Wilderness Runs in Northern Washington


Whitewater wilderness runs have a certain allure. Usually chosen for their rapids, the overall experience is ultimately shaped more by the adventure, the place, and the fellow kayakers it’s shared with. Rarely are you able to drive to the put in—they do require a bit of extra effort. But, for those who deem a bit of struggle part of the reward, these missions create those lasting memories that persevere long after lines on that daily run have faded.

For the last several years I’ve been based out of White Salmon, Washington—a paddler’s mecca otherwise known as The Gorge. For those of you who haven’t heard of, visited, or even moved to this area, it boasts a plethora of year-round, accessible, free-flowing rivers, most notably the White and Little White Salmons. It’s a place where it’s easy to fall into the afternoon paddling groove. However, always in pursuit of fresh runs, I’m often perusing AW’s Washington flows page, my cursor clicking on rivers that turn out to be in Northern Washington, which is a touch unrealistic for the impromptu two-day mission. So, this summer, even though California was promising a summer of unparalleled proportions, myself and Erik Johnson set our sights on checking out those runs we always wondered about in the northern reaches of our home state.

What we found was entertaining whitewater amongst impressive mountain scenery and inspiring wilderness solitude. The summer was filled with good boofs and clear water, log jams and interesting logistics, and a surprising lack of other paddlers.

While this is nowhere near a comprehensive list of the rivers Northern Washington has to offer, it’s an introductory ‘Top Four’ of the area’s wilderness runs. With a little bit of legwork and some motivation, it’s undeniable that in Northern Washington there exists a plethora of whitewater treasures to be paddled and plenty yet to be discovered.

Lost River
Days – 2-3
Start Hike – Billy Goat Trailhead (End of FR 5130)
Take Out – Lost River Road
Season – Spring snowmelt
Flows – 650 – 1200 CFS (Virtual – based off Methow River gauge)

Although the take-out is at a bridge, the heart of this trip is deep in the Okanogan National Forest, requiring a six-mile hike into the paddle’s start at the confluence of Drake Creek and the Lost River. Six miles doesn’t seem like much, and it certainly isn’t, but just when it’s starting to feel like you’re approaching the final stretch, the adventure is only beginning. For us, the initial four miles delivered some downed trees, which required alternative navigation strategies, but this in no manner prepared us for the game of log Tetris we would play for the next couple of hours as we slowly clambered one mile along a very old and abandoned trail. Eventually, just shy of complete demoralization, the forest cleared, the craggy mountaintops pierced the sky, and the overgrown trail turned into a rocky scree field. While this loose boulder jumble did not provide easy trekking, with an intensifying thirst and considerably scraped legs, each of us felt relieved to be out of the dense forest.

When you finally come upon the boat-navigable section of the river, I recommend lunch naps. In hindsight, ours could have been lengthened considering it took us less than two hours to paddle to where we chose to eddy out for the night. This upper stretch could be exceptionally chill, but around every corner we seemed to encounter a river-wide logjam, which would make the paddle a bit too exciting with any sort of pushy flows. Nevertheless, we reached a tiny lake surrounded by wandering goats and impressive towering granite walls. It was a perfect spot to spend the night.

Of questionable quality, flowing out of the lake is a five-foot boof, which lands in a small pool before a short, but mandatory, portage. This boulder scramble marks the beginning of the whitewater, and surprisingly, the end of wood jams. How all the wood ends up in the flat water instead of the rapids is beyond my comprehension, but we certainly appreciated that. We managed to boat-scout all but one of the rapids on our way down. The rapid quality and difficulty could increase with more water, but with the unknown wood factor, lower flows seemed a good way to mitigate this risk. Either way, we ended up with enjoyable and high-quality class III-IVs.

As Eureka Creek enters on the right and the whitewater dwindles, the copious log jams characteristic of the top part return all the way to the take-out. While the whitewater section isn’t particularly lengthy, the trip is a worthy excuse to spend some nights outside and explore a new wilderness zone.

Lightning Creek
Days – 1-2
Start Hike – Lightning Creek Trailhead (Ross Lake)
Take Out – Ross Lake
Season – Early Summer
Flows – Visual (Check at Ross Lake confluence for a low, but navigable flow)

Flowing into scenic Ross Lake, Lightning Creek itself isn’t necessarily an overnighter, but to enjoy the full experience, I highly recommend not cramming it into a single day. To facilitate this adventure, first, call Ross Lake Resort for a motorboat reservation, and then drive to the Marblemount Ranger Station to acquire overnight camping permits. Next, determine how you plan on reaching this non-vehicle accessible lake. Half of our group hiked the steep mile-long downhill trail to the dock where they acquired the motorboat. Jordan Slaughter and I, took as much of the heavy gear we could fit in our kayaks and paddled the Ruby Fork, a class II-III tributary into an arm where the others eventually picked us up.

