2 Hikers' Idaho Traverse:
Dry Days, Dead Trees and Fire
Three weeks into a trek across Idaho, we reached the last switchbacks of a 5,000-foot climb up Sleeping Deer Mountain above the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
An afternoon and morning I’d trudged across hot sideslope, clambered over logs and fought chest-high brush in wet bogs - the 9,881-foot white granite peak in my sights. The trail was cleared earlier this summer, but it was often hard to tell; newly fallen logs and vegetation from recent fire made slow going.
Topping the ridge, I anticipated the best view of our trek from Hailey to Salmon - the Pioneers, Boulders, White Clouds and Sawtooths we had crossed in more than 270 miles.
Harsh winds met me. Below, smoke filled the valleys in every direction. No views today. When David caught up, we agreed to skip the steep trail climbing to Sleeping Deer Lookout. Why bother?
Our Idaho revisit, 30 years after our hiking heyday, was marked by dry days, dead trees and fire - old, recent and ongoing.
My husband, an Idaho native, had planned his homecoming trip to favorite areas, crossing new and old wilderness: Hemingway-Boulder, White Clouds, Sawtooth and Frank Church-River of No Return.
The first week - over foothills behind our Hailey home, roads, trails and goat paths across the Pioneers and Boulders - started like summer hikes in the wetter 1980s-’90s. The first day was cool; on day two, hiking up Hyndman Creek toward Pioneer Cabin, darkening, growling skies soon pelted us with showers.
Once the rain gear was on, the showers quit, and we did not see rain again until our fourth week in the Salmon River Mountains.
We did see dead trees - probably 30 percent of forested slopes. Looping through the White Clouds near Castle Peak, revisiting a favorite trailless basin became late-night disaster as we were led astray by horse tracks then cut back for two cold creek crossings and steep scrambles up a rocky ridge to Noisy Lake; the old game route was obscured by dead logs. At Upper Champion Lake, David’s favorite fishing hole, we enjoyed a lovely campsite but no fish; I wondered if that was the result of the Valley Road Fire of 2005, winter kill or no longer stocking this wilderness lake.
At our first rest stop at Smiley Creek, 130 miles and 10 days in, we could see smoke creeping into Stanley on the north end of the valley. The Pioneer Fire, burning hot near Lowman, was sending smoke up Payette River drainages.
Crossing the Sawtooths from Pettit Lake to Sawtooth Lake into Stanley, we smelled smoke and saw alpine lakes glowing red from dramatic sunsets enhanced by smoky skies, and we waded deep-dusty trails from dry days and heavy horse and hiker use. Stanley was smoky from the Pioneer Fire and a new start by Redfish Lake.
Past fires dominated our third segment in the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church wilderness. To start we hitched three rides on Idaho 21 (which links Stanley to Boise); later that road closed due to fire at Stanley Lake.
Hiking across the Salmon River Mountains, we climbed and dropped thousands of feet across steep ridges and big creeks perpendicular to the Middle Fork. Our first three days were through the burned remnants of the 2012 Halstead Fire, which burned about 340,000 acres: blackened tree skeletons, moonscape lake basins and fields of lupine, other wildflowers and shrubs. The first mile over boggy meadows and downed logs was almost impassable until we found a relocated trail on the ridge. We climbed steeply through flower-rich burned basins and crept along eroded contour trail on a high ridge with views of the White Clouds and Sawtooths and glimpses of smoke filtering up drainages. Roughneck Lookout and lakes below were spared from fire; we camped off trail in meadows and a fringe of trees by Island Lake.
The next day we hiked more blackened lake basins above Falls Creek and slid down a jeep road by black sticks near Seafoam Lake. The riparian area around closed-up Seafoam Guard Station was intact.
Our worst post-fire encounter came the next day. After climbing a steep road to Sheep Mountain, we followed a ridge trail surrounded by stony peaks. At a blackened boggy ridge, we dropped into Little Loon Creek and remnants of a 1975 fire. Unbeknownst to us, the main trail had been relocated. We hacked and clambered our way over logs and through Ceanothus/alder/willow jungles in the creek drainage one afternoon and most of the next morning, averaging a third of a mile per hour, until we met newer trail dropping steeply off the ridge.
Our drought ended abruptly while camped on the Middle Fork. We descended 6,000 feet on ridge trail and route from Sleeping Deer to the river, took an R&R day at Flying B Ranch Resort, then camped on a sandbar. We awoke to pelting rain. Throughout that day and the next we were soaked by thunderstorms along the Middle Fork and on the steep climb up heavily burned Waterfall Canyon into the Bighorn Crags.
