Pacific Northwest; Snoqualmie River
Snoqualmie RiverNorth and Middle Forks - Middle Fork Snoqualmie
North Fork Snoqualmie
Despite their location less than an hour's drive -- traffic permitting -- from downtown Seattle, the North and Middle Forks of the Snoqualmie 1 offer some of Washington's most secluded and scenic river running. Yet the Middle Fork take-out is just five minutes off busy I-90. A dense forest of cedar and fir blankets these rain-drenched watersheds, and thick riverbank vegetation helps screen out civilization. Though gravel roads are nearby, boaters have a sense of near-wilderness isolation.
The Middle Fork, the larger of the two streams, drains snowy 6,000' and 7,000' peaks along the Cascade crest in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness east of Seattle. From these headwaters the Middle Fork flows westward down a gradually widening, U-shaped glacial valley bounded by spectacular granite ridges and spires. Boaters enjoy dramatic mountain scenery in the first third of the run below the Taylor River confluence. Rugged peaks tower up to 4,000' above the river. For most of the run described here, the Middle Fork cascades over granite bedrock, but in its lower reaches the river glides more easily over deep deposits of gravel, cobble, and other glacial debris.
The smaller North Fork drains a narrow pocket of moderate-elevation terrain. Its headwaters are pinched off from the Cascade crest by the neighboring watersheds of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and South Fork Skykomish. As a result the North Fork has lower flows and a shorter season than the Middle Fork, and its water level fluctuates more with rainfall. This branch of the river also affords fewer mountain views. Instead, boaters enjoy the beauty of a narrow, boulder-strewn channel flanked by towering evergreens.
Not far below the town of North Bend, the North, Middle, and South Forks join to form the main stem of the Snoqualmie. A few miles below their confluences, the combined waters plunge over 268' Snoqualmie Falls, one of the most impressive waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest. Below the falls the Snoqualmie meanders north to meet its sister stream, the Skykomish. The two rivers join to form the Snohomish River, which empties into Puget Sound at Everett, Washington.
Today the Snoqualmie faces development threats, including logging plans in the Middle Fork watershed and a proposed dam on the North Fork. Boaters and conservationists have stalled the dam, but only National Wild and Scenic designation will provide long-term protection. The Forest Service is recommending designation for 12 miles of the North Fork and 40 miles of the Middle Fork.2
Lower Snoqualmie: The main stem of the Snoqualmie is runnable for 40 miles from the powerhouse below Snoqualmie Falls to the confluence with the Skykomish River near Munroe. However, rapids are found only in the first few miles below the powerhouse.
The most popular whitewater run is one mile of Class II to II+ water from the powerhouse to Plum's Landing. Both accesses are on the right bank, and both are reached via Fish Hatchery Road off Highway 202 east of Fall City. This short stretch, known as the "Powerhouse Run," is a favorite training section for less experienced boaters, many of whom come after work on summer evenings.
Below Plum's Landing the river quickly eases to II-, then I+. Below Fall City the Snoqualmie is all flatwater, but several sections offer pleasant pastoral scenery. For more information refer to Verne Huser, Paddle Routes of Western Washington.
Middle Fork Snoqualmie
Below the Tanner take-out is the "Lower Middle Snoqualmie." The four-mile Class II run (gradient: 25 ft./mi.) from Tanner to the 428th Avenue bridge at North Bend is a popular training run for local paddling clubs and is commonly known as the "Club Stretch." This section offers enjoyable floating but much less seclusion. Boaters may also consider the next four miles from the North Bend bridge to an access on the right bank off Mill Pond Road, just above the Washington Highway 202 bridge. In this section the North and South Forks join the Middle Fork to form the Main Snoqualmie. Do not float beyond the Highway 202 bridge -- Snoqualmie Falls is just downstream.
In 1992 the Tanner access was the focus of controversy among boaters, a private landowner, and governement agencies. At the landowner's request, the county installed a locked gate on the access road, and river runners were forced to park on the main road and carry equipment about 100 yards to or from the river -- more of a problem for rafters than for kayakers. The Rivers Council of Washington and other groups are working to restore full access at this site.3
North Fork Snoqualmie In contrast to the Middle Fork, which can be navigated in a variety of craft, the North Fork is almost exclusively a kayaker's river. Low flows, possible portages around log hazards, and long carries at the put-in and take-out deter most rafters and canoeists. Strainers and sweepers are always a threat on this narrow, low-volume river which passes through heavily logged forest terrain. As of 1993 access to the North Fork was problematic due to road closures by Weyerhauser Corporation, which owns virtually all the land along the river (see Logistics).
The main whitewater challenge comes in two steep stretches of nearly continuous Class III rapids near either end of the run. Trouble here could mean a long, cold swim. Boaters who run the North Fork frequently report that the rapids often change from one season to the next, making it prudent to inquire locally before boating and scout frequently.
Scout the put-in and take-out for this run carefully. Above the put-in are unrunnable rapids. Below the take-out -- which is hard to recognize from the river -- the North Fork plunges into Ernie's Canyon (also known as Black Canyon), a fearsome Class V+p stretch that includes several mandatory portages and a 30' falls. Though this section has been run, even experts should think twice before making an attempt. For more information refer to Jeff Bennett, A Guide to the Whitewater Rivers of Washington.
1 The name apparently referred to a local Indian tribe, and is thought to mean "people of the moon."
Drainage Area and Average Annual Discharge: Middle Fork: 154 sq. mi. and 907,000 af near Tanner. North Fork: 64 sq. mi. and 362,000 af.
Guides and References:
Logistics: Middle Fork: Status of the Tanner take-out is currently unclear due to problems with landowners. Please see Western Whitewater, page 480, 481, for details.
Excerpted from Western Whitewater from the Rockies to the Pacific