IO Cover story: Payette River system has lots of whitewater action

Rivers are in the Treasure Valley's backyard.

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comJuly 16, 2014 

Go Left Rapids was foaming like a giant Alka-Seltzer as Daniel Hihath lined up his raft for the whitewater run on a hot July day.

What a way to escape the summer heat of the Treasure Valley than to blast through refreshing, bubbling rapids on the Main Payette River.

Hoots and screams echoed off the river as the first wave engulfed the raft.

Go Left always gets the adrenaline going, but in a good way. It's the third set of rapids on the Main Payette run after Whitewater 101 and Whitewater 102, and the one a lot of paddlers scout from a pullout on Idaho 55 on the way up to the launch site at Banks.

Whitewater boaters, like Hihath and his passengers, know they are lucky to have a river playground like the Payette River system right in their backyard.

Within an hour or slightly more from the Valley, they float several options that offer whitewater from world-famous, Class V rapids to splash-and-giggle floats.

"It's a nice ride. It's not too crazy," Whitney Shepard of Boise said about the Main Payette.

She was on Hihath's raft.

"You can enjoy yourself and still get back to town after a day run," she said.

Sections of the Payette River are getting down to summertime flows and are pretty inviting when it comes to casual rafting and kayaking.

The South Fork of the Payette offers more challenging rapids, but ones a competent river runner can handle. Novices have the option of taking a guided trip with an outfitter. You can do an Internet search for Payette River outfitters.

Leave the North Fork of the Payette River between Banks and Smiths Ferry to the experts.

But average paddlers will enjoy the Class III "Cabarton" section farther upstream, which you can read about below.

The months of July and August are prime times to be on the river. The flows are reasonable, and the water temperature refreshingly cool on a hot day.

Here's a look at what the Payette River system has to offer:


The Main is a bouncy, splashy family whitewater run 40 miles north of Boise.

It's a good first-time trip for would-be river runners or families who want to book a trip with an outfitter.

It's also a great learning river for rafters and kayakers who are properly outfitted with gear and just getting started in their pursuit of river running.

The water temperature in summer is typically warmer than the South Fork.

The Main flows right next to Idaho 55, and there are lots of opportunities to scout its rapids.

You'll love rapids such as Whitewater 101, Whitewater 102, Go Left, Mixmaster and AMF (Adios, My Friend).

Outfitted trip cost: Around $45 for adults for a half-day float.

Getting there: Drive north from Boise on Idaho 55 to Banks.


The Cabarton stretch of the North Fork of the Payette upstream from Smiths Ferry is a scenic whitewater river with Class III (intermediate) action.

This stretch is off the highway, so there's more opportunities to see wildlife, such as osprey and deer. It also is a good family float trip with outfitters when flows are moderate.

Outfitted trip cost: Around $85 for adults. This float typically takes longer than the Main Payette float.

Getting there: Drive 60 miles north of Boise on Idaho 55 to Smiths Ferry, which is the take-out. The put in is off Cabarton Road.


This is a definitely a heart-pumping half-day run on the lower South fork with exciting Class III (intermediate) and Class IV (advanced) rapids.

After rafters and kayakers feel confident on the Main Payette and Cabarton, the Staircase Run becomes the next challenge.

River runners who go with an outfitter also make this their next step.

Outfitted trip cost: $55 for adults.

Getting there: Drive north on Idaho 55 to Banks and turn east on the Banks-to-Lowman Highway. Keep an eye out for the pull-off to scout Staircase on the right side of the road.


The Canyon Run of the South Fork is the next step up from the Staircase Run for advanced boaters.

It has more rapids, a portage, and is in a secluded canyon that makes rescue difficult.

You should be in good physical shape to paddle this run, even with an outfitter.

If you're a private rafter or kayaker, you've got to know the canyon, especially where the portage is at Big Falls, and you've got to be comfortable in Class IV rapids.

The deep canyon is away from the road for most of the float, which makes the river feel more remote and secluded.

Outfitted trip cost: $110 for adults.

Getting there: Drive north on Idaho 55 to Banks and turn east on the Banks-to-Lowman Highway. Check out Little Falls and Big Falls on the way. Keep going up the canyon to the launch where the Deadwood River comes into the South Fork.


The Upper South Fork of the Payette River starts out at the base of the Sawtooths, and the Grandjean section is pretty remote.

You'll find fun, bouncy rides right through the pines and small canyons.

There are tight moves through narrow rapids as the river flows subside.

There are parts of the South Fork from Lowman upstream that many people haven't seen, and it's relatively uncrowded for rafting.

A lot of the rapids are hidden from Idaho 21, so you've got to be adept at reading and running the rapids.

Outfitted trip cost: $60 to $100, depending on the length of the trip.

Getting there: The Upper South Fork is reached by driving Idaho 21 northeast out of Treasure Valley to Lowman and continuing upstream toward Grandjean.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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