The Sultan River was one of the Pacific Northwest's premiere whitewater rivers before the construction (1965) and later enlargement (1982) of Culmback Dam. Today, paddling opportunities on the Upper Sultan only occur when the level of Spada Reservoir reaches the overflow tubes at 1450' (view table) and water once again returns to the channel (this typically occurs only once every few years) or during extremely heavy rain events (i.e. flooding on area rivers). With the hydropower license issued in 2014, the utiliy has a goal of providing four whitewater boating opportunities each year with at least two of these scheduled in advance (typically in late April and early September). Check the Snohomish PUD whitewater page for more information on upcoming opportunities and to sign up in advance.
The run has a wonderful combination of complexity and difficulty without a sense of being truly dangerous. It's really the perfect advanced run; consistent, technical, and powerful. The gorge itself is absolutely beautiful: green, lush, isolated. It's a fantastic run in every sense.
The Upper Sultan is a classic pool-drop river. There are almost no flat sections--medium-sized pools immediately lead into the next rapid. Aside from a potential wood portage, every drop is runnable and the difficulty factor is solid class IVs. Most of the run can be boat scouted and nearly every rapid is big, fun, and has a clear route.
You enter the first gorge section after passing beneath the old bridge and begin the first few miles of fun class IV boulder gardens. The action tapers off after a few miles when you squeeze through a narrow constriction in the canyon walls. This is an incredibly scenic section with some fun class III/IV rapids and some amazing waterfalls that cascade off the canyon walls.
About halfway through the run (6.5 miles from the dam, 650' elevation) you reach an old diversion dam (constructed in 1930) that was used to divert water to Lake Chaplain before Culmback Dam. The diversion structure is still used and water can be piped in either direction to provide supplemental fish flows to the river or as a backup system to divert flows from the river to Lake Chaplain. The structure must be portaged on river right (this is a City of Everett rule and violating it could compromise future opportunities). Downstream from this point the river picks up in intensity with class IV+ rapids. These are some of the best drops on the run and you'll likely have good flow coming in from side creeks that pump up the flows a bit more. It is possible to put in at the diversion dam by hiking 3.1 miles down a gated road on river right, and this reach would likely be boatable during highwater periods even when the Culmback Dam is not spilling.
Just downstream of Marsh Creek Falls which is a large waterfall on river left a massive landslide completely blocked the river in December 2004. The landslide was caught on video by a paddling group that was just below. Another group that was above this landslide was forced to hike out in the dark on river left. The landslide resulted in a fun class V rapid that could be portaged on the right. It has since been modified to faciliate upstream fish passage and is tamer than it was, but still a formidable rapid. The action then tapers a bit as you reach the Horseshoe Bend section with a beautiful gorge and some great class III rapids. By the time you reach the powerhouse you've run 11 miles of great whitewater and beautiful river canyons.
If you still have daylight when you reach the Powerhouse, you can continue on the Powerhouse Run. If you have enough flow to run the Upper they will probably be running the generators at full capacity (1300 cfs) and adding this flow to the river. Last Nasty gets pretty big and sneaks up on you quickly so use caution. After that you have fun class III to the take-out.
Stephen Cameron reflects on the special qualitities of this run--"I've run hundreds of rivers all over the world in my 30 years of paddling and can say that the Sultan is probably the best and most fun whitewater run I have ever done. I'd do it in a heartbeat if I ever had the chance again."
with contributions from Stephen Cameron and Jennie Goldberg
The Upper Sultan may be rated class IV, but given the length of the run, the complete inaccessibility for most of the run, and the potential for unpredictable wood hazards, this should really be viewed as a run for class V boaters or people already stepping it up to class V. For most of the run, hiking out is just not an option. If you swim and lose your boat or it breaks going over a drop full of water, it's going to be really bad! If you lose your paddle and don't have a breakdown, it's going to be really bad! If you get hurt and can't continue downstream, it's going to be really bad! While hiking out at the diversion dam is theoretically possible, you should not consider it an option unless there is some sort of emergency, and should instead plan on taking out at or bellow the power plant.
We are in the early days of getting releases on this river, and access is dependent on showing the Snohomish PUD that we are a group of responsible boaters who are not going to cause them problems. While the releases were negotiated as part of the dam relicensing, this is a cooperative arrangement between the Snohomish PUD and the boating community, and a lot of what they do is simply because they are being generous. Releases on the Upper Sultan are by no means guaranteed, and they can make our access to the river as easy or difficult as they see fit.
Any incidents on the Upper Sultan reflect badly on the boating community as a whole. If someone were to get hurt or lose their boat and require a rescue, it would jeopardize access to this gem for the entire boating community. This is NOT a run for stepping up to class IV! This is a run for people who already paddle class V at least occasionally. There is no hiking out of the Upper Sultan! Also, keep in mind that given the potential for wood and the tight canyon walls, it's possible that at some point in the future we might encounter a must-run rapid (cannot be portaged) with wood hazards, turning an otherwise class IV rapid into a solid class V-V+. While this is a fantastic river, and will be a pleasure for even the most hard-core class V+ boater, you should really only be attempting this run if it is half a step BELOW what you normally paddle. It would be easy to get in trouble in such a remote, inaccessible gorge, and no one wants to see anyone get hurt or killed. Please use your head, and don't attempt this run unless you have the skills and physical stamina to paddle it safely.
