwinds sometimes do not occur, although they can be bad when they do occur. Check weather forecasts for troublesome “windy” or “breezy” predictions. At flows under 1500 cfs the water is clear and deliciously warm. Over 2000 cfs, the water turns light green from whitish silt, with clarity to a depth of a meter. The river turns brown at high flows.

Overall, this is a run worth doing at least once if you are a rafter, and more times if you are a canoeist or self-supported kayaker. Low-water runs offer incomparable warm-water swimming and great camping. I'm often amazed that Californians drive long distances to float rivers in Utah or Colorado, when this one is right in their backyard.

mile 0
Put in above the confluence near the Dos Rios bridge. If it has sufficient flow, access to the main Eel is easier, but the middle fork has sufficient flow longer into the season.
Gauging station on the left.
Eel River below Dos Rios CA Eel River below Dos Rios CA

Railroad dumpcar spans 3/4 of the channel
Vulture hoping for a kayaker meal
Woodman Creek enters on the left.
Shell Rock Creek enters on the left.
Spyrock spire on the right. The nearby rapid is not quite class III. Private road reaches the left bank shortly below. Gradient steepens, resulting in some class III rapids, widely spaced to Blue Rock Creek.
Eel River below Dos Rios CA Eel River below Dos Rios CA
Good large open campsite above Spyrock Spyrock rapid, shown from below Spyrock
Blue Rock Creek enters on the left.
Eel River below Dos Rios CA Eel River below Dos Rios CA
Early morning across the river from camp Canyon view downstream from camp
North Fork Eel enters on the right. Rapids shortly above and below become difficult at high flows.
Island Mountain Falls, class III+, difficult scout left
At low flows, this is a narrow slot followed by a boulder jumble, then a 4' drop into a reversal, which is best run right of center. When flows approach 8000 cfs this starts verging on class IV, with the best route usually starting right and finishing left. Below, the old railroad crosses a bridge and enters a tunnel, which was constructed to avoid a long (but scenic) horseshoe bend. At high flows a new (?) major rapid occurs in this section.
Eel River below Dos Rios CA Eel River below Dos Rios CA
14' raft sets up nicely for Island Mountain Falls Taking the drop right on the tongue
Kekawaka Falls, class III, possibly scout right
Big boulders constrict the river. This one seems not to change much from year to year. At low flows it is a boulder slalom. At high flows a river-wide hole develops at the entrance, with the only good route being a small tongue against a boulder on the far right. Railroad tracks reappear shortly below.
Eel River below Dos Rios CA Eel River below Dos Rios CA
Railroad enters tunnel at horseshoe bend House and defunct boxcar at tunnel exit
Kekawaka Creek enters on the right (the rapid name is a misnomer).
Mile 201 Rapid, recognizable by the railroad mileage marker. Although it contains big boulders, this seems to have gotten easier since Cassady researched his guidebook.
Bridge where the railroad crosses from right to left. By now the gradient has tapered off and the canyon has opened up.
Eel River below Dos Rios CA Eel River below Dos Rios CA
The canyon opens up near Alderpoint Artificial selection: no-rattle rattlesnake?
Alderpoint take-out on the left above the high bridge.
Fort Seward take-out on a large gravel bar, left side.

Below, the river continues class I-II for 18 miles to Eel Rock. As you go downstream, scenery gets better, with deeper forests and fewer grass-covered hills. Below Eel Rock there are roads (not just railroad) along the river. Going all the way to the south fork confluence in Dyerville would greatly simplify your shuttle. Rocky Contos paddled all the way to Fernbridge, and made these remarks:

Below Eel Rock are another 60-80 miles of class 0-I+ water. It's very scenic along the way. I really enjoyed it. It would be boatable all year long.

Years ago vandalism of vehicles had been reported at Alderpoint, but less so in recent years. The take-out there (river left above the bridge) might involve a long walk across a gravel bar, wading across an inlet, then climbing a steep dirt trail. Instead of Alderpoint, it is possible to take out at Fort Seward. That take-out might be easier, but it makes the run 6 miles longer. Formerly you could drive down to the gravel beach on river left upstream of the bridge, but 2014 flooding cut the bank, so the take-out on river right below the bridge is reportedly easier. Fort Seward Road from highway 101 might be gated seasonally. Alderpoint Road is open all year and, although 5 miles longer, takes the same amount of time (26 minutes past Alderpoint).

For shuttle drivers, try contacting Donna at 707-672-9647. Quoted prices for the 2022 season were $300 for the first vehicle and $150 each additional vehicle. These are prices with a pick-up at the Dos Rios put-in and drop-off of vehicle(s) on the takeout day. Shuttled vehicles are safely kept in a field within view of her house. Dos Rios has no shuttle drivers of whom we are aware, but the nearby towns of Willits and Covelo might.

