Finding Treasure on the Great Divide

by Dennis Nicholls

Drenched in a glorious cascade of afternoon sunshine, I lay prone on a grassy knob, oblivious to the other five people around me; that is, until one of them exclaimed, "There's one!"

I bolt upright and watched Susan point across the canyon to the far hillside. "What is it?" I asked.

"An elk horn," Carolyn said. I strained until my eyes rolled into the back of my head, but couldn't see it.

"What I do is carry a pair of binoculars," Susan explained, the Nikons glued to her face. "That way I can glass the open slopes and pick out antlers half a mile away."

I grunted, squinting my eyes while scanning the rocky ridge across the gaping chasm before us. I figured my eyesight was good enough to spot any elk antler close by, but by the time Susan called out her fourth shed, I demanded she give me the 'nocs for a look. Sure enough, I quickly located a branch-like antler hung up in some brush that no one else had yet seen. I tried to slink away with the glasses, but Susan alertly detected the movement and wrestled them away.

A group of us were up on a ridge radiating out from the Clark Fork-Coeur d'Alene Divide hunting wildflowers. The elk antlers were an added bonus. We were there in May when snow still laid in crystalline mounds in the shade. But on sunny southern exposures the ground was bare, wild biscuitroot and shooting stars were blooming, and elk were on the move.

Beginning at Johnson Saddle south of the town of Clark Fork, the divide that separates the Clark Fork River from the Coeur d'Alene River meanders for 60 miles southeasterly to Lookout Pass. This series of long, low ridges is characterized by dense forests dotted with small alpine meadows and a few rocky peaks.

The gentleness of these mountains has been an open invitation to the U.S. Forest Service to build hundreds of miles of roads and harvest thousands of acres of timber over the past 30 years. Because of that, the trail that used to run its length is now bisected or completely overlain by roads. Yet there are still segments of the Divide Trail that offer relatively easy hiking and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Numerous side trails also intersect the Divide, providing for overnight backpacks, day hikes and picnics.

To obtain trail information on the many trails, call the Cabinet Ranger District of the Kootenai National Forest, 406/827-3533. Or, below are directions for one fine hike that can be done as a loop. If venturing into the Divide region, keep in mind our severe winter will have created a lot of downfall across roads and trails. Enjoy!

The Coeur d'Alene River
National Recreation Trail No. 20

A rare stretch of the Coeur d'Alene River that doesn't have a road alongside it does have a National Recreation Trail following its tumultuous flow. Trail 20 takes the avid hiker into a wild canyon beginning at Jordan Camp on Forest Road No. 403. For seven miles the trail parallels the river. It's easy to imagine oneself in a vast wilderness when traipsing through the heart of this canyon. Only the crashing of the river against the canyon walls and the beating of your heart can be heard.

This trail can be reached from two trailheads on the Clark Fork-Coeur d'Alene Divide. On the summit of Whitetail Peak, Trail 448 begins its descent into Deer Creek, which joins the river five miles south and 2,500 feet down. Farther east, near Divide Peak, the East Alden Creek Trail No. 52 drops down into the valley over a distance of about four and a half miles. They each hook up with the National Recreation Trail a mile apart. Either can be hiked in a day. However, an interesting loop is to go down Trail 448, spend a day or two on the river, then hike up Trail 52 to the Bunco Road, and take the road back to Whitetail Peak. That loop covers some 20 miles.

Access to Trailhead No. 448: The simplest route to take from Sandpoint is Highway 200 to Clark Fork; the Clark Fork Back Road to Dry Creek Road No. 208, which attains the Divide at Buckskin Saddle. Then take the Bunco Road No. 332 to Forest Road No. 3906. The Whitetail Peak trailhead is a mile and a half along that road. Distance from Sandpoint is about 45 miles.

Access to Trailhead No. 52: Stay on Bunco Road for about eight miles from the intersection with Road No. 3906. At the Bunco's junction with Forest Road No. 430, you'll find the trailhead. Distance from Sandpoint is about 53 miles.

For trail information call the Wallace Ranger District, Idaho Panhandle National Forest, 208/752-1221

For maps and forest road access information you can call the Sandpoint Ranger Station at 208/263-5111. The road atop the Divide has always been a challenge to drive high-clearancevehicles are a necessity, and four-wheel drives are recommended.

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