Dories have become synonymous with Grand Canyon river trips, thanks in no small part to the late Martin Litton, legendary environmental crusader and founder of Grand Canyon Dories. These finely-crafted wooden boats were further immortalized in The Emerald Mile, author Kevin Fedarko’s now-classic book about the infamous record-breaking dory run through Grand Canyon.
What most people don’t realize about these storied vessels is that their roots go far beyond Grand Canyon.
In 1972, Litton enlisted river guide Curt Chang to help expand his dory operation to Idaho and start running trips though Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Five decades later, the tradition of running dories continues on some of the most classic stretches of whitewater in the West.
If you’ve always wanted to experience a river by dory, but a two-week Grand Canyon trip seems out of reach, we’ve highlighted a few other destinations where you can discover the magic of the dory.
1) Snake River through Hells Canyon, Idaho
Despite being among Litton’s earliest Idaho offerings, the Snake River through Hells Canyon is easily one of the most underrated dory trips in the West. Boasting some of the best big waves and whitewater in the Northwest, a dory makes this hidden gem of a river trip an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. And when you’re not riding the wave trains, the Snake River offers lovely calm stretches that are ideal for kicking your feet up on the bow of the dory (or even hopping on a stand up paddleboard), and soaking in the scenery and wildlife, including more than 100 species of birds. Not to mention, sleeping under the stars doesn’t get any better than on the huge sandy beaches you’ll find in Hells Canyon.
2) Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, Utah
When the whitewater is big in Cataract Canyon, it’s big. At peak spring flows, rapids like the infamous Big Drops have been known to rival some of Grand Canyon’s most thrilling and challenging rapids. And it’s no secret that a dory is the ultimate vehicle for experiencing the Colorado River’s legendary rapids. Add in dramatic canyon scenery and unprecedented access to wild and untamed heart of Canyonlands National Park and this Colorado River dory trip is a worthy Grand Canyon alternative.
Beyond spring high-water trips, dories can typically be run throughout the season as water levels on this free-flowing river allow. Often likened to the luxury car of river crafts, these hard-hulled boats take passengers through the magnificent red rock cathedral in style and comfort.
3) Salmon River, Idaho
With more than 300 miles of free-flowing river and arguably one of America’s most idyllic stretches of runnable whitewater in the U.S., it wasn’t long after launching his Idaho dory operation before Litton got a permit to start running trips on Idaho’s Salmon River.
While the Middle Fork of the Salmon is a more technical stretch that’s not ideal for dories at most flows (unless you want to spend a lot of time patching boats), it’s the Main and Lower Salmon Rivers where the vessels really shine. On the Main Salmon, beautiful mountain scenery, big sandy beaches and abundant wildlife take center stage. Lower Salmon river trips flow through four distinctly unique and scenic gorges interspersed with incredible wide-open vistas and some of the most idyllic white sand beaches of any western river. No matter which experience you choose, both of these quintessential Idaho river trips offer the chance to experience the grace of a dory, and its wild side, as you float through fun, Class III whitewater that’s suitable for all ages and experience levels.
*An earlier version of this post first appeared in February 2016 and has since been updated.
Photos: A dory running rapids in Cataract Canyon – Sherry Ott; Hells Canyon dory trip – Dylan Silver; Colorado River dory trip through Cataract Canyon – James Kaiser; Idaho’s Salmon River – James Kaiser