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The Best Whitewater Rafting in Idaho

Known by many as “The Whitewater State”, Idaho boasts some of the highest quality river trips anywhere in the world. It’s mountainous geography, unique geology, massive wilderness areas, and small number of dams give Idaho the ingredients it needs to be a destination for boater’s from around the globe. From action packed single day trips, to remote wilderness excursions, Idaho has something for every type of river enthusiast. Here is a list of our 3 favorite rivers that offer the best whitewater rafting in Idaho.

  1. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River
  2. The Lochsa River
  3. The Payette River

1. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River

It’s hard to beat the Middle Fork of the Salmon. A free flowing river with natural hot springs, unbeatable trout fishing, ever changing scenery, picture perfect camping, crystal clear water, endless whitewater rapids, abundant hiking opportunities, and fascinating cultural and natural history, it’s no wonder the Middle Fork of the Salmon has a place on almost every boaters bucket list. The river is so synonymous with the best whitewater river trips in the world that when someone says “The Middle Fork” it is understood that they are referring to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

The 96-mile journey from Boundary Creek to Cache Bar is full of action packed whitewater. From the steep and continuous rapids of the “Top 25”, to the big water wave trains in the Impassable Canyon, the Middle Fork provides excellent Class III-IV whitewater from start to finish. Rapids such as Powerhouse, Pistol Creek, Haystack, Redside, and Rubber offer fun challenges to every level of whitewater boater. During early season spring runoff, at flows of 4ft and higher, the Middle Fork is a non-stop ride of incredible whitewater rapids. In the late summer, at flows of 2ft and below, the river demands technical boating skills and can challenge even the most skilled boaters.

The native population of west slope cutthroat trout provides an unforgettable fly fishing experience on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Combined with gin clear water, these surface oriented fish allow anglers to fish dry flies almost exclusively. There is nothing quite like casting into a deep pool at the tail of a rapid and watching a cutthroat rise from the depths of the river to aggressively take your fly. Anglers also often hook beautiful rainbow trout on the Middle Fork. Due to its remote location, deep in the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness, and strict catch and release policy, the experience of fishing the Middle Fork is truly unmatched.

If you asked someone to design the perfect river trip, you’d get the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It is no wonder there are over 10,000 applicants (for less than 400 permits) a year for a private permit to float the Middle Fork. Winning one of these coveted permits is a dream come true for any river runner. A private trip down the Middle Fork is a once in a lifetime adventure and a great way to experience it’s magic. Another option is to book a trip though one of the many outfitters who offer incredible wilderness experiences with highly trained and knowledgeable guides. Solitude River Trips has been proving the most comfortable, convenient, and unforgettable wilderness rafting and fly fishing trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River since 1990. For more info check out our Middle Fork Salmon River Fly Fishing and Middle Fork Salmon River Rafting pages.

2. The Lochsa River

You can not talk about the best whitewater rafting in Idaho without mentioning the Lochsa! No other river offers such incredible whitewater action, ease of access, and outstanding scenery as the Lochsa. Flowing from Lolo Pass, the river runs 70 miles to its terminus at the confluence of the Selway River (these two rivers form the Clearwater River). During its menacing decent the Lochsa grows dramatically in volume as it is inundated with side creeks flowing in from the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness to the south and the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest to the north. The heart of the whitewater comes in a 30-mile long section of river known as “The Dirty Thirty”.

The action of the Lochsa River’s Dirty Thirty starts almost immediately with Lost Creek, Keep Moving, Ono’s, and The Vortex. The upper section of river culminates in a grand finale of whitewater with Castle and Triple Hole rapids before easing off just enough to let you catch your breath. However, even the unnamed calm sections knows as “Lochsa Flatwater” provide big enough waves to garner a name on most any other river.

