John Day Mountain is part of a small mountain group between the Salmon River Canyon and the high mountains of the Gospel Hump Wilderness to the east. The area is really a long ridge system dividing the Salmon from its large tributaries of Allison Creek and Slate Creek with only a few mountains with enough prominence to be considered mountains. Everything else is just a point on a long, broad ridge. The area is interesting however; due to its extreme abrupt lift from the bottom of the Salmon Canyon. The greatest elevation change is over 6,300 feet with almost the entire area being well over a mile above the canyon bottom. John Day Mountain is a bit lower than the highest points, but has some unique features setting it apart. Being a western extending spur toward the Salmon River, its steeper than any of the other points rising nearly 6,000 feet in about three and a half miles. While the mountain ties into the main mountainous mass to the east by relatively level ridges and gentle terrain, the steep north and south slopes are composed of quite rugged country. However, the mountain’s highlight is the western basin of Sheep Gulch that is formed of giant cliffs and spectacular spires of vertical white limestone making a landscape as rugged and treacherous as anywhere. The 7,424 foot mountain has 524 feet of prominence.
The high vertical lift gives the this mountain and its neighbors highly varied ecological gradation ranging from hot canyon grasslands, through open pine savannahs to moist mixed conifer forests followed by cool lodgepole pine forest before the high parklands of subalpine fir and whitebark pine. Much of the south aspect supports sagebrush openings that are unusual at this latitude in Idaho. The relatively moist north aspects contain dense stands of old growth fir and spruce. An interesting vegetative component is the presence of a species of Indian paintbrush that is typically in the southwest U.S. and reaches its northern distributional limit with a range disjunction in this part of the Salmon Canyon. The western limestone cliffs are a good place to see it. Associated with the mid-slope limestone formations are dense forests of Mountain mahogany that provide good habitat and cover for good populations of mule deer and elk.
Geologically the mountain is complex having basalt, limestone, quartz and granite components. Much of the area is formed by a granite batholith that cooked some of the base layers into various forms of quartz and schist. These metamorphosed rocks are particularly interesting on the summit vicinity. The limestone is left over from the ancient Pacific shoreline that was rammed into the North American plate when the Wallowa Terrane pushed in from the west. Covering much of the lower to mid-elevations is more recent basalt from the Grand Ronde lava flows that flooded much of the inland northwest approximately 18 million years ago.
John Day Mountain is one of the most visible and defined mountains of this small group due to its extension into the canyon and placement off the main ridge system. It is relatively easy to reach from the east, but still is remote compared to most of the other high points. Its an area of big terrain and not a place to go exploring without a map, but if one stays on the known routes it gives the best isolation and mountain experience in this area. The views ranging from the hot Salmon Canyon below up to the jagged peaks of the Seven Devils provide a huge contrast in landforms and vegetation across 7,800 vertical feet. The mountains in this area are not terribly high so they often go unnoticed, however; their low bases provide tremendous overall relief.
441 Road from Slate Creek Ranger Station
Approximately 15 miles north of Riggins, Idaho on Highway 95 take the Slate Creek Road east. This road is found on the north end of the developed area that includes the Slate Creek Ranger Station and a couple dozen private homes at the mouth of Slate Creek. Follow the road for 0.3 miles where the actual State Creek Road merges to the left. Stay on the pavement to the right and continue for about another 0.3 mile to the Nut Basin Road (Forest Service road 441). Turn east on the Nut Basin Road and climb out of the canyon. Continue for approximately 17 miles on the Nut Basin Road to the trailhead for the trails to Southwest Butte and John Day Mountain. This is on a broad curve where there is room to park two or three vehicles. Look for this wide curve about 0.1 miles beyond the turnoff to the Nut Basin highpoint.
Once at the trailhead begin hiking south on the broad ridge line. This is an area of easy walking through subalpine forests and interesting rocks. The trail then continues along the gentle higher elevations with little elevation change before coming around to a south aspect and dropping down to a flat meadow area at the north end of a large basin. A short distance below the ridge a trail junction is reached. To the south the trail continues on to Southwest Butte. Take the trial to the west to continue on to John Day Mountain. This trail is faint and a large fire on parts of it has made it difficult to follow in places. Where it is on the north side of the ridge at places spared by the fire it is easy to follow. If the trail is lost periodically just stay on the ridge line and follow it west towards John Day Mountain. Before it is reached a good trail will appear eventually. From the Southwest Butte trail junction it’s about two and a half miles to the summit base or about four miles from the trailhead.
The trail comes into a small saddle at the east base of the summit mass. From here it is a steep but short hike straight up for just over 500 vertical feet to the summit. A slightly longer, but gentler option is to continue on the trail around to the main southeast ridge and walk it up to the top. This will add about a half mile but there is less slope or brush to cope with.
221 Road Via Allison Creek
Another route into the area from Riggins goes east on the Salmon River Road for 9.5 miles to the mouth of Allison Creek. Turn left on the Allison Creek Road (Forest Service road 221) and follow it for about 16.3 miles to the Nut Basin summit road. There are a couple intersections to be aware of. About three miles after the road leaves the bottom of Allison Creek, turn left on the 535 road. After nearly four miles merge left (continue straight) on the 441 road and continue to the trailhead. Traveling in this direction, the Nut Basin summit turnoff will be about 0.1 mile beyond the Southwest Butte/John Day Mountain trailhead. Once at the trailhead follow the directions given above.
