There’s a unique feel to wilderness, whether you are sitting on a log one step across the wilderness boundary contemplating a sego lily, or several miles in looking for the ideal river hole to cast a fly for cutthroats.
Call it solitude — a certain freedom from the hectic world or just the opportunity to savor the natural world in peace.
The feeling comes quickly while hiking the trail along Marsh Creek in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. You can relish the creek with a different glimpse of tumbling waters at every bend.
At one point, the silvery stream cascades over rust-, gold- and moss-colored boulders with a gentle roar echoing throughout the evergreen forest and granite canyon. Around another curve, the creek’s current slows in deep dark pools and the waters gently gurgle.
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Several braids of the creek wind through mini meadows rich in emerald grasses and weathered gray logjams.
Marsh Creek is a stream of many faces, and they are all beautiful. With the solitude and slower pace of wilderness, you notice all the different facets of nature.
Combine craggy mountains, verdant forests and glistening streams, and it’s easy to see how much beauty can be found in Idaho’s wilderness areas.
And just because they are labeled wilderness, they aren’t difficult to enjoy. Idaho has more than 4.7 million acres of wilderness, with dozens of easy-to-reach trailheads where explorers can start 3- to 20-mile treks and enjoy one or several days in the wild.
Here are some easy-access trails for quick hits in Idaho’s wilderness areas:
FOURTH OF JULY LAKE
Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness
This is an easy way to get the feel of sitting next to an alpine lake without spending too much effort to get there. It’s a 3.6-mile round trip to Fourth of July Lake. It’s a great kids hike.
The hike gives trekkers a taste of what the 275,000-acre wilderness on the east side of the Sawtooth Valley is like. The trail goes through forests and patches of wildflowers for about 1.8 miles to the lake. The meadow around the lake can be lush with wildflowers. Just have a picnic on the shores of the lake and take in the incredible mountain views.
The elevation is higher than the Sawtooths; the geology is different, and the sense of being in the mountains is overwhelming for such a short hike.
This can be done in a day trip if you are staying in the Sun Valley area. If you’re coming from the Treasure Valley, plan on camping at Alturas, Pettit or Redfish lakes, or get lodging in Stanley.
Getting there: Drive 15 miles south of Stanley on Idaho 75 to Fourth of July Creek Road. It’s another 10 miles to the trailhead on a dirt road, which can be very dusty and washboardy. That’s the only downside of this hike.
Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness
Without a doubt, this trail, about 20 miles northwest of Stanley, is very popular because it follows the creek and doesn’t lose or gain too much elevation.
Trekkers can also tailor their distance, from a few hundred yards for fishing or picture-taking to 5 miles or more for a day-trip picnic or overnight backpacking jaunt.
The focal points of the 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness are rivers — mainly the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the main Salmon River. Marsh Creek is at the headwaters of those rivers and definitely a good spot to get a feel for the wilderness.
The creek is also an important spawning area for salmon, and if you hike in late August, there will be opportunities to see them swimming in the creek or washed up dead on the bank after spawning.
The trail also is popular for fly anglers stalking wild cutthroat trout, and it’s easy to get to the creek from the trail at many points along the way.
Day hikers can go as far as they need to find a good picnic spot and then return to the trailhead on the same route. Backpackers like to do the 5-mile hike to Big Hole, where Marsh and Bear Valley creeks join to create the famed Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
The hike can be done on a day trip from the Treasure Valley, but it will be a long day on the trail and highway. It’s best to stay overnight in one of the several campgrounds along Idaho 21 between Marsh Creek and Stanley. Lodging can be found in the Stanley area.
Getting there: Drive about 119 miles northeast of Boise on Idaho 21 to the turnoff for Lola Creek Campground. Just past the campground is the trailhead.
This is one of the most popular hikes in the Sawtooths because it is accessible by the shuttle boat from Redfish Lake Lodge.
You can take the boat across the lake to the trailhead at the Redfish Lake Inlet or transfer camp and avoid hiking a 5-mile ridge trail from the lodge. The transfer camp is right next to the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness boundary and is where trekkers go from boat ride to boots on the ground. Since it’s only a few feet from the boundary, it’s a good way for kids and the elderly to see and enjoy the Sawtooth Wilderness. Day hikers can go a few steps into the wilderness or do a round trip of 7 miles to Flatrock Junction.
The shuttle leaves on demand (there must be at least two people) from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day through the season (hours are reduced after Labor Day). The cost is $10 one way/$16 round trip for adults, $4 each way for kids 6 and under, and $3 for dogs.
