North Central Rockies Part C: National Forests of the Clearwater-Bitterroot Ranges

The Clearwater and Bitterroot Ranges are found along the Montana-Idaho border and include extensive wilderness areas. However, outside of the wildernesses are a number of special features, described in this post, Part C of the North Central Rockies ecoregion.

Bitterroot National Forest (NF), Idaho-Montana is 1.6 million acres on both sides of the north-south trending Bitterroot Valley. To the east of the valley are the Sapphire Mountains, described in the Idaho Batholith section of the South Central Rockies Forest ecoregion. To the west of the Valley are the Bitterroot Mountains, an area of steep rocky canyons and sawtooth ridges described here. Lick Creek Demonstration Forest (N46˚5’ W114˚15’) is north of Lake Como. A seven-mile scenic auto tour on Forest Road 5621 extends from Lake Como to Lost Horse Creek and interprets the forest, which has been managed to promote ponderosa pine health. Lost Horse Creek (N46˚8’ W114˚22’) and Blodgett Creek (N46˚17’ W114˚19’) are glaciated U-shaped valleys with streams considered eligible for the wild and scenic river system. Lost Horse Canyon contains three Research Natural Areas (RNAs). Lower Lost Horse Canyon RNA (N46˚7’ W114˚17’) is a glacially scoured, U-shaped valley off of the southern Bitterroot Valley with Douglas fir and subalpine fir. Upper Lost Horse Canyon RNA (N46˚8’ W114˚0’) is a subalpine forest on the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness boundary with Bailey Lake and a wetland area. Between these two RNAs are 12 or more south-facing avalanche slides making up the Bitterroot Mountain Snow Avalanche RNA (N46˚9’ W114˚26’). The non-forested snow slides are rich in herbaceous diversity. The Blodgett Fire Important Bird Area (IBA) (N46˚17’ W114˚16’) is along Blodgett Creek west of Hamilton. In 2000, a stand replacement fire burned through the area between Canyon Creek and Sheafman Creek, creating standing dead trees which now house a concentration of Lewis’s woodpeckers.

Trapper Peak Vista (N45˚56’ W114˚13’) is southwest of Darby on the West Fork Road, then right (north) on Forest Road 374, then south on Forest Road 5627. It provides views of the 10,000-foot peak. Bass Creek Overlook (N46˚35’ W114˚10’) is west of Stevensville at the end of Forest Road 1136 from Bass Creek Recreation Area, and provides views of the Bitterroot Valley. The Bear Creek Trailhead (N46˚23’ W114˚15’) is the starting point for a for a two mile hike to Bear Creek Falls; the trail continues into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The Canyon Creek Trailhead (N46˚15’ W114˚15’) west of Hamilton is the starting point for a 1.5-milehike to the Blodgett Overlook, providing views of canyons and valleys. Camas Lake (N46˚9’ W114˚17’) is a 3.5-mile hike from the Camas Creek trailhead which branches off of Lost Horse Road south of Hamilton.

The Magruder Corridor (Forest Highway 468) extends west from the Bitterroot River (N45˚48’ W114˚16’) to Sabe Saddle (N45˚41’ W114˚57’) between the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. The corridor then extends west through the Nez Perce NF to the Red River. From Fales Flat (N45˚45’ W114˚27’) on Forest Highway 468, a loop trail on the border of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness can be hiked.  Overwich Falls (N45˚43’ W114˚5’) is accessible via an eight-mile hike beginning off of Forest Road 5706 east of Painted Rock Lakes.

Boulder Creek RNA (N45˚50’ W114˚16’) is upstream from a campground on the West Fork Bitterroot River and contains ponderosa pine-Douglas fir with cliffs, snow shutes, and talus slopes.

