Tim and Bonnie Barnett paddled down the silvery water of the Upper Salmon River near Stanley with 10,000-foot Sawtooth Range peaks at their backs and their golden retrievers looking forward, scouting the way with their noses high in the air.
The couple from Prescott, Ariz., frequently floats Idaho’s wild rivers like the Middle Fork of the Salmon and the Lower Salmon, but whenever they pass through the Stanley area, they have to do the town stretch of the Salmon.
“We love this section and do it at least once a season,” Bonnie Barnett said as she floated past Lower Stanley. “It’s so relaxing.”
She and her husband paddled inflatable kayaks on the stretch in June and camped at Casino Creek Campground, where they were able to conveniently float to their campsite.
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This fun section of river draws dozens of floaters each day during summer. “The town stretch from the river’s confluence with Valley Creek to Mormon Bend Campground is easy and family-friendly,” said Frank Juiliano at the Riverside Motel and Sawtooth Rentals in Lower Stanley. “You don’t need a lot of experience to do it.”
The motel is along the river where floaters can rent boats and launch right out of the motel’s backyard.
“A lot of folks do this stretch a couple times in a day,” Juiliano said. He laughed when he recalled that one dad did it six times in one day with his kids.
The river is running lower than normal this summer, and the stretch from Valley Creek about a mile downstream is low and rocky. Floaters have to drag boats over a few riffles. Tubes, inflatable kayaks and small paddle rafts are the way to go as the water level drops. The river picks up more water as creeks and seeps come in below that area.
Those who feel confident on stand-up paddleboards can navigate the upper part of the stretch but need to keep from bumping rocks and taking a tumble in low water. For those who want to avoid low water, there’s a pull-off on Idaho 75 next to the river about a mile downstream. The river gets a little deeper downstream from there.
This section of the river, which goes past several U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, is popular for combining a weekend of camping, swimming and floating.
You’ll likely see pickup trucks loaded with tubes in the beds and kids in the cabs driving out of the campgrounds and headed upriver. Some parents drop off their kids at the river and pick them up at nearby campgrounds or bridges downstream.
It’s a festive river atmosphere, for sure. The river is the runway for a fashion show of bikinis and surfer shorts. Beach towels hang like flags from clotheslines and fences in every campground along the way. Families perch in lawn chairs in the river near campsites.
The easy-going atmosphere is due in part because there aren’t any rapids along the way. The stretch of river is wide enough that it is easy to avoid some of the overhanging branches or sunken logs along the banks. The only thing that can get in a floater’s way is an island here or there, but it’s easy to push a boat off the low riffles at the head of the island and hop in again for the downstream ride.
A hot springs on the highway side of the river highlights the float. The hot springs used to consist of a wooden tub, but it was mysteriously improved with a fiberglass version. On hot days, it gets passed up. On cloudy and breezy days, it’s a neat place to warm up.
Although there’s a tendency for floaters to keep their eyes downstream, they should scan the skies and riverbanks, where you might catch a glimpse of birds, deer and other wildlife.
Oh, and don’t forget the fishing. Fly anglers love the opportunity to float this stretch in a small fishing catamaran. There’s a chance to catch rainbow trout for the frying pan or catch and release some hefty wild cutthroats. Watching a yellow stimulator float on the surface of the river and seeing a trout pounce on it is unforgettable.
The Upper Salmon also is a classroom, where you can teach youngsters the finer points of rowing a raft.