It is perhaps appropriate that the geographical center of the State of Washington sits just a few miles from Wenatchee.
Because when you talk rafting for the masses, many will consider the Wenatchee as “the river” for Washington whitewater. Sure there’s many other great rivers from which to choose in the state-the Skykomish, White Salmon and Tieton immediately come to mind-but when you add it all up, the Wenatchee offers something for everyone.
Just as many people associate the Salmon or Lochsa with Idaho and the Rogue or Deschutes in Oregon, so too do Washingtonians with the Wenatchee.And despite having maybe a dozen more rivers from which to choose where a commercial outfitter can guide you down the rapids, the combination of weather, location and rapids most likely put the Wenatchee at the top of the list for the number of trips it sees in a season.
The City of Cashmere, which charges commercial outfitters a per-person fee to exit the river at the city’s Riverside Park, estimated some 6,400 people rafted the river in 2006. This figure does not include private rafters, but one can figure that the number might be close, making the Wenatchee one of the most-if not the most popular raft runs in the state.
Drive up Highway 2 on any day from May through July and you’ll see the popularity of the river by the dozens of colorful rafts that bob down the river with guides shouting instructions and paddlers trying to follow those orders. In all of its four distinctive sections, the Wenatchee serves up nearly 60 miles of every conceivable level of difficulty. From tame Class I and II runs at both top and bottom that are perfect for beginners; the fun Class III water from Leavenworth to Cashmere or the suicidal Class V to VI churning washing machine that is tumultuous Tumwater Canyon. U.S. rivers are ranked on a scale of Class I being tame to insane at Class VI.
The Wenatchee is just one of a number of raft-able rivers within a relatively short drive. The only other commercially-run river that is easy to reach is the Methow to the north outside of Twisp. The Stehekin River at the end of Lake Chelan has offered some commercial trips in the past.
What makes the Wenatchee so popular is that it has everything for everyone, according to Terri Sarver of Seattle-based Blue Sky Outfitters. “It is located just on the East side of the Cascade Mountains. So it’s not to far for the folks who are coming from the Seattle area (right around 2.5 hours) and equal distance for the folks coming from Spokane,” Sarver says. An added bonus Sarver says is “For the west-siders it’s nice to be in the nice dry hot weather.”
And it’s not just all rafting. “Leavenworth is great outdoor paradise,” says Sarver. You have white water rafting, hiking, rock climbing and anything else you want to do in the great outdoors.”
Of course, Leavenworth offers that unique taste of Bavaria with dining and shopping for those post-rafting activities.
Sarver said most companies start running the Wenatchee in March and run the river until August. Traditional high water flows happen between the last couple of weeks of May and the first couple weeks of June.
Because of its width and the presence of few big rocks, the Leavenworth to Cashmere portion of the Wenatchee rarely gets more than a Class III+ rating. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s by any means tame. “It has some of the tallest rapids in the entire state,” Sarver says. “Some can be as tall as 10 to 14 feet.” One of those waves is at Drunkard’s Drop. It’s HUGE at high flows and routinely pitch passengers into the drink. To add insult to injury-or in some cases bragging rights-a commercial photographer is stationed in a tower on the right side of the river snapping lots of photos of every boat.
Rod Amundson of Wildwater River Tours based in Federal Way,WA quits rafting the Wenatchee when flows drop to 1,700 cfs. “We raft it up to 25,000 cfs at high water in May and June.” Amundson cautions that below 1,700 cfs cubic feet/second) the Wenatchee is pretty much a Class II rock garden. The White Salmon River and the Upper Skagit River are better whitewater rafting trips in late July and August according to Amundson.
Amundson, like many of those who run the Wenatchee, loves the BIG water it serves up at certain levels. “I like big water volume on the Wenatchee, Skykomish or any challenging river,” he says. The Wenatchee between 6,000 cfs to 18,000+ cfs is the perfect flow range.
The Wenatchee is suitable for most folks between age 10 and 85. At low river levels in July/August younger kids down to 6 years would be okay on trips, Amundson says. The bulk of those runs take place from Leavenworth to Cashmere, one of the prime apple producing areas in the world.
THE LEAVENWORTH TO CASHMERE RUN. The Wenatchee is just as popular with the private rafters as it is with commercial operators. Trips on the Leavenworth to Cashmere section begin at a developed launch site just upstream from the Highway 2 bridge that crosses the river on the outskirts of town.
Turn left before crossing the bridge and follow East Leavenworth Road for approximately .06 of a mile according to Jeff Bennett’s A Guide to the Whitewater River of Washington. Look for a fishing access to the right. The launch has a boat ramp that can accommodate large rafts.
