Oregon Wild Hikes: Williamson River Gorge
Bring your hiking boots or canoe to explore a little-known gorge along the beautful Williamson River, in the upper Klamath Basin.
Williamson River Gorge
Winema National Forest
Distance: Many options, hike a "fisherman's trail" or canoe upriver during summer months
Elevation Gain: Moderate
Season: Late spring, summer, early fall for hikes, summer for canoe trips
Maps: See Freemont-Winema National Forest web site for more info
About the Hike
Less than 6 miles north of Chiloquin, Oregon, the Williamson River runs through a scenic canyon gorge that motorists just to the west on Hwy 97 pass by totally unaware of. The lower portions of this canyon are accessible by a “user” trail along its west bank. On the extreme upper end, and just below FS Road 43, a two track road also closely follows the canyon initially downstream, where the canyon soon narrows. The lower, and more accessible “upstream” entry points are described below.
This canyon provides a rich diversity of streamside vegetation of elderberry, stream dogwood, choke cherry, currants, and other trees and shrubs particularly attractive to migrating song birds. Crystal clear springs bubble in along the stream’s side, and in a few places maybe crossed with small beaver dams.
Additionally, there are lovely aspen and older willow stands, and a few larger diameter Douglas and white fir--otherwise not seen in this mostly ponderosa and lodgepole pine dominated forest. In winter and early spring the water runs a dark tea stained color due to the tannins that wash down from the last year’s decaying bulrushes several miles upstream where the Williamson River widens at the 40,000 acre Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. This dissolved organic matter can also create big balls of foam during periods of rushing water. This foam is probably mostly natural, although there is cattle grazing on private lands above the gorge, and to a lesser extend upstream in the National Wildlife Refuge.
During late spring and summer, and after higher winter flows have subsided, it is easy to canoe or kayak a little over a mile upstream and into this lovely canyon gorge. Beyond a point, however, the topography makes further upstream paddling impossible. Here, the canyon narrows further, and a series of small waterfalls begins in another mile, finally making further passage north only possible on foot from the canyon’s upper (west) rim.
The Williamson River is the largest tributary to Upper Klamath Lake, and an important spawning and rearing area for endangered Kuptu and C'wam, two unique species of fish of great importance to The Klamath Tribes. It is also home to some of the largest redband (desert rainbow) trout found anywhere in North America.
In its last, 1990 Land and Management Plan the Winema National Forest found what it termed “Segment 2” of the Lower Williamson River to be highly deserving of classification (by Congress) as a National Scenic River. Regarding this particular 6-mile stretch of the Lower Williamson River the Forest Service wrote:
“The length of the river, height of the sheer rock face above the water, and visual diversity are superior to any other area on the Forest, including the (federally designated Wild and Scenic) Sycan River. In visual diversity, it is comparable to the Klamath River Canyon and the Deschutes River. The Lower Williamson Gorge was inventoried as being distinctive in rock form, vegetation, and water from. In comparison with other rivers in south or central Oregon, Segment Two of the Lower Williamson River is considered to have outstandingly remarkable scenic value and is eligible for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”
Wild and Scenic designation would protect this segment of the Williamson from destructive dam building and development. Unfortunately, but not unlike the protection that needs to be afforded significant refuges, roadless areas, and wetlands within the Klamath Basin, here too Congress has so far failed to act.
Historically, salmon and steelhead once spawned in the Williamson River. A series of aging dams on the Klamath River, below Upper Klamath Lake, block these fish from reaching their historic spawning streams. Oregon Wild is working with a diverse coalition of Native American Tribes, fishermen, progressive farmers, and other conservation groups to remove the lower 4 dams from the Klamath and bring salmon and steelhead home to Oregon.
The Williamson River’s 6 mile, highly scenic segment extends from the Kirk Bridge crossing FS Rd. 43 (just east of Hwy. 97) to Randolph Collier State Park. In addition to the route featured below, it also makes a lovely (and longer trip) to launch a canoe or kayak at Collier Park at the Day Use and Rest Stop area on the east side of Hwy. 97 and then paddle upstream. While this portion of the Williamson River is also very scenic, passing willow lined meadows (and big old Ponderosa Pine with a nesting bald eagle), upstream river passage ends in around three miles, and under a mile before reaching the canyon/gorge itself. Also, a rocky reef and rapid separate these two portions of this river segment.
To go to the Lower Williamson Gorge proper: 4 miles north of Chiloquin, turn off Hwy 97 to the east, and just north of where you cross over Spring Creek on a Hwy. 97 bridge. Here there is a sign for Collier and Williamson Campgrounds. Just after you turn off, hold left at a sign that directs you toward the Williamson River Campground, instead of proceeding into the State Park campground to the right. Proceed mostly north for 2 miles on this “straight as arrow” road for and another .6 mile beyond the turn off for the Forest Service Campground. Where the main road you have been on (FS Road 9730) bears right continue to hold to the left (still mostly straight ahead) on a narrower two track road--FS Rd. 200. (If you cross a small bridge over the Williamson River at a rapid, you’ve gone too far.) When this road forks again in .15 mile, take the fork to the right to launch a canoe, otherwise continue to hold left. As soon as you enter some nice orange barked Ponderosa pines look for a place to pull off and park. You can continue to drive only a bit further (less than a quarter mile) where you are forced to stop at a rock barricade. Here the foot trail continues a little over a mile directly along the riparian area, into and on up the canyon.
Walk up this trail along the west side of the canyon. When the trail ends in a mile you are forced to walk further cross country in order to continue. As the brush gets thick, drop down toward the stream, continuing in an upstream direction and walking through a partially wet meadow. Here, in a couple of hundred yards, you are forced to stop when winter and spring run off is high. Later in the summer (and fall) it is relatively easy to follow the edge of the creek and portion of the river bed at least another .5 mile to mile on up the canyon, and to a big pool above where the steam in summer mostly only barely trickles over the rocks outside a narrow channel along the canyon’s bottom. Also, when crossing areas of tall grass (along the stream) watch out not to step into unseen holes from collapsed beaver bank burrows.
Exploring the Williamson by Canoe
In most years, the marsh overland flows stop by (or before) mid summer, and the dark water becomes crystal clear as it continues to instead be fed by underground springs all along the canyon walls. When flows drop, the Williamson becomes a lazy, meandering stream perfect for canoeing. You can canoe up the river against the mild current, then float back down. Depending on flows you may encounter basalt "reefs" just beneath the surface... in some areas you can pull your canoe out and portage around these obstacles, then continue upstream.
Canoeing during the summer months allows you to view big red-band trout that swim upstream to spawn from Upper Klamath Lake. (Fisher people should consult local fishing regulations--particularly, along this stretch of the river no fishing is allowed from any floatation device or watercraft.) Look on the sides of vertical streamside rocks for the shed exoskeletons of dragon flies, and stone flies that have emerged here—and which also attests to the stream’s overall high water quality.
Early or late in the day you may also be lucky and see beaver and otter. Regardless, you will see beaver chewed sticks and their mud slides along the river. Kingfishers, yellow warblers, and song sparrows are frequently seen. In some years a Prairie Falcon nests near the top of the first tallest cliff to your right (east side of the canyon). Probably for that reason, area cliff swallows choose not to nest there.
The National Wild & Scenic Rivers System was created by an Act of Congress in 1968. The law states “…that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstanding remarkable scenic, recreation, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”