The Wild & Scenic Illinois River—Quick Facts
Length:  50.4 miles (Nat’l. Forest boundary to National Wild & Scenic Rogue River)

River Area Classifications:
Scenic—17.9 miles (Nat’l. Forest boundary to Briggs Ck.)
Wild—28.7 miles (Briggs Creek to Nancy Creek)
Recreational—3.8 miles (Nancy Creek to Rogue River)

Outstandingly Remarkable Values:
Water Quality—The exceptional color (blue-green) and clarity (allowing viewing to 15 feet or greater) of the waters of the Illinois are ranked as outstanding.
Fisheries—Value is significant in variety and numbers. Approximately 25,000 salmon and steelhead are caught by sport fisherman each year. The Illinois contributes another 85,000 salmon annually to offshore commercial fisheries.
Scenic—The river provides unity to the scenic experience, yet it is composed of an unlimited variety of elements. The variety stems from the water itself and is enhanced by the diverse and spectacular mountain backdrops.
Botanical—Rare and diverse plant communities.
Recreation—The salmon and steelhead fishing and whitewater boating the river provides are outstanding. Swimming, hiking, photography and viewing scenery.

Oregon's National Wild and Scenic Illinois River

The watershed of the beautiful National Wild and Scenic River Illinois River and its tributaries should be among the highest conservation priorities in the nation. It’s a classic example of the need to protect the watersheds of our nation’s last best rivers and to not only celebrate America’s Great Outdoors but to invest in it too. The Wild and Scenic Illinois River is a case study in the failures and successes of Forest Service management and in the effects of watershed, Wilderness and Roadless Areas, local culture, and a narrow winding road on a nationally outstanding river.

Into the wild—The large upper tributaries of the Illinois River are born in the high country of Siskiyou Crest and the ancient peneplains of the South Kalmiopsis. Its east and west forks and Sucker Creek descend onto a relatively small valley and become one. Leaving the Illinois Valley and civilization, the river begins its 50 mile journey through the wild rugged canyons of the Kalmiopsis Backcountry—flowing through Botanical and Research Natural Areas, the North and South Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. It’s here the Illinois River can becomes one-of-a-kind.

Becoming a National Wild and Scenic River—The Illinois was one of the original Study Rivers named in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Siskiyou National Forest went through an extensive study process and in 1977 made a recommendation to Congress that 50.4 miles of the river be added to the National Wild and Scenic River System. In 1984 Congress—in recognition of the Illinois Rivers nationally outstanding fisheries, water quality, scenic, botanical and recreation values—acted on the recommendation.[1] These 50 miles include one of the most remote, inaccessible and beloved stretches of whitewater in the West and 4 to 5 miles of river, easily accessed by a paved road, where as many as 2,000 people crowd on a hot summer day.

Rogue River (muddy),Illinois River (clear).

Watersheds—In The Habit of RiversTed Leeson, writes that a river is the most comprehensive expression of it’s watershed.  Luna Leopold puts it another way:

The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.

The Illinois River, with 83% of its watershed managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Managment, provides dramatic proof of his premise. The tributaries of the congressionally protected Wild and Scenic reach of the Illinois flow mostly from Wilderness or watersheds with a relatively high Roadless Area component.

Josephine Ck. (clear), Illinois River (muddy).

When storms center on the river’s lower relatively undistured watershed, the Illinois runs clear in contrast to the lower Rogue, with it’s heavily roaded and logged watershed. But when storms center over the river’s heavily logged and roaded upper watershed and the interior valleys, the Wild and Scenic reach runs muddy in contrast to it’s lower tributaries, with their less disturbed watersheds.

The experience of a lifetime—For thousands of years wild anadromous salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout have been returning to the streams of their birth in the Illinois River Basin.  Little Falls, on the Illinois Scenic River Area, is one of the few places in the lower 48 states where it’s possible—if one is so lucky to catch conditions just right—to see wild salmon hurling themselves over a natural barrier in an entirely free flowing river system. It’s a spectacle older than man—one seldom witnessed outside Alaska or British Columbia. See the video on this page or watch in HD on YouTube. At the end you can hear the sound of a salmon slapping the rocks as it clears the falls.

