The Salmon River Canyon is a substantial undertaking by any measure. Often referred to as “The Mount Everest of Oregon Whitewater,” the canyon boasts some of the most aesthetically pleasing navigable waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest. And that's the fun part of the challenge. Getting there, however, means choosing between a brutal uphill hike with kayaks in tow or a one way shuttle that takes more than two hours to set. At least one mandatory portage, multiple technically challenging waterfalls, and a drop/cliff jump/rappel that exceeds 80 feet round out the logistical hurdles for navigating this river. If easy access and miles of classic whitewater are what you’re after, this is not the run for you.
Depending on your preference, there are two common approaches to reaching the put-in. Both require a hike, and either way you’ll want to start out at the bottom. Drop a car at the bridge on E Welches Road outside of Welches and choose one of the following:
Hike: Follow the Salmon River, West Canyon Trail (#742) southeast on the northeast side of the river for roughly 5.8 miles. This hike is not easy and features plenty of elevation gain. Get an early start, or plan to camp near the put-in.
Drive: Pile into a second car and be prepared to navigate some logging roads. Return to Highway 26 and head east. Turn right on Oregon Skyline Road and refer to the driving directions. Bring a map and refer to it frequently. Follow the trail north along the river. There will be at least one significant stream crossing.
Either option will direct you to a small meadow that overlooks the Salmon River Canyon on the west side of the trail. From here a vague footpath begins a steep descent to the put-in at Split Falls. Putting-in further upstream will only force you to contend with the logistical challenges of portaging the cliff-lined, 120-foot Stein Falls.
While the Salmon River Canyon is known for its waterfalls, the majority of the river is Class II. The first waterfall, Split Falls, is as easy as they come, so if it looks like more than you can handle, you’ll be better off hiking back to the car.
Immediately after Split Falls, portage around a nasty crack and log jam combination on the right. Seal launching just below the log jam is a good option, but be careful not to piton the far wall. A mile or more of Class II to III water leads to Little Niagara.
Little Niagara is a fall that drops approximately 12 feet before it lands on a rock shelf that extends from river right to all but the extreme river left side. Do not underestimate the quick lead-in, and get as far left as you can.
Vanishing Falls follows quickly afterward, so catch an eddy on the right to scout and/or portage. Vanishing Falls is an intimidating 25-foot waterfall commonly run in one of two ways: either bang down the river right crack toward the undercut wall on the left or boof the shallow flake in the center. Both sides of the landing zone have dangerous pockets with a large boil in the center pushing toward either. If you choose to portage, seal launch or throw and go just below the falls, and be prepared to catch the next possible eddy.
Vanishing Falls plunges into the Vanishing Gorge, a short constriction with the only mandatory drop on the river. Although it's only 12-feet tall, this unnamed ledge has a fearsome hole with little or no opportunity for rescue should you miss your boof. Do not take this drop lightly. From here, the river mellows for a bit, so take time to enjoy the scenery in a place only accessible via the river.
Frustration Falls, the next drop, is the centerpiece of the Salmon River Canyon experience. Frustration weaves a web of falling water that seems to cascade from all directions in a spectacular array of tiers. Scout and portage on the right. Paddlers will quickly see the only manageable line that begins on the left and quickly cuts to the right over the second two waterfalls. The first, at approximately 20 feet, currently has a log that is deceptively difficult to avoid. The second drop is closer to 15 feet, but it requires a precise boof to land in the boiling cauldron (with undercut walls) with control. The third tier is the largest, dropping nearly 40 feet on a near vertical slide. The only exit from the pool below is through the curtain of another portion of the falls; here you'll see large undercut hazard that would be a significant danger to anyone out of their boat.
Contrary to legend, Frustration Falls is possible, though difficult, to portage. You can do so on the slippery and steep bench that overlooks the falls. It is also possible to run the first and third drops without running the second tier.
After the portage/battle through the curtain, paddlers will face one more relatively straightforward 20-foot waterfall (scout on either side, run right of center) before the grand finale, Final Falls.
While it has been run before, clean lines are few and far between on this over 80-foot behemoth. More frequently, paddlers send their empty boats over the falls and choose between a rappel anchored on a somewhat questionable tree or a cliff jump below the falls. People have reported hitting rocks after jumping, but those that have jumped into the foam pile at the base of the falls (as opposed to from the rappel station) consistently report a clear landing zone. The obvious tradeoff for the relative safety of the rappel is that a heavy climbing rope must be brought on the hike and down the river.
The final mile or so of the Salmon River Canyon consists of a Class IV boulder jumble with plenty of pin spots and sieves. Take care through this final section and scout or portage as needed. When you reach the car, congratulate yourself for completing Expedition Kayaking 101 after having explored an area only accessible by kayak!
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