RIVER OF THE MONTH
Oregon’s Chetco River rises in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, tumbles for 56 miles through ancient forests and intimate, boulder-strewn canyons, and joins the Pacific near the California border. With 45 Wild and Scenic miles and no dams, the Chetco surpasses nearly every other river in the Northwest for its beauty, biodiversity and crystal-clear, otherworldly, emerald-green water.
Why It Matters
Oregon’s most pristine river, the Chetco commands awe from all who visit. Wild, remote and with the clearest water you’ll ever see, the Chetco is a priceless stronghold for fish, wildlife and the diverse plant life of the Siskiyou Mountains and Kalmiopsis Wilderness. In 2002, the colossal Biscuit Fire scorched the entire wilderness area, and a healthy Chetco River is crucial to the area’s natural recovery.
ZACH COLLIER/NW RAFTING CO.
The Chetco is a premier salmon and trout stream with healthy native populations of coho salmon, fall Chinook and winter steelhead, as well as sea-run cutthroat and wild rainbow trout. It’s one of the few West Coast salmon streams with extensive stretches flowing through wilderness. As a result, its exceptional water quality and free-flowing length support some of the highest salmon returns of any Oregon stream.
The Chetco basin hosts the greatest wildlife diversity in Oregon, with 200 species, including imperiled birds, large mammals and rare species like the Siskiyou chipmunk. Complex geologic soils harbor a botanist’s paradise with many endemic plants, including the purple-blooming Kalmiopsis leachiana, which grows only in its namesake wilderness. The Chetco is also home to the northernmost redwood grove on Earth.
CHETCO RIVER, OREGON
How to See It
Except for the lower 10 miles, the Chetco lies entirely within the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. From Brookings, Oregon, roads tracing both banks provide access to trails, fishing spots and boat launches. The upper river, now scarred by fire, is an elusive treasure for those seeking a challenging but unforgettable multi-day hike or float.
Kayaking the Chetco is a life-changing experience—but first you have to get there. Experienced paddlers can hike a full day (with gear) from the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead to tackle the Class IV-V upper Chetco over several days. The lower gorge has shorter class II-IV floats. Northwest Rafting Co. and Wilderness Canyon Adventures offer guided trips.
While many trails were ravaged by fire, hiking is still a great way to see this landscape-in-flux. The Chetco Gorge Trail (#1112) escaped the fire and follows the river for 1.7 miles. A challenging 10-mile hike starts at Babyfoot Lake Trailhead (#1124A) and takes you into the wilderness, then descends steeply into the upper canyon for an unforgettable swim.
BEST TIMES OF YEAR TO VISIT Jun-Sep Sep-Dec Dec-Mar May-Sep
Home to strong fisheries of both fall Chinook and winter steelhead, the Chetco is a great angling destination, especially if you have a boat. Some of the easiest bank access on the lower river is within Loeb State Park, which also has a popular boat launch. Fishing for sea-run cutthroats can also be excellent.
From Highway 101 in Brookings, go east on North Bank Chetco River Road (#1376) to access boat launches, trails and campsites in the national forest. To reach the upper Chetco, you can take Highway 199 north from Cave Junction, go west on 8 Dollar Road/ NF-4201 to FS Road #140, then south until you reach the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead. Then hike into the wilderness. Bring maps of the Gold Beach and Wild Rivers Ranger Districts. Watch for poison oak.
CO N S E R VAT I O N
THE WRC STORY When a massive gold operation threatened the Chetco River’s wild beauty, Western Rivers Conservancy worked for a decade to prevent destructive placer mining in the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Gold mines would have endangered nine miles of the Chetco’s headwaters, potentially triggering erosion and slope failure that would have spoiled the river’s famously clear water and the habitat the Chetco supports. WRC was unwilling to let the Chetco River face these risks. After 10 years of negotiating with the claim holder, WRC prevailed in 1999 with the help of Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. We purchased all the mineral rights along the upper Chetco and conveyed the land to the US Forest Service for protection within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, ensuring the Chetco’s clear, cold, emerald waters remain truly How to Help and forever wild, scenic and clear.
ZACH COLLIER/NW RAFTING CO.
Boating: Salmon fishing: Steelhead fishing: Hiking/Camping: