Paddle Forward. Paddle Backward. Forward Two. High Side. Stop.
Can you still hear your rafting guide shout out these commands as your hands wrap around your imaginary oars and you begin to paddle through rapids? Dream no more! Peak season for rafting on the Salmon River in Idaho is just around the corner so start planning for a new multigenerational family tradition, a friend getaway or a team building retreat.
If you’re craving the adrenaline-fueled rush you get from paddling through Class III and IV rapids, this winter’s above normal snow pack in Central Idaho will add fuel to that fire. While nobody can predict how fast or slow the mountain snow will melt, it’s almost a given that the Salmon River will stay fun all summer long.
The logistics of planning a rafting trip may be overwhelming so my goal is to provide you with an overview to make it easier for you. The focus of this blog is on three sections of the Salmon River:
- Main Stem of the Salmon River (multi-day trips)
- Middle Fork of the Salmon River (multi-day trips)
- Upper Main Salmon River (day trips)
Whether you choose a day or multi-day trip may depend on your comfort level, expectations or vacation time. If you want to ease your way into rafting, plan a trip in August or September when the water levels will be lower with less rapids.
Main Stem of the Salmon River and Middle Fork of the Salmon River
Broaden your horizon this summer and raft the Main Stem of the Salmon River or the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Why? “Simple….The Frank Church Wilderness. The largest road-less wilderness in the US is an amazing place. Sacred to the Native Americans and a modern day Wilderness icon,” says Jared Hopkinson, owner of Sawtooth Adventure Company.
“The Salmon and Middle Fork are unique rivers. They are not dammed and thus rely solely on snowfall to create flow for the season. This also makes them more wild and scenic. Both river sections have huge mountain landscapes that offer spectacular views and wildlife. There is a magical feeling you get while floating these two river sections that only those who go can understand,” says Johnny Landward, River Manager/Guide for Sawtooth Adventure Company.
Multi-day trips usually range from 3 – 6 days. Shorter and longer trips are also available. Both river sections offer amazing whitewater, hot springs, history and pristine wilderness. Here are a few comparisons between the Main Stem of the Salmon River and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River:
- If your expectation includes paddling through 100 miles of continuous technical rapids, then the Middle Fork delivers.
- The Salmon River is the way to go if you want to eat the fish you catch. The Middle Fork may be catch and release, but it is better fishing.
- Sandy beaches along the banks of the Salmon River will keep kids entertained for hours. And who doesn’t love to build sandcastles?
Check out Middle Fork River Expeditions’ website for a more detailed comparison of these two sections. Their area map is also a great reference as to where these sections are located in Idaho.
Middle Fork Outfitters Association can make your life easier. If the Middle Fork is your destination, select your date on their calendar to find outfitters launching on that day. Itineraries vary depending on the outfitter so choose the one that best fits your needs and expectations.
Day Trips on the Upper Main Salmon River
It’s perfect for a family-friendly whitewater rafting adventure while you’re vacationing in Stanley. Disconnect from your world and reconnect with nature for three hours. Or you can extend your digital-free day and have lunch prepared by your outfitter at their designated spot on the Salmon River. Splash in the water, play in the sand and create the memories that will keep you coming back for more.
Characteristics of the Upper Main Salmon:
- Rapids are pool drop.
- Rugged mountain canyons are carved from the Salmon River.
- Great for swimming.
- It’s rare that you can find water with this crystal clear clarity.
- Doesn’t feel like you’re in a highway full of boats.
- The weather is predictable — sunny, bluebird skies.
- Narrower plus it’s smaller in scale and volume than other sections of the river.
Doug Fenn, owner of White Otter Outdoor Adventures, was motivated to purchase the rafting company as an “incredible way to raise my family….along the river, doing hard work with the natural world around us. There is a genuine connection and intrinsic sense of peace around water which is always moving and always refreshing.” Doug goes on to say, “The rafting is more of a vehicle to get people to connect. Name a spot where multigenerational families can sit for three hours and genuinely play, laugh and be together where everyone is present in the moment.”
Continue that moment at the Sunbeam Cafe.
The combination of whitewater rapids and wildlife viewing elevate all rafting trips. You may see bald eagles, golden eagles, river otters, mink, deer, elk, black bears and big horn sheep. Before you ask…No, the wildlife are not staged on the banks of the river for your viewing pleasure. They really are wild creatures in their natural habitat.
Rest assured, no matter what outfitter you decide on, their rafting guides go through extensive training to keep you safe. They bring a whole new dimension to your experience with their knowledge of the area and passion for rafting.
Best questions people ask their river guides:
- At what elevation do deer become elk?
- Do we end in the same place we started?
- What makes trout turn into Salmon?
- Who raises and feeds all the elk?
- Where did the sand come from?
- Does somebody shear the bighorn sheep?
- Do we have to paddle upstream to get back?
Stanley is the hub for the rafting outfitters that are members of the Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce. Each outfitter has a phenomenal website that provides details and descriptions of the trips they offer including videos, itineraries, items to bring, their gourmet cuisine menus, what they supply and where to meet them. They make it easy to plan your trip!
Whether you’re a seasoned rafter or planning your first river trip, this is the summer to raft in Idaho and find out why it’s nicknamed ‘The Whitewater State’. Unplug from your digital world for a day or a multi-day rafting trip to experience pure joy in natural beauty with your family and friends.
Blog written by Erica Cole
Many thanks to all the outfitters who shared their rafting knowledge and photos.