This craggy and interesting summit sits high above the western end of the Little Tin Cup Headwaters, at the spot were the north rim of the Chaffin Drainage meets the north rim of the Little Tin Cup Drainage. Every winter wind-blown snow creates a gigantic and deep snowfield on its east face which lasts well into summer. That face and its snowfield are easily visible from many places in the Bitterroot Valley. With a little experience, the size of that snowfield can be used to accurately judge the amount of snow which remains at high elevations in the Bitterroots.
This summit is seldom climbed. At the time of this writing I know of only three people besides myself who have done so. I’d guess a few others have ascended to its summit over the years but, because of the effort required to reach this peak, I’m pretty sure their number is rather small.
Alpine flowers growing on Little Tin Cup Peak
Could it be the high canyon walls which protect the Little Tin Cup Cirque – Chaffin Canyon’s south rim and Tin Cup Canyon’s north rim – have kept it so free from human visitations? Both rims look formidable, but come on, we’re climbers after all. We’re supposed to like climbing.
Or maybe it’s the fact that the Little Tin Cup Cirque has no trail into its upper reaches. The tarn which is the headwaters of Little Tin Cup Creek has no man-made dam, so no trail was ever built.
I think both of those things – lack of trail and protection by high canyon walls – have certainly contributed equally to this area’s lack of visitors. Not on the beaten path, the area of the Little Tin Cup Cirque is “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” of those who pass along the trails in the canyons to the immediate north and south. And from the valley floor where the peaks of the Little Tin Cup are clearly visible to anyone who looks, people’s eyes are drawn to the more recognizable peaks with which most valley residence are familiar.
I know of only two people, other than those I have taken myself, who have visited the Little Tin Cup Cirque and it magnificent surrounding summits. I guess I’ll have this mostly unknown area to myself for years to come. Too bad!
Best access to the headwaters of the Little Tin Cup Headwaters is up this chute (center) from Chaffin Canyon
The Little Tin Cup Headwaters
High above and south of the Chaffin Creek Trail is hidden a small hanging valley. Home to the headwaters of Little Tin Cup Creak this valley has been visited by an extremely small number of people and with good reason. Besides being hidden from view and therefore from notice, it is quite difficult to reach.
The western end of this valley terminates at the base of Little Tin Cup Peak. Bordered on the north by shear cliffs and protected by trackless wilderness to the east, the most practical way to reach this beautiful place is from the Chaffin Creek Trail. Even then, a southern approach is problematic because of the many cliffs and gendarmes which lie between the trail and the hanging valley.
Fortunately there is one rather wide talus-filled gully which gives comparatively easy access, at least when judged against the other possibilities for admittance. It is the strenuous climb up this gully which allows access to two interesting yet easy-to-climb mountains – Little Tin Cup Point and Little Tin Cup Peak – both of which offer some of the most spectacular views one could hope for.
Covered with a mix of grasses and different types of heather growing under an open forest of Whitebark Pine and Alpine Larch, there may be no more wonderful place to camp anywhere in the Bitterroots. Small streams of melt-water, a small high-mountain tarn, and uncountable numbers of wildflowers only add to the beauty.
Because of its high elevation and orientation, this hanging valley holds snow well into the climbing season, often past the last days of July. That, plus the existence of a more-than-adequate number of mosquitoes certainly shorten the period of time when camping here can realistically be enjoyed.
And there is one other thing. The number of people willing and able to climb to this hanging valley carrying a backpack full of camping equipment can probably be counted on one hand. But if you’re one of those people, what a wonderful place to establish a base-camp during late summer or early fall (after mosquito season) for a multi-day climbing adventure.
The new parking area at the Chaffin Creek Trialhead
Chaffin Creek Trailhead provides access to several highpoint over 9,000’ of elevation, one of which is Little Tin Cup Point.
Drive south on Hwy 93 from Darby, MT for about 4.5 miles. Turn right (south) onto the West Fork Road (473). Go only about 100 yards, then turn right (southwest) onto Tin Cup-Chaffin Road (no sign).
