Altair Peak is one of the many towering peaks that typify central Idaho's Pioneer Mountains
. The peak is unofficially named after the star "Altair
", one of the brighter points in the nighttime sky. Altair is made up of light colored decomposing granite, which makes it noticeably paler than other peaks in the surrounding area. When seen from a distance, it does bear some resemblance to a star hovering low in the sky. This is especially true when viewing Altair from nearby Copper Basin to the east, as the peak stands in sharp contrast to the foothills below.
Even though some of the more popular backpacking trails in the Pioneers are able to deliver folks right to Atair's doorstep, the peak sees only a small handful of ascents each year. This is probably because most visitors to the area often end their days at other nearby destinations. Hikers and backpackers tend to stop at Betty Lake or Surprise Valley, with scramblers aiming for the adjacent and better-known Standhope Peak
. The abundance of other nearby attractions seems to draw people away from Altair. One would think that at 11825’ in elevation and a very respectable number 25 ranking amongst Idaho’s Highest Peaks
, this mountain would get more attention.
From a distance, Altair appears to be a loose pile of crumbling scree and isn’t very appealing from a climbing standpoint. However, the rock is actually very stable and enjoyable. In fact, Tom Lopez
describes the Southwest Ridge
as a “classic scramble that should be on every peak bagger’s list”. That being said, many would probably argue that it is the awesome scenery on the approach that is the true highlight of an Altair Peak ascent. The summit itself provides fantastic views of nearby Pioneer peaks including Pegasus Peak
, Big Black Dome
, Pyramid Peak, Peak 11887’
, and Standhope Peak
Altair has four distinct ridgelines leading to its summit. The north ridge connects to Pegasus Peak and forms the east boundary of beautiful “Surprise Valley”, home to a Research Natural Area
. Altair’s east ridge leads to rugged Pyramid Peak, which shares the same light colored crumbling granite that makes up Altair. Next, the southeast ridge forms the enormous east face of Altair that towers over Bellas Lakes. Finally, the southwest ridge drops to a saddle where a trail connects Surprise Valley and Betty Lake, then the ridge continues on to adjacent Standhope Peak
Climbing Altair’s southwest ridge
from the saddle between Betty Lake and Surprise Valley is the most commonly used option for reaching the summit. This saddle can be reached on good trail from either the south or north.
Driving directions to the south trailhead located at the Broad Canyon “Recreation Site”
are as follows. From downtown Ketchum Idaho, follow Trail Creek Road through Sun Valley, over Trail Creek Summit, to the signed turnoff for Copper Basin and Wildhorse Canyon. The turnoff is about 22 miles northeast from Ketchum, or about 19 miles southwest from US-93 if coming from Challis or Mackay. Once at the turnoff, go right (east) and follow the road for about 12 miles then turn right again (south) on Copper Basin Loop Road. Continue for another 8 miles to the marked fork for Broad Canyon. Follow this road for another half mile to the trailhead, home to several picnic tables and an outhouse.
For an approach from the north via Surprise Valley, follow Trail Creek Road to the Copper Basin and Wildhorse Canyon turnoff and follow the road for about 6 miles to the turnoff for Wildhorse Canyon. Turn right here and follow the road for about 3.5 miles then turn left and continue another half mile to the Fall Creek trailhead
Camping opportunities are plentiful near Altair Peak. Options include the lakes in Surprise Valley if approaching from the north, or Betty and Goat Lakes if coming from the south. Betty Lake and Goat Lake are both above tree line and therefore a bit exposed, but there are other smaller lakes down lower as well as several good campsites at various points along the trail.
If you prefer not to backpack in, there are campsites at the Broad Canyon trailhead
to the south, or at Wildhorse Campground
near the northern trailhead.
No permits, trailhead passes, or any other red tape to worry about.
When to Climb
Quite a bit of snow gets dumped on the Pioneers, so the summer climbing season tends to start a bit later than other mountain ranges in Idaho. During most years, a snow free climb can be made from mid July until the snow flies in late September or early October. This can vary of course.
Mountain ConditionsBelow are some good staring points for finding out about conditions in the area:
There are a handful of guidebooks containing information on the Pioneers and the area surrounding Altair Peak. Here are two of the best ones.
- Idaho: A Climbing Guide by Tom Lopez – This is far and away the premier mountaineering text for the state, with an entire section devoted to the Pioneers including detailed route information for Altair Peak.
- Trails of Western Idaho by Margaret Fuller – Includes detailed approach information to the Southwest Ridge from both Surprise Valley and Betty Lake.