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Touring Oregon by River

“Welcome to the Wild and Scenic Rogue!” booms river guide Zac Kauffman, bending into his oars and giving them a hearty pull. “There’s no turning back now!” Behind him, the bridge and boat ramp at Grave Creek slide off into the distance. Ahead, off the raft’s bulbous orange bow, southwest Oregon’s Rogue River tumbles through a scatter of boulders and disappears over a rocky ledge. 

For three days, this flotilla of four 8-passenger rafts will be traveling with the whims of the river as it slips into a wild canyon with little access to roads, telephones or other outside intrusions. The Rogue sets the pace, sometimes roiling white water, other times placid pools. It also sets the course, weaving westward through deep seams of rock and dense fir forests, some of Oregon’s most pristine and least accessible wilderness. Nope, no turning back. With broad grins, the rafters plow their paddles into the churning waters.

When it comes to running rivers, few states can match Oregon’s options. Hundreds of waterways scribble through the state, with a season that starts early (March), ends late (October) and offers an embarrassment of riches: The lush, ferny river gorges of the Rogue and the Umpqua. The sage-dusted desert canyons of the Owyhee and the Deschutes. The calmer floats on the Grande Ronde and John Day, or the rip-roaring descents down the Upper Klamath and Illinois.  

Day-long outings on rivers like the Deschutes or McKenzie can provide an enticing taste of the sport, with the gear and instruction you’ll need. Most outfitters use paddle rafts that hold a guide and as many as 8 passengers. Before setting off, you’ll get a life jacket, a paddle, a demonstration of a few basic strokes, and a safety talk that focuses largely on what to do should you tumble out of the boat. (Basically, float on your back with your feet up, look downstream and paddle with your arms to the boat or shore.) Shuttle vehicles deliver you to the put-in and back to your car at day’s end. 

You and your raft mates serve as the motor, learning to power forward, back or simply hang on at the guide’s command. The guide does the hard part, deftly threading your raft through rocky obstacles along a roller coaster of white water. 

On the Deschutes, several outfitters begin day trips near Maupin, 90 miles north of Bend, in the north-central part of the state. At the put-in, the river flows serenely through a raggedly beautiful desert canyon. But attention quickly turns from scenery to the increasingly rambunctious river. Suddenly, it feels as if you’ve burst out of a corral and into a rodeo, bucking through a succession of Class II rapids with names like Boxcar and Elevator, a maelstrom of white foam and rock. (The American Whitewater Affiliation rates rapids from Class I, moving water with a few riffles, to Class VI, nearly impossible to run.) 

Your adrenaline level soon matches the river’s pattern: relaxing in the calmer stretches, bolting to attention when you hear the growl that signals another rapid ahead. While you need to have a healthy respect for rivers, certified raft guides routinely run these rapids. Listen to their instructions, hang on tight and you’ll likely enjoy the rush with a smile on your face. A day trip typically covers about 10 to 15 miles of river. When you spot the shuttle vehicle awaiting you at the take-out, you’ll already be longing for more.

A multi-day trip offers just that—combining the thrill of white water with an immersion in river culture. Guides prepare elaborate picnic lunches with deli sandwich spreads and homemade brownies under the shade of willows, and comfortable tented camps under the stars. They’ll also lead you to the best side hikes and swimming holes. During serene stretches of river, you can scan the shores for wildlife and get to know your raft mates. You may succumb to silly water fights. Far from civilization, you stop caring what time it is, or even what day. You sync your rhythms to the pace of the river. 

The Rogue is legendary among Western rivers, renowned for its scenic canyons and superb fishing. For decades, it was accessible only to skilled oarsmen in nimble wooden drift boats, who would navigate the white water in pursuit of salmon and steelhead. The Western novelist Zane Grey once had a cabin along its banks; over the years, a string of celebrities from Babe Ruth to Bing Crosby came here to cast a line. 

In 1946, Morrison’s Rogue River Lodge opened near Grants Pass, Oregon, one of a handful of riverside lodges offering fishing guide services and hot meals. When rafting emerged as a sport in the 1970s, many enthusiasts headed straight for the Rogue, designated one of the nation’s first “Wild and Scenic” rivers. That official status prohibits shoreline development and most motorized boats, and limits the number of people on the water each day. 

