The Salmon River, nicknamed the “River of No Return,” stands out as a historical treasure within the state of Idaho. Originating in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho, the Salmon River starts small but transforms into a powerful river as it traverses the state, winding through the Frank Church Wilderness and creating some of the most scenic views in Idaho. In addition to its scenic beautiful, the walls of the Salmon River hold a rich history of times past. We put together this guide to all the best historic stops along the Salmon River! In this guide you’ll read about the history of the Salmon, how jet boating has evolved on the river, and the historic stops our jet boating company makes during our scenic tours.

The Fascinating History of the Salmon River

Why Is It Called the “River Of No Return?”

The moment you start looking up information about the Salmon River on Google, you’ll see another name used interchangeably: the “River of No Return.” Now why has it garnered that nickname? 

To answer that question, we need to go back to the 1870s, when miners gathered along the river in search of gold, after deposits were seen along the river banks. The very first boats on the Salmon River were called wooden scows, originally developed as a barge with a flat bottom that could navigate shallow waters. Scow boats had a large, back rutter paddle that allowed them to float with the current, typically able to carry up to four tons of wood and materials as well as two boatmen. 

Now because these boats flowed down the river with only the current to move them along, they would arrive at their destination and then be unable to return to where they started, instead being taken apart and sold as lumber—hence the somewhat foreboding “River Of No Return” nickname. The story behind the name isn’t quite as threatening as it might suggest, but it’s accurate as the first boats on the river simply didn’t have the capability to return to their origin upstream. One of the most famous captains at the time, Captain Harry Guleke, piloted scows down the river for over 30 years and even went on a National Geographic Expedition in 1935. If you’re interested in seeing what these wooden scows looked like, you can see a replica at the Riggins Visitor Center on Highway 95!

The History of Boating Along the Salmon River

In 1929, nearly 50 years after the first scow boats were built and used to transport materials along the Salmon, the first inflatable craft was used to transport men from Shoup to Riggins. 1936 brought the first use of wooden dory-style boats, and soon after, in 1946, Clyde and Don Smith became the first to commercially outfit on the Salmon River. Starting with wooden scow boats and eventually moving to wooden boats with outboard motors, Clyde was active on the river for another year after that, but Don used outboard motor boats for years, traveling both up and down the river. The pair also invented the stick steer system that modern river jet boats use now in place of the wheel that lake boats use, so they’ve played a huge role in developing the boating industry along the Salmon!

Just a year later, in 1947, the river’s reputation for “no returns” was challenged when Glen Wooldridge became the first person to run a boat upriver from Riggins to Salmon, using a plywood boat with an outboard motor. Technology evolved quickly from then on, with the first jet boat running on the Salmon River in 1959 by Charles Dahle, made out of primarily aluminum. You may recognize some of these names that we’ve mentioned, as Smith Boats, Wooldridge Boats, Oaks Boats, and Benz Boats are the major companies that had a hand in creating the modern day river jet boat we use now.

Along with the incredible array of jet boat tours that now populate the Salmon River, the river is also known as one of the top whitewater rafting destinations in the Northwest thanks to the rafts, canoes, kayaks, and other river craft that made their appearance later in the 1970s.

About the Salmon National Wild and Scenic River

Back in 1981, parts of the Salmon River was designated as a Scenic River and Recreational River under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, meaning it’s federally protected and preserved. 237 miles of the river, from the mouth of the North Fork to where the Salmon and the Snake meet, were originally studied for potential inclusion in the system, but only the 125 miles from the North Fork to Long Tom Bar ended up being designated. The Lower Salmon isn’t a designated Wild and Scenic River, but it’s still protected by the BLM and is expected to maintain free-flowing conditions for a variety of uses. Fun fact: less than 1% of Idaho’s rivers are designated as Wild and Scenic!

At Whitewater Expeditions, we operate in the section of the Wild and Scenic River from Corn Creek (just below the North Fork) to Long Tom Bar (just above Vinegar Creek). Power boats were grandfathered into the Wild and Scenic River designation even though it passes through the Frank Church Wilderness (the use of powered vehicles is prohibited in designated wilderness). The Frank Church Wilderness was named after Frank Church, a former U.S. senator who played an important role in establishing a network of protected wilderness areas in Idaho.

Best Historic Stops Along the Salmon River

Now that you’re a bit more familiar with the history of the Salmon River and how this prime boating, fishing, and rafting destination came to be, let’s highlight a few of the best historic stops along the Salmon River. If you booked a jet boat tour with us, you’d meet us at Vinegar Creek, hop on our jet boat, and we’d take you up the river with us to see a collection of these incredible, historical sites. It’s quite the thrilling (and educational) adventure, if we do say so ourselves!

Native American Sites On the Salmon River

Historically, the Salmon River was a place for hunting and fishing for Native American tribes, including the Nez Perce and Mountain Shoshone (or Sheepeater) tribes. Evidence shows that the Salmon River has been inhabited by humans for almost 10,000 years. The Sheepeater tribe specifically was nomadic and didn’t live on the Salmon River full-time, mostly occupying the Middle and South Fork sections of the Salmon. You can still find remnants of their lives along the Salmon, such as arrowheads uncovered by highwater, as well as old teepee divots along the bars. There are even pictographs that we visit during our scenic tours!

In addition to following the major Leave No Trace principles anytime you’re exploring wilderness areas like this, it’s important to put effort into preserving these Native American traditional sites by being respectful when you visit, leaving everything you find, and not defacing or disturbing pictographs.

Historical Stops & Important Figures of the Salmon River

The history of the Salmon River has been shaped by Native Americans, minors, outlaws escaping their past, and those looking for a new feature. Many of these people settled along the Salmon and their history can still be seem today. Below are a few of the historical stops we make on our tours (or that we like to mention), as well as a bit of information about the people they’re connected to!

Shepp Ranch & Polly Bemis Ranch

Twelve miles about Vinegar Creek sits Shepp Ranch. Shepp Ranch was homesteaded by Charlie Shepp and Pete Klinkhammer in 1909. In 1950 Shepp Ranch was purchased by Paul and Marybelle Filer, who developed it into an outfitting business. Today, Shepp Ranch is operated as a private ranch and is not open to the public. We talk about its history while visiting the Polly Bemis Ranch.

Across the river from Shepp Ranch is the Polly Bemis Ranch. Polly Bemis was born in China in 1853, and was sold into slavery as a child. She was smuggled into the US and eventually she was brought to work in Warren, Idaho. Charlie Bemis won Polly in a game of poker and they where later married. They moved to the Salmon River in 1894. Charlie and Pete from Shepp Ranch became Polly and Charlie’s closest neighbors when they homesteaded Shepp Ranch. Charlie and Pete would help care for Charlie and Polly in their later years. Charlie Bemis passed in 1922 and Polly followed in 1933. Today, the Polly Bemis Ranch is operated as a timeshare. The 26-acre ranch is a designated National Historic Site. Our tours stop here and you can see Polly’s original cabin.

Mackay Bar

Mackay Bar is most well-known for being a premier guest ranch and hunting outfitter that’s been in operation since the mid-60s. Mackay Bar sits near the confluence of the South Fork of the Salmon, 22 miles above Vinegar Creek, and is accessible by plane, boat, and 4×4 vehicle. The Dixie road comes down to the river, where you can find a campground. Across from the campground is Mackay Bar. On the bar there are several privately owned homes and Mackay Bar Guest Ranch. This area is private and closed to the public, so we talk about its history from the the river.

Buckskin Bill

Buckskin Bill (whose real name was Sylvan Hart) lived on the Salmon and spent his life building a home at 5 Mile Bar. He is best know for his metal work and quirky attitude toward the government. Today, his homestead is owned by Heinz and Barbara, who live there full-time and run a museum as well as a river store. If you’d like to learn more about this Salmon River icon, you can visit Buckskin Bill’s Museum, which is located 26 miles above Vinegar Creek, and only accessible via a jet boat or raft.

Reho Wolf’s Place

In 1958, Reho Wolfe and her family moved into an old mining cabin on Gains Bar 32 miles above Vinegar Creek. There wasn’t a school on the river, so she started homeschooling her 7 children. At that time, homeschooling was illegal, and the state went after her for not having her kids in school. She took her case to court and won the right to homeschool her kids. She is considered a pioneer in the homeschooling movement in Idaho. The Reho Wolf place now consists of a historic cabin and a few old buildings. It is open to the public. You can read Reho’s obituary here, written after she passed in 2013.

Painter Mine

Gold was discovered in the Salmon River canyon in 1860. In the years to follow mining would occur at almost every creek and bar on the river. Mining was prohibited by the BLM on land within a quarter mile of the Lower Salmon in 1986, but you can still see plenty of evidence along the river. On our tours, we stop at the biggest mine on the Salmon, Painter Mine, which is located 27 miles above Vinegar Creek and is accessible by boat and old trail. It’s fascinating to look at the old buildings and equipment that was hauled down the river by scour boat.

Jim Moore Ranch

Jim Moore was an early settler who moved to the Salmon from Kentucky in 1898 and developed his lifestyle around the climate and geography of the river. The Jim Moore ranch is 35 miles from Vinegar Creek, accessible by river trail from Whitewater Ranch and jet boat, and is one of the stops we make on our jet boat tours. Moore passed away in the 1940s. The ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is maintained by the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

Campbell’s Ferry

Campbell’s Ferry is an 85-acre ranch located 36 miles from Vinegar Creek. This ranch has a ton of history, including multiple deaths of people trying to prove their homestead claim. It was eventually claimed by William Campbell in 1898 and he provided a ferry service to miners on their journey to the Thunder Mountain gold mine. Later on, the ranch was passed on to Frances Zaunmiller, who is one of the best known women on the river (nicknamed the “queen of the Salmon River”). She wrote a newspaper column for the Idaho County Free Press for over 30 years, describing her life in the backcountry, which gained national popularity and even led to an invitation to be on the Johnny Carson Show (which she declined). The ferry is now owned by Megan and Steve and is open to the public. This is one of our stops, but because of its distance up river, it is a spring and early summer stop only.

Ready to plan your visit to the Salmon and experience all the amazing adventures, activities, and stops we’ve mentioned throughout this guide? We’re excited to welcome you to the area and provide you with a scenic jet boat tour of the Salmon River, where we’ll be your personal tour guides, and teach you about all the fascinating history this wilderness area has to offer. Learn more about our Salmon River Scenic Tours here.

Looking for more ways to experience the stunning landscapes of Idaho? Check out one of our newest blog posts below, which include all of our favorite activities in Riggins and the top summer adventures around the state.

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