Running The Middle Fork of the Salmon


Photos by Benj Wadsworth

Boating—a word that most runners loathe—it can mean everything from floating on a placid lake to an ocean-sailing crossing to a Caribbean cruise ship.  But to a runner it pretty much means one thing:  a complete lack of exercise.  As a result, runners tend to avoid watercraft at all costs and encourage their families to go on more terrestrial-based vacations in order to facilitate at least an hour or two a day for their endorphin fix.


However, what about a boating trip that not only offers up an unusual, fully-disconnected adventure deep in one of the biggest wildernesses in the United States that also presents the ability to run hundreds of miles of remote singletrack with minimal gear and eat sumptuous meals each day?  The state of Idaho has a huge swath of roadless green in the middle of the state, and cutting northward for a hundred miles through the heart of this remote area is the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of the great rivers of the West.  And in addition to being a world- renowned river trip, it’s an untapped trail running heaven.

Our crew of fifteen folks was able to get an ideal 2016 launch date in early July.   One of the great things about a river trip is that nearly everyone can enjoy them:  our trip included some nearly-retired lawyers who had barely ever slept outside, teens who wondered why they were being forced off their phones for a week, gung ho millennials, crusty river rats, and fortunately also, accomplished endurance athletes Paul, Drew, Benj, and Zinnia, who were as keen to lope along singletrack and charge up steep climbs as they were to brave the rapids.  After our respective long drives from Salt Lake and the Pacific Northwest into the the depths of Idaho we rendezvoused at the Boundary Creek put in; a simple little campsite perched above the rushing waters of the Middle Fork.  As the ranger gave us our orientation talk, river newbie Zinnia gazed downstream where the river hurtles out of sight and around the corner.  She then spoke for a fair number of the rest of the crew, “What have I got myself into?”


River rapids are classified on a scale of 1-6: class 1’s are riffles, class 2’s are small rapids, class 3’s are fun and exhilarating but aren’t dangerous, class 4’s are powerful, tricky, and potentially dangerous, and class 5 and 6 are dangerous and nearly unrunnable.  The Middle Fork of the Salmon is rated class 3 to 4, depending on the flow, and aside from peak snow runoff (typically late May to mid-June) it’s the perfect combination of exciting but not scary.  However, it does start with a bang. As our flotilla of 5 rafts finally pushed off the rocky beach, the nervous anticipation of the crew was palpable; sure, we want a good adventure, but these rapids were real!  And a few miles below the put in lurked the first significant rapid: Velvet Falls, a good class 4 so named because it’s unusually quiet and comes up abruptly, and unwitting rafters have been known to blow right into the hole and flip, resulting in long, cold swims for the passengers.  But Paul – as the designated trip leader and king of the crusty river rats – recognized the terrain as we got close to the lip of the rapid and we were able to pull over, get out and scout out our line.   The crew leapt back in the boats, we shoved off, hung on to the lines on the raft, and crashed through the edge of the hole unscathed, albeit with refreshing dousing of icy water.   The tone was set for the many rapids to come.

The hundred miles of the Middle Fork coincidentally also has about a hundred riverside camps, and they are all astonishingly beautiful.  That afternoon – and every afternoon that followed – we landed at camp and quickly the beach became a flurry of activity as everything on the rafts was yanked off and deposited on the beach in an impressive gear explosion.  Having a raft makes for very civilized camping; a full “kitchen” erupts out of the sand, everyone pops open a camp chair, and the consumption of a plethora of riverside beverages and appetizers commences.  A cook crew starts making dinner as the others relax and relive the exciting tales from the day and anticipates the excitement for the next day   The meals are usually sumptuous:  with propane stoves and dutch ovens, our dinner feasts consisted of steak, lasagna, pad thai , etc. and mornings were filled with French toast, bacon, and omelets. As Drew, who’s a backcountry climbing ranger in the Tetons put it:  “On river trips you leave the oatmeal and freeze dried at home!”


