The Wild and Free Middle Fork Salmon River


Join NRS ambassadors Andria and Leland Davis for some spring boating on the mighty Middle Fork of the Salmon River.


We’ve been going to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho almost every year since 2002. We’ve done a few other multi-day river trips in the US, and we keep going back to the Middle Fork because the trip provides a great balance of wild excitement and mellow river time.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon starts as tiny streams that flow out of the valley around Stanley in central Idaho. The main tributaries are Marsh Creek and Bear Creek. When these two streams come together, the Middle Fork is born. Amazingly, the Main Salmon River drains the same valley just to the east. River drains the same valley just to the east. Both rivers flow north cutting through different paths and don’t meet up again until 100 miles later when the Middle Fork flows into the Main. The Main starts out along a very scenic highway, but the Middle Fork cuts its entire path through the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48.

During the spring snowmelt season, you usually put in on Marsh Creek because the very long and mountainous road that leads to the summertime put-in of Boundary Creek is snowed over and inaccessible.

Putting in on Marsh Creek.

Marsh Creek can be very dangerous and swift for loaded rafts. It takes a special kind of rower who wants to undertake this task. Luckily, I know a few of them! Many people like to take a less risky and lighter trip in just kayaks. We really enjoy the excitement of rafting the Middle Fork and the company of the other crazy forkers who do to!

Driving to Boundary Creek in May just days after the road opened.

Don’t count on getting to drive to the Boundary Creek put-in in springtime! This year, we decided it was safer for our group to make the drive rather than row Marsh Creek since we had the option. To be a trip leader on the Middle Fork, you need to know when to balance excitement with group safety.

Our trip leader, Leland Davis, makes more decisions for our group.

Either way, the shuttle is long, so we like to hire Blackadar Boating to run shuttle.

Meeting up at Blackadar’s in Salmon, ID.

We love the excitement of going in the springtime when this free-flowing river can be wild and unpredictable. The river level can fluctuate due to heat, cold, snow, or rain, so be prepared for contingency plans! The weather in spring can be anywhere from abusive to paradisical. My preference is a mix in weather that allows you to enjoy the river and its many hot springs to the fullest!

Enjoying Sheepeater Hotsprings.
Hanging out enjoying the Middle Fork canyon.

The springtime excitement of the flows and weather creates a bonding experience within a group of people. You all have to work together to get the rafts through several dangerous, continuous, and often loggy stretches of river. A spring Middle Fork trip is no float and bloat; it takes experienced rowers and kayakers to get through there safely.

Make sure you get out and scout! There could always be new wood.
Bonding around the campfire.
Lazy kayakers not helping load rafts.

That being said, there is much relaxation time on the Middle Fork!  There are plenty of hot springs, side hikes, and easy rapid days where you can sit back and enjoy the scenery and let go of all inhibitions.

Stressful River time.
View from a side hike.
Another amazing view from a side hike.
Yet another amazing view from a side hike.
I pledge allegiance to the Middle Fork.

One of my favorite aspects of the Middle Fork is how the river starts in a high alpine environment surrounded by snow capped peaks and thickly forested spruce and firs and descends into the final desert landscape with sage and sparse Ponderosas.

Early in the trip, the river is shallow and swift in a high alpine environment.

Later on, as the tributaries kick in more and more flow, you descend into a big-water desert canyon.

The Middle Fork is a wild and scenic river, so you really get to see how fire, floods, and debris flows shape the river environment. You might come back next year only to be surprised by new rapids!

Feeling small in the big wilderness.
You’ll see many burned sections in the Middle Fork.

The Middle Fork is full of wildlife. You may or may not get to see much of it, however because the wilderness is huge. But you may get to see bear, cougar, elk, deer, wolves, big-horned sheep, mountain goats, bald and golden eagles, osprey, snakes, and don’t forget to look down into the river to see trout and salmon!

The mule deer love to hang out at the hot springs too!

A Middle Fork trip can take anywhere from a couple of days in kayaks to over a week in rafts.  We prefer to take a mix of rafts and kayaks. The kayaks can provide safety for the rafts that can provide plenty of supplies. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Cook group #2 represent!
The kitchen in the Idaho wilderness.
Taking a layover day in the sunshine!
You can bring your dogs on the Middle Fork if they’re tough enough!
Always pick a good groover spot, but do remember where it is!

A really nice aspect about the Middle Fork is that at spring flows it does not have flat pools. It’s awesome – the river moves and dances the whole way making it an exciting whitewater trip.

Relaxed after running Pistol Creek rapid.

One of the very best things about going to Idaho for a Middle Fork trip in the springtime is that you can catch many other areas for boating while you are out there. There’s always plenty to boat all around Idaho in May, and you can also catch stuff in Oregon and Washington too!

Leland decompresses on the Lochsa River after our Middle Fork trip.

Photography: Andria Davis, Jeff Tallman, Jeff Robinson, Braun Meriwether, Mason Mcfarling, Stephanie Metzger, Jeff Matonis