The Elk River has cool, clear water, native fish and plenty of sandy beaches. - Courtesy of Gabriel Howe

A bucket-list scramble along the coast

Southern Oregon's Wild Rivers Coast is a gem.

Crowds are rare, and pristine reaches of beach, like those along the Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor, are within a short walk of the highway. But the beach isn't the most magical part of the Wild Rivers Coast — it's the wild rivers. And the Elk River is one of them.

The Elk falls out of the Copper Salmon and Grassy Knob wilderness areas and winds its way 25 miles before spilling into the Pacific near Port Orford. The Elk's waters are cool, clear, deep, pristine and mysterious.

It has everything you could ask for, but it doesn't have trails, so getting into it can be tricky. Even so, it deserves a place on the bucket list of anyone who loves heavenly water, native fish, sun, fun and sandy river beaches.

From Highway 101, about four miles north of Port Orford, head east on Elk River Road. At about 7.5 miles from Highway 101, you'll pass the Elk River Fish Hatchery. Inland from there is where to start scouting out river-access points, all of which are unmarked, undesignated and undeveloped.

Focus on areas where the road is nearest the water and where bridges cross tributaries of the Elk. It's worth driving a couple of miles past a few promising-looking points, then parking and walking back to scout sweet spots.

A few old roads lead toward the river, but sometimes not right up to it. You might strike out a couple of times and find yourself tempted to hike down a steep, dangerous and unnavigable bank, but don't. There are safer spots. Find them.

Don't stop at locating a few convenient places to access the Elk from the road. Strap your day bag high on your shoulders and hike up or downstream in the river bed. Swim where you have to, and cross on land where you're able. And bring a camera.

You'll want to take home pictures of deep canyons and soft, shady beaches accessible only from the river. The Elk may have everything you could ask for, but you've got to find it.

The pristine swimming holes you'll find are also pristine salmon spawning grounds. And the Elk owes its clarity to the roadless and wilderness areas from which it flows. That's why it's among the clearest on the coast, according to Mike Beagle, Oregon field coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

"Eighty percent of the watershed is intact, and that's why it clears so fast after heavy rains," he said. "We did a tour over there after about 20 inches of rain over four days. You couldn't fish the Rogue, Umpqua or Coquille. They were too muddy and nasty. But we could fish the Elk."

Trout Unlimited wants to see further protections of the Elk River watershed. They are pushing to remove a culvert at Blackberry Creek.

"It's 110 feet long and 14 feet high. Fish can't get through it," said Beagle.

Trout Unlimited wants to limit logging to stable, shallow slopes in the area, too, but they aren't pushing for expanded wilderness designations.

Fishing on the Elk is limited to downstream of the fish hatchery. It has a 100-percent native run of winter steelhead, and its run of fall chinook salmon are about half native, according to Beagle. This is what makes the Elk one of the strongest fisheries south of Alaska.

There is dispersed camping all along the national forest sections of the river, and designated campsites with fire rings, picnic tables and vault toilets can be found at Sunshine Bar and Butler Bar.

You won't find amenities such as running water or garbage service on the Elk River, so bring plenty of water, pack your trash out, and practice leave no trace, which includes discharging no waste — including biodegradable soap or food scraps — into the river.

Between the crystal clear water, beaches, shady forest and deep swimming canyons, there are places on the Elk River that just feel like paradise. And you don't have to buy into some overpriced equatorial tourist trap to get there. You just have to get out the map and explore.

Freelance writer Gabe Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at

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