Visiting the Elwha (WA)

Published 8/26/2013  |  American Whitewater

The Elwha River cuts a course through the sediments of the former Aldwell Reservoir. Photo by Thomas O’Keefe.

By: Thomas O’Keefe

While paddling the Elwha River is a fascinating way to experience restoration and recovery of a free-flowing river in action, it’s not the only way to get a first-hand look at one of the nation’s most ambitious and fascinating restoration projects. There are a number of sites where you can scout the river or just explore the emerging landscape with friends and family.

River Mouth

The river mouth is quickly transforming as the cobble beach transitions to sand as predicted. To explore the new beach environment head approximately 5 miles west of Port Angeles to Highway 101 mile 242.5 and take Highway 112 west. Continue on this road for 2.1 miles (crossing the river) to Place Road. Turn right (north) and follow this road 1.9 miles to the T junction and then turn right (east) on to Elwha Dike Road and continue 0.1 mile to the Elwha Dike access point. Day-use parking is available along the road. Hike a couple hundred yards along the trail towards the ocean.

Elwha Canyon

To see the site of the Elwha Dam, head approximately 5 miles west of Port Angeles to Highway 101 mile 242.5 and take Highway 112 west 0.7 mile to the Elwha River. Just before crossing the Elwha bridge turn left (south) on Lower Dam Road which is also the turn for Elwha Dam RV Park. The parking area for the trail is to your immediate left.  The first 200 yard section of trail, constructed by Clallam County, is wheelchair accessible and leads to a partial overlook of the former dam site. As you approach this first overlook you will see the start of a 1/4 mile footpath to your left. This trail was built by a Washington Conservation Corps crew and leads to an overlook that provides the best view of Elwha Canyon and site of the former dam. If you want a closer view of the canyon, you can hike down the old road to the powerhouse from the parking lot. It’s a 0.4 mile hike down to the old dam site where you can peer over the edge and scout the rapid that has formed below the old dam site.

Former Aldwell Reservoir

The former reservoir is a fascinating landscape of gravels and sand held back by the dam, old stumps with their springboard notches standing as reminders of the day the riparian forest was cleared prior to flooding the reservoir, impressive views back up the valley to the Gates of the Elwha proposed wilderness, a river that is carving its way through a century of sediment, and evidence of vegetation that is slowly reclaiming the corridor along the river. To see all this head about 8 miles west of Port Angeles to Highway 101 mile 239.4 just after crossing the Elwha River bridge. Turn right (north) onto Lake Aldwell Road towards Olympic Raft and Kayak. Continue on the road 0.2 mile to the end and the old boat launch that was on the reservoir. From here you can hike out onto the old reservoir and spend several hours exploring or just a few minutes.

Former Mills Reservoir and Geyser Valley

While Glines Canyon Dam is still an active construction site, you can drive up to explore the upper reaches of the former Mills Reservoir and the backcountry upstream. Head about 8 miles west of Port Angeles to Highway 101 mile 239.5 and turn left (south) onto Olympic Hotsprings Road through the National Park entrance. Continue 4.0 miles up this road and take the left-hand turn up to Whiskey Bend. As you proceed up this road you will pass the Glines Canyon Dam site at mile 1.2, described by members of the 1889 Press Expedition in colorful prose as an area “rather unsafe for any nervous youths to travel.” Continuing up the road to mile 4.0, there is a trail that leads down to the exit from Rica Canyon and the historic start of the Mills Reservoir (marked with a small sign that reads, “to Lake Mills”). Although the 0.4 mile trail is steep it provides an opportunity to explore the upper end of the former reservoir and the exit of Rica Canyon.  The road ends another 0.4 mile past this trail at the Whiskey Bend Trailhead. From here it is a 1.2 mile hike to the junction of the Rica Canyon trail which heads 0.5 miles down to the river and the downstream end of the Geyser Valley. In contrast to the reaches downstream that are struggling to digest 34 million cubic yards of sediment, the Geyser Valley is a great place to see what a floodplain forest would normally look like. It provides an interesting contrast and a potential future view of what a restored Elwha forest could look like along the lower reaches someday.

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