UNLESS YOU’RE AN extremely talented—and extremely warm-blooded—paddler, rafting the Rogue River this month would be a very bad idea. Come April, the 215-mile river surges with winter snowmelt rushing down from the Cascade and Coast Ranges; early spring rains only heighten the river’s rage. But if you want to paddle the Rogue this summer, when the rapids have mellowed into doable Class III (in June) or even Class II (in October), now is the time to make a reservation: The Rogue is one of the country’s most popular rivers to run, and outfitters that offer multi-day rafting trips are often booked to capacity by May.
The many accolades that are bestowed on the Rogue are due in part to its protected status: Forty years ago, the feds named the 84-mile stretch between Grants Pass and Gold Beach a National Wild and Scenic River, a designation that prohibits development within a quarter mile of its banks. As a result, the Rogue’s frothing rapids and undulating bends course through a landscape that is largely untouched. Other than a few cabins and lodges that were built decades ago, you can float for days without glimpsing evidence of modern civilization.
But there’s also the drama of the landscape itself. Some of Oregon’s most impressive geography is inevitably tough to access, and the only way to experience this section of river, which straddles Josephine and Curry Counties and cuts a path through the Wild Rogue Wilderness, is by boat or via a multi-day trek along the Rogue River Trail.
The payoff, however, is entirely worth the effort. When you’re deep inside the Rogue’s narrow canyon corridors—surveying the blue-gray sandstone on one side of the river and dark, lichen-speckled rock along the other bank—you’ll feel like you’re not just moving along the surface of the earth, but plunging into it. Where the river widens, sandy gravel bars make ideal picnic spots, while short hikes lead to lush, tucked-away waterfalls or the rusted-out remains of mining camps, such as the Whiskey Creek Cabin, built in 1880 and still filled with old tools and tin cans.
This is precisely the kind of rugged, mythically far-flung setting that beckoned me west from New England 11 years ago. Yet, despite the fact that the Rogue is just four hours by car from Portland, I’d never bothered to paddle it—both because I lacked the gear and wherewithal to do it myself and because I’ve never been partial to guided trips. Call me shy, antisocial, misanthropic or some combination thereof, but the idea of running a river with a flotilla of perfect strangers sounded perfectly awful to me. Out of 20 people on a group excursion, there’s bound to be one bad seed—a whiner, a loudmouth, a know-it-all or, heaven forbid, an evangelist. And the way I see it, one is all it takes to spoil an otherwise idyllic experience completely.