Continue for about 2.8 miles to an unmarked junction and stay to the right (continuing westward). Drive for a little over a mile to the trailhead which is located at a right-turning switchback. The trailhead will be on your left (west).
There used to be only limited parking space, but during the summer of 2008 the Forest Service added a new parking area for several more vehicles.
There are no restroom facilities.
Area Restrictions (Red tape)
A little over 2.5 miles from the trailhead the Chaffin Creek Trail passes into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. All wilderness rules and regulations apply.
The only good place to camp anywhere along this route is in the hanging valley which is the headwaters of Little Tin Cup Creek. Getting there is hard enough without carrying camping gear. Still if you’re going to make this a multi-day outing, that’s the place to camp. Just be sure you’re up to the ascent of the access gully with extra weight on your back.
East Ridge Route
Only Class 2+ climbing is required to reach the summit of Little Tin Cup Peak; however because of the climb to the Little Tin Cup Headwaters for access, the effort required is immense.
It’s worth every bit of effort expended because, not only is the climb interesting but views from the summit are unbeatable.
Approach - Chaffin Creek Trailhead to the base of the Access Gully
From the Chaffin Creek Trailhead, head west through some stately Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir along a well used trail. The generally well-maintained trail stays just north of Chaffin Creek as it makes its way westward along the bottom of the drainage. When compared to the rapid elevation gain of most trails into the Bitterroot Mountains, this trail seems particularly gentle as it gains just over 1,800’ of elevation over the first 4+ miles.
Trailhead to Summit
Route Type – Scramble Effort Required – Very Strenuous Class Level – Class 2+ Summit Elevation – 9,617’ Elevation Gain – 5,024’ (round trip Distance – 12 Miles (round trip)
At about 4.3 miles you will have finished a series of switchbacks up the north side of the drainage and reached an elevation of approximately 6,750’. You will be on a grass-covered moraine just south of and below the largest (and widest) gully up the north side of the canyon (45.95584 N / 114.30217 W). This is the place where you leave the trail to reach the Little Tin Cup Cirque.
Climbers’ Route – Base of Access Gully to Summit
Leave the maintained trail and head north up the grass-covered moraine toward the base of the obvious gully. This gully can be attacked directly, that is right up the throat, this description is for a better way which requires less climbing skill.
Note: If you climb directly up the gully, either because you want to or because you miss the route that follows, you can still make it to the top. But rather than Class 2+ climbing you’re going to be well into the Class 3 range and expend way more energy than would otherwise be required.
Begin climbing the gully by staying either in the stream-cut through the slab-granite or just to its right (east). I found the easiest path took me both in and out of the cut near the beginning of the climb.
As you climb, keep an eye out for a not-quite-vertical chimney on the right (east) side of the deepest cut. Finding that chimney is the crux of this route.
When you reach the chimney, climb its easy slope upwards to its top at the base of a couple of large Ponderosa Pines growing on a ledge.
Exit the chimney onto the ledge and follow it to the east. When the ledge ends, climb the easy slope up to reach another ledge.
Route to the Access Chute for Little Tin Cup
Follow the second ledge back toward the west until you reach an easy way upwards and to the northeast. Climb up through the sparse trees until you reach the edge of a small field of talus and boulders below a large granite face.
Change your direction of travel to the northwest and cross the talus field heading for the base of the granite face. When you reach the face keep your track heading northwest and hike through a thick section of trees and brush.
Keep heading northwest, avoiding trees and brush where necessary.
There is a small stream (seldom dry) flowing down the gully. Look for a place of your liking to cross the stream and, keeping your direction of travel in a northwesterly direction, cross the stream.
Once over the stream, gradually change your direction from northwest to north as the terrain dictates. You will need to negotiate several small groves of trees and areas of brush as you climb. Just take your time and look for the easiest path.
Plant growth eventually gives way to boulders and talus
Eventually plant growth tapers off and the terrain changes to talus and boulders. The incline over the rock is not consistent, so it makes sense to look for the easiest path as you climb. You’re likely to find your path meandering as you gain elevation.
