Spending time along a river refreshes and renews. Rivers feed our desire to explore -- to daydream about what lies downstream and around the next bend. America’s rivers have long served as workhorses supporting the exploration, transportation systems, and industrial and agricultural development of our nation.
In 1968 Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to ensure that some of our most cherished river segments are conserved in their natural, untamed state for us and for future generations, and next year marks the 50th anniversary of this landmark act. From placid canoe streams to rushing whitewater kayak runs, from icy trout-filled brooks to lazy cypress lined bayous, the system contains America’s best free-flowing waterways. There are 208 river segments in 40 states that are part of the system.
Whether you want to hike, fish, canoe, camp or just relax along the bank, below is a sampling of 15 stream segments around the U.S. that highlight opportunities to explore the diversity and beauty of America’s Wild and Scenic Rivers.
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The Rogue River’s mighty salmon runs were made famous by author Zane Grey and continue to offer some of the best fishing on the West Coast. The wild Rogue, one of the original eight Wild and Scenic Rivers designated in 1968, offers multi-day whitewater rafting trips through a deep canyon lined with majestic Douglas-fir forest. Those more inclined to view the river from shore can hike the 35-mile-long Rogue River Trail. The Rogue's headwaters start on the west slopes of the peaks surrounding Crater Lake in Oregon and twist and descend for 215 miles through the Cascade, Siskiyou and Coastal Ranges before spilling into the Pacific at Gold Beach.
Among the stark volcanic tablelands of southern Idaho, several rivers have carved deep canyons into the dark basalt -- hidden from view until one is right on the rim of the surrounding landscape that was designated as wilderness in 2009. None is more spectacular than the gorge of the Bruneau River, carving an 800-foot chasm that is almost as narrow as it is deep. Even peering from high above on the rim, one can tell that the whitewater is for experienced paddlers only. The river churns in a series of seemingly endless class III and IV rapids and sometimes covers the entire width of the canyon floor.
The Merced River begins as snowmelt from the high Sierra gathers into glacier-polished channels and then pours over spectacular granite waterfalls before slowing to a sluggish meander through the incomparable Yosemite Valley in California. Once the river exits Yosemite National Park, it makes a headlong rush for the lowlands and its class III and IV whitewater rapids provide thrills to rafters and kayakers. Spring visitors are treated to splashy array of wildflowers along the lower canyon, which is lined by a trail and roadside pullouts for those who prefer not to get wet, even as the upper river remains locked in snow and ice.
Canoeists can float from several days to weeks and follow in the footsteps of famous explorers Lewis and Clark as they traverse the geological folds and faults of “Breaks” country at Montana’s Upper Missouri River. The roadless canyon boasts broad vistas where fishermen are likely to catch goldeye, drum, sauger, walleye, northern pike, channel catfish, carp, smallmouth buffalo and paddlefish. Floaters might even spot some of the many elk and mule deer that inhabit the area, or they can scan the cliffs to get a glimpse of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
The Río Grande Wild and Scenic River (named by early Spaniards as the “Great River of the North”) enters New Mexico in a deep basalt canyon where trout inhabit the deep green pools and birds of prey nest along the ochre cliffs. Adventurous whitewater boaters float the “Taos Box,” which contains numerous class IV and even V rapids. Milder but still exciting, class II and III runs are found downstream. Landlubbers can enjoy the river at the Canyon Rims Recreation Area, which has camp and picnic sites perched high on the canyon rim. The area has attracted people since prehistoric times. Evidence of ancient use is found throughout the area in the form of petroglyphs, prehistoric dwelling sites and many other types of archaeological sites.
Take a trip to gold country in Alaska. Canoeists along the Fortymile River can see modern prospectors working the river gravels, as well as remnants of several large historic dredges, as they float through thick stands of black spruce and tussocks that grow above the permafrost. It never truly gets dark here in summer, making more time for fun and exploring. The long days melt into a pink dusk that slowly transitions into a lengthy dawn. This is the longest river in the system with the main stem and tributaries stretching for almost 400 miles.
A remarkably wild stream is tucked in a forested valley among the pastoral farmlands of eastern Ohio. The clear waters of Little Beaver Creek River support 63 species of fish, including a popular smallmouth bass fishery. Add to this list 49 mammal species, 270 species of migratory and resident birds, and 46 species of reptiles and amphibians, and one gets a picture of the ecological diversity packed into the corridor. Little Beaver Creek is also believed to be the only riparian corridor in the United States, which shows geologic evidence of all five ice ages. Canoeing, camping, hiking and horseback riding are all popular activities along Little Beaver Creek.
