Protecting the beautiful rivers, wild lands and legendary botanical diversity of Oregon's Kalmiopsis Country

Oregon's Wild and Scenic Illinois River

A rare native salmon and steelhead refuge + wild whitewater river

Congress added Southwest Oregon’s Illinois River to the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1984, recognizing its nationally outstanding fisheries, water quality, scenery, recreation and botanical values, The wisdom of the designation can be seen today in the traffic jams along the river’s Scenic section, where thousands seek the relief of its clear waters during hot summer days.

But where the Illinois stands above the crowd is as one of the West’s premier whitewater rivers and as a wild salmon and steelhead refuge. Though not as well known as other stronghold river systems, such as California’s Wild and Scenic Smith River, the Illinois can boast of one attribute most rivers in the region can’t.

Illinois Basin's wild chinook salmon returning to spawning grounds in the Illinois Valley
Scroll down to watch video of wild salmon at Little Falls on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River.

There’s been no hatchery supplementation program within its watershed. In other words, the gene pool of the Illinois River’s native fish populations is an undiluted ancient lineage representing thousand of years of unbroken evolution.

On the Illinois River, you can still watch the age-old spectacle of wild salmon jumping natural barriers in their ritual return to natal spawning grounds, where they reproduce and die.

A river canyon lost in time

Unlike the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, that it flows into, no one has blasted open the boulder filled course of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River and there are no upstream dams. It remains today, as it has for ions, a challenge to navigate. This has helped keep the river’s native fish gene pool strong—about as pure as they get on West Coast—and has made the Wild Illinois River a favorite of whitewater boaters.

Watching raft and passengers get swept through Class V Green Wall rapid on the Wild Scenic of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. Mark Reed photo.

It’s the most remote and inaccessible stretches of river in the nation and should remain that way.

Leave it as it is

Intrepid white water boaters insist that the Illinois’ “Wild River Area” be left untouched. They want none of the so-called amenities or improvements (or crowds) that are found on the famed Wild and Scenic Rogue River next door.

The Wild Illinois River is to many what the Grand Canyon of the Colorado was to Teddy Roosevelt. Those who love this river with a passion say, as Roosevelt said standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.

The Scenic River Canyon of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River

Upstream of the Wild River Area is a less wild. more accessible stretch of river. The Scenic River canyon of the Illinois is still spectacularly beautiful but unfortunately man has increasingly marred it. Access and development have come without the corresponding commitment to protect and enhance the values which congress sought to preserve.

The Scenic River Area of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. Barbara Ullian Photo.
The Scenic River Area of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River was once safe for families and children. Now it’s come at your own risk. Barbara Ullian Photo.

Wild salmon jumping Little Falls on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River

 Can be watched at 720p or1080p (HD) settings.

Into the wild

The Wild and Scenic Illinois River flows out of civilization into the wild. The upper headwaters of the river originate in the high Siskiyou Mountains in California, the Siskiyou Crest in Oregon and the ancient rounded plateaus of the South Kalmiopsis country. Four tributaries come together in the lightly populated Illinois River Valley to become the Wild and Scenic Illinois River.

From the Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Area, near the Redwood Highway, the Illinois River drops into an ever deepening, increasingly inaccessible and ever wilder canyon. It flows along the edge of the South and North Kalmiopsis Roadless Areas and then dives into the rugged Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the most remote river canyon in the nation.

The footbridge over the Scenic River Area of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River.
The footbridge over the Wild and Scenic Illinois River, above the Illinois River Falls. In the early fall one can sometime catch a glimpse of the river’s wild salmon waiting in the deep pools for enough water to move upriver.