Difficulty II-III
Length 8.15 Miles
Flow Range 500 - 8000 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 1 hour ago 266 [CFS] ℹ️
Reach Info Last Updated 05/18/2019 2:35 pm

River Description

Quick Facts:

Location: NorthCentral IL, about 4 miles SE of Oglesby (near Starved Rock SP and Matthiessen SP).
Shuttle Length: 6.5 miles/~9 minutes.
Character: Very scenic rural stream. High bluffs in places. Wide open rapids (with exception of Wildcat).
Drainage: 1278 sq.mi. (at former gauge site near put-in).
Put-in is approximately 510' elevation.
Take-out is approximately 450' elevation.
Thus total elevation change is approximately 60'.
General Overview
The Vermilion River in LaSalle County (there are two Vermilion's in Illinois) is a class II-III whitewater river in North-Central Illinois. We have often seen this (erroneously) characterized as the 'only' whitewater in Illinois. In fact, there are numerous others, but this is certainly the most well known and likely the largest watershed and longest whitewater stretch. As such, it has the most boatable days of any natural whitewater in the state, allowing a commercial rafting business to be viable.
The majority of this section runs through Matthiessen State Park. (In 2018, property formerly owned by Buzzi-Unicem cement company was purchased by the state to add to Matthiessen.) Large bluffs and a 'canyon' (by Illinois standards) surround quite a bit of this run, making it quite scenic.
The Vermilion is wide, and when running at good levels (over 1000 cfs) becomes quite pushy in places. However, the fact that it is very 'pool/drop' (you have at least a half mile between rapids) makes it (at most levels) an excellent place for beginning whitewater boaters and commercial (and private) rafters.
Put-in access is just south of the Hwy.178 bridge, heading east on N.2219th Road to a cul-de-sac. This access eliminates the quarter-mile or so carry-up from the rafting outfitters which boaters had used in the past. A fine series of waves and holes which exist from there to a bit beyond the Hwy.178 bridge. (In winter months, this area may often be free enough of ice that area boaters use it for some 'park-and-play' opportunities.)
There are two places of potential concern (particularly for novice boaters). The first is "Wildcat". A landslide in Spring of 2009 at this location dumped dirt, trees, and huge rocks in the river. The trees and dirt have been washed away, but the rocks remain, changing this rapids.
The second area to be cautious is at the "Cement Factory Dam". At low-to-moderate flows, this should be run through a broken-out 'notch' on the right side. Scouting and possibly portaging the low head dam is highly recommended for novice paddlers at low-to-moderate flows (under 1500 cfs or so). At higher flows, this short dam is increasingly swallowed up, creating chaotic waves, or (higher yet) nothing more than a riffle!
(Due to a rafting death and subsequent lawsuit, the river was closed to trespass mid-summer, 2009 and all of 2010. On November 29, 2010, an agreement was reached to re-open this stretch of river after IDNR addressed safety issues and the river was once again opened to paddling in April 2012.)
There is a hand painted boater's gauge at the Lowell put-in that most paddlers use to describe the level. A conversion chart from USGS flow information can be found at Wayback Machine


Years back there were major issues with parking along the highway at the takeout bridge. A parking ban was in place for a short time until a more permanent solution could be enacted. As a result, there is a new park and an area designated as "Vermilion River Boat Launch".

Rapid Descriptions


Class - II Mile - 0
Carry across a grassy area to put in just above a sweet series of waves are scattered across the wide river.
Depending upon flow, some will offer repeat play, but more will be 'catch-on-the-fly', one-shot play.

A good video showing some of the best parts of the run is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FCa0WnJtQDs?t=124


Class - II Mile - 0.9
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

A sweet wave forms here.

Hole in the Rock

Class - II Mile - 1.4
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

A couple of large tables of rock channel water between them. A funky wave forms here.

The Cliff

Class - I Mile - 1.9
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

The river encounters a tall cliff face and deflects to the left. At the end of the cliff, a fine eddy and deep water allow great bow stalls and stern squirts.


Class - III Mile - 4.2
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
For many, at usual levels, this is the highlight of the run. A very significant landslide from river-right altered the right side of this drop in Spring 2009. Time has helped considerably, and there are now a few different lines boaters use to run this drop.

Bailey Creek

Class - N/A Mile - 4.54
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

When flows are right, a pleasant diversion is to carry up this side creek to run a steep and grungy falls.

The land formerly owned by Buzzi-Unicem has been purchased by the state to be added to Matthiesen State Park.

However, this area is not yet open to the public, so you are still in violation of trespass laws if you set out across these lands. Thus, we cannot recommend hiking up to this drop. Do so at your own risk.
See the full description of Bailey Creek


Class - I Mile - 5.07
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

A wonderful wave forms here at a good variety of flows. Rocks on shore are often used as a lunch stop.

