Backpacking Idaho: From Alpine Peaks to Desert Canyons

Backpacking Idaho: From Alpine Peaks to Desert Canyons

by Douglas Lorain

Paperback(Second Edition)

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A virtually undiscovered backpacking paradise, Idaho has numerous wilderness areas of mind-boggling size. Backpackers can find complete solitude, wildlife, and some of North America's most outstanding scenery. Idaho's mountains also boast great weather — fewer thunderstorms than the central Rockies, less rain than Oregon and Washington, and cooler summer temperatures than California.

Backpacking Idaho takes you to what author Doug Lorain calls a "Shangri-la" for backpackers. In the craggy Selkirk Mountains you'll find lush forests, small cirque lakes, and jagged granite peaks. Watch for ospreys, river otters, and belted kingfishers in the swift Selway River. Explore hundreds of miles of trails in the gently rolling forested hills in north-central Idaho, or head to Hell's Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, where you'll find both alpine tundra and cactus-studded desert.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780899977737
Publisher: Wilderness Press
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Series: Backpacking
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 585,805
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ever since Douglas Lorain's family moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1969 he's been obsessively hitting the trails of his home region. He has written numerous other guidebooks about the Pacific Northwest and lives in Hamilton, MT.

Read an Excerpt


  • RATINGS: Scenery: 7, Solitude: 6, Difficulty: 6
  • MILES: 37 (52) (These numbers exclude the road walk back to the Canyon Creek trailhead.)
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 8,200' (13,000')
  • DAYS: 3–4
  • MAP(S): USGS Pyramid Peak, USGS Smith Falls, USGS Smith Peak
  • USUALLY OPEN: Mid-July–early October
  • BEST: Late July–September
  • PERMITS: None
  • RULES: Maximum group size of 12 people, unless you specifically notify the Bonners Ferry Ranger District; fires are strongly discouraged; staying more than three nights at any given campsite is prohibited.
  • CONTACT: Bonners Ferry Ranger District, 208-267-5561


Unusual wildlife; lush rain forests


Grizzly bears; relatively wet weather; limited water and few campsites along Parker Ridge


From the junction of US 2 and US 95 about 2 miles north of Bonners Ferry, drive 12.6 miles north on US 95 to a junction. Go straight on ID 1 for 1.1 miles, and then turn left (west) on a county road, following signs to Copeland Bridge and Westside Road. Stay on this paved road for 3.5 miles, taking a bridge over the Kootenai River, and come to a T-junction. Turn right on the paved Westside Road and drive 3.5 miles to the Parker Creek trailhead, which has room for only one or two cars to park. If you have two cars, leave one here.

To reach the recommended starting point, continue another 3.5 miles on Westside Road, and then turn left (uphill) at a signed junction with a narrow, gravel, dead-end road that goes 0.1 mile to the small parking lot for the Canyon Creek trailhead. Note: This trailhead is on private land. The public is allowed to park but not camp here.


As the wettest range in the state of Idaho, the Selkirk Mountains support forests that are so lush they resemble the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest coast. The trees include such relatively unusual Idaho species as western red cedar, western hemlock, western yew, and Pacific dogwood, while the undergrowth is a mass of ferns, mosses, and lichens that assail the hiker with a stunning display of greenery. In a grand sampling of this wet environment, the first half of this hike takes you up Long Canyon, the last major unlogged valley in the Selkirk Mountains, where a magnificent shady forest provides a hiking experience unlike anything else in the state.

But there is more to admire here than dense forests. Along the ridges are jagged peaks; hidden cirques filled with small, scenic lakes; and expansive views of the deep, green valleys below. In addition, wildflowers bloom in profusion, especially along the open ridgetops, where the forests have yet to recover from a series of large forest fires. This superior hike is the finest backpacking adventure in the Selkirk Mountains because it includes the best of the area’s low-elevation forests as well as some of the range’s most beautiful lakes and ridgetop views.

WARNING: This is grizzly bear country. Please heed the guidelines given on page 11. Remember that bears and dogs do not get along. Accordingly, the U.S. Forest Service strongly discourages bringing your dog. If you must bring your pet, be sure that the animal is on leash at all times.


The trail, which has been significantly rerouted from what is shown on the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps, follows an overgrown road the first 200 yards, and then narrows to a foot trail and wanders gradually uphill through a nicely varied forest. The mix of evergreen trees here is more diverse than just about anywhere else in the state. Douglas-firs and western red cedars are the most common species, but there are also western larches and grand firs, as well as ponderosa pines, western white pines, and western hemlocks. The ground cover is kept in check by the deep shade of the canopy, but in places you will find pipsissewa, Oregon grape, lady fern, and thimbleberry, among other species.

