That afternoon, as I rounded a bend, I saw the rafters’ tents beside a steaming waterfall. I was standing in the trail under the grip of temptation when the kayaker spotted me and waved. I waved back, and moments later I found myself sitting in a cliff-top pool of hot water with a cup of wine in my hand.
My new friends were two couples in their 30s from Salt Lake City and another in their 60s from Cody, Wyoming. We were sharing wine when our chef exclaimed, “We’ve forgotten the beans for the burritos!”
How often can a backpacker come to the culinary rescue of a rafting party? My meal happened to be freeze-dried beans, Santa Fe style.
“Let’s see,” I ruminated out loud. “I’ll share my beans if you share your fried tortillas, veggies, tomatoes, chips, guacamole, and wine. Deal?”
The next morning, refreshed and espresso-filled, I struck off with a new bounce in my step. The changing landscape played no small role in my sky-high spirits. Fir gave way to ponderosa pine, and pine in turn opened up to no trees at all except around springs and tributaries. Sages of various sorts bloomed bright yellow. To a forest-flush Oregonian like me, the metamorphosis into high-country desert was fascinating. My spirit felt free and unconfined as it roamed across the landscape faster and farther than even my rejuvenated legs could travel.
When I reached Hospital Flats Hot Springs, a rafter’s camp where my paddling friends and I had talked about sharing another evening, nobody was in sight. I waited, then waited some more, pacing restlessly. After an hour I realized that I just couldn’t wait any longer. I was falling in love with movement, with flowing down the trail like a piece of driftwood caught in the river’s current. Miles, and the more the better, were what I craved. Finally, I could take it no more and struck off until dusk caught up with me at a sandy beach. But what? No hot springs? How terribly uncivilized.
At least I had the place to myself, or so I thought until I noticed a light in the trees just downriver. Curious, I wandered over and found a couple of tent cabins and a small log building with smoke trailing from the chimney. Two elk skins covered in salt lay stretched on the ground. Antlers clung to skulls balanced on a hitching post. I retreated to my sandy beach.
And so it happens that on my final night in the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, I at last have camp entirely to myself. My mind replays the day’s events-the mountain sheep I witnessed prancing across stupefyingly sheer cliffs, the golden eagle that perched above me as I rested on the trail, the bear scat so full of seeds that I located the bush and ate the berries he’d left behind. Most of all, I reflect on the red petroglyphs I spotted on the walls of a riverside cave. Sheepeater Indians had once lived here, renowned for the bows and snowshoes they made from the horns of bighorn sheep. I guess this canyon always has been settled, if not by log-home builders, then by families in tepees. Still, whatever my century, I marvel at the emptiness of my beach.
What a glorious day of solitude. A perfect ending to a too-short trip. Even without hot springs, contentment seeps into my trail-weary muscles.
Then I hear a splash upstream.
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t see you.”
No problem. I guess I’ve been expecting you.
Expedition Planner: Middle Fork of the Salmon River
Trails: The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is crisscrossed by an extensive trail network. The trail along the Middle Fork is in excellent condition the entire distance, but some remote trails in the wilderness are in disrepair from fallen trees. Unless you stick to the river’s edge, expect significant elevation gains and losses. Some high ridgelines allow superb off-trail hiking.
Flying: Car shuttles make a one-way hike possible, or you can add an exotic twist reminiscent of the Far North by flying in or out, as I did. Some pilots charge strictly by the hour; others have a fixed price for each landing strip. I spent about $200 for my flight from Soldier Bar to Bruce Meadows. As many as four passengers can share a flight, which brings the per-person cost down to a more reasonable $50. Beware that fatalities have occurred at every strip along the Middle Fork. Two of the most established flying services in the region are McCall Aviation (208-634-7137) and Arnold Aviation (208-382-4844). I used McCall and lived to tell this tale.
Season: September is postcard-perfect in the Middle Fork canyon. Early spring can be equally benign because the valley melts free of snow long before the surrounding high country. If access roads are blocked by snow, consider flying to Indian Creek and hiking downstream. But avoid riverside and creek-crossing travel from mid-May to the end of June. Hot weather triggers rapid snowmelt in the high country and swollen streams down low; sections of the Middle Fork trail can become submerged. Mid-July through September provides good high-country hiking, but July and early August at canyon bottom can be unbearably hot, unless you’re in a boat. By late August low water and a new school year combine to drastically reduce boat traffic. As September progresses into October you run an increasing chance of being trapped by snow anywhere in the wilderness.
Walk Softly: Within the river corridor (a zone described as a quarter-mile on each side of the river’s center), human feces must be carried out. Fire pans are required, and charcoal also must be carried out within the corridor. No soap is allowed in the hot springs.
Maps: The Forest Service’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness South Half and North Half are essential for any traveler ($4 paper, $6 waterproof; USFS, 208-879-4101). The best detail on the Middle Fork and its side trails is on the USGS 1:100,000-scale metric topos. In downstream order, they are: Deadwood River, Pistol Creek, Challis, and Bighorn Crags.
Essential Reading: Trails of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, by Margaret Fuller ($14.95; Signpost Books, 206-776-0370) contains tons of useful information, but its organization is challenging. The Hiker’s Guide to Idaho, by Ralph Maughan and Jackie Johnson Maughan ($12.95; Falcon Press, 800-582-2665; http://www.falconguide.com) is much less comprehensive for the No Return than is Fuller’s book but offers several good, easy-to-follow route suggestions for additional hikes. The Middle Fork: A Guide, by Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley ($13.95; Backeddy Books, P.O. Box 301, Cambridge, ID 83610) leaves no historical stone unturned. Hiking Hot Springs in the Pacific Northwest, by Evie Litton ($14.95; Falcon Press) describes almost every hot springs I saw or heard about.
Contacts: The wilderness is managed by six national forests, but the primary contact is the Middle Fork Ranger District, Challis National Forest, P.O. Box 750, Challis, ID 83226; (208) 879-4101.
Other hikes in the area: The Middle Fork of the Salmon River Trail is a great hike, but it’s just one of many. Why not try one of the following?
- Bighorn Crags: Spectacular granite pinnacles set among exquisite alpine lakes, by far the most famous (and visited) section of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. It’s about 22 miles round-trip to Ship Island Lake, plus all the wandering you leave time for.
- Stoddard Lake/Twin Peak: This remote region offers plenty of challenging exploration. Cross the Salmon River at Stoddard Park Bridge, then climb steeply 5,400 feet out of America’s second-deepest canyon. Make a rugged week-long loop by combining the Stoddard Trail with cross-country hiking over Twin Peak.
- Sleeping Deer Mountain/Lower Loon Hot Springs: The gravel access road follows a spectacular ridgeline for 24 miles. The scenery includes little-visited alpine lakes, granite canyons, and subalpine meadows.
- Big Creek: This 70-mile down-and-back follows the historically rich Big Creek all the way to the bridge on the Middle Fork. Add a few miles to investigate the “monument,” a skinny 68-foot-high natural tower with a giant boulder on top. For a grand traverse of the wilderness with an epic car shuttle (or use a plane to return), continue up Waterfall Creek on the east side of the Middle Fork and hike out through the Bighorn Crags.