Join us for a Salmon River rafting adventure and experience the largest undammed river in the American West. We float the Salmon river's lower reaches, where the river flows through four spectacular wilderness canyons.
The rapids are superb, especially at high water, and many consider this to be our most exciting multi-day whitewater rafting trip. Yet the rapids, while big, are forgiving. So this is an ideal place to join a paddle team, learn to row, or try an inflatable kayak.
Salmon River trips: whitewater fun and more
Our Salmon River whitewater trips feature powerful rapids and large roller coaster waves. But these aren't the only attractions. Majestic rock-walled canyons, deep blue skies and starry nights, the most beautiful white sand river beaches you will find anywhere, and fabulous swimming in warm, crystalline pools combine to make this a classic trip, especially for families.
Our first day begins with mild rapids which are ideal for a warm up, especially for those learning to row or to paddle an inflatable kayak. Over the course of the next several days we'll encounter numerous exciting rapids. The rapids are friendly, but they're large at most flows, too: big, rolling rapids with towering waves.
Demons Drop, Half and Half, Lorna's Lulu, Snow Hole, and China are a few of the more exciting drops. At midsummer flows most of the rapids are rated class III with one or two class IV drops mixed in. However, during the first part of our July through September season - especially during heavy snowpack years - many of the rapids become class IV thrillers.
Toward the end of our journey we meet the Snake River at the edge of Hell’s Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. We'll encounter a few rapids on the Snake, but for the most part this leg of our journey is placid. For this reason we'll lash our boats together to form a group "barge" which the guides will maneuver downstream with the aid of a small outboard motor. This last leg of our adventure presents us with a great opportunities to unwind, socialize, watch for golden eagles and bighorn sheep, and gaze up at the Snake's soaring canyon walls.
The lower Salmon River offers clear water, hot sunny weather, fun roller coaster style waves, and huge sandy beaches that are perfect for camping and swimming.
During the course of our 72 mile journey we'll wind our way through open canyons, and float through four scenic wilderness gorges. These are Green Canyon (at mile 7), Cougar Canyon (mile 19), Snow Hole Canyon (mile 24), and Blue Canyon (mile 47). Each has a distinct character, but all are spectacular.
Our first day on the river begins with mild rapids which are ideal for a warm up, especially for those behind the oars or paddling an inflatable kayak. Over the course of the next several days we'll encounter numerous exciting rapids. The Lower Salmon is a large volume river. This means the rapids are large, at most water levels, too: big, rolling rapids with towering waves. Demons Drop, Half and Half, Lorna's Lulu, Snow Hole, and China are a few of the more exciting drops, but there are others, as well. At midsummer flows most of the rapids are class III, with one or two class IV drops. Early in July during a high water year, many of the rapids become class IV thrillers. (Rapids are rated I through VI. Class I indicates the smallest possible rapid, while VI indicates steep, turbulent, highly dangerous rapids and waterfalls.)
After four days on the Salmon we meet the Snake River at the edge of Hell’s Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. We'll encounter a few rapids on the Snake, but for the most part this section of river is placid. For this reason we'll hook our rafts together to form a group "barge" on the Snake, which the guides will maneuver downstream with the aid of a small outboard motor. This segment of our journey presents us with a great opportunities to unwind, socialize, watch for golden eagles and bighorn sheep, and gaze up at the canyon walls.
We meet at 7:30 AM on the day your trip begins in the lobby of the Red Lion Hotel, 621 21st St., Lewiston, Idaho. Lewiston is roughly 325 miles east of Portland, Oregon, and about 95 miles south of Spokane, Washington. (Please have your breakfast before our meeting time, and arrive in your river clothes.) Our Lead Guide will meet you in the motel lobby. If in doubt about where to find us, ask at the desk, and they will direct you. After a brief orientation you will pack your things into our river bags, and park your vehicles at the motel. We will then go by bus to our launch site. Depending upon trip length and water level, we begin our river trip at either Hammer Creek or Pine Bar. (A start at Pine Bar shortens our trip by 10 miles -- appropriate for low water trips.) Once we arrive at our launch site, you’ll meet the rest of our guide crew, and they’ll conduct a short safety and orientation briefing, which will include instruction on paddle and rowing techniques as needed. We’re normally on our way downstream by mid-morning.
