Staring down a black bear on the opposing shore at Solitude Camp, I dropped eggs in a cast iron vat for a gourmet riverside eggs Benny commercial breakfast. I watched as guests lost their minds over the impromptu Yogi Bear encounter. The fuzzy life-sized teddy lumbered along the bank in brambles, cherry-picked the plumpest berries, meandered up cliffs, paused to sniff the air, and occasionally made coy eye contact with the audience. It was my rookie season of guiding, which happened to be on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River. I was grateful for the moment of peace in the kitchen while the guests were distracted.
At this point, I have rafted the Rogue River in Oregon 16 times and seen a bear on at least half of those trips. Sometimes twice on the same trip. Wildlife encounters are a significant part of the allure. Salmon are often jumping. There are cuddling pairs of otters, great blue herons, bald eagles, and newts. And keep an eye out for the elusive madrone monkey.
The mystique of the Rogue goes beyond wildlife encounters. There is world-class fishing, amazing side hikes, a history of murder and mayhem, and of course, outstanding whitewater. All of the above is what lures rafters, kayakers and anglers to try their luck for a permit on the Rogue, and experience this pinnacle river trip.
Secure a Rogue River permit and plan your trip
The Lower Rogue River was one of the first eight water courses designated under the original legislation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. To support this designation, in 1978 upward of 35,000 surrounding acres were named Wild Rogue Wilderness. The 84 miles of river designated Wild and Scenic are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. This section of the Rogue utilizes a river permit system, which paddlers need to be familiar with in order to plan a trip.
Rogue River permit system
Most parties float the Wild and Scenic Rogue on the 35 miles from Grave Creek to Foster Bar. These trips range from three to four nights. Occasionally folks blast through in two nights. From May 15 to October 15, the BLM allows 120 people per day to launch on this section. The group sizes are limited to 20 people per permit. You must win a competitively allocated Rogue River permit in one of three ways during this period.
The first is to apply in the noncommercial lottery. For most rivers, the lottery opens on December 1 and closes on January 31. Results and winners are announced via email on February 15. If a permit is won, each person on the permit will need to pay a $10 fee.
The second is to call in for a cancellation permit via the Grants Pass Bureau of Land Management office at 541-471-6535.
Finally, it is common practice to show up at the Smullin Visitor Center at Rand ready to run a trip by picking up a last-minute cancellation permit to launch the day of.
From October 16 to May 14, launches are unregulated outside of submitting a self-issued non-lottery permit via the Rand office.
The more you know about the Lower Rogue
People have inhabited the Rogue River corridor for at least 15,000 years. The Rogue River is the traditional homeland and waterway of the Tututni, Upper Coquille and Shasta Costa Native Americans. These people were violently removed from the land through colonialism in 1856 and placed in the Siletz Indian Reservation with the Confederated Tribe of Siletz Indians and Grand Ronde Indian Reservation with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon.
As of this writing, the USFS states that it maintains a government-to-government relationship with each of the eight federally-recognized and sovereign tribes having traditional lands within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Carving out valleys in the remote and ecologically diverse Siskiyou Range, the Rogue’s casual erosive efforts reveal rare rocks. Many hundreds of thousands of years ago island arc chains, not unlike Hawaii, were dragged across the Pacific Plate to the Juan De Fuca subduction zone. Too buoyant to be subducted, the landmasses coalesced along the ever-growing Oregon shoreline. These puzzle pieces made a mosaic of exotic terrains. Metamorphosed, shifted and penetrated by intruding molten rock, these terrains have experienced many overprints.
Many fortune seekers have ventured into the depths of the Rogue to hunt for gold, one of the many minerals produced in the wake of these geologic processes. Whiskey Creek Cabin, Mule Creek Canyon, China Bar, Merial, and many more nooks hold keys to pieces of the legend and lore of gold. Like gold on the Rogue, history and tall tales are plentiful. If you keep panning or digging, you’ll find more and more.
Today, river recreationists experience Rogue River rocks mostly as recreation-inducing outcrops. Ask around about Sports Illustrated, Otter, Big Windy and other named jump rocks as well as Glen Wooldridge’s history of shaping the river through the use of dynamite.
The Rogue River camping situation
The best camping on the Rogue is on gravel bars and sandy inlets which emerge from the landscape as water levels fluctuate. These campsites are unmarked and undeveloped. The BLM’s free downloadable and printable Rogue River Boater’s Guide excels at indicating camp sizes and helps private boaters avoid camping at the largest sites, which etiquette dictates are for commercial (or at least sizable) groups.
