FLOWS: The friendliest, and lowest stress flows are between 1,000-1,500 cfs in the Spring/Summer. The gauge is only a loose correlation though, as a handful of major tributaries enter the Cowlitz between the put in and gauge. The Ohanapecosh has been run over 4,000 cfs by class V boaters, but most boaters would consider 3,000 cfs to be high water. 2,000 cfs is a strong medium.
In the Winter, the gauge is harder to pin down, and it's probably not worth a long drive below 1,000 cfs unless there is a snow-melt component.
ACCESS: This run starts out in Mt. Rainier National Park and then flows through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The put-in is at the Ohanapecosh Campground off Highway 123 mile 3.7. Head right and park in the day-use area near the bridge across the river. It's a short scramble to a put-in on the river left upstream side of the bridge. There is an alternate put-in upstream that gives you at least one more big drop and is a good alternative when the campground is still closed in the off-season. It is reached off Highway 123 mile 5.1 where a trail heads down to the river. Put-in at the trail bridge.
Because of logs on the upper reach in recent years, boaters have been using a lower put in road about a hundred yards downstream of the wooden Rainier National Park entrance way. If you are using this access, follow this road to a "T", then head upstream a hundred yards to the upstream end of the campground. There is easy access here via a ramp/seal launch. Using this lower put in reduces the difficulty rating of the run to IV+(V).
To reach the take-out head south on Highway 123 to it's junction with Highway 12 and head west to the turn-off for La Wis Wis Campground at mile 138. Follow the road 0.5 down towards the campground, but turn right and then take an immediate left to the day-use picnic area right where the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz joins the Ohanapecosh (Northwest Forest Pass required). If you are paddling this run in the off season the campgrounds may be closed. If this is the case, there is another good take out option 2 miles downstream of the La Wis Wis campground turn off by taking Forest Dr 1270 half mile to where it meets the river. There is not a gate on this road and the 1.25 miles of class II+ on the Cowlitz moves quickly enough that it beats hiking out of La Wis Wis during the off-season.
SEASON: Although there are paddling opportunities in the shoulder seasons one of the best times to hit this run is in the summer when nice sunny days are more common, the day length is long, the campground access roads are open, and other nearby runs are starting to dry up for the season.
Originating in the lush old-growth forests of Mt. Rainier National Park, the Ohanapecosh (pronounced o-ha-na-pi-kosh) is a world class creek run. Locals, who refer to the river as the Ohane, consider themselves lucky to have such a great run in the back yard while those on road trips from across the country make this one of their scheduled stops. Some of the other rivers originating on the slopes of Mt. Rainier drain active glaciers that release a constant supply of glacial flour, but this one drains off snow fields meaning that the water is exceptionally clear. As the state's highest peak, the snow melt lasts well through mid to late summer providing an exceptionally long season. The run provides constant action over it's entire length serving up some challenging boulder gardens, fun slides and ledges, and awesome waterfalls. If that were not enough, the scenery on this run is unforgettable as the river cuts through some impressive geology. For expert creek boaters it's the best way to experience Mt. Rainier National Park.
As you put-in at the campground the river appears mellow and it's hard to imagine what awaits downstream. After a few easy warm-up rapids the gorge walls start to rise and the intensity starts to build. The first big drop and mandatory scout is formed by several large boulders with a technical line through the middle (photo). This is one of those drops where the hazard factor causes many to portage. There are some really bad pin spots in this drop and the portage along river right is not too bad. Make sure you pull out early enough and don't get stacked up if you're in a big group as this one sneaks up on you kind of quickly.
Once you're past the first major drop the big boulder gardens start up and they just keep going and going (photo 1, photo 2). There are good recovery pools and places to scout but there are so many drops that it's important to keep an efficient pace. It's one of those runs where it's really helpful to have a guide who knows the run for your first time down. There are a couple of memorable drops including one along an overhanging cliff wall on the right (photo). A short distance downstream there is a great slide along river left (photo).
The one place the river does let up for a bit is near the Secret Campground once you're in the National Forest. There is one particularly challenging drop here that you can scout along river left. The river plunges over a ledge on river right and then squeezes through a narrow slot in the bedrock (photo). To make things even more interesting, much of the flow is backed up a by a boulder that creates some funky hydraulics in the space between the ledge and the narrow exit slot. After a short little waterfall drop along the right ( photo--be sure to set safety as the hydraulic at the base have given some folks a bit of trouble--the river mellows to class II/III for a few hundred yards before you come up on a ledge that has held a log in place for the last few years. You can boof it on the right but it's a tricky line and it comes up quickly (photo).
