If there was ever a year for whitewater rafting in Idaho, this is the one

By Steve Stuebner for the Times-News (view original article)

Floating the Middle Fork Salmon River is an adventure worthy of any Idaho bucket list. (Courtesy: Idaho River Adventures)

There’s a secret place, deep inside the Bruneau River Canyon, that I call the “Valley of the Caves and Spiritual Wonders.” I named it in the coffee table book “Idaho Impressions” after experiencing it for the first time in the early 1990s, and it’s held a special place in my heart ever since.

On U.S. Geological Survey maps, it’s called Cave Draw.

The only feasible way to see it is by floating the Bruneau River. It’s possible for a small party to camp there, about 7 to 8 miles from the Hot Springs put-in. A short walk from the river’s edge, the sound of moving water surrenders to complete silence — until a great horned owl screeches and flushes from its perch on a rock spire.

Much like the incised Bruneau canyon, the grayish-blond rock walls of this side draw rise abruptly some 750 feet. A thin foot trail leads into the canyon through a carpet of grass, sage and thorny wild rosebushes. Around each bend, a new set of tall rock spires comes into view.

When a series of caves appears, I go over to explore them, and some of them even connect. Farther up the draw, more caves and rock arches punctuate the views of this secret place. Finally, the draw comes to a head at a 30-foot rock cliff, a mini-grotto that turns into a raging waterfall during rainstorms and snowmelt.

Cave Draw is one of the many hidden treasures you can explore in the Owyhee Canyonlands if you put together a private raft trip with friends — or hire an outfitter to take you there in style and handle all the boating gear, food and logistics.

The three forks of the Owyhee and the Main Owyhee River are ripe for the plucking this time of year. (Courtesy: Barker River Expeditions)

The Bruneau River, the Jarbidge, the three forks of the Owyhee or the Main Owyhee River are totally ripe for the plucking this year. Because of deep snow and a long, cold winter, the Owyhee and Jarbidge-Bruneau watersheds are primed for an especially long floating season. This is also true for the Mid-Snake reaches such as the Milner Mile, Caldron Linn and the Murtaugh, and for the Salmon River and its tributaries.

It’s going to be one heck of a whitewater season.

I just did a three-day trip on the Main Owyhee the weekend of March 17-19, with a party of six people and four boats, and I hope to do it again in April. I’m also looking forward to running the Bruneau in May or June.

Idaho outfitters have scheduled dates to run these rivers, so if you’re interested in booking a desert river trip, I recommend getting in touch with them ASAP. Far & Away Adventures, ROW Adventures, Barker River Expeditions and Wilderness River Outfitters are all experienced in running trips in the desert country. Contact them for pricing and trip dates available.

If you rise to the task, you’ll be amazed at the fascinating geology you’ll experience on the Jarbidge and Bruneau rivers, and also on the Owyhee. It’s an intimate experience to float through the Jarbidge/Bruneau canyons, with walls rising vertically from the water’s edge several hundred feet. The long passage of geologic time has polished the rhyolite lava flows exposed by the cutting forces of the river and left an especially showy display of towers, alcoves and spires.

The canyonlands are so unique and different than the Salmon River or the Snake that they deserve to be on the Idaho bucket list, in my view. The best and easiest way to see them is via a kayak, raft, cataraft, inflatable kayak or even a pack raft in late season after the big flows have withered.

The Mid-Snake

Rafting the Snake River. (Courtesy: Idaho Guide Service)

Similar to the desert rivers, the Mid-Snake region has jolted to life with more than 20,000 cubic feet per second of water passing Milner Dam. The class 5 Milner Mile is being run by expert kayakers, as are Caldron Linn (Star Falls) and the class 4 Murtaugh section of the Snake. River rapids are rated on a European scale of 1-6, with class 6 being an unrunnable waterfall. Once a waterfall has been run, it’s class 5+; this is the case with Caldron Linn.

I have 30 years of running rivers under my belt, but I’ve never run the Murtaugh. I’ve run the Grand Canyon several times and Hells Canyon many times, and running the big water of the Murtaugh is on my list. There should be boatable flows on the Murtaugh for possibly two months, perhaps longer, depending on Bureau of Reclamation water releases from the Upper Snake. That will be a rare situation for Idahoans who want to experience the thrill of running the Murtaugh.

Longtime Snake River guide Olin Gardner, owner of Idaho Guide Service, has boated the Murtaugh section many times dating back to the 1980s. His company offers guided trips on the Murtaugh for $125 per person, including lunch. (Trust me, you’ll need to eat lunch on this full-day adventure.) Minimum age is 16, and a “go-for-it” attitude is required. The Murtaugh is more action-packed than just about any day trip in Idaho, similar to the nonstop excitement of the Lochsa River or the Payette River “Canyon” section. There are 16 major rapids on a 14-mile stretch between the Murtaugh Bridge and Twin Falls Park.

“It’s always an exciting trip,” says Gardner, who lives near Hagerman at the Billingsley Creek Lodge with his wife, Shelley. “I think it’s one of the most spectacular parts of the Snake River Canyon.”

For folks who don’t necessarily want a white-knuckle experience, there’s the Hagerman reach of the Snake River, which has a series of class 3 rapids over a distance of 10 miles. This is more of a scenic trip with some fun rapids added for spice. The put-in is about 25 miles west of Twin Falls. This trip costs $60-$70 with Idaho Guide Service, with or without lunch.

Be sure to check out the other paddling adventures offered by Idaho Guide Service and do-it-yourself kayak or canoeing trips from Centennial Park to the base of Shoshone Falls after the big water subsides.

The Salmon

The Middle Fork Salmon River is the second most popular wilderness whitewater trip in the nation next to the Grand Canyon. (Courtesy: Idaho River Adventures)

During summer, you also should consider a trip on the Main Salmon River “River of No Return” wilderness section which cuts through the heart of central Idaho from Salmon to Riggins. I’ve done this trip more than 25 times, and it’s really the consummate family trip. The days are hot, the kids jump in inflatable kayaks, or a whole family can take over a paddle raft and have fun together.

If you do it yourself, a permit is required from Recreation.gov, but an outfitter already has a quiver of permits for the season, so you just buy a trip and go on the dates that work for your family.

The Middle Fork Salmon River is another Idaho bucket list adventure. The Middle Fork is considered the second-most popular wilderness whitewater trip in the nation next to the Grand Canyon. The Main Salmon has to be in the top 5 as well. The Middle Fork runs for 100 miles from points northwest of Stanley to the Main Salmon River. Outfitters typically do it in six days. Private groups take seven or eight days, depending on party size. The bottom line: You want to spend as much time on the Middle Fork as possible.

On the Main Salmon, you can experience historic homesteads on short side hikes, camp on big sandy beaches, play volleyball, horseshoes or bocce ball on the sand, enjoy playful class 3 rapids (with a few class 4’s tossed in for spice), and visit Buckskin Bill’s place where you can buy ice cream, T-shirts, hats and cool Salmon River stuff.

On the Middle Fork, you’ll soak in hot springs for the first three or four days of the trip. You can fly fish for native trout all the way down the river (some people catch more than 100 fish on the trip; it’s all catch-and-release). Side hikes provide new insight on the river canyon, away from the bustle of the river corridor. And then there’s Parrott’s grotto, Indian pictographs and Veil Cave to explore on the last day before you leave the canyon.

It’s hard to pack in so much river fun in a single summer, but this year is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for Idaho rivers. Do what you can to carve out time to enjoy it. You’ll want to come back for more.

Steve Stuebner, a longtime Idaho outdoors writer and author of more than 10 books, works in a public relations capacity for Southern Idaho Tourism and the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, among others.