Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness




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-Clearwater, 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.

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.

General Wilderness Prohibitions:

  • Possessing or using a motor vehicle, motorboat or motorized equipment except as authorized by federal law or regulation.  36 CFR 261.18(a)
  • Possessing or using a hang glider or bicycle. 36 CFR 261.18(b)
  • Landing of an aircraft, or dropping or picking up of any materials, supplies, or persons by means or aircraft including a helicopter.  36 CFR 261.18(c)

Prohibited by Special Order in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness:

  • Permit required to float Salmon River (36 CFR 261.10k).
  • Any group over 20 people and 20 head of stock (36 CFR 261.57b & 261.58f).
  • On trails, stock must be ridden or led in single file (no loose herding) (36 CFR 261.58aa).
  • Caching storing equipment, personal property, or supplies for more than 14 consecutive days within any 45-day period (36 CFR 261.58a &261.57f).
  • There may be other special regulations in specific areas.  Contact a Forest Service office before you visit to get information on any fire, camping, group size, or grazing restrictions.

Information about hunting and fishing in the FC-RONR can be obtained from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 1540 Warner Avenue, Lewiston, ID 83501, 208/799-5010 or the Montana Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, 3201 Spurgin Road, Missoula, MT 59801, 406/542-5500.

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.

You can learn more about the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness at