Scan the Shedroof Divide for woodland caribou. (Alan L. Bauer)
(Photo by Alan L. Bauer)
Here’s your chance to see something truly rare in the Lower 48: woodland caribou, the most endangered mammal in the contiguous United States. Idaho’s 42,000-acre Salmo-Priest Wilderness, just two hours from Coeur D’Alene, harbors the last 32 of these animals. The tiny Selkirk herd is a remnant from an era when caribou ranged the northern U.S. from coast to coast. After the snow melts (July) and before it dumps again (October) is the perfect time to get a glimpse of the caribou. And the best way to see them is on this 16- to 32-mile traverse.
From the Salmo Basin trailhead at the end of FR 2220, you’ll switchback 3.5 miles, passing through sub-alpine spruce and plush cedar to a knee- to waist-deep river ford. (Look upstream for a downed tree to cross). If you’re short on daylight, camp in one of two sites on the north bank after you cross. Otherwise, continue along the trail, climbing gradually for two miles to Crutch Creek, where the path forks. Head left to a sweet tent site a couple hundred yards short of where the trail crosses the South Salmo again. You’ll have sunset views of 7,572-foot Snowy Top Mountain’s bald summit.
If you can’t find a log to bridge the river, the day begins with the weekend’s second–but last–hairy crossing on the South Salmo. Unbuckle your hipbelt and sternum strap, then cross facing upstream, using your trekking poles for balance. You’ll skirt the southwestern slope of Snowy Top Mountain, then climb steep switchbacks 3.5 miles to a ridge where the trail cuts south for the remainder of the trip. Look for a spur trail just after reaching the ridge–it’ll take you 0.7 mile to the 6,829-foot summit of Little Snowy Top Mountain. From the lookout cabin, scope for caribou on adjacent slopes. These ungulates, called reindeer everywhere but North America, stay at high elevations year-round to feed on lichens growing on tree bark and rocks. Biologists say that this herd’s population grows by two to three members a year. Back on the ridge, continue south for 2.4 more miles: Descend a few switchbacks, then climb to the Salmo Divide Trail junction at the base of 6,764-foot Shedroof Mountain. Camp here and watch the sun sink behind pyramidal Gypsy Peak to the west.
Have to work on Monday? No worries: It’s a three-mile cruise back to your car along the Salmo Divide Trail. But if you have the time (and want to boost your caribou-sighting odds), add another 16 miles on a southbound arc across five gentle peaks. From the junction, follow excellent signage to the first, Shedroof Mountain. The path drops 1,000 feet from the summit in just over a mile to another trail junction 2.4 miles from your morning’s start. Go straight, ignoring the Hughes Creek Trail to the left and Gypsy Meadows Trail to the right, and climb a mellow ridge four miles to the northeast slope of Thunder Mountain, where the path skirts its eastern flank. Camp above the trail on the peak’s east side and water up at a nearby spring.
The trek ends with a relatively easy nine-mile stroll through bear grass meadows and old forest burns to your car at Pass Creek Pass. In two miles, angle southwest along the ridgeline between Thunder and Helmer Mountains. On the north slope of Helmer, there are three tricky junctions. Stay on Pass Creek Trail, making a left, a right, and another right. Then cut up switchbacks to the southwest and climb up into an alpine basin where the path wends through weathered and blackened conifers charred by a 1994 forest fire. From here, gain just one hundred feet as you roll over Mankato Mountain, then head downhill to FR 22.
USFS Salmo-Priest Wilderness ($4; fs.fed.us)
From Metaline Falls go two miles north on WA 31 to Sullivan Lake Rd. Turn right, drive five miles, and turn left onto FR 22. Head six miles to FR 2220, and cruise 13 miles of gravel to the Salmo River Basin trailhead.
From the junction of FR 22 and FR 2220, take FR 22 eight miles to Pass Creek Pass. Pull over and park in the turnout. The traverse pops you out a few hundred yards east of Pass Creek Pass.
Contact (208) 765-7223; fs.fed.us/outernet/ipnf/