At 7,139 feet, Pot Mountain is the highest point in the Clearwater Mountains in the North Fork basin. It forms a finger ridge that extends north from the main Pot Mountain Ridge, a 27 mile long divide that extends from the south point of the U in the North Fork Clearwater River northeast to the Five Lakes Butte region. It’s rises more than a mile above the lush rainforests at the mouth of Rock Creek, which enters the North Fork at the northwest foot of the mountain. While the mountain is easily accessible by trail connecting to a well-traveled road, there is very low traffic on the mountain. The slightly less than three mile hike climbs 2,500 feet from the trailhead. The mountain also has an respectable prominence of 1,879 feet.
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 the lower elevations. Only from the road over Mush Saddle, which accesses the trailhead is much of the mountain visible. The summit is forms a lenticular spur ridge separating the headwater of Lightning Creek and Rock Creek. Lightning Creek sits nearly 3,000 feet below in a deeply incised canyon to the west, while Rock Creek is situated in a more gentle hanging basin that wraps around the east and north side. The east and northeast aspects are formed of several subalpine cirques; three of which support named lakes, Mush, Jake and Pot. Three others have small seasonal ponds that are part of wetland meadows. The west side of the mountain supports more developed forest and occupies a generally straight slope, while the east side is very rocky, being made up of many outcrops and cliffs, which along with the cirques and other features reveal a past of alpine glaciation.
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.
Avoid taking off cross country from the trails, especially to the west. 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.
Whether coming from the north or south, take Highway 12 to the junction with Highway 11, which crosses the Clearwater River to the right at Greer. Greer is about 15 minutes south of Orofino and about 25 minutes north of Kamiah. 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. Just before entering Pierce, take a right on the 250 road. The signs will direct you toward Superior, Montana. Continue for about 45 minutes until this road meet the North Fork Clearwater River. This road is paved over French Saddle and about half way down the Orogrande Creek basin on the north side where it becomes gravel. Generally it’s a good road, but at times can form some pretty bad washboards. Turn right at the river and continue along the road for a little more than half an hour to the Cold Springs road, 711. If you find yourself coming into Kelly Fork Ranger Station, turn around and back track about two miles. Follow 711 west to Mush Saddle, then continue almost one and a half miles to a wide spot in the road, where the road makes an abrupt turn to the right. The road accessing the trailhead cuts back sharply to the left from this wide spot and may be missed if one is not paying attention. On this narrow access road just stay on the main trail for about a mile until it ends at a large washout at Rock Creek. Room to park a couple vehicles is found just up from the terminus. This access road is narrow and rough and not suitable for vehicles that lack decent clearance. People driving such may want to consider parking back at the 711 and adding a mile to their hike.
Once on the trail (144), continue along the road beyond the washout. Stay on the main road for about a one and a half miles through partially logged, shrubby land until the road turns into a trail and ascends through virgin forest of lichen draped mountain hemlock. Follow the switchbacks up the mountain for a little less than two miles onto the long summit ridge. On top the trail will become intermittent and obscured by snow much of the summer; however, it is easy to leave the trail for the ridgeline to see where one is. There are four ridge points, with the northernmost being the highest. It is likely one would have to back track a little to the north as a feeling of being on the ridge isn’t achieved until a bit south of it.
The trail gets less use than one would expect and is not always easy to follow along the summit. However, extensive work is currently planned for this trail over its entire length so hopefully this will be improved.
It is also possible to hike trail 124 south from Mush Saddle for a short distance and then bear right on the divide and fight heavy brush on a cross country route to the south end of the summit ridge. From there trail 144, the access road and road 711 could provide a loop back to Mush Saddle. Extended hikes along the main Pot Mountain Ridge to the south may reach Buckingham Point, Buckingham Lake, Chateau Point and eventually descend to the North Fork Clearwater River for those wanting a through hike.
Camping on the mountain is very limited. The lakes are not very accessible and only reached by some difficult cross country hiking. There is a good dispersed campground at Mush Saddle, but this is often occupied, especially in the fall. The rough access road between the trailhead and road 711 has some small meadows and pullouts that might serve as suitable dispersed campsites. Other camping options are found at designated and dispersed sites all along the North Fork Clearwater River. Noe Creek and Kelly Forks campgrounds are with a few miles of the 711 road on the river. At the south end of the 711 road there is a large dispersed site that was once a seasonal ranger station that can accommodate many campers. The ponds here often are visited by moose.
When To ClimbThe upper elevations get lots of snow and hiking to the summit before mid-July may be difficult some years. Heavy snow years may see snow well into late summer or even fall. 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 if one is able to get into the low elevations along the North Fork Clearwater. Of course this is depending on road conditions into the North Fork over Beaver Saddle or French Mountain, which are not always open.
Mountain Conditions and Information
Go to the mountain prepared for variable conditions. With over a mile of vertical lift, mountain temperatures and weather can vary dramatically.
Contact the North Fork Ranger District of the Clearwater National Forest for potential alerts and notices.
North Fork Ranger District
12730B Highway 12
Orofino, ID 83544
Canyon Work Center (summer only)