On the River
Each day is a bit different. But a typical day on the river begins with freshly brewed coffee around 7 AM, and breakfast by 8 AM. After breakfast we’ll pack our bags and load the boats. Then, after a brief orientation to the day’s adventures, we’ll head downstream.
We’re on the river an average of four to five hours per day. Along the way we stop for a riverside picnic lunch. We may also stop to swim, to explore historic sites, or to scout rapids. We usually arrive in camp by mid to late afternoon, and while the guides prepare hors d’oeuvres and dinner, you’ll have time to swim, fish, read, or nap. (There are a few places to hike, but for the most part hiking opportunities are limited.)
We typically arrive at Heller Bar, our take-out point, between 2:00 and 3:30 P. M. Once we’ve unpacked, you’ll board a van or bus for the ride back to Lewiston. (On small trips, we completely de-rig the boats, and our guides will accompany you back to town. On larger trips, you will say good-bye to the guides when you leave Heller Bar, as they will stay behind to finish de-rigging.) The ride back to Lewiston takes about an hour. You will arrive back in town between 4:00 and 6:00 PM.
- The services of our professional guides and staff.
- Transportation to our launch point from Lewiston, and from our take-out back to Lewiston at trip’s end.
- All meals, from lunch on the first day through lunch on the last. Our menu is delicious, varied, and hearty. Meals are freshly prepared by our guides from the highest quality ingredients. Juice and water are available at each meal. Coffee, tea, and cocoa are available at dinner and breakfast, and complementary wine is served with some dinners. Special dietary needs may be accommodated with advance notice. We also provide cups, plates, and silverware.
- Durable, professional quality rafts and river running equipment, including U.S. Coast Guard Approved lifejackets.
- Waterproof river bags and boxes for your personal gear.
- Camp chairs.
We will meet at 7:30 AM on the day your trip begins, in the lobby of the Red Lion Hotel, 621 21st St., Lewiston, Idaho. Lewiston is roughly 325 miles east of Portland, Oregon, and about 95 miles south of Spokane, Washington.
Lewiston is at the crossroads of highways 12, 95, and 195, in western Idaho, not far from the corner where Washington, Oregon, and Idaho meet. From Portland take I-84 past Boardman to US-730. Take US-730 into Washington, and turn right onto US-12. Follow US-12 through Walla Walla to Lewiston. Once in Lewiston, US-12 becomes Main Street. Continue east then turn right on 21st Street. Look for the hotel 1/10th of a mile further along, on your left. (If you reach 7th street you've gone a bit too far.)
Lewiston is served by a regional airport, with connections from Seattle and Boise. It is served by Alaska, Horizon, and Delta Airlines. Plan your flight to arrive the day before your river trip begins. A shuttle bus from the Red Lion meets all flights.
Car rentals are also available in Lewiston.
Your trip fare includes transportation to and from the river. A chartered bus will transport us from Lewiston to our put-in near Whitebird, Idaho, a 1.5 to 2 hour trip. At trip's end we will be transported from our take-out at Heller Bar back to Lewiston, a one hour ride.
You will need to bring your own clothing and toiletries. You will also need to bring a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, although if you prefer you can rent them from us instead. (Info here.)
Details, tips, and a complete list of what to bring are found here. You will receive a copy of this information when you sign up for your trip.
Fishing on the Salmon is generally only fair for bass and trout during the summer (although fishing improves in the fall). If you would like to fish you will need an Idaho fishing license, which may be purchased at a number of sporting goods stores in Lewiston, or online at outdoorcentral.us.
We select beautiful beaches for our camp sites. Our guides establish a central kitchen and social area, and trip members select spots in the surrounding area to pitch a tent or roll out a sleeping bag. O.R.E. will set up a portable toilet at each camp, which will be located with privacy and convenience in mind.
O.R.E. practices minimum impact camping, and the crew will instruct you on the simple steps we follow to protect the environment in the Salmon River Canyon.
