Being an Oregonian for a couple of decades I have heard the phrase “the wild and scenic Rogue River is my favorite river to raft” more than a few times. But what makes it so special? The typical answers included comments like: “dependably gorgeous summer weather, lush scenery, being secluded in a canyon untouched by development, and an abundance of class 3 rapids.”
How Did the Wild and Scenic Rogue River Manifest Itself for Me
Well, sometimes by happenstance, we end up going down a path almost unintentionally (but make sure that does not happen to you on Blossom Bar). Last summer on a day trip down the Deschutes River, my friend Lara mentioned how great it would be to do the Rogue River. “Oh, and by the way, we’ll need rowers. It’s a learnable skill and you’d be good at it” she told me. I had never considered learning rowing, but like I say, happenstance has a way of happening.
The short story is we spent a handful of days in the autumn and winter rafting down some Oregon rivers for me to build my rowing skills. We included others in the Outdoor Program through the University of Oregon, in hopes of meeting other experienced folks who we might add to our Rogue team.
I did not progress to the level of rowing my own boat. But I could be a good backup (and great cook, more on that later). Unfortunately, Lara injured her shoulder and could not guide her own raft. Fortunately, my friend Jim who had already committed to rowing suggested we could be passengers on his raft. So instead of expanding the trip to get four more rowers, we shrunk the trip. And Jim, Lara, Tori and myself took Jim’s raft by storm.
While this trip was still incubating in our hearts and minds, The New York Times came out with their 52 Places to go in 2018, and rafting the Rogue River was #35. Serendipitous!
Self-guided or professionally guided?
We did our trip without a professional guide. Since Jim and Lara are both experienced rafters, we were self-guided. I even had plenty of time to practice my rowing. Jim brought his boat and tons of equipment (for which we are eternally grateful). I am embarrassed to admit that aside from gas to get to Grants Pass, the whole trip cost $700 total, split four ways. That was for farm to table food and a shuttle so Jim’s truck was at the take out.
Well, what if you are not chummy with a guy with a boat? There are lots of outfitters who can safely guide you down the river. A similar trip with a professional guide will run you about $1,000 per person. When you consider what you get out of the four-day experience, it’s still a good value. Particularly since there is a tremendous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes that you won’t need to do. So it is definitely a good value!
There are lots of ways to craft your time on the wild and scenic Rogue River. And I am sure there is not one right way. However, I would like to share with you some of the gems we discovered on our itinerary.
Please consider taking these tips into account, so your time on the Rogue is as full of peak moments as it can be.
Consider going before or after permit season
Because it won’t be quite as crowded as during peak season. Although you should know you won’t be the only person who had this same thought. You will be sharing the river. This year, permit season began May 15th, and we went the week before.
I will note Thursday was much quieter on the river than Friday and Saturday. If you have the flexibility, then do the whole trip on weekdays. Jim has friends who do the Rogue every November after permit season and they end each day at a different lodge where they sleep and eat dinner and breakfast. I would imagine there are very few people on the river in November.
Put in at Alameda instead of Grave Creek
The Rogue does not officially become wild and scenic –no roads or motorboats – until just downstream from Grave Creek, but who cares. Putting in at Alameda gives you five extra river miles which translates to another half day on the water. Fish Ladder will be your welcome to the Rogue rapid. We ended up camping at Whiskey Creek our first night, which would have been too early to camp had we put in at Grave Creek like most people do. And we had this beautiful, not to mention sizable campground all to ourselves. As a side note, the hike to Whiskey Creek Cabin was interesting.
Don’t rush your trip and embrace being unplugged
It is hard for me to be unplugged, being the email addicted woman that I am. To be precise, we were out of cell range for 72 hours. I did let my sister know beforehand, in the unlikely event that a family emergency happened while I was gone. Jim told me when he did the Grand Canyon for 21 days, he got a satellite phone and called his 17 year old daughter every day.
But c’mon, unplug, you can thank me later. Once you are feeling like an explorer on the frigid water, navigating boulders, and staring up to blue skies and sensually carved canyons, you will forgot that electronics even exist (except it’s nice to have a smartphone to use as a camera).
Drink in the Siskiyou scenery
What can I say, Southern Oregon is gorgeous. Oregon is gorgeous and diverse beyond imagination, so I will take this moment to advocate for exploring Oregon in general if you have the time (internal link). The Rogue’s Oregon home is the Siskiyou Mountain Range. The Siskiyou’s are a unique range apart from the Cascade Range. They are part of the Klamath mountains and run east west instead of north south.
So, while the Siskiyou’s are lush like the rest of Western Oregon, the plants are definitely different. The California black oak dominates the steep canyon walls. I love how the light percolates through the lobed leaves of these sprawling and expansive trees. And it would be a crime not to mention the madrone trees. Madrone has a smooth, red, windy trunk, once the bark peels off the younger trees. The tree looks like wisps of fire, and indeed, this magical blueberry bush relative has a special relationship to fire. Madrone trees are fire dependent. They colonize the land are a forest fire. In other words, they need occasional fire to exist and thrive.
