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Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview

Salmon River + Mountains, Idaho

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Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview

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  • The patriarch ponderosa grove below Little Soldier Camp.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • A spectacular view of the Impassable Canyon from above Wall Creek Rapid.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Looking downstream onto Wollard Camp from the hike above Rattlesnake Cave.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Punching through Tappan Falls at approximately 5 feet.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • A commercial sweep boat drops over the lip of Tappan Falls around 2.5 feet.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Majestic ponderosa trees line the banks of the Middle Canyon.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • The "gin-clear" waters of the Middle Fork in a non-fire year.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • A great surf wave at Marble Creek Rapid around 5 feet.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Inflatable kayaking is a great way to experience the Middle Fork of the Salmon.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • A driftboat guide contemplates the challenges of Sulphur Slide at low water.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Entering The Chutes at low water.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Beautiful sunset in the open expanses of the middle canyon.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • A raging waterfall creek adds even more flow to the Middle Fork in early June.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Catching a high water wave on the fly around 7 feet.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Deep in the Impassable Canyon.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • A paddle boat enjoys the scenic vistas that abound in the lower canyon.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • 2,000 feet above the river affords a pretty nice view.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Punching the entrance hole at Weber Rapid at approximately 3 feet.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • The last rays of sun illuminate the spire below Wilson Creek Camp.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Bubbling waves on the Elk Bar Beach.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Where's the pot of gold? Always down canyon. A post-storm view from Cliffside Camp.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • Taking a break on the last day of the trip above House of Rocks Rapid.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
  • A peaceful morning above Tappan Falls.- Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Overview
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Stunning wilderness scenery. Challenging whitewater. Dramatic changes from put-in to take-out.
Cons: 
Difficult to get a permit. High traffic along river corridor. Camps impacted by high use.
Region:
Salmon River + Mountains, ID
Average Gradient: 
27.00 ft/mi (5.11 m/km)
Route Characteristics: Character:
Continuous, Gorge
Gauge URL: 
http://waterdata.usgs.gov/id/nwis/uv/?site_no=13309220&PARAmeter_cd=00065
Overall difficulty: 
IV
IV
Parking Pass: 
Lottery application ($6.00) + Daily use fee ($4.00/person/day)
Preferable Season(s):
Spring, Summer, Fall
Put-in location (lat, long coordinates): 
Boundary Creek
Suitable for:
Kayaks, Rafts, Commercial Outfitters, Stand-Up Paddleboards
Take-out location (lat, long coordinates): 
Cache Bar
Total Distance: 
99.00 mi (159.32 km)
Current Local Weather:

Notable Hazards + River Information

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Adventure Description

Adventure Description

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Permit and Lottery Info

A permit is required to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, a Wild and Scenic river that bisects the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. Permits for private boaters are allocated through an online reservation system. Go to recreation.gov to learn all of the ins and outs of the system and apply for a Middle Fork float permit. Permit holders must be 18 years old by the launch date.

About the Middle Fork

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of the world's premier multi-day whitewater float trips. It cuts through a spectacular and rugged canyon wilderness with beautiful scenery and whitewater challenges from late April through early November. It has something for all river runners: early and late season trips offer isolation; May and June are packed with fast water thrills; July’s moderate mid-season flows are popular with many rafters; and low water technical challenges follow in August and September. Kayakers find ample opportunities for play, hikers can follow gentle trails or challenge themselves on steep ridgelines, and photographers discover endless compositions as light plays across the canyon landscape.

The Middle Fork flows 100 miles through three distinct ecological regions. The Boundary Creek launch is located in a high alpine forest just below 6,000 feet. The first 25 miles are dominated by swift channels and numerous rapids. Thick forests of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir trees line the banks. Below Indian Creek (mile 25) the river opens up and majestic ponderosa pine trees flank the river corridor. The hills are more gentle and open, and the rapids are more calm and subdued. Below the Flying B Ranch (mile 67) the river plunges into a deep lower gorge. The walls narrow overhead and the river crashes through “Impassable Canyon,” the third deepest in North America.

Daily Descriptions

Check out the following links for a brief daily description of a typical six-day Middle Fork of the Salmon River adventure:

Day 1 - Boundary Creek Launch (mile 0) to Sheepeater Camp (mile 13)

Day 2 - Sheepeater Camp (mile 13) to Marble Creek Camp (mile 32.4)

Day 3 - Marble Creek Camp (mile 32.4) to Shelf Camp (mile 48.9)

Day 4 - Shelf Camp (mile 48.9) to Driftwood Camp (71.6)

Day 5 - Driftwood Camp (71.6) to Otter Bar Camp (90.5)

Day 6 - Cliffside Camp (90.5) to Cache Bar Takeout (99.1)

Whitewater Summary

There are numerous whitewater challenges along this 100-mile stretch.  As on any free-flowing river, they change with the water level. Below is a brief description of the river’s navigation challenges at various flow levels.

