AMERICAN FALLS — Between rainstorms, October is gorgeous weather for paddling a calm stretch of the Snake River.
And for a family without whitewater skills, Massacre Rocks State Park is an attractive place to do it.
A mile and a half of flat water offers at least a three-mile round trip, and another two miles of river are fine for paddlers with the skills to navigate some eddies and swifter current. The rewards: fine birding and some of the best geological sights you can find in the Snake River Canyon.
Logistically, this is an easy trip to plan. The river here is slow enough for an up-and-back paddle, so you won’t need to arrange a shuttle. And you can put your boat in the water just minutes after leaving Interstate 86. The park’s main boat launch — at the south end of Park Lane — has a vault toilet, plenty of parking, two long docks and a kiosk where you can borrow a life jacket.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will anyway: A life jacket is an absolute necessity. Don’t even think of putting your kayak or canoe onto the river without one.
My husband and I launched our tandem kayak there Oct. 15 and paddled upstream — that’s to your right as you face the river — watching gulls, pelicans, ducks and raptors. Clouds put on a show in the sky to accompany the drama of canyon cliffs, but we never got more than the lightest sprinkle.
An excellent way to spend a fall day. And we weren’t the only ones with that idea.
On the water we passed an Idaho State University physical education class led by Bob Ellis, the university’s outdoor recreation coordinator. Ellis chose the destination — as we did — from “Kath and Ron’s Guide to Idaho Paddling: Flatwater and Easy Whitewater Trips,” this year’s revised and expanded edition of Katherine Daly and Ron Watters’ guidebook ($19.95, Ronwatters.com).
“I’ll definitely go back there,” Ellis said when I got in touch later.
Besides birds, he reported spotting “a couple of exceptionally large beavers.” Lucky him.
The calmest stretch: From the boat launch at the south end of Park Lane upstream to the developed portion of Massacre Rocks State Park, the river’s flows are moderate. That’s where park manager Kevin Lynott and his staff tell inexperienced paddlers to stay until their skills improve and they’re comfortable handling their boats.
The park rents out canoes and kayaks in summer — typically from Memorial Day, after high spring flows drop to safer levels, to just after Labor Day, a cutoff dictated by staffing. But there’s nothing wrong with bringing your own boat this time of year.
“From September to mid-October is typically a great time to paddle because flows are a little slower, water is a little warmer,” Lynott said.
One drawback: Interstate 86 parallels the river here, and you’ll never leave the range of traffic noise.
As Ellis put it: “You could almost feel the buzz of the traffic.”
Faster current: As you paddle upstream, you’ll pass Goat Island on your right; in river terminology it’s “river left,” because the island would be on the left side of the channel for someone facing downstream. Soon after, Beaver Island will be to your left (“river right”) as you pass the park’s campground. If you want to stick to the calmest stretch of water, turn around here.
If you instead paddle past Beaver Island, you’ll encounter stronger currents where the river is funneled into a narrower channel and eddy lines where competing currents fight each other.
“If you’re not prepared for that, it can take control of your kayak or canoe and you get in trouble,” Lynott said.
Capsized in the river, even strong swimmers might find their muscles don’t work. “All the way into June, that water is below 50 degrees,” Lynott said.
But upstream of the islands, the canyon cliffs get a lot more interesting — volcanic lava rock, dramatic layers of lake sediment and eventually Eagle Rock, part of an ancient lava dam broken by the prehistoric Bonneville Flood. A beautiful stretch of river. My husband and I turned around shortly before Eagle Rock, which sits in the middle of the river and gives its name to the class II rapids around it.
Bonus tip: From about November to March, unless upstream dam releases keep the water level too high, the rapids below Eagle Rock become dry rock. Anglers can walk out on them and fish the ribbons of streamflow, said Lynott, who looks forward to fishing that spot every year.
“Below Eagle Rock is actually great fishing water,” Lynott said. He added, mostly joking: “You shouldn’t write that, because people will be competing with me.”
Getting there: From the Magic Valley, head east on Interstate 84, then take Interstate 86 when it splits off from I-84. Massacre Rocks State Park is beside I-86, 40 miles east of Declo.
Getting in: A daily $5 motor vehicle entry fee is required year-round — unless you have the $10 annual Idaho State Parks Passport available through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Getting comfortable: Need to boost your water skills before taking on the stretch of river above Beaver Island? Come back to Massacre Rocks State Park in the summer. The staff provides 15 or 20 minutes of instruction before renting out canoes and kayaks.
And the park offers occasional summer workshops that cover self-rescue skills such as re-entering a capsized boat. Practicing in the water gives participants a larger comfort zone as paddlers.
“Two kinds of paddlers: those who have capsized, those that will,” Lynott said. “The shock of being in the water is something you need to get over.”
A final tip: For less experienced paddlers, a kayak is a better idea here than a canoe because your center of gravity is lower.
“I seldom put inexperienced paddlers in a canoe,” Lynott said. “I’ll always put them in a kayak if I have a choice.”