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Payette River

Payette River
South Fork Payette River
The lower course of the Payette River
Country United States
State Idaho
Region Payette County
Part of Snake River
 - left South Fork Payette River
 - right North Fork Payette River, Big Willow Creek
City Emmett
Primary source North Fork Payette River
 - location Deep Lake, Boise County
 - elevation 7,380 ft (2,249 m)
 - coordinates
Secondary source South Fork Payette River
 - location A small unnamed lake near Vernon Lake, Boise County
 - elevation 8,820 ft (2,688 m)
 - coordinates
Source confluence Near Banks
 - elevation 2,790 ft (850 m)
 - coordinates
Mouth Snake River
 - location Payette, Payette County
 - elevation 2,125 ft (648 m)
 - coordinates
Length 83 mi (134 km), East-West
Basin 3,240 sq mi (8,392 km2)
 - average 2,803 cu ft/s (79 m3/s)
 - max 32,000 cu ft/s (906 m3/s)
Map of the Payette River watershed

The Payette River is an 82.7-mile-long (133.1 km)[1] river in southwestern Idaho and is a major tributary of the Snake River.

Its headwaters originate in the Sawtooth and Salmon River Mountains at elevations over 10,000 feet (3,000 m). Drainage in the watershed flows primarily from east to west, with the cumulative stream length to the head of the North Fork Payette River being 180 miles (290 km),[1] while to the head of the South Fork the cumulative length is nearly 163 miles (262 km).[1] The combined Payette River flows into an agricultural valley and empties into the Snake River near the city of Payette at an elevation of 2,125 feet (648 m). The Payette River's drainage basin comprises about 3,240 square miles (8,400 km2).[2] It is a physiographic section of the Columbia Plateau province, which in turn is part of the larger Intermontane Plateaus physiographic division. The South Fork of the Payette has its headwaters in the Sawtooth Wilderness, which is part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.


  • Geography 1
  • History 2
  • Fish and reservoirs 3
  • Whitewater 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The principal tributaries of the Payette River are the North and South forks. The North Fork drains about 950 square miles (2,500 km2), beginning north of McCall and flowing into Payette Lake. The North Fork exits at the southwest end of Payette Lake at 4,990 feet (1,520 m) and flows south in the "Long Valley" of Valley County toward Cascade. It then flows into the Cascade Reservoir, then continues south, accompanied by Highway 55.

The South Fork Payette River drains about 1,200 square miles (3,100 km2), originating on the west side of the Sawtooth Wilderness beneath the 10,211-foot (3,112 m) Mount Payette. It flows past Grandjean and down to Lowman, along Highway 21. The shorter Middle Fork Payette River parallels the lower North Fork 10 miles (16 km) to the east, flowing south and joining the South Fork just southwest of Crouch. Further east, the Deadwood River parallels the Middle Fork and empties into the South Fork just west of Lowman. The main stem of the Payette River is shown on USGS topographic maps as beginning at the confluence of the South and Middle forks.[1]

The North Fork joins the Payette at the village of Banks, at an elevation of 2,790 feet (850 m). The main stem flows south from Banks for 15 miles (24 km) to Horseshoe Bend, then west into Black Canyon Reservoir. Below the reservoir's dam, the river flows past Emmett and Payette, then empties into the Snake River at the Oregon border. The Payette River has an average annual discharge into the Snake River of 2,192,000-acre-foot (2.704 km3) of water.


Rafters prepare for rapids on the North Fork near Banks, close to the beginning of the main stem of the Payette

The river's watershed was originally settled by the Shoshone, Nez Perce, Paiute and Bannock Native American tribes. Before white contact, many of these indigenous peoples had no permanent villages or settlements. For hundreds of years, in the fall and winter, they would camp in the arid grasslands along the main stem of the Payette River, while in spring and summer, they temporarily moved to the lusher upper basin of the North Fork to hunt and fish in preparation for the coming winter. Camas bulbs, coming from a widespread flowering plant in the basin, was their primary staple throughout the year. In order to maintain the naturally occurring fields of camas, they would set controlled fires whenever they left their camps for the biyearly move through the river basin. The seasonal burning came with added benefits, including clearing unwanted vegetation and protecting their campsites from overgrowth.[3]

In the 19th century, white settlers began moving into western Idaho and established trading posts, towns and farms in the area. One of these early pioneers was Francois Payette, for whom the river is named. A French-Canadian fur trapper who worked for the North West Company, he was one of the first people of European descent to settle in the Payette River area. Payette ventured east from Fort Astoria in 1818. From 1835 to 1844, he headed the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Boise trading post near Parma, on the Snake River some distance south of the Payette River. In 1844, Payette retired to Montreal, still over twenty years before emigrants began to arrive in great numbers. One of the first settlements was on Clear Creek, a tributary of the South Fork Payette River. Many of the Native Americans were unhappy with the new settlers and the great numbers of pioneers traveling through the area bound for the West Coast for causing damage to their lands, leading to the Nez Perce War of 1877 and many small conflicts with miners, ranchers, farmers, homesteaders, and soldiers.[3]

Logging in the basin began soon after the arrival of settlers, but did not reach large scale until the early 20th century. Demand for wooden railroad ties for the Oregon Short Line (OSL) in the 1880s helped to kick off the logging industry in the area. From then on, heavy logging commenced along the North Fork Payette River in Long Valley, downriver of present-day Cascade Lake. A splash dam was built in 1902 by the Minnesota-based Payette Lumber and Manufacturing Company on the North Fork in order to better facilitate the transportation of logs downstream. Logging helped to spur even more people to move into the area, and in 1911, the Idaho Northern Railroad was constructed by the OSL, running from Emmett near the mouth of the Payette along the river, past present-day Black Canyon Reservoir, up into the North Fork watershed and ending just below Long Valley at Smith's Ferry on the river, named for a settler who bought the operation in 1891. The ferry's primary purpose was to transport livestock and agricultural products between Long Valley and the Snake River.[3]

