By Michael Lanza
I pause on a trail 300 feet above one of the West’s wildest rivers, deep in the second-largest wilderness area in the contiguous United States. Below me, Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River bends like an elbow between steep mountainsides of ponderosa pines in a canyon nearly 4,000 feet deep. I notice people and rafts on a beach campsite—the first people I’ve seen since I started hiking from Boundary Creek seven miles upstream almost three hours ago, planning to reach Indian Creek, another 20 miles downstream, by this evening.
Suddenly, a nasal shriek startles me. I spin around to see an elk crossing the trail I’d walked minutes ago. And I think: Welcome to the Idaho wilderness.
I’m dayhiking the 27-mile stretch of the Middle Fork River Trail 44, from Boundary Creek to Indian Creek, on this July day to rendezvous with my family and 19 other friends and extended family who are flying in small planes to the grass landing strip at Indian Creek tomorrow morning.
From there, we’ll launch on a six-day rafting and kayaking trip down the Middle Fork, in the heart of the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness—known among wilderness buffs as “the Frank.” Tonight, I’ll camp with our guides from Middle Fork Rapid Transit, who are floating our party’s boats and gear from Boundary to Indian today. They’re doing that because the water’s unusually low for July—too low to bring our entire party on this upper section of the Middle Fork (a water-level rule set by the U.S. Forest Service).
As much as that bush flight low over the mountainous wilderness of central Idaho promises to be really scenic (I know—I’ve taken more than one), I wanted to hike rather than fly over a canyon that several Middle Fork aficionados advised me was not to be missed. Last night, I camped with our guides Alex, Mark, Topher, and Conner at Boundary Creek, where they rigged the rafts through a violent thunderstorm, during which a bolt of lightning and long rumble of thunder seemed to strike right above the campground; I felt it in my chest. The dozens of boaters camped there were all talking about it afterward.
At 6 a.m. this morning, I started down the Middle Fork River Trail 44 from Boundary Creek, soon discovering that the hiking in the canyon of the Middle Fork—something we’ll do for portions of almost every day this week—is a big part of what makes floating the river such a unique adventure.
Hiking the Middle Fork Salmon River
One of the original eight rivers designated in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1968, the roughly 100-mile-long Middle Fork of the Salmon is widely considered one of America’s finest multi-day, wilderness river float trips, probably second only to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. That reputation stems both from its whitewater—some 100 ratable rapids, many of them class III and IV—and the stunning beauty of this deep, rugged canyon, where cliffs and steep, grass and sagebrush slopes rise to meet ponderosa pine forest.
The Forest Service manages the number of boating parties on the Middle Fork through a permit system—and it’s one of the hardest river permits to get in the West. Thanks to that system, you rarely encounter other parties while on the river. Still, you occasionally pass other groups of about two dozen people camped beside the river.
On the Middle Fork River Trail, which parallels the river for nearly 78 miles from Boundary Creek campground to the Big Creek Bridge, you will occasionally see boating parties in camps and on the river, but few or perhaps no other backpackers. It’s one of the rare multi-day hikes in the West that offers both five-star scenery and a sense of what wilderness solitude feels like.
On a roughly 160-mile, two-week backpacking trip some years back across parts of the adjoining Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and most of the Frank, I encountered a grand total of exactly two other backpackers. More recently, during our six-day rafting and kayaking trip on the Middle Fork, several of us took side hikes to overlooks, hot springs, a waterfall, and ancient Indian rock art.
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In late afternoon on our fourth day on the river, some of the boats pull up to the rocky shore at river left and several of us pile out with daypacks. We start up a path that ascends at a relentlessly steep angle, through dozens of switchbacks, gaining 1,200 vertical feet in just 1.2 miles. Not surprisingly, given how many days’ walking we are from the nearest road, we are the only hikers on this trail.
Within an hour, we reach the trail’s end atop cliffs. Far below us, the slender the ribbon of sparkling river weaves through the Middle Fork’s deep, starkly beautiful canyon. From up here, the canyon looks like a forbidding chasm of stone spires and cliffs with scattered pines and grassy slopes here and there, and hardly a flat square foot of flat terra firma—terrain friendly only to the likes of bighorn sheep. Our guides had told us this spot, Johnson Point (lead photo at top of story), is the best overlook on the Middle Fork. They were right.
We took several side hikes during our six days floating the Middle Fork. While our guides and others in our group boated the river on our second day, some of us dayhike the 10-mile section of the Middle Fork River Trail from our first camp, at Little Creek, to our next campsite, Whitie Cox. On day three, we tied up to shore at the mouth of Loon Creek and hiked a mile upstream to hot springs, where the kids were perfectly content to soak while a few of us hiked another mile up along the boulder-strewn creek.
Before departing our campsite on our fourth morning, we took the steep, half-mile hike up to Aparajo Point, another overlook with long views up and down canyon. Day five featured three short hikes, each different and worthy: a one-mile walk up the wide tributary canyon of Big Creek, where some in the group fished for trout; a 15-minute uphill hike to the enormous, clamshell-like Veil Cave, where the kids stood under a thin waterfall freefalling 100 feet or more; and a 10-minute walk from our tents at Stoddard camp to a rock wall covered with ancient pictographs.
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Part of the challenge of backpacking the Middle Fork Salmon River canyon is getting there. The Middle Fork River Trail 44 ends at Big Creek, in the middle of the wilderness. You can start at the trail’s southern end at Boundary Creek, near Stanley, Idaho, and turn around to retrace your steps. You can fly in to or out from one of the backcountry airstrips on the Middle Fork. Or you can arrange a vehicle shuttle and hike down one tributary canyon, like Loon Creek, and up the Middle Fork to finish at Boundary Creek (a 67-mile trip), with the option of making the trip longer by hiking out-and-back farther down the Middle Fork from Loon Creek.
That remoteness explains why the Middle Fork canyon offers so much solitude on the trail.
On that 27-mile, 13-hour, first day’s solo hike from Boundary Creek to Indian Creek, I see no other people on the trail—only boaters on the water, in camps, or taking a break off the water—until 20 minutes before reaching Indian Creek. Two men on horseback ride up from the other direction. They stop in front of me, looking puzzled to see someone with a daypack on a trail almost 30 miles from the nearest road.
“Where are you coming from?” one asks me.
“Boundary Creek,” I tell him.
“Whoa, that’s a long way,” he says.
“Yea,” I say with a nod, “it feels like it right now.”
Mid-summer gets very hot in the canyons of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness—good for boating and taking side hikes off the river, but a bit too hot for backpacking. Late spring features moderate temperatures, although road access can be blocked by lingering snow. Late August into October is the best time to backpack the Middle Fork of the Salmon and surrounding mountains of the Frank.
Find descriptions of numerous hikes along the Middle Fork in the boating guide The Middle Fork of the Salmon River—A Comprehensive Guide, by Matt Leidecker ($32, nrs.com).