SEASON: Best after a good winter rain and during snowmelt (November to June), but can be boated throughout most of the year.
FUN FACT: Explore a newly restored river following the removal of Elwha Dam.
With the Elwha Dam gone, the Elwha River is still developing a new river channel through the reservoir sediments of the historic Aldwell Reservoir that begins at the put-in from the Highway 101 bridge. Use caution through this section as wood hazards are constantly shifting and the channel is in a state of flux. This section is a fascinating landscape of old tree stumps from when the forest was cleared a century ago prior to construction of the Elwha Dam. While the whitewater is not difficult the wood hazards demand respect and this section is no place for inexperienced paddlers. You can easily scout the upper section of the reservoir and explore the old reservoir from the old reservoir boat launch (see logistics below).
After you pass through the upper section of the old reservoir, the river cuts through a short canyon at the Gooseneck before opening up into the lower section of the old reservoir. Soon you approach the Elwha Canyon that was once blocked by Elwha Dam.
The rapid at the former dam site is known as That Dam Rapid. If you are traveling downriver you can pull out on river left and climb up the slope to get a partial view of the rapid. Although you can not see much from scouting on this side, it is the best portage option if you do not want to run the drop. A better view of the rapid is available from river right but it's more challenging to get to the best vantage point from river level. It's easy to get there if you drive down before your run.
That Dam Rapid starts with a short entry rapid before the river explodes below through a class IV+ cascade of boulders and holes that is a technical drop at lower flows or a bigwater rapid at higher flows. At moderate flows the standard move through the main drop is to set up in a nice eddy on river right, start right through the rapid, clear the first hole on river left, and work quickly to the tongue on river left to avoid more rocks and holes on river right.
Just downstream of the dam site the river flows through a scenic gorge with some class II rapids. There is a short stretch of flatwater before another class II rapid on the upstream side of the Highway 112 bridge.
Once you pass under the Highway 112 Bridge the river continues to migrate back and forth across the floodplain as sediment from behind the old dams moves through this section.
As you approach the new Elwha Road Bridge, you will pass by the intake for the water treatment plant and an engineered riffle. In some seasons there is a fish weir just upstream of this point that will likely need to be portaged. The bridge has an upper deck for cars and a lower deck for the Olympic Discovery Trail, a great trail if you are looking for other activities in the area to keep you busy (the trail includes two routes, the standard route and the adventure route featuring great singlet track).
Once you pass under the old Elwha Road Bridge the character of the run changes as the gradient tapers off a bit and the channel becomes more braided. At moderate flows there are still a few rapids in this section, but there is also a lot of wood--both engineered and natural log jams. By continuing all the way to the ocean you can end your trip with a bit of ocean surf and experience the new beach that is forming at the mouth of the Elwha River.
Put-In: From Port Angeles take 101 west to mile 239.5 and the bridge across the Elwha River. The access is on river right downstream of the bridge a short ways. If you want to scout the first part of the run continue across to the west side of the bridge and at Highway mile 239.4 Turn right (north) onto Lake Aldwell Road towards Olympic Raft and Kayak (they can provide local beta). Continue on the road 0.2 mile to the end and the old boat launch that was on the reservoir. From here you can hike out onto the old reservoir and spend several hours exploring the former reservoir which is a fascinating landscape of sediment held back by the dam and old tree stumps from the forest that was cut down prior to flooding the reservoir.
Take-Out: From Highway 101 mile 242.5 turn onto Highway 112. Head 2.1 miles west (crossing the river) to Place Road. Turn right (north) and follow this road 1.9 miles to the T junction and then turn right (east) continuing on the short lane to the Elwha Dike access point. Day-use parking is available along the road. Hike a couple hundred yards along the trail towards the ocean for the take-out or park-and-play surfing. Note that private access points that were once used on river right to gain access to the surf at Angeles Point are now closed to the public. An alternate take-out is a couple miles upstream of the mouth on river right under the Elwha RIver Road bridge.