Agriculture became the primary mainstay in the lower valley of the Payette River. Following from 1874, irrigated farmland surrounded much of the main stem of the Payette River. The Last Chance Canal and Nobel Canal were among the first irrigation ditches constructed, but did not provide a firm yield because of the lack of water regulation. Black Canyon Dam was constructed on the Payette in 1924 not as a storage facility, but to divert water into the Emmett and Black Canyon Canals, which vastly increased the irrigated acreage in the valley. Deadwood Dam on the Deadwood River, a tributary of the South Fork Payette River, was built in 1929 to provide some degree of flow regulation, though much more effective was the Cascade Dam, constructed on the North Fork in 1948 to form Cascade Lake.[4]

Fish and reservoirs

Cascade Dam forms Cascade Lake on the North Fork, the largest body of water in the Payette River drainage

Due to the wide range in elevation, the Payette River has a variety of fish and fish habitats. Salmon and steelhead were eliminated in the drainage by the Black Canyon Diversion Dam, which was first completed in 1924.[5] From its mouth upstream to Black Canyon Dam, the river supports a mixed fishery for coldwater and warmwater species. Mountain whitefish make up the bulk of game fish in this section of river, with smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish, black crappie, rainbow trout, and brown trout making significant contributions. Upstream from Black Canyon Dam, the gradient of the river increases with coldwater species increasing in abundance. The South Fork of the Payette River supports excellent populations of wild rainbow trout. The North Fork of the Payette River has been severely altered by railroad and highway construction and provides only a marginal fishery for salmonids. However, in unaltered sections such as the Cabarton reach, the North Fork is very productive for salmonids.

There are five major impoundments in the Payette basin: Black Canyon, Sage Hen, Paddock, Cascade, and Deadwood reservoirs. There are also several small impoundments and natural lakes with increased storage, such as the three Payette Lakes. Black Canyon, on the mainstem, provides only marginal fish habitat. Sand from upstream land disturbances has covered most of the habitat. Paddock Reservoir, on Big Willow Creek, has one of the better populations of black crappie in the state and a good fishery for largemouth bass. Cascade Reservoir on the North Fork is one of the most heavily fished waters in the state. Cascade has an abundance of yellow perch, coho salmon, and rainbow trout. Deadwood Reservoir, completed in 1931,[6] contains kokanee and cutthroat trout.

Alpine lakes within the Payette River drainage are stocked with rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, cutbow (rainbow-cutthroat hybrids), golden trout, and Arctic grayling. Brook trout are also present in a number of lakes.


The Payette River is famous for its whitewater. Experts call the North Fork Class V run one of the most challenging river reaches in North America, if not the world.[7] Kayaking on the lower North Fork from Smith's Ferry to Banks is world-class, easily viewed from state highway #55, which closely hugs its bank, primarily on the west side. The lower North Fork narrows and drops 1700 feet (518 m) in the 16 miles (26 km) above Banks, providing nearly endless Class V rapids (see International Scale of River Difficulty). The average gradient is 110 feet (34 m) per mile (21 m/km) with a maximum gradient of 200 ft/mile (38 m/km). The North Fork's flow rate is controlled through the Cascade Dam, completed in 1948,[8] providing relatively warm water from the shallow Cascade Reservoir.

To the east of Banks, the South Fork's Canyon, west of Lowman, is a challenging Class IV run for rafting. Along this trip is a 40-foot (12 m) Class VI waterfall (Big Falls), which is portaged. The North Fork and South Fork merge at Banks to form the Payette River (main), providing a float trip with numerous Class III rapids. The highway on this lower stretch of the river is on the east bank and a scenic railroad, the Thunder Mountain Line,[9] runs above the west side.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed May 3, 2011
  2. ^ "North Fork Payette River Subbasin Assessment" (PDF). Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Retrieved 20 January 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c "Payette River Scenic Byway Corridor Management Plan" (PDF). Sage Community Resources. Idaho Transportation Department. September 2001. Retrieved 2010-01-24. 
  4. ^ Ingham, Michael J. (December 1999). "Lower Payette River Subbasin Assessment and Total Maximum Daily Loads" (PDF). Surface Water Quality. Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Retrieved 2010-01-24. 
  5. ^ "Black Canyon Diversion Dam". U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 
  6. ^ "Deadwood Dam". U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 
  7. ^ North Fork Payette River: Class V
  8. ^ "Cascade Dam". U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. 
  9. ^ "Thunder Mountain Line". 

External links

  • U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Payette River
  • AllAboutRivers Payette River Page - Online rafting guide for the Payette River
  • Idaho Whitewater Trail Map - official state tourism site
  • - Payette River
  • Payette River Mountains Visitor Association - Payette River Mountains Visitor Association
  • American - Class V: lower North Fork Payette River
  • Kayak - Payette River photos, maps, flows.
  • Payette - general information & flow rates
  • U.S. Bureau of Reclamation - major storage reservoirs in the Boise & Payette River basins - current levels & flows
  • Payette River Scenic Byway - Corridor Plan - Idaho Transportation Dept.
  • Deadwood Dam - Deadwood River into South Fork Payette River - Bureau of Reclamation
  • Cascade Dam - North Fork Payette River - Bureau of Reclamation
  • Black Canyon Dam - Payette River - Bureau of Reclamation
  • Payette River, Snake River to Black Canyon Reservoir - Idaho Fishing Planner - Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game - Species presence, fishing rules, stocking, maps, more..
  • Payette River, Black Canyon Reservoir to South Fork - Idaho Fishing Planner - Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game - Species presence, fishing rules, stocking, maps, more..
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