From opening weekend at the end of April through the end of October, the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River is an easy weekend camping destination. Andrea and I spent last weekend there celebrating a successful start to the new school year. Despite the drought, the river is still flowing and there are plenty of empty campsites.
The Clark Fork flows into the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River 45 miles east of Sonora along Highway 108. A left turn will put you on Clark Fork Road. This road follows the river for 9 miles before ending at Iceberg Meadow, surrounded by tall conifers and granite peaks. Originally intended as an additional pass over the crest of the Sierra Nevada, the road was never completed. Today, it’s a fun side road along a fork of the Stanislaus that can be both popular on summer weekends, and quiet on weekdays and after school starts.
Although Yosemite’s famed guardian Galen Clark was the “Clark” I thought of before looking up the source of the name “Clark Fork,” I was surprised to find that it was actually named for William Clark, a now-forgotten member of an 1862 road commission that laid out the route of the Sonora Pass (now Highway 108).
The Clark Fork Road departs Highway 108 at the 5,600-foot elevation level. Not long after leaving the highway, the road crosses the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus on a classic concrete arch bridge. Park near the bridge to enjoy memorable views from the top. You can also follow a rough trail under the bridge for views that include the bridge’s big arch. A bit farther down the road, a short bridge crosses a surprisingly deep chasm in the Clark Fork just above where it flows into the Middle Fork. You have to get out of your car and look over both sides of the bridge to see just how deep the gap is.
The other attractions of the Clark Fork area include hiking, backpacking, fishing, horseback riding, and relaxing in comfortable campsites. Supplies and food can be found a few miles east of the Clark Fork Turnoff at Dardanelle on Highway 108 and Kennedy Meadows on Kennedy Meadows Road. Trails include:
Iceberg Meadow to Boulder Lake: Starting at the end of the road, you can follow this trail along the Clark Fork for as long or short a hike as you want. If you’re up for an 8-mile round trip with a climb that will give you a workout, you can go all the way to pretty Boulder Lake.
Arnot Creek: Directly across the road from the Clark Fork Campground, this is a great option for anyone staying there, especially equestrians. You can follow the creek for a short distance or far into the back country.
Sword Lake: From the turnoff for the Fence Creek Campground, follow the road to the County Line Trailhead. The deep blue lake is just over 2 miles from the parking lot.
Three campgrounds are available along the road. Clark Fork is the largest with 88 sites – all of which are situated with lots of space so that you aren’t too close to your neighbors. The availability of adjacent “double sites” makes this campground a great place for larger groups of families and friends. The 25 sites on Loop A offer vault toilets and cost $19 an night. Loop B sites offer flush toilets and cost $20 a night. There are also 14 nice family-sized equestrian sites and one group equestrian site. Sites are within easy walking distance of the water. No matter what kind of camping you want to plan, Clark Fork offers options.
Two miles up the road, Sand Flat offers only vault toilets, but some of the sites are located close to the river. Next time we visit, the river proximity will probably give us a reason to stay here instead. Sand Flat has 53 drive-in sites and 15 walk-in sites. If you can’t find a site at Clark Fork or Sand Flat during the busy season, there are also an additional 38 sites at Fence Creek – the least appealing of the Clark Fork area campgrounds, but still close to the river.
The weather during our visit was comfortable – warm during the day and cool after dark. Although lows had been in the mid-40s, they dropped to the upper 30s in the early hours of Sunday morning. The Clark Fork is regularly stocked with trout during non-drought conditions, but with the current low-water conditions, we experienced mediocre fishing.
Fires are currently prohibited in most areas of Stanislaus National Forest, but are allowed in developed recreation areas such as the campgrounds along the Clark Fork. No matter where you plan on visiting this year, make sure you check current campfire regulations before starting a fire. Although fires are currently prohibited in most forest areas, restrictions may be added in the few areas where they are currently still allowed.
As we move toward fall, it also becomes more important to check weather before departing – especially nighttime low temperatures. Archery hunting deer season began on Aug. 16, so be aware of your surroundings if you are outside of developed areas in the forest and leave your deer costume at home. It closes on Sept. 7 and rifle season opens on Sept. 20.
For more information about the Clark Fork area, call the Summit Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest at (209) 965-3434.