SEASON: July through September
FUN FACT: Incredible canyon run through Olympic National Park
LOGISTICS: At mile 239.5 on Highway 101 take Olympic Hotsprings Road south through the National Park entrance. Continue 4.0 miles up this road and take the left-hand turn up to Whiskey Bend. As you proceed up this road you'll reach the historic Glines Canyon Dam site at mile 1.2 where you can walk out on to a remanant of the dam that provides a high vantage scout of Glines Canyon. Continuing up the road to mile 4.0, there is a trail that leads down to the exit from Rica Canyon and the historic start of the Mills Reservoir (marked with a small sign that reads, "to Lake Mills"). This has been a popular take-out option for those who want to end their run with Rica Canyon although it requires a steep climb up a 0.4 mile trail. The road ends at mile 4.4 which is the trailhead. This trailhead is popular with horsemen so make sure you don't park in their unloading area and if you do see horses on the trail step aside and wait for them to pass. Park rangers have reported that horses have been startled by folks dragging their boats up the trail, so just take a quick rest break when you encounter them. The trail starts out fairly level for the first 1.9 miles to the Michael's Cabin. From there you have your first climb up and then it's level for a bit until you drop down and cross the Lillian River at trail mile 4.7. Once you cross the bridge you have to climb back up regaining most of the altitude you just lost in descending into the Lillian River Valley. The hike then levels off again for the last couple miles before finally dropping down to the river just downstream of Prescott Creek at trail mile 8.5. For those who want to taste the whitewater on a day trip, you can walk in to Rica Canyon. From the parking area, it's a 1.2 mile hike up to the junction of the Rica Canyon trail which heads 0.5 miles down to the river (put-in on the gravel bar when you reach the river).
To take out below Glines Canyon, you can head back to the turnoff for Whiskey Bend Road. Head upstream on Olympic Hotsprings Road, and cross the bridge to river left at Altair. Head 1.0 mile up the road and before you reach the Glines Canyon overlook there is an unmarked road that heads down to the old powerhouse site. A formal river access is now avaialble at this site.
This river is a class V expedition trip--an 8.5 mile hike in to the put-in and two canyons with must-run class IV and V rapids. The Grand Canyon of the Elwha is truly a whitewater treasure and one of the finest runs in Olympic National Park. Expert paddlers from around the world have come to experience this river, but there have been a couple incidents requiring rescues. All boaters who paddle this reach have a responsibility to do so with the highest regard for safety.
The run starts with Entrance Drop which is a blind drop. Next comes Eskimo Pie which is the first biggie on the run, that gets its name from the very cool rock layers. It's a sketchy scout on river right requring a tricky move to exit your boat right at the lip. The move to get to this eddy there is very thin, and if you blow it, you're going to get stuffed into a huge hole. You can find an easy scout on river left at a good-sized eddy right above the drop. It offers a great opportunity to scout, but no way to portage; for that you are looking at that sketchy eddy on river right. You can scout left, and still make a ferry back to the right, but at that point your best bet is probably just to run it--right through the meat of the big hole.
There are a couple more rapids before you come to the pool above Nightmare which is impossible to portage or scout (in 2004 some logs wedged between the gorge walls upstream of the drop did offer a means of getting up to a point about 40 feet above the river, a little scary, which provided a bit of a peak at the rapid. The route is down the left. You can scout this a bit, on the left in a small rock grotto, located just above the drop. From here you can see most of the drop, but at one point, the river bends too far to the right, and you can't see any further. Where it disappears is right about where the rapid ends. From your perch at the top of the drop it looks like anything could happen there, but fortunately the river calms & pools just beyond sight. Also the sieve on the right wall at Nightmare is extremely ugly. There are two sneak slots on the left that you can run. There is a main line up top (center) that you could run, but you need to make a strong move left to get away from the sieve at that point. Your alternative option is the two sneak entry slots on far left, then running the meat to the left.
Downstream of the Lillian River confluence you'll come to Pebbles and Bam Bam, and then Dagger. The final challenging drop on the run is Landslide. Although the whole drop has been run, many run the first half and then portage the meaty triple-drop sequence at the bottom. It's an easy portage on the left.
Once you leave the Grand Canyon you're in the Geyser Valley. It's a beautiful camping and fishing spot and groups would split up the run by spending the night here, although the two canyons are now more commonly run in a single day. If you're interested in a day trip, you can hike in to Geyser Valley and take the trail down to Rica Canyon. It's short but still a lot of fun.
