Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Shadowy" St. Joe River country offers the full-meal deal for outdoor recreation

Watching the gin-clear St. Joe River glide downriver, about 60 miles upstream from St. Maries, Idaho, it flows with that same emerald-green beauteous color that you see on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River or the Selway.

Cold, clear, pure water flowing out of the wilderness. The St. Joe runs for 140 miles from the top of Bitterroot Mountains in the St. Joe National Forest. Sixty-six miles of the St. Joe are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Locals call it the "shadowy" St. Joe because of the dense forests that enshroud the river canyon like a dark cape.

I drove a shuttle, took pics and marveled at the beauty of the St. Joe while Wendy floated the river in an IK on a sunny afternoon last week as part of a 4-day camping trip. Floating and fishing are two of MANY activities that you can enjoy in the St. Joe country. During our stay, we went hiking, biking and took a scenic drive on the way south to visit the Hobo Cedar Grove, a beautiful pocket of giant old western red cedar trees.

In other trips to the St. Joe, I've ridden the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail, backpacked to Arid Peak Lookout and paddled the lower St. Joe through the ribbon of cottonwood trees heading into Lake Coeur d'Alene. The whole area is just kind of a perfect outdoor recreation playground for all of those activities. We also saw hundreds of ATV/UTV riders who assembled for a big campout and group ride in Avery, turning the tiny mountain hamlet into a RV city.

Highlights from our trip:

Hiking – We hiked across a neat cable suspension bridge to access the Allen Ridge Trail, which rises  several thousand feet above the St. Joe River. We hiked up to a cool viewpoint with our friends David and Carol Lindsay of Coeur d’Alene. The trail runs for 3.7 miles before intersecting a forest road. It starts out at a nice grade and gets progressively steeper as you climb. 

Floating – There are at least six different sections of the St. Joe that you can float, depending on whether you’d like to run a little whitewater or whether you’d prefer relaxing flatwater. Wendy paddled a 6-mile section of the river that was Class 1-2 all the way, but absolutely gorgeous. See the Forest Service St. Joe River guide on details.

Fishing – We saw more fly fishermen than anything else in the upper section of the St. Joe River canyon. It’s a blue-ribbon fishery with native west slope cutthroat trout. Cutthroat trout fishing is all catch-and-release only, but general limits apply for all other species. Here's more information on fishing the St. Joe provided by Idaho Fish and Game. 

Camping – It’s no secret that the St. Joe country is a cool place to go camping. There are hundreds of RVs camped out in private campgrounds in the river bottoms on the way up the St. River River Road, and then there are many USFS campgrounds and dispersed camping areas farther up the road. We came in on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m glad we did, because many of the campgrounds were full or close to full mid-week.

Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area – We decided to take a “short-cut” to Clarkia on Forest Road 321 so we could see some views off the top of the mountains along the way and visit the Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area. It was a 30-mile short-cut that took at least 1.5 hours to drive. The road was listed as a major access route on the forest map, but it was pretty much a typical bumpy, twisty single-lane Forest Service road. It was cool to see some new country along the way. The Hobo cedar grove had a nice educational interpretive trail, some wildflowers that we hadn’t seen before, and of course, towering cedar trees looming above. Barely anything grew underneath the forest canopy except for lady ferns.

Traveling to the St. Joe - We took Highway 3 from U.S. 12 near Lewiston to climb the Potlatch River grade and enjoy a scenic drive to St. Maries on the way up. Once in St. Maries, stock up on ice and last-minute supplies go east on the St. Joe River road to find a camping spot and begin your adventure. Pick up a St. Joe National Forest map before you go (Avery Ranger Station is not manned or open), but there are many pamphlets and brochures on things to do in the local area inside the front door of the ranger station. You might look into a camping reservation on to pick a Forest Service campsite.

Have fun!
- SS

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