Clearwater NF, Idaho, is 1.7 million acres on the western side of the Bitterroot Range. The North Fork Clearwater Corridor of the forest is accessible from Orofino from the end of State Route 11 at the town of Headwaters. Forest Road 247 follows Beaver Creek into the area. The Little North Fork Clearwater River (N46˚55’ W115˚43’) is in a remote northwest corner of the forest on the border with the St. Joe National Forest and is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system. The North Fork Clearwater is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from Dworshak Reservoir (N46˚51’ W115˚41’) upstream to its headwaters on Graves Peak (N47˚0’ W115˚6’).  To the north of the North Fork is the Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area (N46˚56’ W115˚34’), St. Joe and Clearwater NFs, a 14,000-acre area on a ridge crest with glacial lakes, ancient cedars, and alpine vegetation. It is accessible from Isabella Point trailhead (N46˚53’ W115˚36’) on Forest Road 705 and Smith Ridge Trailhead (N46˚54’ W115˚41’) on Forest Route 700 north of the North Fork Clearwater River. Also in the area is the Heritage Cedar Grove Special Area (N46˚55’ W115˚35’), in the headwaters of Isabella Creek and Elmer Creek. Nearby At Isabella Landing, a seven-mile trail leads downriver to the Dworshak Reservoir amid old growth cedars. It passes Aquarius RNA (N46˚52’ W115˚40’), 4,000 acres with disjunct taxa along the North Fork Clearwater River just upstream of Dworshak Reservoir at Mile 55. Unique species and vegetation communities in the area include red alder, western red cedar/shield fern association, and Coeur d’Alene salamander. The Sheep Mountain off highway vehicle area (N46˚42’ W115˚38’) is reached from the end of Route 11 at the town of Headquarters via Forest Highway 246. Chateau Falls RNA (N46˚41’ W115˚31’) is a series of waterfalls along Chateau Creek, a tributary to the North Fork Clearwater River, with open grasslands, shrublands, and Douglas-fir forest. Five Lakes Butte RNA (N46˚57’ W115˚17’) is on the border between the Clearwater and St. Joe National Forests. It is a 300-acre subalpine glaciated basin with mountain hemlock and two fishless lakes.

At the Fourth of July Trailhead (N46˚40’ W115˚23’), the Windy Ridge Trail extends 24 miles southeast, connecting with the Lolo Trail (Forest Highway 500) at 12-Mile Saddle (N46˚31’ W115˚9’). This trail provides views of the Great Burn area of 1910. Upstream on the North Fork, trailheads in the Kelly Forks Area (N46˚43’ W115˚15’) explore the mountains to the east along Kelly Creek and Forest Highway 255, a loop off of Route 250. Kelly Creek from Kelly Forks upstream to the confluence of the Middle Fork Kelly (N46˚44’ W114˚52’) is eligible for the wild and scenic river system, as are South Fork Kelly, Middle Fork Kelly, and North Fork Kelly Creeks. Cayuse Creek is an eligible wild and scenic river from its confluence with Kelly Creek (N46˚43’ W115˚1’) upstream to its headwaters (N46˚37’ W114˚47’). As Forest Highway 250 approaches the Montana border, Forest Highway 295 extends eastward, providing a trailhead for the high elevation Fish Lake (N46˚49’ W115˚55’) on the Montana border.

The Lolo Trail area is a National Historic Landmark corridor through the forest, mostly defined by Forest Highway 500, although the original trail winds north and south of the modern road. The trail passes Lolo Creek Campground, Hungery Creek, Sherman Saddle, Indian Grave Peak, Indian Post Office, Papoose Saddle, and Packer Meadows in the Clearwater NF. Musselshell Meadows Special Area (N46˚21’ W115˚45’) is a traditional Indian camas root gathering area east of Weippe Prairie. Mussellshell Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from Musselshell Meadows downstream to the confluence with Lolo Creek (N46˚19’ W115˚45’). Lolo Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its headwaters on Hemlock Butte (N46˚28’ W115˚38’) downstream to the forest boundary (N46˚17’ W115˚45’). Bald Mountain RNA (N46˚27’ W115˚15’) is a green fescue bald on the Lolo Trail (Forest Highway 500), notable for white rhododendron at the southern limit of its range. Four Bit Creek RNA and Walde Mountain Botanical Area (N46˚17’ W115˚38’) are off the Lolo Trail (Forest Highway 500) along Eldorado Creek east of Weippe Prairie. These areas contain western redcedar and white pine forests. The Lewis and Clark Grove Special Area (N46˚18’ W115˚43’) is old growth redcedar on the Lewis and Clark route of the Lolo Trail along Forest Highway 520.

