Watchtower's Southeast Ridge

Page Type
Montana, United States, North America
Route Type:
Hiking, Mountaineering, Scrambling, Skiing
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
Time Required:
A long day
Very Strenuous
Rock Difficulty:
Class 3

Route Quality: 1 Votes

2402 Hits
76.66% Score
Log in
to vote
Page By:
Watchtower's Southeast Ridge
Created On: Jul 2, 2007
Last Edited On: Nov 1, 2010


Route Type - Scramble
Class Level – Class 3
Elevation – 8,780’
Gain - 4,601'
Distance - 16.1 miles (round trip)
Length of time required to complete route – long day

The first 6 miles of this route is on a well-established trail, one which gains little elevation. The lower portion of the climbers' trail requires serious bushwhacking uphill through some very slippery Bear Grass. As the route approaches tree line, travel is more interesting (and less tedious) with some Class 3 climbing and great views of the surrounding wilderness.

Watchtower Peak from about 4 miles in on the Watchtower Creek Trail
Watchtower Peak is on the Montana/Idaho state line 2.7 miles west of Mount Jerusalem. Just over 8 miles due north of Nez Perce Pass, this peak is one of the many seldom-visited summits “back the West Fork.” A situation both fortunate and unfortunate, as the summits in this area are some of the most remote, and therefore enjoyable to climb, in the Bitterroot Mountains.

Of the few who do visit the area of the West Fork, most are horsemen and/or hunters. Since they generally stay low in the drainages, they benefit our “climbing experience” by helping keep the access trails open. I’ve been in the area many times, even during hunting season, but have yet to see a single person in the backcountry. I have run across foot and hoof prints, a vehicle or two on the roads, and one time, a tethered horse and a mule at a trailhead.

How Watchtower Peak got its name is undocumented. There is speculation that it was named after the creek which could have received its name from early settlers who were impressed by the many gendarmes along the ridge-lines on both sides of the drainage.
Wild Geranium

But now that I have visited the summit and seen the unparalleled views in every direction, I prefer to believe the peak was named for what it is, a watchtower, and the creek (several of whose tributaries flow from its base) was named for the peak. Just speculation of course, but as there is no documentation to disprove my contention, who can justly argue differently?

Getting There

Trailhead Area
Watchtower Creek Trailhead
Early portion of the trail

From Hwy 93 take Montana Hwy 473 (West Fork Road) west for 14.3 miles to the junction with Nez Perce Road (468).

Follow the Nez Perce Road for 9.2 miles to the signed turnoff for Watchtower Creek Trail (142).

Turn right (northwest) onto FR road 5638 and follow it .4 mile to the trailhead loop.

There is a spacious clearing with plentiful parking.

There are stock facilities and an outhouse at the trailhead.

Route Description

Approach - Trailhead to the base of Watchtower Peak

The route begins at the Watchtower Creek Trailhead and heads northwest over a nice, gently-inclined, easy-to-follow trail for about 6.5 miles before it leaves the official trail and begins ascending quite steeply.

At just under 1 mile from the beginning, the trail crosses Watchtower Creek on a good bridge. Continue along the well-defined track in a north-northwest direction to the second creek crossing on a not-so-good bridge constructed of small logs.
First creek crossing

At mile three you pass into the “official” Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, marked by a sign just right of the trail.
Second creek crossing

The route passes over several talus fields intermingled with sections of forest on a well-maintained track.

It’s not until you’ve hiked nearly four miles that you get your first good look of your destination, Watchtower Peak. Even then, you may want to leave the maintained track and climb up into a boulder field a few feet for a better view.

Just before covering 6 miles from the trailhead and coming to the third creek crossing, you will see a cutoff trail to your right. This barely visible track is a little-used route to the summit of Mount Jerusalem. It is partially marked with blazes, but you better be prepared for some tedious route finding if you use it.

There is no bridge over the third creek; however a few trees have conveniently fallen across the water so you can keep your feet dry while crossing.

Less than a half mile later you reach the fourth and final creek crossing. The most precarious of the four crossings, it is possible to stay out of the water by leaving the trail, going to your left (southwest) 20 or so yards, and crossing on a fallen tree. It wriggles a bit, but didn’t throw me in the water – coming or going!

Most places along the trail the Beargrass was in full bloom. It was impossible to pass without brushing the flowers which left me covered in pollen. Sometimes the fragrance was simply overpowering.

Climber’s Route - From the base of Watchtower Peak to the summit

This is where the work begins.

After crossing the creek, the Watchtower Creek Trail veers in a more westerly direction and continues its gentle incline as it proceeds through the woods. However, the route to the Watchtower Peak summit does not. Instead, it immediately begins climbing the Peak’s southeastern ridge.
This area along the ridge is recovering nicely
from fire damage
Once you’ve crossed the creek, begin going uphill through the fairly thick forest. A time or two you may believe you’ve found an actual trail, but those tracks belong to the local deer and elk which live in the area.

Do your best to stay as close to the crest of the ridge as you work, and I mean that literally, uphill. The footing is poor at best as you step through Bear Grass and over deadfall.

