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Backpacker Magazine – September 2010

Rip & Go: Watchtower to Sheephead Loop - Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, MT/ID

Have rocky ridges and sparkling alpine lakes all to yourself.

by: Michael Lanza and Casey Lyons, Mapping by Kim Phillips & Kris Wagner

PAGE 1 2 3
Watchtower's Peak South Face (Michael L. Hoyt, Corvallis, MT)
Watchtower's Peak South Face (Michael L. Hoyt, Corvallis, MT)
(Photo by Clarke Wiebe/Age Fotostock)
(Photo by Clarke Wiebe/Age Fotostock)

Download a printable version of this entire trip right here.
Do It
Broad, conifer-covered ridges extend like fingers off of the Bitterroot Divide, creating a complex mountain topography rife with bighorn sheep, moose, mountain lion, gray wolves—and plenty of solitude. This three-day, 21.6-mile wilderness loop winds between craggy peaks and deeply quiet aspen forests. Park at the Watchtower Creek trailhead (1) and start the 5.6-mile hike along Watchtower Creek Trail (#699). Cross the creek on a footbridge at mile .7, keeping an eye on the high canyon walls for sure-footed mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Ascend 850 feet, with easterly views of 9,355-foot Mt. Jerusalem, and camp in the flats (2) below Watchtower Peak—with tent-door vistas of the glacially gouged river way.

Next morning, ascend 1,200 feet over .8 mile to crest the Bitterroot Divide (3) and begin the 2.6-mile off-trail ridge walk along the Idaho-Montana border. Expect tricky routefinding and class 3 scrambling (see p. 26). Stick to the western side; your ankles will tire on the talus, but the slope is less steep. At mile 9.7, summit Peak 8,450 (4) for commanding views of the valleys and side canyons that channel snowmelt into the Selway River. Continue to follow the divide, then link up with the Schofield Ridge Trail (#34) (5), .3 mile southwest of 8,315-foot Indian Hill.

After 10.8 miles, you’ll enter a large, forest-fringed meadow (6) where tall grasses can make the path hard to find. Look for switchbacks entering lodgepole pines (7) to the southwest. Pick up Stateline Trail (#16) (8) at mile 11.6 and continue .8 mile to a campsite at the headwaters of Indian Creek (9). Start your final day with five miles of canopy-shaded hiking. Reach open vistas after the intersection with the Southern Nez Perce Trail (#13). Turn left (east) and hike along Fales Flat Trail (10), which grows increasingly steep on the 4.3-mile descent to the trailhead (11). No shuttle? Walk east 2.3 miles on Nez Perce Road 468 to close the loop.

Trip Planner
Get There From Missoula, take US 93 south 57 miles to MT 473 west. Go 14 miles and turn right on Nez Perce Rd. 468. After nine miles, go north at the Watchtower Creek sign and park.

Gear Up The Elusive Moose, 1369 US 93, Victor. (406) 961-3991;

Map USFS Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Map, South ($10, Contact (406) 363-7100;

Trip Data

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