The Omnibus Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1988 designated 44.5 miles of the Chetco River as wild and scenic, from its headwaters in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness down to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest boundary just above Loeb State Park. The designated segment of the Chetco is located within Curry County in southwest Oregon on the Chetco Ranger District. The Chetco Wild and Scenic River is divided into three segments: a 27.5-mile wild segment from the headwaters down to Mislatnah Creek; a 7.5-mile scenic segment from Mislatnah Creek down to Eagle Creek; and a 9.5-mile recreational segment from Eagle Creek down to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest boundary.
The Chetco heads in steep, deeply dissected, sparsely vegetated, mountainous terrain within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Over its 55.5 mile length, the Chetco drops from 3700 feet to sea-level as it empties into the Pacific Ocean between the towns of Brookings and Harbor, about 5 miles north of the California border. In the upper section, the river floor is fairly narrow and boulder-strewn with numerous falls and rapids. As the river leaves the wilderness, its character gradually changes. The country becomes less dissected, the river gradient gradually becomes less steep, the river bottom widens, and the surrounding hills become more densely forested. The river narrows in several areas, crossing through rock outcrops and leaving enormous boulders in the riverbed. The Chetco River Gorge, just below Steel Bridge, contains steep sides and unusual rock formations. Below this, the Chetco continues to broaden, and the gradient becomes less steep, with sand and gravel bars and raised river terraces becoming more common.
The Chetco receives healthy runs of winter steelhead exceeding 20 pounds and fall Chinook salmon exceeding 50 pounds. Licensed fishing guides are available to float this section on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The river fishes well when flows are between 2,000 and 4,000 cfs and the levels are receding. Side-drifting for winter steelhead and back-bouncing for Chinook salmon are preferred methods of fishing this stream, although other tactics will catch fish. The Chetco River on the National Forest has high water quality and clears quickly after storms.
The Chetco's water quality was found to be an ORV 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. The quantity of water in the Chetco varies greatly throughout the year. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains a water gauge at river mile 10.7 (Second Bridge), the Chetco's average discharge over the 18 year period from 1969 to 1987 was 2,364 cubic feet per second (cfs). The maximum discharge during the period of record was 65,800 cfs on January 16, 1971. The minimum discharge was 45 cfs on October 21-23, 1974. During the flood of December 22, 1964, which was before the official period of record, the level of the river reached an extreme gauge reading of 32.25 feet, and the discharge was 85,400 cfs.
Wild: 25.5 miles
Scenic: 8.0 miles
Recreational: 11.0 miles
Total: 44.5 miles
From Medford, take I-5 North to exit 55 US-199/Redwood Hwy. Merge onto US-101/ Redwood Hwy towards Crescent City. Near Jedediah-Smith Park, take the Hwy 197 North junction towards Brookings and proceed north on US-101, which crosses the Chetco River in Brookings. Take a left on North Bank Road to access the river via Loeb State Park. North Bank Road turns into Forest Service Road 1376 which accesses the Forest Service campgrounds, launch points, and day use areas.
Mandatory permits are required to float the Chetco for all users year-round. Free self-issuing permits are available at a boat registration station along the North Bank Chetco River Road (Forest Service Road 1376). Motorized boat use is not allowed on any river segment. Motorized vehicle crossings of the river are prohibited.
Whitewater floating on the Chetco is limited by a lack of adequate access to the upper areas of the river (especially in the wilderness) during the high flow season. A very limited number of kayakers have floated through the wild segment of the Chetco during high-flow conditions. Rapids are class III and below during the summer months during average flows. During the winter months rapid class is higher depending upon flow conditions. Summer floating during low water conditions has become an increasingly popular river activity on all river segments.