Life on the Bank: Hiking the River of No Return


June 2023 was cool and rainy. The typically hot and dusty drive from Salmon, Idaho, to the launch ramp at Corn Creek was instead one of mist and lush mountainsides, the ordinarily drab stands of mountain mahogany and native bunchgrasses showing off their temporarily emerald green hues.

While summer launch dates on the Main Salmon are typically the most sought-after—and for a good reason—my favorite season is spring. Though the cooler temps and high flows don’t lend themselves to beach vibes, both are allies in the pursuit of exploration beyond the river corridor. Spring is the perfect time to sample some of the Salmon’s incredible hikes.

On this memorable trip, we had a true hiking enthusiast among us. He quickly became known as “Hiker Paul.” With insight from our team at Wilderness River Outfitters (WRO), Paul had compiled a long list of potential hikes complete with mileages and prospective notes to maximize hiking time and exploration over our seven days. With four guides, including myself, and eleven enthusiast guests, it should have been difficult to suit everyone’s needs. But each morning and evening, we got together to determine which hikes were a priority for the group as we planned the days ahead.

Where Paul had planned for every potential hike, our trip leader, Carly, knew every inch of the river. With input from the rest of the group, Carly and Paul balanced river mileage, camp time, and meal prep with hiking aspirations. Every night, we gathered to discuss goals and plan the following day, which became a great way for the group to collaborate and bond.

While I highly recommend getting yourself a Hiker Paul or a TL Carly, you don’t need either to have a fantastic raft-supported hiking adventure on the Salmon.

Horse Creek Trail (Mile 3.4)
Just two miles beyond Killum Rapid, which features a huge wave feature at higher flows, is Horse Creek Trail. Horse Creek is the perfect place to warm up the hiking legs and get to know each other. Our group split, with the more adventurous crew opting for a steep trail up the summit ridge west of Horse Creek toward West Horse Point. The other half of the crew went with a pleasant walk up the well-established (but bushy) main Horse Creek Trail, where we eventually found some boulders to sit on while we soaked up our feet, happy to be out of cell service with new friends.

Dwyer Creek Trail (Mile 12)
Day two started with a quick walk from camp up to a nearby ridge with views of Lantz Bar for those who wanted to join the ever-energetic Paul. Our primary goal for the day was to gain the ridge atop the Dwyer Creek Trail. After catching a tight eddy just downstream of the mouth of Dwyer Creek, we put on our hiking boots, stocked up on snacks, and started off.

The trail is well-established and smooth but steep as it ascends to the ridgeline through a sparse forest of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, and native bunchgrass. Once on top of the ridge, it’s smooth sailing to a granite rock outcropping that gives a spectacular downstream view of Devil’s Teeth Rapid and camp. Dwyer Creek was a unanimous highlight and earned my award for “best bang for your buck” in terms of the necessary effort for the quality of the view.

Corey Bar (Mile 20.5)
On our third morning, the sun finally broke through the clouds, providing the perfect start to an exploratory mission from Corey Bar at the head of the Black Canyon. From camp, we traversed downstream through two small drainages on a lightly used game trail before our ascent up a steep draw on a semi-established trail. Ball-bearing-sized grains of granite made for slippery footing and a surprisingly challenging ascent.

We emerged from the draw onto a series of house-sized granite domes overlooking the now-flooded Salmon Falls Rapid. This part of the river lies within the Atlanta Lobe of the Idaho Batholith, a massive swell of granitic rock that occupies a dominant role in the geology of central Idaho.

Over the millennia, the river has carved an imposing canyon through the dark granite. This geologic history made for a dramatic view from our high perch, where we watched storm clouds gather ominously. Though our most strenuous excursion yet, I highly recommend it. 

Magpie Creek (Mile 29.5)
Camping among the Grand Firs at Magpie is always a treat, and directly across the river, a trail follows Rattlesnake Creek up to the old Crofoot Ranch, where a large meadow is flanked by pines and the Salmon River Mountains. This is a pleasant walk up a well-used trail, but Paul had set his sights on running the whitewater downstream and a punishing ascent up the Three Blazes Trail.

Bargamin Creek (Mile 32)
Wandering up Bargamin Creek is a Main Salmon rite of passage. The well-maintained trail offers endless exploring through shady ponderosa groves and a sunny, sage-filled creek bottom. Between steep, boulder-filled sections, clear pools make great spots to read a novel or cast a fly rod to the many small but eager westslope cutthroat trout. Our group was focused on taking advantage of the cool temperatures with strenuous Paul-inspired ascents, but I highly recommend spending a few hours exploring the upper reaches of Bargamin.

Three Blazes Trail (Mile 42.5)
At Campbell’s Ferry, after a successful run of the wave train rollercoaster upstream, we broke out the boot bags and split the group in two. The adventurous folks ventured up the strenuous Three Blazes Trail to Richardson Point for a grand view of Little Trout Creek and down the Salmon’s canyon.

Early miners initially used the Three Blazes Trail to access the Thunder Mountain mining district, about 60 miles southeast of Campbell’s Ferry. The less adventurous group, myself included, took a more historical approach, opting to explore Campbell’s Ferry and learn about its long history.

We even made a foray into the ponderosa woods just upstream of the property to look at the site of the old steel-cable ferry used to shuttle miners across the Salmon. After eating cherries straight off the tree and filling our bottles from the spring, we made the trek across the pack bridge to Jim Moore’s place: an impressive collection of historic hand-hewn cabins. Despite the shorter distance and flatter terrain, we still managed to break a sweat while learning about pioneer life on the Salmon.

