Stony Creek near Willows


Stretch: Stonyford to Stony Creek reservoir, Reservoir to Grindstone
Difficulty: Fun Class II, Class I-II
Distance: 7 miles, 6.6 miles, each one short day
Flows: rafts and kayaks 800 - 1600 cfs
Gauge: less than the inflow to Black Butte Reservoir (BLB)
Gradient: average 26, then 15 fpm
Put-in: near Stonyford, then below Stony Gorge reservoir, 1160' and 700'
Take-out: Road 401 above reservoir, then Road 306 near Grindstone, 980' and 600'
Shuttle: each about 8 miles (15 minutes) one-way
Maps: Mendocino NF, AAA Northern California Topo
Season: Winter and early spring, rain and snowmelt
Agency: BLM, private
Notes: © 2003, 2008 Frost Saufley

Above Stonyford lies the class IV run described here. Below Stonyford, Stony Creek has at least two navigable stretches, separated by Stony Gorge reservoir. The first run from Stonyford to the reservoir is described only by Anne Dwyer in her 2000 guidebook, Easy Waters of California. The second run from Stony Creek reservoir to the confluence with Grindstone Creek is described by Dwyer, and also by Dick Schwind in his 1974 guidebook, West Coast River Touring. Probably back then, the diversion dam above Stonyford actually diverted water, so Schwind did not find flows high enough to boat. There is a third possible run from Grindstone Creek to Black Butte reservoir that does not appear in any guidebook.

Stonyford to Road 303, 1000-1500 cfs, early spring

The stretch from the Road 306 bridge a half mile north of Stonyford to the Road 303 bridge 5 miles south of Stony Gorge reservoir is 7 miles long according to Ann Dwyer, but seems shorter.

This is a lovely run, one that still delivers pleasure when done repeatedly. If caught at a respectable flow, it has a lively pace that builds as the run goes on. The scenery is open Coast Range foothill countryside: blue oak and grey pine woodlands on low-lying hills, punctuated by unique rock formations. Prehistoric-looking sycamores and the odd bit of farm equipment are sometimes visible on river left in the first half of the run. The ubiquitous willow is evident in and alongside the river throughout.

The first half of the run is a maze of braided channels with willow thickets and a few tree stumps clogged with driftwood to maneuver around.

Several lively class 2 rapids ensue at around mile 3, when one channel emerges close by a steep, rock-encrusted cliff. Then comes a straight, flat stretch with the road visible briefly on the left, after which comes Two Channel rapid, at a sharp right bend in the river. The left channel is slack, flat water. The right channel, as is shown in the photos, involves a little rock-dodging at the top, then edging right to punch through (or skirt past) a moderate sized hole between willows on the left and a rock on the right.

After the two channels merge below, the busy water continues as the river bends left before emerging into a straightaway: Willow Alley, so named because during most of the ensuing wave train you are paddling between two rows of willows. Once again at this point, the road is briefly alongside the river. Willow Alley ends just above Big Rock Rapid which is shown in one of the photos. With a minimum of steering, the current takes you to the right of the cabin-sized boulders.

The class 2 waves continue as Stony Creek veers right, away from the road, and separates into two channels one last time. The right channel is wider, and offers more opportunities for wave dancing.

You'll see a weathered wooden barn on the right as the river bends left for the consummation of the run: The Corridor Of Laughing Waves, a straightaway over a hundred yards long filled with rollicking whitecaps, many of which are wide, diagonal waves coming from both shores, created by unconformities in bedrock on the river bottom- much fun.

Take out on river right, shortly before the road 303 bridge. You'll merely have to push aside some undergrowth and walk up a short embankment to a dirt road where you should park your car.

Stony Creek below Stonyford CA Stony Creek below Stonyford CA
Kayakers starting at the Road 306 bridge 

Into-a-tree rapid just below the bridge

Stony Creek below Stonyford CA Stony Creek below Stonyford CA
Taking the right channel at Two Channel

This is the narrowest spot on the run

Stony Creek below Stonyford CA Stony Creek below Stonyford CA
Channels come together below the drop

Enjoying the scenery in a calm spot

Stony Creek below Stonyford CA Stony Creek below Stonyford CA
Big Rock rapid from the road (no boats)

It's like this all the way to take-out!

Elk Creek to Grindstone Creek, 12 January 2002, ~1750 cfs

The stretch from Stony Gorge reservoir to Grindstone Creek is also nice. A road leads from the town of Elk Creek to a park below the dam. Some guy in an official looking pick-up truck told me I couldn't put in right below Stony Gorge Dam, which is the put-in spot recommended by both Schwind and Dwyer. So we went about a mile downstream, where a bridge crossed over the river just below the town of Elk Creek. Schwind says there is some tricky maneuvering right below the dam. There was a rapid with hidden rocks just upstream of the bridge. Opposite the town, there is an old mine on river right.

The run itself was swift, with many riffles and small rapids with waves ricocheting off both shores. The scenery was California rural at its finest: gray pines and blue oaks in the background, with cottonwoods and willows in the foreground. The human element was represented by a few old barns and abandoned farming equipment, with a man and his two sons operating some sort of machinery. Overall the run was quite serene and pastoral.