We recommend the Red Lion Hotel in Lewiston, which is our meeting place for the trip. For reservations phone 800-232-6730. They offer a discount to our customers, so be sure to tell them you're taking a river trip with Oregon River Experiences. For a lower price (but fewer amenities) we recommend Inn America (across the street from the Red Lion). Again, in order to receive the best rate tell them you are taking a river trip with O.R.E.
For camping try Hells Gate State Park, which is just south of Lewiston.
The Nez Percé Indians had lived in the Salmon, Snake and Clearwater River valleys for centuries, traveling and trading as far away as the Midwestern plains. In 1805 Lewis and Clark wintered-over in Nez Percé villages, where they were well treated and impressed with these industrious people. Their explorations brought this region to the attention of the fur trappers of the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company, who was rapidly gaining a monopoly on trade in the Pacific Northwest.
Throughout most of the first half of the nineteenth century, the traders and trappers maintained peaceful relations with the Nez Percé. But in the mid-1840’s, the United States government developed the Oregon Trail and began encouraging emigration to the Oregon Territory, in order to invalidate the British claim on all of the Pacific Northwest.
The natives’ claims to the area were given little consideration during the dispute between the United States and Britain, but after the boundaries were settled, the U.S. signed treaties with many of the tribes granting them permanent territorial rights to most of their native lands. Permanent, that is, until gold was discovered.
The man most responsible for starting the North Idaho gold rush was E.D. Pierce, a veteran of gold fields in California and the Frazer River area of British Columbia. Pierce had discovered gold in the North Fork of the Clearwater River, and he became obsessed with opening up Nez Percé lands for mining. For several winters, Pierce lived in the village of a friendly Nez Percé chief, Timothy, all the while smuggling mining equipment into the area.
Pierce organized an expedition of twelve men, and with the help of Jane Silcott, Chief Timothy’s daughter, they furtively entered Idaho from the north on a seldom-used trail. When they stopped at Orofino Creek, near the Clearwater River, one of the men, W.F. Bassett, discovered a rich gold deposit, and the rush was on!
Finally in 1863, faced with the irresistible onslaught of gold miners and their followers, some of the Nez Percé chiefs negotiated new, much smaller "permanent" territorial boundaries with the government. But not all of the Nez Percé tribes were willing to go along with the land cession. These "non-treaty" chiefs included White Bird, Looking Glass, Eagle-from-the-Light, Toohoolhoolzote, and Old Joseph.
As happened repeatedly throughout the expansion of the United States, the government insisted that the signing of treaties by some leaders of the tribe made the treaty obligatory upon all members of the tribe. The non-treaty chiefs disagreed, and over the next fifteen years, many of their followers became increasingly violent in their unwillingness to abandon their ancestral lands.
As Old Chief Joseph lay dying in 1871, he told his son: "Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother." Young Joseph resolved to live by those words. Ultimately, he would die by them.
Incursions by whites into the territories legally claimed by the non-treaty Nez Percé resulted in increasing numbers of violent confrontations throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s. By 1877, the situation was so bad that the non-treaty chiefs agreed to a council with General Oliver O. Howard, who perhaps more than any other white man in the Northwest understood the ancestral land claims of the Nez Percé.
Despite that understanding, Howard was obliged to carry out his orders from Washington, and force the Nez Percé to sign-away their lands. During the council, Chief Toohoolhoolzote became involved in an altercation that landed him in the guardhouse, and in order to secure his release, the other chiefs agreed to inspect the vacant reservation land that they were being offered in trade for their homeland.
While far from pleased with what they saw, the non-treaty chiefs recognized the futility of further resistance and reluctantly resigned themselves to move to the Lapwai Reservation. They were given 30 days to relocate.
For the Wallowa Nez Percé, the task was especially difficult. The tribe’s 6,000 half-wild horses were ranged over many miles of rugged terrain around the Wallowa Mountains. After organizing a hasty round-up, Joseph’s people sorted through their lifetime’s possessions, deciding what to keep and what to abandon. Only the most cherished things could be taken.
