River of the Month | June, 2019

Alsea River

The Alsea River is a critical salmon stronghold that begins in Oregon’s Coast Range near the town of Corvallis and flows for 50 miles to meet the Pacific Ocean at the town of Waldport. Its finest tributary, Drift Creek, carves through a colossal rainforest—the largest roadless wilderness on the Oregon coast—and then meanders down to tranquil Alsea Bay, a fertile estuary and haven for native fish, birds and other wildlife.

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In 2012, WRC bolstered hopes that coho salmon might someday thrive again on the Oregon coast when it conveyed a second conservation property along Drift Creek, in the Alsea River estuary, to Siuslaw National Forest.
In 2012, WRC bolstered hopes that coho salmon might someday thrive again on the Oregon coast when it conveyed a second conservation property along Drift Creek, in the Alsea River estuary, to Siuslaw National Forest.
Photography | Russ Schnitzer

Why It Matters

Once the most productive coho stream in Oregon, the Alsea is vital to the recovery of this now-threatened species. The crown jewel of the basin is the Drift Creek Wilderness, an unmatched expanse of old-growth rainforest where 120 inches of annual rainfall nourishes gigantic trees, native fish and rare wildlife. Equally important is the Alsea Bay estuary, a superb coho nursery with salt marshes and mud flats that also host a broad array of protected bird species.

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In addition to having some of the best coho salmon habitat on the Oregon coast, the Alsea River and Drift Creek provide prime spawning and rearing waters for fall and spring Chinook, winter steelhead chum salmon and sea-run cutthroat trout. The river and estuary are also home to resident cutthroat, Pacific lamprey, red sturgeon and green sturgeon.


Drift Creek Wilderness is a stronghold for threatened northern spotted owl (pictured), and home to elk, deer, black bear and uniquely diverse birdlife. In fact, the Alsea Bay Estuary is designated by the Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area, and is home to imperiled brown pelican, Caspian tern and many other shorebirds and waterfowl.

How to See It

From ancient rainforests to the Pacific surf, the Alsea River basin offers some of Oregon’s best birding, fishing and wilderness hikes. Explore its secluded treasures on foot or by boat, with ample public access within the Siuslaw National Forest and the must-see Drift Creek Wilderness.

  • Paddle


    For a memorable day-float, launch a kayak into Alsea Bay and let the inbound tide propel you up the estuary and into the sheltered arm of Drift Creek. You can float past the lands WRC conserved and view towering Wheelock Falls before riding the outbound tide back to the bay. Upstream, there’s also a great Class II-III wilderness run on Drift Creek. For bird-watching, paddle Lint Slough, part of the Alsea Water Trail.

  • Fish


    The Alsea River is a popular destination for salmon and steelhead fishing, though non-boating access is tough. Starting in December, anglers float the Alsea in search of steelhead (mostly hatchery). Fly-fishing for steelhead and cutthroat can be good on the North and South Forks and lower Drift Creek outside the wilderness area. For fall Chinook, most anglers troll Alsea Bay.

  • Hike


    Experience Oregon’s largest old-growth rainforest via two moss-laden trails that descend 1,500 feet through the Drift Creek Wilderness. The Horse Creek Trail is a seven-mile trek which takes you past the biggest Sitka spruce and western red cedar trees, some seven feet in diameter. The slightly easier Harris Ranch Trail is a six-mile route that leads to campsites and beaches along Drift Creek, a great option for backpacking.

The WRC Story

Few salmon have tougher odds than coho, which need more time in estuaries before going out to sea. In Oregon, one of the best coho nurseries is the Alsea Bay estuary, where broad salt marshes offer plenty of food and cover for finger-sized fish. Recognizing its importance, Western Rivers Conservancy bought 1,400 acres in the estuary in 2002, including the lower five miles of Drift Creek, now bordered by rich wetlands. The project enabled the dramatic transformation of a dairy pasture into a vibrant marsh perfect for rearing young coho. In 2010, we extended the restoration effort all the way to Alsea Bay when we bought 300 acres fronting some of last vulnerable salt marsh in the estuary. We conveyed both properties to the Siuslaw National Forest, which continues to improve and monitor this vital coho habitat.

Best Time of Year

Salmon fishing
Trout fishing
Spring and summer
Spring, summer and fall

Go Deeper

  • Into Oregon’s largest old-growth rainforest

    (Statesman Journal)
    Learn More
  • Alsea River backcountry byway

    (Travel Oregon)
    Learn More
  • Exploring the wilderness areas of Oregon’s coastal mountains

    (Roots Rated)
    Learn More
  • Ways to play in Waldport

    (Travel Oregon)
    Learn More

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