Though the summit is only a little above 7,000 feet elevation, Black Mountain is truly a spectacular mountain for a number of reasons. Its one of the highest mountains in the North Fork Clearwater basin and rises an impressive 5,460 vertical feet above the lush rainforests at the mouth of Isabella Creek, which enters the North Fork at the southwest foot of the mountain. The eight mile hike on the trail climbs 5,327 feet in approximately three horizontal miles from the trailhead to the summit. The mountain also has an impressive prominence of 2,217 feet.
Black Mountain is the high point in the Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area. This approximately 30,000 acre primitive area has been proposed for wilderness designation by the Forest Service for many years. Formal designation has never occurred, however it is managed similar to a wilderness area. This area offers some of the premier back county recreation opportunities in north Idaho with many peaks, canyons and 19 glacial lakes to explore. During peak hiking season, the main peaks of this area along the St. Joe/Clearwater divide get moderate to high use, but the north slopes of Black Mountain are extremely remote with some of the upper streams and rugged canyons going years without a visitor.
In addition to the impressive physical features, the mountain has a number of other noteworthy characteristics. Being extremely steep, most of the mountain cannot be seen from below; in fact the first time the summit is visible is basically as you arrive. There are two satellite peaks (West Sister, 6,721 and Pt. 6,686) and numerous ridges complexes and seven large drainages coming off the mountain. These drainages are very steep and initially formed of steep avalanche chutes with nearly continuous waterfalls, some of which drop hundreds or even thousands of feet with small breaks. The north and east faces of the summit are formed by high cliffs, with the north and northeast cliffs being particularly large and dramatic.
The mountain is very wet with the lower slopes being covered with a deep rainforest of western redcedar, grand fir and Pacific yew over a lush floor of sword fern, maidenhair fern and lady fern. In this zone, the high precipitation and warm low elevations provide and inland maritime climate that supports a high number of plants, mosses, lichens and even insects that are disjunct from their typical range in the wet forests west of the Cascade Mountains. Most of these species occur in the low moist forests, but a few prefer subalpine forests and montane grasslands of the upper elevations. Some are common, but others along with some endemic and widespread rare species give this section of the North Fork of the Clearwater the greatest concentration of rare species in Idaho. The inland existence of some of these coastal species has been discovered only in recent years and it is likely that more will be yet in the future.
Above the extensive cedar and grand fir old growth forests, the slope increases, causing soils to be more drained and thus support drier forest vegetation. The trees remain mixed conifer, but Douglas fir becomes dominant. This species typically lives 90-100 years in this area before succumbing to insect and disease outbreaks. The loss of this forest layer is evident here with large holes in the forest canopy and heavy layers of dead wood on the floor. At approximately 4,000 ft. the more gentle slopes return and the largest cedar of the route become common. Generally such old growth forests are in the moist, sheltered valley bottoms rather than mid-slope on the mountains. Many of these trees are 3-4 feet in diameter and probably 200 – 400 years old. At about 5,000 feet a zone of transition between mid-elevation mixed coniferous forests merges into open subalpine slopes with rocky soils, shrub glades, talus and the first subalpine tree species such as mountain hemlock and subalpine fir. Soon after the mountain hemlock become dominant, forming park-like forest over huckleberry, bear grass and wood rush. In many areas these trees are large and old, but near the summit the forest becomes more open with stunted trees and numerous rocky outcrops.
Black Lake is an extremely beautiful lake penned in by numerous interesting quartzite bluffs and backed by dramatic cliffs of the Black Mountain summit mass. There are some good scattered campsites.
Avoid taking off cross country from the trails. This mountain is huge in area and very steep and brushy and the path of least resistance often quickly takes one into drainages that are very deep and full of wet, criss-crossing down logs, devils club and waterfalls. Climbing out is extremely difficult and passage down stream impossible. Its an easy place to get lost and away from the trails the only way out is sometimes very dangerous.
