Idaho’s Wild & Scenic Main Salmon River: A week of whitewater

Whitewater Wilderness:  A week on Idaho’s Main Salmon River

If ever there is a good time to be had, it’s rafting the wild and scenic rivers this world has to offer! Our backyard happens to be Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho where there are plenty of rivers to be adventured! Add in a full week’s worth of gourmet camping cuisine and this is quite a pleasant way to spend time, disconnected from any and all technology!  

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A few years ago, we were lucky enough to draw a lottery permit for the Middle Fork Salmon River and we spent seven glorious August days on the river with our kids and their friends. What a magical place … with bighorn sheep grazing, eagles soaring, and dipping stops at natural hot springs along the way. It’s just whitewater paving and camping for 99 miles along with other rafting groups, both commercial and private, and nature. None of the typical cacophonies from the outside world exists out there, and no cell phones, Internet, or other ubiquitous devices so reminiscent of our everyday lives. In short, it was a blast!

This summer, just after Labor Day, we tagged a permit for the Main Salmon River run, which is another weeklong excursion with plenty of nature sightings (we saw an eagle every morning for the first three days, as well as river otters and bighorn sheep), but on this river, you also have a large contingent of jet boats, ferrying people to and from backcountry lodges, or just cruising up and down the river. While the boats are very noisy, they are a super-friendly, polite bunch and they certainly add an exciting element – as well as some pretty big wakes to rock your boat! This was a strange and wonderful experience and so different from the Middle Fork. 

You can take a guided tour down the river, which is also pretty darn luxurious with guides setting up camp and cooking your meals, or if you have whitewater rowing experience and the proper gear, you can plan your own trip, setting your own foodie and camping agenda. There are both small camps for private groups, and larger camps for commercial groups, and after Labor Day, this was a first-come-first-serve endeavor. One day, we had zeroed in on the campsite of our dreams, only to find three miles of sites already taken. That is when you buckle down and keep the oars in the water. During the earlier summer months, these campsites are all reserved, so you don’t have to worry about getting there in time to settle in for an afternoon of fishing or reading. 

There are also a surprising number of remote lodges all along the run, so you could take your pick of those lodges in lieu of camping, if you’re better suited to that style of adventure travel and prefer a bed to the ground. In fact, on the night we planned to camp at Corn Creek, we got a last-minute reservation at Salmon River Lodge Resort, just across the river. This was just awesome because proprietor Brooks picked us up by Jet Boat for the trek across the river. It’s fun to use the crank telephone installed on the Corn Creek side of the river to call for your ride! Brooks and his right-hand man, Conrad, prepared a delicious chicken dinner the night of our arrival, followed by a hearty egg and sausage breakfast. Brooks, who runs jet boat tours, horseback rides, guided hunts, and accommodations for rafters during his six-month season, is full of fascinating information about the area and the local flora and fauna. With a large creek running through the property, and a beautiful stable full of horses, this is quite a charming place to spend a night or three, if you ever have the chance. For more information about other lodges along the river run, please see the notes at the end of this article. The cabins were exceptionally clean and the water was good and hot!

The put-in for the Main Salmon is at Corn Creek and this is the beginning of the 81-mile designated “wild” section for this river. Between this point and the usual take-out at the end of this stretch, Carey Creek boat ramp, you can enjoy five to seven nights on the river, camping at the many campsites along the river’s edge, or you can go the deluxe route and book reservations at the many backcountry lodges, accessible only by boat, plane, horseback or on foot. You can add on for an additional 24-25 miles to take out all the way down in Riggins, Idaho, which you can make comfortably in 7-8 days on the river. Our plan was to take out at Spring Bar at mile 93.6. 

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Getting the boats rigged at Corn Creek Boat Ramp

When you plan your self-guided trip, be sure to remember to set up a shuttle so you don’t have to drop a car off at the top and bottom of the river run. We used All River Shuttles out of White Bird, Idaho (208_839-2308), and for a $500 fee, they shuttled our rig from the put-in to the take-out. Unfortunately, they accidentally left our truck at Carey Creek boat ramp, 12 miles upstream of what we’d bargained for, but luckily, we spied the truck in time to retreat back to the boat ramp, which was rather exciting given the really fast water right there.

Because we ventured out in the fall and the days were getting a bit shorter, we opted for “river right” campsites every night to capitalize on the best sun exposure possible. Our sites were the following:

Day 1 Mile 14.8 – Elkhorn Creek Camp/Right: awesome spot, up a bit of a rocky bank at low water, but big space and plenty of room for tents. Sun shone on camp pretty early in the morning, roughly 8:30 a.m. We saw a bald eagle flying up the river while having our morning coffee!

Day 2 Mile 36.7 – Upper Yellow Pine Bar Camp/Right: We went a little further than we had planned due to a shortage of suitable campsites that day. We ended up at a great campground, just after a swift riffle/rapid. The campground access is a little tough if you aren’t planning ahead and looking for it. We set-up our kitchen right on the beach, which made it super easy for access to and from the boats. This site had plenty of flat areas for tents and beautiful scenery. We had wonderful evening sunshine on camp, but consequently, slightly later sun in the morning due to the orientation this time of year.

Day 3 Mile 51 – No Man Creek Camp: This campsite was excellent with a bit of a hike up the beach at low water, and space for the kitchen in the middle of camp with the tent sites around it. The main drawback to this site was a 10:30 a.m. arrival of the sun, which made for a long coffee hour and a very chilly morning!

Day 4 Mile 61.4 Swimming Hole Camp: This camp was freaking awesome, because of the swimming/bathing hole, the huge beach, and the sun orientation. The swimming hole came complete with river jellyfish. They were tiny … about 1.5 inches in diameter, but fascinating to watch and harmless to humans, which we didn’t know until we Googled it once off the river! The camp had a great big beach, which was perfect for setting up our Spikeball set! Great afternoon and evening sun and due to the orientation, we also had some nice, fairly early morning sun, too.  

Day 5 Mile 73.7 – Middle Sheep Creek Camp: Incredible camp – our very favorite of the whole trip. There is a beach access with an easy landing at this site. The river turns into a calm lake right in front of the camp. We had our kitchen, chairs, and fire pit set up about 10 feet from the boat, which by Day 5 made it so nice for retrieving provisions from the boat. The Middle Sheep Creek is just downstream of the camp and chock-full of fish. There is a scenic footbridge for crossing to the other side. Just upstream from us at Upper Sheep Creek Camp, there was a flurry of activity as outfitters were setting up camp for a group of hunters arriving the next day.

Sadly, our shuttle service dropped our truck/trailer off about 12 miles upstream of where we had planned to take at Spring Bar Campground and Boat Ramp at Mile 93.6, so we actually missed out on our last day of rafting, camping, and outdoor cuisine!

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Hot spring tub built right into the rocks! It creates a 4 foot-deep pool for soaking your aching body!
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Launch Day at Corn Creek!
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Mediterranean Campfire Pasta with Kalamata olives and sundried tomatoes
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A smoky sunrise over the river giving the effect of a double sunrise!

Other back country lodges along the Main Salmon River:

Mile Zero-Salmon River Lodge Resort

(208) 716-4366

Mile 8-10 Stub Creek Outfitters

(208) 756-2622

Mile 18.8 River of No Return Lodge

Mile 20.3 Arctic Creek Lodge

(208) 756-1657

Mile 33.3 Allison Ranch Camp

(208) 277-3015

Mile 56.1 Mackay Bar Ranch

Mile 65.8 Shepp Ranch

(208) 866-4268

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