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Packrafting the Minam River: A Wild and Scenic River in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains.


Why packraft the Minam?: Flowing out of the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness, the Minam River is a designated Wild and Scenic river that offers multiple fun hike-to-paddle routes that can meet a variety of skills or interests. For those looking for a great section of class II wilderness paddling with simple hiking access, the Lower Minam is a fantastic option. For advanced paddlers looking to extend the trip, a beautiful alpine hike accesses the more challenging Upper Minam which is characterized by continuous whitewater punctuated with short canyons.

The Upper: Elk Meadows to Red's Horse Ranch (18 miles, III-IV+)

Access: The most direct hiking access to the Upper is from Buck Creek Trailhead. The hike itself is a highlight. The trail climbs 2,500 feet over Burger Pass, winding its way through old growth forest and alpine meadows on a very well maintained trail. At just under 8,000 ft, Burger Pass will hold snow into the early summer and therefore can be the limiting factor as to when the upper section of river becomes accessible each year. On July 1st, 2023, there was still a bit of residual snow, but its was not too challenging to avoid those sections. It seems like the best window to catch the Minam with at least moderate flows but without too much post-holing through snow at the pass is late June or early July. For those unfazed by a 1:1 hike-to-paddle ratio, it is worth noting that the entire river is paralleled by a trail accessible from the take-out which would allow for access to the upper section earlier in the spring.

Difficulty: The Upper Minam could be characterized as continuous class III, interspersed with short, low-walled canyon sections with class IV rapids. At our flows (500 cfs), Minam Falls and the runout in the canyon below seemed at least a half grade harder than anything else on the run (IV+). The primary hazard on this run is the ever-present wood. We did at least a half-dozen portages around wood, as well as some creative skirting and ducking while in our boats. At moderate flows, I think a class III packrafter would feel over their head on this run, while a class IV packrafter would enjoy boat scouting their way through the continuous boulder gardens and ledges. The trail is never too far from the river. While the thick forest doesn't permit many opportunity for scouting from the trail, it would allow for a paddler to hike out or down to the lower section if needed.

Minam Falls Canyon: The final canyon of the Upper Minam is the most challenging part of the run. Regardless of one's paddling ability, this canyon warrants a scout due to its unique hazard. This canyon is unmistakable, and the obvious horizon line is proceeded by a rare meandering section of river flowing through a meadow. After the entry falls and two quick rapids, the canyon doglegs to the left before dropping over two very uniform river-wide ledges. Human-modified with logs, these ledges looked like retentive low-head dams. Certain flows might reveal a better weakness in these drops, but their high-consequence character made our decision to portage around them an easy one. Luckily, you can still enjoy the falls and whitewater above before eddying out and portaging up a gully on river right. We scrambled back down to the river just below these ledges to paddle the remainder of the quality whitewater in the canyon. Alternatively, the whole canyon could be portaged on river right.


The backed-up ledge features. An easy boof with high consequences. It's simple to scout or portage from the canyon rim on river right.

Flows: While we targeted the first week of July for this trip based on historic flows, the rapid warming in May 2023 triggered an earlier-than-expected runoff. We read a 2010 account of this run indicating that the Upper Minam was paddled in hardshell kayaks at 350 cfs, reassuring us that 500 cfs would be navigable. Not only was it navigable but we though 500 cfs was quite enjoyable. The river was almost bank-full at the put-in, the rapids channelized well, and we never had any low-water induced portaging. While I know this run could be done below 500 cfs, those flows would require hunting for the deep channel between canyons and make the lower run quite boney. My subjective assessment is that 500-700 cfs would be a great range to target for class IV-/IV packrafters. IV+/V paddlers would still likely enjoy the run higher, but the consequences would increase with more wood in play and limited eddies.


The Lower Minam: Red's Horse Ranch to Minam (22 miles, II-II+)

Access: For those looking to paddle the lower section, the most direct hiking access to the put-in at Red's Horse Ranch is via the Moss Springs Trail. Descending from Moss Springs Campground at 5800 ft, this trail's lower elevation allows earlier snow-free access to the Minam than the Burger Pass route. Given we accessed the Lower Minam as an extension of our trip down the Upper, I do not have any pictures of this trail, but it has become a popular access point for packrafters. We met a group of two packrafters who had just used this access and noted that the trail was in good shape.

Difficulty: The lower section maintains the continuous character of the Upper, but at a class II grade. The first 10 miles are busy, consistent class II that ramps up II+ in a few places with mid-stream boulders necessitating a few maneuvers. I think its worth emphasizing that not all class II is equal. The continuous nature is best suited for developing paddlers with good boat control and self rescue skills. There are lots of midstream eddies and surf waves that make this section quite playful. Wood is still the primary hazard on the Lower, but the wider river bed seems to minimize the number of river-wide strainer that can accumulate (we did just two portages around trees in the summer of 2023). This section seems like a great hike and river combo for competent packrafters to introduce their beginner friends to the sport.

The character of the more difficult sections of the Lower Minam: options to avoid or play amongst features.

Flows: At lower flows, the first half of the run requires some technical maneuvering that will be very engaging for beginner packrafters. At higher water, expect to find fast-moving splashy sections although many of the small features will start to wash out. I would return to this section between 500-2000 cfs.

A number of good eddy-accessed surf spots exist on the Lower Minam.

Logistics:

Permits: This route takes you through the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Wallowa National Forest. Self-issue permits are required and are available at either trailhead.

Shuttle: To access the Minam from either of the two hike-in options provided in the description and shown in the embedded map, set a vehicle shuttle from the take-out at Minam State Recreation Area. The drive to Moss Spring Trailhead (lower access) is 1 hour and 15 minutes while the drive to Buck Creek Trailhead (upper access) is 1 hour and 45 minutes. For a shuttle-free option, start at the take-out and hike along the riverside trail as far as you would like for a 1:1 hike-to-paddle ratio (the trail continues past the Upper put-in, roughly 40 miles).

Fly-in: It is also possible to fly to the airstrip located at Red's Horse Ranch. Contact Spence Air Service out of Enterprise, Oregon for rates and availability. This still necessitates a car shuttle between the take out and Enterprise which is a 45 minute drive.

Scenic floating not far from the takeout.

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2 Comments


Great shots and writeup. As a data point, the Upper section felt like continuous IV+ @ 1000-1200 but with abundant good eddies.

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Thanks! That's a helpful data point. Nice to know the eddies persist.

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