The Outdoor Wonders of North Central Idaho

By Stacey Gregory

When you think about North Central Idaho, your mind tends to conjure up breathtaking views of rolling hills and farmlands, flower-filled meadows, and of course, outdoor adventures. What makes this place a mecca for thrill-seekers and nature-lovers is its wide-open, rugged spaces — and for good reason. North Central Idaho has some of the deepest, largest, and widest selection of recreational opportunities springing from its unique environments. Follow along to uncover places rich with opportunities for exploration. 

The Deepest Canyons

Did you know? The Grand Canyon is, as stated, grand. Yet North Central Idaho has grander canyons still. In fact, there are two deeper canyons: Hells Canyon and Salmon River Canyon. While each has unique qualities, you’ll find both offer world-class whitewater rafting, spectacular mountain peaks, vistas, and trails to explore as well as mesmerizing artifacts from prehistoric tribes, miners, and early settlers. 

Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon is North America’s deepest river gorge, plunging 7,913 feet and 1.5 miles from its summit to the mouth of Granite Creek. That’s more than a mile below Oregon’s east rim, and 8,000 feet below the snow-capped He Devil Peak, one of Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains. The mighty Snake River cut the rugged canyon, creating an outdoor paradise with places to explore, including Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, 652,488 acres along the borders of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho.

Salmon River Canyon

North America’s second deepest canyon in the lower 48 states is the Salmon River Canyon at roughly 7,000 feet deep. Situated less than 10 miles from Hells Canyon, Salmon River Canyon is cut through Miocene basalt and marks the end of the River of No Return. Wildlife viewing is superb here, with one of the world’s highest concentrations of raptors, including Golden eagles, northern harriers, American kestrel, and red-tailed hawks. Beaver and otters are found along the river’s edge, with deer and bighorn sheep residing on the mountainsides. Fishing, rafting, and hiking opportunities are also plentiful.

The Largest Wilderness Area

Did you know? In America, you’d have to travel to Alaska to experience a wilderness area larger than the Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness. Its 2,366,757 acres encompass steep, rugged mountains, deep canyons, and whitewater rivers, as well as connections to the Indigenous peoples who once lived here. This area encompasses portions of five national forests offering plenty to see and do. 

The Salmon-Challis National Forest is the largest component of the Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness. You can visit the crown jewel of this area — the Bighorn Crags. Of the 2,500 miles of trails in the entire wilderness area, the most used are found here intertwined with an amazing collection of rugged granite peaks and crystal clear alpine lakes. The Payette National Forest is the second-largest component of the Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness and is a four seasons playground where you can hike, fish, camp, hunt, ski, and snowmobile. Smaller portions of the Boise National Forest, Bitterroot National Forest, and Nez Perce National Forest are also part of this massive wilderness area.

Most of Idaho’s Recreational River Miles

Did you know? Idaho boasts more recreational river miles than any other state in the United States, and the first commercial river rafting trips launched here. What’s more, most of the 3,100 whitewater river miles in the state are found in North Central Idaho. These rivers are the scene for all types of rafting trips, from wild whitewater to scenic kayaking, as well as, fishing and camping, and many years ago, these banks were the home to Indigenous people. 

The Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River and the largest North American river that empties into the Pacific Ocean. It flows through the rugged Hells Canyon, where more than 11,000 years ago, Native Americans lived along the Snake River that provided vital resources for the Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes. Visitors can still find traces of their existence here, including artifacts (take a picture but leave them behind!) and petroglyphs (look but don’t touch!). 

There is no shortage of thrilling whitewater rafting trips along these rivers. In fact, the historical origin of wilderness white water rafting trips is at the Middle Fork Salmon River, a 104-mile long river that lies in the center of the Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness Area. Lochsa River got its name from the Nez Perce, with Locsha meaning “rough waters” in their native language. The Main Salmon River, also known as the “River of No Return,” flows for 425 miles through central Idaho and offers Class III Rapids. Salmon River Below Riggins features lots of “big water” rapids, yet is a relatively safe run, and Salmon River Above Riggins offers excellent Class III canoe and rafting. Perhaps the most underrated long river trip is the Salmon River Lower Gorge, offering exciting Class III whitewater in warm water, perfect for taking a dip and frolicking in the river. 

More relaxing experiences are also found along central Idaho’s river system. Clearwater River is one of the Northwest’s top steelhead trout streams made famous for its large “B-Run” steelhead and chinook salmon. The gentle rapids allow boaters to float along the waters soaking in the beautiful surroundings. Flowing within the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area is the Selway River. This nationally designated wild and scenic river is a large tributary of the Middle Fork that flows through the Clearwater River, providing a leisurely float along scenic Hwy 12 with plentiful fly fishing opportunities.

Now that you know about these amazing treasures, it’s time to explore more of North Central Idaho. 

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