The Year of the Wenatchee: An Insider’s Guide

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Go ahead and call it the Year of the Wenatchee.

That’s what paddlers in Washington are saying as the marquee day run outside Seattle is boasting some of its best flows in recent memory, thanks to late spring snow and rain.

Each spring in the Seattle area, boaters dream of the sunny days and warmth that the east side of the Cascades will provide. As late spring hits and the snowmelt starts to pop, folks pack up their surf boats, rafts, and creek boats with an eye on the Peshastin and Cashmere gauges. For good reason.

The Wenatchee provides some of the best bigger water surfing options during the melt in the entire Northwest. From just upstream of Leavenworth skilled Class V paddlers test their bigwater skills on gnar like Tumwater Canyon of the Wenatchee, while lovers of creek boating can sample the Little Wenatchee, Icicle Creek, and Peshastin Creek.

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Trinity Wave on the Wenatchee play run. (Photo by Mike Hagadorn)

Local Leavenworth and Cashmere boaters have some of the best whitewater in the country out their back doorsteps. And although it isn’t there year-round, many Seattle area boaters are jealous since it is sooo good when it arrives. Us west-siders dust off our sunglasses and head to the Mecca of the Wenatchee drainage. This year, the snowpack is still well over 100%, with it likely trickling down for months, making for a long season for what has been shorter seasons recently.

The ever-so-popular “play run” has many quality rapids in splashy Class III with the occasional push to IV at higher water. There are a few put-ins, and depending on how comfortable your play boat is the High A (Alpine) section is a great start. A little lower, many choose to put in in Peshastin to catch one wild rapid named Rock and Roll (but don’t forget your Discover Pass or you will be ticketed at the put-in).

There is a consequential dam that is portaged on the right before the commercial rafting put-in. The playboating features are amazing at a variety of levels. Different holes and waves are retentive but usually above 6,000 cfs to the peak there is action to be had.  Check out the full ride Matt Kurle had this year pulling off many of the tricks in the book on Grannies wave, ( https://youtu.be/z7FQduZGXdMhttps://youtu.be/z7FQduZGXdM ) For a full list of features and wave levels check out www.professorpaddle.com.

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A “Secret Camp” on the Wenatchee. (Photo by Dan Patrinellis).

The water is cold and most paddlers wear drysuits or wetsuits even if the air temp is warm. The vibe is summer at the takeout in Cashmere. Make sure to leave shaded spots for folks with dogs in their rigs at the takeout and rodeo hole parking areas. Many laps are followed by amazing BBQ at Country Boys (closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday), within easy walking distance. A cheaper option exists with El Chavo Mexican Taqueria, a quick drive from the takeout. Or if you’re into a brewery try Milepost 11, overlooking the last rapid on the run Grannies.

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Exit Rapid at, yes, lower water on the Class V Tumwater.

Big water on Tumwater

Sections of Tumwater are run at all levels but be sure your bigwater certified when trying for a top-to-bottom descent. The Wall (first rapid) will provide feedback but has a longer runout and some stout holes throughout. At higher levels some choose to put in below the dam and run down to takeout on the red bridge. This abbreviated version gives you a wild ride with Dam Rapid, the Three Amigos (three separate rapids), and finishes off with Chaos (a longer Class V). Find a local to show you the lines; they vary wildly depending on river level.

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Running the Peshastin section. Paddler: Jed Hawkes ; photo courtesy Adrian Wigston)

Camping up near Chewakum Creek off Highway 2 upstream of Tumwater works if you want to stay up high, but the limited sites fill up fast. Free sites exist up Icicle Creek Road, but you will be competing with the climbers for sites here. Invariably, the rafting crews party at the free camping up Hay Canyon Road near the turnoff to Cashmere. The turkey hunters may wake you up early but campfires and late nights are great up Hay.

Creeking Options

At the base of Bluet Pass, Ingles Creek (V-) runs into Peshastin (IV+), creating a shallower and creaky continuous riverbed which sometimes collects some wood. Cold water provides a continuous good time, with one longer rapid that funnels down called “Fresh Squeeze” that can be scouted from the road.

Keep an eye out for chatter on the chat groups for an opening in often-clogged-with-wood Little Wenatchee. This granite gem has some classy drops and a mostly Class V character with a few bigger drops sprinkled in. There are some blind corners and scouting can be super hard; it’s best to hear that it is clear or scout prior to dropping in.

Class V Icicle Creek contains the Upper 5, Middle 5, and Lower 5 sections that are finicky with water levels. These very cold continuous sections can have a lot of wood moving around but are amazing when they are clean. Ask recent transplant Evan Garcia how Middle Icicle compares to the Little White or other Gorge Runs. Here are some highlights from 2021 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMKWW6NNqqU).

Once you’re too sore to do a third play lap and need some fun, Leavenworth has a fake Bavarian village vibe. The tourists and the seasoned vets visit the ice cream shops or a grab a braut at the Muchen Haus, sporting over 20 flavors of mustard and Bavarian beer.

It’s such a glorious overall experience that even a long weekend won’t feel like nearly enough time.

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