Are you looking for other outdoor recreation for you and your family around Mt. Rainier? A paddle on the Nisqually or Cowlitz River could be just the ticket.
The Nisqually river runs out of the park right alongside SW entrance, and through Ashford, WA. The Nisqually is recommended for more experienced paddlers, and not recommended for canoes. The drop-in is at Skate Creek/USFS-52, where the bridge crosses over the Nisqually. The drop in is about 5 minutes fro the Visitor Center, and the take-out is about 6 minutes away, so make sure to drop by for a visit! This run is about 11 miles, paralleling SR 706 until the takeout where Hwy 7 crosses the Nisqually in Elbe, just before Alder Lake. A Class II and III run, this is a fast-paced run (3 hours or less) that carves through narrow slot canyons at the three-mile mark. Scouting this section of the river is recommended, or kayaking/paddling with someone who is familiar with the river. As the run progresses, it opens up for a few miles, allowing a few glimpses of Mt. Rainier and her glory, before passing under Hwy 7 and gently folding into Alder Lake.
To get to the Cowlitz river from our Visitor Center in Ashford, drive east on SR 706 for 3 miles,a and take a right on NSFS-52. You’ll cross over the aforementioned drop-in for the Nisqually run, and travel on this beautiful scenic road for 22 miles before arriving in Packwood. There is camping along Skate Creek as well, though camping spots are generally taken early on weekends.
Kayaks and canoes frequent the Cowlitz in a few different sections, depending on the experience of the paddler. One put-in is at La Wis Wis campground, just a few miles east of Packwood. There is 7.5 miles of Class II water, and the take-out is under the Packwood bridge (where USFS-52 crosses over the Cowlitz). This run is best run at high water, April through mid-July. It is possibly to run later in the summer/fall, but you may have to portage your vessel over shallow areas. Not recommended for young children.
A personal favorite is to put-in at the Packwood bridge (NF-52 crossing over the Cowlitz), and do the 11 mile float down to the bridge where Hwy 12 crosses over the Cowlitz. This stretch is a fun one since the water runs at a steady pace and keeps you moving. The run takes about 3 hours non-stop, but the mountain views are spectacular if you look back over your shoulder, and the fishing and river beaches are definitely worth pulling over for. Plan for 5-6 hours and take your time. This section of the river is also Class II, but you’ll have to keep an eye out for sweepers (logs and log jams that can be dangerous if not avoided). This section is not recommended for young children.
If one is looking for a family-friendly paddle, you can put in at the aforementioned bridge between Packwood and Randle where Hwy 12 crosses over Cowlitz, and float 9-10 miles until the 131 crosses over the river, just a quarter mile of Hwy 12 in Randle. This section is slow and winding, so make sure to plan by bringing plenty of water, and sunscreen. The float takes plus or minus 5 hours non-stop, but longer if you take significant or frequent breaks. This is a great one for families, and there are plenty of spaces to camp for those that want to take it easy and make it a two-day adventure. Bring your fishing pole for this section as well!
While both rivers are accessible and gorgeous, paddlers should always take precaution. Always paddle with a friend, scout areas that are unknown, and check your gear. Remember that these are glacial waters and even the best swimmers will have a challenge fighting the cold if you do roll, and always wear your life jacket. Be safe out there!