It rises in the Cascades in southeastern Linn County in the Willamette National Forest. It flows briefly north, then generally west through the mountains, past Cascadia to the Foster Reservoir, where it receives the Middle Santiam River from the northeast as an arm of the reservoir. Downstream from the reservoir it flows east past Sweet Home, where it turns northwest, passing through the foothills into the Willamette Valley near Lebanon. It joins the North Santiam River from the southeast to form the Santiam approximately 15 mi (24 km) northeast of Lebanon. The confluence is approximately 10 mi (16 km) east of the confluence of the Santiam with the Willamette River.
U.S. Highway 20 follows the valley of the river from near its headwaters in the mountains to the Willamette Valley northwest of Lebanon.
The river was an important transportation route throughout much of the early history of the state, furnishing a means of conveying the vast timber and agricultural resources of the state to the outside world.
The Willamette rises in three separate forks in the mountains south and southeast of Eugene, at the southern end of the Willamette Valley.
From Eugene, the combined river flows NNW across the plain of the southern Willamette Valley to Corvallis, then follows a zigzag course past Albany and around the isolated hills in the central valley, passing west of downtown Salem.
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