Worth chills — even spills — to enjoy gorgeous thrills


Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

One of the best features of the Washington Creek Gorge is the campsite at the entry point. It's a cushy flat spot perched on a bluff directly across the bridge on Forest Road 2401.

The site has seen a lot of wear and tear over the years, both manmade and naturally occurring, but still holds up as one of the best off-road spots to pitch a tent and huddle for warmth by your campfire while the night cups the forest in darkness and mystery.

Flood erosion has eaten away at the bank below the campsite, but recently the same forces have pushed a fresh pile of river rock in front of the bank, somewhat stabilizing the campsite as the creek now diverts to the rock ledges on the opposite shore.

This re-routing has also created a jade-hued swimming hole about six feet deep — adding considerably to the camp site's real estate value.

Good luck securing this site now that summer has brought her guests to the Olympics. However, it should be no problem getting right-of-way to proceed up the creek should you find the spot taken when you arrive to explore the gorge.

Announce yourself and you should be waved right through.


A main feature of your initial journey is the sheer tonnage of rock and silt being annually pushed through the canyon. As waters recede in July, a huge rock island rises in the middle of the gorge.

Allow these first few hundred yards to introduce yourself to the dry side of canyoneering: the sometimes-jilting up-and-down motion as you step from rock to rock to rock. No two rocks are alike and your instinct will be to look down much more than if you were moving along a level forest path.

Use a walking stick for balance and you'll hopefully find a cadence, like a child placing one foot after the other along a street curb. Soon you'll make pretty good time and be able to look up and around as well.

A quarter mile in and you'll notice another chief feature, that of average ledges growing into considerable cliffs. There is a spot where a fir has fallen, completely crossing the creek. Beyond it, the water grows still. This is where the adventure starts. Steep canyon walls appear in the distance. Shadows grow deep; small caves and niches loom from the ledges on both sides. Nearly every dry surface is brushed in moss.

The gorge runs deep now. Rocky islands and dry shores are gone. Water depth rises from mid-calf to over your knees. The canyon is a cobblestone road under water, an uneven course of flat and round rocks, and you'll need to plant your stick firmly as you plan each step ahead.

I stayed to the right of the canyon, climbing out and over a series of moss-draped ledges to avoid the first of several holes too deep for crossing (the ledge in last week's Journal photo).

I could hear a small otterfall gurgling ahead. I dropped back into the water and kept moving forward, probing the bottom with my stick in my left hand while gripping my right hand along the face of the cliffs.

The water grew waist-deep at the next point I climbed out. In six more inches it would reach my pack. I wasn't keen on wet lunches or cameras.

The next ledge was narrow and a more difficult traverse, with some devil's club and tiny trees pushing against my pack and ensnaring themselves under the side straps. It felt like the bushes were pushing me into the gorge.

I got a great view of the canyon ahead: strewn with boulders, criss-crossed with great, dead trees, narrow and jagged sides with tumbling cataracts spilling into deep blue pools.

But the in-point after my climb was much deeper than the spot I had climbed out of. I stared down at a slot six feet deep with a current pushing through; it was far too wide for me to safely jump to the other side.

That was all. Out of cards to play.

I estimate only a half-mile until I had to turn around. A waterproof duffle would have made the difference. But so will another two weeks when the water level drops.

This canyon goes another three miles with nearly every inch another delicious moment of "decision time."

Directions: Hamma Hamma Recreation Area (FS 25) to the "T at 6.3 miles; go left and set your odometer as you cross the Hamma Hamma River bridge. Bear left and stay on FS 2480 for 2.3 miles to the intersection with FS 2401, where you go uphill right, following signs for Elk Lake. Pass Elk Lake trailhead and bear right (staying on FS 2401) when the road branches with FS 2441. In one-tenth mile after the branch you will come to the bridge crossing Washington Creek. Campsite and access to the left of the bridge. Park here; avoid blocking campers.

Mark Woytowich is a writer, photographer and video producer who lives in Potlatch. He can be reached at

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