And the wildlife deserves a bow. It’s very sweet when you see a duck swim past with her six ducklings waddling behind her. But how about a bald eagle? Symbolic of America itself. And while blue herons are not all that rare, their striking color and their graceful way of existing is always worth stopping to admire.
Although we didn’t see one, you may see a black bear. In fact, the people camping across from us at Tate Creek day 3 told us they saw a mom and her cubs just ¼ mile up river from us just a couple hours before we arrived. With bears around taking precautions with your food is a must. Some of the campgrounds have bear enclosures (electric wire) to store your food in. In other locations, you have to be more creative. To be honest, I would have loved to see a black bear, as long as we kept a safe distance.
Include the things that will make your glamping special
You are after all, glamping. Glamour camping that is. I am big on not skimping on the foodie experience. When I camped in Big Sur, the squirrels near my camp were eating amongst the elite 1%!
Jim’s kitchen was rocking. He had a Partner Steel stove and it totally kicked ass. I did a lot of cooking before the trip and sealed and froze the food, which also helped keep the cooler cold. Each day I would take out culinary delights such as roasted veggies, bean dips, braised pork shoulder, Asian tahini dips. Honestly, we ate like royalty.
Jim’s glamping involved a paco pad, which is essentially a very thick sleeping pad. It takes up more room than a typical thermarest back packing pad, but as he said “hey, I’m old and the boat has plenty of room.” Lara and Tori were minimalists on the trip and got along just fine. On the other hand, one night at Mule Creek campground, we heard people playing guitars and drums. So essentially, if you can protect your goodies from the water, and it fits, then go for it! It really is sweet to be living in the lap of luxury in the middle of nowhere.
Groove with the humor of the Groovers
A groover is a portable toilet and is mandatory on the Rogue. There are outhouses at certain campgrounds. Yet they are not always operating and the wild and scenic Rogue is heavily traveled enough that the “pack it in, you pack it out” approach applies to everything you bring in.
On the downside groovers are gross and nobody loves needing to use them. Tori was on strike and was going to hold it in until she got to a real toilet. The upside, they provide hours of entertainment in camp. Jim had some fabulous groover stories!
Like the time he went to empty one at Lake Siskiyou and it exploded. A random man in a car pulled over and said “hey can I help ——-“ and drove away, once he realized what was up! This earned Jim the river name, Shitstorm.
We tried to set it up in a private spot, away from camp. Our 2nd night in Mule Creek we were in a small camp nestled between two larger camps and the groover was away from camp but not so private. So when one of us would use it, the rest of us would wave at them. As I mentioned earlier, a smartphone comes in handy as a camera.
Prepare to swim – tube suck in Coffeepot
The 2-3 mile stretch between Mule Creek Canyon and Blossom Bar Rapid is hands down the most titillating section of the Wild and Scenic Rogue. First off, it’s unique. Few if any others rivers have these same geographical features and personality if you will.
And secondly, Mule Creek Canyon is the rapid that seems to go on forever with Coffeepot as the finale (that is, until another half a mile and Blossom Bar rears its scary head). So, you keep wondering, “when will this rapid end? Oh wait, maybe I don’t want it to end, this is bodacious.”
We made sure to camp at Mule Creek day 2, because it was the last campground before hitting this stretch. You really don’t want to do these rapids when your arms and mind are worn down from the day. But bright and early on a warm day, bring it on! Mule Creek begins as a riffle and it grows more intense. The canyon walls narrow, which means the water pressure increases. About now is a good time to practice yogic breathing. All the while, I was absorbing the jaw dropping beauty. In a state of awe of the black and grey mudstone rock walls, I might add.
These Jurassic canyon walls with approximately 20 feet of river in between them limit your visibility and I really felt like I was in a womb of sorts. It’s a mixture of the currents, trust, and a skilled guide that carries you along. As we went the water randomly started to bubble up here, there, and everywhere. I believe the swirl holes underneath are responsible. It is strange indeed to be amidst percolating water which will make you feel like you are inside the eponymous Coffeepot.
Jim expertly maneuvered the raft to avoid hitting the walls, but it’s nearly impossible to get through without at least one run in. The bubbling and swirling water is a recipe for creating suction with the raft and a tube suck is the result. When this happens, water can rush into the front of the raft. Now we of course were prepared with life jackets, but it was scary for me to think I was going to go swimming in such rough waters. We did regain control of the boat, the water flowed out and Jim mentioned “oh yeah, that tube suck happens every time, in case I didn’t mention.” So be prepared, wedge your feet and body into the raft, paddle like your life depends on it, accept that Coffeepot will have its way with you, and you’ll likely make it out just fine!
Stop at Paradise after making it through Mule Creek and Blossom Bar
Right about the time your heart normalizes after the Coffeepot tube suck, you’ll be heading into Blossom Bar. If it’s your first time, then scouting it is a must. Jim knew his preferred route and off we went. Picture the river version of a slalom course. But instead of poles, there are boulders the size of vans (Volkswagen Rock, we watching you). Again, be on alert and be ready to paddle like your life depends on it. Running it early in the season, at high water was actually easier, according to Jim. The Wild and Scenic stretch officially ends downstream from Blossom Bar (you may see jetboats from here to Foster Bar), but it matters not, since you’ve arrived in Paradise.
