The river wild: rafting, fishing, and roaming Northern California's Trinity River - Travel
Of California's rivers, the Trinity is among the wildest, the most remote, and the most beautiful. Flowing out of Northern California's primeval Trinity Alps west of Redding, the Trinity River winds and twists its way into a narrow gorge before flowing through mountain valleys and emptying into the Klamath River.
In The Klamath Knot, David Rains Wallace describes this country as a kind of mythic wilderness, one that did not yield its secrets easily. "Early explorers were stymied by these canyons," Wallace writes of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers. "In 1828, Jedediah Smith and his party of fur trappers gave up in despair. ... The terrain was too rugged even for these mountain men."
Exploration of the Trinity is much easier today. Even so, it is a journey into a place whose wildness will energize you and linger in your mind.
The river canyon by car
Car travelers can reach Trinity country easily by following alongside the river canyon on State 299, the 130-mile-long Trinity Scenic Byway, which winds from Redding to Arcata along the southern border of the Trinity Alps, through Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests. The historic mining and logging town of Weaverville makes a good base. From here, you head west on the prettiest part of State 299, the 50-mile stretch west of Weaverville that winds through the river canyon; you'll enter terrain still primitive enough to shelter river otters and golden eagles. On the way you'll find pullouts where you can hike, fish, or access campsites. Anglers can find brown trout here, but the Trinity is best known for king salmon and steelhead; king salmon runs peak from May through October.
Still, nice as the drive is, if you want to really plunge into the Trinity region, you need to go on the river itself, by joining one of the half- or full-day rafting trips that run from now into October.
We took a trip with Bigfoot Rafting, based in Big Flat, about 20 miles west of Weaverville, and run by Marc Rowley, his son, Kyle, and his father, Max. "My family has lived in Trinity country for five generations, and we know this river," says Max, a fit 74-year-old.
On a cool summer's day passengers are helping one of Bigfoot's guides muscle a yellow raft into the water. Bank swallows dart overhead, and the piercing kree of an osprey echoes in the distance. Then, a sweeter call. "That's a western tanager," notes Max, a former forester and avid outdoorsman. "Hear him singing?"
Way down the river, experienced boaters can find class V rapids, but this morning's trip is rated class II (moderate rapids) and is reminiscent of rafting the South Fork American River--minus most of that river's traffic. Floating around a bend, our rafts startle a herd of western pond turtles, who slide off their log in successive plunks. "This is still the same wild, beautiful river I knew as a boy," Max says. "Except with less water, because of the dam diversions." As boatman Kyle maneuvers carefully through a field of boulders, the senior Rowley tells of the river's history and the current issues confronting it.
"I remember when the river was smaller and the water warmed up to 70[degrees] and there was algae," he says. He's talking about the years after the big dams--Trinity and Lewiston--were built, and the Trinity was cut to 10 percent of its natural flow. But today, water flows have been increased to aid the salmon fishery, and the river is now at 25 percent of its natural flow at Lewiston Dam. So there's fine rafting all summer and, in the Trinity below Lewiston Lake, good fishing.
"But it still needs more water," Max contends. Federal officials hope to boost flows to further aid fisheries, but action is snagged in the courts.
From our raft, all we see is water and trees. We float on, behind a family of common mergansers (diving ducks) and into heart-pumping rapids and peaceful pools. The forest--reddish ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, live oak--enfolds the river, crowding right down to the water's edge.
As it cuts through the lean, wrinkled ridges of the Coast Range, the river turns malachite green. By journey's end, misty clouds are clinging to the ridgetops. As we pack up the raft, Marc meets us to add his reflections. "We're now seeing some wildlife we never saw before--ring-tailed cats, green herons, beaver. And we've seen a kind of a rebirth of the river as the rafting has grown. But there are other things we don't see--like zillions of salmon--that we can only hope for."