Wild salmon, Wild and Scenic Illinois River

A Wild Salmon and Steelhead Stronghold—The Illinois River—along with the Smith, Chetco and Elk Rivers—offer some of the greatest potential for river conservation and preserving wild salmon and steelhead populations in the contiguous United States. But the Illinois stands out, even amongst these treasured rivers, because there’s been no program of hatchery supplementation within its watershed. The Native Fish Society writes that the Illinois River’s salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout,

may be among the most genetically intact of any major populations in the Pacific Northwest.

And the National Marine Fisheries Service Status Review of the river’s winter steelhead notes:

Illinois River winter steelhead are generally considered to be the best remaining example in Oregon of an indigenous, “wild” steelhead run.

While a tributary of the Rogue River, the Illinois River winter steelhead are distinct from other Rogue Basin steelhead. They’re larger bodied and brighter colored. In those characteristics they appear more similar to the winter steelhead of the Chetco, Smith and Elk Rivers. Along with other West Coast streams, the Illinois’ nationally outstanding wild fish populations, have declined since it was designated a National Wild and Scenic River. It’s coho salmon are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. In 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed listing the Klamath Mountain Province Steelhead (which include Illinois River winter steelhead populations), as threatened under the ESA but in 2001 found the listing not warranted. Read the latest NMFS Status Review for KMP Steelhead.

The Scenic Canyon of the Illinois—The first 17.9 miles of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River—between the Forest boundary and Briggs Creek— is  classified as a “Scenic River Area.” It flows through Forest Service Botanical, Roadless and Research Natural Areas.

The Scenic River Canyon is accessed from the Redwood Highway at Selma, by the Illinois River Road (FS Road 4103), and by the Eight Dollar Mountain/Babyfoot Lake Road (FS Road 4201). The latter is also known as the T. J. Howell Botanical Drive. Just off the highway on FS Road 4201, the Boardwalk at the BLM Eight Dollar Mountain Area of Critical Environmental Concern is an under appreciated treasure and a primer into the botanical wonders of the area. The historic Deer Creek Center and Southern Oregon State University Field Station lies at the beginning of the Illinois River Road (4103).

The two roads provide the public with opportunities to know and enjoy this beautiful river in all seasons, but have also resulted in the corridor being subject to vandalism and damage by off-highway vehicle users. During fall, winter and early spring, the Scenic River corridor is quite and peaceful. The perfect Sunday drive to watch high winter flows, the sun setting behind a snowcapped Pearsoll Peak, view wildflowers, hike year round accessible trails or tent camp along a beautiful river. However, in the summer, the area is so popular there are problems with overuse and crowding, vandalism and alcohol abuse.

500 cars and 2,000 people can be crammed into a 5 mile stretch of the Scenic River Area.

Early efforts to deal with these issue lacked follow-up. Then, between 2000 and 2008, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest got serious. In a long analysis and planning process, with full public involvement, the agency developed a recreation plan for the Scenic River Corridor. Over 1.25 million dollars have been spent on facilities and measures to protect the Scenic River Area and the public’s enjoyment of it and provide for public safety.

While facility development was completed, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has yet to implement many of the plan’s measures designed to address the problems of overuse and public safety and to protect the taxpayers investment in the river corridor and facilities. At the same time reduced funding for staff and law enforcement is exacerbating lingering problems.

