The Elwha is located on the north side of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula and is home to the largest dam removal project (at least) in the States, if not the world. There were originally two dams built, one just downstream of the other. Now, only a fraction of the last dam remains. When that comes out, the Elwha can be run from source to sea for the first time is 100 years. Dams are bad for fish, people... and the ecosystem.
For many years I never knew there was another Grand Canyon beyond the Colorado's. It seemed impossible to me that there could be more than one. How could any canyon be more grand than that? To answer simply, each river is its own and each have special places waiting to be discovered. Elwha's ancient, illustrious walls certainly don't tarnish the reputation few dare to boast. Grandeur exists and is awaiting discovery.
|for openers... Grand Canyon Elwha|
This trip began many years ago, long before I had any idea how to survive a canyon like this. Eventually 2013 rolled around and July came. Peak melt was over and the last of the water was running out of the hills, prime time for Elwha. I knew I had to be proactive if this thing was gonna happen. The thing about WA is there is so much whitewater to get on, it is difficult to persuade people you trust your life with... away from the roadside classics. Berger was in, but we struggled to find others. It didn't really matter, we were going. In the end it was just the two of us, some sunshine and 8.5 miles of choosing our own adventure.... good times.
|ready for a nice hike|
It took an hour or so to rig our packs, hitting the trail around noon. The trail remains high above the river until you reach the put in. About 5 miles into the trip the trail crosses a bridge over the Lillian River. The Lillian is a small tributary of the Elwha with one hellacious canyon between the bridge and where it confluences with the Elwha. It's been run and is harder and more boxed in than Elwha. From the bridge over the Lillian, the next two miles are where you will find most of the up part of the hike. It's not super steep, but it is relentless. 5 hours later we got to camp, deciding not to go all the way to Mary's Falls, but instead chose a secluded island with a spot for a small fire. Hiking in PBR's to go with dinner... classy.
|LOTS of old growth in these woods|
|day 1 on the river|
|top of Eskimo Pie|
Paddlers can get out on the left rock and scout the entirety of the drop, but it's impossible to set any kind of realistic safety. From the launch pad you'll have about 10 feet before entering the drop. Boofing at top speed will make this drop go good.
|sliding into the current|
Eskimo Pie is the most challenging must-run drop in the Grand. Nightmare is a must-run as well, but the move is less challenging... depending on the wood situation. The Elwha gets up to 40,000 sometimes. Wood is different every year in here.
|dropping away below the Eskimo|
|fun boat scouting|
Several quality class IVish drops lead into Nightmare. You'll wind up scouting quite a bit throughout the trip, as you get closer to Nightmare some views are possible. I could only see enough to get my blood pumping. The beauty of this place cannot be understated. This year Nightmare has a piece of wood in the typical left line. Nightmare is typically run left due to a large rock sieve on river right, where the majority of flow is going. A well timed move starting from river center moving left, getting between the log and left wall worked for us. Hitting the log could get ugly. We had no problems. Through this entire sequence, the canyon walls are closer together at the rim than down at river level. The top of the canyon is so narrow that fallen trees have collected, spanning the rim with a few hanging skewers needing a bit of wind to send them freefalling into the chasm below.
|not stoked on the wood|
|the wood situation in Nightmare|
|glad those branches were gone|
|Nightmare from below|
|cathedral after cathedral|
|sometimes you haff ta sneak stuff|
Moving through the natural world...
|Berger is stoked on the Elwha!!|
|the Elwha is such an amazing place|
|We found a sick beach for night two!!|
|leaving camp around noon, third day. 'merica|
|right side of Goblin Gates|
|Berger, givin 'er hell|
|Secret Chute had a sick railslide move down this big tree... on the right|
|sediment from the old dam|
|Lake Mills' old level|
Grand Canyon Elwha river description:
Talking to someone who's run it may be the best way to paddle this stretch of river. The Elwha will call to you long after you've driven away. It is a most impressive set of canyons. The wildness and beauty are magnified here. Skilled paddlers will be rewarded handsomely with both scenic views and experience in a place witnessed by very few.
