If you're considering whitewater rafting Idaho's thrilling Lochsa River, a quick comparison with West Virginia's Gauley River and California's Tuolumne River will help you prepare for your adventure.
The Lochsa is the most exciting white water rafting adventure in Idaho. The Lochsa has more rapids than the Selway , bigger rapids than the Middle Fork of the Salmon and simply put, ranks as one of the world's great rafting trips.
People considering running the Lochsa are usually looking for a more extreme whitewater adrenaline experience that is a few notches up from ROW's other river rafting tours. We recommend previous whitewater experience before embarking on a Lochsa whitewater trip.
Many of our guests have traveled with us on other ROW one day rafting trips such as the Clark Fork in Montana , or Idaho's St. Joe River, or perhaps they have taken their family rafting down the Salmon River Canyons. On any of these whitewater adventures they would likely hear the guides humbly recount stories around the campfire about the "Mighty Lochsa." Other guests have traveled the country (or the world) running more difficult rivers and have sought out the Lochsa on reputation alone.
Scenery and Environment
On the Lochsa in central Idaho, you find yourself in one of the most remote forested areas in the lower 48 as it flows adjacent to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Considered an inland temperate rainforest, the landscape is lush and mountainous. Although not always easy to spot, bear, deer, elk and moose are common in the dense vegetation and magical cedar groves. The colorful Harlequin duck is often spotted on the river. Being a completely free-flowing river (no dams) adds to the feeling of 'wilderness' on the Lochsa.
The Gauley River flows through a canyon of east coast hardwoods. Conifer, birch and maple line this boulder-strewn river. As it is typically run in the fall, a bit of color can be expected. The combination of warm dam-released water and cool October air often creates a dense morning fog, adding an eerie feel to the river. Although development is minimal along the river itself, population density in the area in general reduces your chance of seeing larger wildlife.
On the Tuolumne, you are in the Sierra high country. Big, dry, granite domes and conifers are the norm. This is located in the dam-controlled Hetch-Hetchy Valley (this dam was a trade off to keep Yosemite from being damned and flooded). Although wildlife is more sparse in this dry environment, Golden Eagles live in the canyon. Clear running water and striking scenery make "the T" a California favorite.
Idaho's Lochsa is an undammed river and is run in the spring and summer. It is not uncommon for the spring melt to send the river running over 20,000 cfs in a normal year. (That's more water than you'll find on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon most of the time!) It is not necessarily more difficult at these flows, but it takes a bit of a different mindset. The waves can be enormous (one guide likened it to running all the rapids of the Grand Canyon in a day) and the lines are less technical than at lower flows. The challenge lies with 'digging in' a hard forward to break waves and holes while maintaining balance in the rodeo ride. And the water is (reminder: free flowing snowmelt) cold! The snow pack and current weather determines the flow; not a group of engineers! Although one of the favorites is House Wave (a mere class III), Termination and Lochsa Falls remain nemesis rapids. As flows decrease in late June and into July, the river warms and becomes more "pool and drop" in nature. The rapids also become much more "technical." ROW switches to smaller rafts at this time, but flows will still be in the 700-3000 cfs range.
The Gauley is a challenging, moderately technical river. As the flow in the fall season is strictly controlled dam-release, it is generally run commercially at a flow rate of 2,400 cfs (cubic feet per second). This means you will have 'punchy' holes and waves, numerous maneuverings in complicated rock gardens and distinct rapids separated by slower pools. Pillow rock is a favorite rapid. Many of the outfitters advertise the river as having "several class V rapids," but most guides place them at a IV+ (remember: the rating system rates how difficult a rapid is, not how much fun... also, difficulty on a given river can vary widely at different flows or cfs).
The Tuolumne is also a technical river, with a distinct 'pool and drop' character that diminishes at higher flows. Although it is also dam controlled, the season is summertime and flows vary a bit. It is run as low as 300 cfs and up to 10,000 cfs in a wet year. Like the Gauley, expect many maneuvering commands ("left back!...back paddle...high side!) and Clavey Falls remains the nemesis rapid. At higher flows, some of the rapids lose character, while others get some big waves.