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North Fork Clearwater: Bungalow Ranger Station to Aquarius Campground


Rapid on Bungalow Section at low flows (4,000 cfs)

Run Description:

The North Fork Clearwater, below the confluence with Kelly Creek, consists of three distinct sections of white water, centered around Washington Creek Campground. The first section runs from just above Bungalow Ranger station to Washington Creek (class III-IV). The next is from Washington Creek to Quartz Creek (class III/IV(V)), which includes the infamous Irish Railroad rapid. The third is from Quartz Creek to Aquarius Campground (class III).

The Bungalow section has the best access for rafts, with the added bonus of float up camping at the take out (Washington Creek). The run is pool drop in nature, with 4 major rapids connected by long sections of swiftwater. Depending on flows, the drops can pack a punch and require a plan to get through. Take time to road scout while setting shuttle. The put in is a short distance above Bungalow Ranger station, which is directly across the river from Orogrande Creek. It is a primitive sand launch site.


Irish Railroad sneak line @ 4,000 CFS: Copyright Todd Hoffman

Running from Washington Creek to Quartz Creek requires rafters to either run Irish Railroad rapid (class V), or to find a alternate launch below the rapid, involving class V bushwacking down steep banks through thick vegetation. There is a sneak down the right side of Irish at most flows, but it would be a bit of a stunt move in a raft. Below Irish are several fun rapids, which some refer to as a mini version of the Lochsa. Note that a few of these drops are not easily visible from the road and can be technical at low flows. Careful scouting is advised. Unfortunately, there is not good take out access for inflatables at Quartz creek or anywhere else along the section. Kayakers can easily put in and take out almost anywhere they like.

From Quartz Creek down, the river starts to mellow, and the rapids are all read and run class III's. The section makes a good intro for beginner kayakers at lower flows in the late season. There is a nice take out beach at Aquarius that is more manageable for rafts than other access points along the run. Not too far below Aquarius, the North Fork hits the tailwaters of Dworshack Reservoir, where the once incredible lower section of the river is now drowned.


Dworshack Dam

Before the construction of Dworshack Dam in 1973, the North Fork Clearwater was home to perhaps the most incredible strain of anadromous fishes anywhere in the world, the B-Run steelhead. Due to overwintering an extra season in the Pacific Ocean, the fish grew to enormous size, averaging 30 lbs. As a compromise to this tragic loss, the lower reaches of the river are now supplemented with genetically engineered hatchery fish, which compete with other native, migrating fish for habitat.

Flow Information:

The North Fork is an enormous drainage, producing flows that can exceed the Lochsa. Run off tends to peak around the end of May, rapidly tapering off by the middle of June. Low water runs are possible until mid-July depending on snow pack. Roads into the North Fork tend to open after peak runoff. Lowest recommended flows are around 4,000 cfs. By July water temps warm considerably, making for very pleasant boating.

Stream Stats:

Ave Gradient: 25 to 40 fpm
Min Level: 4,000 CFS
Season: May - July
Quality Rating: 4 of 5 Stars

Planning Tools:

USGS Gage - North Fork Clearwater at Canyon Ranger Station Cayuse Creek: North Idaho Rivers and Creeks Kelly Creek: North Idaho Rivers and Creeks North Fork Clearwater - Black Canyon: North Idaho Rivers and Creeks

Key Places:


North Fork Clearwater

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Early season access is only possible from the south side via Pierce, Idaho on FR 250. From Pierce, road 250 dumps out across the river from Bungalow Ranger station. It's also possible to take FR 247, which breaks off 250 to come out near Aquarius. Later in the season, access into the North Fork drainage is possible from the North via Superior, Montana over Hoodoo Pass.

Getting accurate information on early season road conditions can be very challenging. Make sure you have good beta from a reliable source. Even the Forest Service doesn't travel into the region till late Spring, so your best bet is other boaters. Before you go, pick up a copy of the Clearwater National Forest Travel Map. Don't screw around with any other maps like the Gazateer, or you will end up lost and out of gas. Speaking of gas, be sure to top off your tank before heading into the North Fork. It is very remote country with no services.

The North Fork is a very special place, so do your best to take care of it. Never camp too close to other groups, don't play any loud music in camps, haul off your garbage, put your fire out, and don't drive like at asshole. Slow down as other vehicles approach to reduce dust. Slow down on blind corners. Slow down as you drive by camps. If you're in some kind of a hurry, please just stay home.

Nearby Runs:

There are many good boating options in the North Fork Clearwater drainage. One of my personal favorites is Black Canyon, which is above the confluence with the Kelly Creek. Other area runs include Kelly Creek (class IV), Cayuse Creek (class III), Skull Creek (Class IV+), Weitas Creek (class IV) and Quartz Creek (class III-IV). The section from Kelly Forks to Bungalow is also runnable as a scenic float with a few rapids.

Copyright Todd Hoffman 2009 - All Rights Reserved