Idaho Wilderness Trail: The Nitty Gritty


As a companion to some more narrative-style posts about the Idaho Wilderness Trail (IWT) that are hopefully coming in the future, I wanted to compile a separate post dedicated to the boring details that made our trip possible. Hopefully, my Dad and I are not the last people to ever complete this incredible journey, and I want to save future hikers some of the pain of trying to figure out how to attempt such a logistically-intense trip. However, I won't tell you everything, because sometimes figuring things out for yourself is part of the fun...

If you are not familiar with the IWT, one of America's newest and most rugged through-hikes, I would recommend reading about it from the people who created it, Mike Lanza at The Big Outside and Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League.

Disclaimer: In Idaho the wilderness is still wild, and you could die doing a trip like this! Backpacking in remote locations is inherently risky. I am merely presenting what my Dad and I did as well as some possible alternatives, not an authoritative guide to the IWT or telling you what you should do. The conditions of trails, stream crossings, roads, airstrips, campsites, and many other aspects of this trip can change day-by-day, so don't expect things to be the same as described here or elsewhere on this blog. 

If you want to hike the IWT, you must be willing to look at topo maps until your eyes bleed. 

First, some thank-you's:

Without the help of many knowledgeable, dedicated, and kind individuals Dad and I probably would have perished in the backcountry or worse yet, never even started the trail in the first place. First off, thank you to Mike Lanza for envisioning and mapping the IWT. Thank you to my mom Kim and girlfriend Rachel, who gave up a ton of time to drop us off, meet us in Stanley, and then pick us up again. We're so lucky to have you! Thank you to Terry and Diane of Cottonwood, ID for the home cooked meal, a ride on the Magruder Road, and great conversations about fish. Thank you to Anna and Corey for the local knowledge, homemade food, and other crucial assistance.  Thank you to Tim Bruer for monitoring wildfires for us. Thank you to the Salmon River Lodge crew, especially Dylan, Kaylee, and Bill, for their hospitality. Thank you to the Flying B Ranch and crew for flying in a package for us. Thank you Marge for making sure out package arrived safely in the Selway. Thank you to all the trail crews who give blood, sweat and tears to maintain these wonderful trails. Thank you to all the wildland firefighters, who risk their lives to protect our forests. Thank you to all of the rafters who slid us some cold ones. 

My IWT CalTopo Map

Credit goes to Mike Lanza for the original GPS files of the main IWT route, thanks Mike! The variations and detours were created by my dad and me. Read on for some of the explanations behind them. 

Timing the trip

The late timing of our trip meant dealing with snow and cold temps, such as this day in the Bighorn Crags

We choose to do this trip from September 9th to October 5th, 2022. Ideally we would have started earlier to reduce our likelihood of encountering snow and cold temps, but time constraints created by my raft guiding season didn't allow for this. 

The timing of the trip was the deciding factor in our decision to hike north to south. We knew that if we did get a significant dump of snow that made it unsafe to continue, it would be far, far easier to retreat from the Sawtooths or from the relatively low elevation and flat section along the Middle Fork Trail in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness ("the Frank")than it would be from the high country of the massive Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness (SWB) in the northern stretches. Additionally, stopping in Stanley late in the trip allowed us to grab cold weather gear and would have allowed us to easily bail to Boise if the weather forecast called for serious snow. 

I would not recommend attempting this trip until at least July 1st due to snow in upper elevations as well as high flows at some of the stream crossings. However, depending on the year large amounts of snow could stick around for far longer than this. I suggest checking the snow levels as measured at various SNOTEL sites in the area as well as historic satellite imagery to determine historic snow cover both on the early and late ends of the season. One last small note: doing the trip during peak river floating season (generally mid-May to mid-September on the Middle and Main Salmon and June to mid-August on the Selway) will most likely mean sharing river camps with rafters. The upside to this is lots of free beer and food; the downside is they will still be partying long after you want to go to sleep! 

Resupply

Food!

