Optimal flows are found between 700-1000 cfs. Below 700 cfs most of the rapids are a notch easier but some rapids will become manky. Thunder creek has been run as high as 1200 cfs and at the time was not considered too high.
Thunder creek is just one more reason Washingtonians are lucky to live in the land of Cascadia. Thunder creek lies deep in the north cascades and provides boaters with runnable flows from rain events and snowmelt between April and September of just about any year. The beauty of the Thunder creek trail and of the river are not easily rivaled. A new classic?!
The character of Thunder creek is one of swift moving cold water and a boulders on bedrock type streambed. This makes for a pool drop style creek with lots of great 4-8 foot ledges and clean boulder gardens. But be wary at higher flows, the pools will disappear and rapids will start to blend into one another.
After putting on paddlers will encounter a few class III-IV flume style rapids before the river bends to the right and disappears over a big horizon line called Trial falls. Catch a eddy on river left to scout or portage the falls. Trial falls has a unobliging lead-in to a near vertical 17 cascade.
From the eddy below the falls you will see a mess of old growth trees chocked between the canyon walls above Chopsticks. Here the river pours over a river wide V-shaped ledge forming the best crosscurrent boof on the run. Maybe even best in the state?
The next 1/3 mile is full of great read-and-run class IV, but stay on your toes and spread out, there is one rapid with a log spanning the exit of the drop, it has been run but only at the highest and lowest flows. We have been catching the last river right eddy above it then ferrying across the creek and portaging on river left.
The very next rapid Dim Sum may be the highlight of the trip at medium to high flows. Two back-to-back perfect 8-10 footers with ample recovery pools between and below the drops. Bring your camera.
Below Dim Sum is the confluence with Neve creek and the end of the first gorge. But don't get too relaxed the next drop has a sticky hole on river right, with the main line being to the left of a midstream boulder. For those paddlers who don't make the move to the left: paddle hard, square up to the hole and don't stop paddling until you hear your buddies sighs of relief.
At the enterance to the second gorge you will encouter Mandarin Palace, which is comprised of 3 main moves: The first move will be to dodge the hole at the bottom of the lead-in, this hole spans from just left of center to the right side of the river, catch the eddy on river left below this. The second move is run down the left side next to the midstream boulder, it is a blind sloping lead-in to a 2-3 foot broken ledge that will send you torwards some eddies on river right, catch these eddies to scout and set safety at Mandarin ledge, this is also a good time to scout the remainder of the rapid. Mandarin ledge (move 3) is a river wide 5-7 foot ledge with a great boof off the far right side avoiding the boiling cauldron at the base of the left side of the ledge.
Triple Truth is the last big rapid on the run. This rapid is totally hemmed in by canyon walls and forces paddle boaters to run the first ledge blind. Here's what to expect: A midstream boulder splits the creek into two channels, the left is 3 feet of sloping tongue onto a auto boof 3 foot ledge, this channel is run at all flows. The right channel can be run at high flows, snug up against the right wall. You will want to catch an eddy either behind the midstream boulder or on the river left wall. The next ledge has been run just left of center with left angle off of a nice flake avoiding a log that is hanging into the center of the creek, the log is visible from the eddies above it. Just below this lies the Lurker, it's a good idea to set safety on river right just above this ledge.
That's it for most of the whitewater, you can expect some class III down to Neve camp then it class I-II with some braided channel and a log portage or two all the way to Colonial creek campground.
From I-5, take Hwy 20 about 70 miles to the east or until you reach Colonial Creek Campground. Take a right into the campground and drive to the south most parking lot and park next to the trailhead. Parking is free and there are nice bathrooms and potable water here.
I recommend getting an early start when thinking about tackling this creek. The hike takes about 2 hours and a first time run down will take between 2-4 hours. We usually try to meet at the trailhead no later that 9 A.M.
It's a 4.1 mile hike to the put-in, on your way you will cross a footbridge over Thunder creek at mile 1.5, the second footbridge comes around mile 3, from here you can see part of the rapid Mandarin Palace. After the second footbridge the trail distances itself from the river and the next important landmark is another small footbridge. When you get to this third footbridge (this is the smallest footbridge yet) continue walking up the trail approx 200 yards, stop here and bushwack your way to the river. If you end up missing the third footbridge and you find yourself standing on the trail just above the river, turn around and hike back .4 miles to the small footbridge.
When accessing the river you should be putting in below the class V+-VI slides located around mile 4.3. The rapids below start out class III-IV.
Take out at either the boat ramp or a vacant site at Colonial creek campground.
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Stevie B dropping in on Dim Sum
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Today, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ensured the long-term protection of Thunder Creek, a tributary of the Skagit River, by administratively designating the river corridor as wilderness. Once threatened by hydropower, this spectacular whitewater resource is now protected as a free-flowing river.
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