Idaho has some outstanding whitewater experiences for rafters and kayakers, but few compare with the Lochsa (pronounced lock-saw) River, especially for those looking for a string of seemingly endless rapids. Apparently the fishing is also great, but most people come to run the river, especially in late spring when the water is at its best. At times of peak flow, many of the rapids are class VI (at the limits of navigation), with at least 60 being graded as class III – IV (medium to difficult). The water passing through the river at peak flow is twice that going through the Grand Canyon.
The name Lochsa is a Nez Perce word meaning “rough water”, and rafting it is not for the faint of heart. Still, it is considered one of the best one day rafting trips in the world. I wish I’d done it as a younger man, but I was unaware of the Lochsa during those years and it may be too much river for me to tackle today.
The Lochsa River was one of the first federally designed wild and scenic rivers (1968). It lies in the eastern part of Idaho, abutting Montana. The area is one of the most remote regions in the lower 48 states, at least in my experience.
The Lochsa is one of two main tributaries to the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River, the other being the Selway (also a great whitewater river). They are natural flow rivers, with no dams regulating their flow or level, most of the flow being provided by snow melt from the Bitterroot mountains. But that also means that when the snow is gone in the summer months, the flow becomes slow enough that you can’t raft the river, so the rafting season on the Lochsa usually ends in early July (with variability depending on snowpack, rain, etc).
The Lochsa is 70 miles (110 km) in length from its origin as a creek in the Bitterroot mountains to its confluence with the Selway. In this distance it drops nearly 2000 ft (600 m). You can understand that with such a pitch its water would be rough.
The Nez Perce natives use a trail along the Lochsa to travel to Montana to hunt buffalo. Montana natives (Kootenai and Salish) used the same trail but traveling in the opposite direction to harvest Idaho’s abundant salmon runs.
Highway 12 (Northwest Passage Scenic Byway) follows the river for a large stretch along its north bank, so you can enjoy its wild beauty as my wife and I did simply by driving alongside it. The road also makes it highly accessible to adventurers as it has since the time of Lewis and Clark (1805), who used the Lolo Trail that mirrors Highway route 12. Unlike many mountain roads, where scenic views of the mountains are the prize of the drive, here the focus is on the river and thick forests that rim it. Mountain views are scarce, but nice when you see them.
I love landscapes like this, and hope some of you will be challenged enough to consider rafting this great river. If you are, I would recommend you use the well-established company Row Adventures — I have no affiliation with them, except as a satisfied paying client who has traveled with them in the past.
The following video gives you a good idea of what the Lochsa is like:
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge photos)