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See Idaho’s EPIC Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness (+ Video)

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frank church river of no return idaho salmon river
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

In the heart of Idaho lies America’s largest (and most breathtaking) contiguous Wilderness area outside of Alaska, The Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness.

Steep canyons, pristine forests, untouched Wilderness, incredible wildlife, and world-class whitewater rafting comprise this epic 2.3 million acre road-less area.

The wilderness is located in 5 national forests plus a sliver of BLM land including:

  • Salmon-Challis National Forest (39.59%)
  • Payette National Forest (33.45%)
  • Boise National Forest (14.06%)
  • Bitterroot National Forest (8.18%)
  • Nez Perce National Forest (4.68%)
  • Bureau of Land Management (0.034%)
WATCH: A rarely seen glimpse inside of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

Our Travels to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

pattiz brothers frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river
Us with our Forest Service ranger guides – Jim Pattiz, Ranger Elise, Will Pattiz (me), Ranger Sean, Tom Pattiz

I first visited the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness back in 2016 as part of a filming expedition for the US Forest Service. Along with my brothers and two forest service ranger guides it was the trip of a lifetime.

Our full trip on the middle fork of the Salmon River lasted about a week. We were flown into Indian Creek campground first where we stayed for a few days. From there we were flown up river near the confluence of the north fork and middle fork of the Salmon.

From there we set out on a 4 day rafting trip down the middle fork experiencing all kinds of weather and stunning scenery.


Why Trust Us About The Frank Church Wilderness?

We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers. Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.

We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.

WATCH: The Pattiz Brothers as National Park experts on The Weather Channel.

We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.


Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness Guide

frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river
Middle Fork of the Salmon River | Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho

About the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

  • Location: Idaho
  • Established: January 1, 1980
  • Size: 2,366,827 acres
  • Native Lands: Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, Shoshone-Paiute
  • Entrance Fees: varies (we recommend the $80 for America the Beautiful Pass which gets you into most federal lands)

Map of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

frank church river of no return wilderness map
Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness Map (courtesy PBS)

For a US Forest Service downloadable User’s Guide to the Frank Church: Download

For more maps of the area visit the USFS maps page: here


Where is the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness?

The Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness is located in the heart of Idaho, centered near the town of Salmon, and spanning across 5 national forests plus BLM land.


Getting to the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

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A small 4 person aircraft takes off from the remote, Indian Creek Airstrip | Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

Getting to the Frank Church Wilderness is challenging by design. As a wilderness, there are no two-wheeled vehicles allowed in the Frank Church.

The only exception to this rule is for aircraft which is how a large percentage of folks enter this wilderness area.

Nearby Airports

frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river air strip plane
A plane sits on the runway of Indian Creek Airfield of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

There are 6 viable airports surrounding the River of No Return Wilderness. They include:

  • Missoula (3 hours north of Salmon)
  • Helena (3.5 hours northeast of Salmon)
  • Bozeman (4 hours east of Salmon)
  • Idaho Falls (2.5 hours southeast of Salmon)
  • Twin Falls (4.5 hours south of Salmon)
  • Boise Airport (5 hours south of Salmon)

Idaho Falls is the closest airport at 2.5 hours from Salmon and Boise is usually the cheapest but 5 hours away.

Ways to Enter the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

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View from the window of a small aircraft flying over Idaho’s Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

Depending on where you want to go will determine which of the three main modes you use to enter the wilderness, those being by air, boat, or foot.

Let’s start with the latter option – accessing the Wilderness by foot (+ car to the edge).

Getting to the Bighorn Crags

salmon idaho to bighorn crags map
Directions to the Bighorn Crags

If you’re looking to get to the Bighorn Crags (the most popular of the 2500+ miles of Wilderness trails) prepare for 2+ hours of dirt road driving. From Salmon, the entire drive is about 3 hours depending on how safely you drive.

The jumping off point is the Crags Campground Complex situated at 8400ft where you’ll find a basic campground and the Bighorn Crags Trailhead. The Crags are a must-see bucket list site with a series of dramatic granite peaks and pristine alpine lakes (with fish).

Ever since I saw a photo of Fishfin Ridge I have longed for a trip to this area. The fact that there is a road that gets you so close is a marvel.

From the trailhead the shortest *worthy* hike is Cathedral Lake at 8.8 miles RT + 2,200ft elevation gain.


Video of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

This film was shot in the heart of the remote Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness on one of America’s premiere Wild & Scenic Rivers, the middle fork of the Salmon.

This short film highlights the unique, rugged beauty of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and explains the delicate balance between visitors and the wilderness.

RELATED: 25 BEST NATIONAL PARK VIDEOS (Epic Adventures You’ll Love)


Things to Do in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

whitewater rafting salmon river middle fork idaho
One of the most popular things to do in the River of No Return Wilderness is whitewater rafting

1. Salmon River Whitewater Rafting

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of the most sought after floats in the world. Permits are not easy to come by, being awarded to private groups each year on a lottery system.

Alternatively you can hire an outfitter (see more complete list below) to guide your group down (in style).

Guided trips are not cheap, as you could imagine, with trips ranging from $1,000 to more than $5,000 and above, per person.

List of Salmon River Rafting Outfitters:

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Fishfin Ridge in the Bighorn Crags via Summit Post’s pioneerclimber

2. Bighorn Crags

The Bighorn Crags are considered by many as the crown jewel of the Frank Church Wilderness with magnificent granite peaks and pristine alpine lakes that stir the imagination.

Getting to the Bighorn Crags is not exactly easy but well worth the effort. Lucky for most folks a dirt road has been constructed that takes visitors within 5 miles of them.

To get a full appreciation of the majesty of the Bighorn Crags you should consider a backpacking trip into the area.


backpacking the bighorn crags
Backpackers head into the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness

3. Backpacking

As the Wilderness is so remote, backpacking is one of the most popular ways to experience this area.

There are many popular backpacking trails (over 2500 miles!) to explore in the Frank Church, none so popular as the Bighorn Crags complex.


frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river rafting
Gearing up to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

4. River Trips

Probably the most popular way to experience the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness is by floating down one of it’s rivers, particularly the middle fork of the Salmon River.

If you plan to visit the area I recommend this as *the way* to experience all that it has to offer.

The stunning beauty from the river is Yosemite-esque in many places with towering granite canyon walls on either side of the river.

A number of outfitters are available for hire on the river who offer a variety of services and trips from basic to luxury glamping experiences with 5 star meals. For a list of some of the top outfitters in the area scroll below.

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Rafts on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

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Native American Pictographs in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho

5. Cultural Sites

While we were in the area we had the good fortune of meeting one of the top interpretive guides on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River (who’s featured in the video above). This area is rich with cultural history, especially that of the Native American inhabitants.

All sorts of cultural sites are visible from simple depressions in the ground, to pictographs, petroglyphs, archeological sites, and more.

When visiting the area, be sure to leave anything you find of cultural or historical significance (and anything else for that matter) on the ground in it’s original place. Let your guide or the US Forest Service know of your discovery so they can log it!

pictographs frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river
The Stoddard Panel of Pictographs off the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

horseback trip frank church river of no return wilderness
Preparing for a backcountry horseback trip into the Wilderness

6. Horseback Trips

One of the most popular ways to experience the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness is on horseback. There are several outfitters in the area that offer packages that take visitors deep into the wilderness including meals and guides.

For a full list of outfitters in the area scroll below.

horseback trip frank church wilderness
A pack train of horses and mules

camping frank church river of no return wilderness idaho stargazing
Camping along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

6. Stargazing

As perhaps the most remote area in the contiguous 48 states, the stargazing in this Wilderness is world-class. I don’t believe I have ever seen so many stars in my life as on my trip down the Middle Fork.

If you love stars, be sure to plan your trip around a dark moon to get the best viewing. You will not be disappointed!


parrots grotto frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river
Parrot’s Grotto Waterfall off the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

7. Waterfalls

The Frank Church Wilderness is full of breathtaking waterfalls. My personal favorite so far is Parrot’s Grotto located off the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

A short, 3/4 of a mile hike up a primitive trail which follows Nugget Creek will lead you into the grotto itself. The grotto is named after Earl Parrot, an early 20th century inhabitant of the area whose cabin still exists on the river today.

frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river waterfall
Waterfall on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River Idaho

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Elk is on of the prize big game animals | Hunting Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness Idaho

8. Big Game Hunting

One of the most sought after places for big game hunting in the United States and for that matter, the world, is the Frank Church Wilderness.

Permits are available for hunting each year here and there are a number of great hunting outfitters that offer guide services.

Big Game Animals on the Frank Church
  • Bear, Deer, Elk, Goat, Lion, Moose, Sheep, Wolf
List of Big Game Hunting Outfitters on the Frank Church Wilderness

List of Outfitters – Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river rafting

Rafting & Floating Outfitters

Big Game Hunting Outfitters


Photos of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness


Summary | Leave us a Comment!

pattiz brothers frank church river of no return wilderness idaho salmon river
Here we are with another US Forest Service Ranger at Indian Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Well folks, hat’s a wrap! Hopefully you feel like you’ve got a good handle on your next trip to the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness.

Please leave us a comment below and let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Will Pattiz

Co-founder of More Than Just Parks. Husband. Conservationist. Currently living in NYC.

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