There may be another option to the mountain via the Allison Creek road. About three miles up Allison Creek a road to the west provides access to an extensive road system that eventually terminates high on the southwest flank of the mountain. The visitor map shows a short (less than two miles) trail segment from this road to John Day Mountain. This road appears to be open seasonally, but may involve a much longer drive than other options and the status of this trail is unknown, thus further information is not given here.
Another option is from Highway 95 near Lucile. Lucile is a tiny town on the Salmon River about eight miles north of Riggins. From Lucile continue north on 95 for just over a mile to some State Highway sheds on the west side of the road. Look for a small dirt road going to the east opposite the sheds. This small twisty road climbs the bench above the bottom of the canyon and passes through private land and some new houses and before beginning to climb up the steep mountain side. After approximately three and a half miles the road leaves private ground passing through State of Idaho, BLM and finally Forest Service lands.
There are several places to park and leave this road to hike the mountain, depending on how hard and far one wants to go on foot. One spot is at a ridge top hairpin in the road that is about six and a half miles up from the highway. There is a parking spot here and a hike to the summit along the main ridge will require a rise of approximately 3,000 feet through mahogany brushlands on an interesting limestone substrate. About a mile further the road comes near the ridge with a curve on gentle terrain. Jumping on the ridge here will cut about 400 vertical feet off the climb. About eight miles up the road a draw is crossed that will also provide a route up to the main ridge and cut another few hundred feet off the climb.
The road goes on for a few more miles and provides additional access to the ridge, but the routes are not as clear and there is more brush to negotiate. A topographical map and air photo printed off from google earth or other source is helpful. U.S.G.S. quad maps do not show this road. The Nez Perce National Forest visitor map shows a short trail segment connecting from near the end of this road to the summit, but its not certain if this really exists (someone look for it and report back).
Red TapeBasically none, however be aware that the lower elevations on the west slope are private land. Travel through the area is permitted, but stay on the road.
Camping in the area of the mountain is very limited with nothing being high on the mountain itself. A couple miles east of the trailhead, the only mountain lake in the area, Nut Basin Lake is a short hike from the 441 road. There are a few campsites here, but not many. Much of the perimeter is swampy, but the north side is a bit dryer. The lake is occasionally stocked with trout, but the mosquitoes are horrendous much of the year. A few miles further east on the main road the meadows at the bottom of upper Slate Creek provide some good road side dispersed camping. Dispersed camping can be found at a few areas on the road up the northwest side of the mountain from the Lucile vicinity.
Other than these options one must go to the bottom of Allison Creek, where there are several nice dispersed sites on a nice stream in cool shady fir groves or on down to the main Salmon River itself. Spring Bar campground is about one mile upstream from the mouth of Allison Creek. This larger campground has 17 units, water and many amenities, but there is a small fee. There are many other areas both upstream and downstream of Riggins where a person may camp, but many designated recreation areas are day use only and the public BLM land that generally allows dispersed camping along the river is intermixed with private land so be sure of the ownership before settling in. The best of such camping is probably up river from Spring Bar where nice beach camping in the shade of tall pines can be found. However none of these options are very close to John Day Mountain.
Another Forest Service campground is found at the confluence of Slate Creek and the North Fork of Slate Creek several miles up the Slate Creek road from the Slate Creek Ranger Station. This is also getting a bit out of the way for the area, however. There is a vault toilet and three designated sites to throw a tent in this small undeveloped campground. There is no fee to camp here. If desired, there are several motels in both Riggins and Grangeville ranging from cheap to fairly expensive.
When to Climb
This mountain is best climbed in the summer and fall after snow has left the slopes. Other than a couple small seasonal springs in the saddle east of the summit, there is no water on other than snowmelt that generally doesn’t last much past mid-summer on most years. It may be possible to reach the mountain in the winter by taking a snowmobile to the trailhead and snowshoeing in or snowshoeing up from the lower west side, but getting all the way to the mountain would be difficult. Be certain to check with the Slate Creek Ranger Station to be sure of open snowmobile routes and current conditions. The lower western elevations are often snow free in the winter. In the fall the area is hunted heavily so wear orange and be aware of hunters parked at the trailhead or working from the roads on the lower northwest portion of the mountain. Going with a partner during this season is also a good idea.
Mountain Conditions and Additional Information
While this is a relatively safe mountain with easy terrain, be sure to go to the mountain prepared for variable conditions. Weather and temperatures can vary dramatically between the canyons and the mountain. The arid lowlands will routinely be well above 100 degrees in the summer, while temperatures can be dramatically different near the summit. Also the mountains in the area typically see nice clear skies early followed by sometimes severe thunderstorms in the afternoons.
For more information and current conditions contact the Nez Perce National Forest or the Slate Creek Ranger Station.
Nez Perce National Forest
104 Airport Road
Grangeville, ID 83530
Salmon River Ranger District
Slate Creek Ranger Station
HC 01, Box 70
Whitebird, ID 83554