On a hot summer day as many as 2,000 people can crowd on to a 4 to 5 mile stretch of the Scenic River Area. In 2012 there was one seasonal staff person to manage the crowd with occasional law enforcement and other backup. Cars jam the narrow roadway blocking emergency vehicles. Law enforcement officers estimate that at least 40% of the drivers leaving the river corridor are driving under the influence of intoxicants.[2]

Visitors to the River are encouraging the Forest Service to bring in more law enforcement to address these concerns. The Scenic Canyon of the Illinois can be a sheer delight—the American Treasure Congress sought to preserve in 1984 when it added the river to the National Wild and Scenic River system. By emphasizing the river’s great beauty and the need for year-round and adequate law enforcement, implementation of the Scenic River Area Recreation Plan, limitations on the number of users and a ban on alcohol, the hope is needed changes will be made and sustained.[3]

An uncompromisingly wild river—In contrast to the Scenic segment, the 28.7 Wild River Area—Briggs Creek to Nancy Creek—is truly one of the last “vestiges of primitive America.” It’s the most inaccessible river canyon in the lower 48 states and devoted whitewater river advocates want to keep it wild and primitive. One, Zach Collier, writes:

… to think, that the Illinois is much like other rivers is a serious mistake. The Illinois stands by itself, a river spirit unfettered by human greed and destruction. It’s wild. It’s alive. It’s the best of the last, and the last of the best. It is, in our day and age, a one of a kind. (click here to read more)

While the Illinois River Trail parallels the Wild section, it only provides access to the river at two points. Once past Pine Flat, there’s virtually no way out of the canyon, except by way of the river.

Tributaries enter the Illinois as waterfalls, giving it a dream-like almost tropical appearance at times. However, a dowsing in its cold waters brings you back to the reality of the next series of big rapids. In the Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley wrote:

Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon …

Submarine Hole on the Wild Illinois River,—1980.

That’s a perfect day on the Illinois. You and the river, merged in a dance so intense and demanding that the passage of time goes unnoticed.  It’s waters are so clear, schools of trout can be seen in the glassy tongues of rapids just before you drop into the boulder-strewn whitewater chaos and boat eating holes of the rapid below. However, all days are not perfect. Read one account here.

Big storms can dump many inches of rain in short periods and the river can rise 10 feet or more in a single day. In 1998, two paddlers tragically died on the Illinois and ten had to be rescued during one such big storm event. Read about running the Wild Illinois at American Whitewater.

The Recreational River Area—The 3.8 miles segment of the Illinois, classified as “Recreational,” begins at Nancy Creek and ends at the river’s confluence with the National Wild and Scenic Rogue River. In the fall one can stand on the bridge across the Illinois just above the confluence and watch wild salmon congregate in the rivers’ deep clear waters, waiting for the coming rains to make their way up river to their spawning grounds. In 2003,

Western Rivers Conservancy oversaw the acquisition of 871 acres of private land along the Recreational segment, putting the land into public ownership and management by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Thank you Western Rivers Conservancy.

New Wild and Scenic Rivers waiting for Congress to act—Less than one-quarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers have been protected in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. On the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest four tributaries of the Illinois River were found “eligible” to become Wild and Scenic Rivers clear back in 1993 and 1994.[4] That these river remain unprotected, almost 2 decades later is a failure of Congress and of the Forest Service.

The Eligible rivers within the Illinois River Basin include two large tributaries of the Wild section of the Illinois—Silver and Indigo Creek; Josephine and Canyon Creeks, tributaries to the Scenic Rivee Area of the Illinois; and Rough and Ready Creek, a tributary of the West Fork Illinois River. There are two additional eligible wild and scenic rivers on the Siskiyou National Forest: Baldface Creek, the most productive tributary of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River; and the South Fork Coquille River. We believe there are more tributaries of the Illinois River that meet the criera for eligibility to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

Combined, the watersheds of Silver and Indigo Creek are larger than the Elk River Watershed. One can’t overestimate their importance to the world class fishery of the lower Wild and Scenic Rogue River, yet they are seldom mentioned in this respect, except by agency biologists. Rough and Ready Creek has the highest concentration of rare plants in Oregon, exceptional water quality and a rare relatively undisturbed valley floor floodplain comprised mostly of serpentine terrain. Josephine Creek has the highest concentrations of unique rare plant wetlands known as serpentine fens, in the nation. We’ll be providing more information on each of these special rivers soon.

