Salmon “River of No Return” History

Salmon River Scow
Salmon River outfitter, Bill Bernt, stands on the newly-built Idaho Centennial River of No Return Scow, 1990.

“The River of No Return”

Is a term that has long been associated with the roadless section of the Salmon River between the towns of Salmon and Riggins. In this area, the Salmon River flows through a canyon that is five thousand feet deep and nearly two hundred miles long. When Lewis and Clark encountered this gorge, they turned back and followed an old Indian route around the area. Early fur trappers also avoided the Salmon canyon. In the 1860s, gold was discovered in the Salmon River country, and prospectors quickly explored the area. Most of the gravel bars of the Salmon River contained gold dust in small quantities. Miners working a sluicebox along the high-water line, with an investment of a few boards, shovels, picks and crowbars, made a dollar a day up through the Depression years.  Many of them also raised fruit and vegetables which they sold in near-by high elevation mining communities such as Dixie.

A train of pack mules provides transportation through the rough backcountry of the Salmon River
Packing into the Salmon River high country. This method is still used today.

While this small-scale, subsistance mining…

Was done throughout the Salmon River, there were hard-rock mines discovered in the 1880s within the upper end of the canyon, supporting a community of several hundred people called Shoup. Because the canyon was too rugged for wagon roads, access was by packhorses over difficult trails, or by river. Wooden, flat-bottomed boats, typically thirty feet long and eight or nine feet wide, with four-foot sides were developed to take supplies and mining machinery from the end of the road at Salmon into the canyon. These boats were operated with a long sweep on each end of the boat and were capable of carrying several tons in weight.


The Salmon River was too swift to bring these boats back…

Up river for another trip, so they were dismantled, and the boards were used as lumber. Since these boats never came back to Salmon, the “River of No Return” as a term came into use, around 1900.

In time roads did begin to penetrate the canyon from each end, but an 80-mile section remains roadless, within a designated wilderness area appropriately named the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. This section is commonly referred to by river runners today as the Main Salmon.

Visit old homesteads off the Salmon River and experience the old west
A typical Salmon River homestead.

Middle Fork History

For thousands of years the Shoshoni Indians who became known as “Sheepeaters” roamed the  Middle Fork country, wintering along the river and following the game to higher elevations in the summer, digging camas in the headwaters meadows, fishing for salmon in late summer. Their pictographs, house pits, hunting blinds, and obsidian flakes remain.  When fur trappers began to explore the northwest in the 1820s and 1830s, the Middle Fork country was too rugged for their operations; they traveled all around it but not into it.  Gold was discovered in the early 1860s in the Salmon River and Clearwater River areas, and prospectors soon penetrated all the back country, though only a little gold was found on the Middle Fork–not enough to hold the attention of many miners.

Explore Buckskin Bill's "Castle" right off the Salmon River
Buckskin Bill’s “Castle”

The Sheepeater Indian war, a minor and final chapter in the Indian wars…

Of the Northwest, occurred in 1879.  Cavalry penetrated the Middle Fork and Big Creek country, though with great difficulty.  They left with a better sense of the geography of the Middle Fork country.  At least one of their scouts, Dave Lewis, remained for the rest of his life, living on Big Creek until the 1930s.  In the late 1800s, during the latter part of the homestead era, a number of people established homesteads, primarily between Pistol Creek and the Flying B.  In this section of river, several tributaries formed alluvial fans that were large enough and flat enough to establish small ranches, if the tributary could be diverted to irrigate the flat.  The remoteness of the area meant that ranching was always a subsistence operation, and by the end of the Depression raising livestock along the Middle Fork was mostly over.  After WWII, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game acquired most of the homesteads, preventing subdivision.  Access during the homestead period was by horseback.  In the 30s, a few riverside airstrips were created.

Boating of supplies down the Middle Fork…

Was never a significant activity, as it was on the Main Salmon. Through the early part of the 1900s, access to the headwaters was very difficult.  The Middle Fork was too small and difficult to accommodate boats with any payload.  Dagger Falls had to be portaged.  In 1927 Henry Weidner led a canoe party down the Middle Fork, filming the trip for a documentary, which was apparently the first descent of the Middle Fork.  In the mid- to late 30s several groups from Oregon and Utah floated the Middle Fork.  Road access did not reach the mouth of the Middle Fork until the late 30s; until then, a boating trip on the Middle Fork had to continue on down the Main Salmon to Riggins.  In the late 50s a road was constructed to Dagger Falls, which eliminated the portage there and also the small, tricky, upper end of the river.   Through the 60s, recreational boating increased greatly, with regulation of access beginning in the early 70s.

