Kaweah River

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Kaweah River
2006 12 29 - Terminus Dam (2).JPG
The Kaweah River just below the confluence of its forks, flowing through the drained Lake Kaweah bed (note the light brown "bathtub ring" on the valley slopes). This segment of the river is routinely submerged during high water in the springtime but is usually above the water.
Name origin: Yokut for "crow" or "raven cry"
Country United States
State California
County Tulare County
Source Sierra Nevada Range
 - location Sequoia National Park, California
 - coordinates 36°30′53″N 118°48′7″W / 36.51472°N 118.80194°W / 36.51472; -118.80194 [1]
Mouth San Joaquin Valley
 - location Near Visalia, California
 - coordinates 36°20′12″N 119°13′23″W / 36.33667°N 119.22306°W / 36.33667; -119.22306Coordinates: 36°20′12″N 119°13′23″W / 36.33667°N 119.22306°W / 36.33667; -119.22306 [1]
Length 58.5 mi (94 km) [1][2]
Basin 828 sq mi (2,145 km2)
Discharge for near Three Rivers, CA
 - average 554 cu ft/s (16 m3/s)
 - max 80,700 cu ft/s (2,285 m3/s)
 - min 20 cu ft/s (1 m3/s)
Map of the Kaweah River watershed also showing distributary St. Johns River
Location of the mouth of the Kaweah River in California

The Kaweah River (/kəˈwijə/) is an approximately 58.5-mile (94.1 km)-long river in the U.S. state of California. It rises in four major forks in the Sierra Nevada within Sequoia National Park, flowing southwest through the Lake Kaweah reservoir and onto an alluvial plain northeast of Visalia. Formerly the river continued southwest to empty into Tulare Lake, the terminal sink of an endorheic basin in the southern Central Valley. However, the river is heavily diverted for irrigation water, and its lower reaches are dry for most of the year.

The foothills of the Sierra around the Kaweah River were once inhabited by the Yokuts people. The name "Kaweah" is thought to mean "crow" or "raven cry" in the Yokuts language. Shoshonean people from the Great Basin later settled in the high valleys of the Kaweah's forks. In the 1870s, a short-lived silver boom took place in the Mineral King valley of the river's East Fork, attracting settlers to the region. The majority of the Kaweah's headwaters above the Central Valley became part of Sequoia National Park in 1890. The southeastern part of the river's watershed also became part of the park in the 1970s after a failed proposal for a massive ski resort. The Kaweah River is now a popular destination for hiking, fishing and whitewater rafting.


Hamilton Lake at the headwaters of the Middle Fork Kaweah River

The Kaweah River rises in the southernmost part of the Sierra Nevada and flows southwest into the dry endorheic basin of the southern San Joaquin Valley, as do the Kings, Tule, and Kern Rivers, which all begin in or near Sequoia National Park. There are five primary forks to the Kaweah River: the Middle Fork, East Fork, North Fork, South Fork and Marble Fork, ordered by size.

The Middle Fork, the largest tributary and sometimes considered the main stem of the Kaweah River, rises at about 12,000 feet (3,700 m) elevation along the Great Western Divide, fed by multiple lakes, springs and seasonal snowfields. The river flows west through a canyon, past Moro Rock and paralleling State Route 198, more commonly known as the Generals Highway (the main road through Sequoia National Park). The highway crosses the river between the confluence with Paradise Creek and the Marble Fork. It receives the Marble Fork from the right, forming the Kaweah River proper. Further downstream it receives the East Fork from the left near the town of Three Rivers.

The river continues southwest to the confluence with the North Fork from the right and the South Fork from the left just above Lake Kaweah, the reservoir formed by Terminus Dam. Below the dam, the Kaweah receives Dry Creek from the right then curves south past the town of Lemon Cove entering the San Joaquin Valley. Cottonwood Creek joins from the right and Yokohl Creek from the left. At McKay's Point Diversion Dam, the distributary St. John's River splits off from the Kaweah and flows west while the Kaweah continues southwest. About 5 miles (8.0 km) downstream, Deep Creek splits off to the south, before the Kaweah itself splits into Packwood and Mill Creeks, flowing through the city of Visalia. The water in these forks are largely consumed by irrigation of over 500,000 acres (2,000 km2) of farmland in the region around Visalia known as the Kaweah Delta.

Formerly, the main channel of the Kaweah River continued southwest, joining with the Tule River and emptying into the Tulare Lake bed in the southeastern San Joaquin Valley. In high water years, the lake would rise enough to empty into the San Joaquin River and thus the Pacific Ocean. Although dams and diversions have largely prevented the river from reaching Tulare Lake since the 1960s, it does reach the lake bed in extremely wet years, such as in 1997.