Mining on the upper four miles of the Scenic River Area—See left sidebar for more about mining on the Scenic River Area of the Illinois. The photo shows so-called recreational scale mining on the upper 4 miles of the Scenic River Area. Miners occupy sites for long periods of time, are not required to follow rules that other users are subject to and there operations are not subject for regulation according to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. In one case a miner threatened members of the public crossing one of the mining claims in the area and fired shots. Families with children are forced up to less accessible areas of the river with faster more dangerous waters. Water quality is impacted and the streambed is made unstable for spawning salmon and steelhead and dangerous for waders, especially small children.


[1] In 1978 the Siskiyou National Forest completed an extensive public process and analysis of the Illinois River Study River as required by Congress in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The agency’s process culminated in its recommendation to Congress and the distribution of a Final Environmental Impact Statement known as “A Proposal: Illinois Wild and Scenic River.” There are a few old copies around and it’s available on Google Books. It contains some of the best information available on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River and provides a glimpse of a river, that except for the Wild River Area, we’d no longer recognize today.

[2] USDA Forest Service, 2001, “The Precious River: The Scenic Illinois River Recreation Concept Development Plan,” Siskiyou National Forest . The document is an assessment of the recreation setting on the Scenic River Area and an interdisciplinary analysis of how best to meet the desired future condition for this section of the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River.

[3] The recommendations of “The Precious River” document include year-round law enforcement. The December 10, 2004 Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact for the Illinois River Recreation Plan included specific closures at many sites. For example some sites like the Eight Dollar Bridge Campground were to be converted to day-use only with access beyond the parking area only by trail. While gates were installed to implement the prohibitions, the current Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Management has yet to close the gates or implement parts of the plan.  Each gates is estimated to have cost $6,000. In addition, the Decision includes general restrictions including: “Parking will be permitted only at designated areas” and “No off-road motorized vehicle use.” We asked the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for the closure orders needed to formally implement these restrictions but have not received a response.  It’s clear from the use patterns, impacts to the river corridor and on user safety, the plan is not currently being implemented. While there was an order that require vehicles to be parked outside the white line, we can no longer find it on the Forest’s website and this is often not enforced.

Wild salmon on the Wild & Scenic Illinois River
Dalsalsan—The Takelma name for Illinois River
Except for a few place names, little remains of the ancient cultures who lived in the Illinois River Valley for thousands of years. However for all practical purposes, even the place names have been lost—relegated to the obsure writings of early anthropologists and those synthesizing their work. 

We know the Takelma place name for the Illinois River is “Dalsalsan” (Sapir 1907a:256). The Takelma’s name for the waterfall in the Illinois River at the place called Talsalsan is Ti-wi-kh (Harrington 1981:523). Ti-wi-kh is surely the Illinois River Falls—located just above the confluence of Fall Creek with what is now the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. Talsalsan is thought to be a village or gathering place on the Illinois where the people would trade for salmon and play games.

That we’re left with only this tiny bit of knowledge and vague references is because the genocide committed against the original inhabitants of the Illinois Valley was swift and complete. Within five years, after the discovery of gold at the confluence of Canyon and Josephine Creek, those who’d cared for and occupied the land for thousands of years were either dead or forced—in Oregon’s own “trail of tears”—onto two reservations where few survived long term. 

 In American Anthropoligst, Edward Sapir writes: 
“Few regions in this country are so slightly known, both ethnologically and linguistically, as the section of Washington and Oregon lying east of the strip of coast land, and in this large area the position occupied by the Takelma Indians, generally rather loosely referred to as Rogue or Upper Rogue River Indians …”

According to Sapir, in 1884 there were only twenty-seven Takelma remaining and in 1906 only three living speakers of the language. The primary informant for what little we know about the Takelma people was Francis Johnson, who was from the valley of the Rogue, east of Grants Pass.

However, in 1987 Dennis Gray in The Takelma and their Athapascan Neighbors, called into question whether those living in the Illinois Valley were speakers of Takelma or of Athapascan dialects (see pages 22 & 23).

Citing Harrington, Gray also provides a glimpse into the significance of Ti-wi-kh, the Illinois River Falls, writing:
“When the water level of the Rogue was too high for salmon fishing and supplies of this staple were running low, the Takelma went to the Illinois Valley to a place named Talsalsan and purchased dry salmon from the Athapascan speakers there.”