I saw golden and bald eagles flying off from the dead tops of streamside cottonwoods. The few rapids consist of bedrock ledges, and according to Schwind, the most interesting is 2 miles into the run, immediately above a state highway bridge, the only bridge until takeout. Above this the run is class II, but below it is mostly class I. Grindstone Creek enters on the left at mile 6.6, and you can take out there on private property, or upstream at mile 5.2 or 6.4, where the road comes close to the river.

Downstream of Grindstone Creek the topographic map shows few contour lines, and the river meanders into many bayous as it passes Julian Rocks on the left. This is a roadless area, and Julian Rocks might make an interesting sidehike. It is possible to take out just above still water on Black Butte road, which rounds the southwest tip of Black Butte reservoir.

Shuttle Directions

To reach Stonyford from I-5, drive west on highway 20 from Williams approximately six miles. Veer right onto King Road, which soon changes to dirt. After two miles, turn right (north) onto Leesville-Ladoga Road, which alternates between packed dirt and poorly repaired pavement. After crossing a pass and driving nine scenic miles, turn left (west) onto Ladoga-Stonyford Road. Drive eight miles to the town of Stonyford. The put-in bridge is about half a mile the other side of town. For more action it might be possible to put in along Fouts Springs Road, but I have never tried it.

To reach take-out, continue north past the put-in bridge. Shortly beyond Big Rock, turn right and cross a bridge. There is good parking along a dirt road on the east side of the creek.

To reach the lower run, below Stonyford reservoir, drive north on Road 306 to Elk Creek. For the lower run you could also find shortcuts from the town of Maxwell and parts further north on I-5.

Frost's Trip Report, 13 January 2002

The first run started just downstream from the tiny town of Elk Creek. I was just so excited to be there -- the sight of a swiftly moving river peppered with small waves always puts an electrical charge in my veins.

My wife took a picture from the bridge as I ran the small rapid above, unexpectedly doing the gunnel grab when I scraped on a submerged rock. I settled in. That familiar, indescribable feeling of exhilaration washed over me as I negotiated the small channels and waves.

Hills with uniformly scattered blue oaks (and sometimes gray pines) formed the background. The foreground was open also, with shrubby willows backed periodically by tall cottonwoods, dotted with the odd dilapidated barn, or bit of abandoned farm machinery. It all looked wonderful to me, even if it wasn't pristine wilderness.

Golden and bald eagles lifted off from half dead cottonwoods, adding to my amazement. I dealt with multiple channels, the narrower ones delivering surprisingly big waves. I was floating through a slice of rural California most of us never experience, or only drive through in a hurry.

After I was picked up at the take-out, we drove upstream to look at my next day's run. The last straightaway to the take-out by the Road 303 bridge was filled with rollicking waves from shore to shore, bouncing off each other like school kids rushing to recess. My anticipation of the next day's paddle rose to new heights. We scouted the put-in (an easy path down from the bridge near Stonyford), and headed to Williams, 40 miles away and the nearest available lodging.

Before dinner, we went for a walk through downtown William and the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Very pleasant, walking on flat land through a quiet town, far removed from the modular shopping center-ridden, fast-paced Bay Area. We discussed the architecture and landscaping as we slowly strolled through a bygone era on a brisk January evening.

The next day as I carried my boat down to the shoreline, I could see Stony Creek was pulsating with an energy to match my excitement.

By the time I had rounded the first bend in the river, I knew this run would be special. The river was alive: waves everywhere. A couple of times the road came close by the river, but I barely noticed. There were virtually no cars on it.

After a flat stretch, the river turned sharply to the right, and I had a choice of three channels. The narrowest middle channel was the best, though I had to dodge a submerged tree limb, a rock, and line up for some diagonal waves. All fun. [In 2005 the right channel has disappeared and the obstructions have washed away.]

Suddenly there was a huge boulder blocking much of the channel. Could this be a class III? No, the route was an easy but enjoyable move to the right.

The scenery was splendid like the previous day, but being further upstream, the river was narrower and more intimate. I loved it even more.

My eyes filled with tears soon after the big rock rapid. This was exactly what I'd always dreamed an ideal solo river paddle would be. And the weather was perfect: sunny and mild for January.

Negotiating the final straightaway, I experienced more joy as I manuevered through the endless waves before spying the take-out right before the bridge.

My wife asked if I wanted to do it again, after I told her how wonderful it was. I said I didn't, because it would be a letdown. She said, "It's noon, we've got plenty of time. And the run only took you 50 minutes." So I relented. The second time was almost as pure and undistilled as the first.

When television commercials convey river travel, it's usually some daredevil kayaker sailing off a waterfall. Rafting outfitters often emphasize whitewater thrills to lure customers, showing paddlers grinning and shouting as their raft drops into a hole. Me, I'll take my solitary days on class II rivers, savoring the silence and the scenery and dancing with the waves.


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