Visit the Dam Site: Historic access was available at the base of the dam and you can go visit the site which enables you to scout That Dam Drop (recommended if you plan to portage or run this drop). From Highway 101 mile 242.5 turn onto Highway 112. Take this road 0.7 miles and just before reaching the Elwha bridge turn left (south) on Lower Dam Road, and turn into the parking lot for the trailhead to the overlook. You can also follow Lower Dam Road 0.4 mile down to the dam site where you will find a trail that leads to the pool below the old dam site. This is a long, steep, and potentially slippery trail that in the past was the only way to launch kayaks at the base of the dam. Alternatively you can easily hike to an overlook where the river right abutment of the dam was. This provides the best overall view of the rapid.
for additional information see:
Olympic National Park website
Korb, G. 1997. A paddlers guide to the Olympic Peninsula. third edition.
Bennett, J. and T. Bennett. 1997. A guide to the whitewater rivers of Washington, second edition. Swiftwater Publishing. Portland, OR.
Narrow canyon section that was within the Aldwell Reservoir.
The river canyon that was blocked by Elwha Dam for a century.
The water intake is on river right but you can paddle past it and the old weir has been reconfigured to allow navigability.
End your trip by paddling out into the ocean and catching a couple of surf waves.
On 1/25/2014 we could not see any trail at the old dam site
Fascinating landscape to explore as a river comes back to life following a century behind a dam. There are plenty of wood hazards and unstable banks of sediment so proceed with extreme caution. Parking at the old reservoir boat launch and scouting from land is recommended and makes for an interesting excursion even if you have no plans to boat. Once you pass through the Goosenecks things start to clean up a bit. The canyon through the dam site is spectacular and the whitewater poses a stiff challenge. You can check this out before your run too. At lower flows it's a big and technical drop. Bring the creek boat--you will want the volume. Below here and all the way out to the ocean there is more wood in play. We were on it at 470 cfs which turned out to be a good flow for an initial look at things.
As of this writing (2/13/2005), about 3/4 of the way down this stretch, below the weir, there's an enormous log dam that is impassable. Portaging is difficult at best due to the braided quality of the river. It took us about an hour and a half to get over and around this thing with a friend, my SOAR 16 and our 3 kids. Very unsafe clambering over the logs with the water running underneath. Another portage, although easier, was required not far below this too. Great run except for the log dams!
3 years ago
by Thomas O'Keefe
7 years ago
8 years ago
by Tyler Ritchie
11 years ago
A comprehensive guide to 75 river runs on Washington's beautiful Olympic Peninsula.
This study report evaluates the eligibility and classification of the Elwha River for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Elwha USGS gauge
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Crown Z Bridge
Elwha, That Dam Rapid
Elwha Canyon following dam removal
Elwha Canyon post dam removal
Elwha Canyon Rapid
Entering the Elwha Canyon
Approaching Elwha Canyon
Entering the Gooseneck
Former Aldwell Rerservoir
Former Aldwell Reservoir
Elwha Cutting Through Sediments
Field of Willows
Elwha River Canyon
Elwha Dam Removal
Rapid Below Elwha Dam
Water Intake Weir
Elwha Dam from the put-in
If someone gets hurt on a river, or you read about a whitewater-related injury, please report it to
American Whitewater. Don't worry about multiple submissions from other witnesses, as our safety
editors will turn multiple witness reports into a single unified accident report.
Design for the US 101 Elwha River Bridge replacement project is proceeding forward and the Washington Department of Transportation is soliciting community feedback. Please provide a comment on this project if you use the Elwha River for recreation.
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.
Today we wrap up our Year of the River film series with a short film that tells the story of historic dam removal successes on Washington's Elwha and White Salmon rivers. The film features advocates who were instrumental in taking down the dams, and people connected to the rivers who will benefit from dam removal.
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.
As the winter rains return to the Pacific Northwest, those passing through Washington's Olympic Peninsula in search of paddling opportunities will have an opportunity to see the largest dam removal effort in the nation underway. Olympic National Park recently opened the Elwha Dam Overlook Trail where visitors can view dam removal progress in person.
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.
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