PUTIN: Just east of the town of Sultan (Highway 2 mile 23.1) turn north up Sultan Basin Road towards the Sultan Basin Recreation Area. Follow this road 13.5 miles to Olney Pass. The Culmback Dam Road heads down to the left. This road was gated for the past few years but more recently it has been open and the road is a public easement to Forest Service property (in the past the Hydroelectric Plant Supervisor has answered questions regarding gate access and he can be reached at 425-783-8804). Just before you reach the dam an old forest road turns off to the left (FR 6122, aka the Jenny Ring Road). Drive up this road to a large clearing and start walking. The traditional put-in was reached by following this road to the old log bridge a couple miles downstream from the dam (47.9701N, 121.7228W, WGS84). As a condition of the new hydropower license American Whitewater negotiated the development of a new trail into the canyon that was professionally constructed to Forest Service trail standards and completed in 2014. This trail puts you in the river one mile below Culmback Dam. Scrambling down the face of the earthen dam is tempting but illegal and you likely want to get a bit downstream of the dam to find enough inflow from the sides. Snohomish PUD has installed security cameras here and informed us that they will not tolerate trespassing on the dam. The other difficulty with putting in at the base of the dam is there are reports of some class V rapids in this section that may be difficult to scout or portage. Steep canyon walls limit access between the dam and the old bridge site although there are a couple spots where river access is possible.
TAKEOUT: Most continue on the Sultan below Powerhouse run and use the Sultan fishing access at Trout Farm Road. You can reach it by taking the first street east of the Highway 2 bridge across the Sultan. After turning onto this street in the town of Sultan, take a left headed back towards the river. When you get to First Street follow it north as it parallels the river. As you pass out of town, slightly less than a mile down First Street, Trout Farm Road turns off to the left. Follow this 1.3 miles to a well marked fishing access point on the Sultan River. Park in the gravel parking area near the road and walk down a dirt road to the river. Alternative access points are available at the Powerhouse but gates will likely be locked by the time you get there, requiring you to continue downstream (they may be open on scheduled release days however).
For additional information:
Rapid that formed below Marsh Creek following a major landslide.
A potential intermediate access point. City of Everett requests that paddlers portage the dam on river right.
For those thinking of paddling the upper section...our way in was fairly
easy. It cuts maybe 4-5 miles of the run but prevents you from having to put on the river extremely early. We drove about 2 miles upstream from the normal river right side lower put in (lower dam) and came to the 2nd right turn (1st that is gated and is an obvious gravel road). Said another way, it is the last right before you reach the Chaplain dam. We parked there (don't block the gate)and then hiked about 3/4 or so miles to the diversion dam. Easy flat hiking until the last mile or so. Lots of wood(small firs and alder trees) in the river. It needs a big flush. Something it won't see unless the upper dam and diversion dam are removed or in the FERC process, they release once a year to flush it
On 12/11 Saturday 15 people accessed the river by hiking accross the landslide which has now been chain sawed out somewhat. The PUD was very kind to open the Olney Pass gate and allowed everyone to drive to the clearing up on the FS road. We flagged the old miners trail down to the river which turns right just after the landslide. This trail allows you to put in approx. 1 mile above the old log bridge. Total hiking time was approx. 1 hour. I was in the first group of three paddlers. We started at 10 A.M. and arrived at Trout Farm Road without incident at 3:30 P.M. The level was at 900 cfs in the early A.M. but was down to 400-500 cfs at 12:30 when we were at the Diversion Dam. There is some new wood that fell in the major ice storm last winter but it is manageable. The second group of six paddlers was just downstream of Marsh Creek Falls when they observed and recorded on video a massive landslide that completely blocked the river for a brief time. The second group of six paddlers could not portage over the new and very unstable landslide and was forced to hike up very steep cliffs. It is not known at this time if portaging over this new landslide is possible. I will try and hike in their soon and post an update on the river situation. This landslide is just upstream of the Horseshoe Bend put in trail and it might be possible to paddle upstream to observe the landslide/dam.
We ran this section on 21OCT2003 after heavy rain (the Sky was up to 90k the evening before but the rain stopped and flows began dropping quickly). Hiking in took longer than expected due to a new major landslide. We estimated flow to be approximately 150 cfs at the start (no release from the dam). It was boney but enough to make good progress and flow continually increased as dozens of side creeks and waterfalls added flow (most of the big ones come in below the diversion dam). By the time we got to the Diversion Dam we estimated approximately 600 cfs and the drops started to fill in nicely. It was about 1000 cfs by the time we got down to the Powerhouse which was getting a little pushy in the drops, but there were still plenty of eddies and scouting was straightforward. The rapids were mostly clean (we had one log portage) but it did take some time to scout out lines on a few. Give yourself plenty of time. We ran out of light at Last Nasty and ended up hiking out on riverleft after paddling a short distance in the dark. This is is not recommended as the blackberries are extremely dense. Again, get an early start and if you're short of light consider the hike out at the Powerhouse. Great run! Would be a wonderful resource with more dependable water.
