Main Salmon Kayaking

A Paddling Playground

Overview

The Main Salmon is a perfect beginner/intermediate kayak trip, while also having tons of options for fun for the whole family. Many kayak schools, instructors, and private boaters alike consistently claim that this is one of their favorite rivers for paddling, as it allows for plenty of options from those just getting comfortable in a kayak to more difficult, consequenced lines and epic play spots for advanced paddlers. An exception to this is at high water (usually May/ June), where this massive river has serious hydraulics, iconic big water surf, endless massive wave trains, and pushy features for those wanting a more difficult run. This trip offers big water pool-drop class III rapids with warmer water than many other western rivers. (See WRO’s beginner/intermediate skill requirements overview).

Trip Highlights

  • 6 days, 79 miles
  • Fun, splashy whitewater and playboating opportunities
  • River character: (Mid-low flows) Class III pool-drop, wave trains, big water
  • River character: (High flows) Big, pushy, continuous, massive hydraulics, class III+-IV+
  • Flatwater for skills development
  • Amazing side creeks and canyons
  • Several relaxing hot springs
  • Great hiking to stunning vistas
  • Learn about pioneers and visit homesteads
  • Rich Native American history and pictographs
  • Optional add-on to create the “Super Salmon” trip with the Middle Fork Salmon early season

In the heart of central Idaho’s 2.3 million acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness flows the River of No Return, also known as the Main Salmon. This trip is consistently rated as one of the most coveted multi-day permits for paddlers everywhere, and there is definitely a reason for that. This crystal clear mountain river’s dynamic landscape passes by majestic Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs, impressive granite gorges cutting through Idaho’s Batholic, and accented with large sandy beaches that you won’t believe exist in the middle of Idaho’s backcountry. With wave trains, prime surf waves and stern squirt seams, and splat rocks between pool drop rapids, there will definitely be no shortage of entertainment on this trip.   

The Main Salmon River corridor hosts more than just pristine waters and rapids. Bighorn sheep, deer, elk, black bear, wolves, mountain lions, playful river otters, trout, salmon and eagles make their home along and in the river. Explore Native American pictographs, pioneer historic sites, and hermit hideouts before settling in around a roaring campfire and delicious Dutch oven dinners. Relax under the stars with our knowledgeable, kind and fun-loving guides as you soak in the stillness of a remote mountain wilderness.

Like many free-flowing rivers around Idaho, the difficulty of this river changes with the snowmelt as the summer goes on. Earlier in the season, when water levels are above 20,000 on the White Bird gauge, this river has a more difficult “Grand Canyon”-like character with massive hydraulics, and a few rapids that push class IV-IV+ range, with difficulty increasing on many rapids with higher flows. That being said, some other features do get washed out. It is an incredibly powerful thing to experience more advanced paddlers, and an awesome addition to early season Middle Fork Salmon trips to create the “Super Salmon” 8 day trip. At flows below 20,000, this river is prime for beginner/ intermediate paddlers, as well as plenty of opportunities for playboating for more experienced boaters. The recovery pools are extremely forgiving on these pool-drop rapids, and many kayak schools and instructors use this river and claim it as their favorite multi-day instruction site. Another plus to this river is that when many other whitewater stretches are drying up throughout the summer, the Main has very fun rapids all the way through September! 

Why Raft Support?

When self-support kayaking, you often have to be a minimalist. When traveling with raft support, you are able to bring all your heart desires, and probably more! Our rafts carry all of your personal things (costumes and dry shoes anyone?), and other items that self-support boating does not allow for such as coolers for gourmet food prepared for you (no more ramen and MREs!), beer, extensive safety supplies, a full-sized firepan with a daily fire, latrine facilities, logistics taken care of, etc. Without the bulky weight of your gear in your kayak, it allows for quicker, more responsive (and fun!) paddling, and also opens up possibilities for more low-volume styles of boats for those looking to spice up the class IV. 

If running this type of river without ever seeing it makes you nervous, or you are traveling alone, having a safety kayaker/ kayak guide is a great way to travel. Traveling with one of our knowledgeable safety kayakers is a great way to gain confidence and expertise through this technical run. Lastly, this type of trip also allows for you to bring non-kayaker family and friends to also be able to enjoy a perfect river vacation for everyone involved.

