10 Great National Wild and Scenic Rivers

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America faced tough times in 1968, as Vietnam, riots, protests, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy dominated headlines. Few people noticed when, on Oct. 2 that year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. That act originally protected eight rivers, or portions of those rivers, from development — specifically hydroelectric dams — that would harm their natural state. As that act celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the system now protects 208 rivers. Still, those 12,734 miles of protected waterway represent only one-quarter of one percent of U.S. rivers. Here are a few of the wild and scenic rivers protected under that law, some well known, others far off the beaten path.


10. Rogue River

Credit: Bureau of Land Management

Rafters tackle Oregon’s Rogue River. The Rogue became one of those eight rivers protected by the wild and scenic tag in 1968. The other initial rivers in the system were the Clearwater, Eleven Point, Feather, Rio Grande, St. Croix, Salmon, and Wolf.


9. Beaver Creek

Credit: Craig McCaa/BLM Alaska.

Beaver Creek’s Big Bend flows through Alaska’s White Mountains National Recreation Area. A popular destination for rafters, floating Beaver Creek can take up to three weeks.


8. Virgin River

© Jeff Krause

Utah’s Virgin River joined the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 2009. The river’s erosive power has created many of the spectacular red sandstone canyons and other wonders in Zion National Park, one of the crown jewels of America’s national parks.


7. Chattooga River

• Unicoi Liars Club

This river famously appeared in the classic film Deliverance as the fictional Cahulawassee River. Almost 60 miles of the Chattooga are preserved as wild and scenic in Georgia and the two Carolinas.


6. St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

Credit: NPS

National Park Service rangers undertake a breeding bird survey at sunrise. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway protects 252 miles of water in remote northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s another one of the original rivers designated under that 1968 act, which vows to protect rivers that “possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, 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.”


5. Deschutes River

Credit: U.S. Forest Service/Pacific Northwest Region

Dillon Falls is one of the most scenic sites along the Deschutes River in central Oregon. Like many other sites along wild and scenic rivers, the Dillon Falls Day Use Area is so popular for recreation that users must purchase a day pass.


4. Fossil Creek

Credit: Coconino National Forest

Fed by underground springs, Arizona’s Fossil Creek featured one of the first hydroelectric dams in the American Southwest, at the site shown above. But that early 20th century structure was decommissioned in 2005, restoring the creek to its free-flowing state a few years later. President Barack Obama designated Fossil Creek a wild and scenic river in 2009. The problem today is the area has become such a popular recreation site that pollution and overcrowding have become issues, forcing the U.S. Forest Service to restrict access.


3. Buffalo River

© Buffalo Outdoor Center

This waterway in northern Arkansas is regarded as one of the best canoeing rivers in the U.S. The Buffalo River earned designation as the first national river in the U.S. in 1972, protecting it from commercial and residential development. The 135-mile river is one of the few remaining entirely free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states.


2. Allagash Wilderness Waterway

© Jack Heddon

Allagash Falls plummet 40 feet into the river below. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway spreads across 92.5 miles in Maine’s North Woods, one of the most remote areas in the continental U.S. This series of rivers, lakes, ponds and streams is a magnet for adventurers.


1. Merced River

© Mark Leary

The Merced provides nice background imagery for El Capitan and other scenic wonders in California’s Yosemite National Park, but the river has its own rugged beauty along its 123 protected miles, flowing through steep canyons and offering great whitewater adventures.


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