Frank Church- River of No Return
Wilderness Area Hikes
Blue Bunch Mountain
Distance: 8 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: moderately difficult
Location: Merge off State Highway 21 onto a gravel road a few miles east of Banner Summit. Proceed on this all-weather road for 12 miles until reaching a sign and side road leading to Fir Creek Campground. Follow the side road, but stay to the left at the fork and continue to the road’s end at Bear Valley Creek. Locate the trailhead at the beginning of Bear Valley Canyon where a pack bridge crosses over Bear Valley Creek.
Situated at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Blue Bunch Mountain’s summit offers views of Poker, Bruce, and Ayers Meadows, as well as Cape Horn Mountain rising to the south. To reach the summit, cross Bear Valley Creek and bear left on the trail. Hike upstream and after 2 miles, reach a good water source at Cy Springs. Although the trail is difficult to find near the springs, continue walking another 0.5 mile to the ridge top where the trail can be found again. To reach the mountain summit and panoramic views of the surrounding area, proceed 1.5 more miles. Caution should be used, however, while walking along the ridge top as summer thunderstorms can be severe. Best months for hiking are mid-July through August.
Optional Hikes: At the trailhead, proceed right on the trail leading down the scenic Bear Valley Creek. This trail is quite difficult as it requires hikers to ford the creek in several places. The trail eventually leads to the beginning of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River at the convergence of Marsh Creek at Big Hole. Best month for hiking is late August.
Cape Horn Mountain
As the most southerly point in the Salmon River Mountain Range, the frequently scaled Cape Horn Mountain provides an outstanding vista of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the nearby Sawtooth Mountains. As the trail begins, hikers will pass through a burned area from a 1990s wildfire. Although this part of the hike is not scenic, the trail quickly climbs into tree-lined, wildflower meadows. After climbing 1.5 miles, hikers will reach the mountain’s shoulder. Continue hiking 1.3 miles to the summit of Cape Horn and follow this gentle trail along a mountain crest to overlook Bruce, Ayers, and Poker Meadows. At the trip’s 3.5-mile mark, the trail steeply descends to Lola Creek, so most hikers opt to turn around and backtrack to the trailhead. Best months for hiking are mid-July to mid-August. Hikers should pack plenty of water to reach the summit as water resources are limited.
Optional Hikes: Instead of turning around at the 3.5 mile mark, hike down from the crest along Lola Creek into a canyon containing several ponds and four lakes. Hikers can proceed as far as Marsh Creek where Lola Creek Campground is situated.
Meandering along creeks through narrow canyons and tree-lined meadows into some of Idaho’s most rugged country, this trail requires hikers to ford several streams before reaching the final destination at Lightning Lake. To begin, hike 2.5 miles along West Yankee Fork Trail and merge onto Lightning Creek Trail. This trail switchbacks up Lightning Creek Canyon with several stream crossings, and hikers are advised to use caution as the trail winds along an edge of the canyon slope. After hiking 4.3 miles on the Lightning Creek Trail, visitors will reach the first of four fords of Lightning Creek. Once past these fords, hikers will gain views of the area’s craggy mountains and continue climbing to a meadow. Past this meadow, the trail becomes faint in places as the terrain becomes more rugged. At the 6.8-mile mark along Lightning Creek Trail, hikers cross over a precipitous tributary before ascending the last, but very steep, 1.2 miles to the cirque containing Lightning Lake. Best months for hiking are July through mid-September. Hikers should bring wading shoes as well as rope for hanging food away from bears in the area.
Optional Hikes: The steep tributary 1.2 miles before Lightning Lake provides a cross-country hike where backpackers can ascend to waterfalls, meadows, and two alpine lakes. To reach the area, climb 300 feet along the ridge directly east from the tributary. Next, proceed over to the creek and cross it right above a scenic waterfall. Hikers will locate a trail leading up two meadows to an unnamed pass marked with a white bark pine. Angling westward down from the pass, hikers will locate two deep and rarely visited lakes.
