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Oregon's Wild Rivers Coast — the Chetco River

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Oregon's many coastal rivers begin in nearby mountains, so watersheds are short and geography and ecology are complicated. The southernmost of these rivers is the Chetco, which we introduce here.

Map of southwest Oregon. The Chetco reaches the sea at Brookings after a 56 mile journey through rugged terrain. The red markers indicate the locations of a few of the photographs. Map courtesy Gaia at

Having lived on the southern Oregon Coast for more than a decade, we came to know the region well. One remarkable feature of this exceptionally beautiful area is the proximity of the mountains to the sea.

Watersheds here are relatively short, putting an entire riverine ecosystem within possible reach. We say possible, because the terrain is very convoluted and getting to the rivers' upper stretches is extremely complicated, if not impossible. Nevertheless, we explored many of the rivers as well as we could and thought we would share some of our experiences in a series of blog posts.

A continental plate is subducting just off the southern Oregon Coast, generating frequent Imperceptible earthquakes and the occasional larger temblor. Every millennia or so, a massive earthquake will occur, generating devastating tidal waves and lifting the land itself. No surprise then, that the coastal landscape is young, rugged, and mountainous.

Heavy winter rains lash Oregon's coastal mountains and have given rise to numerous rivers. The Chetco River is the southernmost of them. Its headwaters are a mere 25 miles from the sea as the crow flies, but it takes a winding, 56-mile course through rugged terrain to get there. Starting high in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, it follows a wide, sickle-shaped course from there, first heading north, then looping back towards the south where it finally reaches the ocean at Brookings.

Lower Chetco River, about 15 miles from the sea. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

A 44.5-mile segment of the Chetco is designated as a wild and scenic river. From the mountainous, deeply dissected, and sparsely vegetated Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the Chetco drops from 3,700 feet to sea level. In the remote upper section, the river floor is fairly narrow and boulder-strewn with numerous falls and rapids. The river character gradually changes as it leaves the wilderness and flows through less rugged geology at a gentler gradient.

Further upriver in winter. The river is carrying a lot of fine sediment that is turning the water blue and green. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The Chetco's water quality was found to meet national Outstanding Resource Value (ORV) criteria based on its striking color and clarity, its ability to clear quickly following storm events, its contribution to both recreation and fisheries, and its contribution of exceptionally pure and clean water for the domestic water supplies of both Brookings and Harbor.

Middle Chetco at bridge crossing. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Typical of Pacific coastal systems, the Chetco fish population is dominated by salmon and trout with important populations of anadromous winter steelhead. The Chetco provides excellent spawning and rearing habitat and has some of the highest salmonid smolt returns of any coastal stream in Oregon.

Many people fish the Chetco, others raft the lower stretches. We love it for its scenic beauty and the relative quiet and solitude.

Chetco River in summer. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes


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