Nestled between the two deepest gorges in all of North America lies a small town with big recreational opportunities. With a population of less than 500 people, Riggins, Idaho is not the typical vacation destination. It is neither nightlife nor margaritas that bring people to this North Central Idaho town. Instead, it is the world-class whitewater and fishing that takes place in some of the most remote and breathtaking areas in the entire lower forty-eight. The state of Idaho boasts around 3,500 floatable whitewater river miles, more than any other state. The better half of those miles flows through the North Central region—something Riggins does not take for granted.
Numerous guiding outfits in the area accommodate visitors with rafting and jet boating trips on the Salmon and Snake Rivers. Events like the Big Water Blowout (held every year on the first Saturday in June) bring hoards of families and boaters wanting to tackle enormous rapids on the Salmon River during the high water season. A Dutch oven cook-off with live music creates a friendly, laid-back atmosphere where people celebrate the river and the start of summer. And if you are not up for rafting, most outfitters offer jet-boat excursions that can include fishing, gourmet lunches, and touring of the many historical ranches and sites around the area. A number of those sites are tucked in the bottom of the deepest gorge in North America: Hells Canyon.
There are only a small handful of operations that run jet boats into the area that is technically Hells Canyon. (Some like to extend the claim of Hells Canyon to a greater area than it actually is, but the true canyon trip lies between the only two access points at Pittsburg Landing and Hells Canyon Dam.) The 32-mile trip can be done in a single day for jet boats or a multi-day raft trip. Like the Salmon River, a permit is required for private parties who wish to float this stretch between late May and early September. One of the few operations to run jet boats up this designated Wild and Scenic stretches is Killgore Adventures. If you’re reluctant to trust your existence to an operation named Killgore in a gorge named Hells Canyon, they will not be shy about their perfect safety record. However, their perfect safety record does not lessen the adventure. One rapid in particular, Granite Creek Rapid, is rumored to contain 22 unclaimed jet boats sitting on the bottom of the river bed. “Mostly single engine private boats,” Kurt Killgore, one of Killgore’s boat captains, humbly points out.
The journey through Hells Canyon takes you past multiple rapids, white sandy beaches, and deep green waters that house the gigantic prehistoric creature that is the Sturgeon. The area is also rich in unique history with old homesteads and gravesites along the way. One such gravesite sits at the mouth of Temperance Creek—named for a group of miners whose pack-mule carrying their whiskey supply, rolled off the trail and left them without liquor for the entire winter. After months with no whiskey, they became quite agitated with each other, and during a skirmish, one member was shot and killed. His grave site still remains.
In a sense, a trip to the North Central Idaho area is a step back in time. Idaho County, the largest in the state, contains only one stoplight. You can visit numerous battle fields from the Nez Perce War and explore a landscape that has changed only slightly since Lewis & Clark first found their way through. According to the region’s tourism director Kelly Dahlquist, “People can slow down here, it’s authentic. There is so much access to public lands, and you don’t have to pay every time you want to see or do something.”
But not everything is a step back in Riggins. The town hopes to soon see the construction of a four-part whitewater park on the Little Salmon River. “Riggins is already known for its great water for rafting, kayaking, and fishing. It’s a great opportunity to add to this a park that improves on fishing and kayaking opportunities, while providing walking and picnic areas,” says Devon Barker, co-chair of The Riggins River Park and a world class freestyle kayaker. The park will be handicap accessible throughout, providing unique fishing opportunities for salmon and steelhead to people with disabilities. The ultimate goal for the park is to hold competitions for the USA Freestyle Kayaking circuit—a goal that would greatly benefit Riggins’ only industry, tourism.
From Spokane, Riggins is an easy four-hour drive, mostly through the Palouse. If you want to stay in style, the Salmon Rapids Lodge by Best Western has the best spot in town by far. For lunch or dinner, the Seven Devils Steakhouse delivers fantastic home-style dining, where you can find Maggie. She will serve up your food in the evening and then later in the night, pour you drinks at the saloon next door.
There is no doubt that Riggins is a small town, but in the summer the whitewater and the liveliness remain large.
For more information on the Salmon River and Hells Canyon please visit the following sites: