White Salmon - 5 - Buck Creek to Columbia River (Lower Gorge)

White Salmon, Washington, US


5 - Buck Creek to Columbia River (Lower Gorge)

Usual Difficulty II-III(V) (for normal flows)
Length 5 Miles
Avg. Gradient 50 fpm

Steelhead Falls

Steelhead Falls
Photo of Susan Hollingsworth by Thomas O'Keefe taken 11/11/12

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-14123500 300 - 1000 cfs II-III(V) 03h11m 596 cfs (running)

River Description

With a gradient comparable to sections upstream and a deep bedrock canyon, paddlers wondered what whitewater treasueres were buried beneath the waters held back by Condit Dam. With that in mind and recognizing the opportunity to restore this great river, American Whitewater formally requested a dam removal study in 1992 and was a party to the 1999 negotiated settlement to remove Condit Dam and drain Northwestern Reservoir (photo). This reservoir buried the river for a century blocking fish migration and innundating a whitewater run. The dam was breached in October 2011 (photo) and opened to paddlers in November 2012.

From the put-in at Northwestern Park near the Buck Creek confluence, the river flows through the historic reservoir descending into a basalt canyon. As the vertical basalt wall rises up on river right you enter the Lower Gorge and a great series of class III whitewater that builds to a crescendo as you float through the former Condit Dam site. Waterfalls cascade in from the sides making this one of the most beautiful and dramactic sections along the entire river--a section that was hidden from view for over a century below the waters of Northwestern Reservoir. The dam was built in a bedrock notch with a nice pool downstream. It makes a great spot to stop and marvel at the scale of the restoration effort (historical photo prior to damphoto of dam, photo as it looks today).

The reach downstream of the dam has been paddled over the years including a study that American Whitewater did back in 1992 as part of relicensing with PacifiCorp and the National Park Service (study photo).

The first mile below the dam site is characterized by fun series of pool-drop rapids within the Lower Gorge but proceed cautiously as you approach the Narrows. As the river makes a hard bend to the left and then turns back to the right in a big S turn, you will find yourself at the top of the class III lead-in rapid that disappears in a horizon line at the entrance to the Narrows. There is a nice bench of river left that makes an easy place to pull-out and check out what lies ahead (be sure to scout before you commit). Looking downstream (photo), the class III rapid builds in intensity with progressively smaller eddies until it disappears over a horizon line--Steelhead Falls which is worth a scout. Depending on flows there are descent eddies on river left but you need to be careful to not boat past the last eddy you can catch and risk going over the drop backwards.

Steelhead Falls marks the entrance to the White Salmon Narrows (photo) and is a class IV/V rapid, more challenging than others on this section. The river pours over a ledge creating a beefy hydraulic. At moderate flows around 2' route options include a chute down the left side or a boof more towards the center. In either case you want to be sure and avoid the hole. As flows increase the drop increases in power and intensity. The portage is not easy as you have to scramble along small foot and handholds to pass over a basalt knob that extends out into the river from river left. It's the kind of scout/portage that class V creek boaters do on creeks throughout the region, but it can present a challenge. At higher flows the portage route is innundated so first timers should start at lower flows and work their way up or get trusted beta from local regulars. There is a very nice bedrock bench downstream of the Steelhead Falls on river left that provides a great platform to set safety. The risk of a swim at Steelhead Falls is that you will likely get very worked in the hydraulic and if you get out you are likely headed through the Narrows that always has the potential to collect wood hazards.

Below Steelhead Falls the river flows through a narrow gorge known as the White Salmon Narrows (photo). In the past wood has collected in the Narrows and this could be an issue in the future so be sure to get a recent report especially if there has been a major storm (photo).

About 1/2 mile below the Narrows you will reach the powerhouse (photo). There is some more good whitewater downstream, starting out as class II (photo) and finishing with a bang with a series of three long III-III+ drops. The last of these is great fun (photo). The river quickly goes flat and you can either hike up the fishermen's trail or continue another 1/2 mile downstream to the Columbia.

