Lonely trails in Idaho have satisfying rewards
Take these paths less traveled and discover little treasures overlooked by the many.
LOWMAN, Idaho — Blue wildflowers accented the color of the viridescent mountain meadow, and it was the perfect spot to have a picnic. Who would have known there could be such an incredible meadow with sandhill cranes, bluebirds, and a tiny rust-colored stream with brookies?
How many hikers drive past the old forest road that offers access to the meadow on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return in search of popular trailheads?
It’s all part of heading out and taking a chance on a lonely trail — one that is seldom used except maybe during big-game hunting season.
There are plenty of them in Central Idaho.
In the summer, these trails are ignored by trekkers because they aren’t on the radar screen of popular hikes.
Sometimes the ignored trails are more difficult to find, not maintained as well as popular ones near resort towns, and may go through burned areas. But you’ll enjoy the solitude.
We asked those in the know at the Boise and Payette national forests and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area for tips on lonely trails.
Here are their suggestions so that you can be the lonely trail hiker:
BOISE NATIONAL FOREST
Burnt Log Trail: Forest Trail No. 75, east of Cascade, is also part of Idaho’s Centennial Trail.
It is difficult to locate the trailhead on the south end, but hikers can scout for the trail near Buck Mountain Campground north of Landmark on Forest Road 413. The trail is accessed off Forest Road 414C.
On the north end, hikers will have to ford Johnson Creek, so this is really a late-summer hike due to the higher spring and early summer flows.
The eight-mile trail, which is typical of “lonely trails” that disappear at times, winds through lodgepole and subalpine fir.
It’s on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and really remote.
Gabes Peak Trail: Forest Trail No. 136 is accessed on the west side by taking Forest Road 653 through Rammage Meadows north of Sage Hen Reservoir.
The five-mile trail goes through predominantly Douglas fir and grand fir forests and ascends to the east and ends at an unmarked trailhead off West Mountain Forest Road 446, just south of the FAA radar dome. You can see the dome from Idaho 55 on the way to Cascade.
As a hiker reaches the east end, there are excellent views of the Council Valley, and further west, the mountains in Oregon.
A fun, short half-mile side trip to the small Gabes Bathtub Lake requires a mostly cross-country trip. The “Bathtub” is a secluded spot, but the shallow water is mostly filled with abundant lily pads and other vegetation.
The trail from the east side can have many wildflowers early in the summer, but at times the large expanse of meadows has cows grazing. The Back Country Horsemen often help clear this trail.
Bear Valley: A lot of trails branch out from Bear Valley, located off Idaho 21 between Lowman and Stanley.
All you have to do is drive Forest Road 579 from Idaho 21 to Capehorn Summit. At the summit are a couple of trails going northeast and southwest.
It’s easy to find the summit about three miles from Idaho 21. There’s a large billboard at the summit with information about Bear Valley.
If you continue on the Bear Valley Road (or Stanley-Landmark Road), you’ll pass trailheads all the way to Deadwood Summit.
The road offers wide-open choices for hiking lesser-used trails and roads.
Many of them lead into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
PAYETTE NATIONAL FOREST
Blackmare Trail: Trail No. 100 in the Krassel Ranger District is reached out of Poverty Flat Campground along the South Fork of Salmon River.
From McCall, it is about 30 miles northeast on Forest Road 48 and then 13 miles south on Forest Road 674.
You’ll find a paved campground with 10 campsites, including four walk-in tent sites. Hitching posts are available at each site.
The trail leading from the campground is open to motorcycles, but seldom used. It goes up and then branches so the trail user can go to Blackmare Lake on Trail No. 302 (nonmotorized), or continue on to Blackmare Summit on Trail No. 100 (still motorized).
This area gives you a close view of the mountains east of McCall.
From the summit you can take No. 99 down to Kennally Creek Campground, or head northeast on Trail No. 98 to the Blackmare lookout and eventually back down to Reed Ranch on the South Fork of the Salmon River Road.
Duck Lake Trailhead: Trail No. 84 is located in the McCall Ranger District and goes from the trailhead (just north of Lick Creek Summit) to the Loon Lake Trailhead out of Chinook Campground.
The entire trail length is about 18 miles from trailhead to trailhead.
While both the trailheads and close-by lakes (Duck at the southern end and Loon at the northern end) are busy lakes, No. 84 trail in between is rarely used.
A hiker can expect to cross blown-down timber along this trail, but it does access some incredible country.
The trail follows Loon Creek and passes through the South and North Loon Mountains and the Victor Peak areas.
SAWTOOTH NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
West Pass Creek Trail: This trail in the Boulder Mountains connects the North Fork of Big Wood River Trail (just north of Ketchum) with the East Fork of the Salmon southeast of Stanley.
If you start on the north end, you need to drive about 30 miles along the East Fork of the Salmon River Road off Idaho 75. The turnoff for the road is east and north of Stanley.
At the end of the road you’ll come to another road that turns up West Pass Creek and goes for about four miles to the start of the trail.
If you hike from the south end, you access the trailhead along the North Fork of the Big Wood River, just past the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters, seven miles north of Ketchum.
There are no alpine lakes or loop trails and that’s why it isn’t popular.
However, the trail crosses over a 10,000-foot pass in the Boulder Mountains between the two drainages.
If you come in from the Big Wood side, you’ll get views of 11,000-foot peaks.
The first part of the North Fork Big Wood Trail may be a little busy with peak baggers trying to top Ryan and Kent peaks.
The north end off the East Fork of the Salmon River gets very little use.
Johnson Creek Trail: Just getting to this trailhead is an adventure because you have miles and miles of rough, rutted four-wheel-drive road. High-clearance vehicles are recommended.
You access this trailhead by going through the Boise National Forest on the way to the outpost of Graham on the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness. The trail goes into the SNRA.
The trailhead is located near the North Fork of the Boise River where you’ll also find two campgrounds and a U.S. Forest Service rental cabin — the Graham Cabin.
The area was burned in the late ‘90s and fire is still evident. The road washed out a few years ago, but is now repaired.
The trail will take you to Pat’s Lake in the wilderness, so don’t forget the fishing rod.
The road to the Graham area is more conducive to motorcycles, ATVs and horseback riders.
The trailhead is also accessible to pilots because it has a backcountry airstrip.
To drive there, it’s about 53 miles northeast of Idaho City. From Idaho City, take Idaho 21 for 18 miles to the Crooked River-Little Owl Road 384. Turn left and stay on Road 384 for 4 miles to Pikes Fork Road 312. Turn right and stay on Road 312 for 26 miles.
There are only two major road intersections on Road 312; just keep bearing right and follow the directional signs.