Adventure Awaits Everyone on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River
A Glorious First River Trip, or a Bucket List Float
A while back in The Nordic Approach, we asked kayak guru Nate Harvey of the Great Glen Outdoor Center about his top paddling destinations. After giving a shoutout to his local New Hampshire runs, Harvey pointed out a world-class kayak and rafting mecca tucked away in the Idaho wilderness: the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. According to White Water Guide Book, the Middle Fork—which is listed under their “bucket list paddles” tab—provides “perhaps the best river trip in the world.” With a remote and stunning location, top-notch whitewater, pools, and steady flows, plus a lottery system for paddlers that limits river traffic, there is quite a bit that separates this Idaho gem from most other river adventures. Luckily for rafting or kayaking novices, the Middle Fork is not famous for its death-defying drops of blood-curdling, high-class rapid runs; just the opposite, it is a highly floatable, highly manageable waterway through some of the least touched and naturally abundant terrain left in the Contiguous United States.
To start your adventure on the Salmon, you’ll need to request a permit through the Salmon-Challis National Forest Service; if you wish to paddle the river during peak season (June through August), that permit is available only by lottery. Using a river guide service can smoothen this process, and help make your experience on the Salmon as safe and enjoyable as can be. Once you have a launch date, either by your choice or by lottery, you can start the serious planning.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon runs through the heart of the Frank Church No Return River Wilderness, which itself is largely contained within the Salmon-Challis Forest. This massive wilderness area is the largest in the lower 48: that translates to almost 2.4 million acres of federally managed land, riven by mountain ranges, steep, and precipitous canyons, and filled with every shade of topographical and geological feature. Mountain lions, grey wolves and the occasional grizzly rule these woods, while black bears, lynx, fox, elk, moose and even bighorn sheep wander craggy watering hole to watering hole.
To get to the No Return River Wilderness (and to get back out, despite the name) you can fly into the Boise airport, and rent a car for the drive from there—but be sure to budget some time to spend in this up-and-coming big sky city. Named “the best place to live for millennials” in 2019, Boise is home to a rapidly growing café, brewery and eatery scene, keeping right up with the hippest new trends.
Don’t miss the patio-lined 8th street, brimming with meals and drinks for every palate—like Ansots Basque Chorizos, which specializes in Basque meats and small plates, or The Tap House, an affordable sports bar with a surprisingly robust wine list and locally-sourced pub fare. Spend the night at the Modern Hotel, a funky motel-turned-boutique hotel that provides simple, stylish and comfortable accommodations at an affordable price point, before travelling into the Idaho wilds.
Once you arrive at the head of the Middle Fork—or rather, at the chief boat launch some miles in, where the Boundary Creek flows into the Fork—you’ll embark on a week-long paddle-camping journey unparalleled in its remoteness and rugged beauty. Weaving 104 miles northeast through Central Idaho, toward Montana, the Middle Fork of the Salmon leaves the beaten path a distant memory. Indeed, the only traces of human activity are the campsites, the remaining artifacts of Tuka-Deka Sheep Eaters Native American Tribes who inhabited the area until the mid-19th century, and two very modest airports that primarily service river-trippers. Geologic marvels like hot springs and sandstone bluffs, and the aforementioned big-horned sheep and black bears will provide all the company and adventure you’ll need on your journey.
Oh, and speaking of adventure, let’s not forget the main event! The paddling thrill provided by the Middle Fork’s rapids are second to none in the sheer diversity of runs, turns and features you’ll have the pleasure of negotiating. And lest you think this is the terrain of world-class paddlers and boatpeople the likes of Mr. Harvey, most raft tour providers are adamant that the Middle Fork provides one of the best, most family-friendly introductions to serious paddling that can be found anywhere. Though this might mean signing on to a guided trip rather than having the total freedom to explore solo, doesn’t getting the family outside and learning a new way to adventure together make it worth the trade-off? Whether you make your way to the Middle Fork of the Salmon at the start of your paddling career or far down the road, when you’re a seasoned pro checking off the big destinations, all the reports agree: you can’t float the Middle Fork without being deeply affected by its grandeur and raw beauty.