Updated: April 13, 2006
Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho
The perfect summer river trip meanders and plunges through the remote Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness deep in the heart of Idaho. Although it is not the most difficult, nor the longest whitewater trip, it is without a doubt one of the most spectacular. Side hikes to beautiful hot springs, incredible camps, and waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls into the river make a journey down the Middle Fork a one-of-a-kind, but hopefully not a once-in-a-lifetime, experience.
The Middle Fork is an amazing vacation for people of all ages and abilities. The Class III rapids become much more challenging in an inflatable or hard shell kayak, while the less adventurous travelers can ride in a larger raft and fish or enjoy the scenery. The crystal clear water moves in and out of several ecosystems, from high mountain desert that is open and somewhat barren, to alpine forests with dense ponderosa pines and vibrant wildflowers. The canyon is the third deepest in the United States which makes some parts of it only accessible by raft. The Salmon River was one of the first eight rivers that the government protected as Wild and Scenic and the remoteness and spectacular beauty of the canyon are still present today.
A trip on the Middle Fork usually begins at Boundary put-in, water levels permitting. Since it is an entirely free-flowing watershed, the flows vary significantly throughout the year. When the water drops too low in the summer, or gets too high in the spring, then Indian Creek, twenty-five miles downstream, becomes the put-in of choice. Flights to Indian for you and all your gear (including your boats if you are on a private trip) are available on Salmon Air and McCall Air.
The first quarter of the river is the most continuously difficult whitewater and can be very technical at low water. From Boundary put-in, to the alternate Indian Creek put-in, the river descends 40 ft/ mi. and has very few slow spots. Velvet Falls, Powerhouse Rapid, and Pistol Creek Rapid have all been known to give boaters a hard time every now and then. Sheepeater Hot springs makes a great place to camp or stop and relax for a couple hours.
After Indian Creek (and the Airstrip) there are several fun class III rapids including Marble Creek and Tappan Falls, interspersed with incredible riverside hot springs This is also the section of the river that passes (and if you are very lucky, stops at) the luxurious Middle Fork Lodge.
Until you reach the Flying B Ranch and Airstrip, the river maintains a strong current, and there are some fun class II ripples, but no significant whitewater. Immediately following the Flying B are the Haystack Rapids. At low water, the rapid is very rocky and technical.
The canyon constricts and the river heads into a deep, wonderful granite-walled gorge for the last twenty-five miles. This steep and narrow section, from Waterfall Creek Rapid to Devil's Tooth Rapid, is many boaters' favorite. Around every bend there is a waterfall or creek flowing into the main channel, Bighorn sheep are often spotted high up on the cliffs, and the rapids are frequent.
After Rubber Rapids and Hancock Rapids, the Middle Fork joins with the Main Salmon and ends with a giant bang right before take-out. The largest rapids on the river, Cramer Creek Rapids, were formed during a flood when Cramer Creek plunged into the Salmon River and changed a class II ripple into a significant class IV drop. After six days of being on the river, rafters and duckiers (in inflatable kayaks) are delighted by the grand finale.
Private permits are very competitive and drawn on a lottery system. You'll need to go to the Forest Service website for more information and application forms.
There is another extensive write up with great pictures of the Middle Fork on CAcreeks's Middle Fork of the Salmon page. Also, check out allaboutrivers.com for more information on rafting the Middle Fork Salmon River.
Most people that run the Middle Fork go with an outfitter because the logistics can be quite staggering. If you go with an outfitter, you can fly to Boise and then to Stanley where you will meet your head guide. At the end of your trip you can fly from Salmon, ID (near the take-out) to Boise and then from Boise home.
If you are organizing a private trip, you'll most likely be hiring a shuttle service to shuttle your cars from Boundary Creek to Cache Bar. If you decide to fly your gear and friends to Indian, you'll want to fly in from Salmon, ID to make your shuttle easier.
McCall Air - Air shuttle service based in McCall, Idaho
River Shuttles - Car shuttle service based in Salmon, Idaho
Salmon Air - Air shuttle service based in Salmon, Idaho
To get to Boundary Creek Launch Site (put-in): Get yourself on Highway 75 Latin Stanley and head west. You'll go 24 miles from Stanley and turn north on a poorly marked dirt road (USFS Road 597). This road will take you through some beautiful scenery. You'll drive through a big meadow and take a right onto Road 568. From here it's 13 miles to Boundary Creek Launch Site.
This is a very heavily used launch so please work with all of the other parties to get your boats down the ramp.
To Indian Creek (alternate put-in): During high water and low water most groups fly into Indian Creek, 25 miles down river from Boundary Creek launch site .You'll want to call Salmon Air or McCall Air to help you do this.
To get to Cache Bar (take-out): You'll end up at Cache Bar which is basically the end of the road. As you leave the boat ramp, take a right onto the dirt road which will take you up the Main Salmon River. Just before the town of North Fork is a free Scat machine and trash dump. Take a right on Highway 93 in North Fork which will take you to Salmon and then Stanley along the Salmon River.
Disclaimer: River descriptions and classifications may change due to natural events that may create new hazards or flows. C-W-R advises that any paddler that uses this site be additionally informed by seeking out local news and updates for changes on this river.
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