If you do end up in a sizable camp with a small party and didn’t realize it, if another group approaches and asks to share, it’s excellent river karma to oblige.
Pro tip: Schedule at least one layover day to fully saturate in the Rogue atmosphere. But not at a favorite or oversized site. Sharing is caring.
Blossom Bar (IV), named for the gorgeous and fragrant pink wild azaleas that bloom in the spring, is perhaps the most famous of rapids on the Rogue.
Located about 20 miles into the trip, Blossom Bar was made runnable year-round by Glen Wooldridge’s blasting. Blossom Bar is a technical rock garden requiring multiple maneuvers. The crux is near the top, where paddlers must make a 90-degree right turn and thread the needle between two clusters of pinning rocks.
The Fish Ladder (III), just a handful of miles into the trip on river-right was also blasted by dynamite as an alternative passage to Rainie Falls (V) and the Mid-Chute (IV).
And let’s not forget to be vigilant at Wild Cat (III). Many have underestimated the difficulty and ultimately wrapped on Alligator Rock in the center channel.
Hiking the Rogue River Trail
Unique to the Rogue River experience is the Rogue River National Recreation Trail, a track that parallels the entire Wild and Scenic section from Grave Creek to Big Bend.
The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest offers an excellent downloadable map outlining hiking highlights from the 40-mile trail. This trail is accessible from many campsites and points of interest along the Rogue. Some of the benefits of exploring the trail from camp are viewing the intricacies of wildflowers up close and stopping on a whim at creekside pools to cool off. Not to mention, the ability to explore any side trail or point of interest that catches your fancy.
Best seasons to paddle the Rogue River
Folks often decide when to raft the Wild and Scenic Rogue based on their ancillary recreation plans.
Anglers prefer to chase the river in early March and April for “Springers,” the salmon with the most fight and tailspin. Or, autumn, when the Chinook heavyweights reign the river.
Professional rafters are always aching for the wildcard factor of high water, which typically happens in the winter or spring.
Commercial river guests and cold-blooded boaters prefer July and August for the greatest chance of warm weather.
Meanwhile, lazy private boaters, like me, only want to raft the Rogue outside of permit season so they don’t have to go through the hassle of applying for a permit.
Rogue River flows
Compare USGS Grants Pass flows (above the Wild and Scenic stretch) to USGS Agness flows (below) and split the difference; be sure to click the CFS tab. The Wild and Scenic Rogue American Whitewater listing also includes flow information, among other insightful river details.
Catch a shuttle for the Rogue River
Setting shuttle on the Rogue River is an endeavor at a minimum of four hours long. This is why many private paddlers choose to use a shuttle service to set their rigs at take-out. Two popular outfits are Whitewater Cowboys and Morrisons.
Get yourself a Rogue River map
Because flows can vary greatly from spring to fall, grab the Sawyer Paddles and OARS-sponsored, The Rogue River – A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd Edition. This map of the Rogue River provides the most detailed beta on rapids at multiple flows.
The Rogue River Boater’s Guide, from the BLM and National Forest Service, is another great resource available to paddlers.
Stop by outfitters and shops on the Rogue River
If you need gear or just want to talk shop, check out the retail spaces at SOTAR and Sawyer Station. The two Oregon-grown local rafting suppliers are headquartered in Southern Oregon, near the put-in.
If you are not an experienced paddler or do not own your own equipment, there are still a number of options to experience a trip on the Lower Rogue. Two well-known commercial outfitters on the Rogue worth checking out are OARS and Northwest Rafting Company. No experience is necessary and trips run from $1,050–2,000 depending on number of days and extras.
Additional resources to know before you go
We’ve already introduced you to the bears of the Rogue. But there are a number of other natural encounters to be aware of. Poison oak is common along the river as is the potential to meet up with rattlesnakes. Wildfires are also a factor, especially in the summer and fall. Visitors to the river should stay up to date on current situations and fire restrictions from the Forest Service.
Respect the Rogue River through the use of Leave No Trace principles. Speaking of which, part of the requirements for a Rogue River permit is following the Forest Services’ detailed guidelines for portable toilets. Regulations vary some between river systems, so be sure your groover is up to code.
Oregon requires non-motorized watercrafts 10 feet or longer to carry the state’s Waterway Access Permit. This permits costs $19 for the year or $7 for a seven-day permit.