To those few of use who knew the Falls before the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife installed a fish ladder there, this makes sense. In the 1950′s, we’d spend whole afternoons in fascination watching huge salmon, some battered and bruised, that would congregate in the natural potholes (pools in the bedrock) below the Illinois River Falls. It was a place for the great salmon to rest and regroup after attempting to jump the falls and access their spawning grounds in the upper river. 

Main drop at Illinois River Falls (Ti-wi-kh) at low flows.

Edward Sapir, 1907, “Notes on the Takelma Indians of Southwest Oregon“ American Anthropologist, Vol. 9, No.2
“The long fight for our country” Medford Mail Tribune series, December 26, 2011
Illinois River Oregon State Scenic Waterway
In 1970, prior to it’s designation as a National Wild and Scenic River, 46.8 miles of the Illinois—from Deer Creek to its confluence with the Wild and Scenic Rogue River—was named an Oregon State Scenic Waterway. Motorized recreational mining is not allowed on Oregon State Scenic Waterways.
Mining on the Scenic River Area of the Illinois
The Illinois River was withdrawn from mineral entry as one of the original Study Rivers in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The entire 50.4 miles of the river remained withdrawn until 1991. 

The Act formally withdraws all designated Wild River Areas from operation of the 1872 Mining Law, but in addition, the Siskiyou National Forest’s 1978 Illinois Wild and Scenic River Study Proposal, Recommendation to Congress and Environmental Impact Statement, recommended that the Scenic River Area of the Illinois be withdrawn also. Arbitrarily in 1991, the Siskiyou National Forest, when acting on the recommendation and seeking a 20 year withdrawal from the Secretary of Interior, made an almost instantly regretted decision to allow the upper four miles of the Scenic River Area to be opened to mining and to the location of new mining claims.

Today ~ 14 miles of the Scenic River Area (Deer Creek to Briggs Creek) is withdrawn from location and entry under the 1872 Mining Law. The withdrawal expires in 2013 and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has recommended the withdrawal be extended for another 20 years.  Support the extension and read more about mining on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River.

However, the upper Scenic River Area (~ 4 miles) is blanketed with mining claims. It’s currently subject to instream, so-called recreational mining. In the past the agency also approved a large scale mining operation on the Scenic Illinois River but due to a lawsuit and other technicalities it never went into operation.

In 2011, we asked the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest to recommend the withdrawal of the upper 4 miles of the Illinois on the grounds that mining violates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The below photo shows this is the case even with small scale mining. There’s been no response.

Photo—Unregulated suction dredge mining on the upper 4 miles of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River in 2011.

Under current regulation, it’s the position of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, that miners don’t even have to tell the agency they’re mining on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River above Deer Creek, unless the mine operator believe there might be an impact on the river.  Read more about the impacts of mining on this section of the river.

So-called recreational mining is not allowed on the Scenic River Area—from Deer Creek to Briggs Creek—under Oregon State Scenic Waterway rules and a Forest Service special closure order that prohibits the use of motorized suction dredges.
Additional Information
The descriptions of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River’s outstandingly remarkable values are from the 1976 USDA Forest Service Final Environmental Impact Statement and Study Report/Proposal to Congress for the Illinois Wild and Scenic River. 

The fish populations of the Illinois have declined in numbers. However, because the river is strictly a wild fishery (without hatchery supplementation) it’s fisheries value has grown in importance.

See also the following references about the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River:
There's 3 Illinois Rivers in the United States
Southwest Oregon’s Illinois River is one of three rivers in the United States with the name.
  • The 273 mile long Illinois River in the State of Illinois, which is a tributary of the Mississippi River;
  • The 145 mile long Illinois River in Arkansas and Oklahoma,  which flows out of the Ozark Mountains and is a tributary of the Arkansas River; and 
  • The 56 mile long Illinois River, which flows from large tributaries with headwater in both Oregon and California, with its lower 50.4 miles  federally designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.