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Lay of the Land: What to do outdoors in North Central Idaho

kids play in the Clearwater

kids play in the Clearwater

The area is so vast and is put to such diverse use that no one publication describes the region in full.

As an example: though many North Central Idaho communities are home to seasonal RV parks, the best free mapping tool that includes both private and public overnight camping facilities is online at Details on public facilities may be found in several places online: the federal reservations clearinghouse at; the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests’ recreation page at; the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation’s homepage at

There is an authoritative, searchable list of authorized outfitters and guides online at, but with millions of acres of undeveloped land, many of the best places in Idaho remain unknown to all but the few who have sought them out for themselves.

Anyone who seeks an adventure unlike any other can find one here.

Clearwater River

No single geographic feature defines North Central Idaho, but the Clearwater River comes close. Much of the rain and snow that falls here runs to the Pacific Ocean through Lewiston. By way of the vast Columbia River, fish and trade have come and gone for eons, forming a cycle that has sustained numerous communities, historic and prehistoric.

The Clearwater forks at Ahsahka, near Orofino; to the north is Dworshak Reservoir, home to Dworshak State Park, which features large-group facilities, myriad activities, boating amenities, wildlife and several WiFi equipped cabins. Above Dworkshak, the North Fork Clearwater country holds much federal and state land and a wide range of opportunities.

At Kooskia, the Clearwater’s main stem forks again; to the east U.S. 12 follows the Middle Fork to Lowell, where the Lochsa and Selway rivers meet, above which U.S. 12 follows the Lochsa northeast toward Missoula, Mont. To the south, State Highway 13 wends 15 miles to its junction with State Highway 14, which follows the South Fork east to Elk City.

-U.S. 12

Trailheads along the Lochsa River offer hiking, biking and horse camping in views of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The Sherman Creek Trail, 26 miles east of Lowell on U.S. 12, connects to the Lolo Motorway. Powell Campground, 65 miles east of Lowell, is typically open by Memorial Day Weekend.

Southeast of Lowell, a county road follows the Selway River 21 miles to just below Selway Falls. Near the junction of the Selway Road with Falls Point Road is Slims Camp, where an RV/trailer pad affords an opportunity to camp near the eastern edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness without having to “rough it.” O’Hara Bar Campground, seven miles from Lowell, is the largest of 13 Forest Service campgrounds in the area and is typically open by Memorial Day Weekend.

The Selway and Lochsa rivers feature intermediate- to expert-level whitewater rafting late May to early August. The Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association advises: “Due to the limited number of small groups allowed, booking a Selway trip requires advance planning. Only four outfitters operate on the river. They often book a year or more in advance. It is always worth checking for openings due to last minute cancellations.”

-State Highway 14

The South Fork Clearwater River bears witness to both the ancient Nez Perce Trail and the gold mining and homesteading that began during the second half of the 19th Century. Riverside campsites are especially popular with steelhead and chinook salmon anglers, who arrive in this remote valley during the weeks when the ocean-going fish pass through en route to their spawning grounds. State Highway 14 also parallels the northern edge of a 200,000-acre preserve. Unpaved roads reach three campgrounds on its edges; beyond them lies Buffalo Hump (elevation 8,939 feet), the tallest and most prominent point in the Gospel Hump Wilderness.

Salmon River

The Salmon River drains more than 14,000 square miles – about a sixth of the state’s entire area – and by virtue of its location, tiny Riggins is a hub for many of Idaho’s river users. Outfitters and guides based here provide seasonal services including rafting, fishing and jet boat trips.

About 30 miles upstream from Riggins, the east-bound road along the north edge of the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness dead ends at the Vinegar Creek Boat Ramp, beyond which only jet boats travel up-river.

-U.S. 95

North of Riggins, U.S. Highway 95 parallels the Salmon River, providing easy access to riverside picnic areas and campgrounds. From the highway, an unpaved connection to the Gospel Hump Wilderness ends at Rocky Bluff Campground. Eight miles south of Grangeville, the highway begins its ascent and overlooks the White Bird Battlefield, a National Parks Service site that marks the location of the first shots of the 1877 Nez Perce War. A view of Idaho’s Camas Prairie unfurls north of White Bird Hill.

North of Grangeville and west of Cottonwood is Pine Bar, the last campground above the Salmon River’s confluence with the Snake. Beyond the northern edge of the Camas Prairie is Winchester Lake State Park, which features boating during the summer, ice fishing during the winter and year-round camping. Near Lewiston, Hells Gate State Park is the largest developed camping facility in the region.

