Many serious lovers of white water will declare a blasphemous preference for Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River over even the Grand Canyon/Colorado River juggernaut. We’ll simply tout the Middle Fork as a compelling alternative to the intensely popular (read: overcrowded) grail of white-water trips. With a 3,000-foot drop over a free-flowing, 100 mile stretch through the Salmon-Challis National Forest, which includes at least a hundred distinct sets of rapids, the Middle Fork certainly doesn’t stint on thrills. Allow six or seven days, and go early in the season – as soon as May – for maximum froth and the best shot at catching 25 miles at put-in that can be inaccessible after July. The rapids range up to class IV, with a steady diet of IIIs. But the Middle Fork is not defined by white water alone. The shoreline ambiance is coniferous, alpine, and framed by steep canyon walls at the outset that gradually yield to rolling grassland. Watch for bighorn sheep on the cliffs, black bears and elk almost everywhere, bald eagles overhead, and ancient rock art high up on canyon walls. Hot springs are scattered along the length of the river; one called Sunflower, spills over a rock to form a natural riverside hot shower. Side hikes lead to mining ruins and fly-fishing streams (the main river is darn good, too, primarily for cutthroat trout). Trek up Loon Creek for a swim and a hot-spring dip, and to Veil Falls to see a cascade plummeting from a rock overhang into a natural amphitheater. The river’s moment of truth comes near the end: Impassable Canyon, a thrill-ride wave train between sheer granite walls. Numerous outfitters run the Middle Fork; some, including OARS, provide a choice of boats, including dories and individual duckies (inflatable kayaks that are a blast to paddle on class II stretches).