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South Fork American River: From Iowa Canyon Waterfalls to Slab Creek Dam

(Last Updated On: March 21, 2016)

Along the South Fork American River, in El Dorado County, sits the Slab Creek Dam which was built in 1967. This dammed portion of the river creates the Slab Creek Reservoir and just a little ways down from the reservoir is where the Iowa Canyon Creek flows into the American River.

This creek spans roughly six miles through El Dorado County and gradually descends roughly 2000 feet in elevation until it merges with the South Fork American River. Prior to the confluence of the river and creek sits two wonderful waterfalls: the Upper Iowa Canyon Falls and the Lower Iowa Canyon Falls (also known as Iowa Canyon Falls).

Additionally, about a ¼ mile down the river from Iowa Canyon Creek sits North Canyon Waterfall which is roughly 100 feet tall but virtually unreachable unless you are kayaking down the river.

Trailhead

Directions to this location are at the end of the article. However, this isn’t an official trailhead, more like a makeshift parking area that leads to the trail.

From North Canyon Road, take Slab Creek Road roughly 1.4-1.5 miles until it comes to a merging of two older roads and the boat ramp road. Here, you will park between the two gates on the Northern side of the road. Do not proceed down the boat ramp road. This road is not for the faint of heart as it is one lane, gravel, muddy, has holes and is hundreds of feet above the reservoir. It reminded me of Iowa Hill Road.

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Road to boat ramp

Getting to the parking area requires slow and cautious driving as the gravel road is very narrow at times and there are several bumps and holes. Additionally, inclement weather will make Slab Creek Road more difficult to drive especially if you have a low clearance vehicle. There are no bathrooms, trash cans or any other amenities.

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Walk past the gate down to Iowa Canyon Falls and American River. View from boat ramp road looking west.

Iowa Canyon Falls

Once you have parked, take the gate to the left (west direction) and head down the old road. I assume this was an old mining road, which has a moderately steep decline as you zig-zag your way down to the river. There’s definitely a few hundred feet in elevation change from the parking area to the river. Returning up the trail can be difficult to some due to the steepness and no leveling off until you get back to the parking area. It’s similar to the difficulty found on the Vikingholm Trail.

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As you go around the first bend in the trail/road, you can hear the creek and the waterfall. This is the point where you can head to Upper Canyon Falls. However, I suggest doing the lower one first as it’s easier to access during peak water flow, which is the current condition as of this article.

Halfway between the first bend and the second bend, is a hillside that you can walk out on and look to the left to catch a great view of the Iowa Canyon Falls. In fact, it’s the best view you will get of the 50 foot falls since it’s difficult to scramble up the creek to the base of the waterfall at this point of the season.

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Continue back down the trail and head to the river. There’s a fork in the trail that takes you to two different bridges. The left fork will bring you to the old cast iron looking bridge that is near the confluence of Iowa Canyon Creek and the American River.

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The right fork takes you up to the foot bridge that spans across the American River. On this bridge, you can get some wonderful views and photos of the Slab Creek Dam.

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If you try to make your way up the creek, remember that the water is flowing strong right now, there are prickly bushes, slick rocks and poison oak along the creek. When the water flow is lower, it should be easier to wade up the creek toward the base of the waterfall.

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Upper Iowa Canyon Falls

As mentioned earlier, the trail leading to Upper Iowa Canyon falls can be accessed as you reach the first bend in the trail/road. In fact, you can see this bend from the parking area. The trail is to the left and it is very narrow. In fact, I don’t recommend this unless you have some hiking experience and are healthy enough for slippery conditions.

The trail is all mud depending on the season. For me, every step was slick. It’s only a few hundred yards until you can see the Upper falls in the distance. However, you have to walk on a narrow ridge, crouch under tree branches and hold on to tree trunks as you make your way toward the waterfall.

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I was unable to get closer to the waterfall due to the high water flow. It made the conditions unsafe. There are some remnants of older cars around this area. When the creek isn’t flowing as rapidly as it is now, some people can wade up the creek closer to the waterfall. According to WaterfallWest.com, the Upper Iowa Canyon waterfall is a little over 30 feet high.