Our days in the stark, scenic Crags were mostly cloudy, cold and windy, but rain only threatened. It wasn’t enough moisture to end the Pioneer Fire; two new fires, Roaring Creek on the north end of the Crags and Roaring Lion Fire far to the east in Montana, added new colors to the sunsets reflecting in the high mountain lakes.
Famine to Feast: What We Ate
With a light backpack, sleeping bag and mini-mattress, titanium cookware, one set of clothes, and sandals weighing ounces, I carried less than 30 pounds even with a week’s food. Our resupply boxes contained carefully measured food allotments and supplies.
We ate “heavy” at rest stops: Smiley Creek, a resort within Sawtooth National Recreation Area; Stanley; and Flying B, a hunting/fishing resort with an airstrip on the Middle Fork known for its meals (some fly in just for breakfast). Here we managed four meals over 26 hours, leaving after lunch to hike a few miles down the river.
Cadillac camp awaited us in the Bighorn Crags. My friend Ann and buddy Judy from Carmen met us at Birdbill Lake, a beautiful basin framed by Fishfin Ridge, and a central location for day hikes to famous Island Lake and other basins. They hired an outfitter with horses and mules to pack in steak, hamburgers, salmon, bacon, eggs, bread, PBJ and chocolate. Ann even hired an extra mule to pack out our gear. On Aug. 11, I walked out with only a hiking staff.
Despite this cushy ending, David and I each weighed in 10 pounds lighter after our hike. May I interest you in CindyC’s Miracle 30-Day Hiking Weight Loss Program?
Breakfast: 1 serving whole-grain oatmeal, 3 T powdered peanut butter, 3 T pecans, 2 packets hazelnut instant coffee.
The day’s snacks: 2 granola bars, 2 Kind, Luna or power bars, 3-4 miniature Paydays.
Lunch: 1 Clif Bar, 1 Cheese Stick, 1 Ounce Beef or Turkey Jerky.
Supper: half a freeze-dried dinner (I buy a lot of vegan entrees like Chana Masala, Red Rice & Beans and Pad Thai), 1-2 ounces freeze-dried vegetables, 1/4 instant pudding.
David often supplemented dinner with freshly caught fish: brook trout, cutthroat and rainbow trout. He brought a 3-foot backpacking telescoping rod and miniature reel.
Where the people were (and where they weren't)
Idaho wilderness use depends on accessibility and reputation.
The Pioneer and the Boulder mountains near Ketchum are minimally used except for day hiker favorites Hyndman Basin, Pioneer Cabin and the Summit Creek Trail off Trail Creek Summit. We saw only two backpackers in further reaches of the White Clouds beyond Castle Peak pass but encountered dozens of campers at Chamberlain Lakes, 8.5-10 miles on good trail from Fourth of July Road trailhead.
The Sawtooths, a world-renowned wilderness with glaciated lake basins, jagged toothlike peaks and a first-class trail system, are heavily used. Easily reached trailheads from Pettit Lake, Decker Flats and Redfish Lake off Idaho 75 and near Stanley attract the most hikers. Some make loops between alpine lakes, and others base camp at a lake basin. Outfitters offer day trips or pack-ins by horse and mule to some lakes. We saw dozens of people; I counted 38 day-hikers and two horseback riders on the trail to Sawtooth Lake.
Campsites were few; we sometimes spent an hour looking for a good flat spot - even at well-known lakes. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area grudgingly allows campfires, but old fire circles are scattered. This shortage channels campers into a few well-used areas with multiple routes to campsites. A better solution would be shoveling out and marking a few camp areas near each lake.
In the Salmon River Mountains, we saw few people except near good trails or roads. We met no backpackers on the Middle Fork Trail, but it may be too hot in early August at this low (3,000- to 3,600-foot) elevation. We saw hundreds floating or camping along the Middle Fork - commercial raft trips but also independent kayakers and floaters. River floaters were friendly, curious and generous, offering food, rides and beer.
The Bighorn Crags on the northeast end of the Frank Church are well-used. A Forest Service wilderness guard we met had seen 120 hikers in the past week. We saw a couple of dozen; most were base camped at a lake basin and taking long day hikes. Like the Sawtooths, the Crags offer good stock trails for many loop options. Outfitters provide pack-in services for hikers and fall hunters.
