Three moments from my first private trip down Oregon’s Rogue River perfectly sum up the experience: silently watching a bald eagle perched in a tree as we drifted down flatwater; reaching out to touch the steep rock walls between rapids in a narrow canyon stretch; and camping on a riverside beach with only the stars and a visiting black bear for company. (Successfully making it down Blossom Bar is on the list of highlights, too.)
A multi-day trip on the Rogue River, no doubt one of the crown jewels of Western whitewater, is a bucket-list adventure for many paddlers. Not surprisingly, pulling off a private trip on this popular river comes with thoughtful planning. This handy guide will help you navigate the permit system, determine what to bring, and understand the dos and don’ts of camping and rafting along this stunning stretch of waterway and wilderness.
Rogue River Basics
Beginning in the Cascade Mountains, the Rogue National Wild and Scenic River river stretches more than 200 miles through dense woodlands and empties into the Pacific Ocean. In 1968, it became one of the first U.S. rivers to be designated Wild and Scenic. The Rogue’s 160 Wild and Scenic river miles protect the basin’s abundant wildlife, rich cultural history, and serene landscape of pine forests, rocky gorges, and verdant hillsides. The wildlife is a big part of what makes rafting here so special, as black bears, osprey, blue heron, deer, otters, and eagles frequent the corridor. The river is also renowned for its steelhead and salmon populations.
When most paddlers plan a rafting trip on the Rogue, they set their sights on the 34-mile Wild section from Grave Creek to Foster Bar. This stretch usually takes three to four days to raft and boasts the river’s most challenging whitewater. Plus, it’s an especially remote section of the river. While it’s possible to raft this section year-round, the main season begins in April and runs through October.
The Permit System
Private boaters will need permits from the Bureau of Land Management to raft the Wild section any time of the year. During peak season, from May 15 to October 15, 120 people are allowed to launch per day (including commercial trips). Hopefuls for a private rafting trip can enter the yearly online permit lottery and reserve spaces if they win. Boaters can also secure spots through the competitive call-in system, where you can see the number of daily float space openings and call to reserve one.
“Day of Launch” permits are possible if last-minute spaces are available. To secure one of these permits, boaters must arrive at the Smullin Visitor Center at Rand to snag spaces on a first-come, first-served basis and launch that day. It’s far less competitive during the off-season: Simply fill out the self-issue permits posted outside the Smullin Visitor Center or Grave Creek Bridge.
Ahh, the good stuff. The dozens of rapids on the Rogue’s Wild section challenge boaters with tricky rock gardens, pool drops, swift gravel bars, and tight rock canyons. Rapids range from Class I ripples to Class V (raftable!) falls. American Whitewater offers excellent pictures and descriptions for all rapids on the Rogue.
Many rapids are possible to read-and-run, but scouting is always a good idea if you’re unsure. The water level is a significant factor in rapid difficulty, and it fluctuates throughout the season. (Spring and summer flows range between 4,000 and 1,200 cfs typically.) The U.S. Geological Survey publishes data on water levels in the Rogue River basin daily.
No matter the level of water flow, private boaters are encouraged to scout the three most challenging rapids of the Wild section: Rainie Falls, Upper Black Bar, and Blossom Bar. The narrow basalt walls of Mule Creek Canyon offer up another highlight stretch teeming with thrilling rapids.
The BLM requires everyone on a private rafting trip to have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD to obtain the permit. Also, boaters must wear PFDs during all rapids above Class II.
Campsites on the River
One of the best aspects of a private trip on the Rogue is camping along the banks of the river. The Wild section is full of flat, sandy beaches just beckoning for an overnight after a long day of paddling. Many are established campsites with names that make it easier for private boaters to map out where to end up each day.
The BLM has a helpful map of the established campsites along the river, though many small, unofficial sites are also free for camping. During prime season, popular campsites often fill up fast. Since boaters can’t reserve sites in advance, it’s smart to identify a few back-ups in case a first-choice spot is taken. Smaller groups are encouraged to save the larger campsites for bigger groups and to be flexible about sharing sites with other groups.
Leaving No Trace and Fire Safety
As many as 500 people may be within the 34 miles of the Rogue’s Wild Section corridor on any given day. Accordingly, it’s imperative for people to be diligent about protecting the environment, so that the ecosystem can withstand the presence of so many visitors. Anyone rafting the Rogue must practice Leave No Trace principles and follow additional regulations from the local BLM office.
To Leave No Trace, boaters should choose where to camp wisely and pack out everything they pack in (and whatever may have been left behind by others!). You should also properly dispose of human waste. The BLM requires boaters to pack out all solid human waste in watertight, ranger-approved containers—like the beloved groover—that you can empty after take-out. (Pro tip: Use the SCAT Machine at Foster Bar take-out.)
Fire restrictions vary throughout the seasons, sometimes changing from one day to the next. Campfires are allowed in winter and early spring, and firepans are required. During summer, campfires are prohibited, and campers must use propane stoves or charcoal for cooking. Once the summer heat really dries out the corridor, only propane stoves are allowed.
Put-In, Take-Out, and Shuttles
To raft the Wild section, you can start at Grave Creek put-in a few miles north of Smullin Visitor Center. Since overnight parking isn’t allowed at Grave Creek, many boaters will alternatively launch from Almeda Bar, which is four miles upriver.
From the take-out at Foster Bar, you’re looking at a 44-mile drive back to Galice on the unpaved Bear Camp Road, which typically takes about two hours. Most private boaters on the Rogue rely on the local shuttle services for convenience.
Private boaters can review the BLM’s detailed list of recommended shuttle routes, complete with seasonal conditions, to get a feel for the options.
Several local outfitters offer raft and gear rentals for any essentials that you may not have been able to bring with you. Most of the rental companies are conveniently located in the town of Merlin, close to the BLM visitor center and put-in.
If you get the chance to join a private trip on the Rogue River, go for it. You’ll create lifelong memories as you cheer with your fellow paddlers after navigating a boulder garden. You’ll feel like a true explorer as you tromp up side creeks to visit unique cultural sites. And you’ll feel a deep sense of peace as you watch the sun setting behind the dark pines to reveal a starry sky. Sure, it takes patience and a little luck to get a permit, but the challenge only adds to the thrill of rafting the Rogue.
Written by Jenna Herzog for Matcha in partnership with Salamander Paddle Gear.