Planning a route for a multiday backpacking trip through the Bighorn Crags in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area proved to be a challenge.
Ideally, you would hike a loop, hopping from one lake to the next and eventually ending up where you first started out.
The trail system through the Bighorn Crags, though, is shaped more like a starfish, requiring you to fan out on each leg only to backtrack each day to get back to the heart of the trail system and back to the trailhead.
And with several-hundred-foot elevation drops and gains, backtracking is not ideal.
Still, the rewards of hitting these high-mountain lakes and coming upon majestic, imposing rocky crags are worth the effort.
On a recent four-day trek through the Bighorn Crags, we were able to hit Harbor and Wilson lakes, where we camped our first night, then Welcome Lake and Heart Lake before camping at Terrace Lakes, then backtracking to Birdbill Lake, where we took a side trip to catch a glimpse of Airplane Lake and Ship Island Lake, with its neighboring 1,000-foot towering cliffs.
On our last day, we went past Gentian Lake and Mirror Lake on our way to Cathedral Lake, where we could have stayed our last night before making the short two-hour hike back to the trailhead.
Instead, the prospect of a 640-foot drop into Cathedral Lake and a consequent 640-foot climb out of Cathedral Lake the next day (along with a touch of “car fever”) led us to push on to the trailhead that day.
In the end, that last day was a 12-mile trek with a total of 4,500 feet of elevation change.
In hindsight, the biggest regret was not making it to Ship Island Lake, which is a total of 11 miles from the trailhead and includes 4,300 feet of elevation changes. It’s doable, but that would be a heck of a hard first day.
If we were to do it over, I would recommend making it to Mirror Lake the first night, taking a roundabout trail that is surprisingly tropical, lushly forested and seemingly little-traveled as it follows the cool, burbling Clear Creek bed. This route still takes you past some introductory crags and past Cathedral Rock, but overall, it’s not the iconic views associated with Bighorn Crags, so be patient on that first day on this trail.
Mirror Lake is a cute, little, out-of-the-way lake with a great campsite that would be perfect for your first day.
On the second day, I would head straight to Ship Island Lake to stay for the night, keeping in mind that no matter what, you’ve got an 1,100-foot climb out the next day and another 400 feet to Wilson Lake, where you’d stay the next night.
Allegedly, there is a trail that connects Ship Island Lake with Terrace Lakes, but it’s not an official trail, and from what we could tell, it would be a tough, bushwhacking slog. If there were an improved trail there, then you’d have a better chance at doing a loop with less backtracking.
As it is, Wilson and Harbor lakes are the epicenter of the trail system, so from there you can fan out to either Welcome, Heart and Terrace lakes to the south and west or keep going south to Reflection, Twin Cove, Fawn, Doe and Buck lakes. No matter what, though, you’ll have to backtrack at least to Welcome Lake to make your way back to the trailhead.
The fishing everywhere was good, mostly with cut-throat trout. Our group caught fish in the dozens, mostly 7-inchers but we had a couple of keepers at 14 inches that we ate.
Some of the trails were fantastic, perfectly designed with 5 percent grades carved into the hillsides. Other trails, not so much, with steep climbs over short distances that can be challenging and discouraging. Some of the trails had some serious exposure, with narrow trails washed out in some places looking down on several-hundred-foot vertical drops.
The drive to the trailhead can be done a couple of ways, but we took Highway 55 to Banks-Lowman Road to Highway 21 to Highway 75 to Challis.
From Challis, you go about 8 miles up Highway 93 to Morgan Creek Road. From there, it’s 50 miles (yes, 50 miles) on what starts out as a nice dirt/gravel road and climbs into rugged, narrow, steep, rocky mountain road to the Bighorn Crags campground. You’ll definitely want four-wheel drive and a lot of patience for the last 10 miles.
Our group left Boise at 2 p.m. on a Thursday and arrived at the campground around 8 p.m. that evening, just enough time to set up our tents in the waning daylight and get a campfire going.
The Bighorn Crags campground is a revelation. Once you get there, you’ll be exhausted from the drive, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the amenities of several improved campsites with plenty of large tent sites, fire rings, pit toilets and even potable water! And all for $4 per site. We had five cars and 18 people and paid $4 for our site. And it was staffed by a friendly volunteer who gave us some tips about the trail and gave us a Leave No Trace talk before we headed out. Major kudos to the U.S. Forest Service for this one.
Group sizes are limited to 20 people, and no prior approval or permits are required. Although, being in a Wilderness Area, I wonder how long it will be before permits are required. If you go, please follow Leave No Trace principles, so we can all enjoy this pristine, rugged area for decades to come.