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Elk River, Southern Oregon

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Salmon, seclusion, swimming, and sparkling clear water, characterize this steep V-shaped river canyon on the southern Oregon coast. Commercial prints of the first three images are available. Click the photos to activate the link.

The river stones comprising the forest-lined Elk River's streambed are visible in the clear and shallow water of late summer. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The Elk River begins in the Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon's rugged coastal mountains. After the confluence of its north and south forks, the river runs for 29 miles before terminating at the Pacific Ocean, a few miles north of the town of Port Orford.

The river is remarkable for its blue-green color as well as for the clarity and purity of its water. After storms, the Elk clears far more quickly than others in the region, and the rocky bottom, narrow canyons, and deep pools are excellent habitat for fish. Very important populations of native Chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, winter steelhead and some coho salmon thrive in the cool water.

About 15 miles from the ocean, the Elk River squeezes through a narrow section of its canyon. The river is difficult to access due to the very steep slopes and thick vegetation. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The road we take to reach the upper portions of the river follows its south bank. It is paved until Butler Bar campground, but the way is narrow and winding, and bordered by dense stands of conifers and bigleaf maple trees. The river valley is very steep and rocky, rising at an absurd angle away from the river and dropping at the same angle to the water.

Often, especially after rains. large rocks and even trees will fall onto the road and have to be skirted by the car. Occasionally, a large tree will fall and block the road. When that happens, you have to wait for road crews to remove the obstacle—or deal with it yourself. That's why people carry chain saws in their cars in winter.

Good views of the river through the thick forest are rare, so the photography is limited to a few open spots or, more frequently, to spots we climb down to from the edge of the rocky river canyon. Reaching those spots is made very difficult by the dense vegetation and the steep and rocky terrain.

The few places along the river that are accessible bring their own rewards, however. Calm, shallow stretches of river reflect the color of the forest cloaking the V-shaped valley, Yellow, orange and red leaves from the numerous bigleaf maple trees lining the river float in the slow-moving water and collect in eddies. In faster moving sections, the ever-changing patterns made by moving water make good subjects for photography.

Rocky riverbed, calm water, and reflected colors from steep hillsides characterize much of the Elk River in early fall. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.

Faster-moving stretches of water create shifting patterns that, when revealed by a slow shutter speed, delight the eye. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Because of the variety of the river's character—from quiet stretches where shallow water moves calmly over a rocky riverbed, to fast-moving stretches choked with boulders, past deep pools and through narrow granitic canyons—the Elk River and Valley is impossible to define in a single photograph. A photographic series would be better—perhaps with accompanying text, audio, and video, A difficult task. Maybe one day.

The Elk River seen from a rocky outcropping on the steep slopes of its valley. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

A slow-moving section of river collects leaves and reflects autumn color from the hillsides. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes


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