Salmon River vs. Snake River

Both the Salmon River in Idaho and the Snake River offers an incredible rafting experience. ROW offers whitewater rafting trips on two sections of the Salmon as well as the legendary Snake River in Hells Canyon. Here are some similarities and differences relative to these three rivers that will help you choose your rafting adventure with ROW:

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon versus the Snake River

The Middle Fork of the Salmon is a high alpine, clear water, fast-moving whitewater rafting river trip in a forested environment. A Snake River rafting trip is an adventure on a bigger river with large waves and drops, translucent water and a semi-arid, hot-weather environment.


  • Hiking: Both these rivers have excellent trails that parallel the river so there is good opportunity for hiking from camp in the morning and afternoon.
  • Cultural History: Both are rich in Indian rock art and pioneer homestead cabins. ROW makes a point to visit as many of these sites as possible during our trips.
  • Wildlife: We usually see some sort of big game on each river. On the Snake we see mule deer, black bear and sometimes big horn sheep and mountain goats. On the Middle Fork you're very likely to see big horn sheep, and you might see deer, elk and black bear. River otters, hawks, eagles and abundant songbirds are common to both rivers.
  • Fishing: The Snake has rainbow trout and smallmouth bass, best caught on lures and is a catch-and-keep fishery. The Middle Fork is a native cutthroat trout fishery, and is a catch-and-release fishery where you'll find good success with fly fishing or spin gear. Both offer a superb fishing experience.
  • Scenery: Both offer spectacular scenery. The gorge on the Snake rises to over 5000' on each side of the river with impressive rock formations and forests on the north-facing slopes. The scenery changes daily as we travel downstream and at a few points we gaze on peaks that reach 7900'. The Middle Fork is a more alpine environment and the first two days we float through a thick forest of fir and spruce. The river drops about 30' per mile, so by the end of the second day we're at 4000' or so in elevation and in a much more arid, warmer environment with slopes of ponderosa pine and sagebrush. The last two days are spent between the vertical walls of Impassable Canyon.
  • Camping: Camps on both rivers are generally flat benches set 10-15 vertical feet above the river. Most are forested on the Middle Fork while the Snake River camps are grassy flats as well as some beaches.


  • Rapids and Flows:
    The Snake is a dam-controlled river and is raftable year round. The biggest flows (25,000 - 60,000 cfs) are generally in May, June and September. The rapids on the Snake are what we call "pool and drop" which means that after each rapid, or drop, there is a calm pool where we drift and enjoy the scenery. The waves are generally bigger than on the Middle Fork, but the rapids are less technical (meaning that they require less maneuvering.)

    By contrast, the Middle Fork is a free-flowing "continual gradient" river with an almost constant current. There are still distinct rapids, with rocky, challenging courses, but between the rapids the river flows quickly and is generally too shallow to jump in for a swim. It is definitely a more exciting trip earlier in the season and on our June launches we recommend this trip for experienced rafters age 16 and up. The river gradually drops as the snow melts and the trip is a good choice for novices after July 4th, but at no time would it be considered a "boring" whitewater trip.
  • Weather:
    salmon-river-idaho Weather on the Snake is generally much hotter, especially in May, June and September. This is largely due to the fact that the launch point is only 1500' above sea level. By contrast, the Middle Fork put-in is at 6000' elevation. (We don't run the Middle Fork in May due to the likelihood of snow and cold.) From about July 4th to August 25th, air temperatures on both rivers are fairly similar, although the Middle Fork will get cooler at night and there is more chance of a cool rain on the Middle Fork. On the other hand, it's not uncommon for us to go 30 days without rain on either river. The water temperatures on the Snake will range from 60-70 degrees during the season where as the Middle Fork will be around 50 degrees in early June, 60 degrees in early July and warm up to 68 or so by July 20th, cooling down again towards late August.
  • River Management:
    Both rivers are well-managed by the Forest Service and although they are popular, launches are restricted and neither river ever feels crowded. On the Snake we do encounter jet boats, which are motor boats that travel the river for fishing and sightseeing. Some days we'll see two to four and other days as many as ten. On the Middle Fork there are no jet boats, but occasional low-flying airplanes are sometimes seen or heard.

The Lower Salmon - aka, Salmon River Canyons "River of No Return"

These Salmon River rafting trips are more similar in nature to the Snake than the Middle Fork as it is also fairly low in elevation, has semi-arid scenery, pool and drop rapids and hot summer weather. Also like the Snake, the water is warm - reaching 70 degrees by midsummer! The rapids are fun and perfect for those wanting to ride in a paddle raft or an inflatable kayak (our Daring Duckies!)

The biggest difference on this trip is that we camp on huge white sand beaches each of which slopes gently into the calm eddies where swimming is a delight. These beach camps are one of the main reasons that this river is the location for our Family Magic trips designed for families with rafters ages 5 and up. Younger ages are allowed on the Snake as well. Kids in the 5-10 year old bracket will generally be better off on the Snake or the Salmon River Canyons.