The Dam

Class - II Mile - 6.08
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

As a result of a rafter death (and subsequent lawsuit), the river had been closed for a couple of years. As part of the settlement to reopen the river, IDNR has made significant changes at this location. Large cement blocks help break up the hydraulic behind the dam, and (virtually impossible to ignore) signage directs all river traffic to the notched right side of the dam, which should be runnable at a wide variety of flows.

The Narrows

Class - II Mile - 6.37
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

A bend and a narrowing in the river form some compression waves. As flows increase, these build nicely into a great rollercoaster ride. And, one can paddle up the inside of the bend to regain all the way up to the first wave!

Side Creek

Class - N/A Mile - 7.35
Rapid Thumbnail Missing

Another pleasant diversion (after all the action on the run) is to paddle up a side canyon to view a tall waterfall in a sandstone grotto.

(FWIW, this sidecreek has a total drainage area of only 3.72 square miles.)


Class - N/A Mile - 8.15
Rapid Thumbnail Missing
A riverside take-out lies river-left just beyond the Ed Hand Highway Bridge.


default user thumbnail
3 weeks ago

Just did this run @862 CFS on 6/9/2020 and it was GREAT!!! The put-in off 2219th was full of no trespassing and private property signs so I used the Lowell Canoe Launch on 2249th by Vermillion River Rafting. There is fairly limited parking at the put-in so take this into account when planning shuttles. The take-out at the Vermillion River Boat Launch is well marked with ample parking as well as a port-a-potty and plenty of grass for a picnic. As far as the actual run it was pretty tame at 862: I ran Wildcat on the left and it was a cinch, I swam at the dam because I dropped my paddle and couldn't roll barehanded, but it was still more fun than anything else. I would strongly suggest beginning paddlers portage the dam at these levels.

default user thumbnail
1 year ago

YAHOOOO!!!! ********************************************************************************************************************* As of Oct.25, 2018, the state of Illinois has purchase the BUZZI UNICEM property to add it to Matthiessen State Park and Starved Rock State Park. ********************************************************************************************************************* http://www.newstrib.com/free/springfield-acquires-buzzi-property-for-million-video/article_203e37f8-d89a-11e8-9a7e-e72ef52ec0d6.html?fbclid=IwAR0Ry4xcff6cheH1HIIlR43f0OufMURYJNTq1rcGbVIXW5ddXwhac7Qpd2E ********************************************************************************************************************* The above article does say "The project will indeed bring Bailey’s Falls, Wildcat Rapids and a number of ponds and wooded areas into the public domain, along with expanding access to the Vermilion River for boating and rafting. It will be some time before the public can set foot in any of the newly-acquired areas. Kerry Novak, complex superintendent for Starved Rock and Matthiessen, said the agency will have to conduct a number of time-consuming assessments to ensure wildlife is protected and to minimize risks to human safety. “They’re going to have to be patient,” he said. “It’s going to take a couple of years to get in there.”"

default user thumbnail
Bob M
5 years ago

Wildcat has changed again. Not so noticeable above 1000, but down at ~500cfs, the line is rather tight. Most folks let them selves get pushed too close to the boulder on river right, and end up flipping up stream. Below the drop looks like a mess, but it's is plenty deep - no one had any issues pitoning or anything.

default user thumbnail
Richard and Julie Haick
7 years ago

As of Friday 4-26-13 @ ~ 3000 cfs The logjam at the bridge upstream of the put in is gone. So are the waves it created just below the bridge. The old waves right at the put in came back. No change at the Cat. Narrows seems very erroded on river right and no waves exist. This may due to the IL river being so high? About 1/2 mile below the Narrows on river left is one of the most impressive collections of trees ( wood ) in trees I have ever seen. 30 ft high and it goes on for 1/2 mile. With the IL so high you can easily paddle all the way back into Mathiesen Dells. Rich

default user thumbnail
8 years ago

The DNR opened the Vermilion to public recreation on 3/31/12. Note that at the cement plant, paddlers must stay to the right of the overhead buoy line, as the area to the left is now a NO ENTRY zone. The DNR also says the lease agreement does not include the legal right to scout and/or portage on cement plant property, but technically this right also didn't exist before the river was closed.

default user thumbnail
8 years ago

Wondering if anyone knows if the work is in progress or finished there?

default user thumbnail
Patrick Duffy
10 years ago

I have kayaked the river in May as well. I have seen wildcat since the landslide and it is much different but wildcat is not easily a Class V+, maybe a class IV at best.

