Season: Can be run with winter rains when the freezing level is not too low (November is often good but any good rain event will bring it up). A consistent performer through the spring snow melt and into early summer (typically April through July).
The Sauk is part of the Skagit Wild and Scenic River system and is one of the most scenic intermediate runs on the west side of the Cascades. Over the course of the run you will be treated to a forested river corridor with just a couple glimpses of the road and a few cabins near Backman County Park. Most of the rest of the river corridor is in conservation status and the Forest Service has done an exceptional job of implementing the river management plan and providing good river access. On clear days the views are exceptional with Mt. Pugh towering above in the first half of the run and great views of Whitehorse Mountain near the end of the run.
The Sauk provides good continuous class III action. In the past, Jaws was considered a class IV but it has mellowed out since the 2003 floods rearranged the channel and opened up the line. The main hazards are trees which extend out from the banks, a couple large holes that can swallow inattentive paddlers, and at higher water long swims are a possibility. This is an excellent intermediate run that also provides some fun waves and play spots for more advanced paddlers.
White Chuck to Clear Creek, 7.5 miles
Starting at the confluence with the White Chuck, the river starts off through a number of class III rapids separated by short recovery pools (which become smaller as the discharge increases). There are numerous catch-on-the-fly surf waves.
The one rapid that is somewhat challenging to boat scout is Jaws. It comes approximately 2 miles into the trip where some large boulders create a couple holes and large waves toward river right. The route through is fairly straightforward and at higher water it's an easy sneak around the left. The drop can be scouted from an island on river right, but its a bit of a project and experienced boaters should be able to boat scout. Just downstream you'll come to a hard bend to the left that then slams into a bedrock wall with the river taking a hard turn to the river which is Whirlpool. You can see Whirlpool from the road.
Below Whirpool the river calms down slightly. You will find the same good class III rapids and several great surfing waves, but rapids are just a bit less continuous. Dragon's Back (Popeye) is a notable rapid in this section. There are a couple of nice beaches on river right in this section that make a great lunch stop. On busy weekends you will likely be sharing them with other groups.
Once you reach Clear Creek, you can paddle a short distance up the creek to the bridge and the take out. This is pretty much the end of the class III unless the water is high and it is a popular take-out for kayakers. If you plan to take out at Clear Creek make sure you are towards the left side of the river or you will blow right past it. Those in rafts typically continue on downstream to Backman Park (it has better access than Clear Creek) or just continue for the next 4 miles to take out at the Darrington Mill.
Clear Creek to Darrington Mill Boat Launch, 4 miles
This section of the run is typically paddled as a continuation of the run above, but some put in at Clear Creek for a short class II. It's an easy bike shuttle and an option for a short run especially if you are staying in the Clear Creek Campground.
Backman County Park comes up on the left as another possible take-out that is better for rafts than Clear Creek. It's easy to miss so keep your eyes open once you pass the first couple cabins on the left. Below Backman County Park you will be treated to some great views of Whitehorse Mountain towering above the town of Darrington. As you pass a bedrock wall on river right you are almost at the take-out at the Darrington Mill. While it was used for years, the site was formalized and improved as a river access site with the construction of the Sauk-Prairie Bridge.
Standard access points from the take-out and heading upstream to the put-in.
Darrington Mill Access at Sauk Prairie Bridge (River Mile 21.3)
On the north side of Darrington at mile Highway 530 mile 49.3 turn east on Sauk Praire Road (near the Darrington Ranger District Station). Follow this road 0.3 miles past the Hampton Lumber Mill to the bridge across the river. There is a boat ramp under the new bridge on river left and parking on upstream river left. This site can be used by rafts or kayaks.
Backman County Park (River Mile 24.5)
This access is accessible for rafts and kayaks and can serve as either a put-in or take-out. Head south out of Darrington on the Mountain Loop Highway and just outside of town (1.4 miles) at road mile 52.1 turn north on Clear Creek Road and follow it 0.6 miles to the park. This access is accessible for rafts and kayaks and can serve as either a put-in or take-out. It's easy to miss from the river but you can recognize it by several cabins along river left in the vicinity of the park.
Clear Creek (River Mile 25.3)
This access is southeast out of Darrington on the Mountain Loop Highway and just inside the National Forest. Shortly after passing Clear Creek Campground (and convenient campground for boaters), you will reach the Clear Creek bridge at highway mile 50.6. There is a pullout on the west side of the bridge and a trail down to the creek that provides access to the river. This access is generally only used by kayakers as Backman is just downstream and a little easier for rafts.
White Chuck Boat Launch (River Mile 31.9)
This is the standard put-in at a developed Forest Service river access site. Head up the Mountain Loop Highway crosses the Sauk (road mile 44.9) and the cross the Sauk River Bridge at road mile 44.9. A short distance after this, turn left and cross the White Chuck River on the new bridge. There is a large parking lot with bathrooms just downstream of the boat launch. There is not much room at the launch, so please be considerate of others and prepare your boats in the parking lot before taking them to the launch.
Camping is available at Clear Creek Campground which is very conveinent for this run. An alternative option is Squire Creek Campground which is just west of Darrington on Highway 530.
The main current heads towards the Demon Seed, a large rock right of center towards the bottom of the drop. You can skirt the right side of this but those who can manuver quickly can take a slightly smoother line to the left of it.
