9 legendary waters in American wilderness

Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness

Flickr, JohnMcCarthy (adapted by Lydia Hooper)

If you are looking for a wild experience on or by the water, America's Wild and Scenic Rivers are your best bet.

These are waterways where the river’s free-flowing character has been protected by prohibiting dams and ensuring corridors are undeveloped. 

They are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was sponsored by Senator Frank Church and signed into law only four years after the Wilderness Act in 1968.

Over 150 U.S. rivers have been protected so far, with sections in one or more of a few categories:

  • “Wild”, which preserve American natural heritage
  • “Scenic”, meaning shorelines or watersheds are mostly undeveloped, though it may be accessible by roads in some places
  • “Recreational”, which means it is accessible and may have some shoreline development

Here are nine noteworthy ones we recommend visiting:

1. Koyukuk River, Gates of the Arctic Wilderness in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Koyukuk is 102 miles of cold waters flowing from the southern Arctic Divide through glacially carved, wide valleys in the Alaska's Brooks Range. The Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge boasts northern pike, sheefish and Arctic grayling as well as wildlife like moose, caribou, black bears, grizzly bears and wolves.

credit: flickr, USFWS Headquarters

2. Merced River, Yosemite Wilderness in Yosemite National Park, California. The Merced flows 122.5 miles by glaciated peaks, crystal lakes and alpine meadows filled with wildflowers. The South Fork has one of the Sierra region's few remaining pristine fisheries, with populations of rainbow, eastern brook and brown trout.

credit: flickr, D.H. Parks

3. Chattooga River, Ellicott Rock Wilderness in Sumter National Forest, South Carolina. The Chattooga runs through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia for 58.7 miles. It was the first river in the south to be protected in 1974, and it remains one of the few free-flowing streams in the Southeast. The Wilderness Society's Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) spent a week in Ellicott Rock this summer with a crew from Yonkers working to clear and restore the Chattooga River Trail. 

credit: flickr, ChattOconee National Forest

4. Snake River Headwaters in Bridger-Teton National Forest, intersecting Teton Wilderness, Wyoming. Over 380 miles of stream were protected in 2009. Snake River Headwaters careens through parts of both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, at the heart of one of the last intact temperate ecosystems on Earth.

credit: flickr, Rookie Romit

5. Upper Rogue River, Wild Rogue Wilderness in Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Oregon. Fed by snowmelt from the Cascades, the entire 40-mile Upper Rogue is followed by the Upper Rogue River Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail. This river is considered extremely hazardous for whitewater, and therefore is for expert boaters only (the entire Wild section and some of the Scenic sections are closed to all boating). Thankfully, Oregon has plenty more Wild and Scenic Rivers, more than any other state. A proposed bill would add 60,000 acres of additional wilderness to this one, and also protect the neighboring Chetco and Molalla Rivers as “recreational.” 

credit: flickr, Northwest Rafting Company

6. Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness in Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho. The Middle Fork runs a hundred miles through the continental U.S.' most expansive wilderness. This is one of the original eight rivers in the nation designated as Wild and Scenic in 1968, and one of the world’s most popular whitewater rivers. 

credit: flickr, Northwest Rafting Company

7. Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Carson National Forest, New Mexico. The Rio Grande was one of the other rivers first designated as Wild and Scenic. This 68-mile river runs through the recently designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, an area currently proposed to become protected as wilderness. While most recreation is in the lower canyon, the two most popular whitewater segments are at Taos Box (17 miles of Class IV best from end of April to mid-July) and Racecourse (5 miles of Class III best May through August). 

credit: flickr, mypubliclands

8. Yellowstone River flowing between Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and North Absaroka Wilderness northeast of Yellowstone National Park in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming. The Chief Joseph State Scenic Byway and the elite Beartooth All American Highway follow the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, a scenic gateway into Yellowstone National Park. Although river gorges are inaccessible to traditional hikers, the corridor offers world class fishing and habitat for grizzly bears, gray wolves, moose, elk and deer. Watch a preview of a film capturing the fragile beauty of the Yellowstone River here.

credit: flickr, brian.gratwicke

9. Skagit River, Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in the North Cascades' Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington. Skagit River is the largest and most biologically important river draining to Puget Sound. Eagle viewing draws many visitors to the upper Skagit from November to February, and whitewater rafting is popular on its Sauk and Suiattle River tributaries. Skagit and Sauk also attract fishers hoping to catch steelhead, coho and Chinook. This waterway is just north of Alpine Lakes Wilderness, where a new bill proposes to also protect the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers. 

credit: flickr, Erna-Louisa

VIew the map below to locate wild and scenic rivers and designated wildernesses near you:

See also: