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Backpacking in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness


Mark Wetherington

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Earth Day was a perfect day, in regards to both weather and spirit, to embark on my first backpacking trip of the year. The destination, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, seemed particularly fitting as well as a bit daunting. Covering over 2.3 million acres, this area is one of the wildest places in the Lower 48. With the high country still covered in snow, I would limit my hiking on this trip to a mere five miles on the Lower Salmon River Trail and a short way up the Horse Creek Trail to a quaint campsite. 

Backpacking in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.JPG

While the Salmon River (also known as the River of No Return) is exceedingly popular with boaters, the hiking in this area remains somewhat underrated. The trails receive little coverage in guidebooks or magazines and online searches returned few trip reports from hikers or backpackers. However, the area came highly recommended by several local hikers and the promise of pleasant trail, a rushing river, and steep hillsides blanketed by arrow-leaf balsamroot was all the motivation I needed.

Heading south from Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, I crested Lost Trail Pass and descended into Idaho and the Salmon River watershed on a warm and sunny Friday. Decreasing my speed and rolling down the windows, I turned off the main highway onto a road that would wind approximately 45 miles along the North Fork Salmon River, with only the first 15 miles on pavement, to a dead-end trailhead at Corn Creek. The drive was absolutely breathtaking. Geology, hydrology, archaeology – intriguing examples of each were visible from the car window as I followed the river downstream. Stunning rock formations, churning whitewater, vivid pictographs, mining remnants and historic homesteads, all beckoned me to pull over rather than roll on by. I heeded to the innate exploratory urge in a few instances, but for the most part kept myself focused on the drive.

With the windows down and the Salmon River providing all the music I needed, I rolled through the landscape in a state of wheel-induced bliss that usually only comes to me on bicycle rides. I could count on both hands the number of vehicles I’d crossed paths with in the last hour and the road seemed to stretch on forever in its ideal width which took no more and no less space than needed to provide marginally safe passage for traffic.

A few miles from the trailhead, my ears were treated to the disheartening sound of an all-terrain tire going from 35 psi to 0 psi in a split second. This pneumatic phenomenon necessitated the installation of the spare tire and I can’t think of a more scenic location to perform such a simple mechanical task. Without considerable delay, I found myself back on the road and arriving at the trailhead in the earliest part of the afternoon. A few checks and double-checks of items in my pack and pockets were completed and then I shouldered the modest load and headed down the trail.

Salmon River Trail - FCRNR Wilderness.JPG

Only a few hundred feet from the trailhead, a sign noted the wilderness boundary. Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Iconic. Expansive. Enchanting. It was a bit surreal for me to be crossing over into this massive piece of preserved public land, as I’d been hearing about the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness since I’d started backpacking. Rugged, wild and beautiful – it was a place I’d hoped to maybe get in one good trip during my lifetime when I figured I’d be living in the Southeast for the rest of my life. But the world moves along, opportunities present themselves, and I now find myself living less than three hours away from trailheads in this wilderness. This would be my first trip here, but hopefully not my last.

I followed the well-graded path paralleling the Salmon River and stopped often to admire the fantastic displays of arrowleaf balsamroot on hillside near and far. The yellows of the flower on distant hillsides blended together and formed a beautiful cohesion of color that was striking. While gorgeous individually, these patches of arrowleaf balsamroot proved to be a spectacle much greater than the sum of their parts when beheld in such pleasing afternoon light. I maintained a steady pace and managed to avoid stumbling as my gaze shifted between the trail, the rushing river, and the colorful hillsides.

Trail Along the Salmon River Montana.JPG

I made it to a charming little campsite in good time, covering around six flat miles in 90 minutes or so. For a stop-and-smell-the-wildflowers (and take a few dozen pictures) type of hiker like me this was actually pretty efficient. I don’t expect a trail running company to sponsor me any time soon, but I felt pretty good about getting to camp so quickly. Rain was in the forecast, and the cloud cover was increasing, so I set up my tent as well as a small fly to use for cooking/relaxing if needed. The other tasks of filtering water, hanging a bear bag, and organizing gear were completed without any obstacles. Before I knew it I found myself stretched out on a sleeping pad leaned against a boulder reading Edgar Allan Poe short stories. 

After reading “The Cask of Amontillado”, eating some snacks, drinking a liter of water, and taking a brief nap, I decided to stretch my legs and venture further up Horse Creek. I checked the map and decided on wandering up the trail towards West Horse Point with absolutely no intention of arriving there. I just wanted to gain enough elevation to look around Horse Creek Canyon and get a feel of the lay of the land. I hiked up through incredible patches of arrowleaf balsamroot, with a few other wildflowers mixed in, for maybe a mile and half, gaining maybe 400 feet of elevation and the perspective I was seeking, before heading back to camp.

Hiking the Frank Church River of No Return -Wildflowers.JPG

I started cooking dinner an hour before sundown, ate, and went to bed perhaps an hour after sundown. Pasta and tuna, more reading, and a few sips of bourbon made for an enjoyable evening. The dull roar of Horse Creek, churning with snowmelt, provided a perfect soundtrack for slumber.

The sound of light rain on the tent awoke me shortly before dawn, but I fell back asleep to that delightful sound (at least it’s delightful when you know you don’t necessarily have to pack up camp in it) for another hour. By 6:30 a.m. the rain had stopped and I exited the tent to retrieve the food bag and make a cup or two of coffee. It was a crisp morning – not cold enough for a down jacket, but cold enough to make one really appreciate the warmth of coffee. I took my time packing up, partly to let the fly dry as much as possible from the brief pre-dawn deluge, but mostly just to enjoy a Saturday morning within earshot of the stream.

I’ve grown to appreciate out-and-back hikes and the return trip that morning was definitely one to appreciate. Clouds swirled above the tops of the hillsides and the grayness of the day served to saturate the greens and yellows of the vegetation. Walking upstream provided a different perspective on the river and, other than a few landmarks, it almost seemed as I was hiking a fresh piece of trail.

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.JPG

I arrived back at the trailhead before noon and reluctantly and cautiously began the drive back home. This trip was an all-too-brief sample of an almost incomprehensibly huge place. On my next trip to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, I’ll be bringing two spare tires and a whole lot more time.

Backpacking in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.JPG

Information: No permits are required for hiking or backpacking, although rules regarding group size and duration of stay do apply. For specific information, please visit the Salmon-Challis National Forest website.

Best Time to Go: Late March to mid-May is the best time of year to hike in this area, according to many local hikers. April is probably most ideal with its wildflower displays and mild temperatures.

Getting There: From North Fork, Idaho (US-93) follow the Salmon River Road for approximately 45 miles (first 15 or so paved, remaining miles on well-maintained gravel road) to the Corn Creek Campground and Boat Launch.

Maps: Forest Service Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (North half)

Books: Trails of the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, by Margaret Fuller.

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Aaron Zagrodnick

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Looks like a great trip and thanks for sharing Mark, still waiting on the "April" showers to end and the wildflowers to begin here!  

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