Puyallup - 1 - Niesson Creek to Electron

Puyallup, Washington, US


1 - Niesson Creek to Electron (Puyallup Gorge)

Usual Difficulty V (for normal flows)
Length 9 Miles
Avg. Gradient 120 fpm

Looking Up Into Puyallup Gorge

Looking Up Into Puyallup Gorge
Photo by Thomas O'Keefe © taken 10/06/15 @ 164 cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-12092000 300 - 1000 cfs V 00h35m 673 cfs (running)
Most of the time the flow is 400 cfs less than reported on this gauge because flows are diverted to the powerhouse. Gauge (92.8 sq.mi. drainage).

River Description

Descending the west flank of Mount Rainier, after meandering for miles, the Puyallup River flows through a narrow and dramatic canyon. After reading comparisons to the incomparable Carbon Gorge, I had to go see it. You shouldn’t have to decide on such things, but I think the Carbon is more awesome. But not by much. Both have a unique combination of rapids and geology that make them truly special. The whitewater on the Puyallup is good, with ten or more challenging rapids in an extremely committing setting. What prevents this run from being a Seattle-area ultra-classic is one issue: access. The timber company that owns the area has completely restricted a large swath of the upper Puyallup watershed. If you want to drive in via the road right along the river, you must purchase a $360/year pass. If you are caught on the property hiking or sitting in the car of someone with a pass, you could be given a $500 fine. Word has it the area is regularly patrolled.
Fortunately, there are ways to paddle this stretch. With an early start it can reasonably be done in a day via the Mowich River, accessed near the west entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. Beginning the hike at 9 got us to the takeout at 3. In 2006 another group put onto the larger South Fork Puyallup using West Side Road; that involves a long hike and paddle-in. Getting down to the Mowich is not bad, but the first part of the river is awful. The wide glacial valley accumulates logs and disperses the river. With the gauge reading 850 at Electron, it took a couple hours to get to the lower section of the Mowich, which thankfully is relatively unobstructed class III. Hiking into the lower portion of the Mowich from 165 would be extremely difficult due to the towering cliffs on river right. Almost immediately after the Mowich meets the Puyallup you come to the diversion dam, final destination of the “World’s Crookedest Railway”. You can visually check that the diversion is occurring, although try to find this out ahead of time (Electron Powerhouse), because an extra 400 CFS in the gorge could spell disaster. 
The rapids, with one exception, are manageable. After five or so big rapids there is a river-wide hole at a point where the canyon narrows to ten feet. It lurks right behind a right bend that has a gravel bar on river-left at the top of the entry rapid. Maybe you could scout the hole if you climbed up the wall a bit, where there’s some evidence of a past landslide. With 450-500 cfs in the gorge, I got stuck after running the hole on the right and landing in the river-right eddy. It took a few tries to paddle out. Not as bad as Rick’s Slide on the Carbon, but similar enough to be a little eerie. This hole should be run center going straight across the boil. I consider this the crux of the run, and it would likely get even more dangerous with higher water. 
Directions to Takeout:
Head south on Orville road from Highway 162. After 6.7 miles there is a turnout on the left, with large boulders blocking a road that goes through the forest to the river. It is a little more than a half-mile north of Electron road. At Electron road there is another road leading to a bridge directly upstream of the takeout. If you crossed this bridge and headed upriver, it would lead you to an easy put-in above the gorge. Absolutely no trespassing allowed here.
Directions to Putin Via Mowich River
Drive North on Orville Rd. Take a right on 162 (E), right on 165 (S). Putin is down the 2nd to last road on the right before you get to a “Mount Rainier” sign. Hike down the right fork and then follow the switchbacks until the road is gone. Follow the lightly used trail down to an old road. Stay on the road until it hits a floatable section of the river.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2015-10-06 23:37:50

Rapid Descriptions

icon of message No rapids entered. If you know names, and locations of the rapids please contact and advise the StreamTeam member for this run.

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
January 25 2011 (2731 days ago)
Thomas O'KeefeDetails
Posted by Jon Almquist at Seattle Kayaker Yahoo Group (1/25/2006) Yep, we took the "free" route by
accessing via West Side Road in the park. The road was closed to motorized vehicles due to a
wash-out, but we fabricated a "kayak" trailer from a bicycle baby carrage and had one guy peddle
the bike while two pushed from behind. You go up over one easy pass - historical in that it's
famous for the crash of a large military plane - and then you get a fun down hill screamer to the
SF Puyallup bridge. You can probably expect 2-3 hours hiking / biking from the start of WS road to
the bridge. If the road is open to vehicles, you're golden. Boating from this point down to the
main canyon is unique, lonely (you're in the park for the first bit), but not what I would consider
outstanding. The glacier till raised river beds are fun, as you're floating along at the crest of
these huge gravel deposits. It's a strange feeling to be floating HIGHER than the surrounding land.
There is also an upper vertical walled gorge probably less than a mile long - that would be
stellar. But alas, wood kept us on the rim. Once you get past this gorge, you'll have miles of
wilderness class 2 before the main canyon. Unless you get to the river at daybreak, expect to spend
the night. Also expect wildlife - we saw bear, deer, elk, etc. The canyon is fantastic - deeper
than the Carbon, vertical in spots, and quite dramatic. Most of the drops were straight-forward. We
did encounter a fresh and rather large land slide that created a class 6 mess (think Sultan), with
an easy carry on RL. Just below, we eddied at the brink of a class 5ish drop, walled in on both
sides, with fresh rock and wood from the slide impeading the line. There was one small eddy RR that
allowed us step out and teather our boats in a gully. Portaging on shore was not an option. Neither
was going up the walls or paddling back upstream to a potential exit from the canyon. This was
likely the biggest "now what" moment in my paddling career. Of course, cool heads prevailed, and we
were able to rig a tag line to a mid-river rock that luckily had a hidden but nice seal launch
shelf on the downstream side. This dropped us into the latter part of the rapid, below the crux
move that was jammed with wood and sharp rock. All is well that ends well. My guess is that both
these drops will have cleaned up with years of flow. Jon

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Associated Projects

  • Puyallup Watershed (WA)
    Major rivers of the Puyallup watershed include the Carbon, Puyallup, and White which drain the western and northern slopes of Mt. Rainier which we are working to preserve and protect.