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The Stats

Departure Month June, July, August, September
State / Region
Adventure Level Moderate
Price Range $2000 - $3000
Activities Hard Shell Kayaking

Reviews

Logistics

The Main Salmon trip begins in Salmon and ends in Boise, Idaho

WRO Kayak Rentals

WRO has a wide range of playboats, half-slices, and river runner/ creek boats to reserve for the week in a variety of sizes. WRO does not provide paddle, skirts, helmets, PFD’s, or personal dry gear. For more information, contact Seth, [email protected] (Reservation website coming soon.)

Before the trip:

If you need a WRO kayak rental, be sure that you reserve your boat ahead of time with the office. (See WRO kayak inventory.) Paddlers will need to provide their own paddle, helmet, lifejacket, drysuit or dry top, and optional safety gear. WRO also has drysuits available for rent, but many are rafter-designs and do not have kayak tunnels or rubber neck gaskets. 

Fly commercially into Boise, Idaho, then take McCall Air into Salmon, Idaho.

McCall Air

If you choose to drive to Salmon, you will need to arrange to have your car shuttled from Salmon to the take-out by River Shuttles.

River Shuttles

Motel Before: Make your reservations preferably at the Stagecoach Inn (208.756.2919) or the Salmon River Motel (208.756.8880) in Salmon. Your motel will pick you up at the Salmon Airport. We will have an orientation at 6:00pm the evening before your trip begins at the Stagecoach Inn.

After the trip:  We provide transportation to Boise from the take out.  We recommend staying at the Best Western Vista Inn near the airport (800.727.5006) or at the Owyhee Plaza downtown (800.233.4611). June and July trips will have a van ride to McCall, then on to Boise arriving early evening. In order to keep the river days shorter as the water levels drop, August trips have an optional ending with a scenic flight from Mackay Bar to Boise arriving mid-day with an extra fee for the plane. If you are interested in this option, be sure to let the office know when booking your trip to discuss cost, availability, etc.

Sample Itinerary

Day Before: Travel to Salmon, ID no later than 5:30 pm. We will meet up at the Stagecoach Inn at 6 pm for an orientation. We will distribute dry bags, go over any last minute questions, hand out 16 oz Hydroflask mugs, and make sure everyone has all the right gear.  

Day 1: We will head for the river around 8:30 am. After a scenic two hour van or bus ride along the Main Salmon we reach Corn Creek Launch Site. We will make sure everyone is fitted in their boats, go over some river signals and river safety. We will most likely make this first day a short river day, allowing people time to get comfortable with their boats and the river.

Day 2-5: We’ll be relaxing, running rapids, playboating, soaking in hot springs, exploring historic sites, swimming at camp, and anything else you’d like to do! Our schedule is flexible so we can customize the trip to your interests.

Day 6: After a half day on the water, we will have lunch at the takeout and say goodbye to your guides. The trip leader will most likely travel back with you to McCall, where you can arrange a flight back to Salmon, or drive all the way back to Boise, which takes about 4-5 hours. You will most likely return back to Boise in the early evening.

FAQs

Kayaking/ Miscellaneous

Will I have to paddle the whole time?

We generally ask that if people sign up for a trip as a kayaker that they plan to paddle the entire trip. This is mainly because we base our number of rafts, guides, and gear distribution off of planning on having people in their kayaks. That being said, we can absolutely make accommodations for individuals in certain situations, (Not wanting to run a particular rapid, medical situations, etc.)
All and all, this is your trip and we are here to ensure you have the best trip possible.

Will safety kayakers/ kayak guides be on the trip?

WRO provides safety kayakers on trips at paddlers' request or if there are more than four kayakers on a trip. We especially try to make sure this is true during high water/ spring trips. Our kayak guides have experience on each of our rivers, as well as with instruction and rescue. We currently cannot provide one-on-one instruction with the types of trips we run, and try to focus on providing river beta and safety.

If I'm on a mixed raft support/ kayak trip, will I be able to scout rapids/ play/ separate from the group?

