Grapenut and I wanted a large remote area as a setting for a twelve day trip, and we decided that the cheapest way to get to Alaska was in fact to go to Idaho instead. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is the largest contiguous designated wilderness area in the lower 48 and so seemed to be a good destination to explore.

Having hiked in numerous Western mountain ranges over the years we did shallow research on The Frank before going, assuming it would be simple to feel out a route on the fly. We marked a few highlights from Margaret Fuller’s guidebook in Caltopo and figured it’d be easy enough to hike between them. Wrong. There are a few things we learned the hard way about the area:

  1. Nobody hikes here. Apart from one sheep hunter scouting near a road we saw no hikers in the backcountry at all. In fact we saw almost no human tracks on any trail off the Middle Fork, which we only hiked on briefly. Some maintenance had been done here and there, but generally you don’t walk with a normal gait in The Frank, you step over logs, through brush, between rocks, and onto game trails.
  2. The primary terrain features are valleys with creeks, dense with brush, and steep ridges, thousands of feet tall, between them. Downed trees throughout. We considered ourselves “big mile” hikers but had to toss mile measures by the wayside and usually felt exhausted with even one log-ridden ridge up-and-over in a day. There are some nice ridge walks up high
  3. Fortunately the heat broke by the very end of the trip, but it was easily 90 degrees in the sun most of the time. The creeks often had running water but the dry gravely soil and intense solar radiation gave the area the feel of a desert.
  4. There’s constant small aircraft traffic and many rafters on the Middle Fork and Salmon. An odd presence of civilization in a backcountry area otherwise seemingly devoid of human travel. Plenty of water bucket-toting helicopters. Lucky for us the fires in wilderness were diminishing and ultimately not much of an issue during our trip.

I’ve hiked in Idaho on the CDT and in the Sawtooths, but this was different from other hiking I’ve done in the Rockies in terms of the character of the terrain and the wildness.

The trip was really made by Daniel Mathews’ Rocky Mountain Natural History, a luxury item absolutely worth carrying unless you’re already well-versed in Rockies ecology. It adds whole new perceived dimensions to the experience of being in the backcountry.

Leaving out route details, go check out The Frank.