For the fall 2018 release, there was one river-wide log and portage during some slack water. There were other spots where we had to duck or squeeze through a tight spot due to wood. Most of the larger drops were mostly clear, though vigilance and quick maneuvering is required. The dam was run on the right, and is perhaps class III+. Video from the run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5O3q4E8QYDM.
May 5, 2017 release at 900 cfs was a great flow. Only one log portage but plenty of wood in play with some must-make moves around wood hazards.
Finally ventured down this stretch on 1/26/03 on natural flow without a release. The gage was near 400 which made the first few miles a bit low but there was plenty of water for the lower 6-7 miles due to side streams. The Sky at Gold Bar crested at 45k the same afternoon. Only one portage around a tree but otherwise very little wood. Beautiful gorge with many waterfalls.
Report on instream flow needs for whitewater recreation on the Sultan River.
This gauge is located midway through the run and readings are somewhat dependent on operation of the diversion dam (it can be opened to flush gravel in the forebay during high flow events resulting in a lower reading than actual flow). Look at the Downstream Transducer on the Sultan bl. Diversion Dam gauge. Although a few creeks come in between the dam and this gauge, for the most part flows are regulated by Snohomish PUD. Minimum recreational whitewater flows are estimated to be 400-600 cfs with optimum flows estimated to be in the 700-1,000 cfs range, although individuals have reported great bigwater boating in the 2000 cfs range. These are rough estimates since there is no well documented flow data available from the rare occasions that this section has been paddled. Estimates are based on few observations and during changing conditions that make estimating flows at any given point in time or area difficult, but we have documented runs between 400 cfs to 2500 cfs and possibly higher. In December 2005, Snohomish PUD conducted an informal survey of whitewater boaters at flows of 650 cfs (view study report). Results of the survey indicate that 78% of boaters would have preferred a higher flow than the one provided for the reach below Culmback Dam.
A release usually only happens if good rains have filled the reservoir and then we get a big dump which pushes it over the top (it empties through a huge funnel tower in the reservoir at 1450'--view table reporting current reservoir elevation). This seems to happen once every several years Even if the reservoir is not spilling you can still run the river when pounding rains bring the river up (this happens when the Sky gets up above 30k). Under these conditions the run will be boney at the start and the level starts dropping immediately once the rain stops. You can also check flows on the Sultan below Powerplant gauge. The maximum capacity for the diversion tubes is 1300 cfs so you can subtract this value from the gauge reading to estimate the minimum flow coming down the river from upstream of the powerhouse. If this value is over 800 cfs you should have enough for a run. You can try calling the powerhouse 425-783-5549 (Try Barry Chrisman at extension 4 or his direct line which is 425-783-8804) for current information on reservoir status and project operations. For more information on the hydro project check their web site.
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.
Sultan River Gorge Trail
Rapid below the diversion dam
Rapid on the Upper Sultan
Sultan River trail
Sultan River first release
Raft Descent of Landslide
Andy Bridge on Upper Sultan
Rafting the Upper Sultan
Upper Sultan Canyon
Portaging the Landslide
Sultan Side Waterfall
Upper Sultan Boof
Upper Sultan Rapid
Upper Sultan Put In
Rapid Upper Sultan
Rapid on Upper Sultan
Upper Sultan High Flows
Marsh Creek rapid
Entering the Upper Gorge
Upper Sultan rapid
Cruising down the Sultan Gorge
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.
American Whitewater has scheduled a work party with Washington Trails Association for Saturday June 19 from 8:30-3:00 to work on the Sultan River trail into the gorge on the Upper Sultan. Volunteers are needed.
Earlier this month the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie Forest invited comment on the maintenance of Forest Road 6122 and the proposed new Sultan River Trail, which will provide access to Washington's Sultan Gorge. The trail is part of a settlement agreement to address recreation needs at the Jackson Hydroelectric Project. American Whitewater submitted comments in support of the project, and the opportunity for you to weigh in will be open until November 8th.
On Saturday April 25th, Snohomish PUD will be providing a whitewater recreational opportunity on the Upper Sultan River. This class IV gorge is a great piece of whitewater in a spectacular setting. If you wish to check it out, be sure to sign up with Snohomish PUD.
American Whitewater has reached agreement with Snohomish PUD and other parties to the relicensing of the Jackson Hydropower Project on the Sultan River. The future proposed license will support whitewater boating on the Sultan River and in particular the reach between Culmback Dam and the Powerhouse known as the Upper Sultan.
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