The large field of rock transitions to vegetation at an elevation near 8,450’. As you near the mixture of trees and grass, look for the saddle (low spot) on the ridge and head directly toward it.
Elevation at the saddle is about 8,540’ and is the spot where you cross the ridge into the Little Tin Cup Drainage.
Looking left (west) from the saddle one sees an obvious highpoint which appears to be the summit of Little Tin Cup Peak. It is not.
From the saddle head northwest toward the bottom of a shallow gully on the east face of Little Tin Cup Peak. Most of the year there is a small stream of melt-water surrounded by a profusion of flowering plants flowing down the gully.
Note: By beginning the climb from the gully, the angle-of-incline is less than it would be if one were to climb directly over the obvious highpoint on the ridge. Additionally, several cliff-bands are avoided and climbing is technically easier.
Begin climbing up the gully, staying fairly close to its left (southern) edge. Gradually turn your direction of travel from northwest to west and then southwest as you circumnavigate around the highpoint and up the gully toward a saddle on the ridge just west of the highpoint.
There are several grassy ledges near the bottom of the gully which may be used to bypass small cliff-bands as you climb. As you gain elevation the terrain includes more talus and boulders, all of which can be negotiated quite easily.
Note: It’s possible to climb almost directly east from the base of the gully to the summit; however doing so will include ascending at a much steeper incline than is required if one first attains the ridge just west of the highpoint on the ridge.
Once on the ridge, simply follow the ridge-crest as it meanders westward to the summit. When you reach the summit block, you may be astonished by its cragginess and how quickly the west face drops from the multiple summit blocks.
Descend by reversing this route or continuing east along the connecting ridge to Little Tin Cup Point.
Connecting Ridge Between Little Tin Cup Peak and Little Tin Cup Point
For extra credit, climb both Little Tin Cup Peak and Little Tin Cup Point during one outing using the connecting ridge. Little description is required for negotiate this ridge. It’s a straightforward climb which is mostly Class 2 but does include Class 3 moves at a few of the more difficult spots.
Staying south of the ridge-crest during most of the trek keeps this route from straying into the range of technical climbing. As a rule, when the ridge is populated with gendarmes, drop away from the crest only as far as is required to bypass the trouble, before moving back closer to the ridge-crest.
When I followed this ridge from Little Tin Cup Point to Little Tin Cup Peak (east to west), I was only on the actual ridge-crest one time and, that was near its low-point just over mid-way. Otherwise, I was moving up and down along the south side close to the crest on rock ledges, boulders, and talus in order to avoid obstacles.
Trailhead to Summit
Route Type – Scramble Effort Required – Moderate Class Level – Class 3 Highest Elevation – 9,617’ Elevation Gain – 730’ (east to west), 325’ (west to east) Distance – 1.1 Miles (one way)
Note: You can just as easily follow this ridge from west to east. The only additional problem is recognizing the summit of Little Tin Cup Point when you traverse just below it. No problem. If you pass it, you'll quickly run out of real estate (the east end of the ridge descends steeply) and recognize your mistake. A little back tracking is all it will take to reach the actual summit.
Little Tin Cup Peak (left)and Little Tin Cup Point (right)are connected by a long craggy ridge
When To Go
Because the chute used to reach the Little Tin Cup Headwaters is susceptible to avalanche, you pretty much have to wait at least until all the snow has melted from the chute. Most years that is by the end of June.
But, the best time to visit this summit is from mid-July to mid-September. Given the preponderance of mosquitoes, waiting until they’re beginning to diminish – usually mid August – is the best.
Unless you’re planning to camp in the Little Tin Cup Cirque, only hiking gear is required to reach this summit. Water is available in the cirque all year, so if you carry a water filter, you can lessen your load for the climb up the chute.
Summit – 9,617’
Gain – 5,024’ (rt – south face)
Distance – 12 Miles (rt – south face)
Little Tin Cup Peak's False Summit
Sky Pilot growing on the Connecting Ridge
The Trapper Peak Massif
Looking south from the Connecting Ridge
"No, no, no. I don't chill. Things have gone nuclear."
--Saul Goodman (Breaking Bad)