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

Have rocky ridges and sparkling alpine lakes all to yourself.

Key Skill: Lightning Safety
In summer, afternoon lightning strikes along the Bitterroot Divide are as reliable as death and taxes. Here’s how to recognize advancing storms so you can act before you get zapped.

Prepare On day two, look at the sky before leaving camp. Your route ascends an exposed ridge; stay below treeline if storms threaten.

Calculate Hear thunder? In most cases, the storm is within six to eight miles. Estimate its proximity by counting the seconds between lightning and thunder. Divide that number by five: that’s the storm’s distance (in miles) from you.

Bail Using aerial photography and topo maps, preplot escape routes that lead directly (and quickly) from exposed areas (above treeline and meadows) to sheltered areas below, or in forested margins.

Shelter Avoid hilltops, water, and shallow caves. A safe bet: low-elevation forests. Fold a closed-cell foam sleeping pad in half and crouch or sit cross-legged on it. Stay at least 15 feet from others, so multiple people don’t get injured by the same strike. Resume hiking 30 minutes after the last thunder clap.

Locals Know
Opportunities for solitude are practically a dime a dozen in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but for that million-dollar dose of alone time, add an extra day and camp lakeside by Watchtower Lake (UTM: 11T 0695279E 5079937N). Break from the Watchtower Creek Trail (#699) at mile 5.6 and follow the intermittent and faint use trail due north for 2.3 miles (and 1,400 vertical feet). Arrive at the small alpine tarn pooling in a steep-walled cirque. On cloudless days, the cirque’s southern opening means you’ll wake with sunlight splashing the gray walls a warm shade of orange—and perhaps see mountain goats roving up above.

See This

The 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is home to one of the country’s southernmost population of wolverines. These 30-pound critters make their dens in snow caves or natural crevices in medium-density forests. They feed on roots, berries, small mammals, and birds, and rely on stealing other predators’ kills and scavenging carcasses to survive the winter. If you spot this rare animal—the largest member of the weasel family—consider yourself lucky: One study suggests a single wolverine requires 25 square miles to itself.

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