The Wild and Scenic Elk River: Oregon’s Secret Jewel

Maybe I shouldn’t share this place. But if you’re the kind that falls in love with rivers and diving into turquoise makes your bones quiver, and you’ve chosen to transport yourself into this isolated corner of southern Oregon, I’m sharing this for you. Because everyone knows the Smith, and on a hot summer day they’ll be there. Some people know the Trinity. Maybe the Illinois if you’re hip, or the gushing upper Rogue because the highway follows it and the pullouts advertise it. But this is different. In a world where “Tourists are ruining the world’s most beautiful destinations,” The Guardian, 2023, sharing a spot like this is love, and even more, trust.

It’s August, and we’re heading inland along Elk River Road for the first time, and I can’t stop smiling, watching the temperature tick up with every mile east. We started at 64 degrees on the coast–hardly river weather. We hit the 70’s fast, and climbing. Now, loud rushing fills my ears, and I glance around, picking out yet another white stream cascading down the almost vertical hillside and rushing under a bridge, as eager to join the Elk as we are.

The Flaming Lips blasts on the stereo, the whole family is twitching with excitement and I can’t contain myself anymore. I unbuckle my seatbelt and pop up through the sunroof to a blast of warm wind and I squeal at the sight of the serpentine strand below us: this is what I’ll come to call “The Gorge” section, around the 8-12 miles range down Elk River Road. Huge boulders cradle the river on both sides and where the sun squeaks in through the narrow gap, it electrifies the water’s deep turquoise. At this point I know we’re in for something good. The scant information I’d found on the Elk is looking right on par.

In a world where forests are so frequently cut down, rivers poisoned, rerouted, flooded and desiccated, the stamp of a “Wild and Scenic” river isn’t blowing smoke up its own ass: it’s a federal designation that means the river isn’t dammed (damned.)

How has it become such a white rhino, deserving of a special seal, just to let a river flow? In the future will there be special towns where the drinking water isn’t polluted yet, or the ocean is safe to swim, and we’ll call them Happy Hamlets? I shiver. A conversation for another time. With wine. And hopefully the ears of people in power, or a bunch of people willing to rise up against destructive power.

But for now, I’m pointing out these Wild and Scenic rivers as the truffles of the aquatic world, the wet veins that leave me vibrating with a halo of extra vitality, and from what little information I’ve found on the Elk, this is definitely looking like one of them.

After exploring this accessible section of the river up and back again, I’m coming to know the Elk as a chilled emerald ribbon, draining its old growth forest upriver, grown on fog. Because of this…ya might wanna bring a wetsuit.

Unlike the Sixes River that looks like a twin on the map, flowing  in squiggling parallels a little north, the Elk has no clear cuts to wallow through, where the sun would heat its flow. There are no slashed hillsides or denuded forests like on the Sixes that open it up to the summer heat. No, the Elk River watershed is a boulder-cold, shade-grown, crystalline channel of rainwater. Even in the heat of August, the cold, or the beauty, could take your breath away. 

Some people forage deep along the river for native whitebark raspberries, or the aggressive Himalayan blackberries that threaten them, or they know the best rope swing spots. There are probably bridges to jump off that I didn’t notice, crazy waterfalls from creeks racing downhill, and I know there’s a special spot along the river called Jacuzzi Rocks that we couldn’t find. Someone eluded to people setting up meth labs in the surrounding forest, exploiting the isolation. Others flock to the two public waterfronts, Sunshine Bar and Butler Bar, both Forest Service campgrounds. For everyone else, all you have to do is scope a beautiful spot and scramble down. Here’s the view of what we scoped out, among uncountable temptations. Date? Early August. Temperature: Mid 80’s. Crowd? Zero.


These images are untouched: no editing, no saturation. It’s just the Caribbean aquatic palette in a temperate rainforest.

The closest town to the Elk River, and a great base to explore the area, is Port Orford.

This underrated fishing town is home to a tiny, super tasty hole in the wall that we would’ve missed if it wasn’t a one minute walk from our Airbnb: Port Orford Sustainable Seafood Co. ALL the fish served here are caught by local fishing families from the surrounding coast.

My ceviche was so fresh, a piece twitched in my mouth. I still think about the buttery ling cod we were served, right there kind on a picnic table kind of in the parking lot, except there are hardly any cars, and so close to the ocean I could hold my breath and almost run there before taking another inhale.

But I’d have to stop and pick all the blackberries on the way first! And pop handfuls of wild mustard flowers that line the path. Or nibble on the feathery stalks of wild fennel…

Port Orford has a tiny farmer’s market full of produce, flowers and art, and a Community Writing Center that was closed when I discovered it by accident, but I wish I had a chance to visit. It’s a bookstore, venue for readings, classes and more:

The beaches in this area are stunning, full of islands, cliffs, caves, rivers, makeshift driftwood structures and waves, but not people. And again, most of it has abundant blackberry picking options! Peak ripeness: August.


Beyond the berries is the beach at Port Orford, a short walk from our Airbnb and the Sustainable Seafood eatery. 

Pictured below is Hubbard Creek, another empty expanse a few miles south that’s known for surfing, according to a local. We were definitely tracing the little lines coming in with keen eyes.


We stayed in a unique Airbnb a short walk from the ocean (and the sustainable seafood place!). It had an airplane propeller up in the loft with backlit crystals, and on the ground floor, the talented owner had amassed a collection of trees gently convinced into furniture. A huckleberry bush grows at the front door, the front garden a riot of flowers, and the inside is dark and bizarre, just the way I like it.  See it here:

There are quite a few cute and affordable places to stay though. If you need a little more space, or have pets on your travels, check out this vintage coastal cottage:

Thank you Elk River, for letting us in. If you go, please tread lightly.


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