Elk Mountain is the highest mountain of several clusters of granite peaks found inside the curve made by the Selway River as it flows north, then west. In fact it is the highest of the Clearwater Mountains between the main Bitterroots near Montana on the east and the Gospels on the west and between the Selway Crags on the north and the divide between Bargamine Creek and Running Creek on the south, which is the divide between the expansive Clearwater and Salmon basins. From its summit in the center of this approximately 1,300 square mile area (nearly one million acres) tremendous views are dominated by the numerous peaks of the Idaho Batholith and the high Bitterroots along the Idaho Montana border to the east. Smaller, but apparently endless mountains extend to the south and west. The closer views are marred somewhat by the extensive fires of recent years that have left a landscape covered by a spindly blackened and bleached skeletal forest. Along with the ridge to the west, Elk 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. Debris on the summit indicates some sort of lookout or station was here, though this does not seem to be recorded on such lists. The 7,826 foot mountain has a respectable 2,166 feet of prominence.
The mountain is not only the highest in the area, but by far the most massive. The summit area maintains substantial bulk into the highest elevations and the north and south ridges extend over a three mile long area with substantial high points. A spur ridge south of Running Lake is capped by spectacular rocks and spires. Running Lake occupies a huge glacial cirque on the east side of the mountain that is the source of Running Creek, which flows into the Selway River after dropping 5,000 feet in a few miles. To the west the summit drops over 4,000 feet into Meadow Creek via the slopes of the Schwar and Spook creek drainages. There are three large cirques on the east side of the mountain. Besides the one holding Running Lake the rugged basin separated from that lake and the main south ridge of the mountain holds two small lakes in a subalpine setting and the northern basin is below the 500 foot cliffs of the main north ridge point. 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.
Running Lake is the largest mountain lake in the area and sits 1,500 feet below the summit in a huge cirque. The ridges enclosing this lake are steep and cliffy with some high granite spires. The lake is heavily used despite the difficult hike to reach it. The lake was stocked with tiger musky in an attempt to eradicate the huge population of stunted brook trout. The predator then would freeze or die of starvation leaving the lake open for the planting of native trout. How this turned out is not certain. There are at least three other small lakes or ponds on the flanks of the mountain. The western slopes have also been influenced by alpine glaciation, but to a lesser extent. The cirques are less defined and the often forested slopes are more gentle, but still steep in many areas.
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 a short mile hike on a well used trail to Elk Mountain from the trailhead. The trail climbs gradually to the small saddle above Running Lake at the south end of the summit ridge. From this saddle it is a very short, but steep hike up the south ridge line to the summit. It may be best to move slightly to the west, where the slope is still very steep, but may be more negotiable for a hiker. If someone is very adverse to steep slopes, they can continue northwest and west for less than a half mile to where the trail crosses the broad, flat west ridge of the mountain, then follow that to the east for a fairly gradual walk to the summit.
None. The area is not within the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, but is very close. Much of the area off the road is formally designated as roadless, which prohibits some uses. If this may possibly affect you call the local Forest Service offices 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 mountain 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.
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 it’s a long way to Elk Mountain vicinity 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 Elk Mountain in the winter.
More Information and Current Conditions
Go to the mountain prepared for variable conditions. Elk Mountain is easily accessible, yet its still part of a large primitive area with the boundary of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness about two miles away. While the mountain is easily accessible, any trip in this area that strays from this road should involve caution and good planning.
Before traveling the 468 or 285 roads or for more information and current conditions in the Elk 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