The Frank Church Wilderness

Harbor Lake at first light.
Bighorn Crags area of "The Frank"
© Peter Schmunk.

Map of the FC-RNR and its location in relation to Idaho.

News. Giant Logjam on the Middle Fork blown up by dynamite. Idaho Mountain Express. July 28, 2006.

Eleven of 1995 Idaho wolves were released on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, as were all twenty of the 1996 wolves. The 1995 releases were on the Middle Fork at Thomas Creek and at Indian Creek. All 20 of the 1996 releases were at Dagger Falls.

Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River
July 2003

Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork of the Salmon

Copyright © Ralph Maughan

The River of No Return Wilderness was created by Congress in 1980. Perhaps the greatest success of Idaho conservationists, it is the single largest designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states of the United States. It is almost 2.4 million acres in extent, covering a vast array of ridges, deep canyons, glaciated peaks, meadows, and one large rolling plateau -- the Chamberlain Basin which covers 500 square miles. Located entirely in the vast Salmon River Mountains, it embraces a portion of the largest continuously mountainous terrain in the United States. Over 3000 miles of trails provide access inside the Wilderness.

The FC-RNR Wilderness is full of wildlife, especially elk, but also mule and while-tailed deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bear, coyotes, bobcat, numerous cougar, pine marten, wolverine, a few lynx, and now quite a few wolves. Only the grizzly bear is lacking.

Because the altitude ranges from 2000 or 3000 feet in the deepest canyons to over 10,000 feet on the peaks, year round range for wildlife is provided. Elk, deer and moose do not need to migrate out of the wilderness to winter range near Idaho towns and cities.

After the death of Senator Frank Church in 1982, Idaho Senator Jim McClure had Congress rename the wilderness the "Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness" in honor of the late senator Church's support for preserving this wild core of the Idaho mountains.

The "Frank" is separated from the 1.3-million acre Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness, to its immediate north, by one dirt road -- the Magruder road. Of course, this track is no barrier to wolf migration. Most of the reintroduced wolves have spent time in both great wilderness areas -- the heart of Idaho.

Elk in the Frank Church. July 2003. Copyright © Ralph Maughan


The beginnings of the establishment of this wilderness came in the 1930s, when the U.S. Forest Service set aside over one million areas through its administrative authority as the "Idaho Primitive Area."

After the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 and a long battle ending in 1980, the United States Congress established the River of No Return Wilderness out of the Idaho Primitive Area, the adjacent Salmon River Breaks Primitive Area and surrounding roadless public lands.

Sleeping Deer Mountain, a prominent peak in the SE part of the Frank Church Wilderness.
 Copyright © Ralph Maughan

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Lake Creek Lake at dusk in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness.
Copyright © Ralph Maughan

 sunset at one of the Lake Creek Lakes in the Frank Church Wilderness

The three Lake Creek Lakes are about 5 miles north and 
one mile above the main fork of the Salmon River.

User's Guide to the Frank Church. US Forest Service. pdf file.
Salmon-Challis National Forest web page on the Frank Church.

Thirty-six wolves were reintroduced into the Frank Church Wilderness during January 1995 and 1996. As a result, about 350  wolves now roam the FC-RNR Wilderness, the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness to the north, and adjacent country. At the end of 2003, 32 groups or wolf packs roamed Idaho, and about 15 of them used all of part of the FR-RNR or Selway-Bitterroot Wildernesses.

Two Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Salmon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon, flow through the wilderness. The headwaters of the Selway Wild and Scenic River lie in the northern-most part.  The wilderness covers parts of numerous national forests -- the Bitterroot, Boise, Salmon-Challis, Nez Perce, and Payette National Forests. Both rivers have extremely high recreation use (floating, and floating and jet-boating on the main Salmon).  With the additional exception of a few popular high lakes areas and the two river corridors, most of the Wilderness sees very little human use except from hunters in the fall.

Beginning in 1980 the number of wildfires began to increase inside this Wilderness. The greatest fire summer was that of 2000 when wildfires caused the evacuation of the Frank for the first time in its history. Because heavy equipment was not used to suppress the fires, the wilderness quality of the area will not suffer, although some drainages like the long Pistol Creek drainage burned almost entirely.

In 2001, the year after the fires, the usual flush of ground cover regeneration was not seen because the drought lingered on and deepened. There were additional fires. 2004, however, saw the end of the drought, except in a hydrological sense, and the grass and forbs grew high among the burned trees, and the elk population is rebounding.

More photos of the Frank-
Special page on the Bighorn Crags-

Rob and Kathleen Jones spent 55 days volunteering at Little Creek Guard Station at the Little Creek Guard Station on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. They have created a great page about it. Salmon Sojourn!
10-16-05. Notes on the flora of the Middle Fork. By Cleve Davis

Recent article on the effect of the massive fires on the fisheries of the Frank.

April 16, 2005. "Out of the ashes: Biology professor's studies prove fire's value to stream health." By John O'Connell. Idaho State Journal Writer.

Return to Idaho Wildllands Page

The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness/
Last updated on Tuesday, September 19, 2006 8:43 PM