Southwest Butte is the highpoint of a small group of mountains between the Salmon River Canyon and the high mountains of the Gospel Hump Wilderness to the east. It is the highpoint across the approximately 40 miles between the Gospels and the Seven Devils. 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. Most other featurea are just pointa on a long, broad ridge.
However; the area is interesting due to the 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. To the east, the summit pyramid rises 1,400 feet over the headwaters of the West Fork of Allison Creek and over 6,000 feet above the confluence of that stream and the main form of Allison Creek, approximately four miles away. The long ridge running southwest of the mountain forms the divide between the main Salmon Canyon upstream from Riggins and what is considered the lower Salmon downstream from the confluence of the Little Salmon River. The 7,814 foot Southwest Butte has an impressive 2,354 feet of prominence.
The high vertical lift gives the Southwest Butte and its neighbors 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. High elevation sage brush areas are also present with beautiful early season wildflowers. Such communities high in the mountains are unusual for the north portion of Idaho. There are also some high, cool basins dominated by subalpine fir and spruce as well.
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. 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. An interesting note is an Idaho endemic plant that is limited to highly decomposed granitic soils can be found on Southwest Butte, well separated from its more typical range further east.
A large forest fire in 2003 left the top of the Southwest Butte and much of the land to the north and east charred and barren. Despite this, it’s still a nice destination that is easily accessible. The views ranging from the hot Salmon Canyon below up to the jagged peaks of the Seven Devils provides a huge contrast in landforms and vegetation across 7,800 vertical feet. Also the view to the east up the main Salmon Canyon and the south up the Little Salmon Canyon provides a rare intermingling view of huge holes in the ground divided up by high peaks. Patrick Butte to the south rises 7,000 feet from the Salmon. The mountains in this area are not terribly high so they often go unnoticed, however; their bases are much lower than most places in the west to provide tremendous overall relief. Southwest Butte is uniquely situated to take in much of this fabulous country.
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 Southwest Butte trailhead. This is on a broad curve where there is room to park two or three vehicles.
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 16.2 miles to the trailhead. 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 Southwest Butte trailhead. This will be about 0.1 mile before the turnoff to the Nut Basin highpoint.
The trail is only a little over two miles into Southwest Butte. Some older maps show the trailhead to the east of the ridge top curve in the road, but this is not currently the case. Much of the trail is on a very old road bed and the beginning has been obliterated. Now the trail is right on the ridge top curve and follows the broad ridge line for a short distance before meeting the older trail surface after approximately a quarter mile. 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 on the northeast flank of the mountain.
In the vicinity of the northeast basin a trail goes to the west, but ignore it and go south through this the basin. There are some small openings in a spruce/fir/lodgepole pine forest before the trail climbs up to the strange lunar northeast ridge of the mountain. The ground here is formed by coarse, powdery granite soil with very little vegetation. The trail then turns to the southwest and continues to climb over the main southwest ridge of the mountain. Once on top of this flank, leave the trail and hike cross-country up the summit ridge to the top. This is only about a 200 foot climb on moderately steep ground. Return can be by the same route or continue on the main north ridge from the summit and encircle the northeast basin, dropping back down to the trail at its north end. Then follow the trail back to the trailhead.
Red TapeCurrently none. The Nez Perce National Forest is currently undergoing travel planning and it is possible that the motorized status of this trail could change in the future. At this time motorized use is allowed.
Camping in the area of the mountain is quite limited. There is a small meadow and some flat ground in the basin to the northeast that is situated about halfway between the summit and the trailhead. Also much of the north end of the trail is on broad ridge tops that could serve as campsites, however; these would be dry. Nut Basin Lake is a short hike from the road less than two miles east of the Southwest Butte trailhead. There are a few campsites here, but not many. The lake is occasionally stocked with trout, but the mosquitoes are horrendous much of the year. A few miles further east on the road the meadows at the bottom of upper Slate Creek provide some good road side dispersed camping.
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 a 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.
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 getting a bit out of the way for Southwest Butte, 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. There is very little water on the mountain other than snowmelt and a small seasonal stream in the northeast basin. It may be possible to reach the mountain in the winter by taking a snowmobile to the trailhead and snowshoeing in. Be certain to check with the Slate Creek Ranger Station to be sure of open snowmobile routes and current conditions. The northeast aspect of the mountain could potentially have avalanches. In the fall the area is hunted heavily so wear orange and be aware of hunters parked at the trailhead. 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 and access, 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