Buffalo Hump is the highest point in the Gospel Hump Wilderness of the Nez Perce National Forest
. It is situated on the Clearwater/Salmon divide and with the exception of a few points in the vicinity of the Bitterroots, is the highest point between the Salmon River axis and the Canadian border. It also has 3,415 feet of prominence, which places it 17th on Idaho's list. Its summit is a fairly easy walk up from most directions, but technical climbing can be had on the west face from Mirror or the Wiseboy Lakes. The view from the top is spectacular with four states being visible; the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, Bitterroots of Montana and the Blue Mountains and prairies of southeast Washington. The Gospel Hump Wilderness is approximately 206,053 acres and forms part of a 4.3 million acre wilderness block with the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. It is the site of many subalpine glacial lakes, many of which support good trout fishing.
The mountain is situated just inside the wilderness boundary, west of an area of extensive private mining claims. This allows motorized access to get very close to the mountain. However, the road is not well maintained and travel is extremely difficult as described below. In fact getting to this mountain is generally more difficult than climbing the popular routes.
The area has a rich mining history. It’s hard to imagine as one looks out over the high subalpine plateau southeast of the mountain that at one time this empty, primitive area supported two mining towns, Humptown and Frogtown. These short-lived, lawless communities provided the needs for thousands of miners from the late 1800s into the early decades of the 1900s. At their height of activity there were several saloons, brothels, motels and thousands of grazing livestock to provide food. Today, very little from these towns is noticeable.
From Highway 95, turn east into Grangeville and continue on main street (Highway 13) for a long mile to the east edge of town. Town ends abruptly at the old Forest Service office on the northeast corner of the intersection of Highway 13 and the Mt. Idaho Grade road. From this intersection go south (right from downtown) on the Mt. Idaho Grade road. After driving approximately 0.7 miles take the curve to the left at the drive-inn theater. Continue on through the cluster of houses known as Mt. Idaho and soon the road will descend into the deep canyon of the South Fork of the Clearwater River. The road hits the canyon bottom and Highway 14 joins from the left, 9 miles after the theater curve. Proceed straight or up river. This road is very narrow and curvy, especially the first several miles. Logging trucks and RVs are common so stay on your side of the road and hope they do the same.
The South Fork Clearwater is a small, but beautiful river. The steep grade over endless boulders yields class III, IV, and V whitewater in the spring. About 10-15 miles upstream the canyon tightens into a spectacular gorge with miles of technical climbing that is seldom utilized. Low elevation mountain goats are not an uncommon site here. All is especially beautiful in the fall when the larch and broadleaf trees lining the rocky stream turn gold. The river also supports good runs of steelhead and Chinook salmon, which can be seen jumping some of the small waterfalls during the appropriate season.
After driving up river for approximately 35 miles turn right on the Crooked River road #233. This turn is across a cement bridge about 100 yards before mile marker 43. Proceed up this road for approximately 18 miles to Orogrande Summit. Past the small cluster of seasonal cabins of the Orogrande townsite (approximately 11 miles in) the road becomes fairly rough, but will be passable for most vehicles. From Orogrande Summit on however, your options depend on your vehicle, your driving skill and your nerve.
From Orogrande Summit you can park and walk the road to Hump Lake, but this is approximately 5.5 miles on the road. Or you can turn right for a 2.5 mile drive to Wild Horse campground on Wild Horse Lake. From here there is a good 6 mile hike on trail 299 over the North Pole and past Crystal Lake to Hump Lake. This is a long day hike from camp or a short over night backpack trip. If you choose to continue to driving south on the 233 road beyond Orogrande Summit, proceed cautiously and hope no other vehicles come from the other direction. If you have high clearance you shouldn’t have too much trouble for a while. After about 2 miles you come to Lake Creek. Again you can park here and walk the road (boulder) bed to Hump Lake, which is now about 3.5 miles further. If you have a good 4wd, and want to continue on the road, put it in 4-low and patiently creep on. The road beyond Lake Creek soon becomes nothing but a boulder bed that seasonally runs with water (remember the pick-up commercial a few years ago with the truck bouncing over the boulders? That’s what you are doing, but hopefully you’re going slower). Just before the road starts the climb out of the canyon, there is parking for 2 or 3 vehicles around the Crackerjack Mine road junction. This is as far as I would go. To walk from here is about 1.5 miles to Hump Lake.
Beyond the Crackerjack Mine junction, the road (or path) that climbs up the headwall, offers great views of the glacial valley and surrounding mountains. The steep rocks are broken up by several small meadows that are wonderful wildflower gardens in July and much of August. The road up the headwall is very steep rock with large fixed boulders, wide cracks and some 1-2 foot vertical steps. Some try to drive it with 4-wheelers. A man told me he once put his pickup in low gear and then walked beside it with a hand through the open door to hold the steering wheel. But the road had deteriorated since then and he won’t even try that anymore. But when you finally arrive at Hump Lake, amazingly there are always a few vehicle parked nearby that made the entire drive. Not for me. Vehicles cost too much for such brutality and I have enough gray hairs already.
Once at Hump Lake, the hard part is over. You’re finally ready to head to the mountain itself. One route is to walk west for about half a mile on the trail leading away from the south end of Hump Lake to the south end of the summit ridge (this trail is present on most maps, but not numbered). From here it’s an easy walk along the length north to the top. Others prefer to head about half a mile northwest from the south end of Hump Lake to the base below the middle of the summit ridge. The path cuts straight up the slope in an area that supports a few stunted trees on loose granitic soils and rocks and reaches the ridge line just to the south of the final rise to the summit. Most trails in the area do not go far beyond Hump Lake so you will probably be going cross country. This interesting and beautiful country between Hump Lake and the mountain is a mosaic of granite outcrops and rolling terrain broken up by subalpine meadow gardens.
When To Climb
The climbing season is during the summer and fall. Winter climbing is difficult because access routes are not seasonally maintained. To get there in the winter will require well planned snowmobile and snowshoe excursions.
At large camping can occur throughout the upper basin near the peak. Backpackers can find good camping at any of the numerous mountain lakes in the vicinity of the mountain. Some close to Buffalo Hump include Wild Horse Lake, Kelly Lakes, Crystal Lake, Wiseboy Lakes, Mirror Lake, Bear Lake, Ruby Lake, Rainbow Lake and many others. Avoid the private property at the south end of Hump Lake.
Wild Horse campground provides a good base for pack trip into the mountain. There are at least five primitive campgrounds between Highway 14 and Orogrande Summit as well as good dispersed camping south of Orogrande along the upper Crooked River.
The Nez Perce National Forest
office in Grangeville can provide information about the conditions of the high Gospels and the seasonal road access. Call (208) 983-1950.