Middle Fork Salmon River Crowned Best in the West

5 Min. Read
Vibrant green landscape view of camp on an OARS Middle Fork of the Salmon River trip.

There’s Just One Small Caveat…

A champion has been crowned. River lovers from across the country came together to decide the 2nd Best River Trip in the West, behind the one-and-only Grand Canyon—which was not included in the competition as it’s widely regarded as the best river trip in the United States. In the single elimination March Madness-style showdown, Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River reigned supreme. With nearly 3,000 votes it dominated the competition winning more than 70% of the vote in each of the four rounds.  

Hosted by OARS, the 2nd Best in the West River Trip Showdown included 20 popular West Coast river trips, including finals challenger Green River through the Gates of Lodore and semi-finals finishers the Yampa River and Oregon’s Rogue River.  For those who have sojourned down the Middle Fork’s clear alpine waters, the victory will likely come as no surprise. For those who haven’t rafted this stretch, here are just a few of the reasons this river trip is worthy of this accolade. 

Two groups of people white water rafting in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Jagged peaks on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River | Photo: Rob Aseltine

Jaw-Dropping Scenery 

The Middle Fork of the Salmon travels North through the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. It’s rugged and remote. The landscape is as diverse as it is mesmeric. The river loses 3,000 feet of elevation on its journey from Boundary Creek to Cache Bar and consequently, river runners descend through several unique ecosystems. The river begins in a lush forest before the canyon opens up to large grassy plains dotted with ponderosa pines. Finally, the dramatic Impassable Canyon where granite batholiths constrict the river for exhilarating rapids at the base of sheer cliffs. Each section of the trip is as stunning as the last.

An OARS raft blasts through a rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho
An OARS raft blasts through a rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. | Photo: Rob Aseltine

An Abundance of Rapids

In the first 25 miles, the gradient of the Middle Forks is 40 feet per mile. It’s a heart-pumping, adrenaline-filled start with back-to-back rapids. Then the river maintains an unparalleled drop rate of 23 feet per mile. The non-stop gradient creates 100 rapids in as many miles, from fun riffles to sporty wave trains, peppered with high-octane Class IV drops. Depending on the season, the 100 rapids can be huge hydraulics packing big punches, or sporty and exciting runs through technical slots and rock gardens. From Pistol Creek’s sharp s-turn to Cutthroat Cove’s trickily placed rocks, to Cramer Creek’s big splashes, the excitement is unceasing.

A hiker walks on a trail above the Middle Fork of the Salmon River surrounded by vibrant green vegetation on an OARS trip.
A hiker walks on a trail above the Middle Fork. | Photo: Rob Aseltine

On-Land Escapades and Epics

The off-water attractions offer just as much intrigue as the rapids. From mountain hermit lore and abandoned homesteads to Native American rock art, the human history in the corridor is lengthy. Archaeological evidence shows humans have engaged with the canyon for 8,000 years.  Numerous pictographs and pithouse depressions can be found from the Tuka-Deka people (the Sheepeaters). Plus there are plentiful side hikes with phenomenal views and wonderful waterfalls. The hundred-foot Veil Falls mists hikers in a rock cathedral, complete with an accompanying pictograph panel. Waterfall Creek’s dramatic descent to the river is turbulent and thundering. 

Sleep in Style

Camps on the Middle Fork offer incredible fishing holes, shady pine groves, and gorgeous side hikes both along the river and up side canyons. At Camas Creek Camp, campers get to select their waterfront property from the myriad of creekside tent sites. Then one can meander up the rushing creek where the wildflowers and fish abound, or take the river trail upstream to enjoy the wide vista as the river sweeps left into the setting sun. Back at camp, the shade of a ponderosa stand is a perfect spot to sit and listen to the tune of the confluence. No matter where you camp on the Middle Fork, you can count on gorgeous vistas to walk to, shady pine groves to hang out in, a stellar soundtrack to fall asleep to, a river of stars above, and a good night’s sleep. Plus, each camp is an epic adventure bocce course waiting to be played. 

A fly fisherman on the Middle Fork
A fly fisherman on the Middle Fork. | Photo: Justin Bailie

Reel ‘em in: World-class Fishing

Wild cutthroat trout, big rainbows, and bull trout fill the waters of the Middle Fork. Famous for its crystal clear water, anglers primarily use dry flies allowing them to enjoy the thrill of watching the fish rise and bite. Side creeks such as Big Creek, Loon and Camas are amazing fishing destinations. The remote nature means the tributaries aren’t overfished making the fishing as fun, exciting, and non-stop as the rapids. 

Two guys soak in a hot spring on the edge of the Middle Fork Salmon River in Idaho
The hot springs are not to be missed on the Middle Fork. | Photo: Rob Aseltine

Incredible Hot Springs 

What better way to punctuate a day of whitewater than with a nice soak in a riverside hot spring? Idaho’s unique geology creates a hotbed of thermal pools and the Middle Fork boasts six relaxing and scenic soaking experiences. At Sunflower Hot Springs’ upper pool, soak in the heat and the views, or stand at the river’s edge and catch the hot shower descending from the cliff above. Up the beautiful Loon Creek, enjoy the river’s largest hot pool. The creekside access is perfect for a refreshing cold plunge in between soaks. Let your worries float away as you relax in the healing waters and walk back to the boats feeling rejuvenated by this truly unrivaled experience. 

The Salmon is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48, which means the river looks wonderfully different each time you see it. So whether it’s your first time or your third, the Middle Fork has something new to offer you. Come for the endless whitewater, the spectacular scenery, the world-class fishing, or the impossible-to-beat hot springs. The Middle Fork of the Salmon, 2nd Best River Trip in the West, will leave you speechless. 

Portrait of Jasmine Wilheim on the river

Jasmine Wilhelm

Jasmine Wilhelm is a high school English teacher, photographer, and river guide. An Idaho native, she spends her summers guiding for OARS Dories Idaho and feels blessed to guide on the rivers she learned to boat on.

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