FUN FACT: Beautiful low-elevation gorge and a fun 16' waterfall.
STORY: Read Whit Deschner's story of the first descent of
Pilchuck Falls from his book Does the Wet Suit You?
SEASON: Winter rains.
LOGISTICS: Paddlers meet at the Highway 9 Bridge just north of Arlington at
Highway 9 mile 34.9. Parking and a trail to the river are found on the downstream river right side
of the bridge. From the bridge, drive 0.3 miles north on Highway 9 and turn right onto Finn
Settlement Rd. (labeled as 44th Ave NE in the Gazetteer). Drive 4.5 miles along this road and turn
right at the Y. Take the right fork to reach the river but you'll have to start hiking as WA DNR gated
the road in 2003.This road parrallels the river and you can get a look at Pilchuck Falls 0.3 miles
from the Y. You'll see a spot to pull off the road and a trail that takes you down to where you can
check out the falls (and the end of the rapid just upstream). For those who know they don't want to
run the falls, scrambling down the bank and putting in here is an option. Otherwise continue up
the road to a logging bridge 0.9 miles from the Y. You can put-in at the campsite on the upstream
river left side of the bridge.
The flashy nature of this creek makes it a hard one to catch. It can be
at a perfect level on a Thursday, but way too low by the weekend. The fact
that there is no real-time gauge adds to the challenge of figuring out when
the creek is at a good level. Those who time it right are rewarded with a
journey through a very rare low-elevation river system with no
development in the river corridor. Logging occurs in the upland forests
and this seems to be a popular dumping ground for old cars, but the lush
green gorges remind one of some of the runs on the Olypmic Peninsula.
It's a wonderful place in the middle of an otherwise grey Pacific Northwest
winter. Although this run is mostly continuous class III+ at modertate flows
there are a couple of drops that push class IV and the whole run can
become class IV at higher water levels. Although there is a road along
river right, access to the canyon is relatively limited.
The run starts out with class III which builds to III+ as you enter the
first bedrock canyon. It's a short paddle to Pilchuck Falls. You'll recognize
it from powerlines overhead. The river takes a hard bend to the left and
crashes through the most significant rapid on this section as the
powerlines come into view. There is a large pool at the end of the last
rapid above the falls so get over to river right to scout or potentially portage
Scouting Pilchuck Falls will quickly reveal that you want to avoid the
nasty hydraulics on river left (where most of the flow heads). There are
routes on river right or towards the center. If you have never run the falls
it's best to go with someone who has and knows the lines. They aren't too
difficult to figure out, but there is a rock to the left of the center line that is
submerged at higher flows. The drop is often rated class V, but the launch
from the pool at the top is fairly straightforward and there is a good
recovery section at the bottom. At high flows, the powerful hydraulics that
develop convince many to portage. Whit Deschner has a story of his first
descent of the falls in his book, When the Wet Suits You. If you elect to
portage the falls, then you have to scramble up the bank on river right. A
rope is useful.
Downstream from the falls, the river bounces through two awesome
canyon sections with nearly continuous rapids. These are generally III+ at
moderate flows, but build to a class IV flush at higher flows. There are
some fun play spots throughout the run and you're rewarded with views of
lush ferns and mosses which carpet the gorges formed of bedrock and
loose gravel deposits. Use caution as you approach some of the
narrower sections. There are a couple points where river-wide strainers
can block the river.
As you leave the second gorge the river opens up and you are at the
take-out bridge. Take a peak at the staff gauge as you pass on river right
about 50 yds. upstream from the bridge.
Those looking for a longer 10 mile run can also add Pilchuck
Creek's Upper Section.
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Ran Pilchuck Creek post 2006 flood. Run was clean, except for one logjam requiring a limbo or far left move to avoid a clean log.
10 years ago
by Joe Sauve
Letter from American Whitewater to WA DOT regarding access at Highway 9 bridge across Pilchuck Creek.
This is a rain-fed run and it
takes at least a day of good hard winter rain to
bring the water up. Department of Ecology recently
established a realtime
gauge for this creek. You can also check rainfall
at the Arlington NWS station. The
river rises and falls very quickly and once it
stops raining the flows drop immediately. Of
nearby realtime gauges, the
North Fork Stilliguamish generally gives
you the best idea of area flows (look for a
winter rain event that brings flows up to around
6000-11000 cfs on this gauge). At the river, the
Pilchuck nr Bryant gauge is just upstream
from the Highway 9 bridge. It's no longer an
active gauge and getting to a spot where you
can actually read the numbers would require
you to go across private property (although
you can check it as you paddle past at the end
of the run). You can see this staff gauge from
the river left side of the bridge. Although you
won't be able to read the numbers, the top of
the board is at 5.7' (approx 2800 cfs) so from
that you can estimate what the level is. Most
paddlers use the large rock in the middle of
the river on the upstream side of the bridge to
estimate relative flow. If the rock is high and
dry then flows are too low. If water is flowing
up on the rock then you're at a good moderate
flow (around 4.0-4.5', approx. 900-1400 cfs).
Once the rock is fully covered the river is
running at high water--use caution. (see gauge photo).
The staff gauge roughly corresponds (channel
has likely changed since the last set of
measurements) to cfs as follows:
3.5' - 560 cfs
4.0' - 930 cfs
4.5' - 1390 cfs
5.0' - 1950 cfs
5.5' - 2600 cfs
6.0' - 3300 cfs
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
Use the map below to calculate how
to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.
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.
Paddlers returning to Plichuck Creek with the winter rains have learned of a new access closure. The Washington DNR, in cooperation with other land owners has closed the access to the bridge just upstream of Pilchuck Falls.
Log into the American Whitewater website and you can contribute to river descriptions,
flow and access tips, and maps associated with runs you've done. You can even add new
runs to the inventory!