Hiking the Middle Fork River Trail
The small Cessna rattled slightly, hitting a pocket of rough air as we topped the ridgeline and got our first view of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The river was wide and slow here, surrounded by gentle sloping banks of new growth pine that belied the craggy landscapes, rushing white water, and soaring side peaks that awaited just downstream. After a smooth landing by our talented pilot, I climbed out after the other passengers—two women who would be my hiking companions for the week. We then began unloading all the gear we planned to take with us on backpacking trip down the Middle Fork River Trail.
With our gear spread out around us, we did not look like the typical backpackers. When asked to carry everything you need on your back, most people will quickly pare down their necessities, making for a barebones excursion. Not us. We were looking forward to a week of four-course meals, full camp setups, hot coffee, and cold beverages. Here’s the twist—while we planned to walk, all of our gear would go down the river with the support of the raft trip that we were accompanying. This convenience meant that we would set out each day with miles of trail ahead and only a day pack on our backs. Not only did the support of the raft trip ease our weight burdens, but it also reduced our assumed risk and simplified logistics, making the trek more approachable overall. The trail ends at river mile 78, meaning that hikers must walk back out, arrange a flight, or leave by river. For us, the rafting option was the obvious choice.
For the next five days, we wandered through the Ponderosa pine forests, open sage hillsides, and rocky canyons that flank the river. The trail was like a walk through history, allowing us to explore Native American pictographs, abandoned mining operations, and homesteader cabins, among other sights. We found an easy companionship together, sharing stories as we meandered along. During quiet moments on the trail, we saw bighorn sheep, bald eagles, and river otters. Whatever the time of day, the sound of the rushing river below us was a welcome constant.
Although each day was unique, we quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm. We met up with the raft trip for lunches and daily resupplies on white sand beaches alongside shaded swimming eddies. In the afternoons, we would often watch boats take daring lines through the class III and IV whitewater—sometimes our vantage point was a bird’s eye view from a high canyon wall, other times right at eye level, but always within hearing distance of the passengers’ joyous shrieks. In the evenings, we drug our weary selves into a fully set up camp, greeted by cold drinks, camp games, gourmet meals, and soaks in the occasional hot spring. The sleeping arrangements were plush by any standards, as our raft support allowed for full-sized sleeping pads, bags, and pillows. On clear nights, we opted to sleep outside of our tents, allowing for an unobstructed view of the stars.
On the fifth day, we were set to complete the hiking portion of the trip. We left camp as soon as we finished our coffee and breakfast, waving goodbye to the rafters who were still milling about enjoying a more leisurely pace to the morning. By lunchtime, we arrived at the Big Creek Bridge and the end of the trail. We waited for the raft trip, congratulating ourselves for completing our trek. It was a bittersweet moment as we changed our hiking boots out for river sandals. The melancholy never set in, for we still had two days and 23 miles to go, now by raft. As soon as we were in the rafts, we were bouncing through the rollicking waves of Impassable Canyon. Experiencing the area from the vantage point of the river was a true delight after spending the past five days on the trail. We spent one more evening under the stars before rafting out the final ten miles of whitewater the following day.
We reached the take-out all too soon. Had there been an airstrip nearby, I would have asked a pilot to fly us back to the beginning.
A BRIEF OVERVIEW
The Middle Fork of the Salmon Trail accompanies the river of the same name for 78 miles through the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Hikers will experience an eclectic mix of working ranches, hunting camps, pictographs, and historic cabins, along with hot springs, waterfalls and other natural wonders. The trail is maintained for hunters, pack strings, river runners, and backpackers so it remains in generally in decent shape. Although the elevation trends down (~2,880 ft drop), there are several ridgelines to traverse that will leave hikers short of breath. Additionally, it is worth noting that the trail system covers more miles than the river. Just beware, you will walk further than the 78 miles of river you’ll parallel!
START AND END POINTS
The trail begins at Boundary Creek (River Mile 0) and runs to the Big Creek Bridge (River Mile 77.8). It can hiked as a sort of loop-hike by turning around at the endpoint and returning to the trailhead. As the trail sometimes runs on either side of the river, bridges can be used to minimize repeated segments. Should you choose a thru hike, egress will need to be arranged via air or raft. In order to hike with raft-support, it is recommended to begin the trip at either Indian Creek or Thomas Creek airstrips and launch points.
Idaho weather can be dramatic and unpredictable. Generally, June is the rainier month with cool-warm days and cold nights. Late June to August brings hot temperatures and the potential for afternoon thunderstorms. Late August to September provides mild, dry days and is oft-considered the best time for a hike trip.
Photo Credits to: Sena Strenge and Kristin Baunsgard and Landon Moores