Packrafting the Illinois River: Turning another Northwest classic into a shuttle-free loop.
Why Illinois?: The Illinois is a classic Northwest multi-day paddling trip in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Southern Oregon. More challenging than the Rogue River and with easier access than the Chetco, the Illinois shares the same beautiful turquoise waters, granite boulders and forested canyon walls as its neighbors. The Illinois is known for high quality whitewater suited for advanced paddlers.
Why Packraft?: The Illinois is a well known Pacific Northwest river most frequently done as a multi-day trip for self-supporting kayakers or rafters. The primary downside is that this run has an long 6 to 7 hour shuttle. While there are a number of local shuttle companies you can hire to do the drive, we found that hiking our shuttle was a rewarding way to see more of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and experience the Illinois River Trail. In total the loop is a 23 mile paddle and 17.5 mile hike.
Difficulty: With one class V rapid and a dozen class IV rapids interspersed with consistent class III, the Illinois is an appropriate river for class four packrafters at moderate to low flows. While most rapids on the Illinois offer scouting or portaging opportunities (including class V Green Wall), the real danger on this river is flash flooding. Due to the drainage being largely bedrock, runoff from rain storms will quickly take this run from pool drop class four to big water class five, so having a precipitation-free weather window is key. Levels around 1,000cfs offer more ample recovery pools between rapids and flows above 2,000 begin to have a more continuous big water feeling. Numerous river guides are available and we found this write-up to be helpful.
The Hike: Take out immediately below Silver Creek, which offers a nice gravel bar to dry gear and transition into hiking mode. From Silver Creek to Briggs Creek the Illinois River Trail travels 17 miles and gains over 5,000 feet of elevation. While there is lots of gain and loss, the travel is generally straightforward even though the trail is not frequently maintained. The limiting factor of completing the route is if the ridge section between Bald and Little Bald Mountains is snow covered. While the Illinois is paddle-able in the winter, the hike would almost certainly be snowed in. In mid-March of 2021 there was still enough snow on the ridge of Bald Mountain that we were doing some occasional post-holing. Water on the ridge section is scarce so consider filling up a dromedary before ascending from the Illinois.
Logistics: Fill out a self-issue permit outside the grocery store in Selma, OR and drive to Briggs Creek Trailhead. While marked as a 4WD road beyond Miami Bar on USGS quads, we found the road to be in pretty good shape and passable in our 2WD van. This could be a totally different story after heavy rain. We put in on Briggs Creek itself before paddling a ¼ mile of class II+ into the Illinois. Right before joining the Illinois, Briggs fans out into very shallow, steep channels at medium to low flows which might require a short portage at all but high flows.
We did this loop in three full days:
Day 1: Paddle from Briggs Creek to South Bend (15 river miles)
Day 2: Paddle from South Bend to Silver Creek, transition and hike to Little Bald Mt. Prairie (8 river miles, 4 trail miles with 3,000 ft elevation gain)
Day 3: Little Bald Mt. Prairie to Briggs Creek (13.5 trail miles)
For a more relaxed trip consider adding another night on the return hike (Pine Flat would be a good option for another night of camping).