This might be the hardest part of the trip. Huge thanks to my Dad for figuring this out for us, I guess a PhD in supply chain management is good for something after all. Resupply on this trail is drastically more difficult than on other long trails. With the exception of Stanley on ID 21, you will be no where near a town where you could buy groceries or receive a package. Here is how we resupplied our trip:
  • Our first package was flown into the SWB. I've been asked by our contact there not to reveal which airstrip so that they are not overwhelmed by dirty hiker trash. ;)
  • Our second package we mailed to the HQ of the Salmon River Lodge at Corn Creek and the staff brought our package to the lodge itself. We stayed the night at this lodge (and had a great time), I'm not sure if they would do this for a non-guest. 
  • Our third package was flown into the Flying B ranch along the Middle Fork of the Salmon. We mailed a package to their HQ in Salmon and they were kind enough to fly it into the ranch for free. They also operate a store, which allows you to stock up on beer, ice cream, and not much else. But what else do you really need?
  • We grabbed our last resupply in Stanley from my mom Kim and girlfriend Rachel, who were kind enough to meet us there. 

Sorting a resupply box at some cushy digs in Stanley.

Here are a few other options we considered:
  • Paying an air taxi service to fly a package in: There are several companies who will fly in a package for you to any one of the public airstrips in the SWB or the Frank. I have heard that some of the private ranches will allow these services to drop off a package as well, if you pre-arrange it with the ranch. Arnold Aviation out of Cascade, ID is a great option for the southern end of the IWT. Choice Aviation out of Hamilton, MT services the northern part. Sawtooth Flying Service out of McCall, ID services the entire area. You may be able to send your package on a flight that they already have scheduled in order to keep costs down. Keep in mind that wildfire smoke can make it impossible for them to deliver the package. 
    • Some airstrips, such as Indian Creek in the Frank, have a designated critter-proof box for air services to leave packages. At other airstrips that have an occupied USFS building, such as Moose Creek in the SWB, you might be able to prearrange for the folks there to hold onto the package for you. Hopefully I don't need to tell you that its a bad idea to leave a cardboard box full of food sitting unguarded in the wilderness. 
  • Using the river: I'd considered asking one of my friends that work as guides on the Middle and Main Salmon to drop off a package at some point along their float. However, these trips get canceled due to a variety of reasons and river guides are a notoriously unreliable bunch, so we were worried about getting left hungry by this option. It may be possible to mail a package to an outfitter and have them drop it to you at one of the put-ins or take outs (Boundary Creek, Indian Creek, Corn Creek on the Salmon and Magruder on the Selway). 
  • Horse Packers: lots of hunting outfitters operate camps in the area, they may be willing to pack it in for a fee. 
  • Stashing a package from the road: we flirted with the idea of driving up and stashing a package along the road at various points. Not sure how you would keep the critters away from it for such a long time. This might work along the Nez Perce Road between the Frank and the SWB or at one of the THs nearest the Bighorn Crags in the Frank (get ready for a long and bumpy ride!). 
  • Mail a package to Stanley and/or North Fork. This requires hitch-hiking, which might not be possible later in the season when traffic to these towns in very low. 
Mike Lanza, who first envisioned the IWT, has some other ideas for resupply in the comments of this post at his blog, the Big Outside. 

Wildfire

The Huckleberry Fire flaring up in the valley below us in the SWB.
The unfortunate reality is, climate change is making fire season across North America much more destructive, long lasting, and unpredictable. This presents obvious challenges and dangers to people on routes such as the IWT. A wildfire across the path may sink plans from the get go. Even more worrying is the fact that wildfires can start or spread unpredictably once you are already on the trail, which can be a huge issue given that you may go two weeks on the IWT without internet or cell service. For that reason, it is crucial that you know how to monitor wildfires from the frontcountry before your trip as well as receive information about fires once you are on the trail. I won't go into an in-depth explanation of how I keep tabs on fire, but I will point you towards Inciweb from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group as well as CalTopo's Fire Layers. 

As far as receiving fire information once you are in the backcountry, we highly recommend having a trusted contact in the frontcountry monitor the fire situation for you and relay information to you via satellite communication, such as a Garmin InReach. Additionally, we were in contact with the public relations officials for several of the national forests that we passed through as a backup channel for fire information. These public servants carry cell phones for work, and after establishing contact with them while we were in the frontcountry, they allowed us to message their cell phones via our InReach later on. The phone numbers for these folks are typically listed on InciWeb under the fires that they are responsible for.  Once on the trail we only needed to contact one of these officials once. Far along on the Middle Fork Trail in the Frank, smoke started rolling in rapidly and we were concerned a fire may have flared up due to lightning the night before. The official let us know that the smoke had blown in from near Jerome and there was nothing to worry about. Tax dollars at work!

