Views of Paradise

These two hikes have positively intoxicating scenery

By Dennis Nicholls

Anchored to the cold, hard stone thrust high from the basement of the earth, my body gripped the weathered rock as I gave my legs a much needed rest. Oblivious to my fatigue, Jeb stood facing into the wind, surveying the panorama before us. Even the steep climb up the southwest flank of Scotchman Peak had failed to draw any sweat from him.

I soon stood too, and gazed at the view that encircled us. Mountains and ridges and lakes and forests were etched upon the landscape to each horizon. I explored them all, until I was dizzy and staggering dangerously close to the precipice. Intoxicated by the expanse of wildness at my feet, I knew this was Paradise.

To my mind, the most rewarding activity in Bonner County's great outdoors is hiking. The opportunities are boundless, and range in difficulty from the absurdly easy to the insanely difficult. Two hikes you might consider this summer provide extraordinary views of Lake Pend Oreille.

Scotchman Peak

If you've never been to Trail No. 65X, the one ascending the slopes of Scotchman Peak, do what most folks do stop at Bob Hays Chevron in Clark Fork and ask for directions to the trailhead. The twisting and turning, and the proliferation of logging roads makes it rather confusing.

The trail begins innocently enough, ascending a gentle slope through a thinned forest of cedar and white fir. The cool air wafting up from the deep shade of nearby Mosquito Creek makes the first quarter mile a pleasant stroll on a hot summer day. Then all innocence falls aside. The trail swings upslope into heavy brush and Douglas fir, and the hike graduates into lung-heaving exercise.

The coolness down by the stream lingers, falters and fades, and is replaced with the convection currents of a natural oven. The rapidly climbing trail finally switchbacks more than a dozen times on its way to the top.

What keeps the hiker from deciding it's too hot or too steep is the ever widening spectacle of Lake Pend Oreille. The Clark Fork River delta, lush in even the driest and hottest of times, blends its mighty flow with the lake's glimmering waters, creating an image of magical beauty.

The forest also makes dramatic changes. Stream-loving cedar and hemlock down low give way to gnarly Douglas fir over 300 years old and four feet wide. Cone-shaped subalpine fir dominate the higher slopes, like a Christmas tree lot. Even-aged lodgepole pine attest to the fires that have shaped the forest on Scotchman Peak through the centuries the most recent in 1994. High meadows dazzle the eye with a profusion of alpine wildflowers.

It takes a good effort to finally attain the summit, where you may still have to negotiate winter's remnant snowbanks in July. Here the forest gives way altogether to rocky ledges and escarpments. But once you're on top, at an elevation just above 7,000 feet, you'll bless the decision to climb Scotchman Peak. The final reward is the glimpse of history you'll observe: remains of an old Forest Service fire lookout tower lay in a silent heap at the summit, slowly rotting away into the rock.

If you attempt Scotchman Peak, take water, as there is little or none along the trail. And take binoculars, to explore those vast views.

Distance: 8 miles roundtrip. Time: an all day hike. Difficulty: moderate (elevation gain of nearly 4,000 feet). Trailhead Access: take Highway 200 to Clark Fork, turn onto Mosquito Creek Road No. 276 at Hays Chevron, go to Forest Road No. 1058 to trailhead (about six miles from town)

Packsaddle Mountain

The highest peak southeast of Lake Pend Oreille at 6,402 feet, Packsaddle Mountain captures the eye of the motorist driving north on Highway 95 from Athol nearly to Cocolalla. Access to the trailhead is relatively easy and incorporates a scenic drive into the trip.

The most scenic route to the trailhead is by Bunco Road, three miles south of Athol off Highway 95. As you travel up Trapper Creek toward Chilco Mountain, the asphalt gives way to gravel. It'll take a full hour or more to reach the trailhead from the highway, but it's a pleasant drive. Just stay on Road No. 332 once you get up over Chilco Pass.

The Bernard Peak vista is worth the brief detour, if you like extended views of Lake Pend Oreille. Overlooking Idlewilde Bay, and Three Sisters Peaks, you'll relish the sight of Pend Oreille's deep waters shimmering between heavily forested mountainsides.

Bunco Road is a ridgeline corridor; it follows the Clark Fork-Coeur d'Alene Divide. To the east you'll see sweeping views of the rolling hills of the Coeur d'Alene River drainage. To the west you'll see the sharply descending slopes of the northernmost ramparts of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, one of the longest ranges in the Rocky Mountains. Packsaddle Mountain symbolically represents the end of the Bitterroots, as they tumble steeply into the depths of Lake Pend Oreille.

Once you've reached the trailhead for Trail No. 76, on Forest Road No. 1073, you'll find a two-mile hike with easy walking through a shady forest of pines and firs. You'll encounter several rocky knobs that make up the summit of Packsaddle. These giant rocky points are like warts that have erupted on the earth's skin. It's difficult to see which one is the truest high point, but with a bit of rock scrambling, more agile hikers can easily conquer them all.

Distance: about 4 miles (roundtrip). Time: 3 hour hike, but all day with the drive. Difficulty: moderately easy. Trail Access: Take Highway 95 to Bunco Road three miles south of Athol, then east on Road No. 209 to Road No. 332, then north to Road No. 1073 and the trailhead.

Forest maps showing roads and trails can be obtained for $3 from the Sandpoint Ranger Station at 1500 Highway 2, phone 263-5111.

Dennis Nicholls lives across the line in Montana and is former editor of The River Journal.

Back to Contents Page -- 1996 Summer Sandpoint Magazine