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Exploring the Selway River – One of the Top American Whitewater Trips

Exploring the Selway River – One of the Top American Whitewater Trips

Western Montana and Eastern Central Idaho are packed with incredible natural attractions, such as the Bitterroot National Forest, Flathead Lake, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Another nearby gem is the Selway River, which offers a stellar multi-day rafting trip.

Altogether, people typically spend between four and six days traveling the 47.9 miles of the river. The reason the Selway is such an attractive option is that is has something for everyone, from wilderness scenery to challenging class IV whitewater. The other major benefit of a trip down the Selway is that you are less likely to see other rafters. You’ll need to get a permit on a lottery system, and they are very limited. Only a single trip with a maximum of 16 people can launch each day.

Oz Hawksley was one of the first people to record the run, and he subsequently argued for the preservation of the river using footage taken with a 16-milimeter camera. Because of his work—and that of countless other conservationists—the Selway was named one of the original eight Wild and Scenic Rivers in 1968. Oz proved that the river was navigable using a 15-foot Grumman canoe.

Today, people often try to take the journey in late June, when the flow is most dependable. Rafters can have access difficulties due to snow through May, and the subsequent melting that starts in June can make the flows too high and dangerous by mid-July.

The Typical Trip Down the Selway River

Most rafters will start their trip by driving over Nez Perce Pass off West Fork Road south of Darby into Idaho to a small campground at Paradise Boating Area. The Paradise campground is a great spot. The Selway is not heavily fished, and some good trout can be had fairly easily.  

During the first 10 miles on the river, you will encounter both class II and III rapids as the water moves through old-growth forest. Be prepared for two notable drops, Goat Creek Rapid (class III/IV) and Ham Rapid (IV-), at mile 11.6 and mile 23.8, respectively.

After the first 27 miles, rafters will reach the confluence with Moose Creek. At this point, the volume of the river increases substantially—a phenomenon that people refer to as Moose Juice. After this point, you may want to consider camping out to give yourself a full day to tackle the coming five miles, which is the highlight of the trip for most people. Campsites around the confluence with Moose Creek provide trails to the Shissler Peak Fire Lookout and the Moose Creek Ranger Station.

You will encounter several big drops, including Double Drop (III+/IV), Ladle Rapid (IV+), and Little Niagra (IV-) from around mile 27 to 32, with class II-III rapids in between them. If you are in the later part of the season with high water, the entire section becomes a class IV or even V whitewater experience.

After this point, the rest of the trip will be considerably calmer. You will encounter more rapids, but they become much more spaced out, especially since the lower half of the run tends to have higher flows. This segment does have some notable drops, especially at Wolf Creek Rapid (IV), at mile 38.3, and Jim’s Creek Falls (III+), at mile 40.9.

Most boaters finish the trip at the Race Creek Campground take-out. Be sure to get out at this point, as the Selway Falls are only another mile or so downstream.

Other Reasons to Take a Trip Down the Selway

While people are typically drawn to the Selway River as one of the best whitewater destinations in the Lower 48, there are many other reasons to take the trip. You can take your time along the trip, soak in the gorgeous scenery, swim in calm pools, or hike to catch views above the water.

Making your way to the top of the canyon can give you some great vantage points, so it is important to choose your camping spots strategically. One of the hikes you should consider is the trail to the Shissler Peak Fire Lookout. You will need an entire day to completely this hike and get back to your camp by the river, but the views are unbeatable, and you may catch a glimpse of wildlife like marmots, bears, and eagles.

Another great pastime on the river is fishing. The fishing is especially good when the water level is below 18 inches on the put-in gauge at Paradise. However, there are important rules about fishing along the Selway you need to know. You can only have one barbless hook per fly or lure, all of which need to be artificial. The river is catch-and-release, although tributaries have a two-trout limit per day. These tributaries do not have tackle restrictions.

Cutthroat trout are common in the river, but you may also catch steelhead, Chinook salmon, mountain whitefish, and bull trout. The river was once home to a massive project to recover Chinook salmon populations. A book called Indian Creek Chronicles about one young man’s work on this project won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award. It is well worth a read.