The world-famous Tumwater Canyon sits on the outskirts of Leavenworth in North Central Washington only 1 mile from the Bavarian-themed downtown area. Flowing alongside Highway 2, this section of the Wenatchee River boasts some of the best whitewater kayaking in the entire country.
With Icicle Ridge towering over 4,000 feet to the west, and Tumwater Mountain at similar heights directly to the east, the wild and winding Wenatchee River continues carving its way towards the valley floor through Leavenworth, eventually emptying into the Columbia River less than 20 miles outside of town.
Kayakers of varied skill levels flock to Leavenworth to experience what has been called by many the best and most accessible roadside whitewater anywhere in the United States. With an average of over 300 days of sunshine per year and average summer temperatures in the 80’s, the odds are in your favor that Mother Nature will provide the goods whenever you choose to visit with summertime water levels typically more playful following spring peak flows.
Depending on water flows, the canyon serves up anywhere from class 2 through class 5+ whitewater rapids with names like the Dam Rapid, the 3 Amigos, Chaos, Perfection-of-Whitewater (POW), and Last Exit, or Exit Drop. Dropping over a mile of elevation in less than 9 miles from the mouth of the canyon to the southern end, Tumwater Canyon never disappoints and it’s common to see shuttle vehicles and kayaks on roof racks through this popular stretch.
In early spring and late fall, when water levels typically rise, the most adventurous kayakers test their skills. House sized boulders that line the banks at lower water, disappear as flows rise from hundreds of cubic feet per second (cfs) at their lowest to tens-of-thousands cfs at their highest.
During middle-to-late summer when the levels are lower, beginner to immediate kayakers enjoy playful sections and are able to hone their techniques catching eddies, practicing rolls, and running different lines through multiple boulder gardens. The section from the dam to just above the 3 Amigos is calmest, followed by a more technical run through the 3 Amigos, followed by the more demanding rapid section called Chaos. After Chaos, float under the old red-metal Penstock Pipeline Bridge, locally referred to as the Red Bridge due to the rusted color, and find a nice sandy beach on river’s left with facilities and a parking lot. This is also a popular swimming spot on hot summer days; the perfect place to take out, or rest before charging on for more challenging whitewater.
After the Pipeline Bridge, come the most adventurous sections for Tumwater Canyon kayakers including Perfection of Whitewater (POW) and Exit Drop. POW includes several river-wide drops with a couple line options depending on water levels, while Exit Drop is a narrower section forcing paddlers towards the center where the biggest waves churn towards the bottom crashing between house-sized boulders.
Luckily, all of the rapids in Tumwater Canyon can easily be scouted from the roadside and there are multiple pullouts along Highway 2. There are also many online videos of kayakers tackling different sections at different water levels, which can provide some great beta. Take caution when scouting and pulling over since the speed limit is 50 MPH on this stretch and the roadway is narrow in places. Consult with local outfitters on current conditions and online resources for recent trip reports and current water levels. Remember that the Wenatchee River is a wild river that can change quickly so play it safe when encountering unfamiliar situations.
After a long day of kayaking in Tumwater Canyon, head into downtown Leavenworth for food, drinks, and live music to help you unwind as you share stories of the day’s adventures. See you on the water!