The Salmon River in Idaho is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48. Its unpolluted waters cut through rocky canyons dotted with white sand beaches, and peppered with exciting rapids and a plethora of wildlife.
Earlier this Sept. my spousal equivalent and I had the privilege of joining other family members to spend 4 nights and 5 days on this lovely river on a fully guided raft trip courtesy of Salmon Raft based in McCall, ID. A fully guided trip means that a group of lively 20 somethings take care of all your needs- among them navigating the rafts, cooking fabulous meals, doing the dishes, and loading and unloading your gear. Our crew were champs, always smiling and gracious even after a long day of rowing. I was a raft guide as a young woman one summer in Arctic Alaska so I know how hard a guide can work.
The gear boat went ahead in the morning so when we arrived at our campsite everything was set up including our tents. Our job was to enjoy the view from the rafts, learn about the geology, wildlife, and history from our guides, swim, and fish. Two small inflatable kayaks called “duckies” were available for the more adventuresome. We are kayakers so paddling these little “sport car kayaks” were a highlight of our trip.
With a knee injury, I had to pass on a hike to a historical cabin and a bit of cliff jumping but I did get to a waterfall close to the river. We spotted several bands of big horned sheep and a golden eagle overhead. I read the stories of the rocks in the canyons of columnar basalt and serpentine imagining their formation during volcanic time millions of years ago as we floated past. Then the ever changing river was captivating, from placid swirls of current and eddies to raucus rapids. Going through them were like wet bucking bronco rides waves spashing over us as we hung on laughing.
In camp, we read, napped, and enjoyed pleasant conversation during meals and over cards and games of dominoes. There was no cell phone service. We were blissfully unplugged and relaxed.
I so enjoyed the comradery of this trip, the chance to be fully immersed in nature, kayaking through rapids, poking around on the beaches for interesting rocks and treasures, and the opportunity to just BE. It’s a treat to go to sleep to the lullaby of a river and wake to the call of canyon wrens announcing a new day. Why go on a cruise when you can enjoy the magic of a wild river? I highly recommend it.
It all started in early March during a phone call with my 40 years- long- time friend, Jean. It had been a particularly long winter for both of us. Add the cold at her home in Juneau, Alaska and she was really at her wit’s end. “I want to go to Zion National Park but nobody will go with me!” She wailed. I paused, thought for a short moment I found myself saying “I’ll go with you.” BAM!- 48 hours later we had the trip booked. April 25th we met in Las Vegas with thousands of other winter refugees looking for a break, picked up our rental car, and were off. (Hey- did you know that a Prius makes no noise when you start it up? We thought the darn thing was broken!)
Entering Zion is like entering the Yosemite of the Southwest. Replace the silver granite splendor of the Yosemite Valley with sandstone cliffs and spires of all hues of oranges and tan and you have the wonderland of Zion. It’s a hiker’s paradise and we took full advantage, even in the drizzle of the first day. Besides the glory of being out in such splendor, I found the cheery attitude of the other hikers equally wonderful. People were generally jazzed to be out of their Covid prisons.
The last time I was in Zion I was 10 years old on a camping trip with my family. The only memory I had of that trip was swinging my skinny legs in a cool river on a 100-degree day. That very river, the Virgin River was one of the first things we saw when entering the park. I found such nostalgia in walking along that river looking back at my childhood self-such a sweet memory.
We hiked almost all the trails in the valley that were open (several were closed due to rock falls). The most well-known and dangerous hike is Angels Landing, a 1500 foot huff up to the most iconic view in the park. The last quarter mile or so is a tedious climb where you have to hold onto chains to prevent falling to an early death (as 13 hikers have since 2000). In places, you are walking on a knife ridge only a few feet wide. Add to that there is the coordination of the masses of hikers that are going up and down on a one-way trail. Somehow the spirit of friendly cooperation prevailed and we got up and down with no incident. The view from the top was breathtaking. Looking down we spotted condors riding the thermals below.
We did take the second sprizzly day to explore beyond Zion canyon. Kolob, on the western side of the park, is higher in elevation and equally dazzling. We were warned, however, by park staff not to attempt the main hikes due to the muddy, slippery trails. Good advice. We hiked the ½ mile roundtrip from the viewpoint and it was like walking on toothpaste. In the afternoon we explored the quaint town of Kanab and environs and finally the impressive Best Friends animal Sanctuary- more on that in a later post. The return drive through the west canyon Drive was one of the most jaw-dropping gorgeous roads I’ve ever been on
On our final day, we hiked the Narrows, one of the most famous hikes in the world. You have to slog through the headwaters of the Virgin River. The river flows through a slot canyon of soaring sandstone walls, waterfalls, and hanging gardens. Since we were there relatively early in the year with the water being at times up to the waist and 42 degrees F we rented dry suit waders in town, special water shoes, and a stabilizing stick to prevent a dunking. At first, we were with quite a band of others but as we headed up the crowd thinned as we headed upstream. In all, we hiked about 8 miles in and out. It was at times quite a challenge pushing against the current and stumbling over a rocky bottom but hey, what an unforgettable experience!
Ironically the most challenging part of our Zion visit was navigating the Zion NP shuttle. During this time of Covid, they offer limited ridership for social distancing. You have to secure your tickets at 5 PM the night before from the Recreation.Gov app. There is about a 15-minute window before all the tickets are gone. This can be an extremely frustrating experience. If you are up in the park during this window with no cell or WIFI it’s even more hair-tearing. They do allow walk-ons after 2 PM. You do have the option of renting an electric bike beyond the park border in Springdale or securing a private shuttle but these options are expensive.
Despite the shuttle challenges and the surprising number of other visitors, we found Zion to be an amazing experience. It was a perfect week long escape after months of lockdown and so good for the soul to be among such grandeur.
It was great to get away, take some risks, and feel the pleasure of life again. Try it. The world is waiting for you.