The well-maintained trail climbs seven moderately long but well-graded switchbacks, and then cuts through a woodsy gap in the ridge and emerges high on the slopes of Long Canyon. The trail then curves to the right and makes a rather steep and rocky uphill traverse well above cascading Long Canyon Creek, which can be heard, but not seen, deep in the canyon on your left. Though this traverse stays above the best forests, it has the advantage of going past some excellent viewpoints of Long Canyon and densely forested Parker Ridge to the south.

The trail levels briefly, and then goes downhill at an irregular grade to a nice campsite beside rollicking Long Canyon Creek. Above this campsite, you travel across a forested hillside a little above the stream, maintaining a steady uphill grade that keeps pace with the cascading creek. About 3 miles from where it first met the creek, the trail drops to a pair of good campsites on either side of where you cross the stream on a log.

You make two quick switchbacks away from the creek and walk upstream for 1.5 miles through some of this area’s best forests to a second creek crossing, which requires a knee-deep ford in early summer or a slippery rock-hop in late summer. A fair campsite can be found immediately after the crossing hidden in the creek’s dense riparian undergrowth of devil’s club, lady fern, horsetail,
and Douglas maple. For the next few miles you make several steep little ups and downs through a dense forest that has no views, but which provides plenty of up-close green scenery. Though the trail generally stays well away from Long Canyon Creek, finding water is never a problem because you hop over numerous tiny side creeks along the way. In fact, if anything, there is too much water, as frequent rains leave behind lots of mud and wet vegetation that overhangs the trail and soaks passing hikers. Fortunately, several wooden boardwalks have been installed over the muddiest places to help keep you clean and dry.

About 2.5 miles from the second creek crossing, you pass a good campsite just before a rock-hop crossing of a fairly large, unnamed creek that flows down from Smith Lake. From there, it’s another 0.5 mile to the third and final crossing of Long Canyon
Creek, which is usually an easy ford, though by late summer it is possible to cross on slippery rocks. About 200 yards later, you pass a decent campsite beside a small tributary creek, and then walk a little less than 1 mile to a signed junction. The unmaintained trail straight ahead goes a short distance to a good creek-side campsite.

You turn left at the junction and begin the long, steady climb out of Long Canyon. The 2,200-foot ascent starts with 30 mostly short and always gently graded switchbacks, followed by a 0.5-mile-long traverse. Though there isn’t much in the way of views, it’s interesting to observe the changes in vegetation as you climb. The cedars and Douglas-firs in the lower canyon slowly give way to lodgepole pines, Engelmann spruces, and western white pines, while the understory makes a transition to huckleberries, alders, and bear grass. Once the traverse ends, 20 more switchbacks take you up to a nice viewpoint and a junction.

The return route of your loop goes sharply left on Parker Ridge Trail #221, but first you’ll want to spend a day or two on a pair of extended side trips to the high lakes and scenic terrain at the head of Trout Creek Canyon. To do so, go straight and wind gradually uphill past the base of the aptly named Pyramid Peak to the narrow, viewless defile of Pyramid Pass. The trail then descends several switchbacks on a hillside covered with huckleberries to a junction beside a small wooden bridge. Here you have a choice of side trips, both of which are highly recommended.

To finish the loop trail, go back over Pyramid Pass and return to the junction with the Parker Ridge Trail. Go north (uphill) and steeply climb through an area that was swept by fire several decades ago and still hides some silvery snags amid the new forest. After a little more than 0.5 mile of steep uphill, you reach the ridgecrest at a rocky saddle, where you’ll have exceptional views west to Smith Peak, north down Long Canyon, and northeast down the wooded canyon of Parker Creek and up to Fisher Peak. The trail then turns to follow the ridgecrest and slowly climbs for 400 yards to a junction with the 0.5-mile spur trail that switchbacks down to Long Mountain Lake. This side trip would be worthwhile if only to appreciate this small, deep lake’s lovely setting surrounded by heather and perky subalpine firs in a basin of white granite rocks. But the best reasons to make the side trip are that this lake is one of the few permanent water sources on Parker Ridge and it has an excellent campsite.

The main trail continues straight from the Long Mountain Lake junction and ascends Parker Ridge to a point just below the rolling summit of the 7,265-foot Long Mountain. High-elevation wildflowers are abundant on this open ridge, especially pussytoes, lousewort, and white heather. Views are similarly grand, featuring outstanding vistas up and down the spine of the Selkirk Mountains, into the green depths of Long Canyon, and north to the vastness of Canada.

