Our Lower Salmon River Adventure

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Best Seasons: Spring & Fall
  • Fees: None
  • Photo Album

The Salmon River forms the natural southern border to the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, but in ten years of hiking we had yet to set foot on it’s shores. I blame the summer wildflowers on the Selway River. But this past weekend (April 27th, 2024), we finally headed down to hike along the Lower Salmon River Trail #119, a 5.3-mile stretch between Manning Bridge and Robbins Creek, just opposite French Creek.

At nearly 11 miles round trip, this out and back day hike was already going to be a challenge for my 8-year old son, Jacob, so when the weather reports started calling for temps in the low 50’s and rain, I figured we’d get as far as we got and just be grateful for the chance to explore somewhere new.

Jacob was a champ about it, too. We dressed in layers, planned to get wet, and actually remembered to pack a change of clothes for after the hike. We were ready, and we were off!

Our first stop was Riggins City Park. We wandered around the park a little bit, checking out a stone bench with a scenic overlook of the river below, but the cold wind had us back in the car and on our way fairly quickly.

Our trailhead was located at Manning Bridge, 14 miles up Big Salmon Road from Highway 95. Originally built between 1938 and 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corp, the Manning Crevice Bridge was part of a greater plan to connect Riggins on Highway 95 with North Fork on Highway 93. Geological challenges and World War II shut the project down, but Manning Bridge stood proudly from 1940 to 2018 when it was finally replaced by the asymmetrical, single tower structure that marked our destination today.

Only the seventh of its kind in the world, the Manning Bridge is the first asymmetrical, single tower suspension bridge in North America. It won the National Long Span award and Best Small Project award. With its galvanized steel cables and weatherized steel construction, the new Manning Bridge should stand proud for another 100 years. Meanwhile, the north tower from the original Manning Bridge now arches over the steps leading down to Riggins City Park.

Parking at Manning Bridge is very limited. The viewing area with historical signs is just a short walking path on the south side of the river, with adequate space for about three compact vehicles. Once parked, we made our way back across the bridge to the north side of the river where our trail commenced behind a great slab of machine cut rock.

The first mile of the Lower Salmon River Trail is deceptively welcoming. With only a slight undulation, the trail meanders beneath gnarled branches of Mountain Mahogany and through shady stands of Ponderosa Pines. It offers wide open views of the river canyons, but fails to mention that by the second mile it’s going to be crawling steeply up the face of the canyon wall and dragging you along with it. Ok, it’s not that bad, but it’s steep enough.

The weather played in our favor. The rain had let up by the time we hit the trail, but the cloud cover kept us nice and cool on that southern-facing slope while we hiked. The trail was less obvious through Chamberlain Gulch Campsite but was easy enough to pick up again on the other side. Where we lost it completely was in Flock Canyon. I think it’s just been overgrown.

We followed a game trail down the hillside and waded through the grass to a spot where we could easily step over the creek (that probably dries up in the summer). We kept an eye out for poison ivy that was plentiful in the area but also easily avoidable. Fortunately, the trail was easy to pick up again on the east side of Flock Canyon.

Not too far past Flock Canyon, Jacob and I came upon a white sand beach which seemed as good a place as any to stop for lunch. I didn’t realize until I checked my map that were sitting right on the edge of the private inholding that I’d managed to get permission for us to cross. I had hoped we would make it closer to Robbins Creek than we did. Cable Car Hot Springs is up that draw a little ways, and while I didn’t expect to actually make it that far, the idea was still an alluring one. Someday, right?

But today Jacob had more of a mind for skipping rocks and building shelters than he did for hiking, so that’s just what we did. Before we sat down to eat, we built a little lean-to up against a rock that looked like flowing water solidified. It was just big enough for Jacob to sit in and munch on his turkey wrap and apple slices. 

I found a large rock with a flat, smooth surface facing the river and propped a chunk of driftwood up against it to serve as a bench. While Jacob enjoyed his shelter, I got to do a little journaling while munching on lunch. 

I appreciate moments like these where I get to let go of my expectations for how things were going to be and practice being in the present and simply sharing the moment with my son just the way it was. For his part, Jacob decided Dad was still cooler than the shelter and joined me on my bench to finish lunch. After we ate, we scoured the beach for skipping rocks and tried to see how far we could skip rocks across the turbulent river.

