The East Fork of the Carson, a designated California State Scenic River, is one of the few rivers that flows down the steep eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Range. Straddling Northern California and Northern Nevada, the raftable section of the river runs from Markleeville to Gardnerville, a 20-mile stretch of high desert canyons with several hot springs and campsites along the way.
The hot springs are accessible only by boat, by cross-country hike, or by a serious 4WD road followed by a sometimes impossible river ford to get across. When a river is this exclusive, it’s high on our list of destinations to explore.
With the heavy snowfall this year, the river was at 180 percent of normal flow levels in early July, a time when it usually slows to a peaceful ripple. Fed directly by Sierra snow run-off, the current was swift, the water bitterly cold. On a good note, it gave us incentive not to flip our kayaks!
We decided to break up the 20-mile paddle by camping overnight on the riverbank. After loading the tent, sleeping bags, and backpacking gear into our kayaks, we put in at Hangman’s Bridge for the two-day journey down the Carson River.
Even though the East Fork is only rated as Class II whitewater, the unusually high water levels and continuous rapids, with eddies few and far between, made the river much more challenging.
Forget floating along with our feet up. Our paddles were always in the water, whether powering through wave trains or negotiating seemingly harmless rocks. Getting cocky through that little Class II section guaranteed landing into a churning hole, and trying to maneuver a kayak weighted down by 50 pounds of camping gear (ah… lesson learned).
Halfway through the first day, we pulled off onto a grassy riverbank for lunch. The meadow was exploding with bright purple lupines.
My handy mountain guy foraged for the perfect piece of driftwood to set up our makeshift picnic bench, while I pulled together some zesty tuna wraps. (Ever tried the shelf-stable tuna and salmon pouches that you can find in the canned tuna aisle? They sound gross, but we swear by them on backpacking trips… and they’re not half-bad, actually. Especially after you’ve just burned a million calories.)
The current was so swift that we reached the halfway point in less than two hours. We camped around mile 10 next to a bubbling creek and swimming hole that was perfect for washing up. We did not see another camper that day… perfect.
Our riverside camp came with all the comforts of home, including a huge firepit and coat rack. We even got the deluxe view with our accommodation! I love falling asleep and waking up to the sounds of the river flowing.
On an evening hike before dinner, I found the largest dandelion-esque puff I had ever seen. Salsify! Otherwise known as the oyster plant, which is edible and grows wild all over the Sierra Nevada. It was just too pretty to blow away.
Just a mile downstream from our camp were the hot springs, which trickled from a geothermal source up the canyon and cascaded off a deep, natural stone tub into the river. It was as idyllic a setting as you could wish for. Had the hot tub not been a scalding 115°F, it would’ve been the perfect place to kick back with a beer. (Mental note: Next time, bring a bucket to fill with cold water from the river.)
We paddled for several more miles through the Nevada high desert, winding along basalt cliffs, with the homestretch giving us a glorious view of the snow-capped Eastern Sierra. We couldn’t believe our luck that this whole time, we had only seen one other raft on the river, with a young couple paddling the whole section in one day.
As we neared mile 20 of our second day on the river, the landing came into view in the Carson Valley ranch town of Gardnerville, Nevada.
At the take-out, our car was waiting for us in the parking lot, just as we’d arranged the day before with a private shuttle service. The driver had met us at Hangman’s Bridge before we put in, took our extra key, parked our car at the family’s personal residence overnight, then drove it to the take-out lot in Gardnerville the next day. Our car had been delivered a couple of hours before we were expected to arrive, safely parked and locked up.
Now what would’ve happened if we had missed the take-out? Just a few hundred feet downriver, 30-foot Class V+ waterfalls surged off a diversion dam. It was all the makings of an extreme whitewater video. But not for us… at least, not yet!
With only a few days left of our road trip, we crossed back into California, and continued driving on Highway 395 through the sleepy but beautifully serene town of Bridgeport.
Next stop: Yosemite!