Crossing into Idaho's high country

Lack of snowpack and early snowmelt allow hikers to get into Idaho's alpine areas before the Fourth of July.

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comJune 27, 2013 

Brian Dirksmeier and his family came down the trail along Redfish Lake Creek, deep in the Sawtooth Mountains, surprised at where they had been in early June.

They could get to places near Elephant's Perch and near Alpine Lake much earlier than in previous years.

A lot more places will be accessible in Idaho's high country than in previous years for the Fourth of July holiday.

In fact, in some years Dirksmeier remembers doing backcountry ski trips this time of the year.

Not this summer.

The Dirksmeiers weren't the only ones surprised by the early opening of the backcountry.

"I think backpacking season is on," avid backpacker Fred Stillman said two weeks ago after returning from the fourth Bench Lake in the Sawtooths.

"We headed to Bench Lakes in an annual warm-up for the season," he said, "I knew it was a low-snow year, but I didn't expect no snow."

That theme is being echoed from Lick Creek Summit near McCall to the Magruder Road in North-central Idaho.

"Lick Creek Summit opened up four weeks ago," said Brian Harris, spokesman for the Payette National Forest. There are some years the 7,000- to 8,000-foot area north and east of McCall is still inaccessible around the Fourth of July holiday.

"Things are opening up more quickly on the Payette National Forest, Harris said.

"We're three weeks to a month ahead of what has been typical in the past," he said of the high country of Central Idaho.

It's like that in other areas of the state. The road over Deadwood Summit, east of Cascade," is open.

"I don't remember when it was open this early," said Dawn Carter, of Deadwood Outfitters.

The road is near the lodge, which is on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and surrounded by 8,000-foot peaks. The outfitting service hosts trail rides, fly fishing and backcountry retreats in the area.

The experts are saying it's an early summer in the high country, and here are some hot picks for the Fourth of July week:

LICK CREEK SUMMIT

Hiking

What: The road over Lick Creek Summit north and east of McCall is open, and that means access to some hiking trails to alpine lakes. You might still encounter some snow on the trails, but the alpine country should be beautiful.

Try Duck or Hum lakes for the first outing of the season. The trailhead is located near Lick Creek Summit.

Getting there: Drive 102 miles north of Boise on Idaho 55 to McCall. Go into town and head toward Ponderosa State Park. Don't go to the park, but continue on the road around the golf course to Lick Creek Road.

Drive on this road for about 20 miles to the marked trailhead.

Information: McCall Ranger District, 634-0400.

GOOSE LAKE

Car camping

What: Goose, Granite and Hazard lakes, all north of McCall, are now accessible and make the perfect places for car camping and fishing.

Actually, Idaho Fish and Game planned to get in there earlier and stocked Goose Lake on June 15 with 5,000 fish, Granite Lake on June 24 with 4,000 fish and Hazard Lake on June 24 with 2,500. That's unheard of in some years.

That also means there's good access to several hike-in lakes in the area.

Getting there: Head to McCall on Idaho 55, go through town and go another 4 miles to the Goose Lake Road turnoff. Continue past Brundage Mountain Resort.

SAWTOOTHS AND WHITE CLOUDS

Hiking, backpacking

What: Trails in the Sawtooth and White Cloud mountains near Stanley are more accessible earlier this summer because of the lower snowpack.

Hikers are expected to get higher in elevation before they reach the snow line.

Although high passes may still have a little snow, hiking should be good.

As always, hikers are warned to be careful with stream crossings, which might be running high.

Note: A good way to get into the Sawtooth Wilderness without hiking the extra miles is to take the shuttle boat from Redfish Lake Lodge to the Redfish Lake Creek Trailhead.

It cuts out 5 miles of hiking and the boat ride takes 10 minutes.

Redfish Lake Lodge caters to multiday and day-trip hikers. The price is $10 one way or $16 for a round trip for adults; $4 each way for 6 years and younger; and $3 for dogs. For more information go to redfishlake.com and click on "Marina."

Getting there: Take Idaho 21 about 125 miles to Stanley. Trailheads are located south of Stanley off Idaho 75.

Information: See Margaret Fuller's hiking guide, "Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains," (Signpost Books); or call the Stanley Ranger Station at 774-3000.

MAGRUDER ROAD

Scenic drive, camping

What: We're hearing that crews will be working on culverts along the Magruder Road in mid-August and the road will be closed a couple of weeks.

So, it might be a good idea to do the road as early as possible like early July. So far, motorcyclists and ATVers have gotten all the way through. There are still some iffy spots for full-size vehicles.

The historic, 101-mile, single-lane Magruder Road in northern Idaho winds along a mountain spine from Elk City in Idaho to Darby, Mont.

It's a unique road that enables a traveler to drive between two wildernesses: the 1.2 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north, and the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the south.

There's lots of camping along they way if you make it a three-day trip.

Getting there: Drive to Grangeville and head to Elk City. The road begins just past Elk City.

Information: Your best bet is to call the Elk City Ranger Station at 842-2245 or the West Fork Ranger Station at (406) 821-3269 for up-to-date conditions before you go.

Google Magruder Road and you'll find a Forest Service website on the road with plenty of details.

DEADWOOD SUMMIT

Backcountry driving

What: The road from Landmark over Deadwood Summit and through Bear Valley is an excellent backcountry drive.

And, Deadwood Summit is open, meaning you can do the 70- to 80-mile drive earlier this year.

The Landmark-Stanley Road, as it is called, has lots of places to camp, but if you want to go in style you might reserve accommodations at Deadwood Outfitters near Deadwood Summit.

Deadwood Outfitters serves meals and rents cabins by reservation. It is not a drop-in restaurant. The lodge has gas and diesel.

The road skirts the boundary of the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, goes near Deadwood Reservoir with its well-known trout fishing and through Bear Valley, which is known for its canoeing.

Getting there: Start on the Warm Lake Highway, just north of Cascade off Idaho 55, and head east to Warm Lake. Drive Forest Road No. 579 to Landmark, Deadwood Summit, Bear Valley and out past Bruce Meadows and Fir Creek to Idaho 21.

You can do the trip in reverse if you want, starting on the Stanley-Landmark Road turnoff from Idaho 21, 37 miles northeast of Lowman.

A Boise National Forest map is available at the Forest Visitor Center on South Vinnell Way across from the Wal-Mart on Overland Road west of Cole Road in Boise, or at ranger district offices.

A passenger car with good tires and a moderate amount of clearance can handle the road.

Information: The folks at Deadwood Outfitters know the weather and road conditions because they are in the backcountry year-round.

If you need information, you can call them at (800) 684-3675 or email deadwoodoutfit@gmail.com.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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