** It is important to note that the character of the river will be quite different if it is rising or falling. The Middle Fork at 6 feet and rising is a more aggressive and unpredictable beast than at 6 feet on the downside of a peak.**

Extreme Water (above 7 feet) - Every river is dangerous at or above its full bank stage. The Middle Fork starts to exhibit flood characteristics above 7 feet on the river gauge, gnawing into the banks and toppling whole trees into a current that is already full of wood and debris deposited by winter avalanches. Eddies are often washed out, and those that remain have violent shear lines. The water strains through riverbank vegetation and low timbered benches like Hospital Bar and Survey Camp. Common rapids may be washed out while huge, unexpected waves may catch boaters unaware. It is a challenge to maintain good position in the river as it sweeps around blind corners and into unexpected hazards.

High Water (5 feet to 7 feet) - There is a significant difference between 5 feet and 7 feet, but the river is confined within its banks and is no longer a chaotic flood full of woody debris. With the exception of the upper canyon (Boundary to Indian Creek), floating at this level is pretty straightforward. Many rapids are washed out, and there is generally plenty of room to avoid the big hydraulics. Exceptions remain, however, and high water should be approached with caution.

The upper canyon is swift, narrow, and choked with rapids. At high water the first 12 miles is a Class IV+ river with Class V consequences. Infrequent eddies and icy water can turn a flip at Murph’s Hole or Velvet Falls into a very serious situation. Most commercial outfitters avoid this section above 6 feet. Choosing to launch from Boundary Creek above this level requires preparation and a strong team. The hazards at extreme and high flows are compounded by the icy water temperatures. An accident that dumps people in the river is extremely hazardous.

Moderate Water (3 feet to 5 feet) - This is a great introductory level for Middle Fork boaters. The rapids still pack a punch, but slower water and warmer temperatures allow more time to recover from mistakes. Larger rocks come out, so the wrap hazard does increase at moderate flows. Around 3 feet many rapids are more technical but lack the problematic rock gardens of low water.

Low Water (below 3 feet) - Below 3 feet the rapids on the Middle Fork enter their most technical stage. There are numerous rock gardens and some wrap hazards, but the water is moving slowly enough to allow for more response time. Below 2 feet there are several gravel shallows that defeat even the most skilled rafter. Some rapids become technically impossible to run without significant rubber wrestling.

Many groups fly into Indian Creek to start their low water Middle Fork trip. At levels below 2.5 feet the Upper Canyon is very technical and can be hard on both equipment and people. Those who launch from Boundary Creek should keep their boats light and plan extra time to navigate the numerous boulder gardens.

Water Temperature and Weather

These vary from season to season but as a rule of thumb:

April to Mid-June - This is the rainy season. A spring boating party should be prepared to deal with the possibility of cold rain, snow, and icy water conditions. Storms may linger for a week or longer during the spring season.

Mid-June to Mid-July - The weather is usually warm and dry, though exceptions occur, and water temperature is bearable for short swims.

Mid-July to September - It is generally hot and dry with a common buildup of afternoon thundershowers. Plan for the sudden weather changes associated with these storms including short, intense rain, hail, and “micro-burst” wind storms. On sunny days, swims in the river are a great way to escape the heat.

Stanley, Idaho

The last civilized stop before heading into the Boundary Creek launch site is Stanley.  From Boise or McCall it is possible to drive directly into Boundary Creek. To finalize arrangements with your shuttle service, however, it is convenient to plan a stop in this charming mountain town.

Stanley’s year-round population is less than 100, and the summer population closes in on several hundred. It is the whitewater capital of central Idaho and the operational base for several Main Salmon and Middle Fork commercial outfitters. The main gas station/grocery store/hotel is the Mountain Village complex on Highway 21. Quantities may vary, but a decent selection of fresh produce and last-minute items are available. Don’t plan on shopping for an entire trip out of Stanley. Jerry’s Country Store, downriver 1 mile in Lower Stanley on Highway 93, has a smaller selection and some specialty items. Lodging in the Stanley Valley is usually booked well in advance. Consider making reservations if you wish to spend a night in Stanley. There are several restaurants and a great local bakery in “downtown” Stanley that should not be missed.