The Lochsa River corridor portion of the forest extends along both sides of US Route 12 between Kooskia and Lolo Pass. Much of this 100-mile section of US 12 is beside the Middle Fork Clearwater River and Lochsa River, designated segments of the wild and scenic river system. Lochsa RNA (N46˚14’ W115˚32’) is 1,500 acres on US Route 12 at Glade Creek and is notable for disjunct shrubs from Pacific coastal areas, including the Pacific dogwood. Fish Creek, a Lochsa tributary, is eligible for the wild and scenic river system from its confluence with the Lochsa (N46˚20’ W115˚21’) upstream to its headwaters at (N46˚22’ W115˚36’), and Hungery Creek is eligible from its confluence with Fish Creek (N46˚21’ W115˚24’) upstream to its headwaters (N46˚24’ W115˚34’). Hungery Creek is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail route. Both streams are accessible by trails only.

At Wilderness Gateway (N46˚20’ W115˚19’), Sherman Creek Trail heads seven miles north to the Lolo Trail. Dutch Creek RNA (N46˚23’ W115˚14’) is along the Lochsa River near Ninemile Rest Area on U.S. Route 12 and contains stands of northwest paper birch and grand fir. The Colgate Elk Licks Special Area (N46˚28’ W114˚56’) includes a National Recreation Trail (see listing below). Warm Springs trailhead provides access to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs (N46˚28’ W114˚53’). Sneakfoot Meadows RNA (N46˚27’ W114˚39’) is 1,900 acres south of Powell Ranger Station on U.S. 12 and west of the road to Elk Summit and contains a wetland complex of marsh, bogs, and fir. Steep Lakes RNA (N46˚53’ W114˚57’) contains two lakes, one of which has no fish. There is old growth mountain hemlock in a glaciated area on the Montana-Idaho border of the Bitterroot Mountains. The 12-mile hike along the canyon of Colt Killed Creek (N46˚31’ W114˚41’), south of US 12 on Forest Highway 111 and 360 and Forest Road 359, is known for views of rushing water and steep terrain. Colt Killed Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its confluence with the Lochsa River (N46˚30’ W114˚41’) upstream to its headwaters at White Sand Lake in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (N46˚27’ W114˚25’). To the east on US 12, the Devoto Grove Special Area (N46˚32’ W114˚40’) provides a walk through western red cedars up to 2,000 years old.  Finally, the Lolo Pass Visitor Center (N46˚38’ W114˚35’) provides year-round interpretation at the Montana-Idaho border.

Coeur d’Alene NF, Idaho, is administered as part of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests group and consists of 724,000 acres. On Forest Road 439 about five miles east of Lake Coeur d’Alene is Red Horse Mountain RNA (N47˚33’ W116˚39’), established for research on dry plant communities. The old growth ponderosa pine-bunchgrass forest is in near pristine condition. Other dry plant communities include grasslands and low shrubs. In this area, a short section of the Coeur d’Alene River at Rose Lake (N47˚32’ W116˚29’) through the forest downstream from Cataldo is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system.

The North Fork Coeur d’Alene River from its headwaters on Powder Mountain (N48˚0’ W116˚19’ to its confluence with the South Fork (N47˚33’ W116˚15’) is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system. Most of the river is followed by Forest Highways 9 and 208; however, some of the upper portion is roadless and the Coeur d’Alene NRT follows the river. Along the trail are Cathedral Rocks (N47˚56’ W116˚10’), a group of rock spires overlooking the river. East of the North Fork on West Fork Eagle Creek is the Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars Botanical Area (N47˚43’ W115˚49’). It contains old growth western red cedar to seven feet in diameter and large western white pine. It is accessible from Prichard on the Coeur d’Alene River via Forest Highways 9 and 152 and Forest Road 805. There are three RNAs in the upper Coeur d’Alene River watershed. Pond Peak RNA (N47˚51’ W116˚3’) includes old growth mountain hemlock and a pond on a 6,000-foot peak in the Shoshone Range. Spion Kop RNA (N47˚53’ W116˚7’) includes northern black cottonwood on the floodplain of the North Fork Coeur d’Alene River. Upper Shoshone Creek RNA (N47˚55’ W116˚0’) is a forest of old growth western and mountain hemlock on Ulm Peak in the Bitterroot Range, accessed from Forest Highway 412.  There is a waterfall and spring on the site.

In the western part of the forest, the Little North Fork Coeur d’Alene River is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its headwaters on Honey Mountain (N47˚54’ W116˚30’) to the confluence with the North Fork Coeur d’Alene River (N47˚37’ W116˚14’). Forest Highway 209 follows the river for its entire length. Deception Creek Experimental Forest (described below) is along the Little North Fork.