Buckskin Bills (Mile 52.5)
No matter the time of year, no Main Salmon trip is complete without stopping at Buckskin Bill’s. Sylvan Ambrose Heart, known as Buckskin Bill for the tanned hides he used as clothing, lived off the land at Five Mile Bar from 1929 until he passed away in 1980. In his later years, he became a wilderness celebrity of sorts and was fond of telling an embellished tale or two to wide-eyed river runners.

The small museum features some of Buckskin’s handmade guns, tools, and other mountain man paraphernalia. His home—and gun tower—aren’t a hike per se, but a great spot to stretch the legs, perhaps with ice cream in hand. The property is now owned and maintained by Heinz and Barbara. Their garden is always beautiful, and even more so in spring bloom!

Warren Creek Trail (Mile 61)
Despite some imposing-looking clouds to the west, hiking to Warren Point was, without a doubt, the highlight of our trip. We followed Warren Creek Trail from the back of camp for the first mile, climbing over 500 vertical feet. The trail then begins to contour inside the Warren Creek drainage. Rather than follow the main trail, Paul suggested we “slam up the ridge.” By the time we agreed to follow him, he was already halfway up!

After over 2,000 vertical feet in under two miles through rough terrain, we stopped just short of a dramatic series of granite spires. The last few hundred feet were too exposed for our liking, but the view up the canyon and into the upper reaches of Warren Creek from the shoulder of the ridge was astonishing. We could see as far as the Buffalo Hump Wilderness to the northwest, where a few stubborn snowfields still clung to the higher peaks.

This off-trail adventure was demanding, especially the descent through loose rocks and scrubby stands of mountain mahogany. On our way back to camp, we encountered two rattlesnakes, a reminder to tread carefully.

Indian Creek Trail (Mile 62)
Hiking up the Indian Creek Trail should be on every itinerary for a Salmon trip, regardless of season. Cruising through the surprisingly lush undergrowth, massive Douglas firs and stands of yew trees is magical any time of year. The creek crossings are a fun challenge, and the hike is friendly and accessible. We all shared a grateful moment at the big yew grove about a mile up the trail before sauntering back to the boats.

Lower Bull Camp (Mile 69)
At Lower Bull camp, we marveled at the freshly scoured beach, swept clean and rebuilt by peak flows just two weeks earlier. The resident Bighorn Sheep were also impressed by the newly deposited sand, and a small herd was bedded down in the middle of camp when we arrived. Though not an officially sanctioned hike, this was a great off-trail adventure.

With Chittam lurking downstream, it was the perfect way to celebrate our last “leg day” before rowing out the next morning. After crossing Bull Creek and passing Upper Bull camp, we headed up a grassy face to gain the ridge above camp. Once on top, we followed the ridge until we found a shady tree to enjoy a snack under before heading back to camp.

On our final float to the take-out, the scenery was gorgeous. Despite the rain, every shrub, tree, and blade of grass was gleaming and bright, the swirls of current distorting the reflection into a constantly evolving, Van Gogh-like painting.

A trip on the Salmon is always magical. Guiding for WRO has let me experience many magical days and weeks on the water, but this trip stands out to me for the chance to experience the Salmon from boat and shore. Hiking up to ridges and along its banks gave a different perspective on the river’s grandeur and history than merely floating through its rapids and an appreciation for all those who traverse its corridors.

Keen to try a hiking-focused river adventure yourself? Here are a few suggestions to keep the whole crew happy. 

Packed Lunches and Snacks
Plan for sandwiches or other simple lunches that you can throw in your pocket or backpack. Bring lots of extra snacks! It’s easy to get caught out in a surprise storm.

Boot and Pack Bags
To limit transition time, bring a few extra Bill’s Bags where you can stash boots and day hiking packs for easy access. This helps avoid digging into your other bags or constantly de-rigging and re-rigging your gear to access your hiking stuff.

Multiple Options
Planning a hiking-focused trip requires research. Weather, river levels and group dynamics are never fully predictable. Having several hiking options per day—even if you know you won’t do them all—can mean the difference between hitting the trail each day and waiting in camp.

Prioritize locations that offer multiple options. The Main Salmon offers many spots where mellow creek trails and ridge hikes are options right next to each other. Campbell’s Ferry is a perfect example. Having options of varying lengths and difficulties can help make a hike feel more approachable for everyone on your trip.

Get Creative
Don’t be afraid to explore off-trail if you have the right group. You might stumble into a gem! Our hike at Bull Creek is a prime example. Just be respectful of flora and fauna and wear good footwear.

Be a Little Tough
Hiking on the Salmon in the spring is world-class, but remember that the weather may not always cooperate. Rain showers and wind can dampen spirits and have you longing for your tent. Instead, suit up and get warm on the trail. Pack hot soup or drinks to help keep warm as needed. With the right gear and prep, challenging conditions and foul weather lead to memorable trips. Especially if you brave the elements with a smile and keep on truckin’.

Flexible Schedule
There are no assigned camps during the spring floating season, and river miles are easy to make. While some excursions take priority over others, don’t let one hike or stop make or break your trip. Talk to your group and use weather, flows, and timing to your advantage. With consistent communication and honesty about what everyone is feeling for the day, plus a little unbridled enthusiasm, you, too, can become a Hiker Paul.


Guest contributor Jonas Seiler grew up in northwest Colorado. After graduating with a degree in Natural Resource Recreation & Tourism from Colorado State University in 2014, he made his way to Idaho. Jonas now lives in Salmon, spending summers enjoying Idaho’s many rivers, and winters skiing at Lost Trail Pass.


Editor’s note: Photographs courtesy of Paul Neiman.