High-Water Hiking the Little Wood River Country in the Pioneers - June and July, 2017

Perched on granite far above the Little Wood River, I knew the river would win again.

We had already tried it once. In late May we tried to trek from Hailey to Craters of the Moon National Monument to celebrate 40 years of marriage and exploring the backcountry together. We took ridges and road into the southern Pioneers - where high runoff had made the area impassable to vehicles. We had green rangeland, sandhill crane and elk sightings, and abundant wildflowers all to ourselves - as well as unusually high creek crossings.

Two days in brought us to the Little Wood River, roaring like thunder, full of snowmelt from the snowy, upper Pioneers. We reached a ford - no bridge and a muddy, racing river, depth unknown. No go. The trip home offered its own challenges: snowfields and icy avalanches to cross, then - to avoid further snow and high water - 23 miles hiking roads from Federal Gulch.

Just after July 4 we returned for another try. We thought it was too hot now to hike to Craters, but we planned to cross the Little Wood closer to its source, explore ridges south of Copper Basin, then loop back. This time we started at Federal Gulch on the East Fork Little Wood and took trail up Timber Gulch to the ridge. In June we had hiked this way down on avalanche-packed snow; now we followed trail across green meadows with leisurely switchbacks into Douglas fir forest, where downed logs from a wet winter forced many detours. On top, we took a short side trip up a steep ridge on a game route deepened by motorcycles which had made their own trail from Baugh Canyon.

We would see more tracks - motorcycles had ridden the entire Little Wood River trail system, and riders had cut some logs. Since this is the Pioneer Inventoried Roadless Area, a recommended wilderness (although Congress left it out of the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness Bill of 2015), it’s closed to motor vehicles, clearly marked at trailheads and junctions. Skid marks and slippery descents showed these old trails were not designed for these new visitors.

Biting flies and heat also irritated. But the Upper Little Wood River Trail offered a lovely route winding up sagebrush hills, crossing several cool Douglas fir side canyons, and following the river high above narrows, crossing rushing side creeks, through lush pine grass, and finally meeting it at the edge of dark forest. The river was clearer but still rushing; there were no high-water marks. It had not receded at all in its upper reaches.

On the other side, trail beckoned but we were loath to cross 3 to 4 feet of rushing whitewater. We turned back and camped in a meadow above the raging torrent. The next day we backtracked and made the steep, hot climb up Iron Creek and sagebrush hills to PK Pass - refreshed a final mile through an alpine basin beside a rushing spring, then one big switchback to the top. Camp on the pass offered a lengthy, multicolored sunset on Old Hyndman and Cobb peaks, moonrise through clouds over the Lemhi range, and around midnight, soft footsteps and bounding brown shapes as deer made periodic moonlit visits.

The next day, Sunday, we meet our first hikers on the East Fork Road, closed to vehicles due to plugged culverts and flooding.

David wants to try another Hailey-to-Craters attempt in October. The Little Wood should be done flooding by then!
Click Images to Enlarge
We started our trip ascending foothills behind Hailey; this is view of Pioneer Mountains in distance from ridge below Patterson Peak.
Our route home required us to cross a pass between Porcupine Canyon and Timber Gulch still snowed in from avalanche and no fun to hike down .
Spring snowmelt caused Town Creek to create a new channel on Quigley Road, severely eroding it on its way down to Fisher and Baugh drainages.
Beavers have created wetland environment with several dams/ ponds on Town Creek.
Two sandhill cranes patrolled the area calling loudly, perhaps attempting to distract the hikers from a nearby nest.
On first trip we encountered Little Wood River in flood stage, lower in the drainage and were not able to cross to Long Gulch, effectively thwarting our plans to hike across southern Pioneers to Craters of the Moon National Park
We returned via a ridge trail near Gray’s Peak.
Cindy confronts Little Wood River running high with whitewater in July at Little Wood River Trail crossing near near the river’s headwaters in the Pioneer Mountains.
View of Little Wood from granite cliffs far above on the Little Wood River Trail.
Motorcycles had illegally ridden most of the Little Wood River Trail, which is in the Pioneer Wilderness Study Area closed to motorized vehicles.
Beautiful spring gushes out of hillside near top of Iron Mine Trail and PK Pass in the Pioneer Mountains.
Times News Article