Kanaskat Palmer State Park

Kanaskat State Park is located approximately 37 miles southeast of Seattle Washington.  It is located at the east end of the Green River Gorge at the base of the Cascade foothills.  It has a large campground and along the river is a day use area with covered picnic areas and three miles of trails.  It also is a popular launch point for experienced whitewater kayakers and rafters who consider the Green River Gorge one of the top whitewater runs in Washington state.

Last weekend my husband and I, our two dogs, and our three international friends from Earthcorps decided to go camping at Kanaskat State Park.  I used to live out near Kanaskat so I never saw any reason to camp there.  The Green River Gorge was my backyard.  Now that I live in Seattle and I am working on the Green River Gorge Greenway documentary project it was time for me to finally visit the park as a camper and see what makes Kanaskat a great place to visit and camp?

Alejandra, from Bolivia, is living with us for six months while on an internship for Earthcorps.org.  Her two friends and coworkers Cecilia, from Czech Republic, and Ana, from Brazil also joined us.  David and I love sharing our northwest adventures with these young people.  Part of what drew us to host young people from Earthcorps was our love of the outdoors and my work on conservation in the Green River Gorge.  Bringing three young people from different parts of the world with fresh eyes would give a unique perspective that I no longer had.  What is it like, for them, to visit the Green River Gorge for the first time?

 Las Tres Amigas

Las Tres Amigas

We arrived around 1pm and checked in.  Our campsite was perfect for our needs.  It had a drive through parking spot big enough for two cars.  The site was clean and big.  It was surrounded by dense forest that made it feel private even though it was located in a large campground.  Next to us through the trees was a yurt that the park now offers.  

We put up our tents and then headed for the river.  The trails led from the campground down to the lower shelf where the river awaited us. It was the perfect hot summer day for a swim in the cold green waters of the river.  Our first stop was at the far end of the main park.  Here a bend in the river continued from the main park and into the remote gorge.  A sign along the river here warns that below here the river is for expert’s only (*more about that below).

At low water there are wide brown sandstone shelves that looked like frozen sand beaches.  The edge of the shelves frame a deep green pool, the color of jade, at the river bend.  The deep slow moving water is perfect for swimming.  Boulders poke out of the water at one side as sun drenches lazy perches.  Across the river is a gravel beach, a side channel, and upstream a low sandstone cliff that frames that side of the river.  

The river water has cut waves of sandstone edges and, below the water, hidden water cut sandstone channels. Rocks have been caught in depressions and have carved out stone bowls or as my nephew calls them “hot tubs”.  The gorge is cut above the surface of the water and below in this geologic marvel.

It is hot and we all quickly, including the dogs, jump in and feel our temperatures plummet.  The cold is refreshing on such a hot day.  We are wearing wetsuits which allow us to stay in longer without getting too cold.  After exploring the water and shoreline the girls follow some locals downstream just around the corner where a sandstone point pokes out into the river above another deep green pool.  There the locals jump from the cliff into the deep pool.  A tradition that spans decades as young people come to take the plunge into the frigid water during the hot days of August.

From my perch along the sandstone shelf I watch as families up stream spread out their chairs, unpack bags and coolers and settle in for the day.  Parents rest their feet in the edges of water as the kids swim, snorkel, and frolic in the water.  A family next to us shows up with five young kids sporting water wings.  The father assures me the kids know how to swim and the wings are just for fun.  Two young men hang out on a large rock in the river like lazy otters soaking up the sun.  

My dog Taz loves the water.  He swims back and forth retrieving sticks, diving for rocks and depositing them on the rocky beach across the river.  He is our entertainment for the day as he finds every possible stick to encourage the local kids to throw for him.  Taz and my other dog Koshka are experiencing what it is like to be“country dogs”.


The girls return from their adventure and we decide to head upstream to the other end of the park.  I want to show them the swimming hole upstream.  We hike a well worn path along the river bank.  Trails spur off down to small secluded beaches along the route.  We pass by the day use area with picnic shelters, a paved trail, and a restroom.

 Side trails lead to small secluded beaches.

Side trails lead to small secluded beaches.

We reach our destination at the other end of the park along the river bank at the end of a dirt trail from the parking area.  Here the river tumbles over large boulders and sandstone shelves to form small falls that drop into another deep green pool.  Here is the northwest version of a tropical paradise.  Families swim below the falls and sit taking showers under the cascading falls or drop in below for a quick swim in the swift moving current depositing them back into the slow green of the pool below.  A kayaker from above loses his perch and it flows downstream without him as he follows bumping over rocks and holding on to his paddle.

Alejandra and Ana sit beneath a circular falls, the cold water almost looks warm as they sit beneath it.  I’m struck by the fact that my husband and I have traveled all over the world to beautiful locations like this in places like Ecuador, Mexico, New Zealand, and beyond.  Yet, here is one of my favorite exotic locations, only 30 miles from over 2 million people, right here in my backyard.  I can tell the girls also have discovered that this is a beautiful place.

Swimming hole in the Green River Gorge at Kanaskat State Park

Almost a Tropical Paradise.

Everyone is happy as they cool off from this rare summer heat.  It is days like this when the river is friendly and seems so perfect for recreating and relaxing.  The water carries all the chaos of city life away and leaves our minds as clear as the water that flows through this section of the Green-Duwamish river.  A gentle reminder of why I was inspired to start encouraging more conservation of this river gorge over two decades ago and why it remains so important for the work to continue.

Alejandra, Cecilia, and Ana all had a great time and thought that Kanaskat was beautiful, swimming in the river was fun, and they loved the American tradition of camping and making Smores.  They were happy they decided to come with us to experience this northwest treasure.

Our general impression was that the park was very well maintained, our campsite and facilities were clean.  The park staff were very helpful and friendly.  The swimming and river side recreation was outstanding.  Well worth the drive out to camp.

For more information about Kanaskat State Park

* A note about the dangers of the river.

I’ve been exploring this river for many years.  I’ve am also a paramedic in this area.  The Green River Gorge is an amazing place that is so inviting on hot summer days in August when the river runs low and the incredibly cold water is inviting.  However, this is not the same river in June and often into July when winter snow melt and dam releases raise the water level to dangerous levels for swimmers and inner tubers.  The local fire departments have spent many hours rescuing people who’ve ventured into the river at higher flows, or worse recovering bodies of the drowned.

Others have found themselves stranded, injured, and hypothermic in the gorge because they thought they could float from Kanaskat to Flaming Geyser through the gorge. At low flows it can take one very long day and possibly a night to get from Kanaskat to Flaming Gesyer with many hazards along the way.  Due to it’s remoteness it is very difficult to rescue people once they are in the river gorge.  So take heed.  If in doubt ask the rangers if it is safe to swim and don’t inner tube the gorge.  Stick to the sections in the park boundaries of Kanaskat and Flaming Geyser.  You will enjoy your experience and have good stories to tell.