A hundred years after the first hydroelectric dam opened on the Elwha River in Washington’s coastal Olympic National Park, river advocates cheer the near completion of the biggest dam removal project in U.S. history.
After a century in captivity, the steep, muddy Elwha again gushes seaward as it scours rocky banks, carves unpredictable channels through old-growth lowland forests, and ultimately froths into rapids — to the delight of rafters clamoring to explore these free-flowing waters.
It’s a watershed moment for the Olympic Peninsula, as chinook (king) salmon have begun spawning upstream. Pacific populations are expected to swell from 3,000 to 400,000, regenerating an ecosystem of some 130 species (from insects to black bears) and allowing fishing by 2018.
And in a surprising twist, the emptying of a reservoir revealed a sacred site only known in legends to the local Elwha Klallam tribe, whose members have played an active role in helping the National Park Service restore the river and its ecosystem.
“This is so much more than a fish story,” says Lynda Mapes, author of Elwha: A River Reborn. “It’s an emerging new world.”
Tip: To experience this changing landscape, hike the five-mile Humes Ranch Loop Trail, or take a sea kayak tour.
This article, written by Elaine Glusac, appeared in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow Elaine on Twitter @ElaineGlusac.