Backcountry ventures in the Central Sierra

An occasional series

Earlier this month, I spent a Sunday on one of the few free-flowing rivers remaining in the Mother Lode, the Clavey River.

It was my second time there in recent weeks. We took four-wheel drive vehicles out Crabtree Road to a dirt track that led to a camping area above the river. A walk of less than a quarter-mile led us to the waterway and multiple swimming holes.

Long-time residents of Tuolumne County are protective of the Clavey River, its access points, and the best ways to reach them. Limited access via rough dirt roads means fewer people go there, but it highlights when visitors dump trash because fewer rangers patrol the remote waterway.

Most people on this stretch of the Clavey two weeks ago knew the place. It was my first time walking upriver to explore. It was running gently and the water temperature was mild, perfect for swimming. Air temperature felt mild and upriver a bank of stormclouds were holding back so it was sunny, so all the exposed rock was arm to the touch and perfect for sunbathing.

The Clavey River originates in the Emigrant Wilderness and flows into the Tuolumne River east of Pine Mountain Lake. It’s one of the few undammed rivers left in California. The waterway and its watershed lie entirely within Tuolumne County and the Stanislaus National Forest.

‘Wild and scenic’

In a December 1997 “Wild and Scenic River Value Review,” the Forest Service described the Clavey’s free-flowing characteristics.

The Clavey River is one of the longest free-flowing streams remaining in the Sierra Nevada. It’s 47 miles from source to mouth, including both headwaters forks, Lily Creek and Bell Creek.

I’d walked Emigrant Wilderness trails in recent weeks that follow Lily and Bell. Lily Creek was steep and rocky in places, and reminded me of what I was seeing on the Clavey.

White, gray and black granite slopes eased gently into the river, which rushed and gurgled in narrow whitewater sections to spread out into translucent, aquamarine pools abundant with minnows and fish.

All but one of the 15 major rivers in the Sierra, from the Feather River on the north to the Kern River on the south, are dammed, according to the Forest Service.

“Of 90 principal tributaries within these drainages there are only four greater than 40 miles in length which are free flowing from source to mouth,” a team of authors based in Sonora, Sacramento and San Francisco wrote. “That is, no impoundments or diversions which measurably impair the natural magnitude, timing, velocity or duration of seasonal or annual runoff.”

In person on the Clavey, what’s evident is all the rock that’s been eroded over time by the river. Whirlpools have carved out tubs, fast flows at high levels have polished sloping canyon walls and flat tables of rock. Where the river drops in steps, more eroded, polished rock remains to create waterfalls.


The 150-square-mile Clavey River watershed covers an elevation range that receives snowfall, rainfall and snowmelt. Scientists at UC Davis say the river channel is a mixed bedrock/alluvial channel. Over millions of years, the river has cut into rock underlying the watershed.

Strong high flow pulses in the Clavey River have created a narrow corridor where plants can thrive. The riverbanks get scoured annually and inhibit most vegetation growth along the channel. Though the vegetation corridor is slim, it’s extremely diverse habitat and supports numerous aquatic and airborne insect types.

Scientists say fish in the Clavey include rainbow trout, suckers, smallmouth bass, pikeminnows, hardheads and roaches. Where the river pools, suckers graze the bottom of pools, roaches inhabit calmer edgewaters, pikeminnow and hardhead can be seen in the bottom of deep pools, and rainbow trout inhabit high-velocity, highly-oxygenated flows.

At several places I took a waterproof camera under the water’s surface to see what it could document. Just beneath the surface, it recorded blue sky and white granite above, with transparent green water below, aerated with a blizzard of bubbles where a small waterfall entered the pool.

Fast-moving fish smaller than my fingers flitted nearby, headed toward the bubbles. The carbonated look of the river increased and filled the camera lens. Green and brown lichen clinged to underwater boulders. In a deeper pool, larger fish including small trout were visible, moving past me at times with walled-eye looks.

Above the river in fresh air, a slight wind rippled its surface.

Worth defending

Back in October 1968, Congress created the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act “to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

According to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, California is home to about 189,454 linear miles of river, and 1,999.6 miles are designated as wild and scenic. That’s just over 1 percent of the state’s river miles.

The Clavey is not designated Wild and Scenic, but it has been spared so far from hydroelectric projects. Defenders of the Clavey in recent decades include John Buckley and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte.

The nonprofit Friends of the River, who tried to protect the Stanislaus River from New Melones Dam and Reservoir beginning in the early 1970s, the Tuolumne River Trust, and the Sierra Club were among groups who helped protect the Clavey from a potential dam that was rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the 1990s.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.