The Tieton River draining the east slopes of the Cascades some 25 miles northwest of Yakima is outside of the normal drive-to area we cover at the WenatcheeOutdoors website. But the Tieton is unusual: In September, a dam release from the Rimrock Reservoir (to benefit salmon runs) raises the river to exciting paddling levels. By this time of year, it’s the closest place we paddlers from Central Washington can find whitewater. And so we’ve included paddling information for both the Upper (class 3+) and Lower (class 2+) Tieton because many of our local paddlers will want to make the migration to Yakima for a fix of their addiction.
- For many paddlers this run is less about communing with nature and more about the non-stop paddling action. One local paddler I recently asked to join me on the sojourn to the Tieton considered it a rather soulless river(the unfortunate aftermath of building Highway 12) that had virtually no eddies and very few play spots. Once you were on the river, you were washed downstream through a channelized sluice at mach speeds. He said he had done the run once, and once was enough.
- While there’s truth to this assessment, boaters who want an adrenaline rush will find this river pretty darn fun. Furthermore, the scenery — in those few moments when you peel your eyes from the oncoming waves or sweepers — is pretty darn pretty. Many beautiful walls (some with long basalt columns, others with columns that have been uplifted, twisted, and then shaved at odd angles) flank the canyon. At water level oaks, poplars, alders, cottonwoods, ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and even a few crabapple trees create a green ribbon that contrasts dramatically with the rust-colored walls and yellow-grass hills of the desert.
- I found the river more scenic than my friend had cast it. And yet he was right –once you paddle out into the current, you’re in for a fast carnival ride
Why the Water Release?
- Each year around September 1 the Bureau of Reclamation begins its the annual “flip-flop” operation in the Yakima Basin by reducing flows in the upper arm of the Yakima River and increasing flows in the Naches River with increased water releases from Rimrock Reservoir. The purpose of the flip-flop is to encourage spring Chinook salmon to spawn at relatively low flows so that less water is required during the winter to keep the egg nests, also known as redds, covered. This water operation also reduces impacts on irrigation water supply during the next season.
- Flows from the Cle Elum Reservoir are gradually decreased from over 2,500 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) down to between 200 to 250 cfs by about the middle of September. Meanwhile, flows from Rimrock Reservoir are increased from a trickle to about 2,000 cfs by mid-September. Sometimes, depending on irrigation demands and weather factors, flows reach 2,200 to 2,400 cfs.
- Sometime in mid-September, the flow on the Tieton reaches its maximum and then the flow starts getting squeezed by around 100 to 200 cfs a day. The boating season is typically over by late September.
Difficulty: 3+. The Tieton is not the typical river most of us boat. The rapids on the Upper Tieton, rated singly, are mainly class 2 with a few class 3 drops thrown in for good measure. But if you tip, don’t have a bombproof roll, and swim, you’re quickly in trouble here. Between the lack of eddies and the abundance of brush, branches, and logs flanking the river, there is plenty of room for harm to come your way. If you swim there’s a high likelihood you’ll have to abandon your boat and simply take care of saving your hide. All of this means that a strong roll is a prerequisite. The ability to read the river on the fly is also crucial. Because standard difficulty ratings are somewhat misrepresentative of the consequences of swimming, you might use this rule of thumb: Be a grade better than the river’s ranking. Be a Class 4 boater for the Upper Tieton and a Class 3 boater for the Lower Tieton.
Gradient: 55 feet per mile
Length: 11.5 miles
Put -In: There are quite a number of put-in possibilities near Rimrock (milepost 165.8 along Highway 12). Some options include:
- Milepost 166. Wildcat Road (on north side of highway). Trail near the top of road is one access point for kayakers to put-in .
- Milepost 166.3. Wide pullout beside highway for put in. Many commercial buses here.
- Milepost 167 Another put-in alongside Highway 12.
- Milepost 167.8. Tieton Reservoir Road leaves from the south side of highway and crosses the river. Once across the river, parallel the river going upstream (southwesterly direction). Over the next 1.5 miles there are many informal campgrounds and put-ins.
Take-Out: Windy Point Campground (Highway 12 milepost 177.3)
River Flow Info. Flows of 1000cfs are generally considered to be the minimal flow needed to raft the river. Kayakers can probably squeak by with a little less water. Generally flows in the 1,700 to 2,000 cfs range are preferred. For river flow info, check the prerecorded info from the Bureau of Reclamation: 509-575-5854. Or use these links: 1) http://www.usbr.gov/pn/hydromet/yakima/index.html (then click on ‘Current Data’ and then on ‘Rimrock Lake.’ 2) Go directly to this river gauge.
Usage. The river gets heavy use on September weekends–it’s more of a circus than a church. Weekdays in September are relatively quiet and those disliking ‘scenes’ should use a mental health day or two to enjoy the river.
