Spotlight: Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
Adventure, solitude and breathtaking scenery await in this varied landscape
What You’ll Find
The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is punctuated by one of the west’s premier whitewater rivers and surrounded by three dramatic mountain ranges – the Salmon River Mountains, Clearwater Mountains and the Bighorn Crags. With over 2.3 million acres, it is the second largest wilderness in the United States outside of Alaska. Carving through the wilderness is the Salmon River Canyon, one of the deepest gorges in North America—deeper than the Grand Canyon. Unlike the sheer walls and towering heights of the Grand Canyon, the Salmon River Canyon offers a variety of landscapes visible from the river—wooded ridges rise to the sky, eroded bluffs slide to the river’s edge, imposing castles, towers and solitary crags dot the skyline.
Located in central Idaho and surrounded by four national forests—the Salmon-Challis, Payette, Nez Perce and Bitterroot – the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness has numerous access points to trailheads and river launch sites. A two-map set of the wilderness (south half and north half) and maps of the Main Salmon River and of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River are available from the Salmon-Challis National Forest and online.
Boundary Creek Campground is located within the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, near the boat launch used for boaters accessing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. With 15 campsites, several available on a first-come, first-served basis, campers looking to secure a campsite at Boundary Creek will need to book early.
For visitors looking for a few more amenities, try the Salmon-Challis National Forest’s Yellowjacket Guard Station—a historic Forest Service Ranger Station and work center now available for advanced reservations. The spacious guard station sleeps four people and visitors must bring water and additional supplies to ensure a comfortable stay.
Make Sure You
Plan a backpack or horse pack adventure in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. With more than 60 trailheads, there are nearly endless ways to explore this wilderness on your own or with an outfitter and guide service. Despite the extensive trail system, an amazing 1.5 million acres remains trail-free.
Try exploring Big Creek Trail #196. The trailhead for the Big Creek Trail is located east of McCall, Idaho, just two miles north of the community of Big Creek. This trail follows Big Creek along its entire length, eventually merging into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, over 36 miles downstream. This relatively flat trail offers abundant opportunities for viewing wildlife, fishing, and scenic overlooks via hiking, backpacking or horse trail riding. You need a couple of days to hike the entire trail, but a day hike along a portion of the river is also enjoyable.
Experience the thrill of whitewater and tranquility of the canyon as you float the Salmon! Early travelers knew the Main Salmon as “The River of No Return” because boats could navigate down the river, but could not get back up through the fast water and numerous rapids. This attribute makes the river a sought-after whitewater experience for boaters from around the world. If the Salmon or the Middle Fork of the Salmon are on your bucket list, apply for a boat permit during the lottery periods or reserve a permit outside of the lottery periods.
If you enjoy whitewater, you might also enjoy our Whitewater That Takes You in Deep Go List.
The heritage of this wilderness runs just as deep as its canyon and includes numerous artifacts from the Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes, tales from the journals of early fur trappers and missionaries, and remnants of early miner and homestead settlements. Remember to Leave No Trace and help keep this history alive.
The name of this vast wilderness honors U.S. Senator Frank Church—a memorial to a man who did much to help preserve this wild central core of Idaho.
Plan a backpacking excursion, saddle-up for a pack trip, float a river—celebrate all that is wilderness! Learn more about the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act and join events across the country in honor of the world’s most special places and landscapes.