After a couple miles of class II, you leave the Geyser Valley behind with a class III rapid that plunges towards the blind entrance to Rica Canyon at Goblin Gates. A generous eddy on the left gives you a peak at the canyon downstream but exercise caution at this spot where a majority of the flow piles straight into eddy that has collected huge log jams, before the river makes a hard 90 degree turn to the right. Once you commit to the canyon, there is a little alcove on river right just above the lip of the first major drop at Goblin Gates. At moderate flows, one person can scramble out here and direct others downstream. It's an S Turn move where you head down along the right and then follow the current over to the left and the final plunge over a blind horizon line that is one of the more significant ledge drops in this canyon. You'll need to check it out to find the best line for this last pitch. Far right has some pin potential over there. Center also has some pin potential. If you stay with the current, you'll tumble into the hole on far river left and although you can expect to get a good ender or disappear completely, there is a nice recovery pool at the bottom.
After the next short sequence through a narrow constriction in the canyon you'll want to pull out on the right. This drop has the Secret Chute which you can run up against the right side or you can run the meat down the center. From this point downstream there is some great class IV read and run.
All too soon you'll be at the final drop in the canyon. This is the longest rapid in this section and involves a complex boulder garden that ends with a quick flume ride up against a bedrock wall on the right.You can scout most of it from the left. There are a couple more fun rapids but the gradient starts to taper off as you emerge from the canyon and enter the valley that was once buried under the slackwater of Mills Reservoir. Below this valley, the river enters it's final major gorge section at Glines Canyon. This class V gorge can be scouted from high above on the Glines Canyon Dam overlooks (both sides of the river). While blasting to facilitate fish passage has removed some of the hazards, things can still get rowdy in the gorge so scout carefully before committing. A take-out with parking is available at the exit from the gorge on river left at the old powerhouse site.
With contributions from Erik Schertzl.
for additional information see:
The remants of Glines Canyon Dam high above on the canyon walls mark the entrance to this canyon. While blasting to remove barriers to fish migration has removed some of the hazards, it is still important to scout before committing.
The sneak route (left) in Nightmare is plugged with a log. This is visible from the logjam in the drop above Nightmare.
Secret Chute is also plugged with a log. The next door to the left worked at low flow.
July 2004 Update, provided by Erik Schertzl
Four of us ran The Grand Canyon of The Elwha on Monday the 5th of July. We hadn't heard of anyone going through there since the floods of October. We were a bit concerned about new wood in bad places and changes to the rapids themselves. Between all of us, everything got run.
We were pleasantly surprised to find no bad wood in The Grand Canyon. There was some, but none that caused any problems. We guessed that a few rapids have changed, but it's hard to confirm as none of us had done the run prior. We're only able to go off pics from the internet and word of mouth.
All the lines appear to be standard. Nightmare was fine on the left (after some concern about running it blind & feeble attempts to scout). There is a very bad seive on the right side that none of us had ever heard of. It's ugly for sure. Most likely sneak the entrance on the left and stay there.
Rica Canyon has a major log-jam blocking the entrance at Goblin's Gate. There's a way around it. Hit me off line for that beta. Goblin's Gate Rapid has changed. No longer run the second ledge center; it's far right or left there.
If anyone goes through there in the next few weeks, please keep an eye out for a digital camera/case left up in the Grand Canyon by one member of our group. It should be on the right bank at the drop above Nightmare.
Unfortunately, the floods of Oct didn't change the hike in (making it shorter?). It's still a push (but beautiful). What an amazing run!
Memo and supporting documents on rivers eligible for Wild and Scenic designation within Olympic National Park
This study report evaluates the eligibility and classification of the Elwha River for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
A comprehensive guide to 75 river runs on Washington's beautiful Olympic Peninsula.
GAUGE: Flows between about 800 and 1000 are considered a good moderate level. You can run the river lower but down below about 700 cfs the pin potential increases and several drops start to become pretty trashy. The river has been run higher too, but normally by veterans who know the lines and are familiar with the drops.
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Glines Canyon Dam overlook
Goblin Gates Entrance
Lillian River Confluence
Running Eskimo Pie
Scouting Eskimo Pie
Scouting Above Nightmare
Final Drop in Rica
second major drop in Rica Canyon
Goblin Gates, looking upstream
Final Drop in Rica Canyon
Grand Canyon of the Elwha
If someone gets hurt on a river, or you read about a whitewater-related injury, please report it to
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While paddling the Elwha River is a fascinating way to experience restoration and recovery of a free-flowing river in action, it's not the only way to get a first-hand look at one of the nation's most ambitious and fascinating restoration projects.
Currently underway, the Elwha River restoration project is the biggest dam removal effort in history. This week we are proud to release the third film in our series on dam removal celebrating the Year of the River.
The biggest dam removal in history begins September 17, 2011 on Washington’s Elwha River. In partnership with American Rivers and the Hydropower Reform Coalition, American Whitewater is releasing Episode 1 of our Year of the River film series.
The final countdown for the Elwha River restoration project has begun, and the largest dam removal in U.S. history is set to begin in September 2011. Removing the dams will free the Elwha River for the benefit of salmon, river-based recreation, and the cultural resources of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
In 1994 American Whitewater submitted comments on the Elwha River ecosystem restoration project.
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