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Lower Williamson Gorge on the Fremont-Winema National Forest

Description by Wendell Wood of the Lower Williamson Gorge

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 often 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.

 During late spring and summer, or 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 begin in another mile, finally making further passage north only possible on foot from the canyon’s upper (west) rim.

Williamson River kayaking
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[1].  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.

Unfortunately, but not unlike the protection needed for refuges, roadless areas, and wetlands within the Klamath Basin, here too Congress has failed to act.

The Williamson River’s six 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.  From here, you can 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 around three miles, and under a mile before reaching the canyon/gorge itself.   A rocky reef and rapid also separate these two portions of this river segment.

Lower Williamson Gorge

How to get there:

Four miles north of Chiloquin, turn off Hwy 97 to the east, just north of where you cross over Spring Creek on a Hwy. 97 bridge.  There is a sign for Collier and Williamson Campgrounds.   Just after you turn off, turn left at a sign directing you toward the Williamson River Campground, instead of proceeding into the State Park campground, right.  

Proceed mostly north for 2 miles on this very straight road, continue .6 mile beyond the turn off for the Forest Service Campground.   Where the main road you are 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 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 cross country in order to continue.   As the brush thickens, 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 runoff is high.   Later in the summer (and fall) it is easier to follow the edge of the creek and portion of the river bed at least another .5-1 mile up the canyon, to a big pool above where the stream  barely trickles over the rocks outside a narrow channel along the canyon’s bottom.  When crossing areas of tall grass along the stream, be careful not to step into unseen holes from collapsed beaver bank burrows.

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 side, and in a few places the stream maybe crossed by small beaver dams.

In addition, 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 tannin wash down from the last year’s decaying bulrushes.  The decay occurs 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.  While this foam is likely mostly natural, there is cattle grazing on private lands above the gorge, and to a lesser extent upstream in the National Wildlife Refuge.

In most years, the marsh overland flows cease by (or before) mid summer; after this time, the dark water becomes crystal clear as it is fed by underground springs all along the canyon walls.    Canoeing at this time 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, as no fishing is allowed from any floatation device or watercraft.)    Look on the sides of vertical streamside rocks for the exoskeletons of dragon flies and stone flies, evidence of the stream’s overall high water quality.

Early or late in the day on this beautiful route, you may be lucky enough to see a beaver and/or 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 this reason, area cliff swallows choose not to nest in this area of the canyon.

[1]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.”


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