The North Fork of the Stillaguamish is perhaps better known for its steelhead than its whitewater but it's still a great float trip with plenty of opportunities for viewing wildlife and the legacy of geologic processes that shaped the Puget Sound lowlands. It has been popular with experienced canoeists for years.
The North Fork of the Stillaguamish has a fascinating geologic history and was once a much bigger river as it carried the waters of the Suiattle and Sauk Rivers. During the last glacial advance the mouth of the Puget Sound rivers were blocked by the Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran ice sheet and outwash gravel from the glacier formed a dam creating a lake fed by the Skagit, Suiattle, and Sauk Rivers. The lake eventually overtopped the dam near Darrington, draining through what is now the North Fork Stillaguamish valley. Following the retreat of the ice sheet the Skagit River broke through the gravel dam towards the north end of the lake and reestablished it's current course while the Sauk and Suiattle continued to flow along the course of the North Fork Stillaguamish. Volcanic eruptions of Glacier Peak in the Sauk and Suiattle headwaters that followed the last glacial advance choked the rivers with volcanic debris forming an alluvial fan at Darrington that now diverts both of these rivers north to the Skagit River.
Volcanic eruptions of Glacier Peak at their headwaters since the last glacial advance choked the Sauk and Suiattle Rivers with volcanic debris forming an alluvial fan at Darrington that now diverts both of these rivers north to the Skagit River.
All this geologic activity has created the features that paddlers experience today. The run starts out on a narrow river with exceptionally clear water draining more resistant bedrock to the north. At moderate flows, intermittent rapids are relatively straight forward class II formed by small boulders. For the most part however this section is characterized by swift current that cuts through gravel bars and the primary hazard to be aware of is wood. Although the forests have been logged, a canopy of alders, cottonwoods, and a few conifers has grown up along the river. Over the first few miles you should be prepared to portage a time or two.
As you pass the Swede Heaven Road Bridge, the river begins to open up a bit more. Wood hazards become less of an issue but may still be present. You will also start to encounter more homes along the river although much of the river remains lined by young forest. Throughout this section you will be treated to impressive views of the nearby mountains and ridges if you happen to be out on a clear day. If it's an overcast day in the middle of January you can expect to see dozens of eagles who come to feast on the river's coho salmon. There are a couple straight forward class II rapids representing the legacy of past glacial activity and the power of the much larger river that once flowed through this valley. For the most part however the run consists of navigating the swift currents and avoiding the ocassional wood hazard. At one time this river would have had much more wood and experimental engineered log jams were first constructed on this river in 1998 in the vicinity of Hazel Hole.
As you continue on downstream past Hazel Hole and towards the C Post Road Bridge, you will start to see the river begin to cut through more clay, silt, and sand deposits of glacial and lake origin that are the main source of significant sediment production in this watershed. In March 2014, the high bank on river right collapsed in the massive Oso Mudslide. Through this section, the water becomes a lot more cloudy in stark contrast to the crystal clear waters at the put-in. You will also notice the increase in river volume in this section and a couple more class II rapids will be a bit more filled in resulting in the best rapids on the run. As you pass through a constrained section of the river you will soon emerge near the Whitman Road Bridge.
Continuing downstream the river flows through at least one more class II rapid before it begins to wind back and forth across the floodplain. You will pass Deer Creek which comes in from river right, a challenging class V run famous for it's summer steelhead. All along the run there are gravel bars that make great stops for a picnic lunch. Downstream of Cicero it would be a stretch to call the rest of the run whitewater, but you can continue all the way to the confluence with the South Fork in downtown Arlington.
There are a couple different access points for the North Fork Stillaguamish depending on what you're looking for. This section is typically divided into an upper and lower run divided by the access at Whitman Road.
River Mile 0 (Haller Park) Arlington
This access is located right at the confluence of the North and South Forks in Arlington at the park located on the upstream river left side of the Highway 9 Bridge adjacent to the sewage treatment plant.
River Mile 9.5 (Monty Road)
This is the typical take-out for the lower run. From Arlington head east on Highway 530 about 7.5 miles and turn north onto Monty Road at Highway 530 mile 28.8 just before it crosses the river. The access is downstream river left of the Highway 530 Bridge and this is the take- out for the lower run.
River Mile 17.6 (Whitman Road)
To reach the popular intermediate access continue upstream and at mile 35.0 turn north onto Whitman Road. The access is at the Whitman Road Bridge on downstream river left and there is a good trail to the river under the bridge.
