Bilk Mountain is truly a bizarre mountain. While it is more of a long tall ridge than a summit, it is capped by amazing rocks and boulders. These can form jagged razor edges or be large isolated house-sized boulders perched on top of the broad white granite powder ridge line. The mountain has great bulk with most of its mile plus length being nearly summit height. The high point is not easily determined but is one of the two large pointed granite boulders on the north end of the ridge just before the drop-off to the source of Schwar Creek and Martin Creek. Like much of the general area Bilk Mountain has been severely burned, with very few living trees left in stunted subalpine forests. Along with the ridge to the west, the Bilk Mountain area may host the largest extended population of the beautiful endemic plant, Idaho Douglasia, a stunning wildflower that was only described by botanists in the early 1980s. The 7,610 foot Mountain has 510 feet of prominence.
The bulky mountain forms a J-shape ridge with large cirques on every side. The inside of the J is formed by a large carved basin containing Bilk Lake, which interestingly is hidden from view almost everywhere on the mountain. The northern cirque falls into a beautiful subalpine meadow that is the source of Marten Creek. The east side falls into a large basin with springs and small meadows that are the source to Goat Creek. The southeast aspect shares the large northern basin on the north side of Elk Mountain forming the headwaters of Running Creek. While the mountain drops off several thousand feet to the lower elevations of these basins, the summit area rises about 600 to about 1,200 feet from upper basins mentioned. All the mountains in this area are formed in unusually decomposed granite that gives the ground a white powder texture with very little soil development. Large irregular boulders are scattered along these powdery ridges and summits and often these form the high points as is the case with Bilk Mountain.
Bilk Mountain forms part of the boundary of the huge Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. The boundary comes up the southeast ridge, turns south then curves west to include the Bilk Lake basin. The highpoint is entirely in the wilderness. The primitive road into this area passes between the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and the large Meadow Creek roadless area. Meadow Creek is managed much as a wilderness area, but some motorized vehicle access is allowed on some trails. The area is becoming controversial as different factions argue for their interest in the area. Many would like to see it designated wilderness, however it was excluded from designation as part of the compromise to create the massive Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to the south. Some would like to see it managed for timber and other resources as intended when it was excluded from designation. Despite its planning history, it is doubtful the Forest Service would enter the basin for timber purposes, but it will likely never be managed fully as wilderness.
In the fall, hunters are common in the area with many four-wheelers on the road and stockmen on the trails. Use caution during this time and wear orange. There are a lot of wolves in the area so seriously consider leaving the dogs home if you don’t want to lose them.
From Highway 95, turn east into Grangeville and continue on Main Street (Highway 13) for a long mile to the east edge of town. Town ends abruptly at the intersection of Highway 13 and the Mt. Idaho Grade road. From this intersection turn south (right) on the Mt. Idaho Grade road. After driving approximately 0.7 miles take the curve to the left at the drive-in theater (the curve is the main road). Continue on through the cluster of houses known as Mt. Idaho and soon the road will descend into the deep canyon of the South Fork of the Clearwater River. The road hits the canyon bottom and Highway 14 joins from the left, 9 miles after the theater curve.
At the bottom of the grade continue straight for 38 miles to the Red River Road. Turn right and continue up Red River for about 14 more miles to Red River Ranger Station. Turn right (keeping on the pavement) and go through the Ranger Station for 0.4 mile to the Montana Road, Forest Service Road 468 (also known as the Magruder Road or the Nez Perce Trail Road). Turn left off the pavement on this road and continue 19 miles to the junction of road 285 to Green Mountain. Turn left on road 285 and continue 15 miles to the trailhead just south of Elk Mountain.
Caution should be taken on much of this route. For several miles on Highway 14 just east of the base of Mount Idaho Grade, the road is very narrow and twisted. Watch the speed and stay on the right side of the road and hope the oncoming traffic (largely composed of RVs and logging trucks) does as well. The shoulder is falling into the river on this already narrow road and in some places even the white strip is going, leaving absolutely no space between you and the river. On the mountainous portion, the 285 road is very narrow and will take some time to navigate safely. Road use can be high some weekends and during hunting season so anticipate other vehicles on the corners.