Contact the Stanley Chamber of Commerce website at www.stanleycc.org or call 800.878.7950 for more information.

River Access

The Forest Service road into Boundary Creek is snowed in until late May/early June, depending on the year (call the Middle Fork Ranger District office for the road status). When the road is closed, the two options are to float Marsh Creek or use a backcountry flying service to access the launch ramp at Indian Creek.

Fishing

The Middle Fork is renowned for its native cutthroat trout population. The Forest Service established strict catch-and-release regulations to protect the fishery as float boating gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. Anglers must present a current Idaho fishing license at the request of Idaho Fish and Game officers who patrol the river. Only single barbless hooks and artificial bait are permitted.

Fishing from a raft presents challenges to the oarsman, the angler, and the fish. Please follow these suggested guidelines to lessen the impact on the fishery.

• Release the fish without removing it from the water. The use of a hands-free hook remover is the best way to accomplish this.
• If you must handle the fish, wet your hands first. This preserves the mucous-like coating that protects the trout from disease.
• Pull your line from the river above rapids to prevent dragging the fish through whitewater.
• When releasing the fish, do it in the river (not over the raft) to prevent dropping a fish into the bilge.
• Keep a pair of pliers or hemostat handy for releasing deeply set hooks.
• Check your barb-less hook by poking it through your shirt or short leg. If it snags upon removal, flatten it again.

Fishing can be spotty in June and early July when the river is clouded by runoff. In late July and August, high temperatures tend to slow activity during the midday hours. The best Middle Fork fishing is in late August and early September when the crystal clear water cools at the end of summer. 

Fishing licenses are available at several locations in Stanley, and you can also stock up on the classic Middle Fork fly patterns: Stimulator (stone fly imitation), Elk Hair Caddis, Adams Hopper (or other), Yellow and Red Humpy, and the Royal Wulff.

Emergencies

As mentioned, the Middle Fork is a remote place, and any rescue will not be quick, especially from a high ridgeline or scraggly canyon bottom. Consider carrying a satellite phone. The following locations have emergency radio contact with the outside world:

• Boundary Creek Guard Station 
• Thomas Creek Guard Station
• Indian Creek Guard Station 
• Loon Creek Ranch
• Middle Fork Lodge   
• Flying B Ranch

During high season (June through August) there are at least six other groups launching on your same schedule. Another group will eventually float by and may be able to provide assistance. Be ready to flag them down.  Most commercial outfitters carry satellite phones for emergencies.

Camps and Camp Reservation System

Camping along the Middle Fork is controlled by a strict reservation system. Camps can be requested with the launch personnel at Boundary Creek starting at 3:30 p.m. the evening before your launch. If Boundary Creek is closed when you launch, your group must stop at Indian Creek (mile 25.5) to reserve camps with the ranger there. 

A coin toss will determine the outcome between two groups who request the same camp. A group can challenge or be challenged only once for a camp. Flipping coins for camps can create animosity among parties. Share. There are no bad camps on the Middle Fork. Layover camps are approved on a case-by-case basis, depending on group size, season, and the camp chosen. Only one hot spring camp is allowed per group. Camp assignments will be finalized the morning before launch and written on the float permit. Only one camp per group is allowed below Big Creek.

Cultural Considerations

American Indians who called the Middle Fork Canyon home were a branch of the Shoshone known as Tukuduka (two-kudu-kaa), or Sheepeaters. They lived comfortably in this rugged canyon for over 10,000 years, subsisting on a diet of wild meat and native plants. The encroachment of white people in the mid-1800s, and the military conflicts that ensued, eventually forced the Tukuduka from their homeland. 

There are hundreds of Tukuduka cultural sites along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Many are barely recognizable to the untrained eye. Nearly every flat bench by the river was utilized as a camp at one time, and red paintings or “pictographs” pepper rock overhangs throughout the canyon. 

These sites are culturally significant to the present-day ancestors of the Tukuduka. Please explore them with respect and leave any artifacts you may find. Do not touch any of the rock art, as the oils in fingers and hands can break down the pigment.

River Etiquette

Commercial vs. Private Use - The percentage of permit allocations are distributed roughly 60/40 in favor of private boaters.  Because commercial groups generally fill completely, the total numbers are closer to 50/50.

There is not much animosity on the Middle Fork between commercial and private floaters, though some private boaters do not support commercial use. If this is your opinion, please don’t take in out on those who work for commercial operations. Write a letter to the Forest Service and other appropriate governing bodies.

Group Size and Organization  - The number of people floating in private parties has grown due to the increased popularity of rafting, improved equipment, published articles, and organized “permit parties” designed to improve the odds of drawing a permit. 