If coming from Lewiston, follow Highway 12 to the town of Orofino and turn east across the bridge over the Clearwater River into downtown. Follow the main road through town (Michigan Street) and climb the grade east of town. This road is paved, but some places have a rough surface and some bad corners. Keep on this road for 26.5 miles to where it forms a T at the Bald Mountain Ski Area turn off. Take a left on the main road (Highway 11) and continue 7.3 miles to the next T at the small town of Headquarters. Headquarters is a small group of buildings that is an administrative center for the Potlatch Corporation; there are no services. Turn left at Headquarters (forest road 247) and continue for 24 miles to the bridge of the North Fork Clearwater River. On the north side of the bridge, turn right and go approximately 2 miles to Canyon Work Center. Go approximately a couple hundred yards past the work center administrative entrance to the trailhead parking on the right. This also serves as public parking to the Forest Service office at the work center, though the building is barely visible towards the river through the dense trees. The Black Mountain trail (#396) is well signed on the north side of the road, immediately to the west of the parking area. It’s a steep 8+ mile hike to the summit.
If coming from the south, take Highway 12 to Kamiah and continue approximately 15 miles to Highway 11, which crosses the Clearwater River to the right at Greer. Then climb the steep 8 mile Greer Grade and continue on about 12 miles to Weippe. Here turn left and follow the signs to Pierce. Continue through Pierce about 5 miles to the Bald Mountain Ski Area turn off and then follow directions above. One can also skip the Greer Grade and continue to Orofino on Highway 12 and follow the directions above.
Trail is generally easy to follow, but many areas are very steep and because there is little traffic on the mountain the brush closes up the path in many areas. In some particularly steep places be sure not to step off the obscured narrow path. The person at the lookout said she had only four visitors so far this year. The last year she worked on this mountain she only had four visitors all summer (mid-90s). There is nothing to be accessed on this trail except the lookout and lake and most people don’t want to do the rigorous hike. The lower elevations probably see some increased use during the hunting season. With the modern use of helicopters in transporting fire fighters, crews don’t use trails as often as they once did. The result is many trails in this area being slowly reclaimed by the forest.
Part of the trail is not where its indicated on map. The southwest corner of section 27 shows the trail entering a long series of tight switchbacks straight up the steep slope. The trail has been relocated. After the first few turns in this stretch the trail continues east to the broad ridge line just inside the boundary of section 26. From there it gradually climbs to the junction of the trail between the lookout and Black Lake. From this point the summit is a steep mile west through an open subalpine slope and it’s about ½ mile east to the lake.
Extended hikes are possible to the east toward The Nub and north to the main divide of the Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area. However some of the trails may be sketchy in some areas. Bring along a good map and compass and be prepared for the possibility of doing your own route finding.
The Views From The SummitThe views from the summit of Black Mountain provide excellent views of the typical north central Idaho terrain of endless forested mountains broken up by deep river canyons.
CampingPeople wanting to car camp and have a long day hike can use the very scenic Aquarius Campground, which is a couple miles west of the trailhead or immediately upriver from the bridge crossing the North Fork Clearwater River. This campground is situated in old growth western red cedar against the rapids of the North Fork. There are only a few campsites so arrive early, especially if visiting the area on a weekend. There are some nice dispersed camping areas several miles up the river, some with nice sandy beaches. These are often full as well. Washington Creek campground is much larger and one can usually find a spot there, but this is getting quite a ways up river from Black Mountain. To the south of the river there are many dispersed campsites off the paved road along Beaver Creek that would provide good car camping. But most of these are filled up with loggers who work on the Potlatch timber lands in the area.
Backpackers can hike into Black Lake at the base of the summit pyramid where there are a few areas to pitch a tent. It is also possible to camp at the summit, where there is a good spring just over the east side. Other than these options, there is very little in the area for camping on the mountain.
When to ClimbThe upper elevations get lots of snow and hiking to the summit before mid-July may be difficult some years. Most precipitation on the lower elevations is in the form of rain, thus the interesting montane rainforests on the lower slopes can easily be explored in winter. Of course this is depending on road conditions into the North Fork, which are not always open.
Mountain Conditions and InformationGo to the mountain prepared for variable conditions. With over a mile of vertical lift, mountain temperatures can vary dramatically.
Contact the North Fork Ranger District of the Clearwater National Forest for information and current conditions.
North Fork Ranger District
12730B Highway 12
Orofino, ID 83544
Canyon Work Center (summer only)