Best river: whitewater rafting on the Salmon River
As the seasons change, so does the Salmon River.
The experience of rafting the Salmon River in Idaho varies considerably depending on section of river and time of year.
Best section of the Salmon River
Every white water rafting river has its own characteristics and personality. The “best” river rafting trip is the one that matches your interest and available time. Your preference might be on-the-edge whitewater, or hardly any whitewater at all. You may be interested in only a quiet day trip, or spending a week or two camping along the Salmon River–or drifting gown the Salmon each day and spending nights in riverside lodges instead of camping. Fishing might be an interest for you, either dry-fly fishing for trout or steelhead fishing from a drift boat. You may be interested in a spring trip when there are essentially no people on the river, the big game animals are still near the river, flowers are blooming, and sense of wilderness is greatest, or you may prefer the warmer, more secure weather of mid-summer. Large sand beach camping with swimming may be a choice, especially if there are younger kids in the group. Regional history, both natural and cultural, may be an interest.
The Salmon is one of the classic wilderness whitewater rivers. By choosing time of the year and section of the river, the Salmon River can stimulate nearly any interest–but not necessarily all interests on the same trip. We offer multiple day camping trips on all three back-country sections of the Salmon, the Middle Fork, the Main Salmon, and the Lower Salmon, and day trips near the town of Salmon, as well as a variety of fishing trips.
The Aggipah Year:
March – early April
Fishermen stay in a motel, go out for the day in drift boats. Propane heaters in the boats take the edge off chilly mornings. Geese and ducks are mating, flying up and down the river, beginning to nest in late March. River temperatures climb from low 30s into the high 40s. In early April steelhead begin to develop spawning beds, most of them move upstream beyond the Salmon area, bald eagles leave, ospreys arrive, days warm up enough that snowmelt dirties the river and steelhead fishing winds down. Elk drop antlers.
Mid April – mid May
The river warms to around 50 degrees, begins to rise from snowmelt and carries associated sediment. Bears come out of their dens. Grass begins to green at the lower elevations, flowers bloom, big game moves to lower elevation for the first green grass. Trees leaf out in mid April. This is the time of greatest sense of wilderness in the back country. There are some nice sunny days in the 70s, and some chilly drizzle. We can do multi-day river trips in the back country, on all three roadless sections–the Middle Fork, Main, and Lower Salmon River. The Middle Fork requires flying in to a back-country airstrip to start a trip, since the road to Boundary Creek is still snow-blocked.
Mid – May to mid – June
The Salmon River rises to a peak of runoff, usually the end of May or the beginning of June, and may be too high for safety. The road into Boundary Creek melts out so Middle Fork River Rafting trips can begin as soon as the river subsides to a safe level. Deer, elk, and antelope migrate to summer range and then drop their young. Wildflowers are at peak of bloom, depending on elevation.
Mid – Late June
Summer season begins. Snowmelt is past the peak, allowing the Salmon River to drop and begin to warm. The Salmon river is still high, providing maximum whitewater on the Middle Fork–though river temperature is chilly, around 50 degrees. The Middle Fork is still too high for best fishing unless it is a low-water year. The Main Salmon River is high but runnable. The Lower Salmon River is typically too high for our standards.
July – August
We have Idaho rafting trips on both the Middle Fork of the Salmon and Main Salmon River. The river continues to drop and warm. By mid-summer, river temperature on the Main Salmon River will reach the low 70s, and on the Middle Fork of the Salmon into the mid-60s. Fishing on the Middle Fork of the Salmon improves. The river level drops until the upper part of the Middle Fork becomes impractical to float, and we fly our trips in to a riverside airstrip to start our trips. On an average year, this begins about the first of August. Decreasing flows don’t affect the Main Salmon as much; the rapids become more defined, and the quality of the whitewater, if anything, improves. As the river drops, the sandbar camps on the Main emerge. Days are very warm, and kids are busy with swimming and beach activities. Day temperatures on the Lower Salmon are high enough that we do not schedule trips there until late August.
Salmon River Rafting Trips slow. The first snow hits the peaks of the continental divide above timberline. We sometimes have an early September Main Salmon River trip, or a Middle Fork of the Salmon river trip. The Lower Gorge, at an elevation of only a thousand feet, becomes a very nice rafting trip as the weather cools. While upstream trips can be chilly, it is still warm on the Lower Salmon. Even at the end of September, temperatures can reach the 80s. Mid-summer temperatures often are uncomfortably hot on the Lower Salmon, but in September is just right–not too hot, not too cold. Sandbars are large, the river still warm enough for swimming, good fishing for smallmouth bass, few people on the river. I begin to dry boats and tents to put away for the winter, and start going through equipment. Ospreys leave for the winter.
Steelhead reach the Lower Salmon. Weather is usually clear the first half of October, and still pleasant for camping at that elevation. We schedule a couple of 5-day trips for steelhead fishing and chukar hunting the first half of October, then usually put away the camp gear. In late October we offer a multi-day trip for steelhead on the Main Salmon through the River of No Return section, but we stay in lodges instead of camping. By the 15th or 20th of October steelhead arrive in the Salmon area, and we begin day trip steelhead fishing there. Cottonwoods along the river reach the peak of color between the 22 and 25th of October; leaves fall around Halloween. In mid-month deer and elk begin to return from summer range, bald eagles arrive for the winter. The snow pack for next summer’s river flow is beginning at higher elevation.
Steelhead fishing continues until ice begins to flow, often in mid-November. The leaves have fallen, trees are bare. Elk and deer are on winter range. Bighorn sheep slam heads on the river road. By late November there is snow on the valley floor. Mallards begin to arrive for the winter. The Salmon River begins to freeze.
Ice begins to flow down the river in mid to late November, though not every day. We can fish for steelhead in the Salmon area throughout the winter on occassional mild days. Guides get to fish a little themselves. The snow pack builds. I spend my time at the desk working with the next season’s schedule, going to meetings, etc.–and keeping the woodbox full. The ice pack in the river begins to break up in late February-early March.