For scenic views and whitewater rafting drive the Payette River National Scenic Byway

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For scenic views and whitewater rafting drive the Payette River National Scenic Byway
Photo by Bob Difley

By Bob Difley

Have you ever given some thought to trying river rafting? You may have wondered whether the sounds of shrieking rafters you’ve heard along a Pacific Northwest river is produced from the joy of a wild ride – or from abject terror. But either way, admit it – you may have been tempted to try it for yourself.

Does the sight of frothy whitewater rampaging down a mountain canyon make your river sandals quiver? Do you rhapsodize rafting over giant rapids, being tossed about like a rag doll in a washing machine, careening off rocks as you plunge into a swirling abyss, as a mini tidal wave of green water cascades over the raft leaving you sputtering like a drowned rat?

Even if you don’t dream of such “fun,” you can watch others enjoy the simple pleasures of survival rafting on the rampaging Payette River along the Payette River National Scenic Byway, with nary a drop of river water to dampen your Gucci-driving loafers.


The natural scenic beauty of the Payette by itself as it tumbles down through South Fork Canyon merits the trip. But please, as tempted as you might be to gaze in awe out over this raging river, do not do so while driving, or you may find yourself the first to raft the Payette in an RV. There are several turnouts along the byway from which you can safely experience the power, sight and sounds of the Payette, one of Idaho’s famous whitewater rivers.

All the rain and snow that falls on over twenty-two hundred square miles of forest, including portions of the Sawtooth and Salmon River mountain ranges, tumbles down dozens of mountain canyons, eventually emptying into the Payette River, which in turn merges into the Snake River at the town of Payette on the Idaho-Oregon border.

You can follow the river upstream from Boise in the south, through the Boise and Payette National Forests through forested canyons until, as abruptly as if a giant projector changed the scene to the next slide, the river abandons its tumultuous ways and levels out through a long and serenely bucolic mountain meadow, and on to its northern headwaters at Payette Lake.

The Payette River National Scenic Byway (NSB) branches off of Highway 44 (State Street) heading north a few miles northwest of Boise. As you leave the metropolitan cityscape of Boise behind, the highway begins its gentle climb up through the foothills of the Boise National Forest to Horseshoe Bend, where you first meet the Main Payette River.

The next fourteen miles to Banks follows the gentlest of the three branches of the Payette, a tranquil stream compared to the rampaging South and North Forks. This stretch would be a good choice for beginning rafters or kayakers, as the rapids are moderate but big enough to experience whitewater thrills. The takeout point for this Main Payette Run, Beehive Bend, is about 7 miles downriver from Banks.

If your adventurous spirit starts poking you in the ribs and you decide to try rafting or kayaking, Cascade Raft Company near Horseshoe Bend offers a variety of rafting and float trips, from the three-hour beginner and family trips to the heart-pounding plunge down the South Fork Canyon through continuous Class IV rapids.

The Banks-Lowman Road branches off to the east at Banks and follows the South Fork for 33 miles along Idaho’s Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway up to the town of Lowman and the Whitewater National Forest Campground. Though the Payette River NSB continues north along the North Fork, this side trip includes a look at the historic Lowman Ranger Station, Whitewater, and Pine Flats Forest Service Campgrounds. Pine Flats Campground features a bubbling hot spring right at the river’s edge.

Eighteen miles above Banks the river passes under the 410-foot Rainbow Bridge, built in 1933 and on the National Record of Historic Places. The bridge separates the dual personalities of the river, from the snarling beast cascading down through North Fork Canyon below the bridge, to the lazy millstream above the bridge that flows through Long Valley and the resort towns of Donnelly, Cascade, McCall and New Meadow.

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