Generally, yes, to an extent. We try to stay together as a group to keep our repair and major first aid kits accessible to both rafters and kayakers at all times. A certain amount of playing is okay, and we definitely encourage you to do so, but we try to keep our group about a quarter mile distance within each other. If there is a particular rapid you want to scout, try to have an idea the morning of, and let the trip leader know, we will all scout as a group.

I am a whitewater canoeist, are there options for me?

If you are a confident whitewater canoeist with comparable experience, (see skill requirements) we encourage all types of whitewater enthusiasts out there. There are different types of rivers and trip times of the year that may fit your paddling experience and style better than others (high water, big hydraulics versus more creaky and technical), so please check in with the office or read on our kayak trip pages on what those might be. WRO does not currently offer whitewater canoes or accessories in our rental fleet, so you will be responsible for transporting your gear.

I am a part of a kayak school/ company and would like to book a trip for a group of my clients with a WRO permit. How does this work?

As you would charter the whole trip, this needs to be planned well in advance to ensure that there is a full trip date open for your group. The only exception to this might be if another chartered trip was canceled. Call the office for details on charter fees, guide expectations, available dates, etc. There are group discounts and charter commissions available.

How old does my child have to be to participate?

This varies on the child’s experience level in terms of kayakers, but we typically recommend 8 years for our minimum age for rafting. Contact us to ask about your child age, river experience, and river dates.

What if there is a family emergency back home? How will they locate us?

We always carry a satellite communication device for emergency situations and stay in contact with WRO staff in Salmon, who are aware of our location and campsites during the trip. If our office staff is notified of an emergency they will let our crew know, but it is definitely not imeditate as we are typically traveling in remote wilderness areas.

What happens if someone gets sick or injured?

All of our trip leaders are certified Wilderness First Responders, along with the majority of our other highly capable guides, several of whom are Wilderness EMTs. All guides are trained in Swiftwater Rescue. Evacuation plans are in place for each trip in case of an emergency, and a satellite communication device is carried at all times.

What is an appropriate gratuity for your guides?

Guides are usually tipped 10-20% of the cost of the trip, more for exceptional service. The guides equally split the total tip amount from each guest. They are most appreciative of receiving this directly from the guest, which will usually be given to the trip leader at the end of the trip to distribute to the rest of the guides, so we recommend planning ahead to have cash or checks on hand. Please do not make tip checks out to Wilderness River Outfitters. They will need to be made out to the guide or to cash. Most of the guides also use Venmo.

Is there an option for a trip for only my group?

We do offer chartered trips. You often will need to plan these types of trips well in advance, as you will be booking out the entire trip for your group and need the launch date to be empty. Chartered trips must pay for the entire slot to reserve the trip, which minimum number of guests vary depending on the river you are interested in. For the Middle Fork Salmon, this minimum is currently 18 guests. Ask the office for additional details on chartering a trip with us.

Camp Life and Meals

Will we be at a new camp every day?

Yes, we do normally change campsites every day. This allows us to cover new scenery, rapids, and side adventures each day at a fun, comfortable pace.

Will there be a campfire every night?

Yes, we almost always have a campfire every evening and morning.

What clothes should I bring for camp?

This will vary greatly depending on the time of year. Early summer in Idaho can be very cold and unpredictable. It is recommended to have plenty of fresh, warm, dry clothes to change into at camp. However, for mid-season trips, sun protection is often key, with quick-dry layers to swim in, and comfortable camp shoes and lightweight layers such as thin pants, skirts/ skorts, dresses, etc.

How big are the tents? Do we have to share a tent with someone else?

Most of our tents are high-quality three-person tents, but we only put two people in each tent. If there is an odd number in your group we will not make you share a tent with a stranger. We offer brands like Mountain Hardware, North Face, and Sierra Designs.

Will my tent be set up for me?

In the interest of a more genuine wilderness experience, we encourage people to pick their own sleeping sites and set up their tents (or sleep under the stars, weather permitting!). If you need assistance, we’re happy to help and always show you how the gear works.

What kind of food will we be eating?

Wonderful, gourmet backcountry cooking! We are consistently told by guests that we out-do their expectations when it comes to our food’s quality that we can accomplish in the wilderness. Breakfasts and suppers consist of culinary delights like wild Salmon and steak, many of which are cooked over open campfires and dutch ovens. Lunches are a combination of tasty salads, sandwiches, fruits, and assorted snacks. Healthy and nutritious options are always available, and meals always include fruits and vegetables (local and organic when we can, including veggies from our own greenhouse and garden!). For additional information, check out our "Sample Menu" page.

