It was the summer of 1986 when I was first introduced to Southern Oregon’s Rogue River and whitewater rafting. The catch? I was six months old and don’t remember a thing from the trip. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the early introduction to an activity that has become a constant in my life: running rivers.
My childhood was filled with river trips; later I was a guide on numerous rivers throughout the West, and today I’m a rafting outfitter in Southern Oregon. Making Oregon home was an easy decision — not only is it a great place to live, but there are some fantastic rivers that I will never tire of visiting.
If it’s a rafting trip you are looking for, you’ll find it in Oregon, home to everything from adventurous Class-V rivers in deep canyons to mellower whitewater rapids through verdant countryside. Oregon’s rivers are as abundant as they are diverse. Starting high in their respective drainages, our water systems zigzag down mountains, meander through valleys, and cut through deserts, lush forests and everything in between. Some trips can be up to a week long, while others offer a quick half-day respite from everyday life.
There’s no better time for planning your watery Oregon getaway than 2018, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, a designation granted to almost 2 percent of the state’s 110,994 miles of rivers. Here I’ve rounded up my favorite river trips in Oregon and also recommended a few of the outfitters running each. Just as the rivers are diverse, the kinds of trips you can take vary too: short or long trip options, highly seasonal or hardly seasonal trips, and a variety of backdrops that make each outing spectacular. Ready to go?
The Wild & Scenic stretch of the Rogue River is Oregon’s classic multiday rafting trip with fun rapids nestled within a forested and rugged river canyon. The trip starts west of the small town of Merlin. Rafters will wind their way downstream for roughly 40 miles. Whitewater highlights include the famous Rainie Falls, Mule Creek Canyon and — perhaps Oregon’s most iconic rapid — Blossom Bar. Off the river and at camp, hiking opportunities and historical points of interest abound. The lush landscape of the Rogue River Canyon means picturesque views for the entire trip.
If you go: Trips are offered from April through October, although the most popular dates are June through August because of the warm water and temperatures. Despite this, I’ve rafted the Rogue every month of the year, and my favorite times are May and late September because of the colors in the canyon. The rebirth of foliage in May is outstanding, just as the fall colors in late September bring a spectacular contrast of hues. Outfitters such as Indigo Creek Outfitters, Noah’s Rafting & Fishing and Orange Torpedo Trips offer multiday rafting trips on the Rogue.
North Umpqua River
To the north of Crater Lake and not far from the headwaters of the Rogue River flows the Wild & Scenic North Umpqua River. “The Ump,” as we sometimes call it, offers a variety of whitewater thrills within a beautifully forested river canyon. The Umpqua’s whitewater alone would be enough to lure most rafters to the river — but add in plentiful camping, a nearby hot spring and a stunning hike to Toketee Falls, and your rafting adventure has morphed into a whole lot more. The North Umpqua’s most famous rapid, Pinball, will have you skillfully dodging boulders; it is often the highlight of the trip.
If you go: Trips are typically a full day in length, but multiday trips are possible. North Umpqua Outfitters, Orange Torpedo Trips, Sun Country Tours and Oregon Whitewater Adventures are a few of the outfitters who run trips on the North Umpqua from April to September.
Upper Klamath River
If you are looking for warm weather coupled with continuous Class-IV whitewater, the Upper Klamath is going to be your best bet. The trip starts with a good warm-up of Class-III rapids before launching rafts into the Class-IV Hell’s Corner — 14 miles from start to finish will quench your thirst for whitewater.
If you go: This Wild & Scenic river runs all summer long at the same flow because of hydropower production. Need more incentive to get on this trip in the heat of the summer? It’s not going to be running like this forever. Dams are slated for removal after 2020, which will change the season on the Upper Klamath. Outfitters such as Indigo Creek Outfitters, Momentum River Expeditions and Noah’s Rafting & Fishing run trips on the Upper Klamath.
Boating the Wild & Scenic Illinois River requires the stars aligning — weather, water and a motivated group in the right place at the right time. And when it happens, you will understand why the Illinois is a coveted river that many guides dream about.
Starting west of the tiny town of Selma, the river cuts through the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness and, 32 miles later, reaches the confluence with the Rogue River. Rapids here range from Class III to IV (with the exception of the always challenging Class-V crux of the run, the “Green Wall Rapid”), but wild fluctuations in flow can bolster the river into a continuous Class IV/V rating.
If you go: Typical boating season on the Illinois is April and May — and it’s not for the faint of heart. ARTA, Momentum River Expeditions and Northwest Rafting Company are a few of the outfitters who run trips on the Illinois.
Ask any local about the Wild & Scenic McKenzie River and you’re guaranteed to hear about its crystal-clear waters and refreshing temperature. Flowing chilly and fast, the McKenzie starts high in the Cascade Mountains and tumbles its way west before its confluence with the Willamette River. During the summer months, the McKenzie, which bisects the pristine Willamette National Forest, is a cool escape from the heat.
If you go: Trips are typically a half to full day. The whitewater is continuous but fairly mellow — what we call “Class Fun” in guide-speak — and the scenery is lush. Trips are run April to October and can be arranged through multiple outfitters such as Oregon Whitewater Adventures and Sun Country Tours.
