There’s something about a river. Perhaps it’s the huge amount of water it moves through the landscape, or maybe it’s the amazing scenery and ecosystems that run along its banks. Whether you’ve been to tiny tributaries or raging rapids, it’s hard to describe a river as anything but wild and scenic. But in reality, this is a legal definition that’s applied to just a handful of rivers across the United States.

So the question is then, what makes a river wild and scenic? Here at Killgore Adventures, we spend a lot of time out on the water, but when we’re not running jet boat or whitewater rafting tours of Hells Canyon, we’re looking into new rivers and waterways to explore. As such, we’re pretty familiar with all of the river jargon that federal institutions like the NPS, USFS, and other Department of Interior branches use. Today, let’s explore what earns a river the “Wild and Scenic” classification.

The 1960’s: An Era of Radical Change and Righteous Rivers

In the 1960s, Americans grew increasingly aware of the impact that they were leaving on the landscapes. AS people began moving away from rural spaces and into urban ones, they recognized the value that natural areas had to offer them as a way to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. But at the same time, Americans were forced to watch natural spaces degrade around them. For rivers, the most obvious example was the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. Residents in Cleveland, Ohio literally watched a river catch fire due to the high concentration of chemicals and pollutants in the water.

It was in this context of increased environmental concern that Congress passed the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. The act was crafted to help preserve particular rivers that had remarkable natural, cultural, and recreational value and ran in a free-flowing condition. Additionally, the act had rules that were meant to help guard the character of the rivers while still allowing for people to recreate in and around these spaces. 

The act also set up three forms of river classification.

Wild River areas are those that are considered to be inaccessible unless by trail. These rivers essentially exist in separation from modern civilization are to be protected as a slice of primitive America.

Scenic River areas are those that are free of impoundments (like a dam), and features shorelines and watersheds that are largely undeveloped. These rivers can be accessed by road.

Recreational River areas are sections of river that can be easily accessed by road or rail and have developed sections along the shores. In some cases, the river may have been impounded in the past.

Ultimately, a river can receive a Wild, Scenic, or Recreational designation through congress, or the Secretary of the Interior if certain requirements are met. These rivers are then maintained by a state or federal agency. 

Wild and Scenic Rivers in Idaho

Here in Idaho, we’re lucky to have a huge network of rivers in which to enjoy and recreate in. In fact, our state has approximately 107,651 miles of rivers cutting through the state. This means that many of the state’s residents are within a short drive of their very own river adventure. But that doesn’t mean that all 100,000+ miles are classified as Wild and Scenic. In fact, only about 1% of the state’s rivers are designated as such. These include rivers like:

  • Battle Creek
  • Big Jacks Creek
  • Bruneau River
  • Bruneau River (West Fork)
  • Clearwater River (Middle Fork)
  • Cottonwood Creek
  • Deep Creek
  • Dickshooter Creek
  • Duncan Creek
  • Jarbidge River
  • Little Jacks Creek
  • Owyhee River
  • Owyhee River (North Fork)
  • Owyhee River (South Fork)
  • Rapid River
  • Red Canyon
  • St. Joe River
  • Salmon River
  • Salmon River (Middle Fork)
  • Sheep Creek
  • Snake River
  • Wickahoney Creek

All of these rivers make up just 891 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers in Idaho. 

Explore Idaho’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Today

Here at Killgore Adventures, we’re extremely lucky to be able to take you up and down some of the most striking Wild and Scenic sections of both the Snake and Salmon Rivers. From jet boat tours and adventure fishing trips to helicopter tours and w, we offer a myriad of ways to enjoy these amazing spaces. Find out more about our tours by connecting with us and then sign up for your own Idaho river adventure!