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8 Wild and Scenic Rivers So Beautiful They’re Under Special Protection

If you enjoy touring America’s national parks, you’ve likely visited some stunning places. From the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone to Devil’s Tower, Civil War battlefields, and areas preserved by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, hundreds of protected sites across the country preserve our country’s natural resources, history, and culture.

But did you know about the Wild and Scenic Rivers under our protection? These free-flowing rivers showcase the true beauty and natural landscape hidden within 41 states. Let’s take a look at how their protection began and the initial eight rivers that you might want to visit in the future!

Wild and Scenic Rivers Part 1: Role of a River

What Is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act?

In the 1960s, private citizens and officials in the government started getting concerned about America’s rivers. In 1968, Congress created the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System to protect certain rivers with “outstanding remarkable values” (ORVs). This act safeguarded the free-flowing condition of these rivers and preserved their natural, cultural, and recreational values.

According to the National Park Service, an ORV must be “a river-related value that is rare, unique, or an exemplary feature at a regional or national scale. ORVs may include scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values.” In addition to protecting these ORVs, the act also prevents damming or any other impeding of these rivers. They do not permit new hydropower projects, bank and channel alterations, and oil, gas, and mineral development.

What Are the Requirements to Earn the Wild And Scenic River Designation?

For a river to receive the Wild and Scenic River designation, it must be free-flowing and possess at least one ORV. Experts analyze the river’s hydrology and take an inventory of its natural, cultural, and recreational resources to determine its eligibility.

There are three ways people can recommend a river for protection. First, the governor of the state can apply. Second, individual agencies can study rivers and appeal to the governor or Congress. And third, land managing agencies (like the National Park Service) can study rivers and make recommendations.

US river
The USA’s Wild and Scenic Rivers are perfect places to enjoy nature.

What Are the Three River Classifications?

There are three river classifications within the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. A Wild River is a river or section of a river that is “free of impoundments and generally inaccessible except by trail, with watersheds or shorelines essentially primitive and waters unpolluted.” A Scenic River is essentially the same as a wild river, free of impoundments, undeveloped, and unpolluted. However, it is accessible by road.

Finally, a Recreational River is easily accessible by road. However, there may be development or past impoundment. The Wild and Scenic River designation doesn’t prohibit development but protects the free-flowing nature of the river. Recreation, agricultural practices, residential development, and other uses may continue as long as they don’t impede the flow of the river or take away from the river’s ORVs.

Pro Tip: Use our guide on Boat Camping 101 to camp along some of the most scenic rivers in the USA.

Who Manages Our Country’s Wild and Scenic Rivers?

Private landowners may own property around Wild and Scenic Rivers. Their voluntary stewardship protects these rivers, plus the regulations and programs of various governments. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act limits how much land the federal government can purchase from private landowners. Therefore, when visiting these rivers, visitors must be aware of private property rights.

The National Park Service generally manages and works closely with many partners to protect the Wild and Scenic Rivers. Local river management councils or committees also form to help manage and protect these rivers. If the river runs through National Forest or BLM land, other governmental organizations may also be involved.

River with mountain view
There are many requirements to be classified as one of the Wild and Scenic Rivers in the US.

What Is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program?

The Wild and Scenic Rivers (WSR) Program of the National Park Service provides support to park units with Wild and Scenic Rivers and local and state agencies that provide care and monitor the waters. This program provides resources, improves communication, and educates staff and the public about Wild and Scenic Rivers and their importance to our country. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Steering Committee works to establish policies and guidelines to further protect and preserve the rivers’ ORVs and free-flowing conditions.

How Many Rivers Are in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System?

Initially, there were eight rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Today, there are 227 rivers in 41 states and Puerto Rico with this national designation. This act protects almost 13,500 river miles.

This may sound like many rivers and miles, but it’s only less than half of 1% of the nation’s rivers. In contrast, dams have modified at least 600,000 miles, about 20% of America’s rivers. So when you visit a Wild and Scenic River, it truly is a special place.

Pro Tip: Make a splash on one of these 10 Best Whitewater Rafting Trips in the US for Beginners.

Paddle boating on river
There are 227 rivers in the US that are designated Wild and Scenic Rivers.

8 Wild And Scenic Rivers Initially Protected Under the Wild And Scenic Rivers Act

These are the eight Wild and Scenic Rivers that received the initial special designation in 1968: the Clearwater, the Eleven Point, the Feather, the Rio Grande, the Rogue, the St. Croix, the Salmon, and the Wolf Rivers. Since then, hundreds of rivers have been given the designation. These rivers provide excellent recreational opportunities for outdoor adventurers and preserve the cultural and historical significance of some areas.

1. Clearwater River, Idaho

Fifty-four miles of the Clearwater River in Idaho are designated as wild while 131 miles are recreational. The protection extends to the Lochsa River, which was part of the exploration route of Lewis and Clark, and Selway River. Steelhead fishing, whitewater rafting, and camping are popular here.

The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway follows the river from Grangeville to Lewiston, and then up towards Missoula for a beautiful drive through the wilderness of Idaho. We drove this beautiful highway in the summer of 2023 and couldn’t get over its beauty. We saw many fishermen, whitewater rafters, and kayakers recreating in these waters as we passed by.

driving along the lochsa river a wild and scenic river in Idaho
Driving the Lochsa River, part of the Wild and Scenic River protection granted to the Clearwater River.

