Kayaking the Elk River in Oregon

by Zachary Collier

The Elk River in Oregon is one of the five federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers located in the Siskiyou Mountains (Rogue, Illinois, Chetco, Smith, and Elk). It's the smallest and least known of the group but has the same "oustandingly remarkable values" of the other four.

This section of the Elk River has the Grassy Knob Wilderness to the North and unprotected land to the South. Although there is a road along most of its length, it's hardly noticeable much like the road along the Salmon River in California (the "Cal Salmon"). In fact, the Elk feels a lot like a smaller version of the famous Cal Salmon with steep bedrock walls, clear water, and dense forest.

First Gorge of the Elk River

First Gorge of the Elk River

There are a number of put-ins and take-outs along the way, but I suggest doing the 11.5 mile run that starts at Butler Bar and ends at the Elk River Fish Hatchery.

Whitewater on the Elk River

After a short warm-up section, you enter the first of three gorges. The first gorge is one long rapid that can easily be scouted from river left. There are several fun Class IV rapids below with a few long sections of Class II and flat water in between. About half way down is alternate river access on the left.

The biggest rapid of the run is at the entrance to the second gorge. We encountered a somewhat hidden, dangerous log at the bottom of this rapid so please scout this on the right side. There are a few easier rapids in the remainder of the second gorge.

Coming out of the second gorge of the Elk River

Coming out of the second gorge of the Elk River

Below here are a few miles of fun Class II to IV rapids before the third and final gorge. There's a nice eddy on river left above the gorge to stop and take in the beauty. From there you can scamper up to the road and scout most of the back to back Class IV rapids in the gorge.

Entering the lower gorge of the Elk River

Entering the lower gorge of the Elk River

After the gorge is about a mile of Class II rapids to the take-out at the fish hatchery.

Trip Logistics

Get on Highway 101 near the town of Port Orford in Southern Oregon. Three miles north of Port Orford, head east on Elk River Road. Leave a car at the Elk River Fish Hatchery about 8 miles up Elk River Road. You can check the river gauge there. We had about 4 feet, which was on the low end of good.

To get to put-in, keep driving up Elk River Road until you see a suitable place to launch your boats. I'd suggest starting at the well-marked Butler Bar Campground.

Protection of the Elk River

The Grassy Knob Wilderness and nearby Copper-Salmon Wilderness exist in large part because of the efforts of Jim Rogers who first came to the Elk River as a logger and eventually became an advocate for its preservation. He founded the Friends of Elk River and was featured in and episode of OPB's Oregon Field Guide about the Elk River.

Originally Published: | Updated on



Zachary Collier

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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