Special Places

The Frank Church-River of No Return is a wilderness of steep, rugged mountains, deep canyons, and wild, whitewater rivers. The Salmon River Mountains, located south of the Main Salmon and west of the Middle Fork, are the most massive range, and dominate the Wilderness. North of the Main Salmon River are the Clearwater Mountains, east of the Middle Fork are the Bighorn Crags. The Salmon River Canyon is one of the deepest gorges in North America, deeper even than the famous Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Arizona. But in contrast to the Grand Canyon, the Salmon River Canyon is not noted for sheer walls and towering heights, but instead for the variety of landscapes visible from the river; wooded ridges rising to the sky, huge eroded monuments and bluffs and slides, picturesque castles and towers, and solitary crags. The United States Congress designated the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1980 and it now encompasses a total of 2,366,757 acres. Administration of the wilderness is accomplished by two Forest Service Regions (Northern and Intermountain), and four National Forests, the Salmon Challis, Payette, Nez Perce, and Bitterroot. It is the largest contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48 and the second largest unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48 (second in size only to California’s Death Valley Wilderness). The lead forest for managing the coordination of the Wilderness is the Salmon-Challis National Forest, with headquarters located in Salmon, Idaho. 

 Photo of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Lakes.

The name of this Wilderness has two roots. The Main Salmon River was called “The River of No Return” back in the early days when boats could navigate down the river, but could not get back up through the fast water and numerous rapids. The romantic name lives on today, even though jet boats can navigate upstream. Second, the name Frank Church that was attached to this Wilderness in 1984, after its designation, is a memorial to honor a man who did so much to help preserve this wild central core of Idaho. 

Numerous artifacts are evidence that humans have long been a component of the Wilderness. They are the artifacts of the Shoshone and Nez Perce Indian occupations, journals of early fur trappers and missionaries, and remnants of early miner and homestead settlements. The historic and prehistoric heritage of the area is a valuable Wilderness component.

Photo of the Middle Fork River taken off the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness FEIS

All four administering Forests have available a two-map set of the Wilderness (south half and north half). Also available are maps of the Main Salmon River and of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Visit our Maps & Publications page for more information about downloading or purchasing maps.

Wilderness Regulations:
All Wilderness areas have a number of regulations in place which are designed to protect the resource. Mechanized and motorized equipment is not allowed in Wilderness, this includes bicycles, carts and boat motors. Hangliders are prohibited in order to preserve the aesthetic value of wilderness. Hunting and fishing are allowed under State regulations. Commercial guides and outfitters authorized by special use permits are also allowed, as is access to private land, administrations and operations of valid mining claims. Grazing of domestic livestock under permit is allowed. 

Unique to the Frank Church Wilderness, and authorized under the Central Idaho Wilderness Act of 1980 (PL96-312) are the following: 

  • Boating is allowed on the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon and some tributaries, under a permit system. Party sizes are controlled and Leave No Trace techniques are required.
  • General backcountry visitation is allowed with a maximum party size of 20 and a length of stay up to 14 days.
  • Stock use is allowed with a maximum party size of 20 and 20 head of stock.
  • Jet boats are allowed on the Salmon River.
  • Continued use of established airfields is allowed.

Guide for An Enjoyable Wilderness Visit

User's Guide to the Frank Church--River of No Return Wilderness

Managing Fires and Human Waste within the River Corridors

Leave No Trace:
More important than regulations are the responsibilities each traveler has to protect the Wilderness. It is necessary for all users of the FC-RONRW to practice minimum impact camping techniques. The motivation to do this derives from a respect for the land and water and consideration and courtesy for those who will follow after you. Fundamental principles and techniques have been developed using the “Leave No Trace” philosophy. A complete narrative and description for all of the principles can be found on the numerous “Leave No Trace” websites. Listed below are some of the most critical practices:

  • Travel in small groups, usually no more than 10 to 12 people. The maximum group size is 20, without prior approval. Be quiet and unobtrusive. Respect solitude, one of the most valuable wilderness resources.
  • When traveling the trails, stay on the trails to avoid widening them and causing erosion. Do not cut switchbacks.
  • Camp out of sight and sound of other campers, and where possible, at least 200 feet from rivers, streams, and trails.
  • Keep soap and detergent out of hot springs, lakes and streams. Wash and rinse using buckets or pans, and dispose of water at least 200 feet from lakes or streams. 
  • Select a camp that has already been impacted, if you have a larger group (more than 6).
  • Pick up and pack out all unburnable litter and trash. If you have camped in a popular area, leave the campsite in the best possible condition for the next users. If you have camped in a little-used area, leave absolutely no evidence that you have been there. 
  • Be responsible for human waste. Carry a small shovel or trowel to help dispose of human feces. When traveling overland, bury feces. When floating the rivers, use the required sealed portable toilets and pack them out.
  • Do not build facilities like lean-tos, fire circles, bough beds, or gear racks.
  • If fires are permitted (not in fire-restrictions), build a small one, and use only dead or down wood of small diameter. Remove bits of garbage that will not burn and pack out. 
  • Feed for stock must be “Weed Seed Free” supplemental feed, when needed, and should be alfalfa hay, processed pellets, and grain in order to prevent non-native plans from getting established in the Wilderness. No straw is permitted in the Wilderness. If you bring salt in for stock, it must be mixed with grain, or in block form, secured off the ground, and removed when you leave.
  • The Antiquities Act prohibits the collection of archeological artifacts. Look at the many artifacts, but leave them for the next visitor to enjoy.


Please contact the District Ranger for the area you wish to visit to obtain written approval to have a party size larger than allowed by the Wilderness Management Plan.

Airstrip Management Plans

Bernard Airstrip             Cabin Creek Airstrip

Chamberlain Airstrip      Indian Creek Airstrip

Mahoney Airstrip            Wilson Bar Airstrip



Highlighted Areas

Cape Horn Winter Rental Cabin

Cape Horn Winter Rental is located in beautiful Elk Meadow approximately 16 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho, situated in a stand of lodgepole pines at an elevation of 6,660 feet. On clear days, the guard station's front porch affords breathtaking views of the rugged Sawtooth Mountain Range to the south. The Cape Horn area offers unlimited cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling opportunities in the surrounding meadows, and telemark skiing is available on the slopes behind the station.

The guard station is open for reservations at Recreation.gov from December 15 through March 15.

.Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Welcome to the remote and rugged mountains and rivers of Central Idaho. Each year, approximately 10,000 people float the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Middle Fork is a 104-mile free-flowing river in the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, originating 20 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho, at the confluence of Bear Valley and Marsh Creeks.

It was one of the original eight rivers in the nation designated as Wild and Scenic on October 2, 1968. The river moves through a variety of climates and land types; from alpine forest to high mountain desert to sheer, rock-walled canyon, the third deepest in North America.

The Middle Fork is administered under a permit system to protect it from excessive human impacts. Part of that protection asks you, the user, to learn and practice Leave No Trace ethics. Because of its remote location, man's presence in the area was somewhat limited, leaving it in the condition we see today.

Only a few trails, landing strips, private ranches and Forest Service stations are evidence of man's intrusion. The Middle Fork is now an internationally recognized whitewater/wilderness float trip, known for its scenic beauty and crystal clear whitewater. It is a non-motorized floating experience with many technical rapids. These class III and IV+ rapids offer boating excitement for both families and experienced adventurers.

Hiking from the river campsites offers a taste of the wilderness experience and visitors may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of how past inhabitants lived.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is usually not floated November 1 to March 31 due to winter conditions, low water levels and access difficulties. Ice and snow bridges are to be expected on the river and its tributaries during this time.

In the spring, road access to the Middle Fork is usually limited by snowdrifts and trees across the road. Depending on the amount of snow, spring weather and temperatures, the road to Boundary Creek may not open until sometime in mid-June. High water levels are also a concern once the runoff begins.