The Snake River, at peak high water stage, presented a formidable obstacle, but somehow the tribe crossed with minimal losses, and in June, 1877 the tribes of Joseph, White Bird and Toohoolhoolzote set up camp about six miles west of Grangeville, Idaho to rest and regroup before going on to the reservation. That stop has become known as the "fatal pause."
Frustrated young Indians exchanged stories of wrong-doing and humiliation, and their anger rose. Days passed and war-like feelings began to envelop the camp. Those feelings exploded violently, when a party of unruly young warriors rode out to seek revenge for the wrongs that had been put upon them. On June 13th and 14th, they murdered a man along the Salmon River near the mouth of Slate Creek, a rancher near John Day Creek, and two other men in the area. The Nez Percé War had begun.
Retreating to the bottom of White Bird Canyon, the Nez Percé assembled at camp called Sapacheap, where they would be safe from surprise attack. Meanwhile, General Howard sent a force of 90 soldiers and 11 volunteers under Captain David Perry toward White Bird Canyon to suppress the uprising. Perry made a reckless attack in the morning of June 17, and was soundly defeated by a force of 70 Nez Percé warriors, many of whom acquired their weapons from fallen soldiers during the battle.
Following the White Bird battle, the Indians had moved northwest and crossed the Salmon at Horseshoe Bend, then marched south to high ground in the area upstream from Hammer Creek. As summer wore on, battle followed battle as the retreating Nez Percé skillfully outmaneuvered the army on a 2,000 mile, 3 month odyssey across Lolo Pass into Montana, then down the Bitterroot Valley to Big Hole, and into Wyoming and Yellowstone, back into Montana, and nearly to safety in Canada. On October 6, 1877, at Bear Paws, Montana, just 30 miles from the Canadian border, Joseph surrendered the last weary remnants of his force in order to save what was left of his tribe.
The terms of the surrender included a provision for the Nez Percé to be returned to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. But General William Sherman, who was famous for his devastating Civil War march to the sea and later for his comment that "The only good Indian I ever saw was dead" arranged instead to have the Nez Percé marched 800 miles to Fort Lincoln at Bismarck, South Dakota. The difficult winter march, without adequate supplies, became known as the Trail of Tears, and many died from untreated injuries, malnutrition and disease along the way. At Fort Lincoln, the 450 Nez Percé were ordered into railroad cars and taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they spent a difficult winter as prisoners of war.
Finally, in 1885, the surviving 268 members of Joseph’s Nez Percé were returned to the Northwest, to live on the Colville Reservation, north of Spokane, Washington. Chief Joseph died in 1904, still clinging to the hope that he might be able to return with his people to the land of his ancestors. The Colville Agency doctor reported that Joseph had died of a broken heart, while sitting before his teepee fire.
Indian Life Along the Salmon River
Although the Nez Percé lived in the mountains as well as on plateaus within the river valleys, most of their villages were located near the confluence of small streams and rivers.
Some pit houses, village sites and burial locations have been found, but interestingly, no large shell mounds, which would indicate long-term habitation, have been reported. The few small heaps that have been found were probably where only single meals were eaten. Fireplaces, sweat houses and camas steaming ovens were built along the river, and remains of these are occasionally exposed by high water. These sites are identified by pieces of charcoal, scorched stone and burned animal bones.
The site of a village can be recognized by a series of rings where circular houses had been built. One such site is located near the popular campsite at Billy Creek. These pit house rings are from eighteen to thirty feet in diameter, and up to three feet deep in the center. Long oval rings, as much as eighteen feet across and sixty to eighty feet long, mark the locations of large communal houses.
Teepee rings are rounded river rocks placed in circles ten to fifteen feet in diameter. There is little, if any center depression in a teepee circle. Some camp sites have been found to have up to 400 teepee rings, indicating that as many as 1,000 people occupied the camp.
Several sites examined by anthropologists are of interest. West of Grangeville, the Weis Rock Shelter, near the confluence of Rocky Creek and Grave Creek, was occupied from 7,500 years ago until about 600 years ago. The rock shelter was near the geographical center of the Nez Percé territory, and in the midst of their camas root gathering fields. The large number of animal bones there are mostly from deer, bear, bison, sheep, coyote, rodents and birds. A few fish bones were scattered among these, but deer bones were the most prevalent.
Most artifacts from the rock shelter were made of worked, rounded river stones, identical to those found on the floor of Rocky Canyon. Some bone and antler tools have been found, along with a few shell objects and piles of obsidian flakes. The source of obsidian, which was used for making knife blades, spears and arrow heads, is unknown. It is believed that it must have been acquired through trade with peoples to the east and south, where obsidian may be found.
The Lower Salmon is separated from what is commonly called the Main Salmon by Carey Falls, about twenty miles upstream from Riggins. Roads parallel the river throughout the stretch from Carey Falls to White Bird, so this stretch doesn’t lend itself to wilderness river trips. Our trips begin at either Hammer Creek or Pine Bar, a short distance downstream from White Bird.
From White Bird, the Salmon River winds northwest to Horseshoe Bend, where it makes a 180 degree turn before winding in a generally southwesterly direction to its confluence with the Snake River. The Snake flows north-northwest to slack water backed up by the Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston, Idaho. Our trip ends at Heller Bar, about 25 miles south of Lewiston.
The oldest rocks here, called "basement" rocks by geologists, date from the early Mesozoic period, and are more than 200 million years old. Indications are that these rocks have been transported from the southwest Pacific area. Rocks include an array of ocean floor sediments and volcanics. Most have been subject to a low degree of heat and pressure, and as a result, display distinct signs of alteration, or metamorphism.
The widely accepted theory of plate tectonics suggests that these rock structures collided with North America during the middle Mesozoic period, after being carried across the Pacific Basin by a process related to continental drift. Fossils here are altogether different from those of the same age found nearby in Nevada and Utah. Rock masses of this type, which have been transported by the movement of the Earth’s crustal plates, are referred to as "exotic terranes." Typically, they are completely different from the local or "country" rocks and are confined to separate areas of exposure. There is growing evidence that the foundation or "basement" bedrock over much of eastern Oregon and western Idaho may have been formed elsewhere, then was transported to North America.
The metamorphic process of heat and pressure has distorted and altered this rock, which originally formed as sedimentary deposits, eradicating many of its original structures; but some features, including fossils,
are occasionally visible. Most of the fossils are of oceanic animals from ancient continental shelf environments. These are mainly of mollusks, but recently fossils of large marine reptiles have been discovered.
The overlying rock series in the geological "layer cake" of the Salmon River Canyon are lava flows, which were erupted during the Miocene period, 15 million years ago. These lava flows are part of the Columbia River Basalt flows that are visible over much of eastern Oregon and Washington as well as in central and southern Idaho. During these many volcanic episodes, very fluid lava flowed like syrup over wide areas of the landscape from low volcanic cones and fissures or cracks. Remarkably, although these flows cover hundreds of square miles to depths of thousands of feet, no exact source has been located.
In the period just prior to these lava eruptions, a spectacular, rugged topography had been eroded into the existing older terrain. This erosional surface is estimated to have measured as much as 4,500 feet from the canyon bottoms to the crests of the divides. Careful mapping of this ancient surface shows that streams in the Salmon area roughly paralleled their present patterns. The flood-like lava flows inundated the valley system, covering all but the highest peaks with layer upon layer of hard black columnar basalt. After the eruptions, the Clearwater embayment, including the Salmon, was a flat expanse of cooling lava with island-like buttes projecting here and there above the lava plain.
Lava eruptions were not continuous. Between major eruptions and flows, vast inland lakes developed and slowly filled with volcanic mud, ash and dust. These lake sediments, referred to as the Latah Formation, are situated at several levels within the lava flows and bear the distinctive fossilized leaves of Miocene flora. Near White Bird, Idaho, exposures of Latah sediments are famous for their beautifully preserved deciduous (hardwood) leaves, quite different from the local coniferous forests of today.