From the put in fun class II rapids begin in an open valley quickly giving way to class III and IV. As with any river on the Olympic Peninsula, keep an eye out for wood. Winter floods keep the wood constantly moving. The Grand Canyon proper begins with a sharp right turn with a strong eddy on the left. Wood has collected here in years past, so please approach with caution. Once through the gates, paddlers are immediately rewarded with stunning canyon views, crystal clear waters and beautiful challenging rapids within an inescapable box.
The first big rapid after the class IV lead-in drops is Eskimo Pie. Scout left or right. Left is a little tougher to get out of your boat, but offers better viewing. Run the main line down the center of the tongue, trying for loft at the lip with a big right stroke. Land on a left stroke pulling hard, paying attention to not get too close to the boily pockets along the left wall. Eskimo Pie is the crux drop in this canyon. More IV and V rapids will continue to delight experienced paddlers.
A few drops after Eskimo Pie, paddlers will begin approaching Nightmare. Better views are possible as you get closer, scouting lead-in rapids upstream. Nightmare as has a sievy rock pile on the right for the past 10ish years where the main flow routes through. On the left a log is visible leaning off the left wall into the current. At 1000 cfs we entered a center clot which was tucked behind a midstream boulder, dropped about 4 feet moving left and waited for the right moment to hit the gas, ducking the log and sneaking between it and the left wall. Not a ton of room, but it went okay for us. It was hard to tell if it went until we were pretty close up on it. Nightmare is in a very cool part of the canyon and if there was ever blocking wood you might live out the name of this drop.
More fun drops and sluices will tumble paddlers to the Lillian River confluence. The Lillina enters on river right through an impressive bedrock slot. Downstream await other signiture drops like Pebbles and Bam Bam, Dagger and Landslide. Scout well, Elwha's canyons do contain a few bad pin spots. You'll be scouting anyway.
Hopefully you brought a few extra meals because the Geyser Valley offers many great camping options in a picturesque open valley. Some spots boast sweeping flood channels with tons of flood debris and logjams waiting to be explored. After a couple miles of busy II-III, paddlers will reach the entrance to Rica Canyon, the second of two canyons in this 8.5 mile stretch.
Rica Canyon begins abruptly just before Goblin Gates. This drop changes every season. This year, 2013, we ran the meaty right line. The level on the recently revised online gauge was around 950. (the gauge had been recalibrated days before our run, from somewhere around 730 up to 1100.
Goblin Gates is a must-run and the crux rapid of the run. At 950 we found a pronounced, backed-up hole on the right. The main flow charges into this slot making the pile you have to get on top of, challenging. Once on top, boof left. The current pushes into the right wall at the bottom of this drop just enough to make it a pain for boaters who lose momentum and fall off the right side here. Don't give up and don't flip! It'll work out. There has been a line down the left in years past, but from our vantage point on the right... left didn't look very boatable, nor did it look attainable from the right. Getting out one or two moves above that right alcove might offer better views of the left. Paddler's note: once in the right alcove eddy, you are committed to the right slot. After getting through this hole/boof move, paddlers may eddy left before the final ledge sequence, boofing just behind a midstream boulder. From the left side of the boulder, boof right, missing piton rocks if you were to paddle straight off.
There are more interesting drops and corners, twists and turns, but the hard stuff is over. One of the next drops is called Secret Chute. This year it was no secret that all the chutes in here were clogged just enough for us to perform a quick, technical portage on river right up and over the root ball of a tree has jammed in between some rocks. More class IV read and run, still keeping an eye out for wood. The Elwha wants to suck you downstream... as the rapids and gradient calm down the walls begin to peel back. Rica Canyon extends into the old Lake Mills Reservoir site. Soon enough paddlers will s-turn their way out of the confines of Rica's last hallways into giant stands of cobble. From here, exit river right and make your way up the gravel stands to the most upstream end, not scaling up the bedrock walls of course. The trail is about 60 feet above the river. From here it's a short steep slog up to the road.
- note- As flows increase, Eskimo Pie and Goblin Gates will likely get harder.