: Illinois River

Rafting in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Northwest Rafting Company,  Photographer
December 31, 2018

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness and surrounding road-less areas contain the headwaters of the famous Illinois, Chetco, and North Fork of the Smith River. All three of these emerald green rivers are world-famous among river runners for their challenging rapids, rugged terrain, and absolute remoteness. Each of them are additionally protected by Congress as National Wild and Scenic Rivers for their “outstandingly remarkable values.”

Running whitewater rivers has taken me around the world in search of the best rafting and kayaking trips. These “three gems of the Kalmiopsis” are (in my mind) the best. Each is incredibly diverse and allows an opportunity to spend time in the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Which one will you pick?

A rafting group cruises down the crystal-clear waters of the Illinois River.
The Wild and Scenic Illinois River weaves through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Illinois River

The Illinois River flows through the northern part of the Kalmiopsis before it joins the better-known Rogue River. The wilderness stretch from Miami Bar to Oak Flat is a legendary two- to four-day trip famous for its challenging rapids, including the Class V Green Wall Rapid.

Green Wall is a rapid that river guides around the world discuss around the campfire. It occurs about halfway through the trip where the canyon narrows and takes on an ominous feel. This long, complicated rapid cascades over multiple drops and must be scouted ahead of time by all groups.

A rafting or kayaking trip down Illinois River is special due to its incredible plant diversity, clear water, untouched wilderness and challenging whitewater. One of the highlights is viewing the Darlingtonia Californica (or pitcher plant), a rare insectivorous plant that has adapted to the unique geology of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

An incest-eating plant, yellow with orange dots, leans over the rocks near the Illinois River.
California pitcher plants (darlingtonia californica) can be found along the Illinois River.

When to go

The Illinois River runs after winter rains and during spring snowmelt. The best time is in April and May, when flows are more stable and the weather is warmer.

A rafting crew hits the exciting rapids of Green Wall.
Green Wall is a long, complicated rapid that is best explored with guides.

How to go

ARTA River Trips, Momentum River Expeditions and Northwest Rafting Company offer guided multi-day rafting trips in April and May. If you’re an experienced whitewater paddler, you can get a self-service permit in front of the Ray’s Grocery Store in Selma, Oregon.

Single rafters look down at the completely clear waters of the Chetco River.
The 44.5-mile Wild and Scenic Chetco River just might have the clearest waters you will ever see.

Chetco River

The Chetco River begins deep in the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and provides a unique backcountry expedition for whitewater paddlers. This trip begin with an arduous 10-mile hike to the river, followed by 20 miles of paddling through intimate canyons of serpentine rock with many Class IV rapids.

Most people take a long day for the hike and three to four days to paddle down the river. This adventurous trip crosses the vast Kalmiopsis Wilderness from east to west. The Chetco has the clearest water I have ever seen which combines beautifully with the colorful serpentine geology.

The Chetco River has many similarities to the Illinois River, but it is smaller and is usually done in kayaks. Only a handful of people do the trip each year, so you are unlikely to see any other kayakers or even signs of other people.

A rafter leans and paddles quickly down a rocky section of the river.
The Wild and Scenic Chetco River is divided into three segments before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.

When to go

Like the Illinois, the Chetco flows after rainstorms and during spring snowmelt. The Babyfoot Lake Trail is covered in snow during the winter and into the spring. Most years the river can be accessed in May and June.

Two people hike with inflatable rafts and paddles on their backs through tree regrowth.
The Babyfoot Lake Trail is covered in snow during the winter

How to go

Northwest Rafting Company and Wilderness Canyon Outfitters offer guided multi-day kayaking trips on the Chetco River.

North Fork of the Smith River

The North Fork of the Smith River flows along the southwest border of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Getting to the river requires negotiating a complex series of Forest Service roads and bushwhacking your way down to the river.

There are many log portages and challenging rapids that require expert route-finding and paddling skills. Those with the ability and tolerance for an adventure will find a stunningly beautiful river in a dense rainforest.

Just downstream of the wilderness, the North Fork of the Smith River in Southern Oregon and Northern California provides a playground for intermediate rafters and kayakers. The river has many fun Class IV rapids as it flows through a unique reddish-brown canyon of peridotite rock and countless waterfalls cascading into the river.

Rafters take on whitewater rapids of the Smith River.
Smith River starts off with some fun class III rapids as you enter the North Fork canyon.

When to go

If you want to do the upper part of the North Fork of the Smith, you are a true adventurer who should best consult experts. The lower, more commonly paddled section flows after recent rainstorms and can be paddled from November to May.

Rafters on a bright-blue river stand out in a dry river canyon.
The North Fork of the Smith River provides a playground for intermediate rafters and kayakers.

How to go

For a guided trip, contact Redwoods and Rides. If you’re an experienced paddler, call Bearfoot Brad at (707) 457-3365 for your shuttle service.

About The

Zachary Collier
Zach Collier owns Hood River based Northwest Rafting Company. He spends his winters exploring new rivers and summers guiding on the Rogue River. He's paddled and guided trips around the world, but chose to call Oregon home due to the abundance of amazing whitewater rivers.

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