Except for a few small in-holdings, the Middle Fork country…

Was Forest Service land.  In the ‘30s, the Idaho Primitive Area was created, to preserve the wilderness character of the area.  At about 1 ¼ million acres, it included all of the Middle Fork country except for some of the headwaters, extended west nearly to the South Fork of the Salmon, and north to the Main Salmon.  Congressional designation as Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area followed in l980, with expansion to over two million acres.

Learn about the Pictographs along the Salmon River
Pictographs along the Salmon River

The Lower Salmon river was within the homeland of the Nez Perce Indians…

–until 1877.   In that year, General Howard ordered the non-treaty Nez Perce to leave their  homes in the Wallowa Valley west of the Snake River, cross the Snake and then the Salmon during high water with all their belongings, abandoning the livestock and possessions they could not bring with them. They complied, and just before they reported to the reservation on the Clearwater River, a few individuals, probably drunk, opened the Nez Perce war.  We usually camp near a crossing used by the Nez Perce while pursued by the cavalry.  The Indians crossed the river, with all their old and their kids.  The cavalry couldn’t, and had to turn back–for a time.

While the Lower Salmon was near the early fur-trade trails,

There was little beaver habitat along the river to interest the trappers.  When the gold miners entered Idaho through the Lewiston area in the 1860s, the area was near-by but did not contain the rich deposits of gold that initially attracted miners.  There was gold in the sands of the Salmon, but it was fine and difficult to recover.  Eventually with improving equipment and machinery there was a good deal of placer mining along the Lower Salmon, up through the desperate days of the Depression.  Tailings and rusted machinery are common sights.  There were many Chinese miners with very small, subsistence, operations along the river.  The low elevation of the Lower Salmon means the river is a long ways below trees for log cabins such as were used upstream.  Instead rock houses, or rock foundations with a wood or canvas roof, were often used by Chinese miners.   These rock remnants are common along the river.

While rugged terrain, the Lower Salmon…

Canyon was easier to penetrate than the canyons of the Middle Fork and Main Salmon.  Above the canyon are extensive flat lands.  At about three thousand feet depth, the canyon was penetrated by horse trails from the tablelands above to supply ranches along the river.  Beginning in the late 1800s, a pattern of winter grazing of livestock within the canyon developed, moving livestock to higher elevations in the summer.  This pattern continues today.  There is little snow along the river, allowing grazing during the winter, while moving livestock to the higher elevations avoids the extreme summer heat and provides better forage.  Ranchers in the area followed the pattern, leaving their homes empty during the summer, often spending the summer in tents.

Beginning in the 1860s, steamboats were taken up the Snake River…

To the mouth of the Salmon River and beyond, but they could not go up the Salmon.  Some of the early scow trips originating in Salmon continued beyond Riggins through the Lower Salmon canyon to Lewiston, but boating of supplies was apparently not a major activity.  Undoubtedly some heavy mining machinery was taken down river by scow from Riggins or Whitebird–though it was not easy to get large loads to those localities.

Ride exciting white water rapids on the Salmon RiverRecreational whitewater rafting on the Lower Salmon…

Developed later than on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon.  During the school summer, the Lower Salmon is hot.  Boaters were slow to recognize the advantages of low-elevation boating in the spring and fall, when the Lower Salmon is very pleasant.  The scenery is desert, with its own beauty, rather than the green, pine-covered landscape farther upstream at higher elevation.  Huge sand beaches, crystal clear-and warmer-water, basalt cliffs, good whitewater, small-mouth bass fishing, history, and little traffic make the Lower Salmon an overlooked and under-appreciated early fall rafting trip.

The Lower Salmon River is not within a designated wilderness area, but is back-country.

In a few places, rugged two-track trails reach the river, but do not follow it.  The trip is essentially a roadless experience, due to the steep terrain.

Come Discover the Salmon “River of No Return” with Aggipah River Trips
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