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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

May 11, 2012 at 7:00 AM

See it for yourself: How to get out and explore the Elwha

Now is the time to get out and go see the amazing changes underway in the Elwha for yourself. The road access to the Whiskey Bend trail has been reopened, and the lower dam is entirely gone … what are you waiting for?


The emerging landscapes of the former lake bottoms of the reservoirs of the Elwha dams make for fascinating hiking. These cliffs are at former Lake Mills.

There are a whole range of ways to explore and enjoy the emerging landscape. Here are some suggestions: take binoculars, wear sturdy boots, dress in layers and prepare to be in a very open, exposed landscape with wind, sun, the works. Mostly, bring your camera. What you see in the Elwha today is history in the making, year one in a changing ecosystem that will never look precisely like this again.

Here are some ways to go see it for yourself:

For elderly, wheel chair users, or others who want a quick easy sample:

The National Park Service has provided an overlook viewpoint to observe what was the lower dam site, where the river now runs free. There’s free parking, a portable toilet and easy strolling or rolling access road to the overlook, easily managed in a wheelchair. You will want binoculars to better appreciate the view, which is distant. There is a second overlook that is not handicapped-accessible, but reached by a short and easy hike. A good place to share a picnic lunch and think about all that has come and gone at this vista.

The overlook is clearly signed, and reached immediately after turning off Lower Dam Road from State Route 112 just off State Route 101, toward Forks. You’ll see the turn off on your left.

Another option for people who want to get out and explore with a nice long hike: two choices here, one at the former Lake Aldwell, the other at what is left of Lake Mills, above Glines Canyon Dam. Both are wonderful and not to be missed.

The former Lake Aldwell site is quite spectacular in part for the sight of the revealed stumps of giant trees that the draining of the reservoirs reveals — these were the big trees cut before filling the reservoirs and the size of some of them, particularly the monster cedars, is astounding.


Buried stumps exposed in the former lake beds are relics from the forest lost when the reservoirs flooded some 800 acres along the Elwha River channel back in the 1900s. Loggers slicked off the timber before flooding the bottom lands. Many of the stumps revealed as the reservoirs have dropped are marked with scars from loggers’ springboards.

Enjoy too the weird, lunar landscape of sediment, gray and mysterious, ever shifting and eroding in the wind and changing pathway of the river.

The pageant of emerging seedlings near the forest is a sight to behold, as are the patterns of cracking in the drying sediment. Notice the spiderweb configurations over buried stumps not yet showing. A photographer’s paradise.

To get to the access point, drive State Route 101 toward Forks. As you cross the 101 bridge take the immediate right just on the far side of the bridge and continue past a kayak rental store on your left. Proceed to the parking lot to what was the boat ramp to Lake Aldwell. Simply walk onto the sediment delta, and begin your explorations. The big stumps that intrigued me most are found as you head north, toward the former dam site, but it’s all good.

For exploration of Lake MIlls:

This is most easily done by driving to the Whiskey Bend trail head. As you near the parking lot, you will see, to your right, a clearly signed trail that leads down to the delta. It’s a steep walk and will require a strenuous hike back up. Not at all impossible but if you have knee issues the other exploration at Lake Aldwell might be more suitable.

Parking is available at the Whiskey Bend trail head, as well as a portable toilet. Just walk back to the trail access.

To get to the Whiskey Bend trail head, take US 101 toward Forks, and before you hit the Route 101 bridge, make a left onto Olympic Hot Springs Road. Follow the road into the park — be sure to pay your fee at the ranger station — and continue to the Whiskey Bend Road, where you turn left. It’s a narrow, twisting gravel road but recently repaired and easily passable in any city car, no special four wheel drive or SUV required.


Sedum intermingles with moss on a rock at the Goblin Gates

One thought about dogs: the Lake Aldwell dam site is not in the park, and therefore dogs are allowed on leash. The leash is a good safety precaution. There are unstable sediment cliffs everywhere, the river is cold and fast and unpredictable … use an extra measure of attention and common sense both with kids and dogs. The Lake Mills delta is in the Olympic National Park and dogs are not allowed.

As for places to stay and getting there … I like to use the Edmonds ferry; it is less crowded than the other routes, and you avoid the dreadful traffic through Poulsbo that the Bainbridge ferry subjects you to.

There are lots of lodging options, from camping at the Elwha Campground — it’s open — to motels in Port Angeles. The Quality Inn is comfortable but expensive. I like the Downtowner, if you choose a shared bathroom down the hall it’s quite reasonable. There are lots of independently-owned fishermen-style places throughout town any of them just fine. Don’t miss Port Book and News on Main Street, an outstanding independent book store. And then there is The Haven for amazing fresh-made pastries and excellent coffee just across the street.

One of the best surprises in Port Angeles is the book store at the Clallam County Historical Society on Lincoln Street, in the old Carnegie Library. You’ll find books for sale there you won’t find anywhere else. The North Olympic Public Library System’s Port Angeles branch also has outstanding early photographs of the river, the dams under construction, and Port Angeles to flip through in the Northwest Room.

Now is also the time to enjoy the spring birds and lush foliage by hiking the trails of Olympic National Park. The deliciousness of this place at this time of year is reason enough to make the trip. A hike suitable for any fitness level is the Whiskey Bend trail, and be sure to make the side trail trip from it to the Goblin Gates, where you can watch the Elwha muscle into a rock canyon, and get yourself down to the beach.

goblins gate.jpg

The Elwha River pounding through Goblin’s Gate

The native plants are just now in their splendor and the river above the dams is still clear and clean,there is no sediment loading from dam removal going on there. From the tiny delicate up close beauty the flowers coming into bloom to the sweeping grandeur of the river, this is a place to savor richly and slowly. Pack a lunch and give yourself a whole day.


Ferns grace the rocks along the Whiskey Bend trail

For fun, read Robert Woods Across the Olympic Mountains before you go, to be able to picture the Press Expedition explorers floundering along this same geography in the dead of winter. What were they thinking.

If you want to really get into it, head to the Special Collections at the University of Washington Libraries and ask for the original edition of the explorers’ account of their trip, written up in an 1890 edition of the Seattle Press. They’ve got the whole thing pasted up, original size, on boards, no fussy microfilm required. It’s really a treat and a great way to stoke your imagination for an exploration of the Elwha, now and then.


The sediment cliffs left behind by the draining reservoirs are ridged by the dropping water levels.

Lynda Mapes, photos

Here are some amazing photos too from the National Park Service on the agency’s dam removal blog, documenting the demise of the powerhouse at Glines Canyon Dam.



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