Vermilion - Hwy 178 to Ed Hand Hwy. (7.7 miles)

Vermilion, Illinois, US


Hwy 178 to Ed Hand Hwy. (7.7 miles) (Wildcat Canyon)

Usual Difficulty II-III (varies with level)
Avg. Gradient 7 fpm
Max Gradient 10 fpm

Surfing Wildcat

Surfing Wildcat
Photo of Brian Aho by Erik Johnson taken 01/15/04 @ 4 feet

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
Vermilion Approximation
virtual-96843 500 - 8000 cfs II-III 01h17m ~ 134.818 cfs (too low)
Almost certainly too low for reasonable whitewater. Virtual gauge (if Leonore not reporting) approximates flow as 2.178*Pontiac based on relative drainage. (Might predict flow 24hrs later?)
usgs-05555300 500 - 8000 cfs II-III 01h15m 140 cfs (too low)
Too low for a decent run. Gauge(1251 sq.mi. drainage) is 6.75 miles upstream. Drainage at put-in is 1278 sq.mi., ~2% more, so listed flow should be quite accurate for this reach.

River Description

Quick Facts:

Location: NorthCentral IL, about 4 miles SE of Oglesby (near Starved Rock SP and Matthiessen SP).
Shuttle Length: 5.6 miles. (See details in "Directions" Tab.)
Character: Very scenic rural stream. High bluffs in places. Wide open rapids (with exception of Wildcat).
Drainage: 1278 sq.mi. (at former gauge site at 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 whiteater in the state, allowing a commercial rafting business to be viable.
The early part of the reach runs through Matthiessen State Park. Downstream, quite a bit of the property is owned by a private cement company (Buzzi-Unicem). 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 better 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 at a commercial rafting outfitters (be respectful of their property and their customers). Many private boaters will carry a quarter-mile or so upstream to put in upstream of the highway bridge to play a fine series of waves and holes which exist up there. (In winter months, this area may often be free enough of ice that it can offer some 'park-and-play' opportunities.)
There are two places of potential concern (particularly for novice boaters). The first is Wildcat. A landslide (Spring, 2009) has made the right shore unstable at this location and has dumped trees and huge rocks in the river. Scouting should be considered mandatory, especially since additional slumping of this shore is likely for the next few years each spring and after heavy rains. Because of the unstable conditions on the right shore and private property issues on the left shore, scouting/portaging should be done quickly. The left shore is safer, but boaters should stay close to the water and minimize their presence there to avoid landowner confrontations.
The second area to be cautious is at the cement factory where there is a low head dam with 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 folks use to describe the level. A conversion chart from USGS flow information can be found on the water level tab at
Additional info on the Vermilion may be found at
Also, Google Maps has excellent resolution aerials of this reach. We highly recommend going to the "Map" tab, clicking 'Satellite', double clicking near (not on, but near) the put-in location icon, zooming to the maximum resolution (without losing image), and doing a 'virtual tour' to 'walk' down the reach.
Some years back there were major issues with parking at the takeout. A parking ban (which had been discussed and in place for a short time) appears to have been rescinded. A suitable alternative (more permanent solution) was sought, but (to our knowledge) no action was taken. In light of past problems, please be sure to be courteous with everyone you encounter when at this take-out. Be careful parking (don't impede traffic while maneuvering to park, or while accessing your vehicle). Be respectful while changing (don't get too naked in public). Remember that even just a random transgression, on a rare basis, may be enough to cause someone to complain and re-open the problems for everyone else! It is an unfortunate truth that we are all likely to be thought of as being as bad as the few worst offenders among us. Unfortunately, it takes dozens of 'compensating acts of good faith' to offset one transgression, and it is pretty tough to come up with anything which will be seen (noticed) by any number of people as an act of good faith.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2018-01-28 12:38:38


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)
-0.3Put-inIIPutin Playspot Photo
1.2Hole in the RockIIPlayspot
1.7The CliffIPlayspot
4.3Bailey CreekN/AWaterfall
5.8The DamIIHazard Playspot
5.9The NarrowsIIPlayspot
6.0Side CreekN/AWaterfall

Rapid Descriptions

Put-in (Class II, Mile -0.3)

Vermilion Put-in

Vermilion Put-in
Photo of A friendly paddler by Kelly McShane taken 03/11/07 @ 2,500cfs

Carry down an excellent path from the road by the rafting outfitters. You can put-in right there, but many will opt to carry upstream as much as a quarter-mile to put in above the highway bridge. A sweet series of waves are scattered across the wide river. Some will offer repeat play, but more will be 'catch-on-the-fly', one-shot play.

S-Turn (Class II, Mile 0.7)

A sweet wave forms here.

Hole in the Rock (Class II, Mile 1.2)

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

The Cliff (Class I, Mile 1.7)

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.

Wildcat (Class III, Mile 4.0)

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, as shown by this YouTube video of runs from May 2012, at 1400 cfs:

Bailey Creek (Class N/A, Mile 4.3)

When flows are right, a pleasant diversion is to carry up this side creek to run a steep grungy falls. Unfortunately, Buzzi-Unicem has been (reportedly) increasingly vigilant about patrolling and ticketing trespassers on its property. Thus, we cannot recommend hiking up to this drop. Do so at your own risk. See the full description of Bailey Creek

Railroad (Class I, Mile 5.0)

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 5.8)

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 5.9)

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 6.0)

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.)


It's a fair climb up and out of the river to the roadside where your shuttle vehicles may be parked.

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
October 26 2018 (18 days ago)
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.
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.""
May 16 2016 (911 days ago)
circuitmonkey (151431)
Bridge by the take out is under construction. Plan for this when running shuttle.
April 6 2015 (1317 days ago)
circuitmonkey (151431)
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.
April 27 2013 (2026 days ago)
kayaker11 (154990)
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
June 20 2010 (3068 days ago)
Patrick DuffyDetails
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.
May 20 2009 (3464 days ago)
x (1)
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
April 10 2009 (3504 days ago)
Brad KlimkowskiDetails
The steep wall on river right of Wildcat Rapid has had a serious landslide within the last week. A
majority of the eddy on river right of Wildcat has been filled in by the landslide and many large
boulders, including one that is about the size of a large tractor, are now river side. I almost
didn't recognize it. At the level yesterday (about 4,500 cfs) there was a surfable hole with a low
hanging tree above the hole. At this level the rapid is still very runnable even with the tree, but
the landslide looks very fresh a may still be settling. Its difficult to say how lower or higher
levels will be affected, if at all.

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