Elwha River Restoration

Three images: an eagle with a fish, a young sapling, and an aerial view of former Lake Mills

Photos by John Gussman (c) and NPS


Freeing a River
For millennia, the Elwha River ran wild, connecting mountains and seas in a thriving ecosystem. The river proved to be an ideal habitat for anadromous (sea-run) fish, with eleven varieties of salmon and trout spawning in its waters. For millennia these fish thrived in the river and provided food for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe who lived along its banks.

Historic photo of Glines Canyon Dam under construction.

In the late 1800s a growing nation looked to the Northwest to supply the lumber needed to build new cities.This brought rapid change to the Olympic Peninsula and especially to the Elwha River and the people of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. In the early 1900s, two dams, Elwha and Glines Canyon, were built on the river. The dams fueled regional growth, but blocked the migration of salmon upstream, disrupted the flow of sediment and wood downstream, and flooded the historic homelands and cultural sites of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

For over a century, the web of ecological and cultural connections in the Elwha Valley were broken - then the river's story changed course. In 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, authorizing dam removal to restore the altered ecosystem. After two decades of planning, the largest dam removal in U.S. history began on September 17, 2011. Six months later Elwha Dam was gone, followed by the Glines Canyon Dam in 2014. Today, the Elwha River once again flows freely from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.


Discover Elwha River Restoration

Historic photo of a fisherman in a boat with a net.

History of the Elwha and Dam Removal

Discovery the history of the Elwha Valley from the glacial retreat to present day or read about the dam removal process on the Elwha River Restoration Blog.
Filming the Restoration

Restoration of the Elwha River Webisode Series

View a series of webisodes that chronicle the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. The webisodes begin with the history of the dams and continue through the dam deconstruction and ecosystem restoration process.

A radio-tagged fish is released.

Current Research

The Elwha River Restoration project provides a rare opportunity for scientists to learn what happens when a dam is removed and salmon return to a wild, protected river. Learn more about Elwha River Restoration research and monitoring or read a research publication.
A man plants a sapling in soil.

Giving Mother Nature a Hand

A major restoration project is underway in the old lake beds. Park botanists and dedicated volunteers have begun the labor intensive task of reestablishing riparian areas by planting more than 400,000 native plants in the newly exposed sediment. Learn more on the Elwha revegetation page.

A salmon smolt

Elwha Fisheries

Today Elwha River salmonids have renewed access to more than 70 river miles of pristine spawning habitat protected within the park. Learn more about anadromous fish in the Elwha, restoration approaches for each individual species, or read the full Elwha River Fish Restoration Plan.

An eagle with a fish.

John Gussman (c)

Where the Mountains Feed the Sea

The nearshore environment, where the Elwha River meets the sea is changing in leaps and bounds. With renewed sediment flow, sandy beaches are reappearing and nearshore habitat that once provided rich shellfish beds is reemerging. Learn more on the USGS Elwha Nearshore page.


A River Gone Wild
The Elwha River is transitioning from its dam-bound era to a river wild and free. The river was significantly altered by the dams and biologists say it could take a generation or more to heal. It is rare to get to watch a river reborn. Scientists are watching, measuring, monitoring and evaluating the changes in an effort to understand the river evolution processes. What we learn from the Elwha River Restoration Project will help inform future dam removal and restoration projects.


This webpage was made possible in part by a grant from Washington's National Park Fund.

Last updated: October 24, 2018

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