So far it sounds like we did a lot of sitting in boats and eating and drinking, which to be sure is what river running is about for many people. But what sets the Middle Fork apart from other multi-day river trip is the vast network of trails that just beg to be run and burn the copious calories and pent up energy.  The artery is the aptly named River Trail; for 80 miles the River Trail parallels the river and crosses it several times on beautiful suspension bridges.  Though it traverses the bank, it’s no riverfront stroll: the trail dips and climbs a lot on high-quality single track that at times forces dancing through white granite rocks yet also enables blasting along buffed pine needle trails. There was always someone who was keen to get up early in the mornings and get a few miles of running through lodgepole pine forest up or down canyon on the River Trail before the rest of the folks straggled out of their tents looking for their morning cup of joe. After breakfast our beach camps again became a flurry of activity as the kitchen got torn down and our gear bags were lashed to the rafts. We were back on the river, ready for more whitewater action.

After fun mornings and afternoons spent running rapids  (interrupted by fine lunches served on tables with checkered tablecloths) another camp was established, and as some of our crew decided to fish, paint, or simply settle into their chairs and watch the river roll past, our endorphin crowd had plenty of time to spend running more trails for the 2nddaily fix. Before the trip Drew had studied the maps and realized that there are several major tributary streams that come in that also have well-established trails alongside them.  One of the best is Loon Creek; we went up this trail 7 miles ‘til the lure of appetizers and beer became too great and we turned about, but near the bottom we got side tracked by taking a quick soak in the Loon Creek hot springs; a perfect 104 degree pool next to the creek about a half mile from our camp on the river, and one of four more along the length of the river.   It’s probably the best way that we could think of to “warm down” at the end of a long run!   In addition to Loon, Marble Creek, Pistol Creek, Camas Creek and Big Creek all offer trails that go up at grades that are slightly steeper than the main canyon’s trail for up to 30 miles.


And there are other opportunities to run as well; one afternoon 3 of us planned on going up Camas creek but saw another trail going up Camas Creek peak, and we motored up that for 2000 feet for incredible views of the Bighorn Crags that loom 5000 feet above the gorge; after we ogled at that we flew down the needle-strewn trail back to camp, where our friends had prepared a great riverside Mexican feast! Ah, the beauty of a river trip.

The last 20 miles before the Middle Fork meets the Main Salmon the river goes into the ominous-sounding Impassable Gorge. Red granite walls soar straight out of the river, and the intrepid trail builders of yore didn’t bother to try to keep the River Trail going in this section.  But Paul simply turned his gaze upwards and declared:  “Who needs trails!  Let’s just go up!”  Since there’s very little vegetation to get in the way due to the open, arid, and fire-ravaged terrain, going straight up the grassy hillsides from virtually any point along the river provides glute-busting efforts that are rewarded with sublime scenes looking up and down the river corridor.  After savoring the views we were able to bound back down the 30% hillsides, though Paul’s enthusiasm got the better of him and he took a pretty good tumble.  Though it was a minor head cut, the amount of blood generated was a good reminder that despite the rafts we were still pretty “out there.”


It’s also in this lower section where some of the most exciting rapids lie:  Rubber, Tappen Falls, Haystack, and Webber are all exciting class 4’s that Zinnia thought created “the most fun I’ve ever had sitting down!” And eventually the “Impassable Gorge” gives way to the broad, rolling Main Salmon and the takeout.

So next time there’s talk of a family vacation, be sure to bring up the idea of a trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon … Then pack your running shoes right next to your boating gear and have some excitement in between runs!


Middle Fork of the Salmon River

When to go:  the best time is mid-summer, when the river flow is on a slow decline after peak snowmelt and the weather is warm and stable.


Options:  While putting your own trip together is a fun group effort, the permits are challenging to obtain.  A more sure thing is to sign up with a commercial outfitter; find a list of outfitters at  If you go this route, make sure you tell them “I want to do a lot of running!”


Getting there:  Like a lot of wilderness areas, it’s not easy: the closest major airport is Boise, which is 3.5 hours from the put in and probably 6 hours from the takeout.


Leave a Reply