The Tule River is one of the smaller rivers in California. Its headwaters are along the Great Western Divide, a sub-range of mountains that run parallel to the Sierra Crest in Tulare County in Central California. It flows in a westerly direction and eventually reaches Success Reservoir. It has three main forks, the North, Middle, and South, which flow down through rugged deep canyons. The North Fork and Middle Fork join together just above the town of Springville. The South Fork joins the two at the reservoir. The river then flows on to Porterville and, in historic times and during rare floods, the river flows on to join the Kings, Kaweah, and Kern Rivers at Tule Lake. Tule Lake was at one time the largest freshwater lake in America west of the Mississippi. Along the shores of this lake are marshlands called tular and the reeds and cattails that grow in them are called tules.
The Tule River originates among high rugged granite peaks including Dennison Peak, Moses Mountain, Maggie Mountain, Jordan Peak, Slate Mountain, Black Mountain, Mule Peak, and Parker Peak. It descends as much as 1,000 for every mile and altogether drops more than 9,000 feet. It flows past several spectacular groves of giant sequoia, the largest trees on the planet. The largest known giant sequoia in the Tule River Watershed is the Stagg Tree, the 5th largest tree on Earth. This tree grows in the Alder Creek Grove on the flanks of Jordan Peak.
After flowing through the majestic conifer forest belt the river enters the chaparral and oak woodland communities with their abundant wildlife. Then it flows into the San Joaquin Valley which is world famous for the quantity and quality of its agricultural products.
Lower elevations in the San Joaquin Valley and foothills may only receive a few inches of rain a year, but the mountains can receive up to 50. In an average year almost 50 billion gallons of water flow through 100 miles of the Tule River and its tributaries. So the Tule River, though relatively small, has a big impact on the area where it flows.
The earliest people in California settled and traveled along rivers and the Tule River was the home of the Yaundanchi Yokuts. As early as 1776 white men visited the area but it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that any of them stayed.
The first sawmill was built along the North Fork of the Tule River in 1865. By 1866 farmers were building ditches to help irrigate their lands with Tule River water near Porterville. Then the railroad came through in 1873 and this led to widespread farming and settlement. By 1890 there were nearly 25,000 people settled in the Tule River area.
In 1908 a large portion of the Tule River Watershed was designated as Sequoia National Forest. Another large portion along the South Fork is a part of the Tule River Indian Reservation that was originally established in 1857 and moved to its present location in 1873.
In 1908 another use of the river began when a hydroelectric plant was built. By 1913 another one was operating along the Middle Fork of the Tule River. Among the uses of the electricity was to power irrigation pumps to increase the value of farmland.
Roads that were built to access the power plants led to the development of several home tracts along the Middle Fork of the Tule River. Camp Wishon and Camp Nelson were two popular resorts in the early 20th century. At the height of its popularity, Camp Nelson had a two-story hotel, a six-hole golf course, an outdoor dance platform, and many cabins and stores. Though not as popular today, both places continue to operate. Today there are approximately 1,000 homes in the Upper Tule River Watershed and more than 100 are occupied year-round.
Thousands of people today not only live beside and depend on the water of the Tule River, they also go to the river and Lake Success to play! Fishing, hunting, picnicking, camping, boating, hiking, mountain bike riding, ATV and snowmobile riding, and even hang-gliding are all popular sports in the Tule River area.
Unfortunately the Tule River area has proven itself popular for other activities such as illegal marijuana cultivation and graffiti spraying. The Forest Service along with several law enforcement agencies fight to clean up areas and keep them safe for the public.
I have lived along the Tule River for almost 5 years now, first in a cabin up at Camp Nelson and now in a small house in Springville. I have explored many of its stretches and have delighted in its many waterfalls. I have searched for pictographs and mortar holes and other signs of early habitants along it. I have hiked and backpacked along most of the Tule River area trails. I have trekked through many of its sequoia groves and in short I enjoy every minute I spend outside near the Tule River.
Highway 190 runs alongside the Tule River from Porterville on up to the Great Western Divide. The Balch Park Road leaves Hwy 190 just east of Springville and provides access to the North Fork Tule River. Success Valley Drive and the Reservation Road leave Hwy 190 near Lake Success and provide access to the South Fork Tule River. The Wishon Road leaves Hwy 190 about 8 miles east of Springville and provides access to the North Fork of the Middle Fork Tule River.