The Lookout Pass Ski Area (N47˚27’ W115˚42’) is on I-90 at the Montana state line. Just north of Lookout Pass, the Mullan Road (N47˚28’ W115˚40’) was the first road across the northern Rockies, completed in 1860 across Mullan Pass. South of I-90 at Wallace, the Pulaski Tunnel Trail (N47˚27’ W115˚57’) is a two-mile one way hike to the mine adit where a firefighting crew took shelter during the Big Burn of 1910.

Coeur d’Alene Tree Nursery, Idaho (N47˚43’ W116˚49’) is north of Coeur d’Alene and supplies trees to public lands in the western U.S. There are 130 acres of irrigated seedbeds and 17 greenhouses.

Deception Creek Experimental Forest, Idaho (N47˚44’ W116˚30’) is on the Little North Fork Coeur d’Alene River in the Coeur d’Alene NF. Research on the western white pine forest type and management of coarse woody debris is the focus at this facility 32 km east of Coeur d’Alene. The Montford Creek RNA is located within the experimental forest and includes old growth western white pine.

Nez Perce NF, Idaho, is 2.2 million acres between the Salmon River and the Clearwater River in central Idaho. A southern tributary to the Clearwater is the Selway River, and its watershed is in the forest.  The Selway River Corridor extends east from US Route 12 at Lowell and includes Selway Falls (N46˚3’ W115˚18’). Forest Road 223 follows the river and provides access to trailheads for the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. O’Hara Creek RNA (N46˚0’ W115˚31’) contains cascades and disjunct Pacific coast vegetation on a tributary of the Selway River. Upper Newsome Creek RNA (N46˚0’ W115˚40’) is on Forest Road 464 in the South Fork Clearwater watershed and contains old growth grand fir with Pacific yew. Gedney Creek upstream from its confluence with the Selway River (N46˚3’ W115˚19’) and its tributary West Fork Gedney Creek up to its headwaters at Cove Lakes (N46˚9’ W115˚14’) are eligible for the national wild and scenic river system. Meadow Creek is also eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its confluence with the Selway River (N46˚3’ W115˚18’) upstream to Mountain Meadows on the Magruder Corridor (N45˚42’ W115˚14’). Running Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its confluence with the Selway River at Running Creek Ranch in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (N45˚55’ W114˚50’) upstream to Running Lake (N45˚55’ W115˚3’). Warm Springs Creek RNA (N45˚51’ W114˚56’) contains two warm springs at the southern limit of western red cedar and the eastern limit of western larch.  Forests also are dominated by Douglas-fir and grand fir.

The Highway 14 Corridor is along the South Fork Clearwater River downstream from Elk City. The scenic river canyon includes granite outcroppings and extensive wildflower viewing areas and is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from near Elk City (N45˚48’ W115˚29’) downstream to Kooskia (N46˚9’ W115˚59’). Johns Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its confluence with the South Fork Clearwater (N45˚49’ W115˚53’) south to Baking Powder Mountain area (N45˚40’ W115˚46’) in the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Anderson Butte NRT is east of Elk City and Sourdough Saddle hiking area (N45˚44’ W115˚49’) is south of the South Fork Clearwater.

The Magruder Corridor begins near Elk City on the Red River (N45˚49’ W115˚29’). From the junction with State Route14, Forest Highway 57 extends further upstream to the Red River Ranger Station, then Forest Highway 468 traverses the boundary between the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to Sabe Saddle, where the corridor enters the Bitterroot NF. Bargamin Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system from its headwaters near Three Prong Mountain on the Nez Perce National Forest (N45˚46’ W114˚56’) downstream to the confluence with the Salmon River (N45˚34’ W115˚12’) in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Forest Highway 443 extends from Elk City (N45˚50’ W115˚26’) north to Selway Falls (N46˚3’ W115˚18’) on the Middle Fork Clearwater River.