Surrounded by rugged mountain scenery and wildlife that includes deer, elk, goats, and bighorn sheep, hikers will climb to numerous alpine lakes renowned for their beauty and ample fishing opportunities. From the trailhead, start near Golden Trout Lake and climb along a ridgeline past Cathedral Rock before reaching the trail junction for Clear Creek and Waterfall Trails at the 4.5-mile mark. Continue to the left and reach another trail junction at the 6.5-mile mark. Proceed left and follow the sign to the shallow, but scenic Welcome Lake where another trail junction directs the way to Reflection Lake. The trail continues to switchback down a tree-lined ridge to eight different lakes. At mile 12, hikers will reach the cutthroat and rainbow trout filled Reflection Lake. One mile past Reflection Lake lies Buck Lake, Doe Lake, and Fawn Lake, all of which are great fishing spots. Best month for hiking is August due to decreased mosquitoes and snow pack.
Ship Island Lake
Granite spires, knobs, and monoliths along this trail are breathtaking as the route climbs through forests, over narrow ridges in some of Idaho’s most rugged country, and into the awe-inspiring basin cradling Ship Island Lake. The hike is very demanding and caution should be used along the ridges if thunderstorms threaten the area. Beginning at the trailhead near Golden Trout Lake, climb to a trail junction at the 2 mile mark and proceed along the middle (northwestern) trail to the ridgeline. At the 3.5-mile mark, hikers can opt to take a 0.3-mile side hike to the rainbow trout filled Cathedral Lake. On the main trail, continue another mile to the Waterfalls Canyon Trail junction that descends into Wilson Canyon. Hikers will reach a fork in the trail at the 6.5-mile point and should take the right fork leading to Wilson Creek’s headwaters near an alpine forest. Follow this trail to Wilson Lake and ignore topographic maps, which falsely illustrate the trail’s location. Proceed along Harbor Lake Trail to Fishfin Pass at the 8-mile mark. This pass’ switchbacks are extremely narrow and should not be attempted if horses are on the trail as there is not enough room to safely pass one another. After crossing over the pass, hikers will go by Gentian Lake and climb into Ship Island basin holding Airplane Lake and Ship Island Lake. Having hiked 3 miles from the pass, backpackers will reach the east side of the large Ship Island Lake surrounded by towering 10,000-foot peaks. Along the lake’s east side, backpackers can opt to hike down a faint, rocky trail to the lake’s outlet and glimpse down the trailless, granite walls forming Ship Island Creek Canyon. Best month for hiking is August.
Sleeping Deer Mountain and West Fork Lakes
Situated at an elevation of 9,881 feet, Sleeping Deer is one of the tallest mountains in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, but is by no means the only attraction this hike offers. Winding up and down over passes and into mountain basins, this trail traverses the wilderness and leads to several rarely used lakes. After hiking just 0.75 miles from the trailhead with continuous views of Sleeping Deer Mountain rising in the distance, backpackers will reach a trail junction and should take the right trail. Climb down seven switchbacks to an intersection at Pole Creek. Taking the left trail, proceed to the Pole Creek and Cache Creek divide. Hikers should keep their eyes on the weather as severe lightning storms are frequent in the area. After crossing the pass, descend to the four Cache Creek Lakes situated near the trail. Directly past the third lake, locate a trail junction on the right leading to Woodtick Summit. At the 8,863-foot summit, take the right fork in the trail leading to a grassy pass between Woodtick Creek and the West Fork of Camas Creek. At the divide, locate another trail junction and take the middle fork leading down to the three West Fork Lakes. The first of the West Fork Lakes is the largest and is the only lake known to hold any fish. Best months for visiting are mid-July to mid-September.
Soldier Lakes-Patrol Ridge Loop
Crossing terrain ranging from heavy timber to alpine areas with views of rugged peaks, this trail begins and ends at the scenic Josephus Lake and passes by large basins containing several fishable lakes. Beginning above lower Josephus Lake, the trail rambles past natural springs through thick forests before reaching Helldiver Lake in 2 miles. 0.5 miles past Helldiver, hikers will reach the Float Creek and Soldier Creek divide. A trail junction occurs at the 3-mile mark, and hikers should follow the left Solider Lakes Trail that leads to the head of Soldier Creek Canyon. After reaching the first two Solider Lakes, take a left at the trail junction leading to the precipitous Patrol Ridge. This trail gradually climbs the steep wildflower covered ridge, offering panoramic views of Soldier Lakes, Cutthroat Lakes, and the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. At the 7 mile mark, Patrol Ridge trail reaches its highest point at 9,000 feet before dropping down to a saddle at the 8 mile mark where hikers should proceed eastward off Patrol Ridge back to the trailhead along the Muskeg Creek Trail. The trail winds through forest and meadows to reach a small waterfall flowing into Cutthroat Lake. 0.5 miles above Cutthroat, there is a trail junction. Hikers should proceed along the Cutthroat Trail leading to the junction at Colonel Lake, Staff Sargent Lake, and Sargent Lake. From here, proceed back past Helldiver Lake to the trailhead. Best months for hiking are July to mid-September.