The upper reaches of the Middle Fork of the Tule River lie in the Golden Trout Wilderness. Wilderness Permits are needed for overnight trips here and are free. Click here for more info.
Campfire permits are needed when having a campfire or charcoal barbeque outside of developed campgrounds and picnic areas. Click here for more info.
Click here to find out information on fishing regulations.
Belknap, Wishon, Hidden Falls, Moses Gulch, and Cholollo Campgrounds are on various forks of the Tule River. There are other campgrounds in the area but these are the ones that are literally within steps of the river.
For more information on Belknap and Wishon and to make reservations, click here.
For more information on Hidden Falls and Moses Gulch Campgrounds, click here.
Cholollo Campground is on the Tule River Indian Reservation. Take the reservation road for about 15 miles east of the Eagle Mountain Casino. This road can be rough and a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. There are 5 sites and the fee is $18 for 2 nights, $10 for 1 night, $5 for day use. For more info, please call (559) 781-4271.
Dispersed camping is not allowed in the Middle Fork Tule River Canyon below Wishon or Camp Nelson.
Picnic & Day Use Areas
Lower Coffee Camp - located along Hwy 190 approximately 5 miles above Springville, Elevation about 2,000 feet, $5 day use fee, open year-round, pit toilets and water available
Upper Coffee Camp - located along Hwy 190 approximately 6 miles above Springville, Elevation about 2,200 feet, $5 day use fee, open during the summer months, pit toilets and water available
The Stairs - located along Hwy 190 approximately 7 miles above Springville, Elevation about 2,600 feet, no trash pick-up, bathrooms or water, steep staircase drops about 200 feet to the river
On Hwy 190 between Upper Coffee Camp and Camp Nelson and on the Wishon Road there are many places where you can park in turnouts along the road and hike down to the river. But be cautious, these trails are not-maintained, they are steep, and poison oak, rattlesnakes, and ticks are common. The river always looks inviting but it can be quite dangerous. The rocks are slippery even when dry and the water currents, especially in early summer, are treacherous. Every year it seems someone drowns in the Tule River.
These are three trails that follow the Middle Fork of the Tule River. There are lots of other trails in the area but these three are nice because they are right on the river.
River Trail - leaves from Hidden Falls Campground in the Mountain Home State Forest off of the Balch Park Road about 20 miles above Springville, follows the North Fork of the Middle Fork Tule River and connects with the Summit Trail leaving from Shake Camp and provides access to the Golden Trout Wilderness, good fishing opportunities and access to the Middle and Upper Tule Groves of Giant Sequoias.
Wishon Trail - leaves from Wishon Campground, take Hwy 190 approximately 8 miles above Springville then take the Wishon Road and follow it approximately 4 miles to its end. Follows the North Fork of the Middle Fork Tule River, good fishing opportunities and access to the Wishon Grove of Giant Sequoias
Nelson Trail - leaves from the Belknap Campground area. To get to the campground take Hwy 190 about 18 miles above Springville then take Nelson Drive and follow it to its end. Trail follows the South Fork of the Middle Fork for one mile then crosses it (there is no bridge) and continues following it for another 2.7 miles. Provides access to the Belknap, McIntyre, and Wheel Meadow Groves of Giant Sequoias.
"Advancing southward the giants become more and more irrepressibly exhuberant, heaving their massive crowns into the sky from every ridge and slope, and waving onward in graceful compliance with the complicated topography of the region . . . But the finest block of Big Tree Forest in the entire belt is on the North Fork of the Tule River . . . here for every old storm-stricken giant there are many in all the glory of prime vigor, and for each of these there is a crowd of eager, hopeful young trees and saplings . . . seemingly in hot pursuit of eternal life." ~ John Muir from the book, The Mountains of California, published in 1894
Like big trees? There are plenty of groves in the Tule River watershed, including some that are very easily accessible like Mountain Home and some that are very hard to access like the Maggie Mountain Grove.
Mountain Home Grove
Maggie Mountain Grove
Silver Creek Grove
Burro Creek Grove
Alder Creek Grove
Black Mountain Grove
Red Hill Grove
South Peyrone Grove
Parker Peak Grove
North Cold Spring Grove
I highly recommend the book A Guide to the Sequoia Groves of California by Dwight Willard to find out more about these groves. Click here for the Sequoia Natural History Association Bookstore page that features this book.