River of the Month | August, 2020

Cowlitz River

A mighty arm of the lower Columbia River, the Cowlitz proper begins on the glaciers of Mount Rainier and then gathers wild tributaries from both Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens before it enters the fertile “Big Bottom Valley” near Randle, Washington. Then it flows past three massive dams, turns south to receive the Toutle River—which bore the brunt of Mount St. Helens’ ash flows—and completes its 105-mile journey to the Columbia at Longview.

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Why It Matters

With headwaters on the three Cascade volcanoes, the Cowlitz drains a huge area of southwest Washington. Though heavily dammed, it remains critically important to recovering imperiled native fish runs in the lower Columbia system. It’s also one of the most popular sportfishing rivers in Washington and, upstream, offers ample public access to wilderness areas, hiking, hunting, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the state.

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Once a powerhouse of wild fish production, the Cowlitz still supports native runs of fall and spring Chinook salmon, coho, summer and winter steelhead (pictured) and cutthroat trout, which all compete with large hatchery runs. If fish passage at the dams improves, it would be a significant step toward rebuilding wild runs to spawn on the river’s healthy upper reaches.


Known for its elk, the Cowlitz Valley, with its wetlands, forests and bottomlands, also supports diverse wildlife like black-tailed deer, river otter, beaver, state-sensitive pileated woodpecker (above) and many raptors and waterfowl. At higher elevations, you’ll find black bear, mountain lion, mountain goat, pika and marmot.

How to See It

With easy access from I-5 and Hwy 12, the lower river features a series of boat launches popular with anglers and paddlers. Continue up the Cowlitz Valley and you’ll find numerous campgrounds and hundreds of miles of trails in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including the glacier-carved peaks of the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

  • Hike


    You’ll find some of the best scenery on the northern Pacific Crest Trail in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a backpacker’s wonderland with views of three volcanoes. Don’t miss the Ohanapecosh River area of Mount Rainer National Park, including a suspension bridge that leads to an island of old-growth trees on the Grove of the Patriarchs trail. The Box Canyon Overlook offers views of an impossibly narrow gorge of the Muddy Fork.

  • Wildlife


    View elk, deer and numerous birds like belted kingfishers and American kestrels in the Cowlitz Wildlife Area. The easy Woods Creek Watchable Wildlife Trail showcases five habitat types in the Cowlitz Valley, with more great birding. By car, the White Pass Scenic Byway is regarded as one of Washington’s best roadways for wildlife-viewing.

  • Fish


    The Cowlitz River is best known for its runs of hatchery salmon and steelhead, which draw huge crowds in peak season. Most anglers favor the reach from Blue Creek to Barrier Dam. Drift boats are ideal, but there’s great swing water to be found from the bank. The Cowlitz’s year-round fishery also features cutthroat trout, coho salmon and Chinook in spring and fall. Check regulations.

The WRC Story

In 2009, WRC protected a small but critical riverfront property on the Cowlitz by transferring it to the Capitol Land Trust, which then created the Cowlitz River Preserve. Our efforts prevented development along a key lower reach of the river that included a small wetland, a beaver pond and the confluence of a side channel that provides habitat for rearing fish. A beautiful lowland forest of mature red alder, black cottonwood and willow shades this reach of the river. Intact lowland habitat like this is rare along the lower Cowlitz, and although it was a relatively short reach of the river it was critical for fish and wildlife. This stretch of healthy, functioning forest is now an island-like refuge for the critters of the Cowlitz.

Best Time of Year

Chinook fishing
Apr-Jun and Aug-Oct
Coho fishing
Steelhead fishing
Jun-Aug and Dec-Mar

Go Deeper

  • Goat Rocks Wilderness Backpacking Guide

    (Clever Hiker)
    Learn More
  • Thermal hopscotch: How Columbia River salmon are adapting to climate change

    (East Oregonian)
    Learn More
  • Cowlitz Tribe Marks 20 Years of federal acknowledgment

    (The Columbian)
    Learn More

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