Latitude & Longitude – 46.60158 N / 114.25399 W
Elevation – 9,587’
Route Types – Scrambles
Class Levels – Class 3 & 4
Length of Time Required to Complete the Routes – One or More Days
At 9,587’, Saint Joseph is the ninth highest of the Bitterroot Mountains. On the eastern end of its east ridge is Point 9033, referred to by locals as, Little St Joe. Reaching the summit of Saint Joseph can be arduous and requires a long day at best. Because it is believed to be very difficult to reach Saint Joseph, most who venture up this mountain are satisfied with reaching Little St Joe. Even though that only requires Class 2 climbing, the route has some very steep sections and is certainly a test of stamina and will power.
The route to the Little St Joe summit covers 2.8 miles and gains 3,062’ of elevation, while the route to St Joseph (beginning at Little St Joe’s summit) covers only 2.3 miles and gains 1,178’ of elevation. Though the route from Little St Joe to St Joseph may require more climbing skill, reaching the summit of Little St Joe from the "standard" trailhead, requires much more effort.
Saint Joseph and Little St Joe provide popular destinations for those interested in backcountry skiing. The broad east face and gentle slopes just below the summit of Little St Joe are probably the most visited. In fact, the Rocky Mountaineers of Missoula, Montana, maintain a ski cabin on the east slope and away from the main trail. (Though not exactly a secret, the exact location of the ski cabin is not well-known outside of the club.) The broad almost flat top of Saint Joseph and the mountain’s huge northeast bowl are also favorite backcountry ski areas, though reaching them requires much more effort than the areas on Little St Joe.
The Plane Wreck
As reported in the Ravalli Republic, “On October 16, 1991, Captain John Sieglinger and co-pilot Robert Shaw died when their Lockheed Orion P-3 tanker plane crashed on Little St. Joseph Peak in the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness. The pair were bringing the tanker from California to help fight the remaining forest fires in the area but encountered bad weather during their approach to the Missoula airport.”
The paper also reported, “I was one of the first guys on the scene and actually found one of the bodies,” Mario Locatelli recalled. “The plane hit about 400 feet from the top of the mountain and wreckage was strewn out all over the place.”
The GPS location for what, to me seemed to be about the middle of the wreck site is 46.20925 N, 114.20925 W, and 8,800' elevation (closer to 200’ below the summit than the 400’ stated by Locatelli), if you ever want to locate it for yourself. A large memorial cairn is being constructed just south of this location out of the readily-available rock plus small pieces of the plane which still litter the area.
To reach the "standard" trailhead for Saint Joseph Peak, from Hwy 93, turn west onto Bass Creek road (about 4 mile south of Florence, MT).
Follow the signs for the Charles Waters Campground which you will reach in about 2.5 miles. Go through (or past) the campground to where the pavement ends at the Bass Creek Trailhead.
Take a hard right (north) uphill onto the gravel road, FR 1136. (At first glance it appears that the road ends at the Bass Creek Trailhead - don't be fooled - keep driving.)
You will be going all the way to the end of FR 1136 after 6.8 miles.
There are several roads that turn off of FR 1136, but all are gated after a short distance.
Take a left at the first fork. The correct route (FR 1136) is well worn compared to the other roads.
There is a wide turnaround at the end of the road with two picnic tables and a fire ring just to the south. There are no signs, facilities, or trail markings.
This picnic area is "officially" known as the Bass Creek Overlook.
The correct trail leads southwest and DOWN from the parking area, just west of the picnic table. Don't be fooled into hiking an incorrect trail that leads UP from this area.
Area Restrictions (Red tape)
The most recent Forest Service Maps show this entire area as having restrictions. Most importantly, the entire area is closed to off-road vehicle use on a yearlong basis to provide for public safety, reduce soil erosion, and/or protect wildlife.
October 15 to May 15 - The upper portion of the access road is closed to all vehicle traffic to provide big game protection. You can still use the road as long as locomotion is provided by your own power and you don't use a wheeled vehicle.
The most-used route to Saint Joseph reaches the Wilderness Boundary when it reaches an elevation around 7,460’. From that point on, you should follow all Wilderness rules and regulations.
CampingThere are no “official” camping areas along of the routes used to reach this summit. However, people do camp along the way and turn their outings into multi-day affairs.
There is only one place along the "standard" approach route (the southeast ridge of Little St Joe) where water is available, and that’s about 1.8 miles from the trailhead. At that spot there is a small stream downhill and to the right (north) of the trail. The area around the stream is grass covered and mostly flat, good for setting up a tent. During July and August there are also plenty of mosquitoes, so keep that in mind.
If you are willing to carry all the water you’ll need, there are some great places to set up camp along the ridge between Little St Joe and Saint Joseph. The views are better and there are far fewer bugs!
The most-used approach to Saint Joseph Peak is up and over Little St Joe (Southeast Ridge) then along the east-west connecting ridge between the two summits. Once the western end of the ridge reaches the cliff-bands on Saint Joseph’s east ridge, there are several ways to reach the broad flat summit area.
Currently there is only one "posted" route which uses the Little Jt Joe approach, the East Ridge Gully, a Class 5 route. I know of several other routes, but to date have not climbed them.
There is also a "posted" route which follows the southeast ridge from Bass Creek, the Bass Creek Trail. This route has plenty of elevation gain, about 5,800'.
Maybe someone who has climbed one of the other routes will post a new route page.
When To Go
The summit of Saint Joseph is visited during every month of the year, though most do so when no snow is on the ground. For the most part, routes to the summit follow ridge-crests and have little susceptibility to avalanche. However, snow climbers will have to deal with cornices. And just because there is little chance of avalanche doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Don’t climb on snow if you don’t know what you’re doing or aren't with someone who does.
Western Montana Avalanche Center Avalanche Advisories (December through March)