From Long Mountain, you go down to a saddle, and then climb partway up a tall, rocky, pyramid-shaped summit. Before reaching the top, the trail cuts to the left, makes an up-and-down traverse across the west side of this peak, and then drops again in steep switchbacks and follows the undulating ridgecrest as it curves east. Plenty of possible campsites are along this scenic ridge, but the only water is from snowfields that may, if you are lucky, linger into early August. At a saddle about 3.5 miles from Long Mountain is the junction with the 0.7-mile side trail to Parker Lake. This lake has excellent fishing, but it isn’t as spectacular as most of the other lakes in this range, and camping near the shore is limited by brush and steep slopes. You’ll still want to visit this lake, however, because it’s the last reliable source of water until a small spring about 6 miles ahead. If you choose to camp here, the best sites are on the ridge near the main trail, though they force you to walk a long way to get water.

The main trail bears right at the Parker Lake junction and climbs fairly steeply to a long, ridgetop saddle and another junction. The trail that goes straight makes a steep, 0.5-mile climb to the former lookout site atop the prominent Parker Peak, where you can take in many of the same views you had along the ridge, but from a higher and better grandstand. The Parker Ridge Trail bears right at the junction, goes steadily downhill across the rocky east face of Parker Peak, and then regains about 250 feet and returns to the wide and heavily forested ridgetop.

It’s all downhill from here, most of the time traveling in dense woods, where you will notice a reversal of the pattern of change in the tree species that you noted on the way up. The descent starts quite gently as it goes through a long, woodsy saddle, and then makes a series of well-graded switchbacks. At the third switchback turn, a trail goes straight about 10 yards to a small spring with welcome water. Unfortunately, there is no flat ground nearby to accommodate a tent. The last part of the descent takes you across large, grassy areas with good views of the farmland and meandering river in the Kootenai River Valley. At the 43rd switchback, a little before the bottom of the long downhill, you meet Parker Creek Trail #14. Here you turn left and go down nine short switchbacks to the Parker Creek trailhead on Westside Road.



  • Day 1: First crossing of Long Canyon Creek, 8.0 miles, 2,300' elevation gain
  • Day 2: Pyramid Lake, 11.0 miles, 3,200' elevation gain
  • Day 3: Pyramid Lake (day hike to Ball Lakesand Big Fisher Lake), 13.0 miles 3,700' elevation gain
  • Day 4: Ridge above Parker Lake, 7.0 miles 2,200' elevation gain, Side trip to Long Mountain Lake: 1.0 mile 500' elevation gain
  • Day 5: Out, 11.0* miles 500'* elevation gain, Side trip to Parker Peak, 1.0 mile 600' elevation gain


To focus exclusively on this trip’s best viewpoints and alpine lakes, drive Road 634 (it’s rough) up Trout Creek to the trailhead just before the end of the road (see map). From there, make a day hike up to Pyramid and Ball Lakes, a day hike to Long Mountain and Long Mountain Lake, and either a long day hike or a short backpacking trip to Trout and Big Fisher Lakes.

Table of Contents

Map Legend


Featured Trips Summary Chart


Featured Trips Overview Map


  • Long Canyon Loop


  • Snow Peak: Mallard-Larkins Loop


  • Selway River Trail
  • Big Sand Lake: Hidden Creek Loop

  • Snake River Trail
  • Seven Devils Loop


  • Gospel-Hump Loop


  • Chamberlain Basin Loop
  • Bighorn Crags
  • Soldier Lakes Loop 100
  • Middle Fork Salmon River
  • Loon Creek Loop


  • Grand Sawtooths Loop
  • Queens River Loop
  • Pettit Lake: Hell Roaring Loop
  • White Cloud Peaks Loop
  • Big Boulder Lakes
  • Fall Creek Loop: Pioneer Mountains


  • Lost River Range Traverse
  • Central Lemhi Range Loop
  • Divide Creek and Webber Lakes


  • Bechler River Trails


  • Snake River Range Traverse
  • Bear River Range Highline Trail


  • Owyhee Meanders

  • Coeur d’Alene River Trail
  • St. Joe River: Bacon Peak Loop
  • Selway Crags
  • White Cap Creek
  • Meadow Creek
  • Southern Seven Devils Mountains
  • Big Creek
  • Sleeping Deer Mountain: Middle Fork Salmon Loop
  • Leggit Lake: Mattingly Creek Loop
  • Smoky Mountains Loop
  • Continental Divide Trail
  • Caribou Mountains

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