While climbing this section of the route, the Bob Dylan song, “All Along the Watchtower”, made famous by Jimmy Hendrix, kept reverberating in my head...

There must be some kind of way out of here,
Said the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief.
From a spot near Watchtower Peak's east bowl is a good view of the summit

Fortunately this crappy section of climbing eventually ends as the incline begins to relent when you enter a section of forest which has been thinned by fire. The elevation here is about 7,100’, almost 1,000’ above and a half mile beyond the last creek you crossed!

If you’re careful with route finding and stay to your left (west), you will continue to work your way upward along the ridge-crest. During my ascent, I decided to stay slightly lower and pass across the edge of the bowl on the Peak’s east face before climbing to the ridge-crest. (I descended along the crest.) Either way requires mostly Class 2 climbing with short Class 3 sections.

There is a small bump on the ridge-crest at about 9,750’. Once you’ve passed that, you have a clear view of the summit for the remainder of the climb. From the bump until you reach the base of the talus field below the summit, it’s Class 1 and 2 climbing.
The summit from the ridge-crest after passing the "bump"

The last several hundred feet of the climb is over talus and small boulders. This is where you do the most consistent Class 3 climbing, though I must say, I found it far easier to navigate (both mentally and physically) than the section of thick forest with Bear Grass and deadfall at the base of the peak.

Additional Remarks

During the approach along the Watchtower Creek Trail, you cover almost 6.5 miles while achieving only 1,143’ of elevation gain. The trail is excellent, well maintained, and very enjoyable to hike. The remaining 1.5 miles to the summit requires that you gain 2,580’ of elevation. If I’m doing that on rock, I don’t mind even though it requires some effort. But, I do NOT like having to make that amount of gain on poor footing, especially in a heavily forested area. One thousand of the elevation gain on this route is just what I dislike. Yuck!

The final pitch to the summit

While on the summit, I spent time studying another possible route. It would be longer than this route by 3 to 4 miles, round trip. What it would not do is force one to climb in heavy forest. It is likely to have sections of Class 4 climbing.

In a nutshell, my proposed route continues on the Watchtower Creek Trail (past the base of Watchtower Peak) toward the pass into Idaho. Either before reaching the pass or at the pass, it leaves the Watchtower Creek Trail and follows the ridge-crest in a northeasterly direction to the summit of Watchtower Peak. There are gendarmes guarding the ridge in several places, but it appears it would be possible to circumnavigate them with only a small amount of down-climbing.

I’ll trade a 20 mile round trip and Class 4 climbing for a 16 mile round trip a portion of which requires climbing 1,000’ on poor footing through a thick forest any day! Even if it requires an overnight stay in the backcountry. Come to think of it, that could be rather nice.

When to Go

Summit marker
Watchtower Peak can be climbed any time of the year, though wintertime ascents will necessarily be more arduous. The Nez Perce Road is closed to all vehicle traffic (except for snowmobiles) from December 1 to March 31. Since the trailhead for Watchtower Peak is 5.5 miles inside the gate closure, you’re going to have to snowshoe, ski, or use a snowmobile to reach it.

Watchtower Creek Trail is well defined and obvious from the trailhead to the base of Watchtower Peak. Skiing this part of the route on snow shouldn’t prove to be a problem; however, the lower portion of the ascent (to the summit) passes through fairly thick forest at a very steep incline, 45 or more degrees in most places. I would not recommend skiing that section (up or down) unless the snow is deep enough to completely cover the deadfall.

Looking east from the summit

Having said that, there is a huge bowl on the east face of the peak, just the sort of place my backcountry skiing friends love – a very open forest of widely-spaced trees, little underbrush, and every manner of slope. To them it may be worth the effort required to reach it for snow camping and super skiing.

Though Watchtower Creek Trail passes through avalanche territory, they are likely to be a problem only during years with heavy snow fall. The trail passes along the side of the canyon away from most avalanche activity. That does not mean you shouldn’t be fully aware of your surroundings at all times. Once you reach the base of the Peak, the route follows a ridge-crest where there is little chance of sliding snow. (The lower section is anchored by thick forest and lots of deadfall.) You will need to carry an ice axe and know how to use it on the upper sections of the ridge. Crampon use is unlikely unless you plan to go off-route.

Essential Gear

Guarding the ridge

You will need sturdy hiking shoes plus plenty of food and drink. Once the route leaves the area of the creek and begins its ascent, no water is available. Portions of the route through the woods are steep with poor footing on Bear Grass and over deadfall. It will test your stamina, guaranteed!

A wintertime ascent will require gear appropriate to travel over snow.

Route Statistics

Summit – 8,780’

Gain – 4,601’ (round trip)

Distance – 16.1 miles
(round trip)

Watchtower's Southeast Ridge

23 Images 1 Climber's Log Entries 0 Comments 0 Additions & Corrections


MyTopo Map Nearby Routes Interactive Map Routes in Montana


Watchtower PeakRoutes