Optional Hikes: At the Patrol Ridge divide that connects to Muskeg Creek Trail, hikers may opt to continue along the ridge trail to its end at the lookout on Big Soldier Mountain. This 3 mile roundtrip side hike offers views of the entire southern portion of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
For backpackers even in excellent condition, the trail to Stoddard Lake is an extreme physical challenge as it climbs out of one of America’s deepest canyons (Salmon River Canyon) along numerous switchbacks, high mountain ridges, and over deadfall with limited water sources. Those who are able to make the trek, however, are rewarded with breathtaking views of the Salmon River Canyon and the rugged Bighorn Crags as well as great cutthroat fishing at Stoddard Lake. After crossing the trailhead’s pack bridge, backpackers will immediately begin climbing along twelve switchbacks and over 3,000 feet to the 4-mile mark at Color Creek. Continuing 0.25 miles beyond Color Creek, take the right, unmarked side trail leading to Nolan Mountain. This deteriorating trail switchbacks steeply to the summit of Nolan Mountain where it levels off and follows the ridgeline west toward Twin Peaks. The trail is faint at places and eventually fades completely at a saddle near Twin Peaks. Here, hikers should ascend the saddle and proceed to climb to the top of the first Twin Peaks’ summit at 9,108 feet. From this point, drop down to a saddle and climb to the second peak at 9,258 feet. At this peak, drop 0.25 miles straight west to an outfitter trail. This trail is not illustrated on area maps, but it leads to a camp on Stoddard Lake’s southwestern edge. An additional 1 mile descent down 700 feet of switchbacks leads to the lake. Several trails from the lake lead hikers deep into the backcountry containing Papoose Lake, Cottonwood Lake, Basin Lake, Black Lake, and Chamberlain Basin. Best months for hiking are mid-July to early September. Backpackers should be comfortable with rock scrambling and route finding along this hike.
Upper Vanity Lakes
Backpackers with a topographic map and knowledge of a compass can easily undertake this short day hike to four wilderness lakes that drain into Vanity Creek. From Vanity Summit, locate the broad ridge and begin hiking east by southeast, reaching a meadow and creek in 0.25 miles. Following the creek, reach the first and largest lake at the 0.5-mile mark. Continue along a game trail 0.25 miles further to the second and third lakes divided by a 30-foot ridge. From the second lake’s south side, climb 0.3 miles south to the fourth lake. Best months for hiking are July through September.
West Yankee Fork-Crimson Lake
Hiking through lush West Fork Canyon through occasional meadows and up to Crimson Lake, backpackers are surrounded with rugged, colorful peaks as well as an occasional mountain goat. Beginning at the gated trail, proceed across a gravel pit and locate West Fork Trail 155 on the west side. Follow Trail 155 through conifers and meadows, passing by Deadwood Creek Trail (leaving to the left) and Lightning Creek Trail (leaving to the right) before turning right on Cabin Creek Trail 156. Crossing over Cabin Creek and through avalanche debris, avoid any side trails leaving to the left. Instead, stay to the right, and at the 6.8-mile mark, climb left up Crimson Lake Trail 202. This trail takes hikers across rocky terrain as it climbs 1.7 more miles to the large, deep Crimson Lake situated amid crimson rocks. The lake is known as one of the prettiest alpine lakes in the Frank Church Wilderness, and it also possesses a large population of cutthroat trout. Best months for hiking are mid-July through mid-September. Backpackers should bring wading shoes for some creek crossings, as well as rope to hang food away from bears.