The Kings River’s Magic Mile section is one of those whitewater runs boaters dream about getting to run. It requires the right water level, right crew of paddlers, and warm enough temperatures to hold onto your paddle. October of 2018, the warmest and driest fall on record, presented just such an opportunity, so Mike Records, Scott Patterson and I headed out one Sunday.
The access to Magic Mile is fairly simple: Drive out the Glenn Highway to the Permanente Road, a very well-used dirt road that turns into an ATV trail as it heads up the Kings River valley. The turnoff is a few miles past the Glenn Highway bridge over the Kings River--while it is possible to work your way up the Valley from the Kings/Matanuska confluence, that would be significantly more time consuming.
Most 4WD/AWD vehicles can drive in a few miles on the Permanente Road, and park on top of a forested ridgeline before the trail gets rutted and muddy. From here, it is an eight mile or so hike in to the put-in, which is at the confluence of the East and West forks of the Kings River. Route finding is simple: Stay on the main ATV trail, which generally sidehills on the west flank of Castle Mountain. Early on in the hike, note a large ATV trail that comes in from the west at a muddy intersection. This will be your return trail after taking out below Kings Canyon. About six or seven miles into the hike, the old moraine from the Kings Glacier is visible right in front of you. That moraine, which appears to be a combined medial and terminal moraine both from the glacier’s toe and the convergence of the old West and East Fork glaciers, is what forms the Magic Mile.
The water should look very low at the put-in, barely paddle-able in this flat, braided section of river. After butt-dragging over a few gravel bars for ten minutes or so, you will see the moraine in front of you, and the river gradient increase sharply. Pull out on river left whenever you reach a horizon line to scout Bubble Gum, the first of the four most challenging rapids in the Magic Mile. Bubble Gum is challenging because it is long, steep, with the line zig zagging between and over pour overs before cutting sharply right at the end. I thought it was the most challenging rapid when we paddled Magic Mile, partly because there’s no time to warm up before running it. There is pinning potential if you end up too far left at the end of the rapid, and we also had to dodge a log jam on the left that jutted out into the channel. Note that all of these rapids can change year to year with due to the relatively unstable nature of the riverbed, which is boulders rather than bedrock.
Powerful Class IV rapids continue below Bubble Gum, with many pourovers ranging from three to six feet in height. A strong boof stroke and reliable braces are essential to stay upright. At low water, there are numerous short pools to eddy out, but they are short enough that self-rescue would be challenging. The next of the four larger rapids is Pick Your Fate, in which there are three slots dropping five feet or more. The middle slot had a tree in it when we were there, and the left slot has a tricky angled slide into an offset, swirling hole. We ran the easier right side, a relatively simple boof into an eddy below. Note that all rapids like these need to be scouted, since they’re steep enough to conceal wood (or rock sieves) that may not be visible from upstream.
After more Class IV boogie water, the third large rapid is Underground Railroad, named for the heinous undercut on the bottom right side of the rapid, right below a steep ledge. I have heard of other paddlers and equipment going into this undercut, which is very large and potentially fatal. We ran the top part of Underground Railroad and portaged the last drop to avoid the risk of a swim right above an undercut. Either the whole rapid or parts of it are easily (and wisely, in my opinion) portaged on the right.
Shortly after Underground Railroad, the final large rapid is Chunder. In a sense, naming any of the rapids is a bit arbitrary because the whole Magic Mile is steep, bouldery Class IV+ paddling, and Chunder is typical of that. Do not take the right side channel at the end of Chunder, which terminates in very nasty sieve. Again, that sieve is not visible from waterline, and is a reminder of the importance of scouting all major drops on the Magic Mile.
After Chunder, the gradient levels out with fun Class III+ drops that diminish in intensity until the river enters a relatively flat Class II stretch that continues for two to three miles.
When you’re starting to get tired of scraping through gravel bars, large cut banks appear as the Kings begins dropping into a canyon. Soon, the cut banks turn to bedrock, and the river enters a deep gorge with several miles of ledges and boulder gardens, most of which are Class III at the lower water levels that make the Magic Mile runnable. The Kings canyon would be runnable and very exciting at summer flows, when I would guess it is more like class IV big water. The largest rapid in this section is in the most constricted part of the canyon, which seems to be just a dozen feet across. The river pours over a steep double ledge of ten feet or so, with an exploding diagonal wave at the bottom. Aim for the center-right side of the drop to avoid the cliff wall and massive hole on the left. The canyon continues to be constricted, but with less steep drops, immediately downstream.
After this constricted stretch of canyon opens up and gravel bars appear along the river, take out on the left and walk through mostly open forest toward the east until you find a large ATV trail. Continue on this ATV trail until it intersects the Permanente Road after about a twenty or thirty minute walk. From that intersection, hang a right and walk mostly uphill back to the car.
Magic Mile plus the Kings canyon may be the single best whitewater day trip in Southcentral. With challenging drops, a deep canyon, all of which is surrounded by the towers of Castle Mountain and surrounding peaks, it is hard to imagine a more spectacular place to paddle.