Enjoying Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rivers

Three beautiful paddling destinations in the Beaver State

By Adam Sawyer

The Wild and Scenic Rivers act of 1968 was created by Congress to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. As of December of 2014, less than one-quarter of one percent of the nation's rivers were protected by the act.

With segments of nearly 60 waterways enjoying Wild and Scenic status, Oregon has the highest tally. In fact, two percent of the state's flowing waters have received designation – more than any other state. The rivers protected for recreation provide some of the best whitewater paddling in the Northwest. Here are some highlights.

Oregon's Rogue River. Photo by Aaron Schmidt
Oregon’s Rogue River. Photo by Aaron Schmidt

Rogue River

Perhaps the best multi-day rafting trip in the state, the 3-4 day journey from Grave Creek to Foster Bar will check off most items on a paddler's wish list. With long stretches of scenery-laden slow water, bursts of Class II – IV+ whitewater, and abundant wildlife, the Rogue is every bit as popular as one might expect. But a permit system keeps things from getting too crowded on the water.

The Rogue is spring-born near Oregon's only national park, Crater Lake, and changes character numerous times on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Broad, beach-lined basins, constricting gorges, and everything in between morph into and out of each other at an even pace – as does the character of the runs. One of the highlights is Mule Creek Canyon. The roiling waters of the narrow slot produce a number of challenging rapids and hydraulics that make the canyon as fun as it is beautiful.

Clackamas River

Named after a native tribe that once called the area home, the Clackamas River offers some of the most classic paddling in Oregon. It also happens to be the closest whitewater to the city of Portland. In 1988, 47 miles of the river came under the protection of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. 27 of those miles have been deemed recreational. Fish Creek to Bob's Hole is a favorite among kayakers, providing well-spaced Class II, III, and seasonal Class IV rapids. Other segments are used for lazy river inner tube floats during the summer.

The Clackamas is perhaps Portland's favorite river for recreation, and it's no wonder. It passes through narrow gorges with steep canyon walls, flows incredibly clear, and visits stately stands of old-growth forest along with a number of campgrounds and feeder streams that offer even more options for kayakers. Hwy 224 parallels the river and is extremely useful for scouting runs.

A photo posted by P. Baird (@grizzly_baird) on

Illinois River

With over 150 rapids in the 30 miles between Miami Bar and Oak Flat, southern Oregon's Illinois River cuts through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and is considered to be a Mecca for many whitewater enthusiasts. Stretches of relentless Class III and IV rapids, punctuated by the Class V Green Wall, are capable of extracting a heavy toll. The river remains dam-free, which means the flow is completely dependent on rainfall and snowmelt. It also means that the river can rise to dangerous levels in minutes during heavy rains.

From the put in, things get isolated in a hurry. This is one of the most remote and inaccessible stretches of river in the lower 48 states. But the deep green pools, stunning madrone-lined ridges, and guaranteed solitude are icing on the cake for the experienced and well-prepared.

More from C&K

Photo Essay: Rogues on the Rogue River

Destination: Smith and Bybee Lakes near Portland, Oregon