Thursday, August 12, 2010

Backcountry 4WD roads provide great access to Central Idaho spectacular high country

Loon Creek, clean and pure

View looking down Loon Creek from our campsite

Grouse Creek open-pit gold mine ... never got very far

Black bear feeding on berries in the creek bottom

Near Loon Creek Summit. The General is on the left.

Small rainbow amid black sky

Crater Lake, just 1,500 verts downhill from Railroad Ridge

Wendy loved all of the flowers, as did I

I love my truck!

The road to Railroad Ridge was definitely a 4WD low-range type of road

My partner Wendy had knee surgery recently, so we decided to take a different approach to accessing the high mountains of Central Idaho -- we took the truck to the top.

Normally, we'd be backpacking into the high country at this time of year, but Wendy's physical therapist would have given her hell if she tried to put in 15+ miles on a rugged backcountry trail with a full-on backpack.

So we packed up my 1990 Ford F-150 4WD, which has traveled many super-gnarly rock-strewn roads in Owyhee County, and headed out for Railroad Ridge in the White Cloud Mountains. We also planned to drive a twisty single-lane 4WD road from Yankee Fork into the headwaters of Loon Creek, if we had time, over a three-day weekend.

Why go? We yearned to see mountain wildflowers at their peak, fly fish for trout, and camp in the high country, where it's nice and cool, even in August. Most of all, we needed to get out of town and get a change of scenery!

Idaho has a great roster of backcountry byways. Those routes typically include excellent access to food, lodging and services. More primitive trips like the two I'm going to describe here are just that, primitive. You're traveling into the backcountry where there are zero services. It's a pack-in, pack-out situation. We brought 10 gallons of water, our camp cook stuff, food, fishing stuff, tent and sleeping bags, etc.

Railroad Ridge. We left on a Thursday night after work, camped in a meadow near Stanley, and headed up to Railroad Ridge on the east slope of the White Clouds the next morning. It's such a long drive to the trailhead (4 hours) that it's great to do part of it the night before.

Getting there: Take Idaho 21 to Stanley, and Idaho 75 past Yankee Fork and Clayton to the turnoff for the East Fork of the Salmon River Road. Head up the paved East Fork Road about 10 miles to Big Boulder Road #667. Go right on #667 and proceed to the Livingston Mill. A Forest Service sign indicates the turnoff for the more primitive single-lane 4WD road to Railroad Ridge. You, no, the truck, must climb from 7,200 feet to elevation 10,600 feet, 3,400 feet of gain over just a few miles of steep road.

The 4WD road to Railroad Ridge is very narrow with almost zero pullouts. I just put it in 4WD low-range and cruised up the road at a slow speed, careful to not pop the tires on sharp rocks and slowly navigate big water dips and large boulders. It took us, no, the truck, less than an hour of climbing and we were cruising up the backbone of Railroad Ridge, which was absolutely smothered with multiple layers and colors of wildflowers. We hit it at the peak! Sweet!

Perched at 10,600 feet, it was so cool to look at eye level with 10,000-foot peaks in the Sawtooths to the west, and the Frank Church Wilderness to the north, while the higher Lost River Range and Lemhi Mountains lorded over the eastern side of the state.

I hiked down to Crater Lake to fly fish, just in time for a thunderstorm to hit and lightning bolts to land around the edges of the lake. We had a great evening watching a storm hammer the Lemhi's and the Borah Peak area, and then we pitched the tent because the storm ended up hitting us pretty squarely by 10ish. Our REI river tent fared pretty well on that windy ridge ... should have brought the NorthFace VE-25, but it was August!

It was clear as a bell the next morning. Wendy saw 40 head of elk on Railroad Ridge to the east, and spotted a lone mountain goat on a peak nearby. Very few birds were visible in the area except for a few red-tailed hawks.

Yankee Fork to Loon Creek: On Saturday morning, we noted the storm clouds gathering quickly in the White Clouds again, so we headed for the Loon Creek Trailhead, 25 miles from Bonanza, up the Yankee Fork Road.

Getting there: We were already in the 'hood. We took ID 75 to the Yankee Fork road, drove north on Yankee Fork to the dredge, turned left on the Jordan Creek-Loon Creek Road #172, and cruised over a tall summit to the Loon Creek trailhead, just past the Diamond D Ranch.

We got there in the early afternoon. I didn't waste any time getting my fly rod set up to fish the turquoise stream. Last time I was there, photographer Mark Lisk and I hammered the cutthroat trout with Dave's Hoppers in 90-degree heat. This time around, the fish were more choosy, but I still had some action.

There is a nice hot springs about 4 miles up the Loon Creek Trail, but Wendy couldn't quite hike that far (8+ miles round-trip), so we pulled over after a while and hung out at a deep pool, taking a swim every so often to cool off (after I was done fishing, of course).

If one were nuts about backcountry roads and could take the bumpy ride for hours on end, we could have driven to the top of Pinyon Peak (9,942 feet), a remote Forest Service fire lookout on the edge of the Frank Church Wilderness. That lookout is accessible from the Loon Creek Road or from the Beaver Creek road system, north of Cape Horn.

On our way back, we stopped at the top of Loon Creek Summit, and hiked out the shoulder of a mountain to the west and had a great view of the General, a big 10,000-foot peak, and the old Grouse Creek open-pit gold mine, not to mention all of the other mountains in Central Idaho.

We were a bit dizzy from all the twisty road by the time we got back to the paved Idaho 21, but we had covered a lot of country and taken lots of great photos. We figured the trip was good practice for when our knees or hips are worn out in our late 70s or 80s. :)
- SS

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