The Crooked River flows through one of Oregon's most well-known desert landscapes and through Smith Rock State Park. The run features enjoyable whitewater between the flat and scenic sections. The Crooked River Canyon is one of Oregon's few "turn on" runs, meaning it is completely dam-controlled. Since there are no scheduled releases on this river, the 18-mile section is hit-or-miss depending snowpack and dam operators' releases. The run would likely be one of the more popular stretches of whitewater in Oregon if the releases were not so infrequent and the trip so hard to plan for.
The run features a couple of sections of continuous, higher volume style whitewater with a handful of larger named drops. The most continuous stretch of whitewater is the section just above Smith Rock. The named drops have recovery sections that allow ample time to enjoy the spectacular high desert scenery.
The river starts out with 2.5 miles of flatwater from the put-in at Lone Pine Bridge. This provides a good warm up and opportunities to view wildlife that live along the river. The river gradually approaches the North Unit Main aqueduct, which you can see arching overhead-carrying water from the Deschutes River.
The first whitewater section begins just below the aqueduct. This section is a good warm up at 1.5 miles long of continuous Class III to Class IV read-and-run. At higher flows the section becomes more Class IV+. Although rapids on this section are not as challenging as the most difficult drops on the run, it will give you a good sense of what to expect downstream. The river settles back to flatwater as you enter Smith Rock State Park, and it remains flat for the duration of your float through the park. You will have an incredible view of the well-known rock formations that attract climbers to the many established routes. While floating through the park you can often spectate climbers in action and maybe even a high-line coming off of one of the taller features in the park.
Smith Rock State Park is your last convenient exit before committing to the remainder of the run. If you felt challenged during the 1.5-mile warm-up, more challenging rapids await downstream. They do have portage options that vary in length and in difficulty.
After leaving the park you will encounter a short Class III rapid before arriving at the horizon line that marks Number One. It is easy to scout or portage along river right. If this is your first time down, it is advisable to take a look at the largest features. The main current flows into a hole near the center, and there are lines that weave around it either to the left or right. There is another large hole at the bottom of the rapid that has been known to dish out some really long rides.
Ideal lines through Number One vary depending on flows. There is a recovery pool at the bottom to catch your breath, set safety, and watch others as they thread their way through the rapid.
After a couple more read-and-run rapids the next major drop is Number Two. This rapid is marked by a midstream island, which has given the rapid the alternate name of Lava Island. You can boat scout or hop out above the rapid on river right and follow a game trail to give it a thorough look.
Number Two begins with a Class III lead-in that builds as you approach the island. You can choose to run either a left or right line depending on flows and your preference. The right line is generally considered more straightforward, but you still should line up and be driving hard to punch the holes at the bottom of the island. The left side can be a bit trickier, but there is a good recovery pool below and plenty of places to set safety if needed.
Following Number Two the pace picks up with more read-and-run Class III known as The Bumps. This section is similar to the first continuous section on the run, but slightly easier.
A sharp turn to the left indicates the approach to the next named drop, Wap-de-Doodle, which is one of the most visually intimidating (but most fun) drops on the run. You can route through this one or scout on river left following a game trail. It is possible to sneak the rapid down the right, but most of the retentive features are alongside the banks, and the most fun is through the meat and right down the center. The large feature at the bottom of the drop is much more forgiving than it looks.
More fun rapids continue as you round the corner and the two highway bridges and railroad bridge come into sight high above the canyon. This section features another set of outstanding high desert canyon scenes. In this canyon you can see sections where water is seeping out of the tall vertical canyon walls.
After passing under the railroad bridge the action picks up into more Class III to Class IV water (Class IV at higher levels). These rapids are all boat-scoutable, but do not get too comfortable because No Name is soon after this section.
No Name can sneak up on you rather quickly. As you see the river disappear below at a point where rock walls descend straight into the river on river left, you should consider hopping out for a scout on the bench on river right. It's easy to scout or portage the rapid from the right side.
Similar to Number One, the crux move is to avoid the large hole towards the center. At flows around 3500 cfs you might eventually flush out, but as flows drop the hole can be very sticky and unforgiving. There is a thin line down the left or a run down the right that requires a couple of moves, and there is not a lot of room for error. This is one of the more technically challenging drops on the run.
Following No Name there is another set of Class III rapids that continue to the pool above China Dam. China Dam is a man-made structure that forms a rapid with a few tricky hydraulics (depending on flows). It is typically run by starting right and then working back over to the center, and it is easy to catch an eddy on the right and give it a quick peek before committing. There is a hole down at the bottom that can give you problems if you're not in control. Those who choose not to run the dam can take out on river left and hike up to Hollywood Road while those who run China Dam pull out immediately after the rapid, where the road meets the river.
If you wish for a longer trip, you may continue downstream on the Lower Crooked.