On a recent excursion, a group of paddlers gathers after breakfast on the broad riverfront lawn of Morrison’s Rogue River Lodge. They’ve signed up with the outfitter Rogue River Raft Trips, and they’re here to meet the guides and ready the rafts. On their 3-day trip, they’ll travel about 45 miles downriver, including the Rogue’s marquee 34-mile Wild and Scenic stretch. It’ll be a roomy ride, with five or six guests and a guide for each 16-foot synthetic-rubber raft, and a gear boat to haul food and clothes. Adding to the cush factor, they’ll skip camping and overnight in historic lodges along the way.

Soon the flotilla slips into the current. The smooth slick of river pulls the rafts around a bend, riffling over a gravel bar and kicking up a few white-tipped waves. A half-hour into the trip, the rafters spot a black bear busily foraging for berries near the water’s edge, and two osprey wheeling overhead in the cloudless sky. 

The Rogue earns its “wild” status right after lunch, crashing and frothing over shelves of bedrock. Though the rafters’ hearts might be racing, they paddle through the rapids with ease. At Rainie Falls, the guides deftly line up the rafts with the current, which sucks the boats over the chute and into calm waters below.

In quiet stretches of river, the guides power the oars alone, leaving their guests to kick back and watch the scenery scroll by. Wildflowers sprout among mossy boulders along the shore; scrub oaks and conifers climb up the canyon. Sheer rock walls offer a geology lesson of ancient faults and magma flows. 

By the afternoon of day two, guests are taking turns paddling a trio of inflatable kayaks alongside the rafts, bouncing through the waves and skirting around toothy rocks. At this point everyone’s lost track of the wildlife count: something like four bears, six wild turkeys, two dozen turtles, a mink, an otter, two bald eagles and countless deer and osprey. The group stops for dry-land exploration, checking out a restored early-1900s ranch, as well as Zane Grey’s log cabin perched above the rippling tea-colored waters of Winkle Bar. 

Evenings are spent in lodges that are appealingly simple—and scruffy from decades of river runners. The walls at the Marial Lodge are crowded with yellowed photos and newspaper clippings of river adventures, along with rows of personalized hand-painted coffee mugs used by the guides who pass through. After a day on the river, the hot showers; hearty, family-style meals (think slow-roasted turkey, flank steak, cheesy potatoes, berry cobblers); and warm beds feel positively 4-star. When dinner is over, one of the guides leads a short hike on the Rogue River Trail, clinging high on the canyon wall. Far below is The Narrows, which the group will be running tomorrow. It’s a tight, twisting snarl of basalt and swirling waters that leads into Blossom Bar, the Rogue’s burliest Class IV rapid, on its way toward the wilderness boundary and the real world. Come morning, everyone seems a bit forlorn at the idea of rejoining roads and whining jet boats. But then the Picket Fence looms ahead, a row of jagged stone teeth spitting white foam skyward. Over the roar, the guide barks “Forward!” They dig in their paddles, eager for action—but wishing the Rogue would let them stay.


The Dream Trip:
The Rogue River Raft Trips outing described here combines the thrill of Class III and IV white water with unforgettable Pacific Northwest scenery. You can sample the Rogue on a fine day trip, or treat yourself to a three-day adventure down the river’s wilderness stretch, either camping or overnighting in lodges along the way. Rogue River Raft Trips; 800-826-1963;; three-day lodge-to-lodge trip, $700 per person, based on double occupancy

Day Trips:
Deschutes River: Fun-yet-forgiving rapids, stark desert scenery and easy access from Bend or Portland make this Oregon’s most popular river to run. All Star Rafting & Kayaking; 1.800.909.7238;; half- and full-day trips available

McKenzie River: Splashy, friendly white water flows through lovely Douglas-fir forest between Bend and Eugene. High Country Expeditions; 1.888.461.7238;; half- and full-day trips available

Overnight Adventures:
North Umpqua River: Near Crater Lake, this Wild and Scenic beauty tumbles steeply (translation: lots of rapids) through a gorge crowned with old-growth forest. Ouzel Outfitters; 1.800.788.7238;; 2-day trip

Upper Klamath River: Twist though tight canyons, over turbulent drops and through standing waves on this wild ride near Ashland. Not for beginners or the faint of heart. Momentum River Expeditions; 1.541.488.2525;; 2-day trip

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.