default user thumbnail
11 years ago

Just wanted to give everyone a heads up. I was on the river early 5/17/09 with 2 friends, when water was about 20ft at Leonore (9ft at Lowell) and around 16000cfs. At these levels we expected Wildcat and the dam to be totally washed. We were erroneous in our forecast. The put in was irregular with about 3 to 4ft waves. The S-turn was beautiful… a solid 6ft+ wave (which we heard wiped out a raft). Wildcat was a nice wave train about 6ft+ (much bigger on river left) although there was not much of a hole present at this level. Finally, the NARROWS…… WOW…. I have never seen it so big. There were 8ft+ irregular waves everywhere. River right was a little smaller but still chaotic. Although risk was minimal due to the depth of water over the river bed I would still recommend re-classing this section at this level based on the power and unpredictability of the water. I RECOMMEND THAT NO ONE TAKE THIS RUN AT THESE LEVELS UNLESS YOU ARE VERY EXPERIENCED WITH HONED SKILLS….. OR A VERY STRONG SWIMMER FOR LONG DISTANCES WITH NO AIR.

default user thumbnail
11 years ago

(http://www.youtube.com/user/McNaterson) here is a link to some videos of this section

Gage Descriptions

The USGS gauge referred to (at Leonore) is about 8 miles upstream of the put-in. It lists drainage area of 1251 square miles, which is only 2-3% less drainage area than at the put-in (and former gauge site) at Lowell. Thus, (other than for the lead/lag time associated with the intervening distance), the gauge at Leonore should generally be quite accurate for determining levels in the whitewater reach described here.

The suggested minimum (500 cfs) reflects the fact that the river is quite broad, so many areas will become quite a scrape below this level.
The suggested maximum (4,000 cfs) is set only to indicate levels above the 'norm'. Somewhere around this level some features will wash out (including Wildcat, normally the biggest drop on the river!), while others just get AWESOME! Thus, many boaters will thrill to see this river 'go purple'.

Most boaters historically have referred to a gauge painted on the bridge at (above) the put-in. There are approximations of the correlation of the Lowell bridge gauge to the USGS Lenore gauge at Wayback Machine

There was a USGS gauge at the Lowell bridge for forty years (1931-1971). While the nature of the overall watershed most certainly has likely changed somewhat in the interim (due to increased urbanization) and climate shifts may have some effect, the following analysis from that data period should still have some relevance.

Gauge/flow analysis (based on USGS data, 1931-1971, at Lowell)
Drainage area at gauge: 1,278 sq.mi.
Minimum daily mean flow during recording period (occurred 1961.02.01-05; 1963.12.21-24): 5 cfs
90% of time flow exceeds: 11 cfs
10% of time flow exceeds: 3,050 cfs
Maximum daily mean flow during recording period (occurred 1958.07.15): 25,600 cfs
10/90 ratio ('flashy-ness'): 277 (under 3 is quite steady, over 10 is quite 'flashy')
Average annual runnable (>min) days per year: 128 (Note: some of those days may be winter, when ice would preclude safe paddling.)

Directions Description

We have no additional detail on this route. Use the map below to calculate how to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.

Date Flow Result Factor  
2017-04-08 n/a Fatality Read More
2009-07-02 n/a Fatality Other Read More
2008-05-24 High Near Miss/Rescue Cold Water Read More
1996-06-15 Medium Fatality Inexperience Read More




article main photo

Access to Vermilion River Planned For 2011 (IL)

Kevin Colburn

In late November the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) announced an agreement that will allow a treasured whitewater reach of the Vermilion River to be re-opened for public recreation.  The agreement will also lead to safety modifications to the dam and to signs aimed at significantly enhancing river safety, hopefully in time for the 2011 paddling season. 

article main photo

Vermillion River Access Issue Continues (IL)

Kevin Colburn

A recent private closure of the Vermillion River in Illinois has paddlers and political representatives urgently seeking solutions.  It appears that several good solutions exist, and we encourage Illinois paddlers to offer their support and encouragement for opening the river. 


randy hetfield




Thomas O'Keefe


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1190445 05/04/09 randy hetfield n/a
1198912 12/02/10 Rob Add info on settlement to re-open river
1195620 07/10/09 Rob Minor reformat name (to fit new page format) and 'gauge flow analysis' data
1195611 07/07/09 randy hetfield
1195612 07/07/09 randy hetfield
1195619 07/10/09 Rob Minor reformat of some 'gauge flow analysis' data.
1208812 01/28/18 Rob minor edit (gauge analysis)
1201165 04/02/12 Thomas O'Keefe copy edits
1211540 03/26/19 Rob updated stats
1210543 11/29/18 Rob fix/remove broken links
1212393 05/18/19 Rob updated description
1211715 04/02/19 Rob updated image position
1212391 05/18/19 Rob updated description
1212392 05/18/19 Rob updated name
1212394 05/18/19 Rob updated stats
1212395 05/18/19 Rob updated description
1212397 05/18/19 Rob updated name
1212398 05/18/19 Rob updated stats