Snowmelt from the High Sierra Nevada, along the 13,000-foot (4,000 m)-high Great Western Divide, feeds the Kaweah River, which can reach enormous peak flows in the spring and early summer from snowmelt and shrink to a trickle by late autumn. Winter rainstorms in lower elevations of the basin can also lead to very high but fleeting peak flows. The river's average flow at the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge near Three Rivers is 554 cu ft/s (15.7 m3/s), with a maximum monthly average of 1,680 cu ft/s (48 m3/s) in May and a minimum of 57 cu ft/s (1.6 m3/s) in September. The highest recorded peak was 80,700 cu ft/s (2,290 m3/s) on December 23, 1955.

Natural history[edit]

The watershed has numerous flora and fauna species, with considerable forested reaches. In the 1909 survey by Willis Linn Jepson there were found to be 20,000 trees (5000 of which were large trees) in the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. There are also numerous wildflower species including the iconic yellow mariposa lily, Calochortus luteus, which has been specifically noted in the Lime Kiln Creek tributary watershed.[3] The Kaweah River is famous for its stands of giant sequoias, which were one of the reasons for the establishment of the national park. The giant sequoia are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and they are especially abundant in the South Sierra, where the Kaweah River flows.


Marble Fork, Kaweah River
Further information: Sequoia National Park and Mineral King

The first inhabitants of the Kaweah River watershed were the Yokuts, who claimed water rights to the entire river. They settled in several villages in the broad, arid valley the Kaweah cuts through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, an area now submerged under Lake Kaweah.[4] The meaning of the word "kaweah", pronounced "ga-we-hah", in the ancient Yokuts language is "crow" or "raven cry". The Yokut sub-tribe called the Wukchumni lived in this area; their largest villages included Cobble Lodge at the confluence of the Kaweah River and Horse Creek, and Slick Rock Village further upstream. The Fawia, Telamni, Wolasi, Choinok, and Yokod lived on the lower reaches of the river above Tulare Lake.[5]

The Yokut subsisted mostly on acorns and the cakes and pastes they made from grinding them. Many of the Yokuts' mortar and pestle sites are still visible today in the form of rounded depressions on granite outcrops along the river. They claimed the water rights of the entire Kaweah, although tribes from the Mono Basin east of the Sierra Nevada came over the Sierra and settled in the high mountain valleys of the Kaweah. Mineral King, a valley on the East Fork Kaweah River, was a summer settlement for the Yokut. However, years before the arrival of Europeans, the valley became taboo to them for an unknown reason.

Spanish explorers named the river Rio San Francisco and Rio San Gabriel while early American settlers often referred to the river as the River Francis.[6] The first known European settler along the Kaweah river was Hale Dixon Tharp in 1856. He settled on Horse Creek near its confluence with the Kaweah River. During the 1860s, other stockman settled along the various forks of the river claiming large areas of land under the Homestead Act of 1862. This act allowed a settler to occupy 160 acres (0.65 km2), or 320 acres (1.3 km2) for a man and wife together. Thus began the settlement of the Kaweah region. Since then, various mining towns (mainly due to the discovery of silver at Mineral King) and small establishments have existed in the area.


Headwaters of Middle Fork Kaweah River viewed from the High Sierra Trail

There is some fishing and rafting on the river, but access is difficult because some of the land is privately owned, particularly in the lower portion. There are several companies that offer day trips on the class IV section. The Kaweah River is free-flowing above Lake Kaweah and depending on the winter snowfall, it can rise to very high flows during the spring. It is best if rafters and kayakers have previous experience running class IV because with the fluctuating flows, the river requires great maneuvering and whitewater skills.


  1. ^ a b c U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Kaweah River
  2. ^ Length according to river mileage markers on USGS topo maps
  3. ^ Hogan, C. Michael (2009). Stromberg, N, ed. "Yellow Mariposa Lily: Calochortus luteus". GlobalTwitcher. 
  4. ^ "Recreation Management Guidelines". U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Wild and Scenic River Eligibility and Preliminary Classification Report. Retrieved 2009-09-14. 
  5. ^ "Native American Occupation of the Terminus Reservoir Region". NPS, Smithsonian Institution. U.S. National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-09-14. 
  6. ^ "Terminus Dam and Reservoir—Kaweah River, California". Smithsonian Institution. U.S. National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-09-13. 

External links[edit]