River Mile 21.2 (C Post Road)
Access here would be a bit of a scramble but it is possible. At Highway 530 mile 37.8 turn north onto C Post Road and 0.4 miles from the highway you'll come to single-lane bridge across the river.
River Mile 22.4 (Hazel Hole)
This is more typically used as a fishing access, but it's a convenient pullout right along Highway 530 at mile 38.8. An interpretive kiosk here describes the history of steelhead fishing on this river.
River Mile 30.0 (Swede Heaven Road Bridge)
This access is a good put-in option for the upper section when flows are below 1500 cfs. The river is also more open downstream of this bridge. To reach this site turn north onto Swede Heaven Road at Highway 530 mile 43.7 (directly across from the Shell Station) and continue 0.8 miles to the river. Parking is limited but there is a convenient access to the river on the upstream river left side of the bridge.
River Mile 32.0 (Forest Road Bridge)
To reach the put-in for the upper section continue upstream to Highway 530 mile 46.8 and turn onto an unmarked road (it's easy to miss this turn). Continue past the Darrington Substation and 1 mile from the highway you'll reach a bridge with convenient access on downstream river left. Above this bridge there are reports of more challenging whitewater upstream.
The river is paralleled by Highway 530 along its entire length, so the shuttle logistics are relatively simple. Someday completion of the Whitehorse Trail that follows the old railroad grade along the river will provide an inviting bike shuttle option. The grocery store in Arlington located a couple blocks east of the Highway 530 and Highway 9 junction is a popular meeting spot and good place to load up on any snacks or provisions you want for your trip. Nearby camping can be found in the National Forest. Just continue east through Darrington and up the Sauk River on the Mountain Loop Highway (Clear Creek Campground is located at Mountain Loop Highway mile 51).
A tragic mudslide took place here on March 22, 2014. The mudslide was a square mile in size wiping out homes in the community along Steelhead Drive resulting in 43 fatalities. This was not the only mudslide at this area. It is unknown what (semi-)permanent changes it will cause to the river.
Tried to run from the River Mile 32 Forest Road Bridge down today but couldn't. The gate 0.6 mile from the bridge was locked, and a new formal sign said there is no access to the state land through the private land. It was such a short distance to walk, but the sign's threatening language kept us from entering.
Paddled the section from Swede Haven bridge to Hazle at 1400cfs on 2/26/17. Seemed like a "below recommended" level. Had at least 3 bony spots you really had to scrape to get down in a kayak (in a raft it would have been worse). One or two bends on the river all the water funneled into a pile of wood, requiring a short portage through a gravel bar -with a little more water the gravel bar would have been covered and been able to easily avoid the wood. That said, this would be a really good beginner section/level because it very tame, barely approaching a class II level if at all.
Floated from Forest Road (435th st off HWY 530 if I remember correctly) to Whitman rd on 5/27/12 at 2100cfs. 5hrs on the water with constant rowing in my 1-man cataraft. Two logjams above Swede Haven rd, the first of which requires a quick portage but the second can be skirted at this flow. Easy float, no worries.
This run just barely hits class II for the first 10 miles, but the scenery is nice and the current keeps things moving.
At the recommended levels, this is a long run. From the Swede Heaven Bridge to the Whitman Road bridge is a 5 hour trip at 1500cfs, and that's only 2/3 of the run. You don't want to take out sooner because the best rapids are at the bottom, but there aren't any really good put-ins below Swede Heaven. The water at the put-in is clear, and you can see the rocks in the riverbed as you float. You won't get much more water than this until around 10 miles into the trip, when several creeks have added to the flow. When the Boulder River comes in on the left, it adds a bit of silt to the river, but it makes up for it by adding a lot of water.
This would be a good run on a sunny day with a big picnic lunch - get an early start and enjoy the day.
Be aware that there may be a few logjams, but the river is slow and you should have plenty of time to react. Also, there are several braided sections with non-obvious channels - be patient and boat-scout all of the options before commiting.
5 years ago
by Thomas O'Keefe
Letter in support of completing the improvements to the Whitehorse Trail along the Stillaguamish River (WA).
A review of strengths, weakeness, opportunities, and threats to enhancing river access.
Below 1500 cfs the section from the upper put-in to Swede Heaven Road Bridge might be a bit low.
Permits are not required for this reach.
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Forest Road Bridge Put-In
Forest Road Put-in Bridge
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