Part of the adventure of going into this part of Idaho is driving along the South Fork Clearwater River. This small, but beautiful river has a steep grade over endless boulders of class III, IV, and V whitewater in the spring. About 10-15 miles upstream the canyon tightens into a spectacular gorge with miles of technical climbing that is never climbed. Low elevation mountain goats are not an uncommon site here on large granite walls. All is especially beautiful in the fall when the larch and broadleaf trees lining the rocky stream turn gold. The river also supports good runs of steelhead and Chinook salmon, which can be seen jumping some of the small waterfalls during the appropriate season.
It is an easy hike of about four miles from the trailhead at Elk Mountain to the long summit of Bilk Mountain. Overall the path is fairly level with a climb of about 500 vertical feet over the first mile to Elk Mountain and after a long gradual descent another similar climb up the southeast ridge to the summit of Bilk. The actual summit is not very clear due to the entire mile length being about the same elevation and lined with a series of huge boulders and rugged outcrops. One of the two large rocks on the northwest end of the ridge would be the true high point.
Red TapeBilk Mountain is on the boundary of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, thus wilderness regulations apply. The south side of the mountain and the primary route getting into this mountain are not within wilderness, but is very close and generally passes through a large roadless area that is generally managed as a quasi-wilderness. If this may possibly affect your plans call the local Forest Service offices listed below for more information.
There are several primitive camping opportunities in the area. There are no designated campgrounds close to the mountain, though perhaps there was at one time at Windy Saddle, about three miles south of the trailhead on the 285 road. This broad saddle has a pit toilet, but everything looks as though it hasn’t been maintained in many years and there is no campground indicated on the map. Several miles further south and about five miles east on the 468 road from its junction with the 285, Poet Creek Campground is a primitive, but nice camping spot. Water at Poet Creek comes from Poet Creek or Bargamin Creek, which join at the campground.
There are a handful of wide pull outs, often associated with road and trail junctions on the 285 road that would be fair places for dispersed camping. There is also ample opportunity on the level, open ground in the vicinity of the trailhead. Camping at Running Lake would be a nice option, but be prepared for a potentially nasty hike 1,500 feet down a sometimes treacherous cirque to reach it. But bring water because most camping options in the area are dry. Likewise Bilk Lake in the large west cirque might be an option, but there is no good way to get down to it. The best camping on Bilk itself is probably on the open slopes and meadows in the large northeast basin, which has some level ground, springs and trail access. North of the mountain a nice meadow is near the saddle below the northwest ridge, but this is a drop of 1,100 feet from the summit and on the far side from the trailhead.
When To Climb
Obviously the summer is the best time to reach this summit. The Montana Road and 285 road are not cleared in the winter so it is impossible to get anywhere near the mountain during that season. At this high elevation come prepared for any kind of weather regardless of the time of year, even on days that seem warm in the morning. Storms can and often do blow up out of nowhere and can drop temperatures dramatically and bring rain or snow. It is possible to snowmobile along the roads into the area, but they are only groomed to Granite Springs, which is on the 468 road a couple miles before the junction with 285. Thus it’s a long way to the trailhead from the accessible ends of the road. Generally it’s a good rule to only snowmobile as far as you are willing to walk out. If this rule is followed, it is not possible to get close to this mountain in the winter.
More Information and Current Conditions
Go to the mountain prepared for variable conditions. Bilk Mountain is easily accessible, yet it’s still part of a large primitive area on the boundary of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. While the trailhead isn’t far from the mountain, it’s still a very long way on a narrow difficult road to reach even a trace of civilization.
Before traveling the 468 or 285 roads or for more information and current conditions in the Bilk Mountain vicinity, contact the Nez Perce National Forest or the Red River (Elk City) Ranger Station.
Nez Perce National Forest
104 Airport Road
Grangeville, ID 83530
Red River Ranger District:
Elk City Ranger Station
300 American River Road
Elk City, ID 83525
Moose Creek Ranger District
831 Selway Road
Kooskia, ID 83539