St. Joe NF, Idaho, is 866,000 acres included administratively in Idaho Panhandle National Forests and the Clearwater NF. On Forest Highway 321 north of Clarkia are two special areas. Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area (N47˚5’ W116˚7’) is a 700-acre area containing ten-foot-diameter trees and is a National Natural Landmark. Nature trails lead through the area. Theriault Lake RNA (N47˚9’ W116˚2’) includes wet meadows and mountain hemlock old growth forests at the foot of Marble Mountain to the northeast of Clarkia. West of Clarkia on Forest Highway 447 is the 2,300-acre Emerald Creek Recreation Area (N47˚0’ W116˚22’). This is an area where the star garnet, the state gemstone of Idaho, is found. The only other location where star garnets are found is India. To avoid water quality concerns from stream disturbance, the Forest Service provides garnet-bearing gravels in which people can search for garnets.

On the North Fork of the St. Joe River north of Avery along County Road 456, the Route of the Hiawatha Rail Trail begins at Pearson (N47˚21’ W115˚44’) and extends 15 miles to East Portal, Montana (N47˚24’ W115˚38’).  The railroad made a broad loop to gain elevation to cross the pass between Montana and Idaho. The bicycle trail includes seven high tressels and the 1.6-mile St. Paul Pass Tunnel.

On Forest Highway 301 south of Avery are three special areas.  Sandhouse Cedar Grove Botanical Area (N47˚8’ W115˚53’) is at the junction of Forest Highways 301 and 201. It is a near-climax stand of western red cedar, with trees exceeding five feet in diameter in an open fern understory. In the same area to the east, Upper Fishhook RNA (N47˚7’ W115˚52’) contains old growth western red cedar on a granite substrate. Further south on Forest Highway 301, Fortynine Meadows RNA (N47˚6’ W115˚53’) is a high elevation peatland surrounded by a wet mountain hemlock forest.

Forest Highway 201 leads east from the Fishhook area on Forest Highway 301 to the Snow Peak Cooperative Wildlife Management Area (N47˚3’ W115˚33’). This is an area of checkerboard ownership between the state and federal governments, with 12,000 acres of state land and 20,000 acres of national forest ownership. The area is managed for mountain goat and other high elevation animal species; there are 40 miles of trail.

On the ridge separating the St. Joe River watershed from the Clearwater watershed are two special areas.  The Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area (N46˚56’ W115˚34’), St. Joe and Clearwater NFs, a 14,000-acre area on a ridge crest with glacial lakes, ancient cedars, and alpine vegetation. Five Lakes Butte RNA (N46˚57’ W115˚17’) is a 300-acre subalpine glaciated basin with mountain hemlock and two lakes, only one of which contains fish.

The forest includes the St. Joe River, which is a national wild and scenic river. The Little North Fork Clearwater River is considered eligible for the wild and scenic river system from its headwaters near Fish Lake (N47˚6’ W115˚58’) downstream to Dworshak Reservoir (N46˚53’ W115˚52’); the river is noted for roadless canyons and rapids and mature western cedar and hemlock groves. The Idaho Centennial Trail follows the eastern boundary of the forest along the ridge at the state line with Montana.

The Palouse corridor of the St. Joe NF is west of the Dworshak Reservoir and extends west to the Washington state line. This area, administered by the Nez Perce-Clearwater NF office, includes Elk Creek Falls National Recreation Trail (N46˚44’ W116˚10’), Giant Cedar Grove Special Area and NRT (N46˚53’ W116˚7’), the Elk River Backcountry Byway, and the White Pine Scenic Byway, along with trailheads at  Potlatch Canyon (N46˚46’ W116˚27’), and Feather Creek (N46˚56’ W116˚25’). The White Pine Scenic Byway ascends the Hoodoo Mountains and passes the White Pine Special Area and NRT (N47˚1’ W116˚41’), which houses an Idaho record tree. A side road, Forest Road 377, leads to Bald Mountain for views of the Palouse prairie (N47˚2’ W116˚40’). Potlatch Canyon trailhead, on Forest Highway 1963 off of State Routes 3-8 at Helmer, provides an old railroad bed through a canyon with towering cedars and meadows. Bull Run Creek RNA (N46˚44’ W116˚11’) includes parts of Tick Ridge, a basalt plateau to the south of the town of Elk River. There are western red cedar and coastal disjunct species here.To the north of Elk River is the Elk Butte Mountain Hemlock Special Area (N46˚51’ W116˚7’) and the Morris Creek Cedar Grove Special Area (N46˚51’ W116˚13’), which contains old growth western redcedar.

to be continued