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.