Few places in America, and nowhere outside of Alaska, provide a Wilderness experience to match the sheer magnitude of the Frank Church-River of No Return, the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48. It is second in size only to California's Death Valley Wilderness, which consists of many non-contiguous pieces. This area combines the old Idaho Primitive Area, the Salmon Breaks Primitive Area, territory on six national forests, and a small swath of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Senator Frank Church played a key role in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and his name was added to the Wilderness in 1984, shortly before his death. It is a land of clear rivers, deep canyons, and rugged mountains. Two white-water rivers draw many human visitors: the Main Salmon River, which runs west near the northern boundary; and the Middle Fork of the Salmon, which begins near the southern boundary and runs north for about 104 miles until it joins the Main. Reaching 6,300 feet from the river bottom, the canyon carved by the Main Salmon is deeper than most of the earth's canyons--including the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River--and this fast-moving waterway has been dubbed the River of No Return. In the northeastern corner of the Wilderness, the Selway River flows north into the nearby Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Trout fishing usually rates from good to excellent. The Middle Fork, the Selway, and nearly all of the Main Salmon are Wild and Scenic Rivers. Unlike the sheer walls of the Grand Canyon, these rivers rush below wooded ridges rising steeply toward the sky, beneath eroded bluffs and ragged, solitary crags. The Salmon River Mountains dominate the interior of the Wilderness. Without a major crest, these mountains splay out in a multitude of minor crests in all directions, and rise gradually to wide summits. East of the Middle Fork, the fabulous Bighorn Crags form a jagged series of summits, at least one topping 10,000 feet. The Crags surround 14 strikingly beautiful clearwater lakes. Hiking up from the rivers into the mountains brings sudden elevation changes. Great forests of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine cover much of the area, with spruce and fir higher up and ponderosa pine at lower altitudes. The forests are broken by grassy meadows and sun-washed, treeless slopes. A dry country, as little as 10 inches of precipitation falls near the rivers. As much as 50 inches may fall on the mountaintops, but much of it is snow. Despite the dryness, wildlife abounds. As many as 370 species have been identified in a single year, including eight big game animals. Wildfire has been allowed to play a more natural role in the wilderness in recent years. Tens of thousands of acres have burned without the interference of humans, producing a mosaic of vegetation from severely burned timber stands in some areas to lightly burned grass slopes and understory in other areas. A network of 296 maintained trails (approximately 2,616 miles worth) provides access to this seemingly endless area, crossing rivers and streams on 114 bridges. This is a paradise for horsepackers. Thirty-two Forest Service Roads lead to 66 trailheads. Despite the extensive trail system, an amazing 1.5 million acres remains trail-free. Small planes are allowed to land on several primitive airstrips dating back to the days before Wilderness designation. Jet boats are allowed on the Main Salmon. Dozens of outfitters offer float, jetboat, horsepacking, backpacking, and ski trips. For information, contact the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, P.O. Box 95, Boise, ID 83701; (208) 342-1438.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Central Idaho Wilderness Act - Public law 96-312 (7/23/1980) To designate certain public lands in central Idaho as the River of No Return Wilderness, to designate a segment of the Salmon River as a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and for other purposes
(No official title, renames River of No Return Wilderness) - Public law 98-231 (3/14/1984) To rename the "River of No Return Wilderness" in the state of Idaho as the "Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness"
Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 - Public law 111-11 (3/30/2009) An act to designate certain land as components of the National Wilderness Preservation System, to authorize certain programs and activities in the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, and for other purposes.
Idaho Wilderness Water Resources Protection Act - Public law 113-136 (7/25/2014) To authorize the continued use of certain water diversions located on National Forest System land in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in the State of Idaho, and for other purposes.