Can WRO accommodate dietary restrictions/ allergies?

WRO will happily do our best to accommodate any dietary restrictions at no additional cost. We have experience working with vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, nut allergies, etc. Please notify us of any dietary restrictions or allergies as early as possible so that we can adjust the menu accordingly. In certain cases, individuals may want to supplement meals and snacks with some items of their own.

Does WRO provide drinks/ snacks?

WRO provides ample snacks as well as plenty of drinking water, fruit juices, and coffee, tea, and cream in the morning. We do not provide soda or alcohol, with the exception of a fiesta night that we provide drinks. You are also welcome to bring your own alcohol (packed in unbreakable containers whenever possible, please).

How does personal hygiene work during the trip?

We need to keep soap out of the rivers (and the hot springs), so if you want to use soap and bathe on the trip, you need to do so above the high water mark. The guides can help carry and heat up some water if needed. Face and body wipes also work well for helping stay clean.

How does the bathroom system work during the trip?

In order to keep these places beautiful for years to come, all rivers are “pack it in, pack it out.” We bring fabulous portable toilets and handwashing stations that we place in a private location away from camp with the best bathroom view you will ever have.

On the River

How long will we be floating on the river each day?

Each trip is tailored to the desires of the guests, but generally we will be on the water a total of 5 or so hours each day (give or take a couple of hours), broken by a lunch stop and any other side adventures. We usually start floating when the sun hits the water each day and arrive in camp late afternoon. Each day will be different, with varying options for hiking, exploring, and great lunch stops. Your lead guide will give you an overview of the day each morning.

What will temperatures and weather be like? Will it be cold? Will it rain?

This depends greatly on the time of the year. Storms can also roll in unexpectedly, and it’s best to be prepared for anything. Rain is possible in this area, though the likelihood is less late summer. The water temperatures significantly warm up as the season goes on, with many people wearing only a dry top or shorty, or sometimes even just a sunshirt when they’re paddling in the late season heat. In July and August, temperatures can be up to 100 degrees some days, but luckily it is easy to cool off in a kayak. Be sure to check out the weather section of the packing list for specific seasonal information and average temperatures for your trip, as well as doing your own research a week prior to your trip, checking anticipated weather at Corn Creek, ID (our put-in) as well as in Carey Creek, ID (close to our takeout).

Clothing, Footwear, and Gear

Can I bring my own sleeping pad/bag/tent/other gear?

You are welcome to bring your own sleeping gear if you wish, but if you do, please bring your own complete sleep kit and let us know ahead of time. Our sleep kits consist of a "Therm-a-rest" pad, a 20 degree sleeping bag, a pack-able pillow, and a ground cloth. We can provide an empty dry bag to store your sleep kit in.

How big are the waterproof bags and how much stuff can they hold?

Everyone is issued a waterproof “day bag” to carry items you will need access to during the day while on the river. This day bag is 9 inches in diameter and 20 inches tall. Everyone is also issued a large waterproof bag for your personal gear and clothing. This bag should be plenty large enough for everything listed on our suggested packing list. We recommend limiting your personal gear to 35 pounds. You will be able to use your own dry bag if you would like, just let our office know.

Logistics

Can I bring my own sleeping pad/bag/tent/other gear?

You are welcome to bring your own sleeping gear if you wish, but if you do, please bring your own complete sleep kit and let us know ahead of time. Our sleep kits consist of a "Therm-a-rest" pad, a 20 degree sleeping bag, a pack-able pillow, and a ground cloth. We can provide an empty dry bag to store your sleep kit in.

How big are the waterproof bags and how much stuff can they hold?

Everyone is issued a waterproof “day bag” to carry items you will need access to during the day while on the river. This day bag is 9 inches in diameter and 20 inches tall. Everyone is also issued a large waterproof bag for your personal gear and clothing. This bag should be plenty large enough for everything listed on our suggested packing list. We recommend limiting your personal gear to 35 pounds. You will be able to use your own dry bag if you would like, just let our office know.

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