The fun comes right within the first mile with Boulder Bend, a sweeping right curve in the river that at higher flows if chock full of boat-eating holes. One of those, according to Coeur d’Alene rafter Larry Gaddis, is called O’Geary’s hole. He flipped there a few years ago and had a long and memorable swim at 15 to 16,000 cfs. Not only was Gaddis, a 25-year rafting vet trying to survive in the cold Memorial Weekend water but trying to keep his swim trunks up and his life jacket attached to his body. He was successful on both challenges. The river mellows for the next 3.5 miles before reaching Peshastin. A mile and a half downstream from Peshastin comes the next set of rapids, Rock and Roll, a big and lively wave-train. According to Bennett, the best-and safest-run is along river left, avoiding Satan’s Eyeball, a gigantic hole that develops at center-right.
It isn’t long until you see Peshastin Creek entering from the right. Peshastin Creek itself a challenging expert run in kayaks and small catarafts when the Wenatchee is at 10,000 cfs. “Fresh Squeezed” is the perfect name for one of the key rapids on the run.
Just down from Peshastin Creek exit the river in order to portage the diversion dam. The L-shaped structure is sometimes run on the left but it is really not recommended. There is a surprisingly powerful reversal on the right side or main face of the dam. According to Larry Gaddis he’s watched a commercial paddle raft portage the dam, yet get pulled back into the dangerous water and flip, spilling its passengers for a long down-stream swim. A dolly is available to help wheel heavy rafts across the parking lot and back to the water.
It is possible to sometimes put in at the dam but never count on it. The Wenatchee’s best water really lies ahead with the rapid to river mile ratio increasing greatly.
Gorilla Falls just under the Highway 2 bridge below the dam is the first notable rapid, found amidst the tangle of bridge piers. Next up is one of the Wenatchee’s most popular spots, a surf wave that is routinely populated by dozens of kayakers. That population increases significantly at Wenatchee River Fest, a kayaking and rafting competition this year set for June 9 – 10. The wave that forms here grows with the flow, reaching three feet when the river hits 14,000 cfs.
Not far below the play wave is Drunkards Drop. You’ll notice it as the river makes a sweeping right bend before breaking back left as it scrapes past a large dirt cliff. The rapid can be skirted to the right if you are not into tempting fate with a run down the gut. Mellow water follows until you begin to approach Cashmere. Then the Wenatchee finishes with a big bang.
Snowblind is appropriately named. In higher water it is a series of mesmerizing waves and holes. If you’re rowing you’ve got to be on your toes and ready to move quickly. As a paddle captain, you’re just as likely to be dragging swimmers into your boat as well as barking out commands to keep the boat upright. If you’re swimming here, you might be in the water ’til the end as Granny’s Rapid, a string of big waves-and at high flows some flipper waves-follows Snowblind. Just past the Cashmere bridge comes the take-out ramp on river right. This can be a real traffic jam as it is the only place to exit the river unless you flow on down a few miles to Monitor, which you don’t want to do because it costs to use the ramp.
The Cashmere’s Riverside Park is a great place to get the gear sorted out and relax while you await your shuttle. Inside the park pavilion you will find refreshments and souvenirs, including those photos that were snapped as you ran, swam or were catapulted through Drunkard’s Drop.
This is also the place where much of the activity takes place at the Wenatchee River Festival.
The park is reached by taking the Cashmere/Division Street exit off of Highway 2. Turn left onto Pleasant after crossing the river, right on Woodring and left on Riverside with the park just ahead.
With the city of Wenatchee ten or so miles downstream, and the Bavarian clone of Leavenworth 13 miles upstream, the area boasts accommodations for every taste and budget. In addition, camping is both plentiful-and beautiful-up along Icicle Creek, west of Leavenworth. Icicle Creek rivals, and in some ways surpasses the run in Tumwater Canyon. It contains steep, car-size boulder-choked drops that should only be attempted by the best of the best in the boating community.
The Wenatchee as noted is just one of many notable rafting rivers in Washington State. And then there’s Idaho, and that’s another story.
Paul Delaney has been an avid whitewater rafter since 1980. Paul helped found and is currently president of the Northwest Whitewater Association (www.northwestwhitewater.org), a Spokane-based club for self-outfitted river
rafters. He runs river all over the northwest, including the Wenatchee.
For further information on Washington whitewater: http://www.gonorthwest.com/Washington/Activities/rafting/rafting.htm.
