SEASON: Snowmelt. Usually June.
FUN FACT: Great east-side gorge run.
LOGISTICS: From I-90 take exit 80 and head for Roslyn/Salmon La Sac (those arriving from the east can take exit 84). 2.7 miles from I-90 you'll reach Highway 903, turn left towards the north (at this point you're at mile 4.2 on Highway 903 which becomes Salmon La Sac Road). Continue through Roslyn and past Cle Elum Reservoir to mile 21 where you cross the bridge into Salmon La Sac Campground. Take-out on river right above the bridge. To reach the put-in drive back across the bridge and turn left up the hill on FR 4330 (headed toward Tucquala Lake). A put-in for the shorter China Gorge run can be found 1.5 miles up this road after you cross Paris Creek. After you cross this creek you'll see the spur road 134 access to the Davis Peak trailhead. Follow this road and then the trail down to the river and a put-in upstream of the footbridge across the river (you will need a Northwest Forest pass). For the standard put-in for the full run go 5.8 miles up 4330 to the spot where the road runs along the river at Triple Falls. The falls makes a good put-in or you can continue upstream to another access point of your choosing.
This major tributary of the Yakima is one of the most spectacular spring snow-melt runs on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. At high water the run is fast and continuous and the constant threat of wood keeps you on your toes. The payoff is east- side sunshine and some of the finest scenery in the region with beautiful bedrock canyons, open ponderosa pine forests throughout the gorge, and snow-capped peaks off in the distance. The overall character of the run is mostly IV+ although there are times that log hazards can create situations requiring class V skills. If you are borderline make sure to get a recent wood report from someone who knows the run or head down at the lower limit of flows. Many skilled paddlers have walked off this run when flows were too high. Once the river leaves the road, however, this becomes considerably more difficult.
The run starts out at class V Triple Falls. It's an easy scout just off the road and you can put in just above or below depending on whether you want to run it. Another option is to put in at the pool below the second drop to just run the final pitch as the first two ledges can be a bit stickier than they may first appear. This sets you up for the third drop in control for the river left line. If you get messed up on one of the first two ledges you risk ending up with most of the current in the nasty hydraulic and terminal eddy on river right at the bottom of the third ledge.
Once you've left Triple Falls behind the action is nearly non-stop with continuous rapids and small eddies. For the next couple miles, the river cuts through small boulder gardens and over numerous ledges providing class III/IV action at moderate flows. The action cranks up a notch at the higher limit of flows.
As the canyon walls squeeze together about 1/2 mile upstream of China Point, you enter the most significant drop on the run at S Turn. This class V boulder garden is hard to scout and even harder to portage. Expect to spend over an hour to exit the canyon or portage. In some years this is necessary due to log hazards and although it can be done it's never a pleasant experience particularly when you are wrapped up in cold water boating gear and the sun is beating down on you. Scouting the rapid is a challenge as you can't see the entire drop from the upstream side, particularly the two holes you need to punch. The typical line is to start right, and then head left through the slot between the big mid-stream boulder and the bedrock wall. The river plunges about 8' through a beefy hole here and then you've got a quick eddy on the right to set yourself up for the next pitch. Once again you take the left slot between a second large boulder and the bedrock wall, dropping over an 8' ledge and a slightly more forgiving hole. It's a great drop but if flows are high the holes can get meaty and as flows drop it starts to get grungy.
The river eases up a bit to class III as you continue downstream and reach the Davis Peak trail bridge. This is an alternate put-in for a fun play run or intro to creeking depending on your preference. It's short but it can be a lot of fun at a wide range of flows. Consider this an option if you're up at Salmon La Sac Campground and just want to find something fun to boat for an hour or two, or if you arrive and flows are too high or too low for the full run. Just be prepared for continous big and pushy class IV rapids at higher flows. At lower flows its class III+ with one easy portage. Log hazards can always change that, but the good news is they are much less common in this section.
The first significant drop is where you join the Waptus River confluence. This major tributary enters from river right and a good-sized hole forms along the left taking up about 2/3 of the river. At lower flows this is a fun play spot but at higher flows it's a good place to get trashed. You can easily avoid the hole by staying to the right. With the added flows of the Waptus, the river takes on more of a big water feel. This section is pure fun with plenty of great little play spots. It's a wonderful place to be on a hot summer day.
The next big drop is China Falls where the river drops over a 10' bedrock ledge. At higher flows this drop rates class V, but at lower flows you can often find the class IV sneak. It's an obvious horizon line as you approach the drop and and you will find a generous eddy on the right to get out and scout or portage. There are a couple different options depending on flows but you can generally sneak the meat of the rapid on the right. It's an easy portage if you don't want to run the drop.
Below the falls you'll enjoy continuous whitewater down to the campground. Although it's short, you can take your time and really enjoy this section. It's quite scenic and there are lots of fun play spots. It's one of those runs that seems longer than it is, but it all ends too soon where the river gorge opens up. As the first cabins come into view and the take-out bridge comes into site, the river quickly calms down to class II. This is a nice take-out at the campground. Although considerably less challenging and a little less scenic, you can continue downstream on the lower Cle Elum which is a fun beginner run.
Nearby runs of interest include
As of 15MAY2004 there were about 4 log portages between Triple Drop and S Turn (exact number will vary with flows). All of them came up pretty quickly with limited eddies so use caution and keep your spacing. The large pine log still spans the river above S Turn and makes the entrance move a bit more challenging. After S Turn it's all good.
As of May/12/2011 there is bad wood in the 3rd rapid after the 10foot falls as you near the end of the run. Keep your head up, the river heads through a mini gorge where it gets squized through a nasty group of logs.
As of June 14th 2008 the run is the cleanest in a long time with no mandatory wood portages except in the runout of the second drop in S turn. We were able to portage drop #2 on the right but the eddy was marginal and will be gone at higher flows (approx 2000 cfs inflow) There was one other diagonal log that was submerged on the right and up on the left bank - somewhere above S turn but can't give a better location. We paddled over it on the right but with lower flows it may be a portage. We had approx 1,800-1,900 cfs inflow.
Bad wood in the first major drop of S-Turn. Also, there was a river-wide log below the last pitch of S-Turn.
6 years ago
While there is no gauge, discharge for this reach is calculated from change in reservoir height and release from the reservoir downstream. The value can be found on the USBR Yakima Project site as reservoir inflow for the Cle Elum (keep in mind this is a caculated value and sometimes the numbers are a bit off--check flows for the last few days and compare to nearby rivers to make sure the data make sense). Look for flows of 1500 to 3000 cfs. The run is upstream of two major tributaries so actual flow will be slightly lower. It has been run higher but the run gets pretty meaty, and at lower flows it's a bit of a scrape (if the run is outside the recommended range consider the alternate access for the lower have of the run (below S Turn) known as the China Gorge section, which is more forgiving at higher flows and holds its water better during lower flows--down to 800 cfs). To see data from the last few days go to the data archive, select station CLE with parameter QU which is the calculated inflow. For a second check, the Teanaway River at Forks is maintained by USBR and is the next drainage to the east. The Cle Elum should be good between about 250 and 800 cfs on the Teanaway gauge. The closest USGS gauge is the Wenatchee at Peshastin; look for flows of 6000-9000 cfs on this gauge.
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
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China Gorge, Laird
China Gorge, Goldberg
Typical Upper Cle Elum
Upper Cle Elum
Triple Drop on Cle Elum
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