Campsites

Trail river camp on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of our favorites.

I would suggest referencing river guidebooks for maps of campsites along the Selway and Salmon. Additionally, this route passes by some USFS campgrounds if you prefer a pit toilet to a cat hole. Maybe I'll share my complete map of campsites when I write my IWT guidebook for fame and money. 

Road Sections

We were fortunate enough to not walk any of the road sections, which would have added at least three days and been really, really, really boring. 
  • A wonderful couple from Cottonwood that we met at the Paradise CG gave us a ride on the Magruder Road. Hitchhiking the Magruder might be tough outside of hunting season. Only one launch per day is allowed on the Selway during rafting season, so you may have some luck there but you might have to wait a while. 
  • We paid the Salmon River Lodge where we stayed to drop us off at Panther Creek to skip Salmon River Road section.  The Salmon River Road is extremely busy during rafting season, so you might have more luck there. 
  • We had planned ahead to meet up with some family in Stanley who gave us a ride on highway 21. There is tons of traffic on this highway during the summer and early fall. You could probably still find someone to hitchhike with in October. 

Trail Conditions

Slow going along Horse Cr. meant a less-than-ideal camp when we couldn't make the miles we wanted to. 

One of the most significant ways in which the IWT differs from other long trails is that it covers a lot of area where trails are infrequently maintained and sometimes not maintained at all. The constituent trails can be extremely choked with underbrush and deadfall, sometimes to the point that they are impossible to find, slowing your pace from miles per hour to hours per mile. Thankfully, each Forest Service ranger district (RD) publishes a report several times per year about the maintenance of each trail. The trails are typically listed by their number, which shows up as a tiny red number next to the trail on USFS maps. Because this is the federal government that we're dealing with, they make these reports almost impossible to find on their websites. I'll link them here to save you hours of searching. I am fairly confident that these links will auto-update with the newest reports when they are published, but please let me know if this information ever seems out of date:
A few things to note when interpreting these reports:
  • Trail conditions deteriorate rapidly over time in the SWB north of the Selway River due to the lush, dense ecosystem there. Trail conditions deteriorate rapidly over time in burned areas, such as the headwaters of the Selway River, due to immense amounts of deadfall. I would beware of trails not maintained in the past two years in these areas. 
  • Trail conditions might not match what you would expect from reading the report. For example, trail #676 (Upper Rhoda Creek) in the Moose Creek RD was listed as "Entire length cleared in 2019". However, the trail was nonexistent in many areas and we saw no signs of maintenance, such as cut logs, that made us think that this was true until we hit the very lower section of the trail near the confluence with Grotto Cr. This could be due to the rapid trail deterioration mentioned above, but we believe that someone in the Forest Service or affiliated trail crew made a mistake. 
Upper Rhoda Creek "Trail" #676. Never trust the Feds!

Taken together, we believe that you will need to determine for yourself exactly which trails to take as you hike the IWT. I have laid out a few variations that we took further on in this post. Because of this, it seems to us that there will never be one correct path to take on the IWT! We view this as reflective of the unique character of the trail and the rugged nature Idaho wilderness as a whole, not necessarily a flaw.

Trail Variations

We deviated from the main trail at several points along the trail for a variety of reasons, mostly due to a combination of wildfires and trail conditions. 

Moose Creek Alternate

Moose Cr. Alternate. IWT is purple, our variation is yellow. 
The first major variation that we took was to avoid trail #403. A local contact who has worked there as a trail crew member, ranger, and hunting guide warned us that the trail has been abandoned by the Forest Service; it also no longer appears on the trail condition reports issued by the Nez Perce Natl. Forest. We knew this meant that the trail almost certainly no longer existed, as even trails the USFS claims it maintained in 2019 were so overgrown as to be impossible to find. The route up #403 also took us on a 13 mile stretch with no water, and if the spring was dry it would become 16mi without water. The only real appeal of the high route seemed to be the views, which we knew with the thick wildfire smoke we wouldn't even benefit from, and so we opted for the low route out #620 and #618 along Rhoda and Moose Creek. There was plenty of heinous bushwhacking to be had on the 4.1 mi of #620 between Lizard Cr and Wounded Doe Cr. This variation adds 2 mi but cuts out ~2,400' of elevation gain. I would highly recommend this variation. It allows you to experience miles of terrain that is unique to the SWB and not found elsewhere on the IWT, including stunning pools carved into granite by the creeks and old-growth cedar groves. The views you would get from Big Rock Mtn are likely fairly similar to those from Stanley Butte, which you will reach in about a day from here. The only exception to this would be if the USFS decided to maintain #403 while #620 falls into further disrepair. 

