Many of our canyons are on lands that indigenous people hold sacred. We encourage all in our community to learn about the relationship that indigenous people have to the canyons you visit. Travel lightly and with respect for those that came before.
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We believe that responsible canyon access:
Protects the canyon environment from invasive species and minimizes erosion and other human impacts
Respects temporary closures such as raptor nesting and fire recovery closures
Minimizes our impact on other visitors
Minimizes our impact on wildlife
Considers the recommendations and expertise of the canyoning community for sustainable access
Who is in Charge of Access?
Canyons in Washington State are on a mix of State land, Federal land, and a few are on private land. Take a few minutes to read this overview of land management. This foundational information will make you a better advocate when its needed. The Washington Canyon Coalition facebook group is a great place to share anything you learn concerning access, and a great place for the community to discuss so that we approach partners and land managers with a unified voice.
About State Land
Washington State's public lands are governed by WA State Parks, WA Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and WA Department of Fish and Wildlife. Most of our canyons on state land are in State Parks, or on DNR land. In general, State Parks are much smaller in size, and get higher visitation than DNR land. As a result, State Park managers often have a detailed knowledge of the terrain they manage, as well as the recreational activities that happen on their land. Wallace Falls, for example, is the site of multiple rescues/recoveries each year from hikers getting hurt on off-trail terrain. The advice on Ropewiki is to minimize our visibility to other visitors. Thus far, WA State Parks have allowed canyon access, and we should continue to be vigilant with safety and minimizing our impact and visibility so that our community can be an asset, rather than a burden, to the managers of these high-use areas.
Washington State DNR (Dept. of Natural Resources) land often covers huge areas, and is managed similarly to National Forest Land. Some of our canyons are on Natural Resource Conservation Areas (NRCAs), which is a sub-designation within DNR-managed land.
Columbia Falls Natural Area Preserve
This area along the Columbia River Gorge contains Gable and upper Archer Creeks. Managed by WA State DNR, access to the CFNAP is limited to research, as it is a pristine area containing a number of sensitive species. Do not descend Gable or upper Archer Creeks without requesting DNR permission first.
About Federal Land
In Washington State, we have canyons on National Forest land and National Park land. The US Forest Service is a branch of the US Department of Agriculture, while the National Park Service is a branch of the US Department of Interior. As such, the threats to canyoning on National Forest land may be very different than the threats on National Park land. For example, new logging roads pose a significant threat to canyoning on national forest lands, whereas a restrictive permit system is more likely to pose a threat to canyoning in a national park.
Our federal lands are currently severely underfunded. Since the 1990’s, the Forest Service has had its funding and staff reduced across nearly every program. There are now half as many trail crew and forestry technicians as there were in 1992, even as visitation has increased by more than 800,000 visits a year. With half as much staff and twice as much responsibility, National Forests have been struggling.
This shortage of human resources means they simply do not have the bandwidth to do all of the things they are mandated to do. It leads to thing like moratoriums on permits, and short-cutting public input processes in time-sensitive decisions. Most USFS staff are good people who are doing the best they can with the resources they've been given. It's up to us to stay informed about what's going on in each district, and ensure that the district staff are aware of our community's interests. They can't possibly know all of their constituent's needs, but they are usually eager to listen and work with us when we reach out to partner with them. It's important that our community works collaboratively as partners with our National Forests and National Parks, as well as with other groups like American Whitewater and the Access Fund.
What is "Wilderness?"
Wilderness is a federal land designation that describes the types of activities that are prohibited within its boundaries to protect wildlife, ecosystems, and the wilderness nature of the area. Wilderness exists on all types of federally managed public land: National Parks, National Forests, and even BLM land.
Think of it as a type of land, rather than a land manager. As an analogy, imagine an old village, with a few houses, a town hall, a school, and a church. The houses are owned by individuals, the church by its members, and the town hall and school by the town government. In this imaginary town, four of the homes, the church, and the town hall are all designated historical buildings, which means the owners have to follow a specific set of rules for maintaining the buildings. All of those owners have to follow the same rules because of the historical building designation. A family that owns one historic home and one modern home has to follow more stringent rules in their historic home than they do their modern home.
