Granite Falls, the namesake for the city of Granite Falls, is the sole waterfall on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River. In 1954, the state’s Department of Fisheries constructed a record-breaking fish ladder at the falls. The Granite Falls Fishway still stands and offers an up-close view of the falls for an easy outdoor adventure.
Springing from the northern part of the Cascade Range, the two forks of the Stillaguamish River combines near Arlington before flowing another 22 miles to Puget Sound, emptying into Port Susan near Stanwood. The south fork originates from Del Campo Peak and Morning Star Peak, about 20 miles south of Darrington, and runs past the towns of Silverton, Verlot, and Granite Falls. The river has also been called the Tuxpam River, Stoh-luk-whahmpsh River, Stillaquamish River, Steilaguamish River, and Stalukahamish River.
Though the falls are comprised of three drops, it is considered one waterfall. The total height of the waterfall is about 50 feet, and it runs for 300 feet. During times of high flow, the force of the falls is tremendous and thunderously loud. The Stillaguamish River is known to flood frequently, and an unprecedented flood in 2006 saw the river waters surging over the grated walkway of the fish ladder that runs parallel to the falls.
Located at the southern entrance of the Mountain Loop Highway, just one mile outside the city of Granite Falls, the fishway was built to facilitate the spawning of salmon and steelhead. The spawning grounds span the 30 miles of Stillaguamish River north of the falls. At the time of its completion, the Granite Falls Fishway was the longest vertical fish ladder ever constructed.
Various reports place the length of the fish ladder between 540 – 560 feet. It is a vertical slot ladder composed of 50 ascending steps and 51 pools. Each pool measures 8 feet by 10 feet. Adult steelhead and salmon travel upstream past the falls by swimming through the fishway and leaping from pool to pool. The fish ladder exits into a tunnel estimated at 8 – 10 feet wide and 280 – 300 feet long. Migrating fish exit the tunnel and re-enter the river north of the falls and continue up the Stillaguamish to their spawning habitats. A variety of salmon and steelhead utilize the fishway on their return trip from Puget Sound. Steelhead use the fishway nearly year-round, as they have two spawning seasons running from April through October and December through April. Every month of the year, the ladder is accessed by various species of salmon, including Chinook, sockeye, coho, chum, and pink.
The fish ladder is open for human visitors year-round as well. Leashed dogs are welcome too, though timid dogs (and noise-sensitive kids) can be overwhelmed by the volume level at the falls. There is no pass or fee required for parking at the falls. The trailhead has two entrances, one graded gravel and the other with wooden steps. The high-trafficked and well-maintained trail, which also doubles as a service road, is an easy, forested, 0.7-mile roundtrip walk with a 98-foot elevation gain. The trail switches back and connects with the base of the fishway. Visitors can also bypass most of the trail by taking a set of stairs that descend to the middle point of the fish ladder. Near the base of the stairs, an informational billboard with historical photographs was installed in November of 2015 as part of an Eagle Scout project by Aiden Holm of Troop 28. Much of the fish ladder is covered with a walkable grate. The top of the walkable section is parallel with the top of the falls, offering an exhilarating and very loud viewpoint.
Visits to the falls throughout the year provide unique experiences depending on the river level. During high levels such as the spring snow melt-off or peak rainy season, the 300-foot run of the falls is tempestuous. At low levels, the falls are gentler, and the river’s bed is more visible, with carved out walls of granite running the span of the falls. No matter the time of year, visitors should heed the warning signs posted around the fishway site to stay on the constructed walkway. Floods have been known to happen throughout the year.
Any time of year is a perfect time to visit this local landmark. The Granite Falls Fishway offers a quick, beautiful, and educational day trip from anywhere in the county. Breath-taking views and the overwhelming force of the falls are awe-inspiring on any given day.