Middle Fork Salmon River
One of the original eight rivers in the nation designated as wild and scenic on October 2, 1968, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River originates 20 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho, with the merging of Bear Valley and Marsh Creeks. The entire river, to its confluence with the Salmon River, is designated and is classified as wild, with the exception of a one-mile segment near the Dagger Falls-Boundary Creek Road, which is classified as scenic. All except this short scenic segment is also within the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
The Middle Fork is one of the last free-flowing tributaries of the Salmon River system. Because of its remote location, man’s presence in the area was somewhat limited, leaving it in the condition we see today. Only a few trails, landing strips, private ranches, and U.S. Forest Service stations are evidence of modern society.
October 2, 1968. From its origin to its confluence with the Main Salmon River.
The area has strongly contrasting vegetation types, primarily keyed to aspect and elevation. The lower elevations support mixed conifer species, including ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. The forested ecosystems within the corridor at the lower elevations are characteristically dominated by an overstory of large diameter old Ponderosa pine and/or Douglas fir trees. While the vegetation, including individual species and plant associations, is diverse but not unique or rare within the region of comparison, the lower elevation old open forest ecosystems are regionally important. These old open forests of Ponderosa pine and/or Douglas fir are rapidly disappearing in the western United States.
The Middle Fork contains three federally listed fish species and provides designated critical habitat for Snake River spring/summer chinook. In terms of habitat, the Middle Fork watershed is the largest and best remaining aquatic stronghold within the entire Salmon River watershed. It is a key area for the survival and recovery of federally listed salmon, steelhead, and bull trout.
The drainage lies within the eastern and northern portions of the Idaho Batholith Province of Central Idaho. The Idaho Batholith Province is comprised primarily of the Idaho batholith, which was intruded into what is now central Idaho approximately 80 to 100 million years ago. The province also includes much older rocks that were intruded by the batholith, younger intrusive rocks, and much more recent erosional deposits. The older rocks consist of quartzites of the Yellowjacket Formation and their metamorphosed equivalents. These rocks are approximately 1.5 million years old. The younger intrusive rocks consist primarily of Casto pluton granite and associated dikes and surface volcanic flows. These rocks are approximately 50 million years old. Recent geologic features include stream terraces and rock falls from various time periods. As can be imagined from the foregoing, a trip through this canyon is truly a rare “trip through time”—1.5 million years ago to the present. In addition, due to the excellent rock exposures in the arid canyon, many geologic features and processes are exposed throughout the system. Examples include joint formation, downcutting, terrace formation, and the geologic nature of the canyon’s famous rapids.
Dozens of historic sites have been identified within the river corridor, many of which are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. During the Sheepeater War of 1879, Captain Bernard and his troop pursued the Tukudeka Band of Shoshone through the Middle Fork country, camping along its banks. Mining and homesteading began in the area in 1885, and the traces of these long-abandoned mines and cabins can still be seen. Outstanding examples include the Joe Bump, Parrott cabin, Sader cabin, and Powerhouse sites. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps established camps in the Middle Fork and reconstructed or constructed many of the trails in the area, including outstanding examples of long sections of dry laid stone walls along many of the trails.
Native American Traditional Use
The Middle Fork River corridor is within ceded lands for the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho. The river has important cultural, traditional, and sacred meaning to both Tribes, manifested in salmon fishing, bighorn sheep hunting, traditional plant gathering, pictographs visitation, honoring burial sites, visiting traditional camps, and honoring other sacred sites. There continues today an especially strong connection with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, resulting in yearly visits by Tribal Business Council members to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River to fish and visit sacred and traditional sites.
Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient peoples have hunted and gathered in the area of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River for approximately 8,000 years. Archaeological site types identified within the river corridor include pictographs, pithouse villages, lithic scatters, human burials, sacred sites, Ponderosa pine peeled trees, talus pits, and rock shelters. Archaeological excavations at Dagger Falls, Waterfall Village, and several other sites within the river corridor provide an opportunity to understand regional patterns of chronology, settlement, subsistence, and technology in a mountain setting of both Utaztecan speaking Shoshonian- and Sahaptan-speaking Nez Perce cultures.
The wild river corridor offers a variety of land-based, dispersed, non-motorized activities, including hunting, hiking, camping, and horseback riding.The major trail access into the river corridor is provided by the Middle Fork Trail, beginning at the Boundary Creek launch site. This trail ends at Impassible Canyon. There are a number of trails that extend from the uplands into the river corridor. Trail use is by foot and horse.
Fishing and hunting are the predominant uses in October and November; the fishery is one of the best catch and release fly fisheries in the nation.
However, it is whitewater boating is what the river is known for; the Middle Fork is internationally recognized for its whitewater/wilderness float trip. The origin of visitors reflects this international renown.
Whitewater boating is by far the predominant use from April through September, with six-day trips the norm. Known for its rugged scenic beauty, quiet isolation, crystal clear water, and the challenge of its whitewater, it is floated by more than 10,000 people each summer. Class III - IV+ rapids offer boating excitement for both families and hard-core adventure types. Hiking from river campsites offers a taste of wilderness, and you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the past and present inhabitants.
The floating activity on the Middle Fork is managed and regulated to preserve the pristine character of the area and experience. Permits to float the river are required all year. The highest use is from May 28 through September 3. This is known as the control season, and permits for this time are allocated through a computerized lottery. Permits for the pre- and/or post-season launch dates that occur outside the lottery control season are also available for reservation beginning on October 1.
Fire pans, portable toilets, ash containers, shovels, buckets, and strainers are required equipment to float the river during any season. Leave No Trace, pack-in, pack-out is the camping ethic mandatory to all camping in the corridor and throughout the entire wilderness. During high use periods, campsites are assigned to boaters at the launch sites.
The riverine setting is generally natural in appearance with human activity, such as private land development, historic mining, and recreation use, having relatively little impact to scenic character. The lower 30 miles are the most scenically diverse, with views of the canyon’s interesting rock outcrops and the river’s pools, cascades, and clear water. From the river, there are distant views of forested peaks and ridges, while the foreground and middleground views are of forested slopes, interesting rock outcrops, and highly diverse riparian vegetation. The user’s focus is usually on the river, its fast-moving water through rapids and still water pools in between.
In comparison to other rivers in the region, the water quality of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is exceptional. The river provides exceptionally high water quality for a variety of beneficial uses, including resident and anadromous fish habitat and recreation opportunities for thousands of people who come to float the Middle Fork every year and to enjoy its pure, clean water.
Wildlife along the Middle Fork Salmon River is abundant due to the designation and isolation of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The river moves through a variety of climates and land types, from alpine forest to high mountain desert to sheer rock-walled canyon, creating a wide variety of habitats. Many species of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mountain goat, Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, wolverine, pine marten, cougar, black bear, bobcat, river otter, coyote, red fox, porcupine, badger, beaver, mink, muskrat, striped skunk, and rattlesnake inhabit the river corridor. Over 75 species of birds, including golden eagle; chukar; Franklin’s, blue, spruce, and ruffed grouse; harlequin duck and other waterfowl; and a variety of neotropical migratory songbirds also can be observed in the corridor, at least seasonally.
The Middle Fork corridor also supplies important habitat for several state and federally listed threatened and endangered species, including gray wolf, bald eagle, and Canada lynx. The Middle Fork drainage was one of the sites for the wolf reintroduction program. In addition, the river corridor contains potential habitat for grizzly bears, should they be reintroduced in Idaho or establish a self-sustaining population on their own.