Carmel River

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Carmel River
Other name(s) Rio del Carmelo,[1] Carmelo River,[1] Nuestra Senora del Monte Carmelo[2]
Country United States
Main source Santa Lucia Mountains
36°19′05″N 121°38′44″W / 36.318018°N 121.645501°W / 36.318018; -121.645501
River mouth Pacific Ocean
Sea level
36°32′10″N 121°55′41″W / 36.536072°N 121.928010°W / 36.536072; -121.928010Coordinates: 36°32′10″N 121°55′41″W / 36.536072°N 121.928010°W / 36.536072; -121.928010
Basin size 660 km2 (250 sq mi)
Physical characteristics
Length 36 mi (58 km)

The Carmel River is a 36 mi (58 km) river on the Central Coast of California in Monterey County that originates in the Santa Lucia Mountains.[3] The river flows northwest through the Carmel Valley with its mouth at the Pacific Ocean south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, at Carmel Bay. It is often considered the northern boundary of Big Sur. The Carmel River drains a watershed of about 255 square miles (660 km²).


The river was visited on January 3, 1603 by Spanish maritime explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, whose written account greatly exaggerated its proportions, confusing later explorers. Vizcaino named it Rio del Carmelo, likely because his voyage was accompanied by three Carmelite friars.[1] In 1771 Fathers Junípero Serra and Juan Crespí moved Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo from Monterey to its present site by the Carmel River.[1]

In his 1945 novel Cannery Row John Steinbeck wrote "The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn't very long but in its course it has everything a river should have."[4]


The river flows through various habitats beyond its bankside riparian zone: starting in mixed evergreen forests, then down through montane chaparral and woodlands to remnant coastal sage and chaparral and coastal prairie, concluding through minor coastal sand dunes at its Pacific mouth.

Stream restoration and conservation projects are proceeding to return/enhance migrating fish in the Salmonidae family, such as the steelhead trout, and other aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna to the Carmel River ecosystem.

Dams and reservoirs[edit]

A pool along a steep, gorge-like portion of the Carmel River is illuminated by the sun with layers of colors showing themselves through the water.
Along the Carmel River Trail upstream of the Los Padres Dam.

The Carmel River had three dams, with their reservoirs used for drinking water and having severe sediment buildup.

The San Clemente Dam, built in 1921, was located 18.5 miles (29.8 km) upstream from the ocean, and once provided drinking water throughout the Monterey Peninsula. It was the second of three dams built on the Carmel River, preceded by the Old Carmel River Dam built in the 1880s and the Los Padres Dam in 1949.[5] The San Clemente Dam had an original capacity of 1,450 acre·ft (1,790,000 m3), but as of 2002, the capacity had fallen to less than 150 acre feet (190,000 m3)because it was 90 percent silted up. State regulators declared in 1991 that it was in danger of collapsing in an earthquake and spilling the 40 million US gallons (150,000 m3) of water trapped behind its crumbling walls. In January 2010 an agreement was reached with the California American Water Company to dig a new half-mile channel to bypass and strand the sediment behind the dam at a cost of $84 million, beginning in 2013.[6] The Carmel River Reroute and San Clemente Dam Removal Project (CRRDR) was completed at the end of 2015, opening up 6.5 miles (10.5 km) of historic steelhead rainbow trout habitat on the river mainstem, plus access to three named tributary creeks: San Clemente Creek,[7] Pine Creek[8] and Cachagua Creek.[9]

The Los Padres Dam, built in 1949, is located 25 miles (40 km) upstream from the ocean. Its original capacity was 3,030 acre feet (3,740,000 m3), but as of 2008, its capacity was only 1,775 acre feet (2,189,000 m3).

The oldest dam on the river, which was used as a turnout for a water pipeline, is located approximately 2,000 feet (610 m) downstream of San Clemente Dam. This first dam and associated pipeline was constructed ca. 1880 by Charles Crocker and the Pacific Improvement Company with a labor force that included approximately 700 Chinese workers. This small dam, which has been referred to as the "Chinese Dam" and "Old Carmel River Dam," was built using hewn and mortared granite blocks. A cast-iron pipe 25 miles (40 km) long and 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter was used to deliver water from the dam to the first Del Monte Hotel on the Monterey Peninsula, crossing the Carmel River five times on its way. Remnants of the original iron pipe still exist along Carmel Valley Road, but no records have been found to show where the pipe crossed the river.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Erwin G. Gudde, William Bright (1949). California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-520-24217-3. Retrieved October 7, 2015. 
  2. ^ Bancroft, Hubert H. (1884). History of California, 7 volumes 1. San Francisco, California: A.L. Bancroft and Company. p. 171. 
  3. ^ "Carmel River". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 
  4. ^ "Quote from John Steinbeck". Good Reads. Retrieved October 7, 2015. 
  5. ^ Jessica Neafsey (January–February 2016). "Undamming the Carmel: Restoring an Endangered River". Land and Water 60 (1). Retrieved February 14, 2016. 
  6. ^ Peter Fimrite (January 14, 2010). "Deal reached to bypass San Clemente dam". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved April 19, 2010. 
  7. ^ "San Clemente Creek". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 
  8. ^ "Pine Creek". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 
  9. ^ "Cachagua Creek". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]