The Clarion River is a success story in river renewal. Trout and smallmouth bass now flourish where waste from historic tanneries and mine acid drainage once tainted the water of this Pennsylvania river. The Clarion is a destination for canoe paddlers or inner tube floats with fishing, hiking and wildlife-watching also among popular activities. Towering white pines rise above the birch, oak and maple forests, which provide spectacular fall foliage. Bald eagles now nest along the Clarion and osprey sightings are on the rise.
Visitors to the St. Croix River can follow the paths of French fur traders who plied the river, trapping and trading their pelts in Wisconsin. The St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers stretch for over 200 miles, offering a diversity of recreation experiences and protecting an iconic stream of the upper Midwest. Here eagles and osprey compete with fishermen to catch smallmouth bass. Rapids and riffles are interspersed among stretches of flatwater that offer varying paddling experiences. Don’t miss the Dalles of the St. Croix -- a deep basalt gorge with glacial potholes and other spectacular rock formations. Hiking and historic towns along the corridor offer recreation alternatives for landlubbers.
Surrounded by some of America’s earliest industrialized areas, the Eightmile River Watershed has retained a remarkable degree of naturalness with large areas of unfragmented wildlife habitat, an array of rare and diverse wildlife, scenic vistas, high water quality and significant cultural features. This Connecticut corridor is a great example of local municipalities, land trusts, environmental groups and residents working with state and federal agencies to protect a cherished community resource.
Located only 45 miles from Manhattan, the Musconetcong River seems a world apart as it flows through the rural highlands of northwestern New Jersey. In the 18th century, the surrounding hills were logged as a source of charcoal for the iron industry and the water was diverted for the Morris Canal to bring coal from Pennsylvania to northern New Jersey. The regenerated forest hides remnants of the canal and the area only contains traces of its early development. Human history in the Musconetcong Valley can be traced back approximately 12,000 years to the end of the last ice age. The Plenge Site along the lower river in Warren County was the first major Paleo-Indian archaeological site excavations in New Jersey, and is considered one of the most significant in the northeastern United States. The Musconetcong River is known as the best trout fishery in the state. Paddlers enjoy the river's rapid flows, and hikers enjoy the miles of hilly trails that flank the river and afford stunning views of the river corridor.
The Wekiva River originates at Wekiwa Springs, where 42 million gallons of water bubbles from the limestone bedrock each day from two vents -- the largest of which is 35 by 5 feet and located 15 feet under the water. The clear, bluish-green water flows northeast through a primeval landscape just minutes away from the traffic and crowds of Orlando and is one of Florida's best-kept secrets. A state park along the corridor offers a variety of adventures from canoeing and kayaking to biking or relaxing at waters edge. Wildlife abounds and lucky visitors might spot a Florida black bear and in rare instances, even a manatee.
The Niobrara River winds through dramatic bluffs with small waterfalls in Nebraska, making it a popular float for inner tubes, canoes, kayaks and cow tanking. Its heartland setting means that both eastern and western bird species mingle here. The corridor’s wildlife diversity stretches back much further in time though. For more than 145 years, the central Niobrara River Valley has been an important source for mammal, fish and reptile fossils. These fossil deposits have figured prominently in scientific studies of evolution, and collections of fossils from Niobrara are housed in research institutions including New York's American Museum of Natural History, Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.
Located in North Carolina’s famed Blue Ridge, the scenic Wilson Creek River is popular for hiking, car camping, backpacking, fly fishing, canoeing, kayaking and swimming. The Wilson Creek Gorge has class III, IV and V rapids and is considered to be the most challenging run in the Blue Ridge by experienced whitewater paddlers. The boiling hydraulics and powerful rapids include 10-foot waterfalls and an 18-foot stair step drop. Parts of the stream are managed as wild trout waters and have populations of both rainbow and brown trout. There are native eastern brook trout in its uppermost headwaters.
The Amargosa River in California is often called the “Crown Jewel of the Mojave Desert” and exemplifies the diversity of the Wild and Scenic River system. It flows through the hottest and driest part of the U. S. and remains below the surface for much of its course before emptying out into Badwater Basin in Death Valley. Along the wild and scenic segment, the river flows at the surface and is saltier than the ocean but is still critical for desert life. The tiny Amargosa pupfish has evolved to swim in the warm salty water, and the Amargosa vole, possibly the rarest mammal in the U. S. with less than 100 individuals, only lives in the wetland rushes along the river. The corridor provides exceptional birdwatching opportunities and scenic desert hikes during the cooler months.
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