Tips for Planning your Chetco River Kayaking Trip

by Zachary Collier

"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread." - Edward Abbey

The Wild & Scenic Chetco River flows through the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. It's one of the most rugged and yet fragile wild areas I've ever experienced.

The Chetco River flows through the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

The Chetco River flows through the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Its fragility lies in the fact that it's in a state of natural recovery from the 2002 Biscuit Fire and that it's refugia for rare plants, wild salmon and steelhead and some of the most beautiful clear waters I've seen. What may seem like barren rocky ground is a unique geology and home to numerous rare plants.

Wild Iris along the Chetco River

Wild Iris along the Chetco River

Please respect the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

As you plan your trip there are two VERY important things to consider.

1. The Chetco flows through some of the most rugged and harsh country I've ever seen. Please take the remoteness and rugged terrain seriously.

2. You will be entering a very delicate ecosystem that is especially vulnerable since the Biscuit Fire raged through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in 2002. Please respect the ecosystem and be sure you are not introducing an invasive species to the Kalmiopsis.

Getting There

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”

Hiking a kayak into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Hiking a kayak into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness

If you're looking to run the Chetco, you'll find that getting to the river is the biggest challenge and part of the experience. The 2002 Biscuit Fire has left burnt trees across trails, and more burnt trees will continue to fall across the access routes.

You have 2 main options:

1. Chetco Pass to Slide Creek: Drive the 4wd road from McCaleb Ranch up to Chetco Pass and start hiking from there. The POC (Port Orford Cedar) Gate opens June 1st so you'll need to wait until then if you want to make the drive. This is a true 4wd road - Subarus won't make it!

The Trip Starts at Chetco Pass

The Trip Starts at Chetco Pass

The hike from Chetco Pass to Slide Creek is about 4 miles and all downhill. This wouldn't be too bad but the trail has hundreds of logs across it. We've done some trail work there in conjunction with the Siskiyou Mountain Club, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. There is one mile of the trail that is passable, but choked with hundreds of fallen logs.

2. Babyfoot Lake to Carter Creek: Hike from the Babyfoot Lakes Trailhead to Carter Creek. This is a 9-mile hike that starts at 4200 feet, rises to 4800 feet, and then drops to 1400 feet where it meets the Chetco River at the Carter Creek Confluence. This route is regularly cleared by the Siskiyou Mountain Club which is nice, especially when carrying a load.

Hiking down to the Chetco River

Hiking down to the Chetco River

Hiking gear 9 miles into Carter Creek is no easy task. Be aware that this is designated wilderness, so no bikes, wheelbarrows, or wheels of any kind can be used.

Some groups have hired packer Mike Pierce ( or 541-660-0761) to pack their gear in with horses. As mentioned earlier the ecosystem is very delicate and Mike is careful to be respectful of the backcountry by using the right feed that will not leave seeds of invasive species in the manure. Please note that the delicate serpentine ecosystem is not a good place for horses so if you hike your own gear in, you’re likely to get bonus wilderness/river karma.


Most of the campsites along the Chetco River are pretty small, but if you plan on sleeping in your boat or in a bivvy there will be more options. Campsites with multiple tent sites are very limited.

Camping along the Chetco River

Camping along the Chetco River

There is a good one at Carter Creek and a couple of great established camps around Slide Creek. There really isn't much camping between Slide Creek and Box Canyon Creek. After Box Canyon Creek there are a number of good camp spots for small groups to choose from.

Wilderness Ethic

Please be respectful and follow the Leave No Trace Principles. On our trips we pack out all human waste and ashes. I encourage you to do the same.

River Difficulty

Most people rate the river at Class IV+ but there are a few rapids that require Class V ability between Slide Creek and Granite Creek. Be prepared to scout quite a bit and do some portages. There are also a number of undercut rocks and sieves that demand respect. Remember that you are in a remote wilderness and that rescue would be difficult or impossible.

Rapids in the steep section between Slide Creek and Granite Creek

Rapids in the steep section between Slide Creek and Granite Creek

River Flows

River flows on the Chetco are measured on the river gauge at Brookings. This is a very rough gauge for flow in the upper sections for many, many reasons. The flow generalizations below are based on late spring and summer trips. In the winter and early spring months there are more low elevation streams adding to the flow at Brookings meaning that there is less water in the main river.

At super low flows (<300 cfs) you can canyoneer and float down the canyon with durable inflatable kayaks or other inflatable contraptions.

Portaging in the Upper Gorge of the Chetco River

Portaging in the Upper Gorge of the Chetco River at around 300 cfs

At lower flows (300 cfs to 900 cfs) the Chetco is best run in an inflatable kayak. The drops are steep and there are many potential pin spots for hardshell kayaks. This is a good flow because there is plenty of time in between rapids in the steeper section between Slide Creek and Granite Creek.

At medium flows (900 cfs - 1500 cfs) the rapids fill in nicely and hardshell kayaks would do well. There is not much eddy space between rapids in the steep section below Slide Creek so boat management is important.

Kayaking the Chetco River at 1200 cfs (at Brookings)

Kayaking the Chetco River at 1200 cfs (at Brookings)

At higher flows (1500 cfs and higher) the river is particularly continuous and challenging for 2 miles between Slide Creek and Granite Creek. You'll want to have solid Class IV+/V skills.

Taggart's Bar on the Chetco River

Taggart's Bar on the Chetco River

Further Reading

Please take the time to learn a little about the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Here are a few links to get you started.

- Trip Report from our June 2011 Chetco trip
- Learn more about the Kalmiopsis Wilderness
- My post about the Kalmiopsis on Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line Blog
- Read Mikey Wier’s story about searching for Steelhead in the Kalmiopsis
- Learn about efforts to protect the Chetco River

If you're willing to put in the hard work to run the Chetco you'll be rewarded with a truly beautiful and remote river. Please don't hesitate to add any comments below with more information or questions.

Originally Published: | Updated on



Zachary Collier

As owner of Northwest Rafting Company, Zach Collier combines international guiding experience in places like Siberia, Bhutan, and Chile with a natural business acumen for systems and logistics. Whether he’s on big water or in the back office, Zach strives to ensure NWRC offers exceptional whitewater and wilderness experiences for guests and guides alike.

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