On this day, the waterfall was roaring and I expect it to continue like this for the next few weeks. The creek was wider than normal conditions due to the increased water flow.

Be careful around this area as you can easily lose your balance and fall into the creek then be taken down and over the lower portion of Iowa Canyon falls.

As I was making my way back along the trail, I lost my footing and started sliding down toward the lower waterfall. It was very muddy and hard to stop. I was lucky enough to grab onto a tree to prevent myself from entering the creek and possibly over the waterfall.

In the summer time, I imagine this area will be more dried up and easier to navigate. However, the waterfalls will be closer to a trickle than the roaring flows I witnessed.

North Canyon Falls

In addition to the two Iowa Canyon waterfalls, is a third one roughly a ¼ mile west of the creek. This waterfall is bigger than the two Iowa falls combined. Sadly, it’s very difficult to get to. In fact, the only way to get to it appears to be via the American River, which most likely means you would need a kayak or another option for water access.

The best view of this waterfall is when you first access the trail/road off the parking area. Walk down a few hundred feet and look off in the distance down the American River. You can’t miss this awesome waterfall on the left side of the river. I suggest bringing a camera lens that allows you to zoom in on objects that are further away. The visible portion of the waterfall is roughly 100 feet. Some people speculate that this waterfall could be twice as long as it disappears into the canyon side.

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north canyon waterfall

The Tunnel

Sometimes, exploring your destinations further can turn up unexpected points of interest. For me, that’s how I came across this tunnel access. I assume this was an old mining tunnel that went deep into Iowa Canyon. Regardless of its original purpose, the entrance to the tunnel provides an opportunity for photos.

The tunnel access is locked up so nobody can get in. To visit this tunnel, continue across the cast iron looking bridge that spans the Iowa Canyon Creek. Head up the river a few hundred yards and you will come face to face with it.

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Slab Creek Dam

This concrete arch dam was built in 1967 by SMUD as part of the Upper American River Project. This dam is 250 feet high and has a length of roughly 825 feet. It’s an impressive looking dam and reminds me of the North Fork Dam by Lake Clementine. Unfortunately, the Slab Creek Dam does not have a cascading waterfall like the North Fork Dam does.

The best views of the dam are on the footbridge that takes you over the river. Additionally, you can access the north side of the river by crossing this bridge. There are large slabs of rock available for sunbathing or a nice resting/picnic spot.

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Tips

  • Don’t park directly in front of the gates
  • Wear sturdy hiking shoes
  • The trail back up is steep
  • Watch out for poison oak
  • Watch out for ticks
  • Don’t enter the creek if the water flow is high
  • Drive slowly on Slab Creek Road
  • Best to view waterfalls during peak water flow

Final Words

The Iowa Canyon Creek is a sweet location for those of you who like waterfalls. The two waterfalls on this creek make for a nice adventure and some great photos. However, depending on water flow, it will be difficult to navigate up the creek to the base of each waterfall. Additionally, the North Canyon waterfall is so tempting to try and hike up to it. Unfortunately, it remains impossible unless via the river.

Make sure you drive slowly down Slab Creek Road and it’s probably best to have a vehicle with high clearance especially if the roads are wet or muddy.

Directions

From Sacramento, take Highway 50 East to Placerville. As you pass through Placerville look for exit #48 Schnell School Rd. Take this exit and make a left. You will go under the freeway and head North for about 0.2 miles until you reach a stop sign. Make a right at the stop sign onto Carson Road. (The picture of the truck and barn below, is near this turn.)

Follow Carson Rd. for almost 3 miles and then make a left onto North Canyon Road. Those of you familiar with Apple Hill, will notice that you are passing by some of the region’s more popular locations. Take this road for about 2.2-2.3 miles and then make a left onto Slab Creek Rd.

On Slab Creek Road, you will enter a gate that automatically closes at Sunset. Head down this road for just under 1.5 miles until you reach the parking area described above. This road turns into gravel, is bumpy, narrow and winds down the canyon.

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