You know you're past halfway when you pass Summit Creek entering from river left. A short distance downstream you'll find a great river wide ledge (photo), and then you're within site of Elbow Room which is less than 200 yards downstream where the canyon walls rise up high along both sides of the river (photo). There is a short pool and then a lead-in boulder garden before you reach the portage trail along the ledge on river left. Beyond this point the river drops away out of site into Elbow Room. This is one of the most dangerous rapids on the run because a large boulder that came in off the cliff is perched up on some midstream rocks forming a bad sieve in the middle of the river (photo). There are potential lines along either side (the left is better) depending on flows and the wood situation, but there is precious little margin for error and things can quickly turn epic. It is also extremely difficult to set adequate safety for this drop. To portage, haul your boats up on the large scouting ledge on the river left, take some time to check out the drop, and then begin the work of hauling your boats up and over the rocks up against the cliff wall. From there you have to work your way along a walkway. It's not too bad but a little bit exposed. From there its a short hike through the forest back down to the river. Make sure you continue down to the switchbacks near the next fun slide below Elbow Room as this is the easiest place to make your way back down to the river using the well-worn boater trail.
The Ohane saves some of the best for last and you'll soon be at an impressive horizon line where the river disappears out of site. This final grand sequence of rapids is incredible. It starts out with a slide through a hole that has created problems for some. The river then plunges over an 18' falls into a beautiful pool (photo, video). You can run the far left or at higher flows the center is typically run. There is also a potential slide along river right. After a decent recovery pool the river stairsteps through the final sequence of big boulder gardens ( photo). Beware of a bad sieve along the right and work your way along river left. There is a great spot for photos that can be easily reached at the end of this drop by climbing up the bedrock ledge on river left. It gives you a view all the way upstream to the waterfall.
After this final sequence there are a couple more boulder gardens and you still need to stay on your toes but the river soon mellows out as you approach the La Wis Wis Campground. Paddle on past the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz that enters from the left and take-out on river left just below the confluence. It's a short hike of a hundred yards or so to the day use picnic area. It's a great place to relax after completing one of the region's finest creek runs. If you are here in the off-season and you are using the lower take out, continue down another 1.25 miles of class II+ to the area where you left your cars at the end of Forest Dr 1270.
When the Ohanepecosh is running the sister drainage of the Clear Fork of the Cowlitz is often at good level. This run is also known as one of the true Northwest classics, but it is a bit more challenging so most use the Ohane as their warm-up. Another good nearby run is the Upper Upper Cispus . There is abundant camping in the area on National Forest land and these runs are popular with creek boaters from around the world.
Description contributed by Tom O'Keefe
Lat/Longitude data are very approximate
for additional information see
Alternate (lower) put in
The left line at Elbow Room is wood free as of 6/18/16. A number of rapids had noticeable minor changes (we assumed from high flows moving rocks). The wood formerly in Butchers Block has moved, making the rapid more manageable, but still IV+ at medium to low flows.
As with most PNW creeks, scouting each rapid for new wood after the rainy season is highly recommended.
The left line in Elbow room is choked with wood. From the ledge above, it kind of looks like you can make it. However, from below you can see another log across the left slot.
This is the Cowlitz gauge a ways downstream. The Ohanapecosh and Clear Fork Cowlitz join together to form the Cowlitz River. The flow range is approximate to get you in the ballpark so keep in mind that the actual flow is about 1/3 of the reading on this gauge and the relationship fluctuates slightly depending on where the water is coming from (i.e. rain or snowmelt). Flows around 1200- 1500 cfs on this gauge are generally good for a first time run. Those who know the run paddle it higher. Although the river has been run in late summer down to 800 or so it does start to get pretty boney much below 1000 and the pin hazards start to become more serious.
Permits are not required for this reach.
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Coombs running the portage
Brad - Ohane
Bill - Ohane
First Big Drop
Slide, river left
Elbow Room, portage route
Elbow Room, sieve hazard
Final Big Drop
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