Snake River

From the height of the He Devil mountain to the level of the Snake River, the deepest gorge in North America separates north central Idaho from Oregon. Petroglyphs and pictographs of lost meanings mark the canyon walls and bear witness to ancient settlements. The major hydroelectric dam built in 1967 bears a name this place acquired at the dawn of the 20th Century: Hells Canyon.

Towering above Riggins, the He Devil is distinguished among even the rest of the precipitous Seven Devils by its ultra-prominence. He Devil drops nearly a mile along an uninterrupted contour down to the bottom of Hells Canyon. It is one of three “ultras” in Idaho, one of 128 “ultras” on the continent, and the surrounding area holds hiking and climbing challenges suitable for all levels.

The daunting landscape below the Seven Devils turned aside explorers in the days of Lewis and Clark, and still restrains travel in the area. From the Idaho side, there are only two ways to enter Hells Canyon. One – a single-lane gravel road with steep grades and tight switchbacks – winds 20 miles from White Bird to Pittsburg Landing. The other involves crossing into Oregon at Hells Canyon Dam.

Magruder Road

All that separates the 1.2 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness from the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is a rugged single-lane road named for a victim of the first murderers ever convicted and hanged by the Idaho territorial court. Lloyd Magruder and his fellow travelers were slain by brigands in 1863 and the road that bears his name has been changed very little since its construction during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Motorized or mechanized travel is not permitted in wilderness areas, but the Magruder Road provides the unique opportunity to drive between two such wild lands.

East of Elk City, the Magruder Road winds 101 miles to the Idaho-Montana state line at Nez Perce Pass (elevation 6,598 feet). Along the way, the Magruder Road tracks part of the ancient hunter-gatherers’ trail, climbs Salmon Mountain (elevation 8,944 feet) and descends to the only automotive crossing in the upper “wild and scenic” Selway River, after which it proceeds over the pass to Darby, Mont.

No road in the lower 48 states boasts more wilderness in both directions, and the route is rugged. The Forest Service advises: “It is suitable for high clearance vehicles, pickup trucks, motorcycles and mountain bikes…the Forest Service does not recommend towing trailers because there are several hairpin turns along the route…motor homes with low clearance should not travel the road.”

Lolo Trail

Two national historic trails overlap in one of the places people of earlier ages found difficult but necessary to cross. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail marks one of the great events in American history, in part, on the ancient route traveled primarily by the Nimi’ipuu, the Nez Perce people.

When Lewis and Clark traversed Lolo Pass in 1805, their expedition followed the Missouri and Columbia rivers across 11 states and crossed the continental divide with relative ease, but their line was nearly broken by the Bitterroot Mountains. It took the famous expedition 11 days to emerge from thickly-timbered steep-hilled country onto the Weippe Prairie. Parts of the Lolo Trail were improved during the mid-1800s, and it came to be used by miners, trappers and settlers.

When war broke out between the settlers and the tribe in Idaho County, the Lolo Trail became part of the 1,170-mile route Chief Joseph took from Oregon to Montana as the Nimi’ipuu fled from the U.S. Army during 1877.

Today, the Lolo Pass vicinity is home to Forest Road 500, a remote, rough, narrow road constructed during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, also known as the Lolo Motorway. It remains daunting to this day.

The Forest Service advises: “The safety of visitors is a major concern. Access to the Lolo Motorway in the Powell area is via FS Road 569 (Parachute Hill Road), and in the Wilderness Gateway area via FS Road 107 (Saddle Camp Road). Access to Forest Road 100 in the Kamiah area is at the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and the Kamiah bridge over the Clearwater River. The Lolo Motorway is a difficult trip that demands a high degree of self-sufficiency and the right vehicle.”

It’s always a good idea to check with the relevant ranger station before heading out into any National Forest.

-Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests’ Supervisor’s Office, Kamiah, (208)935-2513

-Grangeville Office, Grangeville, (208)983-1950

-Red River Ranger District, Elk City, (208)842-2245

-Moose Creek Ranger District, Lowell, (208)926-4258

-Salmon River Ranger District, White Bird, (208)839-2211

-North Fork Ranger District, Orofino, (208)476-4541

-Lolo Pass Visitor Center (Powell Office), Powell, (208)942-3113

-Palouse Ranger District, Potlatch, (208)875-1131

-Lochsa/Powell Ranger District, Kooskia, (208)926-4274


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