Rapid River


Forest Service Trail #113

Why? Early season hike, fine rock cliffs, Pacific yew

Season: March through November

Ease: Easy to moderate. It’s 4 ½ miles and 800 feet in elevation change to the confluence of the main and West Forks Rapid River.

I can’t imagine a better-named river. The Rapid River rushes and tumbles all over itself in its race to meet the Salmon River (talk about a river with a name problem). I saw no quiet stretches in the 4 1/2 miles to where the river forks – the traditional day hike up the river – no section without white water, no section without rapids. Nor do I remember many quiet spots in the next few miles up either fork, either.

The river canyon is small, 2,500 to 3,000 feet deep, and friendly and green, the river a cheerful noisy companion. The trail weaves in and out of the shade of Douglass firs, which should make it a more comfortable summer hike than some of our other low elevation hikes. It features Pacific yew from about two miles in to maybe 1 mile or so up the main fork Rapid River from its confluence with the West Fork. I’ve read that this is as far south as they grow. Note them. They have gorgeous purple to red peeling bark and what can only be described, when compared to other evergreens, as a messy growth pattern.

There are spectacular rock formations at the start of the hike, at first across the river and then high above you. They look like they should be in Utah rather than Idaho. The predominate color is grey, pale grey, but there are streaks and slashes of rusty brown. In places, water has eroded away holes, some big enough to qualify as caves. And below, in the river, you see the same colors in the pebbles.
The walking is mostly level, the few not-so-gentle uphills short. When the trail crosses the river, as it does several times, there are bridges.

The Main and West Forks Rapid River split about 4 ½ miles in, the West Fork heading right as the continuation of trail #113. At first, it’s a rocky uphill high above the river, with a wonderful long series of waterfalls with chutes and pools below. At the top of this hill, the grave of a man killed in a mining accident in 1899. A short downhill will bring you to a large flat camping area.

Continuing on, you’ll be hiking primarily gently uphill through woods with good-sized trees and brushy undergrowth. There’s another series of falls just before Bridge Creek, which has a bridge, then a wide open area about a mile long with the McCrea Place and McCrea Creek in the middle. From there, you can look back along the top of the ridge you’ve been hiking along, which has a neat bench area above. I saw a herd of elk there the first time I hike that fork.

I have continued a bit farther, to Hanson Creek, which was overhung with yew. At that point, it looked like the trail would be in the woods for some time.

On my way back, I saw my first jumping garter snake. It actually leapt into the air in front of me. I must be a lot more frightening than I think I am.

My first (of many) hike up Rapid River was in May, during which I saw four rubber boas. These snakes are wonderfully slow and harmless, a brownish grey in color with more rounded ends than most of our snakes. I had a hard time convincing one of them that my boots weren’t a good place to cuddle and warm up.
Directions: The trail starts at the Rapid River Fish Hatchery. The turn-off to the hatchery is south of Riggins, a signed right off Highway 95 just after it crosses the Rapid River between mileposts 192 and 191. The hatchery is 2 1/2 miles in on that road. The trailhead is to the right just before the dam and is marked “to Rapid River Trail #113”.

About 10 minutes along the trail from the trailhead there’s a trail to right heading up. It goes to the Seven Devils Guard Station and the two campgrounds up there – all of which you can drive to from mid-July through September.

Information: Nez Perce National Forest (208) 983-1950; Hells Canyon NRA (208) 628-3916 or (509) 758-0616

Maps: USGS Heavens Gate, Idaho.

Connections: As an alternative to hiking up the West Fork, or as a day hike if you camp somewhere along the trail, the Main Fork Rapid River, trail #59, has some fine scenery, outstanding Pacific yew, and some humongous ponderosa pine. The first mile or so from the confluence of the two forks is largely up and down. The Pacific yew are at river level, and a couple of fine “rock gardens” adorn rocks that are a bit higher up. Then the trail just stays up, until the side trail to Wyant Camp, which has a sign saying it’s 8 miles to the hatchery at the trailhead.

The highlight of the uphill part of this section is the woods, with large fir, Douglass fir and ponderosa pine. About two miles, in, there are the largest ponderosa I’ve ever seen, sitting in what I understand is its natural or preferred habitat – open grassland. They are worth the hike.

On the topo map, there’s a trail up out of Wyant Camp that goes up about 650 feet and connects with a trail that then heads gently down to connect with the Rapid River Trail. The trail up is there. It’s steep, no surprise, and junctions with a trail along the point of the ridge. But from there, the ridge trail gets progressively fainter until it disappears in an open meadow. We sidehilled down to the main trail from there, which is certainly doable but steep.

Take some time at the top to look across the river when you’re out in the open and up. There’s a ridge south of Rattlesnake Creek, an open grassy ridge with ponderosa pines, bushes, even a small aspen grove. And if you’re feeling lighthearted, you might also note the lumps on the ground that look like nothing more than evidence of a bunch of racing moles.

I’ve hiked about 4 miles up the Main Fork, to a bridge over it.