Following are commercial outfitters that run rafting trips on the Wenatchee River:
BLUE SKY OUTFITTERS:
P.O. Box 717, Peshastin, WA 98847. Info: (800) 228-RAFT or email@example.com
OSPREY RAFTING COMPANY:
4342 Icicle Road, P. O. Box 668, Leavenworth, WA 98826. Info: (800) 743-6269 or
894 US Highway 2, P.O. Box 253, Leavenworth, WA 98826. Info: (800) 926-7238.
ENCHANTED WATER TOURS:
P.O. Box 611, Leavenworth, WA 98826. Info: (888) 723-8987 or
GO BIG WHITEWATER, LLC:
P.O. Box 365, Leavenworth, WA 98826. Info: (888) 979-9600 or firstname.lastname@example.org
LEAVENWORTH OUTFITTERS OUTDOOR CENTER:
21312 Hwy 207, Leavenworth, WA 98826. Info: (800) 347-7934.
NORTH CASCADES RIVER EXPEDITIONS:
P. O. Box 116, Arlington, WA 98223. Info: (800) 634-8433 or email@example.com
P.O. Box 2124, Bothell, WA 98041. (800) 464-5899 or firstname.lastname@example.org
P.O. Box 666, Leavenworth, WA 98826. Info: (800) 448-RAFT or email@example.com
ORION EXPEDITIONS, INC.
12681 Wilson Street, Leavenworth, WA 98826. Info: (800) 553-7466 or firstname.lastname@example.org
WAVE TREK, INC:
P.O. Box 236, Index, WA 98256. Info: (800) 543-7971 or email@example.com
WILDWATER RIVER TOURS, INC:
P.O. Box 3623, Federal Way, WA 98063-3623. Info: (800) 522-WILD (9453) or
Other NW Rivers
The commercially rafted part of the river is a Class III to IV section, usually the last 15 miles or so of the river before it flows into the Columbia River at Patreos. It’s a great stretch for beginning to intermediate rafters. Most trips start off in calmer water with mostly Class I and II rapids, making for a good warm up. The real action starts with Engle’s Slide, a Class III rapid. The most challenging section of the river is next, a Class IV drop named Black Canyon. Here Black Canyon Creek flows into the Methow and the river narrows within the canyon while dropping quickly in elevation, creating fantastic waves and The Black Hole. Directly following is the ledges of Staircase with its powerful waves. The action continues with Corner Rapids and Another Roadside Attraction.
Just an hour from Seattle, the Skykomish River is considered the most challenging commercially run river in Washington State. The “Sky,” as it’s called by those that frequent this river, provides plenty of heart-pumping action for even the most seasoned rafting pro.
While most of this river is Class III to III+, the highlight of the trip and the draw for adrenaline-seekers, Boulder Drop, a Class IV+ rapid. This rapid contains house-sized boulders and requires intricate and precise maneuvering to navigate and make it through. While there are many other rivers in the state where rafters wear helmets for safety, this is the only one that the State of Washington steps in and requires helmets by law.
The Tieton River is located on the east side of White Pass, near Naches, just 45 minutes from Yakima. Rimrock Lake Reservoir is the main source for the Tieton’s water. The Tieton has very little water for most of the year, but once September comes around, the gates to Rimrock Dam are opened and, for the month of September, the Tieton has the best whitewater in the state. And, to make this river even better, the water from Rimrock Lake has spent the entire summer warming up, making the Tieton’s water the warmest in Washington.
With an average drop in elevation of 55 feet per mile, the Tieton also claims the “fastest” whitewater in Washington State. Volcanic basalt cliffs surround the river making for awesome rock climbing among elite climbers.
This river is considered the last “official” trip of the rafting season and rafters from all over Washington make their annual pilgrimage to the Tieton in September.
Federally protected as a Wild & Scenic River, the White Salmon River is one of the most beautiful rivers in Washington State. The water in this river is provided by melting glaciers and underground springs, supplying the White Salmon with some of the cleanest water in the country. Lush greenery and trees complete this picturesque river.
Most trips start out in BZ Corner, a little town whose recognition is known for its access to the White Salmon River. The excitement of the White Salmon begins right away as the BZ Corner put in is actually in the middle of Top Drop, a Class IV rapid! The river continues in a “pool and drop” pattern, with exciting rapids that drop down into calm pools, like Corkscrew and Waterspout. Stairsteps is a favorite, with a series of one to three-foot ledges like a set of long, wide stairs.
About two thirds into the trip is Class IV+ Husum Falls, a 14-foot waterfall. On most trips, rafters get out here to stretch their legs, view the falls, and watch the boats as they’re “lined” (floated empty at the end of a long line of rope) over the falls. Only a few outfitters are permitted to actually run the falls and for rafters on those trips, running the falls is an unforgettable thrill. From the bottom of the falls, the river finishes its journey to Northwestern Lake with Class II and III rapids.
(Courtesy of Blue Sky Outfitters)