To Lightning Creek, it’s a twelve-mile, awe-inspiring traverse amongst snow-capped Cascade peaks. As the boat slowly putters with a string of kayaks bobbing behind, the logistics of the mission are essentially complete. Although it’s entirely possible to start hiking into Lightning Creek that afternoon, the surrounding area has numerous side channels to paddle, trails to hike, and Ross Lake itself is perfect for swimming—in short, it’s worth setting up camp and checking out.

The next morning, a four-mile jaunt on an incredibly well-maintained trail brought us to the start of Lightning Creek, which begins in classic North Washington style: low volume and log-packed. The logs disperse at the confluence of Three Fools Creek, marking an increase in flows and gradient. With numerous entertaining rapids, a couple of scouts, and a quick portage around a nasty drop, it ’s a super enjoyable paddle that left us hoping for more of that style.

It’s a relaxing cross-lake boat ride, but before retiring for the day, it’s worth noting that this mission’s final leg involves slogging all the kayaks and gear back out the mile-long trail to the parking lot.

Although it’s of a different character and considerably more difficult and short, Little Beaver Creek on the opposite side of the lake would be an excellent compliment to this run and a good excuse to spend more time out on the reservoir.

Bridge Creek
Days – 2-3
Start Hike – Bridge Creek Trailhead (North Cascades Highway 20)
Take Out – Lady of the Lake Ferry in Chelan, WA
Season – Summer post peak snowmelt
Flows – 2000 – 4000 CFS (Stehekin River gauge)

On the eastern edge of the North Cascades, Bridge Creek is another remarkably scenic and remote whitewater run that involves a bit of pre-trip planning due to both the required backcountry permit (obtained at the Marblemount Ranger Station) and Lady of the Lake Ferry reservation. As it runs along the Pacific Crest Trail, Bridge Creek continuously picks up volume and gradient until it meets with the Stehekin River, whereupon the river doubles and slowly meanders to the north end of Lake Chelan. Although the town of Stehekin is at the mouth, it’s only accessible via ferry. This ferry departs daily at 2pm and takes four hours to cross the lake to the town of Chelan. Fortunately, although this mission requires an approach on foot, it’s a cruisey 3.5 miles downhill to a floatable point of the creek.

While these aren’t deterring factors, it does require some forethought because the most difficult and committing section of the run, Tumwater Canyon, is the final stretch of whitewater before the couple hour flat water paddle out. A two-day trip demands hiking in and paddling all the whitewater in one long day or camping above the gorge, waking up exceptionally early, navigating the gorge, and hoping to make the ferry departure. While this is an admirable mission, if possible, I highly recommend the casual three-day approach, which permits ample timing for fishing, huckleberry picking, and appreciating this place you’ve put in all the effort to access.

Runnable at a wide range of river levels, Bridge Creek’s recommended flow is anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 CFS on the Stehekin gauge. At the lower end, we found ourselves scraping the first several miles to the confluence with the North Fork Bridge Creek, wondering if we had made a huge mistake. But, this meant the steep section ended up being a manageable and enjoyable flow. With higher water levels the upper stretch would be less frustrating, but Tumwater Canyons becomes rowdy and an almost certain portage. Each has their merits.

The substantial amount of high-quality class IV-V whitewater makes the trip well worth organizing all of the pieces even if the initial details make it appear a logistical nightmare.

Bonus Day Run
Cascade River

To acquire wilderness camping permits for Bridge and Lightning Creek, a stop at the Cascade National Park Ranger Station in Marblemount is required. This would be entirely inconvenient if it weren’t for the super classic Cascade River only 10 minutes away. Featuring easy shuttle logistics, and runnable at a wide range of flows (we did it from 2200 – 1600 CFS, which certainly weren’t the limits on either end), it’s the perfect way to make this mandatory stop less of a grunt.

Thunder Creek
Days – 1
Put In – Thunder Creek Trailhead (North Cascades Highway 20)
Take Out – Colonial Creek Campground
Season – Later Summer
Flows – 400 – 1200 CFS

Photo: Mike Hagadorn

On the hit list for years, Thunder Creek is still one that I’ve only seen in photos and videos. Running later in the season, the flows were a bit high for what we heard was a super fun, but, gorged and prone to be a slightly wooded section of whitewater. For this day mission, the logistics stay simple, where you start your hike at the Colonial Creek Campground is also where the creek flows into Lake Diablo. The put-in is the take-out. While the trail goes up the entire stretch of river paddled, deep in a couple of gorges, it’s only visible a handful of times, but the riverbed is wide enough to permit scouting and portaging. Remote and full of enjoyable whitewater, it’s considered a North Cascades classic.

After nearly a month spent in the region, Erik and I only began to experience the whitewater opportunities Northern Washington has to offer. I have an ever-growing list of kayak dream destinations, with returning to this section of wilderness a high priority.