Following our third Fantasy trip, we headed back to Sacramento for some R&R (interrupted when a car was stolen outside a party at a friend's house) and some day trips on South Silver and Golden Gate. A few days later, it was time to hop back on the horse, so we headed down to the North Kings hoping it hadn't dropped out. After grabbing some groceries at a marginal grocery store in the central valley, Tom and I headed up into the mountains towards Wishon Reservoir. We pulled off and made camp somewhere near McKinley Grove, vowing to wake up early so that we could hike in to check the level before hiking in. We were up early, but the drive to the hike in point took longer than expected, and it was nearly 8 by the time we started hiking. When we got out to the ridge, we couldn't see the river so we traversed downstream until we got a view. From about a mile away, assessing flows was tricky. The river looked low but boatable as best we could tell, so we headed back up to the Jeep to set bike shuttle and start hiking.
It was close to 10 when we started heading down to Wishon Reservoir, but only a few minutes into the drive we ran into local Cali boaters Taylor Cavin and Alex Wolfgram, out for stage 1 of the Taylor Cavin bachelor party tour. Taylor and I hadn't paddled together in about 8 years (back when he was living the dream out of his Subaru), so it was good to run into him and get some numbers and a real shuttle for the North Kings. So, we quickly reversed course and headed back to the trailhead near Courtwright Reservoir to drop our gear off before running shuttle. We had about an hour packing session in the parking lot before Taylor and Tom took off to run shuttle.
About 10 minutes later a guy in a serious Jeep rolls up and asks if we have a map with any of the Jeep trails. We pulled out the trail map Taylor had grabbed and showed him that the Jeep road he wanted paralleled the trail we were going to be hiking on for a few miles. I think Alex and I connected the dots at the same time, but I spoke up first, asking our new buddy if he'd ever had kayaks on his roof rack, and following with asking him if he minded if we tied them on for a couple miles. He was all about helping us out, so in about 5 minutes Alex and I tied on 4 boats and most of the gear. Not wanting to hold him up, Alex and I start walking up the Jeep trail while spotting him through the burlier sections. Despite the rushed tie down job and brushing a few trees everything held together on the rough road and eventually we arrived where the trail departed from the Jeep road. We thanked him for cutting our hike to under 10 miles while we unloaded. I jogged back to find Taylor and Tom, who were a bit confused about where all the gear had gone until a hiker informed them of a Jeep heading down the road stacked with boats. Reunited, we head back to the boats with high spirits from our hike reducing stroke of luck.
After a little bit of boat backpack set up, we're off looking for where the trail leaves our new trailhead. Eventually, we figure it out and crank up the first hour to a small pass and the high point of our hike. From here out it will be downhill and relatively easy, but carrying a loaded boat can only be so easy. After about 5 hours of hiking with a few great meadow views but mostly just high elevation forest walking we hit one more small uphill before the final drop down to the North Kings. About 6 hours after we departed, we arrive at our campsite next to the river, surrounded by a granite wonderland and excited by the slides above and below us. A quick dinner and a few celebratory tequila shots and we're dozing off.
Morning is a bit cold so we laze in our sleeping bags waiting for the California sun to raise us. Tom and I scarf our oatmeal while Alex and Taylor opt for more extravagant toasted bagel, cream cheese, veggies, and avocado. We finally get geared up and carry our boat up the slide above camp, which resembles a brainless Upper Cherry slide. Still sliding down granite at high speeds is good fun. After a quick portage around an ugly hit just below camp we start bombing down great class IV slides. Unfortunately, the good clean fun is soon interrupted by the Wyoming section. Dechannelized boulder gardens separated by big ugly cascades with a few good ones mixed in, just like Wyoming. After lots of portaging, we finally make it to the first gorge.
I get out to scout and am relieved to see some good boating ahead of us. A few small drops lead into a great slide which banks off the right wall before going over a small but sticky ledge. I send the boys down on verbal leading to some good hollering for the good action. Unfortunately the gorge doesn't hold it's quality and we are forced to portage a few times before coming to the great exit drop. Three linked ledges followed by a pinch with the water banking off the right wall. I send everyone blind as the consequence is minimal. They all have great lines before I ruin the parade by getting eddied out above the pinch and dropping into slow for a little beating.
We continue on with more ugly cascades mixed in when all the sudden the riverbed gets smooth and runnable for as far as we can. Instead of savoring the rapids, we rally down linking the beautiful slides. This bombing continued for quite a while before we're forced to scout, and decide to take a break and eat lunch. The fun continues after lunch with a few teacups before the highlight of the run, a hundred yard long slide that roosts off a 20 footer. This thing is beautiful and oh so sweet left of center. Lots of hooping and hollering ensure.
TJ on some post lunch granite goodness. Photo: JJ
Taylor early in the hundred yard long slide. Photo: TJ
And stomping the 20 footer at the end of the slide. Photo: JJ
Leaving the pool, we encounter some more portaging around Wyoming style cascades before arriving at the head of a gorge. It's nestled between two domes and portaging options look minimal for at least a few drops. The first rapid drops into a gnarly crack on the left but we portage right, getting into a large pool ending in an unfriendly looking rapid. After crossing the pool and checking out the rapid, I determine that it's both runnable and portageable. Tom and I help Alex and Taylor portage before driving hard left to avoid sieves but driving back right to boof the hole. Two successful lines and we're now fully walled out. We get out on both sides at the next ugly crack drop and decide that it doesn't go and is best portaged on the left. We traverse a small ledge before lowering boats to a river level ledge. Below here, the gorge opens up and we arrive at the drop we saw while scouting the water level from high up.
At water level, the drop actually looks full of flow bouncing into an ugly pocket on the right. I decide right driving left will do the trick, but don't get enough left momentum and spend an uncomfortable amount of time battling in the pocket before earning my freedom, prompting the others to portage. The next set of slides look great but feature some terrible pocket holes. Given my recent pocket beat down, I join the others in portaging the pockets and seal launching into the super fun exit slide. Another mini-gorge greets us around the corner and its four ledges treat us all nicely. Another pool and we recognize the last drop above the lake from older trip reports, except with higher flow it looks terrible, leading to another portage. Due to the recent drought years, Wishon Reservoir is low, forcing us to paddle down some scrapey and junky class II into the reservoir, where a short lake paddle brings us to the shuttle vehicle.
North Kings is a great little adventure run in a beautiful canyon and features some super fun, low stress boating. Unfortunately the good stuff is separated by dechannelized boulder gardens which don't have enough water and huge ugly cascades (many of which have been run but aren't appealing). The hike in is easier than any of the major high sierra hikes, but it's still over 10 miles with a loaded boat (9 if you get a jeep ride). While it's certainly worth doing once (and maybe a few more times), the North Kings just doesn't stack up as classic against the true classics of the high sierra.