The water curled into a large, slow-moving eddy in front of our beach. I asked Jacob why some of the water was moving upstream against the regular current. He suggested that the wind was blowing it. When I pointed out the flow of the water and explained the eddy, his eyes went wide with understanding. That moment of helping him see the world around him is wonderful.

During lunch, the sun came out and dried up all the rain, which was really inviting for us and for the snakes. We startled a rattlesnake on a rocky outcropping. It flicked through some grass and curled up on top of a rock pretty much at eye level with Jacob. It all happened so fast that we were almost past it by the time we could see it, but Jacob froze, caught between the motion of the rattlesnake and my voice calling him to come to me. Fortunately, the rattler wasn’t looking for action any more than we were, so he stayed poised long enough for us to move away, and then he slithered off into the grass.

It was quite the rush and put us on high alert. I was tapping rocks and logs with my hiking poles as we went hoping to alert any other sunbathers to our presence well in advance. So, I was surprised to come up on a rather large gopher snake (or bull snake) stretched out lazily across a couple of rocks. They look a lot like rattlesnakes at first glance, but this guy was much more chill. He raised his head up just enough to look at me and stayed there for a moment as if to ask, “Are you really going to make me move, man? I’m enjoying the sun.” When we didn’t back off, the gopher snake made his way up into a cleft in the rock. He took his sweet time, too. Long enough for me to be able to record him on my phone. (See the Photo Album)

The rest of the way back was pleasantly uneventful.

At the trailhead, we ran into a group of backpackers who were heading up to Cable Car Hot Springs. Turns out, I knew a couple of them from a past life when I worked at a call center in Liberty Lake, WA! It was such a delight to run into them. Who knows, maybe we’ll get the chance to share the trail one day. We let them know about the private inholding and to watch out for snakes and wished them happy trails.

Our next stop was River Rock Cafe in Riggins, but we could’t help detouring up Lake Creek Road to the Lake Creek trailhead. I think it was intriguing because there are copious signs emphatically stating that all the land on either side of the road is private and there is absolutely no trespassing allowed.

We passed some interesting homes on the way to a wooden bridge at the Lake Creek Trailhead, which is also the first place to safely turn around. The trail continues on up the canyon, and according to my map, meets up with Patrick Butte Trail. Both trails eventually end up switchbacking straight up the face of a mountain.

Curiosity sated, we turned around and headed for the cafe. 

My eyes are always bigger than my stomach after a hike, and the burger was good! We even splurged on dessert. Eventually, we rolled ourselves back out to the car and started the journey home.

We fully intended on heading straight home, but it was still light out and not actively raining when we came up on the Lucile Cave. On a whim, I pulled over and asked Jacob if he wanted to make the climb up to the caves. He didn’t even hesitate to say yes.

Neither of us had been to the caves before. It was always something I thought I could do on the way back from Rapid River but never got around to. For some reason, I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. 

It’s a short, steep hike up the hillside to the caves. The top is a cliff face forming the ridge. There’s water pouring out of the ground and running down the slope. The last stretch right before you enter the caves is wet, slipper, and steep. Fortunately, there is a sturdy rope tied up there that you can use to climb up.

Jacob thought this was all pretty sketchy, but he didn’t hold back. He grabbed that rope with the strength of all his fear and hoisted himself up. Whenever he could stand without holding on the rope, he let go and I climbed up. It’s not a long climb by any means, so we soon found ourselves standing at the entrance to the Lucile Cave. 

When we stepped into the mouth of the cave, we heard what sounded like a gaggle of teenage girls talking and a whole colony of bats on the move. Jacob called out to see if anyone was there, and suddenly they were swooping past us out of the cave. That’s when I noticed they weren’t bats. They were Rock Pigeons! Which explained what all the white coloring was at the bottom of the pool in the cave. 

Even in the gray light of early evening on a cloudy day, the Lucile Cave was impressive to see. Water seemed to trickle everywhere through the limestone. I can only imagine how the light must play through here on a sunny summer day. Jacob and I thought it would be fun to come back with sandals on when it was warmer and explore further into the cave.

But not tonight. We’d had enough adventure for the day and it was time to get home. 

I held Jacob in front of me on our way back down the rope, showing him how to hold the rope and where to put his feet. He was a champ and did great! I am so proud of the way he pushed through his fear and was able to enjoyed himself.

Finally, we made our way home, driving across the Prairie beneath a burning red sunset punctuated by looming gray clouds.