Paradise lodge has places to tie up your boat while you climb the steps and indulge in a cold beer and some ice cream. It’s like a post-game celebration if you will. While you are on the steps, take note of the signs that denote what level the water hit during flood years. In 1964, the water was at the base of the lodge, almost 100 feet above where it was when I rafted it. That must have been zero to sixty in three seconds! Chillaxing on the lawn or wooden benches is available. Hiking on the Rogue River trail upriver to watch the carnage on Blossom Bar is also available. Eating and sleeping at Paradise Lodge is yet another option. But at the very least, go enjoy a drink – you definitely earned it.
Explore the Rogue River trail on foot
The history of the Rogue River is steeped with tales of gold mining and settlement from those who survived the Oregon Trail. Of course, generations of Native American history preceded this, but it is a sad affair that there is little to no remaining evidence of them. For a while the natives continued to live in the region along with the white settlers. However tensions increased and in the 1850’s those who did not die from the settlers’ diseases were resettled in Northwest Oregon.
Mining moved to the forefront of activity in the region. Whiskey Creek and Mule Creek campgrounds both have buildings from the turn of the century that have become outdoor museums. The Rogue River trail parallels the north side of the river, which makes it very convenient for rafters to get out and do some exploring. You won’t ever get lost. The river is always close by and you can hear it, even if you can’t see it. As a side note, backpacking the entire stretch is also an option. Or day hiking and meeting up with your rafting friends at camp is another option. There are a million and one ways to experience the Rogue.
On day 3, we chose to raft half a day and give ourselves time to explore on foot. We lucked out when the temperatures climbed into the mid 80’s, so we could lay out in the sun and swim as well. We camped at Tate Creek Camp which was primo for walking to Tate Creek Falls. Getting to the falls involved getting off the Rogue River trail and walking upstream, in the stream. It does involve some climbing over boulders and unsteady places, so you should be in reasonable shape, if you plan to do it.
Now, none of us were crazy enough to slide down the rock slide with the waterfall gushing over it. It was just way too fast, I had no idea how deep the pool beneath was, and I knew the rocks are smooth but not as smooth as they look from fifteen feet away. Plus I don’t like doing things that have a reasonable chance of injury. But we did watch another couple do it. The woman actually was up there deliberating and crying for 20 minutes while her boyfriend encouraged her to take the plunge. They did, and they loved it. Instead, Lara and I jumped into the pool and let out a couple of exhilarating cheers. Then we rushed and got out of the freezing water as fast as we could.
The few stops I have described were super fun and rounded out rafting time, but please know they are but a few examples. The 40 mile trail is rich with possibilities and you can stretch your trip to be longer if you engage in more daily side trips. Whatever your fancy – waterfalls, creeks, swimming, hiking, bird watching, communing with nature, the Rogue is your oyster.
Combine your rafting trip with a visit to the Redwoods
Now this was a happy accident for us, but it worked out for the best. We took out at Foster Bar and ideally would have driven on Bear Camp Road back to Galice which is where Tori’s car was. But the road was closed due to snow (they plow it around Memorial Day). So, we actually needed to drive west to Gold Beach which is on the Oregon Coast, south almost to Crescent City, CA and cut back northeast on the Redwood Highway to Grants Pass and Galice. It was 4 hours instead of 2 hours, which is not the best use of time on an 85-degree day.
So why am I suggesting you might purposely do this? Well, we decided to stop at Jedediah Smith State Park for lunch which is nestled in the thick of an ancient Redwood Grove. Some of these trees were around when Jesus was a baby, and that is no joke. Yes, 2,000-year-old trees. If you have never experienced a redwood forest before, then you must make this part of your trip. In fact, add a day on to camp out and explore the nearby groves.
The four of us have all lived in the region for many years. Tori and Lara were born and raised in Oregon. We have all been to the redwoods many times, so our time was limited to lunch amongst some of the oldest trees on the planet. But to be honest, it has been around six years since I was last in the redwoods. So it served as a reminder for me to plan a camping trip down there next summer.
So, what is it about the Rogue that has you returning, almost in a ritualistic sort of way?
This was my first multi day river trip. Although I have done a fair amount of day trips on different rivers, both in Oregon and in my travels. With the newness of it all, I was like a kid on Christmas Eve, so excited for what was to come and all that was happening. I absolutely loved, loved, loved every moment of it, but I have no other rivers to compare it to.
So in closing, I want to draw on the wisdom from my experienced friends who find themselves returning to the Rogue, time and time again.
Lara proclaims “For me, the Rogue offers tremendous scenic variety, rarely bad weather, and absolutely no cell service. A peaceful playground and a treat for the soul makes for a divine adventure by foot or by boat.”
Jim, aka Shitstorm, says with a smile on his face “Running white water is like my religion and the Rogue is like my favorite cathedral. It’s the only place I completely unplug and become very close with God (or Gaia or the Earth). The Rogue’s natural beauty mixed with the excitement of some really fun whiter water clears my mind and brings me peace like nothing else can. “