Northfork Downriver


Forest Service Trail #297

Why? Easy and interesting trip along a river that turns into a reservoir.

Season: May through October.

Ease: Moderate. It’s 4 miles and essentially level hiking to Salmon Creek.

Hiking the trail that heads down the North Fork of the Clearwater River from Isabella Creek is interesting for an odd reason: the river disappears long before you reach the end of the trail at Salmon Creek. What happens to it? It becomes Dworshak Reservoir even though it still seems to lie within the river’s banks.

The river changes from a rushing stream tumbling over rocks to the still water of a reservoir. It becomes quiet and flat, rather than the joyful, noisy companion of the first couple of miles. It becomes cloudy, with debris oddly moving in an up river direction. It becomes easier and easier to see why people might prefer to hike along a river or stream rather than along a lake.

I missed the first evidence of change. I’d been watching the water rather than the opposite shoreline. That shoreline showed signs of having been under water for a long time. Its rocks were bare of vegetation, and the bank’s dirt and sand showed horizontal stripes that recorded the reservoir’s past levels.

The transition was thought provoking. I’ve been thinking about rivers a lot the year I hiked this trail, and it was disturbing to watch one disappear as I walked along its banks. I welcomed its return on the hike back to the car, and not just because it meant we were getting closer to the car on a very hot day.

The down river trail starts in a cedar woods with some big, old trees to admire. Although the trail does move through several open stretches, it always returns to shady woods, a blessing in the summer. It stays well above the river most of the way, though there are many side trails off to the left and down to the river. They’re probably all fishing trails, and the first is the easiest-looking by far.

The trail is in good condition to Salmon Creek. But the first miles are the best cause they’re river miles, not reservoir miles. They’re obviously the most used, probably by those going fishing or using one of the several pleasant-looking camping spots along the way.

Note: The trail is open to motorcycles and continues a couple of miles past Salmon Creek, to Salmon Creek Landing, though I haven’t hiked that far.

Directions: Turn left onto the Grangemont Road over the bridge in Orofino and drive 26 miles to its end. Turn left onto Highway 11, then left again at Headquarters onto the Beaver Creek Road. When it crosses the North Fork, continue on Road 700 rather than turning up river. The trailhead is on left about a mile up this road, at the junction of Isabella Creek with the North Fork. There’s a footbridge across Isabella to the trail sign, which says its 5 miles to Salmon Creek. It won’t feel like 5 miles when you hike it. There are mile markers at miles 2 and 3.

Information: North Fork Ranger District, CWNF, (208) 476-4541

Maps: USGS Thompson Point, Idaho. It shows a fork in the trail near the start, but we didn’t find it.