2. Eleven Point River, Missouri

The U.S. Forest Service manages the Eleven Point River running through southern Missouri. The segment designated a Wild and Scenic River is just over 44 miles from Thomasville to State Highway 142. The lands surrounding Eleven Point River are privately-owned and open to the public. This scenic river meanders through the Ozarks and has been protected because of its scenic beauty. Visitors can go canoeing, kayaking, and boating, and anglers regularly fish for smallmouth bass, rock bass, walleye, and trout.

3. Feather River, California

Located northeast of Sacramento, the Feather River has 77.6 miles of protected area, including 32.9 miles designated as wild, 35 miles designated as recreational, and 9.7 as scenic. The Feather River in California runs from Beckwourth to Lake Oroville. It winds through primitive lands, golf courses, and residential areas. Boulders, cliffs, and waterfalls make this river stunning and difficult for kayakers. Swimming and fishing are also popular in the recreational areas.

4. Rio Grande River, New Mexico

The Rio Grande River travels through New Mexico and Texas and forms a natural border between the U.S. and Mexico. The initial Wild and Scenic River Designation protected 55.7 miles of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, but in 1994, they added 12.5 scenic miles.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service manage the Rio Grande River. Petroglyphs and prehistoric dwelling sites exist along its banks, and the river gradually cut an 800-foot-deep gorge in New Mexico. These ORVs plus biking, camping, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, and whitewater boating are what made the Rio Grande one of the initial eight protected rivers in the U.S.

Clear US river
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects our county’s water resources, wildlife, and river ecosystems.

5. Rogue River, Oregon

Also managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, the Rogue River flows through southwest Oregon. The protected area runs from the mouth of the Applegate River downstream to the Lobster Creek Bridge. In 2019, dozens of tributaries also became protected spaces. In 1968, 33.6 miles were designated as wild, 43.4 miles were designated as recreational, and 7.5 miles were scenic. After the additions of the tributaries in 2019, the total protected miles are over 203. Salmon and steelhead fishing and whitewater boating are very popular here.

6. St. Croix River, Minnesota and Wisconsin

The National Park Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources manage the St. Croix River. The initial segment designated a Wild and Scenic River included the dam near Taylor Falls, Minnesota to the dam near Gordon, Wisconsin, and the Namekagon River from Lake Namekagon downstream to its confluence with the St. Croix River. In 1972 and 1976 they added more miles. Today, 252 miles are under protection. Canoeing, camping, boating, fishing, hiking, and rock climbing are trendy activities. The St. Croix River offers a beautiful, peaceful escape from the nearby bustling metropolis of Minneapolis.

Pro Tip: Head to one of these 7 Best Door County Campgrounds for an amazing camping experience.

7. Salmon River, Idaho

The Salmon River (Middle Fork) in Idaho is protected from its origin 20 miles northwest of Stanely to its confluence with the Main Salmon River. Almost all 104 miles are wild designations. This is one of the last free-flowing tributaries of the Salmon River system. Humans haven’t changed the remote, primitive location over the years, and we’ve built no road access.

Alpine forests, high mountain deserts, and rock-walled canyons are home to a wide variety of animals, including deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bears, and cougars. More than 10,000 people float the Salmon River and its Class III-IV+ rapids each summer.

8. Wolf River, Wisconsin

The final of the eight initial Wild and Scenic Rivers in the U.S. is the Wolf River which flows through eastern Wisconsin. Twenty-four miles from the Langlade-Menominee County line downstream to Keshena Falls are under protection. All 24 miles are scenic. The river also flows through the Menominee Reservation, which is not open for public use. This is also one of the premier whitewater rivers in Wisconsin. Boulder gardens, open marshes, and pine and hardwood forests all make the Wolf River a beautiful place to visit.

Kayaking on a US river protected by the wild and scenic rivers act
Grab your kayak and hit the water for an epic adventure.

How Much Of a River Is Protected Under the Wild And Scenic Rivers Act?

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act unfortunately doesn’t protect an entire river. Generally, the protections to guarantee free flow, water quality, and ORVs are applied to only a portion of the river. The corridor width will usually not exceed a quarter-mile on each side of the river in the lower 48 states while a half-mile of rivers outside national parks in Alaska are protected.

Are Motorized Boats Allowed in Wild and Scenic River Corridors?

The Wild and Scenic River designation doesn’t necessarily restrict the use of motorized boats. Many of these rivers are excellent places for fishing and boating. The public should enjoy them, and tourism is often encouraged. The managing organizations and the ORVs themselves will determine if motorized boat use is allowed.

For example, Idaho’s Salmon River is well-known for its sport fishing. Cutthroat, rainbow trout, steelhead, and whitefish are popular fish species here. Because jet boating is integral to the transportation system on the Salmon River, Congress made provisions to continue their use. However, permits are necessary for jetboats on the wild section of the Salmon River during the control period of June 20 – September 7.

Similarly, each river will have its restrictions and rules unique to its ORVs. These are often managed through permits so that the managing organization can track and control usage as it sees fit to protect the river’s values.

Pro Tip: Know the differences between a Canoe vs. Kayak before you hit the water.

Scenic Rivers | GO WITH THE FLOW on these Top 10 Wild and Scenic River Trips in the US

Protecting Our National River Treasures With the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was necessary to protect our county’s water resources, wildlife, river ecosystems, and more. Although a small percentage of total rivers are protected, we can preserve these free-flowing Wild and Scenic Rivers for generations to come.

The next time you plan a road trip or camping trip, consider visiting one of our nation’s Wild and Scenic Rivers. Embrace the natural landscape, paddle the rapids, splash in the swimming holes, or fish the banks of our nation’s river treasures.

Have you ever visited one of our Wild and Scenic Rivers? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

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Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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