Selway River


Forest Service Trail #4

Why? Wonderful river canyon available early and late

Season: March or April through November

Ease: Easy to moderate to difficult, depending on how far you hike

There are few trails in the mountains of North Central Idaho that are as easy to hike as that along the Selway. That it’s also a lovely river, fine canyon and, within 1½ miles from its western trailhead, a wilderness trail, makes it an outstanding destination hike.

The trail itself is in excellent shape, well used but regularly maintained. It’s level and close to the river most all of its 56 miles, from Race Creek to Paradise.

The first 6 miles or so from Race Creek, which is as much as most of us do for an out and back dayhike, is particularly nice. There’s reasonably frequent shelter and shade if the sun’s not too high in the sky, frequent beaches and river access if it is.

There’s not a lot of scenery, however. This part of the Selway is a place to enjoy the space you’re in, the river canyon itself, rather than the places you can see from it. It’s a relatively narrow and intimate kind of place, one you take special friends to or people who want an easy backpack.

That there are plenty of good campsites in this section, at least when the water’s not unreasonably high, makes the latter more than just possible.

The Selway also is a popular river for rafters and kayakers, their brightly colored rafts and clothing a jarring addition to the natural colors of the canyon’s rocks, vegetation and river when they pass by.

Note: A word of caution: the trail along the Selway is known for its rattlesnakes.

On my first trip in we saw the biggest rattlesnake we've ever seen. It did the usual snake thing, dropping off the trail as we approached. When we stopped to see what had made the noise, we were impressed by the snake's girth. We were also impressed when it headed back towards the trail, as if it had determined that we were too inconsequential to worry about. We took the hint and moved out smartly.

On my first hike of the 28 miles of trail from Paradise to Moose Creek, saw and heard 11 rattlesnakes over four July days.

Another rattler was known for taking the ostrich approach, hiding its head while leaving the rest of its body on the trail. Except for that first rattler, every snake I’ve met along the Selway or anywhere else has been less than interested in people except for getting the people to let the snake leave the area.

Note: I chose the Selway for my first backpack with my older grandson, who was six at the time. It was his first backpack ever. We hiked in maybe a mile, maybe a bit more, on a hot July day. Oddly, we saw no snakes. Perhaps it was too hot. We set up camp on a beach, explored a bit up and down river, and by and large had a fine outing even though there was lightening and thunder and rain during the night. He didn’t hear it, but I did. We walked out in a fine drizzle the next morning.

I think the trip was a success, but I can’t take the credit. The Selway can, for it provided ripe thimbleberries for a child who liked berries about as much as a six year old can.

Note: The Selway was named for Thomas Selway, a sheepman from Montana who ran large herds in the area in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Directions: Turn right onto the road along the Selway River just shy of mile marker 97 on Highway 12, and continue roughly 18 miles straight ahead, past Selway Falls until the road ends at the trailhead.
Information: Fenn Ranger Station, NPNF, (208) 926-4258.

Maps: USGS Selway Falls and Fog Mountain, Idaho, cover the first 10 miles or so of the trail.

Connections: The entire 56 miles of Selway River trail are very hikeable and, with help from Orofino Air or another such outfitter, easily done in two segments. Smack dab in the middle is the Moose Creek Ranger Station, complete with airfield.

The entire 56 miles also can be done in one long backpack, with or without a food drop at Moose.
The trail starts in Paradise, which can be reached either from Highway 93 in Montana as early as May most years, or off the Magruder Road in the summer. My personal favorite part of the trail is about 8 miles from Paradise, after the trail crosses the Selway near Running Creek Ranch and before the North Star inholding.

Much of the upper 28 miles from Paradise to Moose is out in the open, which can make it a hot hike even in the spring and fall. There are camping spots roughly every 7 miles or so along these miles.
From Moose to Race Creek, the camping spots are less evenly distributed. But those 22 miles still can easily be hiked in three or four days without problems. In these miles, there also are a couple of stretches where the trail is high above the river for a mile or so. And many miles of open country hiking, too.

I have hiked the trail in the spring, summer and fall. The summer is very hot, and that’s when you’ll really see snakes. The spring can be full of high water, the fall characterized by low water.
My only hike of the entire 56 miles at once was in the fall. I loved the rocks in the river, their downstream sides often carved in amazing ways when the water had been higher. Shelves, caves and cubbyholes abounded.

We also saw four bear that trip, a delight for a confirmed bear-lover like me.

If you plan to hike as early as possible in the spring, be sure to check that there have been no bridge blowouts along the trail.