To find nearby food and lodging, type Willits into the box and click Search.

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Trip Report by Randy Hodges

April 29th - May 1st, 2010

The Dos Rios to Fort Seward run on the Eel River is recommended for rafts at flows up to 10K cfs by most sources. We had planned a run for this Spring and had been watching the flows. They were at 4K a week before our trip and it was looking like we would have a run at optimal flows when a new rainstorm hit. The flows shot up to almost 30K. We watched as our launch date approached and the flows inched down below 25K. A call to Clavey Paddlesports gave us a response that a 20K flow was do-able with an experienced group of rafters.

We went to the put-in at Dos Rios and saw a big but relatively civil river flowing at 22K. We decided to make the attempt so we launched. There were four 14-16 foot rafts, a 14 foot cataraft, and two IKs. We launched late in the day and went nine miles to find a great camp on river right.

Our first challenging rapids came a bit below Spy Rock. Both pairs of IK paddlers ended up swimming that one. We recovered them and encountered several other moderate rapids between there and the North Fork Confluence. The rapid just above the confluence was the biggest we had seen and the IKers were swimming again. An executive decision was made to pull the IKs. No one argued.

There was another set of challenging rapids below the North Fork. The railroad car in the river in this section was nowhere to be seen as the river completely covered it. There were many class II-III rapids between here and Island Mountain Falls .

We pulled out on river left and sent half of our group up to the tracks to film us going through, for safety, and also to lighten our boats. Our scout boat with an observer ran first and radioed back a blow by blow description of the run. All three channels were available at the main drop. The rocks dividing the channels were holes. The left run was probably the best choice as there was a huge hole extending from river right across half the river below the drop. Most of us took the route on the right and ferried to the left around the hole. It was easy enough but you would not want to miss a stroke or have the wrong ferry angle. The other boats followed and only the cat had a problem as it hit the hole and emerged at an extreme angle, fortunately landing upright. It turned out that the group walking around had quite an adventure trying to follow the tracks as they were washed completely out in several places. The Poison Oak was epic.

Both an unnamed rapid and Kekawaka Falls had huge river wide holes at their main drop. They could be barely skirted on the right. Several rafts and the Cat went through one of the holes with out a problem. We camped near Kekawaka Creek after covering 30 miles that day.

We let our Rookies row us out the 15 miles to the Fort Seward take out. We were there by noon and eating sandwiches in Garberville by 2:30. Great Trip.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

This amusing story first appeared in the Paddle Tales section of Paddler magazine's February 1994 issue.

© 1994, 2003 Frost Saufley

Full of adventure, but short on insight, we were planning to paddle the main stem of Northern California's Eel River in a 13-foot aluminum canoe with a one-inch keel. Hardly the boat of choice for a 47-mile, three-day run through Class III whitewater flowing at a respectable 3500 cfs. Plus, Craig sat in front, though he outweighed me by 40 pounds. Between us, in dry bags, sat steaks, a box of wine, a handgun (for shooting wild pigs) and other necessities. Our four inches of freeboard looked mighty precarious.

We stayed upright until Spyrock Rapid (mile 13). There, while riding some haystacks, we plowed our virtually submerged canoe into a hidden rock. The canoe's one thwart popped free of its rivets and proceeded downstream with our food bag. I swam the rest of the rapid holding onto our personal dry bags.

Without its thwart, the canoe taco-ed in ensuing rapids, allowing water to pour in and capsize us easily. This led to the conclusion that lining most rapids was the smarter thing to do. We camped at the halfway point. Craig drank the box of wine, and we ate dinner rolls (our only food).

The second day, while lining yet another rapid, the current ripped the line from my hands while Craig was kicking the stern free. Once more the canoe capsized; Craig dove in after its contents, while I raced around the bend on land to rescue what he couldn't. Using dry bags for flotation, Craig disappeared over a four-foot waterfall and recirculated nicely in its reversal. This turned out to be Island Mountain Falls. We were now down to one paddle, a trashed canoe, our dry bags, and no food. We left the canoe at a railroad switching station (tracks followed the river on the hillside above) and started walking on the tracks 17 miles to the take-out. Here, the Eel went around a mountain, while the railroad tracks went through it.

Halfway through the almost mile-long tunnel we noticed a single bright light headed towards us from the other end. Somehow getting run over by a train seemed in line with our luck so far on this trip. Craig allowed as how he would pin himself against the tunnel wall to avoid the train. I jettisoned my dry bag and headed for daylight like the medal-winning sprinter I once was.

Turned out the train was slowing to a crawl, since it was changing crews at the switching station just outside the tunnel. The new conductor gave us and our battered canoe a ride back to the put-in and even stopped the train after spotting our food bag in an eddy. The thwart was still attached!


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