Planning Your Trek
Idaho Centennial Trail: Check out this 1000-mile trail built by Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. http://idahocentennialtrail.org/
USDA Forest Service: except for public lands (Bureau of Land Management) and inholdings, we hiked areas administered by the Sawtooth and Salmon-Challis National Forests. Below is management unit for each mountain range. Email usually best for field contacts. Call office and ask for the email address of the district trail manager or wilderness manager.
Pioneers / Boulder-Hemingway Wilderness Ketchum Ranger District 208-622-5371
White Clouds Wilderness/Sawtooth Wilderness Sawtooth NRA 208-727-5000
Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness
(Salmon River Mountains), Middle Fork Ranger District, Salmon-Challis NF 208-879-4101
(Bighorn Crags) North Fork Ranger District 208-865-2700
Salmon-Challis districts post trail condition maps at http://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/scnf/recreation/hiking
Middle Fork trail condition pdf is quite up-to-date.
“Trails of the North Zone” covers most trails in the Bighorn Crags.
Ironically in GPS era, maps are problematic. Maps below are available from area hiking stores, Sawtooth NRA or can be ordered on-line.
Sun Valley Idaho Trail Map Adventure Maps Inc. 2015 - for Pioneers and Boulders. Lists trail mileages-but consistently underestimated about 20% and some landmarks mislabeled.
Sawtooth & White Cloud Trail Map Adventure Maps Inc. 2015 - used for general planning, White Clouds and Sawtooths segments. Same problems as above.
Sawtooth Wilderness Map & Hiking Guide Earthwalk Press-good map for hiking the Sawtooths. Has scale of miles, no mileages.
Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness- south half/ north half - these maps invaluable for planning hikes through Salmon River Mountains, the Middle Fork and Bighorn Crags. Order by phone from Middle Fork Ranger District (see above) at $10 each or at $9 from Forest Service Store on-line
Topographic maps: We used 18 topographic maps (7.5”). Outdoor stores in Twin Falls and Ketchum stock some topo maps for Boulder, Pioneer, White Cloud and Sawtooths with an Idaho map index. Maps not stocked I obtained from the USGS Store https://store.usgs.gov/
This website is increasingly difficult to use. Call Customer Service (1-888-275-8747 option 1) during “normal business hours” 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays Mountain Time Zone (Denver, Colorado).
NOTE: USGS recently “updated” all topographic maps by satellite; ‘features’ like roads and trails NOT added.
The original USGS 7.5-minute topographic map series (1945-1992) included recreational trails, pipelines, power lines, survey markers, many types of boundaries, and many types of buildings. New USGS topographic maps don’t include these features because the USGS no longer does field verification or other primary data collection for these feature classes, and there are no national data sources suitable for general-purpose, 1:24,000-scale maps.
GPS: most GPS layers are also based on old topographic maps.
Click Images to Enlarge
Times News Articles - Click Arrows
Sleeping Deer Pass is where the lead came from-hiking up 4000 feet over an afternoon/ morning to highest point in Frank Church Wilderness above Middle Fork of the Salmon River -where it was so smoky we saw nothing!
Coming up North Fork Hyndman Creek enroute to Pioneer Cabin in the Pioneer Mountains. Pioneers were designated a Wilderness Study Area by the Forest Service and recommended for wilderness but were not included in Idaho’s 2015 wilderness act (Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry’s Peak Wilderness Additions Act).
Nameless lake basin at head of West Fork Trail Creek in the Boulder Mountains.
David on West Pass in the Boulder Mountains (Boulder-Hemingway Wilderness), 10 days into 31-day trek across central Idaho mountains.
Smoke from Pioneer Fire near Boise and other fires added some color to this sunset at Champion Lake, White Clouds Wilderness, nine days into our Idaho trek.
David caught a large fish one smoky morning at a lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness
Encountered many down trees in the Sawtooth Wilderness.
Cindy “bushwhacking” down Little Loon Creek. Map showed trail down the creek but it was rerouted on the ridge. Canyon was heavily brushy in wake of a fire several decades ago.
One of our camps in area burned by 2012 Merino Fire above Little Loon Creek at head of Castle Creek and near ridge trail to Loon Creek Lookout.
After Sleeping Deer Mountain we took another day to drop down to the Middle fork Salmon River on a mostly non-existent trail from the ridge.
Middle Fork Salmon rafters dock near Flying B Ranch, a fly-in ranch on the river that offers lodging, food, ice cream and beer. Popular break spot for river floaters.
Pass in Bighorn Crags near Fishfin Ridge.