At the pull-out at milepost 47 you can scout Whirpool which will give you an idea of the level of difficulty on this run. The Whirpool itself is largely gone. The former channel was all left side and there was not a river right option for decades--it was blocked off by a massive log jam but it did have some water bleeding through. The name Whirlpool came about because of the effect that drop had on the boats. After punching or inside skirting the stout hole at the sharp turn in the river, boats would exit the corner and run into the flow coming through the log jam and get hit with a 90 degree side current at the confluence of the two and get tube suckage and 'whirlpooled'. When the log jam broke loose in a flood it created the now main channel and the left side 'dried up' and hence no whirlpool exists anymore.
This is a popular take-out point for kayakers where Clear Creek enters the Sauk. This can also be a put-in for a shorter class II float down to the Mill Bridge.
This access is in the neighborhood along Clear Creek Road. From the river you need to start looking for the boat ramp on river left as the first couple cabins come into view.
The recent high water has cleaned up the Sauk. As of 2/8/2020 the wood from the previous comment is mostly gone. There are a couple logs far right at the bottom of Jaws but they don’t seem to be significantly in play.
1/19/2020 Multiple near river wide trees have fallen across the river after the recent snowfall in Darington. most can be easily boat scouted and all have a line around them, but several of them are considerable. The most hazardous is found at the bottom of jaws, on the river right side of the large rock at the bottom. scouting jaws is recommended for rafters, as the move to make could be difficult, and the strainer is particularly nasty. continuing on through the white mile there are several trees across above whirlpool, but these shouldn't pose huge risks to attentive rafters.
After the major flood on October 22nd, all notable wood has been cleared away. The tree below Alligator Rapid that spanned the entire width of the river is completely gone. update as of (10/26/19)
A tree fell on the Sauk Saturday night (6/8/2019) or Sunday (6/9/2019) morning on the flat water section between "6 of 1" and "1/2 dozen of the other." It spans most of the channel with about a meter of space to get through on the left when it's at 3600 cfs on the lower gauge, soon to be across the whole channel as level drops. Probably an easy portage on the left too ... the embankment on the right is not very stable for a portage because, you know, that 's where the tree fell from. Have fun and be safe!
Ran this in Early January '14. Flow was 10,000 at Sauk at Sauk guage. 2,400 on Sauk AB Whitechuck. I would call this flow medium. Some big holes form that are easily avoidable, or fun for more advanced guys not worried about a little beatdown. Boat scouted Jaws, and didnt have any issues. Pretty straight forward and obvious line. That being said, if you don't trust your eddy catching skills, you'll want to scout for wood. Not much wood in play, and everything is avoidable. Great flow but if your just getting into class 3, 5k may be less intimidating.
Note that there is now a USGS gauge at the bridge at the mill in Darrington. This gauge hasn't been thoroughly calibrated yet, but it still gives a more accurate flow reading for the Middle Sauk. Also, it will be possible to create virtual gauges for the Whitechuck and Suiattle by using all 3 of the available gauges.
Old put in on river right is accessible again via new bridge. Sweet!
There have been some changes to the river since the Oct 2003 floods. The Whitechuck put-in on river right is no longer accessible due to major channel migration of the Whitechuck River which took out the bridge. Sections of the road (upstream and downstream of the parking area) are also gone. For kayakers, the best access is the Beaver Lake trailhead. Hike up about 100 yards to a good eddy on river right. The rapid below the Whitechuck confluence has changed a bit and most of the flow now goes far river left. Whirpool has changed a bit and the island is a bit smaller. More of the flow now goes river right. The lunch spot downstream has been reconfigured and is mostly gone. The little surf wave there is no longer present. As of 25OCT2003 there was one river-wide log near the end of the run that you could duck under in a kayak or slide over depending on flows (approach with caution--you can portage on the right). Otherwise many logs that were previously extending into the channel are now gone.
7 years ago
by Jacob Rodan
Letter expressing interest of American Whitewater in river access at the Darrington Mill River Access site at the Sauk Prairie Road Bridge.
Excerpts from the River Management Plan Covering Recreation
Letter to Mount Baker - National Forest regarding impacts of October 2003 floods.
A review of strengths, weakeness, opportunities, and threats to enhancing river access.
The Sauk at Sauk gauge used to be used for this run, but there is now a new gauge at the bridge in Darrington that does not include the Suiattle flow.
We have no additional detail on this route.
Use the map below to calculate how
to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.
Rafting on Sauk
Sauk Prairie Bridge Access
Sauk River 1920's
Sauk River - 1920's
Indian Cedar Strip- 1892
White Chuck Confluence 620CFS
Whirlpool - July 2015
Backman County Park
Six of One
White Chuck Boat Launch Sign
White Chuck River Access Sign
White Chuck River Access Steps
White Chuck River Access
Clear Creek Access
Pull in parking
Interpretive Panels and Kiosk
Heading down the Sauk.
Sauk Praire Bridge access
Sauk Praire Bridge
Whitechuck Bridge post flood
If someone gets hurt on a river, or you read about a whitewater-related injury, please report it to
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American Whitewater joins a coalition in unveiling a new "Destination Darrington" map as Highway 530 opens to all traffic this weekend restoring access to recreational opportunities along the Sauk and Suiattle Rivers.The colorful brochure map spotlights recreational opportunities around Darrington and local businesses.
Today through Sunday contractors will be on site to conduct blasting operations associated with the construction of a new bridge across the Whitechuck River. This bridge will replace the one washed out in the October 2003 floods and will provide access to the Whitechuck Launch on the Sauk Wild and Scenic River.
The Forest Service recently completed work on a new access point on the lower Sauk River. This is part of a series of proposed projects of interest to boaters, made possible as part of the hydro reliensing agreement for the City of Seattle's hydropower dams on the Skagit River system.
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