Known as “The River of No Return,” the Salmon River originates in the Sawtooth and Lemhi Valleys of central and eastern Idaho; snows from the Sawtooth and Salmon River Mountains in the south and the Clearwater and Bitterroot Mountains in the north feed this river. The upper section passes through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, while the lower section forms the southern boundary of the Gospel-Hump Wilderness.
The Salmon River flows through a vast wilderness in the second deepest gorge on the continent; only the Snake River canyon is deeper. Its granite-walled canyon is one-fifth of a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon, and, for approximately 180 miles, the Salmon Canyon is more than one mile deep.
From the North Fork to Corn Creek, the spectacular canyon of the Salmon River has exposed some of the oldest known rocks in the state of Idaho. In the vicinity of Shoup, these rocks, called gneiss, have been dated as 1.5 billion years old. The canyon itself was formed 35 to 45 million years ago.
The main stem of the Salmon River provides habitat for a variety of fish species. These include cutthroat trout, bull trout, rainbow trout, mountain white fish, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon (spring/summer/fall run), steelhead, smallmouth bass, northern pikeminnow, sucker, and white sturgeon. The river offers high-quality sportfishing for resident populations of cutthroat and rainbow trout, steelhead, and whitefish.
July 23, 1980. The segment of the main stem from the mouth of the North Fork of the Salmon River downstream to Long Tom Bar.
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 Salmon River from the North Fork to Long Tom Bar hosts four federally listed fish species and provides designated critical habitat for Snake River sockeye and Snake River spring/summer chinook. It is a key area for the survival and recovery of federally listed salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. In terms of habitat, this reach is an important migratory route for salmon, as well as important rearing habitat for many species.
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 the 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 each of the canyon’s famous rapids.
There has been no systematic inventory of the entire Salmon River corridor for historic sites; however, unpublished monitoring and inventory work by the Salmon-Challis National Forest suggests large numbers of significant historical sites exist all along the river. Mining and homesteading began in the area in the 1880s and the traces of these long-abandoned mines and cabins can still be seen. Outstanding examples include the Blackie Foster cabin, Jim Moore Ranch, Polly Beamis cabin, Shoup townsite, Gold Hill Mine, Clipper Bullion Mine, and other sites. The Forest Service started administering the river corridor around the turn of the 20th century, and sites, such as the 1909 Indianola Ranger Station and Long Tom Picnic Area, are outstanding examples of early Forest Service architecture and administration. In the 1930s, The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established camps along the Salmon River, like Ebenezer Bar CCC Camp, and reconstructed or constructed many of the roads and Forest Service administration and recreation sites in the area, including Indianola and Long Tom Picnic Area. Additionally, they opened up the upper portion and lower portion of the river corridor by constructing the Salmon River Road through extremely difficult terrain and conditions.
Native American Traditional Use
The Salmon 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, visiting pictographs, 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 members to hunt bighorn sheep, fish and visit sacred and traditional sites. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, in cooperation with the Forest Service, annually visit the river for several days of river rafting and camping to teach Shoshone-Bannock kids about their heritage. The Nez Perce Tribe maintains contact with sacred sites within the corridor and members hunt, fish, and gather plants along its shores.
Archeological evidence suggests that the Salmon River area has been occupied for at least 8,000 years. Several tribes, including the Nez Perce lived here, harvesting the rich bounty of salmon hosted by the river. Archaeological sites identified within the river corridor include pictographs, pithouse villages, lithic scatters, human burials, sacred sites, ponderosa pine peeled trees, talus pits, and rock shelters. Scientific excavations at Shoup Rockshelters, Corn Creek, Smith Gulch, Owl Creek, Cove Creek, and other locations suggest the river corridor presents 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. Archaeological excavations at the Shoup Rockshelters were among the earliest in Idaho, being completed in 1966, and helped define the earliest and rarest cultural components for the Salmon River Mountains, dating to 8000 years ago.
The Salmon River flows through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The river corridor offers a variety of land-based dispersed activities, including, hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and camping. Fishing and hunting are the predominant uses in October, November, February, and March. Short sections of trail provide access into the river corridor in numerous locations throughout its length. Trail use is by foot and horse.
However, whitewater boating is by far the predominant use from April through September and is what the river is best known for. The Salmon River is world renowned in the boating community and origin of visitors reflects an international flavor. The wild section offers multi-day trips, while the recreation section offers primarily day use trips. Approximately 7,000 people go down the corridor via float boat each summer through Class I to Class IV whitewater. The Salmon’s abundant sandy beaches provide campsites to float groups throughout the summer and fall.
Once deemed impossibly rough for navigation by the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, with the recent advent of power boats, skilled operators have been able to travel up-river. Even today however, this trip demands the best in skill, experience, and equipment. The historical use of jetboats was recognized by Congress as an integral part of the transportation system on the Salmon River; therefore, provisions were made to continue powerboat use.
Permits are required for both float boats and jetboats on the wild section during the control period of June 20 - September 7. All floaters are required to carry fire pans, portable toilets, ash containers, shovel, bucket, and food strainer. Leave No Trace and minimum-impact camping techniques are the required method of dealing with your overnight stay in the corridor. Applications for permits are taken in December through January through the National Recreation Reservation System at rec.gov.
Jet boat permits are issued on a phone-in, first-come/first-served basis.
The Salmon River corridor is classified as Variety Class A, indicating it contains distinctive visual features. 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. From the braided channel and island complex at Deadwater to the vertical granite cliffs at Pine Creek and Black canyon to the mature ponderosa pine stands to the cascades at Salmon Falls to the cliffs and slackwater at Mackay Bar, the Salmon River canyon displays an outstanding diversity of visual elements. 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, high gradient rushing streams from side drainages, and highly diverse riparian vegetation. Similar views are afforded from river side trails where they exist. 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 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 river every year and to enjoy its pure, clean water.
This rugged canyon provides habitat for an abundant and varied wildlife resource. Many species of wildlife inhabit the river corridor, including bighorn sheep, mountain goat, Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, moose, wolverine, pine marten, cougar, black bear, bobcat, river otter, coyote, red fox, porcupine, badger, beaver, mink, bats, muskrat, striped skunk, and rattlesnake. 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 Salmon River corridor also supplies important habitat for several state and/or federally listed threatened and endangered species, including gray wolf, bald eagle, and Canada lynx. 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.