Logistics: Follow Hwy. 14 along the Columbia River and at mile 63.6 there is a bridge across the White Salmon at the confluence with the Columbia providing river access. The public can't use the tribal in lieu site on river right but you can scramble up the bank on river left at the Alt Hwy. 141 junction (photo). Alternatively you can head up the river 1.1 mile from Hwy. 14 to a large pullout (photo) that provides access via a fishermen's trail that leads down to the river. From the river you can recognize this site by the cable that extends across the river overhead just downstream of the last significant rapid.

To reach the dam site, take Alt Hwy. 141 north from Hwy. 14 (just to the east side of the bridge). Continue 2.2 miles to the junction with Hwy. 141. Just past this junction you will see the turn for Powerhouse Road. Follow this road down to the dam where it will make a 90 degree turn to the left to continue downstream. If you look over the edge at this point you will be able to see down into the gorge where Condit Dam once stood.

To reach the put-in, head 2.0 miles north of the junction between Alt Hwy. 141 and Hwy. 141 and turn onto Northwestern Lake Rd. (Hwy. 141 mile 6.7). Follow it 0.4 miles down to a bridge. There is a park with a launch ramp, picnic tables, and a changing area on the downstream river right side of the bridge.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2012-11-13 04:08:47


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
-3.3Condit Dam SiteN/AAccess Photo
-2.7Steelhead FallsVPhoto
-2.0Condit PowerhouseN/APhoto
-1.3Final RapidIIIPhoto
0.0Fishermen's AccessTakeout

Rapid Descriptions

Condit Dam Site (Class N/A, Mile -3.3)

Condit Dam Site

Condit Dam Site
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe taken 11/11/12

Looking back upstream towards the site of the former Condit Dam.

Steelhead Falls (Class V, Mile -2.7)

Steelhead Falls

Steelhead Falls
Photo of Susan Hollingsworth by Thomas O'Keefe taken 11/11/12

Steelhead Falls marks the entrance to the White Salmon Narrows.

Condit Powerhouse (Class N/A, Mile -2.0)


Photo by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 07/30/06

The powerhouse that has since been shut down and no longer diverts flow from the river.

Final Rapid (Class III, Mile -1.3)

Final Rapid

Final Rapid
Photo of Megi Morishita by Thomas O'Keefe В© taken 07/30/06

Final Rapid on the White Salmon is one of the best class III rapids on the whole river.

Fishermen's Access

This access comes at the end of the whitewater. You can hike up the trail here or paddle the flatwater down to the Columbia River and take-out at the confluence.

User Comments

2012-11-28 12:07:14 (643 days ago)
Thomas O'KeefeDetails
From Todd Collins: WARNING, There is a river wide log jammed in the narrows, immediately below
Steelhead Falls. At todays level, about 3.75 ft, it is super hazardous. It's big and right at river
level. If you ran Steelhead without scouting, you would be in serious trouble. At the water level
we saw it, it was impassable. Just a few feet too far downstream to get past on land. While I would
not say that it is impossible to get a boat past the log, it would definitely put you and your gear
at risk to make the move. We had a very strong team of paddlers, and decided as a group that it was
too hazardous to get past. We ended up hiking out. We all felt that, in its current state, this log
makes the Lower Lower unrunnable. I'm not sure how a change in water levels will affect the
situtaion. I think we hit pretty much the perfect water level to make it as bad as possible. Higher
or lower water might actually be better. However, I wouldn't recommend being in there at higher
water right now. Missing the eddies above Steelhead would be very bad.

2012-11-18 08:42:10 (653 days ago)
Gardner (153659)
Please note there is potentially dangerous wood throughout this section. Wood conditions will
continue to evolve as the river keeps changing in response to the dam removal. As of November 18,
2012, there is a nearly river-wide log just upstream of the powerhouse. The log is in a relatively
straightforward section, but don't let it take you by surprise. It can be easily passed on the far
left or far right. It's position could very likely change after high flows.
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Associated Projects

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    The rivers of Volcano Country within and surrounding the Gifford Pinchot National Forest represent some of the nation's most spectacular whitewater resources.
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