This summit is a fairly unimpressive ridge point on the divide between Rattlesnake Creek and Sabe Creek in the southern portion of the expansive Clearwater Mountains, which is the highest group of those mountains with several peaks over 8,000 feet. The mountain itself is not much of a destination other than being a point along one of the trail routes between the road at Dry Saddle and the deep Salmon River Canyon a few miles to the south. But the numerous lakes and nice hiking terrain make it a worthwhile visit.
The mountain is part of a high, mostly forested ridge crest that rises approximately a mile above the Salmon River. The relatively gentle slopes to the west are mostly densely forested with some open talus. This slope steepens the lower it gets into the bottom of Rattlesnake Creek, which is 2-3,000 feet below. The upper part of Rattlesnake Creek is gentler with meadows and lakes and divides this ridge from Sheep Hill to the west. The east aspects are more precipitous with some deep cirques containing lakes divided by steep lateral spur ridges. The entire ridge system and its associated neighbors runs north and south in the vicinity of the Salmon/Selway divide, which is a bit odd of the general terrain in this part of Idaho where the more major divides generally go east and west with the main canyons of the Clearwater and Salmon basins.
Besides the Centennial Trail and lookout on Sheep Hill to the west, there are lovely subalpine meadows and lakes in the area. Brown Lake is in the cirque directly east of the summit and the two Center Creek Lakes occupy the broad basin between Center Mountain and the unnamed ridge point to the south. Rattlesnake Lake and an unnamed lake are between Center Mountain and Sheep Hill. These meadows and lakes are visited more than might be expected this far from the trailhead, but this is probably due to the Centennial Trail. Most of this traffic just misses Center Mountain, but would share much of the route in. The beauty of the area is diminished somewhat by huge swaths of burned forests that are common general, including the summit. Also the area is sometimes heavily used in the fall by hunters with stock so wear orange if in the area during this season. Like most of remote Idaho there is a fair chance of encountering wolves so it would be best to leave the dogs home.
Center Mountain is listed at 8,260 feet with a prominence of 220 feet by the Lists of John. A broad area just south on the same ridge is listed as 8,280 with 480 feet of prominence. There is very little apparent elevational difference along the ridge between them and the two non-descript summits are indicated by the same number of topographical lines on the map, though the latter has a larger area above the highest line. Also observing the ridge points from Sheep Hill to the west, it appears the latter, unnamed summit is slightly higher. While Center Mountain likely the lesser of the two, it possesses the name and is a better formed summit.
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. Keep right and go approximately 31 miles to trailhead at Dry Saddle . From Grangeville, the total drive will take approximately three hours depending upon traffic and driving conditions.
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 road is very narrow and steep from a little beyond the junction with Road 285, which is about 19 miles in from the pavement, to Poet Creek. If you meet another vehicle, one of you could be backing up a long way.
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 utilized. 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.
The trail system south of Dry Saddle is well maintained and used heavily by stock packers, outfitters and guides. To reach Center Mountain from Dry Saddle requires about 10 miles (one way) of hiking on fairly gentle terrain. The trail is well located on broad ridge tops, often cutting through saddles and contouring across slopes of higher points to minimize vertical gain and loss. A day hike would be a very long and arduous undertaking but it is possible. There are several nice lakes along the way to camp.
The trail is very straight forward for the first five miles, and then it is possible to get turned around at the saddle above Saddle Lake. Just through the saddle an old trail sign for Ring Creek Point is encountered. This appears to be the wrong trail on the maps. If you back up a little and look to the west a trail can be seen heading in that direction. It’s easy to miss before finding the mentioned trail sign. If you follow the trail to the west it continues across the slope before descending a rocky ridge to the saddle on the west side of the ridge point. It’s best to skip this trail to the west and continue on the trail past the Ring Point sign. New construction has taken the main trail beyond this sign and the trail will soon loop down to the right (west) and cross the lower slope below the old trail before meeting it at the before mentioned saddle. This latter way is the better way to go.
From this saddle continue on the trail along the ridge, and then it will drop down through a dense forest to the Lakes Creek Lakes basin. These three lakes are not on the main trail, but can be reached with short spur trails. The trail will climb out of the south end of the basin and come to a junction on the divide. Turn left and follow the trail about two miles to Center Mountain. The westerly slopes of the mountain are very gentle and it’s an easy walk up anywhere. It is also possible to turn east on the signed trail to Brown Lake and follow it to approximately the north ridge of the mountain and then walk the flat ridge area to the summit.
A variation to prevent elevation loss would be to continue south cross country on the main ridge line instead of following the trail down into the Lakes Creek Lakes basin. After about two miles on the ridge the trail is picked up again just north of Center Mountain.
Red TapeThe area is included in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Standard wilderness regulations apply.
There are several primitive camping opportunities in the area. Designated campgrounds are at Poet Creek and Dry Saddle. Neither has much in the way of services other than pit toilets and some places to park and put out some tents. Water at Poet Creek comes from Poet Creek or Bargamin Creek, which join at the campground. There is no water at Dry Saddle which is about nine miles from the mountain. Finally there are several good pullouts for dispersed camping at a number of places along the road between the Selway River and Red River Ranger Station. But bring water because most are dry.
For the backpacker there are numerous lakes to camp near along the eight or nine miles between Dry Saddle and Center Mountain. The Trilby Lakes and Spread Point Lake are within two miles of the trailhead. Saddle Lake is about half way. Closer to the mountain, the three Lake Creek Lakes and the four lakes on Sheep Butte provide good opportunities. Adjacent to Center Mountain itself are the Center Creek Lakes and Brown Lake. Some of these maps are easy to walk to, while others may require a drop through rough terrain or brush to reach so study a topographical map before picking a back country campsite.
When To Climb
Obviously the summer is the best time to reach this summit. The Montana Road is 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 Magruder Road, but it is only groomed about halfway from Red River Ranger Station to Dry Saddle so it’s a very long way from the accessible ends of the road to anywhere. 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 area in the winter.
More Information and Current Conditions
Go to the mountain prepared for variable conditions. These mountains rise nearly a mile above the Clearwater and Salmon River basins in some of the most remote country in the lower 48 states. Weather and temperatures can vary dramatically between the canyon and the mountain. While it’s a relatively safe mountain with easy terrain, any trip this area should involve caution and good planning. It’s a very long day hike to the mountain and the trailhead is hours away from anywhere on a primitive road.
Before traveling the Magruder Road or for more information and current conditions in the 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 Station
Elk City Ranger Station
300 American River Road
Elk City, ID 83525