When one thinks of Cache Creek, casino glitter and lavish buffets tend to overshadow the creek itself, a largely bucolic body of water that sluices through the Central Valley and periodically explodes into thrilling white-water rapids ideal for inner-tubing and rafting adventures. Following a route just a few miles north of the casino (and within a two-hour drive from San Francisco), self-guided inner-tubing and tour-guided rafting trips down Cache Creek are action-packed and stunningly scenic.
Roger Mills, who's ridden a rubber ski tube down Cache Creek 15 to 20 times over the past seven years, says, “It's excellent tubing for someone who's a little adventurous and wants to take a rough-and-tumble ride.” The day trip features stretches of placid water as well as numerous rapids. Highlights include a stop for lunch by a conveniently located ice cream truck (and the owner's pet pig) and a Class III rapid known as Mother, or Rowboat Rapid. Hard-core tubers have been known to walk back upriver and ride Mother four or five times.
“The scenery to me is desolate beauty,” Mills muses. “The river itself can be beautiful, especially earlier in the year when the water's a little cleaner. Tubing on a hot summer day makes me feel like a kid again, enjoying my summer vacation with friends.” On hot valley days — temperatures often exceed 100 degrees in the summer — the water on the river is cool but not too cool, Mills says, ideal for swimming, splashing, and general horsing around.
Of primary importance for a successful Cache Creek experience is not cheaping on the inner tube. Ski tubes — the fat, black, industrial-looking inner tubes available at Big 5 and Sportsmart for $30 or so — are, Mills says, “a lot safer and more comfortable.”
“They're bigger and have more buoyancy and keep you higher off the water. River Rats are $12 to $15, but they're much easier to puncture, don't have as much buoyancy, and ride lower.” As any tuber knows after the first run, the more space between your butt and the rocks, the better. And Cache Creek has a seemingly endless supply of rocks dedicated to removing skin from your rear end.
“Wear hats and sunglasses,” Mills advises. “Wear a good life jacket. Put on lots of suntan lotion, and make sure it's waterproof. Be cautious and take safety seriously — this trip can be dangerous. When you fall out of your tube, it's like being dragged down the street behind a car. You can lose your stuff, too, if you're not careful. I take some string and tie everything to my tube: hats, sunglasses, car keys, butt board.”
A butt board is a tuber's equivalent of a jockstrap. “I get a kneeling pad at the drugstore for four or five bucks and put it in the hole under my butt,” Mills explains. “It adds an inch and a half of padding. I remember once hitting a rock and saying, 'Wow, that hurt' and realized it would have been far worse without that inch and a half of foam underneath.”
To get to Cache Creek, take I-80 toward Sacramento, switch to 505 North near Vacaville and drive 21 miles, turn north/west on Highway 16. Mills recommends leaving at least one car at Camp Haswell Park (also known as the Stone House or the Boy Scout Camp), a popular take-out point. Drop off another car with food and drinks at the lunch point three miles up the road (by the floating bridge over the river) and drive another 2.7 miles to put your tubes in the water a few hundred feet north of the Colusa and Yolo County sign.
You'll arrive at the lunch point after a wet and wild hour and a half on the water, and from there it's another 90 minutes of scattered Class II rapids until the famous Mother, which Mills compares to “being shot out of a water cannon.” After another 45 minutes, you'll see a stone building on the west side of the river demarcating the take-out point.
Intrigued but apprehensive? Mills and a group of fellow tubing enthusiasts have created an extensive online resource for Cache Creek tubing expeditions at the Yahoo group “inner_tubing.” There you can read detailed suggestions for successful Cache Creek tubing voyages, hook onto an outing with experienced tubers, arrange carpools, and find members willing to rent you their extra tubing gear (life jackets, tubes, butt boards, etc.) for a nominal charge.
If you prefer riding the rapids in a rubber raft with professional guides showing the way, call up Rick Wilson at Cache Canyon Whitewater River Trips (www.cachecanyon.com), which he's owned and operated for 20 years. Wilson runs one- and two-day guided trips down the river several times a week in the summer. His one-day trip is similar to the tubing itinerary described above; the two-day trip includes a run through the more isolated terrain farther north. “It's a severe volcanic mountain canyon with wildflowers and cottonwood trees,” he says. “It's the most beautiful part of the river, and there's no highway running by the river, which makes it feel like you have a more natural experience.”
Wilson's excursions run from $25-40 for the one-day trip and $95-140 for the two-day trip, complete with meals and camping arrangements. Whitewater Adventures (www.whitewater-adv.com) runs similar guided tours at $55 for a day trip and $109-$139 for overnight.
Whether on tubes or rafts, floating down Cache Creek is part roller-coaster ride, part pool-lounging session, and part social event. “There tends to be a lot of conversation between the people in rafts and the tubers,” Mills acknowledges. “The people in rafts think the tubers are a little crazy, and the people in tubes think the rafters are missing all the real fun.”