This is how Wilderness works. Whether the land is managed by NPS, USFS, or BLM, it has to be managed according to the rules of the Wilderness Act. Watch this discussion about bolting in Wilderness for a great overview of how the Wilderness Act applies to climbing activities.
National Forest districts
Snoqualmie Ranger District
The Snoqualmie Ranger District receives the highest concentrated use in the nation, and it's everything west of the Cascade Crest, spanning north from Enumclaw ending roughly just south of Highway 2, where the Skykomish Ranger District starts. The Snoqualmie Ranger District has asked canyoneers to keep a low profile during peak hiking times in both Denny Creek and South Fork Snoqualmie, to reduce the risk of attracting untrained hikers to technical terrain. Snoqualmie RD has issued permits to guide services for Dingford, SF Snoqualmie (taking out above Franklin Falls), Tesseract, Change Creek, and Hall Creek.
Cle Elum Ranger District
The Cle Elum Ranger District runs east of the crest across Snoqualmie Pass, and includes the Kachess Lake canyons, as well as some lesser-run Snoqualmie corridor canyons closer to the pass. The district has issued permits to guide services for Mineral, Incognito, and Quicksilver.
Cowlitz Valley Ranger District
The Cowlitz Valley Ranger District is located in the Northern most portion of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and is roughly located among three volcanic peaks: Mt. Rainier to the north, Mt. Adams to the east, and Mt. St. Helens to the west. A line connecting Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens following the Boundary Trail #1 makes up the southern boundary. This district includes the Randle and Dark Divide canyons. The district has issued permits to guide services for Hager Creek, Tule Creek, East Canyon Creek and Dark Creek.
Only districts with meaningful information to share are listed.
Mt. Rainier National Park (MORA)
Mt. Rainier is home to a number of lesser-run canyons, but does contain one classic: Olallie Creek. Most canyons in Mt. Rainier (including Olallie) are in designated wilderness, and therefore are rigged entirely with natural anchors. These canyons are also largely free of invasive species. Take extra care to clean and dry your gear before entering these canyons to keep them pristine. Tread lightly, and be mindful of erosion as you navigate the canyons. In 2024, Mt. Rainier NP will institute a pilot timed entry system. Any vehicles entering after 7am will need a timed-entry ticket with a 2-hour window on it.
North Cascades National Park (NOCA)
The North Cascades National Park Complex includes the National Recreation Area around Newhalem. It is home to Thornton Creek, Ladder Creek, and Gorge Creek. While there are currently no limitations to access to these canyons, the Park has made it clear that the bolts in these canyons are illegally placed and cannot legally be replaced. Learn more about ways to partner with the park and advocate for responsible bolting within the park.
Canyons on Private Land
We don't have many established canyons on private land, and most that are cross through forestry company land, which is leased from the forest service. Each private land owner has different rules to follow, often depending on the logging activity. Snoqualmie Timber, for example, which hosts Rachor Creek, requires a permit. Their roads pass through active logging areas, and a permit system helps them regulate visitors and manage risk. Fir Creek on the peninsula, on the other hand, passes through a section of Green Diamond Forest land that isn't currently active, and they don't require a permit on that section. It's important to look up the rules and follow them. If you see the rules change, please update Ropewiki.
While the access and exit of Davis Creek are on forest land, the creek passes through the corner of a private lot. The owner of the lot is aware of canyoneers, and has expressed gratitude for our removal of garbage that gets thrown into the canyon from the bridge. We must continue to be responsible, considerate visitors to this creek.
As more canyons that pass through private land are found, a useful piece of information, when working with landowners, is that Washington State has a Recreational Immunity Clause. Landowners are often worried about liability, but this clause exempts them from liability if they let the public use their land for free.