The middle section offers some long rapids such as Log Jam, Hard Creek, and Ten Pin Alley. Just when you think you can’t hold on to your paddle any longer, the river enters its final gorge, The Black Canyon. This section of river holds many rapids that make the Lochsa River known around the world — the biggest of which is Lochsa Falls. Spectators line the highway above the falls to watch rafts, kayaks and catarafts disappear into the wall of water at Lochsa Falls, often times reappearing unmanned or upside down.

No other river in Idaho has such a perfect risk/reward ratio as the Lochsa. Its massive features make it feel like Class V whitewater, but its layout makes flips and swims relatively inconsequential. This does not mean the river should be taken lightly, only that it’s truly a whitewater playground where experienced river runners can enjoy pushing their boundaries and have a blast doing it. The entire length of the Lochsa is roadside and has countless access points for boaters. It draws huge crowds of private rafters and kayakers, especially over Memorial Day weekend for a gathering known as “Lochsa Madness.” The river can also be experienced by just about anyone willing to don a wetsuit and challenge this one of kind river. There are several commercial outfitters who offer exceptional guided trips on the Lochsa River. Check out Row Adventures if you’re looking to experience this must do Idaho river.

raft in Lochsa Falls

3. The Payette River

There are few places on earth that offer such variety and quality of whitewater as the Payette River system in southern Idaho. A whitewater boater standing in Banks, ID, lovingly referred to as “The Center of the Universe”, has nearly 100 miles of roadside whitewater ranging in difficulty from Class II to Class V in every direction. This small town sits quietly at the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork Payette all winter long, only to erupt with swarms of rafters and kayakers from around the world each summer. The Payette River is both a place someone can be introduced to whitewater boating and also a proving ground for some of the worlds best paddlers.

The Main Payette

Downstream from Banks, the Payette winds its way through the beautiful foothills of Idaho. With long pools between Class II and Class III rapids, this is a perfect place to introduce someone to whitewater rafting or kayaking. Several companies, including Cascade Raft & Kayak, offer daily rafting trips and kayaking lessons on many different sections of the Payette. Once you have mastered the basics, you can begin to explore upstream and experience why the Payette is home to some of the best whitewater rafting in Idaho.

The South Fork of the Payette

The South Fork of the Payette flows 66 miles from the Sawtooth Mountains to Banks, ID. Nearly every mile of the river is runnable and it hosts some of the best Class III-IV whitewater in the state. The upper stretch of the river, known as the Grandjean section, offers some great Class II-IV paddling past riverside hot springs. Moving downstream is the popular Canyon stretch of the river. This Class II-IV section provides a remote feel, with the highway hundreds of feet above the river, and outstanding scenery! The popular Staircase section is an incredible Class IV training ground for boaters looking to improve their skills.

The North Fork of the Payette

The North Fork of the Payette River is a world renowned Class V stretch of whitewater that has been a proving ground for some of the worlds best kayakers and rafters. Flowing from Cascade Reservoir, the North Fork plunges 1700 vertical feet in 16 miles where it meets the South Fork in Banks, ID. The river is often broken into three sections, The Top 5, The Middle 5, and Lower 5, with each having multiple Class V rapids with continuous Class III-IV rapids in between. The most notable drops are Jacob’s Ladder, S-Turn, Nutcracker, and Jaws. When paddling on the North Fork began in the mid 70’s it did not take long for it to become known as one the best big water runs around. For decades paddlers have come to test themselves on the North Fork. In 2012 the river became host to what was known as one of the world’s biggest whitewater kayaking events, The North Fork Championship. The event ran every summer for 10 years, crowing a new “King of the North Fork” each year. Even standing on the road and watching boats descend the North Fork is enough excitement for most.

From multi-day wilderness excursions to roadside floats, Idaho has whitewater for everyone! Whether your looking to learn to raft or kayak, or planing to take a trip with one of Idaho’s spectacular river outfitters, hopefully this list helped spark your next adventure. So get out there and explore all Idaho has to offer! This list of the best whitewater rafting in Idaho is just the tip of the iceberg, as many more notable stretches of river are scattered across this spectacular state.