Natural History

Natural History of the Salmon River Area

Legendary whitewater, pristine scenery, abundant wildlife, sandy beaches and hot springs.

At over 6,000 feet deep from rim to river, the Salmon River is the second deepest canyon located in the Continental US. Nestled in the heart of Idaho, it is the longest river in the lower 48 states that remains un-dammed. The Salmon River begins in the 8,000- foot peaks of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains before winding north and east to the Main Salmon starting point. Here, the river turns sharply to the west and flows through America’s largest designated wilderness areas outside Alaska, know as the Franck Church Wilderness area. All this adds up to a wilderness river of legendary proportions.

Most rapids on the Main are “big-water” or “hydraulic” rapids. These are characterized by big curling waves that offer a thrilling roller coaster ride for all skill levels. Bailey Falls, Devil’s Teeth and Dried Meat are examples of these rapids where the trick is to enter correctly and paddle forward! The Main’s legendary “technical” rapids, like Salmon Falls and Big Mallard, have narrow chutes with exposed rocks on either side. These rapids require more precision and they offer a different kind of thrill. Given the huge drainage of the Salmon it is not uncommon for the river to reach levels over 50,000 cubic feet per second in the spring or early summer.

Mountain goats on Salmon RiverThe Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine forest of the Main Salmon is home to spectacular wildlife. Bighorn sheep wander near camp. A lone moose is sometimes seen drinking from a side creek. Bear are common along the river, though they avoid camps. Bald eagles are also common. The natives called this river “Tom-Agit-Pah,” which means Big Fish Water, because of its large Salmon and Steelhead trout. Although significantly reduced in number over the last few decades, with a little patience you may still sight salmon spawning in one of the Main’s many side creeks.

Indian rock paintingHuman history in the Main Salmon area dates back over 8,000 years and Native American pictographs can still be seen along the river. The earliest inhabitants may have been ancestors of the Northern Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes encountered by the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1805, despite warnings from the Shoshone, Clark spent several days looking for a route through the canyon on horseback. His attempt stopped about 25 miles short of our Corn Creek launch site.

Over the last century the Salmon has seen many visitors with a variety of interests. Homesteaders and miners, mountain men and loners all passed through the canyon. Rafters still eat fruit off the trees near Jim Moore’s abandoned homestead. The old buildings left by Buckskin Bill still stand as a monument to “the last of the Mountain Men.” These days, though, it’s mostly just us rafters who come through here, and when you travel the Main Salmon you become a part of this history. Nowadays it’s mostly rafters who visit the places that make the Salmon River special.

1800's settler tools

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