Access. From I-82 on the north end of Yakima, follow Highway 12 west toward Naches. In 17 miles, branch left on Highway 12 at the junction of Highway 410 and Highway 12. From this junction, it is about 20 miles to the put-in at Rimrock.
Mileages. The Tieton follows Highway 12 quite closely (it’s a channelized river now). We’ve used highway mileposts as well as river miles (based off the USGS maps) to identify landmarks, rapids, diversion dams, camping spots etc. There is a constant bombardment of class 2 rapids along this stretch of river and we ignore mention of these and only note the more significant class 3 rapids encountered. Use the drive to the put-in while shuttling cars to scope out the river well.
- Milepost 165.8 (river mile 20.5). Rimrock grocery store.
- Milepost 166.3 (river mile 20.1). Wide pullout beside Highway 12 for put in. Many commercial buses here.
- River mile 20 and 19.7. Class 3 rapids (Drop Out and Goose Egg Drop).
- River mile 18.7. Class 3 rapid (The Brothers). Two big waves.
- Milepost 167.8 (river mile 18.5). Tieton River Road crosses the river.
- River mile 18.2. Hause Creek Rapid (class 3). Run on right.
- Milepost 168.5 Hause Creek Campground (fee area).
- River miles 16.2. Wild Rose Rapid (class 3).
- Milepost 170.4 (river mile 15.9) Willow Campground and Willow Rapid (class3).
- Milepost 170.8 Primitive camping (no fee area).
- Milepost 171.5. Primitive camping (no fee).
- Milepost 171.8 (river mile 14.6). First signs noting the diversion dam downstream in 1000 feet. You can’t scout this hazard from the highway without trespassing, but you can pull over on river left here and portage along the highway. Or you can float down on the right side of the island upstream of the dam and then pull over hard to the left and scout from the left side. If you run the diversion dam, stay left and generate some speed to punch any recirculating water at the bottom of the dam.
- Milepost 172.6 (river mile 13.7). Start of the Rimrock Retreat area and the location of High Noon Rapid–a large rock spillover with a big hole on the left. Stay right.
- Milepost 172.9 (river mile 13.5). Bridge Wave. Good surfing wave right under a private bridge at the east end of Rimrock Retreat.
- Mileposts 173.3 to 174 (river miles 13.2 to 12.5). A few 2+ and a class 3 rapid in quick succession, the trickiest of which is Waffle Wall Rapid (milepost 173.5), named for the waffle-shaped retaining devices stabilizing the right bank of the river. Enter this rapid on the right then move left to stay away from the wall.
- Milepost 173.5. There’s nice primitive camping at Waffle Wall and the river is a little easier below Waffle Wall Rapid with mainly class 2 and a few 2+ or 3-rapids between here and Windy Point Campground. Paddlers sometimes use this as a put-in for floating the Lower Tieton. There’s a good entry point (a touch brushy but still easily accessed) across from Waffle Wall but immediately downstream of the rapid.
- Milepost 174.5 (river mile 11.75). An exciting, 2+ or 3- rapid that will grab the attention of paddlers doing the Lower Tieton.
- Milepost 175.6. Primitive camping on right of road (as you’re headed down canyon).
- Milepost 176.3. Primitive camping on left of road (as you’re headed down canyon).
- Milepost 176.5. Primitive camping just before the first of two bridges the highway (and river) cross in quick succession. Popular spot with Honey Buckets.
- Milepost 177.1 (river mile 8.9). Second bridge. Excellent place to enter and exit the river immediately downstream of bridge on river left. Good take-out for Upper Tieton if you’re doing the river as a day trip. Also a good put-in for Lower Tieton if you’re doing that as a day trip.
- Milepost 177.3 (river mile 8.5). Windy Point Campground (fee area). Popular take-out (Upper Tieton) or put-in (Lower Tieton).
Land Managers. The land flanking much of the Tieton River is managed by the Wenatchee National Forest. Some of the lands are also part of the Oak Tree Wildlife Area.
Camping. There are several Forest Service fee campsites with flush toilets and running water along the Tieton and these include Windy Point, Willows, and Hause Creek campgrounds. In September, most of the weekend spaces at these campgrounds will need to be reserved in advance. There are also many no-fee primitive camping areas along the river and a few of these are noted in our mileage figures. Some of the primitive areas have Honey Buckets to handle human waste, most don’t. Bring your own ‘groover’ (portable toilet). If you don’t have a portable toilet yet, you should — especially for camping in high traffic areas like the Tieton. Read our article ‘Going in the Woods’ to get yourself properly outfitted. Also, bring water for primitive camping and be aware that fires are prohibited at all the primitive camping sites.
Permits. No permits are needed to run the river or to park your vehicle.
Dates and Updates: This information was first compiled in 2007 by Andy Dappen. We updated this in 2009 with information from local boaters. We most recently updated the information September 4, 2010 with updates from local boaters who had just run the river.
Leave It Better Than You Found It: This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.