North Santiam River
The North Santiam is a trip for beginner rafters in Oregon. It features Class-II to Class-III-plus rapids with verdant valley scenery. There is a variety of trip options, but the most popular stretch is a full day on the 14-mile “Packsaddle” section. This stretch provides some outstanding views and fast-moving, crystal-clear water, as well as some whitewater excitement. Close proximity to Salem and the rest of the Willamette Valley, coupled with warm summer days and good water flows, makes the Santiam an obvious choice for a summer-day adventure.
If you go: The Santiam is typically run from late-May until October, and the flow is dam controlled. Trips on the Santiam are typically offered from May to October and can be arranged through outfitters such as Blue Sky Rafting and River Drifters.
Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge
A quick escape from Portland, the Wild & Scenic Clackamas River is one of the most popular day-rafting trips in the state. The “Clack,” as many rafters call it, can be run as either a half-day or full-day rafting adventure and is primarily Class II and III. Higher water flows in the spring are more suitable for folks looking for a big water thrill (and some Class-IV-ish rapids) compared to the summer flows, when families with younger kids would find the run to be a bit more tame.
If you go: The Clackamas is also home to the Upper Clackamas Whitewater Festival, which takes place every year in May. Blue Sky Rafting and River Drifters are a couple of the outfitters that run trips on the Clackamas from May through the summer.
Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge
The Wild & Scenic Sandy River might look like a mellow float where it empties into the Columbia River, but a short trek upriver will lead you to the Sandy River Gorge — a technical, boulder-choked slalom course of whitewater masked within a rain forest setting of dripping trees and moss. The river drains from the west side of Mt. Hood and flows into the Columbia River near Troutdale.
If you go: Huge boulders create some interesting rapids in the gorge, which is typically run from late April until mid-June. Whitewater is Class III and IV, and the water tends to be pretty chilly, so wear multiple layers to stay warm. The short season on the Sandy means only a handful of people run it every year, which adds a bit of mystique to the run. Trips are typically a full day and are run by a number of outfitters such as River Drifters and Blue Sky Rafting.
If you are looking for a first-time rafting trip, the Wild & Scenic Deschutes River may be the ticket. The river flows for more than 250 miles and cuts through Bend, Warm Springs and Maupin on its way to meet the Columbia River. Its central location, easy logistics and fun rapids make the Deschutes an easy choice for a quick adventure. In fact, one stretch in particular is the most popular rafting trip in the state: the “Big Eddy” section on the Upper Deschutes, accessed from Bend. All-day trips on the Lower Deschutes often originate in Maupin. There are multi-day options as well, from two all the way to five-day excursions.
If you go: Although the Deschutes flows year-round, the typical rafting season is from May until October. Ouzel Outfitters, Sun Country Tours and River Drifters are a few of the outfitters who run trips on the Deschutes.
Lower Owyhee River
Drive out to the middle of nowhere in Eastern Oregon, then drive a bit farther. You will find a town called Rome, a simple place surrounded by desert and rangeland that just so happens to be the jumping-off point for a trip on the Lower Owyhee.
The vertical canyon walls of the Wild & Scenic Owyhee River have led many to dub this the “Grand Canyon of Oregon.” A trip on the Lower Owyhee is typically four to six days. Actual whitewater is scarce, but what is lacking in whitewater thrill is made up for in stunning canyonland scenery.
If you go: The Owyhee relies on a melting snowpack for water flow. In good snow years, the Owyhee will run from late March until the end of May. A trip on the Owyhee leaves many stunned with scenery you would hardly imagine discovering in Oregon. Outfitters such as OARS, Momentum River Expeditions and Northwest Rafting Company run trips on the Owyhee.
The Hells Canyon section of the Wild & Scenic Snake River cuts through North America’s deepest river canyon, making it one of the most unforgettable multiday river trips. True Oregonians stick to the left bank for camp, as that is the Oregon side. (The east bank of the river is Idaho.) The Snake River is a high-volume river, which means the rapids feature huge roller coaster waves. A trip on the Snake River through Hells Canyon means stunning canyon views, riverside beach camping, and exhilarating rides up and over huge waves. Granite and Wild Sheep are two of the best-known rapids and each makes you feel like you are riding a dinghy in the ocean. Everything about the Snake is huge. No wonder it’s on so many river rafters’ bucket lists.
If you go: Excursions are typically two to three days in length. Several outfitters, such as Winding Waters River Expeditions and Hells Canyon Adventures, run trips on the Snake River through Hells Canyon from late May through October.
Things to Know When Choosing a Trip
- It can be cold in the spring and even, sometimes, in the summer. When thinking about your next river adventure, keep in mind that some of the more wild trips are in the spring, when the rivers are colder and weather is less predictable. Assume that you will be wearing wetsuits and warm layers if you are rafting in April, May or early June.
- Many outfitters have minimum ages for their trips. If you are traveling with kids, this should be one of the first questions you ask. Often the outfitter will be able to direct you to their best trip options based on your youngest participant’s age.
- Be flexible and open to new experiences. For the more seasonal trips (especially the ones in the spring), flow fluctuations can and do occur with rain and increased snow melt or lack thereof. If that’s the case, your trip may be moved to a different river or stretch. And that isn’t a bad thing — you still get to go rafting.