5 Exciting & Fast Rivers for Whitewater Kayaking in Idaho

Lochsa River in Clearwater Idaho

Lochsa River in Clearwater Idaho

Idaho is a secluded and beautiful state located in the Northwestern United States. Idaho license plates boast of their “Famous Potatoes”, but trust me, this state has more to offer than potatoes, their #1 cash crop. If beautiful and secluded wilderness is what you’re after, Idaho is a great place to check out! It’s the 7th least densely populated state in the country, so there are huge swaths of land that are practically uninhabited.

Being an avid kayaker, I fell in love with Idaho’s many fast-flowing rivers. Me and my wife enjoy all types of kayaking, but intense whitewater runs are our favorite. For fellow whitewater kayakers, I really couldn’t recommend Idaho enough. The “Gem State” offers more than 3,000 miles of whitewater rivers to explore! Best of all, there is enough variety that you can find areas fit for just about any skill level. You can choose between a leisurely cruise down cottonwood-lined rivers, or a white knuckle adventure down some of the state’s many class IV+ runs – often located within an hour or two of each other!

As you likely know already, seasonal weather patterns, rainfall levels, and temperatures can have a huge effect on whitewater conditions. A class IV+ rapid might only be a class II or III in a dry year, or even late/early in a good season. Before planning a trip, we always recommend checking river flow levels.

Just talking about Idaho gets me excited to go back! Below you will find some of my personal favorite places to enjoy whitewater kayaking in this great state. Keep in mind that this list is far from complete. Idaho offers so many great opportunities that it would be impractical to list them all here. Enjoy!

The Lochsa River

The Lochsa River is far from a secret destination. In fact, it’s one of the most popular whitewater destinations in the state – and for good reason. “Lochsa” actually means “rough water” in the local dialect of the Nez Perce tribe. Excited yet?

There is a great 26-mile stretch of the Lochsa running from White Pine to Split Creek. It’s a popular stretch, so you will see lots of guided tours and fellow solo paddlers. It’s a great spot for a day trip or a 2-3 day camping trip, depending on your preference. The season generally runs from April to July, with the best conditions in May and June. Of course it varies year to year, but the Lochsa consistently offers some of the best whitewater in Idaho.

To put it nicely, the Lochsa River is NOT for beginners. There are more than 40 class III-IV+ rapids on this 26-mile stretch. Some years the water can be dangerous for inexperienced paddlers, so be careful out there. If you are not fully confident in your gear and abilities, go with a guided group! It’s still a ton of fun, and it’s much safer.

The Payette River

Payette River in idahoAnother legendary river in the state of Idaho is the Payette. This long and rapid river offers a huge array of different runs for different difficulty levels. It has some of the most advanced rapids in the United States, but also has plenty of more mellow runs for intermediate paddlers. Because of the mixed conditions, it’s vitally important to know what you’re doing and to know where you are on the river.

The Payette River can be extremely dangerous. People die on this river quite often, and it’s even claimed the lives of several legendary kayakers and river running pioneers. DO NOT underestimate the Payette. ALWAYS wear a helmet. I’m serious – this is a dangerous river. Now that you’ve been warned, we can go over the fun stuff!

Payette River North Fork

The North Fork of the Payette River is widely considered to offer some of the best advanced whitewater kayaking runs in the world. That’s right – not just in Idaho, not just in the United States, but in the whole world! In a 16 mile stretch the North Fork offers 20 named class IV-V rapids. It’s a steep, rapid, and difficult descent, but boy is it fun!

The North Fork, being the most advanced stretch, generally claims the most lives and causes the most injuries of any section of the Payette. Because of this, it’s highly recommended that you go with a guide or at least go with a local who knows the river. Last time I did the North Fork my wife was bucked out of her kayak going down a particularly nasty class IV. Luckily the section following that drop was relatively calm, so she was able to catch up with her kayak and escaped without injury. Looking back, I know that it could have been MUCH worse – and we are both extremely experienced kayakers. So, again, don’t underestimate this river, especially the North Fork. If you do, be ready to fork over some cash for a new whitewater ‘yak.

Payette River South Fork

Just over the hill from the North Fork lies the South Fork of the Payette. This section is notably calmer than the ever-intense North Fork, but it’s still pretty advanced. Here you will find mostly class III-IV rapids, but it can vary a lot depending on the year and the season.

What makes the South Fork stand out to me is the beautiful surroundings. We love visiting the South Fork for a day trip or a 2-day trek. There is a beautiful 40-foot waterfall located in the Canyon section that is a must-see. If you get there early enough you might be able to snag a camping spot within view of the waterfall!

Salmon River Middle Fork

Another world-renowned river in Idaho is the Salmon River. Often ranked as one of the top 10 whitewater rivers in the world, it attracts fun loving paddlers from all around the globe. The season on the Salmon River runs from April to September, with high water generally running May to June. The entire river is enjoyable, but the Middle Fork is what I like to call a “must paddle destination”.

There are plenty of opportunities for fun day trips on this stretch of the Salmon, but honestly, the real value in this river lies in the multi-day permitted commercial trips. There are many companies running trips of 2-8 days, and they can be a LOT of fun! The advantage of going on a guided trip is that you have someone carrying your gear for you, which means you can really just rip it up and have a blast!

A multi day trip will also give you the chance to see more of this beautiful river, and enjoy the more than 100 class III and IV rapids that are within just 100 miles! Also, keep in mind that you do need a permit to float this stretch of the Salmon, so often going on a guided tour is the easiest way anyways.

Smith Creek

Smith Creek is a relatively short 6-mile run, but it can be a blast! It’s steep, quick, and intense from start to finish. Offering mostly class IV-VI runs, it’s recommended for seasoned pro’s only – it’s not a run to take grandma or the kids on!

The season here runs April to July. For fans of steep and fast runs, there’s nowhere better in the area than Smith Creek. It drops up to 500 feet in the first mile, then averages about 320 feet per mile for the remaining stretch. For extremely adventurous folks, the run culminates in Smith Creek Falls, a waterfall of about 25 feet. You can take out at the bottom of the falls or, if you don’t feel like dropping a sheer 25 feet, you can navigate over to a convenient eddy before the drop and take out there.

Again, unless you’re ready for non-stop class V+ rapids, do not even attempt Smith Creek. I have been kayaking for 12 years and this “creek” still scares me sometimes. It’s a ton of fun, but you need to have the skills and equipment of a pro in order to make it down safely.

I hope reading this list gets you excited to go out there and enjoy the water! I know that everything listed is more for advanced kayakers, but Idaho also offers many fun beginner and intermediate runs, just make sure you get an appropriate beginner kayak if that is your skill level. I don’t wanna make it seem like every river in the state is class IV+, because that’s just not true! As always, be safe and have fun out there!