Illinois River hike has something for everyone

This four-mile hike along the Illinois River offers diversity
Along this stretch from Kerby Flat to the confluence of the Illinois River with Deer Creek deep, wide, gravel pools cuddle up against dimensional, underwater shelves.Gabriel Howe

The Wild and Scenic Illinois River draws a variety of users. Anglers come in the winter to try their luck at catching steelhead, rafters seek its turbulent and dangerous rapids, and botanists search for rare plant communities along the river's more remote banks.

But you don't have to be a fish hack, whitewater junky or biologist to enjoy the Illinois, and this moderate to challenging, four-mile hike has something for everyone.

If you go

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This is another trail not found on the Wild Rivers District Map, so use my Google map and directions to find your way. From the blinking light on Highway 199 in Selma, set your tripometer and head west on Illinois River Road. At about four miles you'll find the well-signed Kerby Flat trailhead on the road's south side.

At the trailhead is a lookout platform with views of Kerby Flat to the southwest. From there, hike down the trail into a roadbed and maintain a southerly direction. The tallest mountain to the southwest is Pearsoll Peak — at 5,100 feet, it's the highest point in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.

The roadbed quickly fades into an uneven, rocky and muddy trail that rides the spine of the ridge. As it enters a flat, forested area, start paying special attention for splits in the tread. At about a half mile into the hike you'll notice a faint, unmarked trail junction. Head right and north toward Kerby Flat.

The trail descends and soon approaches two giants — a cedar and madrone — that seem welded together at their bases. Their branches commingle and their roots cohabitate in a fibrous crash of species. Just below these trees you'll catch your first close views of the Illinois River's turquoise, crisp shine. Pass some newly built steps and stay on the main trail — there is an inconvenient, poorly built detour that circumvents the main tread.

At about one mile the trail flattens out, and you'll want to take notice of another junction. Head right, north and with the flow of the Illinois to Kerby Flat. There are some historic remnants here, and the flat bank provides a nice site for overnighters. It's also a good place to catch a winter steelhead, but check up on ODFW regulations before casting a lure or fly. Turn around and find the last junction.

But instead of going back the way you came, head right, south and on the trail closest the river. Along this stretch — from Kerby Flat to the Illinois' confluence with Deer Creek — are deep, wide, gravel pools that cuddle up against dimensional, underwater shelves. Also along this stretch are small, convenient beaches. A snorkel and fins would provide for hours of easy-going, underwater exploration in warm-weather months. But always be careful because floods along the Illinois can come quick.

Even though it's only a couple miles from the road, and even less as a crow flies, the river here earns its Wild and Scenic designation. Unfortunately, much of the Illinois corridor has earned itself a reputation as an outdoor party playhouse, though here, just a few hundred feet from the road, shotgun shells and beer cans are less common.

Keep heading south, against the river's flow. At about two miles, where Deer Creek splashes into the Illinois, there's an even larger beach (though the water here is too swift for most). At the confluence is the corpse of an old car whose bright, shiny chrome bumpers still glisten in the sun.

Notice the road it came in on and follow it northeast along Deer Creek, and keep your eyes out for the next unmarked junction. The trail ascends southwest from the road's left, western side about 1,500 feet upstream from Deer Creek's mouth. This junction is especially easy to miss.

After a steep ascent, the trail turns and heads north through medium-sized timbers. You'll quickly reach the first junction you encountered. Head right, straight back to the trailhead.

This hike shows that to ditch the crowds, the smoke and the noise, all you have to do is be willing to let your calf muscles burn a little.

Freelance writer Gabriel Howe lives in Ashland and is founder and chair of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at

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