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

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 River shines 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, like California’s Wild and Scenic Smith River, the Illinois can boast of one attribute that few rivers can anymore.

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 thousands of years of unbroken evolution. This according to the Native Fish Society:

There has never been a major hatchery operation in the Illinois basin, thus the salmonid populations native to this area may be among the most genetically intact of any major populations in the Pacific Northwest.

Click here for Native Fish Society on the Illinois River.

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. See video below.

The Illinois River’s Scenic Canyon

The Scenic River Area of the Illinois begins at the Siskiyou National Forest Boundary and continues for 17 miles to Briggs Creek, where the Wild River Area begins. The river’s scenic canyon is accessible by the Illinois River road (4103) and the Eight Dollar Mountain road (4201). It’s a spectacularly beautiful reach of river but unfortunately one that has been increasingly impacted,

During many times of the year, use it light . However, during hot summer months serval thousand people can be found crowded along an approximately 4 miles stretch of river where the swimming holes are deep and access is relatively easy. The river’s increasing popularity brought with it many problems.

Where in the 1950s you’d rarely find a human footprint on most of the river’s pristine beaches, the Scenic River area became a notorious party place in the 1990s. In the summer at the popular swimming holes, you’d find toilet paper and human feces behind most trees or bushes. Broken glass on beaches became a hazard too.

An early 2000 study found that 40% of the drivers leaving the river canyon on hot summer days were “under the influence of toxicants.” The U.S. Forest Service management was often less than stellar. Among the growing impacts to the river were: vandalism, illegal campfires, garbage dumping, unhealthy exposure to human waste, shooting, unsafe travel speeds, parked vehicles blocking access for emergency vehicles and driver impairment. On the last law enforcement officers estimated that 40% of the drivers leaving the Illinois River corridor were “under the influence of intoxicants.”

A recreation development planning process was initiated in 2004, after an assessment of the conditions on the river.

The Wild Section | a river canyon lost in time

Unlike the more famous Wild and Scenic Rogue River, which the Illinois is tributary to, no one has used dynamiter to make passage through its boulder strewn course easier for boat. Also on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River there are no upstream dams to regulate and supplement the flow of the river. 

The wild river canyon of the Illinois remains today, as it has for ions, a challenge for both humans and fish 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. But if you go, remember there’s essentially no way out except by the river itself or by helicopter.

The Wild Section of the Illinois is one of the most remote and inaccessible stretches of river in the nation.

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.

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.

Wild salmon jumping Little Falls 

 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.

Final Study Report to Congress 

The Illinois River was one of the original study rivers named in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. As a result, the Siskiyou National Forest was required to prepare a detailed study report and make recommendations to Congress as to whether the Illinois River should be added to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

In 1976, the agency published it’s Final Environmental Impact Statement and Study Report/Proposal to Congress for the Illinois Wild and Scenic River. It included a determination of the river’s Outstandingly Remarkable Values that we include in the side bar.

Note – The fish populations of the Illinois have declined in numbers. However, because the river is strictly a wild fishery (without hatchery supplementation) its importance as a wild salmon stronghold has grown.

To date the 42 year old report to Congress provides the best available information on the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River, it’s historic salmon and steelhead runs and outstanding water quality.

River trivia

There are three Illinois Rivers in the United States. They include:

  • 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 in Oregon. it flows from large tributaries that have their headwater in both Oregon and California. The lower 50.4 miles of the Illinois River is federally designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

Additional Information about the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River