Consider the ramifications of floating with 20 to 24 people. It is the trip leader’s responsibility to organize and manage the entire group. If you would rather float with fewer people, don’t let outside pressures swell your numbers. Smaller parties are allowed longer trips and have greater flexibility to explore the canyon.

With a full complement of 20 or more people, good communication and organization is vital to running a smooth and safe trip.  Schedule a pre-trip “get acquainted” meeting to decide on the number of boats, discuss safety and rescue plans, and establish a trip leader who will manage the group and pass along river regulations and daily floating plans.

Number of Boats - There has also been an increase in the number of rafts per trip, and at times you may see a group of 16 people running 15 rafts and a kayak. The desire to row your boat the full 100 miles of the Middle Fork is understandable, but sharing the oars with others should be considered. Try to support 3 to 5 people per raft on private trips. Consider running a paddleboat with several bags strapped in the middle to increase your person to boat ratio.

Lots of rafts create congestion at the put-in and take-out and spread over a longer stretch of river. This increases the visual and social impact along the corridor. A large party may fill an entire eddy at popular cultural or hiking stops.

The Forest Service does not regulate the number of boats per party. If you choose to have a large flotilla, organize and educate your group to reduce the social impacts on other floaters.

Slower Parties - Raft parties travel at different speeds. It is awkward and difficult to pass a group in mid-stream, and it results in raft congestion for several miles. There are as many as 50 parties spread over the 100 miles of river on a given day, so some overlap is inevitable. It is up to the slower party to pull over and let a faster group pass. If your rafts pull out in front of an approaching party, accidentally or intentionally, make every effort to move downstream quickly and to create a buffer of space between the groups.

Sweep Boats - These large commercial cargo boats have a storied history on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon. They are unique to these river systems, so many floaters don’t have experience running alongside this type of raft. Sweep boats drift faster than the current and have no method of braking. When a sweep boat approaches from behind, please pull over and let it pass, especially when nearing rapids.

Solitude and Popular Sites - Many people float the Middle Fork to experience the solitude of a wilderness river. Nothing shatters this more than a loud, obnoxious party that pulls into the quiet hot spring you were enjoying. The crowded corridor along the Middle Fork is not a true “wilderness experience.”  There needs to be give and take on both sides. If you have a rowdy group, quiet things down when passing other parties. On the other hand, be willing to accept some level of intrusion on your “wilderness experience.”

There are many popular hikes and hot springs along the river. These are public resources, and no one has proprietary rights. Accommodate other groups. Be courteous and polite. Share. Kindness and communication goes a long way. Trip leaders should generally avoid pulling in among another groups. Consider passing by a hot spring, choosing an alternate landing (upstream of the mouth of Loon Creek for example), or continuing on to an unoccupied site.

River Flows

The Middle Fork is an un-dammed, natural river system with many large tributaries. Its waters are fed by melting snow from several distinct mountain ranges. The volume of the river is measured at two different gauges. The depth and cubic feet per second (CFS) are taken near the Middle Fork Lodge (mile 35), and a CFS measurement is taken at the confluence with the Main Salmon (mile 96.2). Daily readings from both gauges are available from this USGS website for western river flows. The depth in feet from the Middle Fork Lodge is the most common reference for rapid descriptions.

Water levels will be highest from mid-May to mid-June. The peak can range from 4 to 10 feet depending on the winter snowpack. Keep in mind that many of the largest tributaries (Loon, Camas, Wilson, Waterfall, Ship Island, and Big Creek) add water below the Middle Fork Lodge. A reading taken at mile 35 will not always represent what is happening downstream below Big Creek (mile 78) in the Impassable Canyon.

The level can drop as low as 1.2 feet in a drought year, but averages 1.75 feet on the first of September.

Reference: All content excerpted from The Middle Fork of the Salmon River – A Comprehensive Guide by Idaho River Publications.

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Published in collaboration with Idaho River Publications

Our mission is to inspire adventure with beautiful, comprehensive and waterproof map-based guidebooks.  Owner, publisher, and photographer Matt Leidecker, grew up exploring and guiding on the rivers in central Idaho.  His award winning Middle Fork of the Salmon River – A Comprehensive Guide is the standard by which other river guidebooks are measured.  Printed on virtually indestructible YUPO paper, IRP guides are truly unique all-in-one resources for adventure.  Each book is loaded with full-color maps, stunning photographs, and information on the history, geology, and wildflowers.  Visit Idaho River Publications to explore our guidebooks to the Rogue River in Oregon and the mountains of Central Idaho.

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