There’s only about an 800- to 900-foot elevation gain to the junction. Flatrock Junction is fun because Redfish Lake Creek flows over flat rocks and you can sit on the rocks and enjoy gushing water on a hot summer day. It’s also fun to soak your feet after the hike in. That’s if you can stand the cold water.
Words of caution: It is extremely dangerous to get in or cross the creek during high flows, so it is not recommended. There’s a definite chance of being swept downstream and never being seen again. The stream is littered with logjams, waterfalls, overhanging branches and large rocks as well.
But in the late season, sitting in a low-flowing creek is a summer treat. The cascading waters make great photos, too.
Other highlights of the hike are views of Mount Heyburn and Grand Mogul. Farther up the trail is Elephant’s Perch, a famous climbing rock.
It’s a long drive from Boise, so plan to stay in a nearby campground in the Redfish Lake area or get lodging in Stanley. If you’re staying in the Sun Valley area, it can be a day trip from lodging there.
Getting there: Take Idaho 75 about 4 miles south from Stanley to the Redfish Lake turnoff. Follow the forest road to Redfish Lake and the trailhead parking area.
BRIDAL VEIL FALLS
This is a great hike for beginners and all ages, taking hikers right along the boundary of the wilderness with good views of the front of the Sawtooths. It goes through mountain meadows and timbered country and follows an old mining road. Head off the trail to the left (southeast) and you’ll be in wilderness.
The hike to the point on the trail where you can see the falls is 7 miles round trip, but you can turn around anytime and still have magnificent views. Some hikers only do the first mile or so, and that’s enough to take in the beauty of the area. The elevation gain is a mere 350 feet, making it a pretty cushy hike for wilderness. The first 50 yards or so of the trail is wheelchair accessible — and even that section has a spectacular view.
Plan to camp at Stanley Lake or stay in Stanley, since it’s a 3-hour drive from Boise.
Getting there: Take Idaho 21 about 5 miles northwest of Stanley and turn on Stanley Lake Road. Go about 3.5 miles and past the campground to the trailhead.
GOSPEL HUMP LAKES
Gospel Hump Wilderness
Idaho’s magnificent Gospel Hump Wilderness is off the beaten path but not that difficult to reach. The 206,000-acre wilderness is the opposite of other wilderness areas when it comes to elevation gains and losses. Most hikes in the Gospel Hump go downhill off a main road, so the climb is on the way out. This is because a main access road travels a ridge high above the lakes and dissects sections of the wilderness area.
Getting there: From the town of Grangeville, drive scenic Forest Road 221 (the Grangeville-Salmon Road) heading south. It goes all the way to the Salmon River, east of Riggins, but you won’t be going that far. About halfway between the town and the river, look for Forest Road 444, which heads east and dead-ends at Square Mountain Lookout.
There are several trailheads located off Forest Road 444. About 4 miles in on Forest Road 444, keep a keen eye out for a hidden trail on the left that goes to Lower Gospel Lake. The trail is marked by a pile of rocks on the side of the road, but it’s easy to miss. There’s a parking pullout several hundred feet past the trail.
It’s about 1 mile down in elevation to the lake, but it’s well worth the effort. And don’t forget the fishing rod: The lake is full of trout for dinner and gives hikers an excellent perspective of the Gospel Hump Wilderness, with its alpine lakes hidden in granite canyons.
At about 8 miles in on Forest Road 444 is a turnoff and trailhead for Slate Lake, another alpine lake, that can be accessed via a 1-mile hike. The road going to the trailhead is well-marked on the right.
Continue on Forest Road 444 to reach a viewpoint with fantastic vistas of Gospel Lake. It’s straight downhill to the lake and very tempting to hikers. But it looks easier than it is. There’s really not a good trail option that reaches the lake; instead, hikers just traverse the steep side hills. It’s a strenuous hike back out to the road.
About 10 miles in is another trailhead to Moores Lake off to the left. It’s about a 4-mile hike to the lake with opportunities for overnight camping and fishing.
Square Mountain Lookout is about 12 miles in on Forest Road 444. The lookout is worth the drive.
Pete Zimowsky (aka Zimo), retired outdoors writer from the Idaho Statesman, just can’t put down his camera and continues to write occasionally about adventures around Idaho and the Northwest.
Maps of the Sawtooth, Challis and Nez Perce national forests are available at the Interagency Visitor Center in Boise at 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Boise. Information: (208) 373-4007 or 1-888-246-7523.Another useful map is DeLorme’s Idaho Atlas & Gazetteer ($22.95).