Dungeness River’s majesty knows no bounds

by Bob Boekelheide 

The Dungeness River is a river of superlatives. Renowned for being one of the shortest, steepest rivers in North America, perhaps the world, its watershed drops over 7,000 feet in elevation to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in less than 35 miles. Its water begins in ice fields nestled below some of the highest peaks in the Olympic Mountains, including 14 of the Olympics’ 20 highest peaks. The river’s rapid descent ends at its estuary in Dungeness Bay, ringed by one of the longest sand spits in the world, the Dungeness Spit.


When George Vancouver sailed through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1792, he named the spit and low-lying area “New Dungeness,” after the real Dungeness (“dune-cape”) on the shores of the English Channel. What would Capt. Vancouver think about New Dungeness now?

From upper to lower

Technically, the Dungeness River begins where Heather and Home creeks flow together at about 3,500 feet above sea level. From there, the “Upper Dungeness” falls rapidly, plunging over large boulders through steep canyons and coniferous forests. At about river-mile 15, near the Dungeness Forks Campground or “Two Forks,” it joins its largest tributary, the Greywolf River.


A few miles downstream from Two Forks is the Dungeness Fish Hatchery, at about 500 feet elevation and 10.5 miles from the river’s mouth. At the fish hatchery the river becomes the “Lower Dungeness,” where the river enters a broad alluvial fan that makes up the Sequim-Dungeness Valley. Here it flows over and around cobble bars surrounded by riparian forests dominated by cottonwoods, willows and alders. Its topography therefore is split in two, with the river losing about 150 to 300 feet of elevation per river mile in the Upper Dungeness and losing about 25 to 50 feet of elevation per river mile in the Lower Dungeness.
Contrast this with the Mississippi River, which loses an average of about 1.5 feet of elevation per river mile through its entire length.

Summer drought, winter surge

Typically, the Dungeness River drops rapidly during the summer drought to its lowest flows in late summer, to the point where the river is a relative trickle by late September, less than 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the driest years.


Little about the Dungeness is average, however. Since the Dungeness River is so short and steep, its water levels change very quickly when it floods, rising very fast but also dropping rapidly when floods subside.


To illustrate this point, the Dungeness may increase nearly 100 times between its lowest and highest flows, contrasting again with the Mississippi River, which changes about 25 times in volume between drought and flood.


The largest floods on the Dungeness occur when a “Pineapple Express,” a wet subtropical weather system, dumps warm rains on accumulated snow, causing rapid snow melt and high river flows. Just such an event occurred in January 2002, when the Dungeness reached its record flood of 7,610 cfs.

Bob Boekelheide is director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center.
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