The geologic map of the Salmon region shows alternating exposures of basement rock along the river. This patchiness is due to the roughness of the underlying topography. As the river erodes through the lavas, it first exposes the old basement "highs" that were divides before the lava covered them. Two such divides parallel the present Salmon in its last thirty-nine miles before meeting the Snake River.
Very young, unconsolidated sands and gravels of the river system, as well as a layer of very fine dust known as the Palouse Formation overlie the lake sediments (Latah Formations) and basalt layers in the Salmon River drainage. The Palouse is a powdery, buff-colored, wind blown dune deposit (loess). This partially consolidated deposit is very thick in the vicinity of southeastern Washington. As it decomposes, it forms the foundation for the rich Palouse soil that is the basis for eastern Washington’s soft wheat industry.
Along the river between White Bird and Heller Bar, gold has turned up several times, but no large strikes occurred. This gold occurs in trace amounts along the entire length of the Salmon, with very scattered richer pockets. As a rule, the gold is very fine, almost like flour.
Salmon Geology at River Level
The Salmon from White Bird to the Snake does not directly cut across the Idaho Batholith, however, exposures of granites are only a few miles away to the east. Consequently, much of the river gravel is composed of quartz-rich, gray to white crystalline granites.
Many north-south faults occur in the canyons north of White Bird. In places, the river has followed these breaks in the rock in straight lines for many miles before meandering away. The faults are visible in the canyon walls as smooth, striated surfaces that reflect the sun like polished metal. Along the old faulted surfaces, mineralization is evident where stains discolor the rocks.
Just north of White Bird, the river cuts into the top of an old divide, below the skyline lavas. 200 million year-old (Triassic) rocks in this twelve mile stretch bear a distinctive, dark greenish hue, due to characteristic heat treated minerals (metamorphic rock).
Metamorphic rocks are typically very hard, and one effect of this is the formation of narrow canyons. Constriction of the river channel causes the stream's velocity and erosional power to increase substantially.
Erosion of these rocks causes curious textures. One of the more striking of these is a fluting or sand-blasted effect. Sand, borne in the water, cuts long, finger-size grooves or flutes parallel to the direction of stream flow. The rocks are often incredibly smooth to the touch where the water and sand have polished the surface. Near the water line, the rocks receive a final patina of "desert varnish" or a jet black color due to exposure alternating from wet to very dry and hot.
A short section of basalt just before the confluence with the Snake River is an example of an old stream channel now filled with lava.
In the stretch of lower Hell’s Canyon between the mouth of the Salmon River and Heller Bar, several good examples of basement rock can be seen. Just a few miles south of Heller Bar, limestone appears on both sides of the river. These limestone deposits are cooked in places to form the metamorphic rock, marble. The limestone is folded up and lying nearly on its edge, which creates a very sharp series of ridges.
Consider a drive up Highway 12 along the Lochsa River while you are in the area. Along the Lochsa you will find many lovely trails, good camping, and a number of excellent natural hot springs. Or pay a visit to nearby Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, the deepest canyon in North America. For more information on Hells Canyon contact the HCNRA at P.O. Box 699, Clarkston, WA 99403, (509) 758-1957. Also consider a visit to the Nez Percé National Historic Park just east of Lewiston.
Guests sometimes ask whether it is appropriate to tip their guide. Tipping is optional, but if your guide did a great job then feel free to thank him or her with a gratuity. The amount is up to you, but tips between 8% and 20% of trip cost are customary. Gratuities are customarily presented to the Lead Guide, and will be shared equally among all guides on your trip.
- Our largest river in terms of flow, which means big, fun waves!
- Our sunniest, warmest multi-day whitewater trip.
- Clear, warm water and beautiful beaches. Our best river for swimming.
- Scenic open canyons and spectacular, rock-walled gorges.
- Near: Lewiston, Idaho
- Trip Length: 4 & 5 days
- Meeting Time: 7:30 AM
- 2020 Season: July 1 - Sept. 30
- Boat Options: paddle raft, oar raft, row-yourself cataraft, inflatable kayak, stand up paddle board
- Whitewater Rating: III+ (Intermediate)
- Suggested minimum age: 7