Madison Creek Falls, a Fun and Easy Exploration

The Elwha River

Dodging spring showers, we recently drove west on U.S. 101 from my sister’s home in Port Angeles. We turned onto Olympic Hot Springs Road just before 101 crosses the Elwha River and followed the river toward the Olympic mountains. Once that beautiful valley was the sole territory of Klallam people who hunted, fished, and gathered there for hundreds of years. When settlers came in the late 1800s, they appreciated the valley’s beauty and natural resources as well. They found giant cedars measuring thirty feet around the base and large herds of elk. There are photos of fishermen with Chinook salmon so large their tails dragged on the ground. But when the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were built (in 1913 and 1927, respectively) to provide power for Port Angeles they blocked access for the massive runs of migrating fish.

Times changed and the dams supplied only a fraction of the power needed by the one remaining mill at Port Angeles. The Klallam and others who valued wild and free rivers agitated for the removal of the two dams. In 1992, the Elwha River Ecosystem and Restoration Act, with the help of $54 million in federal stimulus funds, began the second largest restoration project in the National Park Service system after the Everglades project. Glines Canyon Dam, 210 feet high, is the largest dam so far decommissioned in the United States. In 2011, both dams began to come down, releasing water and sediment to roar through the canyon.

A short distance beyond the Olympic National Park boundary, we see a sign pointing to the Madison Falls Trail. The Elwha hurries past to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, bearing the silt released by the removal of the dams. Across the road, a parking lot fronts a meadow with mossy, gnarled big leaf maples. A paved, wheelchair accessible trail leads to the base of the falls.

Madison Falls cascades down a mountainside and over basalt cliffs a short distance from where Madison Creek runs into the Elwha. Around 1900, Dr. A.L. Matteson dug the Grey Eagle Mine tunnel at the base of the falls and left only his abridged name (Madison) as imprint on the land. Other settlers followed. The remains of a stone chimney and an old orchard are still visible south of the creek where Lester and Anna Sweet lived for more than fifty years. Lester raised strawberries and used the old mine tunnel for cold storage, but rock falls have since hidden the opening. The settlers left long ago.

The surroundings have pretty much gone back to nature. The elk, once hunted nearly to extinction, once again winter in the area. It’s a beautiful spot to let your imagination run free, remembering the early settlers and the even earlier inhabitants of this verdant corner of Washington state.

For more favorite explorations on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, see my posts: Cape Flattery Perspectives (Aug. 11, ’09) and Surprised by Serendipities (Aug. 8, ’09).


The Elwha River, across the road from the trail

Big-leaf maples in the meadow

Remains of an ancient tree

Big lichens fallen from a tree

Burls on a maple near the trail

One hundred foot tall Madison Creek Falls