Parker Mountain Alternate


Our next variation came as we left the Selway River and headed for the Salmon. We were briefly able to connect to satellite Wi-Fi in the SWB and found out via InciWeb that the Horse Fire had started and was burning just a few hundred feet downhill from our planned route. I hastily mapped out this alternate, which added 3.5 mi and 400' of elevation gain. Trail conditions were very rough at some points, which we expected based on trail condition reports. While Horse Cr itself was stunning, the hiking was slow and miserable at many points and will no doubt get worse as more dead trees fall throughout the burned area that the trail passes through. That being said, I'm not sure that the section of #158 that the official IWT passes through is maintained any more regularly than this alternate. 

Horse Heaven/Garden Cr Tr Alternate


This one is pretty simple. As we climbed into the Bighorn Crags, we continued up Tr. #121 instead of cutting onto #173 and #021. This was because #173 was last maintained in 2018. In this dry, open terrain this probably wouldn't have been a big deal, but #121 was maintained in 2021 and was a bit shorter with a little less climbing. In the future I would take whichever trail had been maintained more recently. 

White Cr. Bridge Alternate

As we headed SW along the MF Salmon from Loon Cr, we crossed the White Cr Bridge to stay on #4001 instead of getting on #4001.1. This cut off about 0.5mi and a tiny amount of climbing, so take your pick. 

Equipment

Arc'Teryx boots: great for providing scale to pictures of animal scat (sponsor me!)

An incredible amount has been written about gear for long-distance backpacking. I won't discuss it too much here; if you have the research skills to put together an IWT trip then you can definitely figure out for yourself which gear to bring. However, I will highlight a few key pieces of gear and some other considerations for what to bring. 

Backpack: We both used a ULA Catalyst and absolutely loved it. It felt comfortable carrying our heaviest loads, which were about 35 pounds after our resupplies. The most we ever went between resupplies was about 6 days. 

Boots: We both wore the Arc'teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX hiking boots. It was nice having something lightweight and yet water resistant on the many rainy days.  I was glad to have this style of boot over a heavier duty boot that I typically bring on off-trail backpacking trips in Idaho. 

Rain gear: My Dad and I brought a rain jacket but not pants, a decision that we both ended up regretting. I have never brought rain pants to the Sawtooths or the Frank after a lifetime of summer backpacking and foolishly assumed that the climate would be the same as that, even much further north and in the fall. After just a light rain, the vegetation lining the trail soaked our lower bodies day after day. We also became quite cold in a snowstorm in the Bighorn Crags. Dad brought a rain skirt, which helped keep some of the water off his upper legs, but his boots still got soaked. Bringing gaiters instead of rain pants might help you save some weight and keep your boots dry, especially in the early season where cold storms are less of a concern. 

Pants vs. shorts: our legs got absolutely thrashed by the brush in the SWB. Dad brought zip-off that he was able to put on in these situations; I only had shorts and had to rely on an incredibly stylish combination of a an Ace bandage on one shin and a cut up sock on the other. Bring pants. 

Repair kit: We brought a repair kit that contained an extra shoe lace, several small tubes of Aquaseal as opposed to one big one, lots of tear tape, a small allen wrench for our stove, and a needle and thread. We used all of these items!

Communications: We carried a Garmin InReach Mini. Thankfully we did not have to use the emergency function, but it was incredibly helpful to have this to communicate with our friend who was monitoring wildfires, the hosts at lodges where we picked up our packages, and our family who picked us up. 

Thank you for reading, I hope you find this information helpful whether you are in the middle of planning your own trip on the IWT or you are just curious about this wonderful route. I will be posting more information on the IWT in the future, so be sure to subscribe to my email list below so you don't miss it. If you have any further questions, please send me a message using the "Get in Touch" box on the sidebar or leave a comment below. Happy trails!

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