Whitewater Raft the Main Salmon River

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Experience 80 miles of Idaho's Salmon River in the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness while rafting exhilarating whitewater, soaking in hot-springs, hiking, swimming and camping under the stars.

The section of the Salmon River between Corn Creek and Carey Creek, known as the "Main" among boaters, flows through the second deepest canyon on the continent (only Hells Canyon is deeper).  The Main is one of the best all around river trips in the west and offers a spectacular road-less wilderness setting, big whitewater, amazing campsites, swimming, wildlife, archaeological sites, as well as hot springs and wonderful hiking opportunities.

Whether you are a seasoned boater or have never been on a river trip before, the Main Salmon is a week long trip that is well worth your time.  The best time to float the Main Salmon varies depending on what you are looking for.  For a family trip it's best boated in July and August after the heavy snow melt has subsided and both air and water temperatures are comfortable.  If you are an experienced boater who loves high water, huge hydraulics and don't mind the possibility of a long swim, then earlier in the season might be just what you are looking for.

During July and August expect long stretches of relatively mellow water between major rapids giving ample time for swimming, water fights, having a cold beverage, and paddling an inflatable kayak or a stand up paddle board.  This section is very popular for IK and SUP use due to the long sections calm water between the larger drops allowing for assistance if needed.  

Once off the river for the day the camp sites on the Main Salmon are spectacular in that most offer large sandy beaches, ample room for large parties, great kitchen/campfire spots, views of the water and surrounding mountains, easy places loading/unloading your boat, and places to explore around camp.  One of the things that can be a luxury on the Main in the middle of the summer is shade and should be considered when picking your camp sites and kitchen locations. Some of my favorite campsites on the Salmon River are Upper Allison Ranch, Reed Creek, Rabbit Creek, and Lower Bull Creek.  

Fishing the Main in mid summer is typically not all that great for trout as the water temperature is usually too warm.  However there are some opportunities for smallmouth bass and northern pikeminnow.  If you really need to get your trout fix, try some of the cooler tributary creeks for cutthroat.  Additionally there is opportunity for better trout fishing as well as steelhead later in the fall when the water temperatures cool down.

Be on the lookout for wildlife in and around your camp.  It is not uncommon for deer, elk, bighorn sheep, as well as rattlesnakes to make their presence known in camp or on trails.  Also make sure to seal up your food/garbage each night and keep a clean campsite to prevent any unwanted visits in the middle of the night from raccoons or black bears.  On the river there is a good chance you will see many different birds such as the belted kingfisher, hooded merganser, the and american dipper.  Keep an eye out in the large snags which may contain nesting bald eagle and osprey.  Families of river otters are also frequently seen on this stretch of river. 

Wildfires are very common in the wilderness area surrounding the Salmon River and are needed to keep the forest ecosystem healthy.  Sometimes the wildfires are severe enough launch dates have to be cancelled by the National Forest Service due to the immediate dangers involved.  Other times with less severe fires that don't show a danger of intensifying groups are allowed to launch but certain sections are closed for camping.  

Permits

The Main Salmon is part of a the Four Rivers Lottery system which limits the number of people and length of your trip on this popular section river.  Check out recreation.gov for information on obtaining a permit through the lottery system.  The lottery permit season for the Wild and Scenic section of the Main Salmon is June 20-September 7, while lottery applications are open from December 1-January 31 each year.  Additionally you can reserve permits for dates that fall outside of the lottery season through recreation.gov. Scoring a permit for prime season can be a challenge and may take a few years before you are drawn.  Some of the lucky few even score a permit for the Middle Fork and Main back to back to make a 10-14 day 180 mile long trip!

Another option if you are unable to secure a permit or are new to river trips may be to hire an outfitter to take you through this beautiful corridor without the hassle of planning it all on your own. There are also a handful of "boat in only" lodges which operate jet boat trips up the Main Salmon to their respective lodges.

Points of Interest

  • Put-in:  Corn Creek - Mile 0 
  • Legend Creek Pictographs - Mile 4.3 
  • Devil's Toe Pictographs - Mile 13.2
  • Hot Spring with Masonry Tub - Mile 22.4
  • Barth Hotsprings - Mile 23.0
  • Jim Moore Place - Mile 43.0
  • Five Mile Bar "Buckskin Bill's" - Mile 52.5  Store has snacks and ice cream!
  • Polly Bemis Ranch - Mile 68.5
  • Take Out: Carey Creek - Mile 80.7

Major Rapids

  • Rainier Rapid (Class III) -  Mile 8.0
  • Alder Creek Rapid (III) - Mile 9.0
  • Lantz Rapid (III) - Mile 11.3
  • Black Creek Rapid (III-IV) - Mile 20.9
  • Bailey Rapid (III) - Mile 32.5
  • Big Mallard Rapid (III-IV) - Mile 36.9
  • Elkhorn Rapid (III-IV) - Mile 40.4
  • Whiplash Rapid (III) - Mile 44.0
  • Dried Meat Rapid (III) - Mile 74.9
  • Chittam Rapid (III) - Mile 77.7
  • Vinegar Creek Rapid (III-IV) - Mile 78.4

Things to Remember

Please check the current conditions before you head out on your trip.  Calling the Ranger Station is always a good idea to learn if there are conditions you should be aware of (wild fires, wood hazards, changing rapids, wildlife reports. etc.) before making the long drive to the put-in.  Remember that although summer temperatures are usually favorable for swimming, paddle boarding, or just relaxing in the sun, the weather can change quickly so come prepared for anything!  Last please practice Leave No Trace principles on this busy river corridor to minimize the impacts of your visit.

Helpful Links

River Shuttle

USGS Real Time Flow Data

Salmon River Rules and Regulations

Idaho Invasive Species Sticker

River Maps Guide Book to the Middle Fork and Main Salmon Rivers

Pack List

  • Raft, Kayak, or Dory
  • Required Permit
  • Paddle/Oars
  • Life Jacket
  • Drysuit/Wetsuit
  • Dry Bag/Dry Duffel
  • Sleeping Bag/Pad
  • Tent
  • Water Bottles/Water Jugs
  • Camp Cookware/Stove
  • Camera
  • Portable Toilet System
  • Hiking Boots
  • Daypack
  • Sunglasses
  • Swimming Gear
  • Cooler
  • Whitewater Safety Equipment
  • Fire Pan
  • Tables
  • Parawing
  • Sandmat
  • Headlamp/Lantern
  • First Aid Kit
Show More
RT Distance 80 Miles
Elevation Gain -1000 Feet
Activities Stand Up Paddle, Canoeing, Chillin, Camping, Fishing, Photography, Running, Rafting, Kayaking, Swimming, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Spring, Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Point-to-Point
Features
Dog Friendly
Family Friendly
Forest
Groups
Hot Springs
River
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildflowers
Wildlife
Cliff Jumping
Swimming Hole

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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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