Tuesday, June 19, 2018


A visit to Van Arsdale Dam

Today’s little adventure finds me locating the Van Arsdale Dam – one of only two on the entire Eel River Complex.  (Note that the Eel River watershed is the third largest in all of California.)  Also known as Cape Horn Dam, it and its powerhouse became operational in 1908.  I’ve been wanting to see this since we moved to the area a few years ago.

The dam itself seems like quite the early 20thCentury engineering marvel.  Built in concert with Scott’s Dam which impounds Lake Pillsbury 15 or 20 miles upstream, the pool itself is relatively small.  Water cascades over the stair-step face on the dam providing a nice soundtrack to a morning summer ride.  I can only image the roar during high water seasons knowing that the Eel has a propensity for washing out rail lines and wiping out towns further downstream.

The water held in Van Arsdale Reservoir is diverted through a tunnel to Potter Valley four miles to the south.  A powerhouse stands somewhere at the north end of that valley, but banjo music, increasing in volume over the hum of Enrico, the Yamaha’s motor, prompted me to turn back as the road wound into the pretty remote country and turned to gravel. Location of the powerhouse was not marked on the map I carried.

A small network of canals provides for the irrigation needs of ranchers in the beautiful and relatively remote Potter Valley, but much of the water channeling through supplies the Sonoma County Water Agency which contributes to the growth of towns along the Russian River from Ukiah south and west.

Non-diverted water remains in the Eel twisting through remote and rugged canyons until emerging at the Pacific Ocean near Fortuna.  On-going arguments are offered that without the diversion from the Eel to the Russian, farming and growth from Hopland to Healdsburg would be stunted.  With the diversion, however, in low-flow years, as we have experienced during this on-going drought, downstream salmon and steelhead fisheries on the Eel suffer.

No act of human engineering – no matter how marvelous – comes without some costs or compromise. As licensure for the Van Arsdale project comes up for renewal in the near term, it will be interesting to see what, if any, changes are in the offing.


Today’s Route:  From CA 20 between US 101 and Upper Lake, look for signs and exit north on Potter Valley Road. Head north.  Just as the road turns west (at the store) turn right on Eel River Road.  The road climbs out of the valley at the north, corkscrewing through oaks and diggers offering expansive views but few, if any, places to safely stop for a photo. Bear left at the top-of-the-hill fork and wind about a mile or so down into a valley and left again onto Van Arsdale Road.  The dam and CA Fish and Game facility is on the right but fenced.  Nobody answered when I knocked at the door.  Walking back up the hill, I could see the fellas at work monitoring stream flow and capturing water samples.

Return? Bear left at the fork and following Eel River Road for about two miles.  At the junction, a right turn will carry you up the Eel River Cut-off back to the fork at the top of the hill.  Continuing straight (east) will take you along the deepening canyon of the Eel, then, skirting a ridge, up to Lake Pillsbury.  A loop can be made from there down to the community of Upper Lake in Lake County.  (Get lunch there at the Blue Wing Restaurant!)  A nice road for heavier dual sports.

This little ride was a good early morning jaunt, affording me the opportunity to check something off my bucket list.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

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