360 degree views of the Bitterroot Divide from this lookout along the Idaho-Montana border
Distance: 11.5 miles round trip
Type: out and back
Difficulty: moderately difficult with 1,700′ elevation gain
Best season: July – October
I’m a sucker for lookouts. Who isn’t—their views are stunning. Diablo Lookout along the Idaho-Montana border had been on our radar for a few years. In 2010 we hiked the first 2.5 miles of trail during a scouting trip for our Grave Peak Lookout hike. The Elk Summit area impressed us with its meadows, lakes, streams, wildlife, and rugged terrain.
Our nephew hiked to Diablo in early July 2013 and reported quite a bit of lingering snow. By the end of July, we figured we should have clear trails. The trip up US-12 to Lochsa Lodge took a little over three hours and from there it was another hour up to Hoodoo Lake. The road wasn’t quite as rocky as I remembered, but it was more wash board. Condition of this single lane road can vary greatly from year to year, but in our experience it should be passable to carefully driven passenger cars. In the upper stretches, the Forest Service road passes several lovely creeks and through a burn area.
The road dead ends at Elk Summit Recreation Area on the edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. This is a lovely area with meandering stream, lush meadows, beautiful Hoodoo Lake, historic Elk Summit Guard Station, a nice campground, and numerous backcountry trailheads.
We entered C loop of Hoodoo Lake Campground and found a lovely little campsite. It didn’t have a view of the lake like some sites, but it was private and within close walking distance to the lake. As we got to work setting up camp, we were immediately swarmed by mosquitoes and biting flies. This was our fourth trip to the area and we were convinced every flying insect at Elk Summit bites or stings. The flies were especially relentless. They looked like ordinary small house flies, but they packed quite the painful little bite. We hit the bug spray hard all weekend, but to no avail—we were both covered in bites by the end of the trip.
That evening, camp was illuminated by a full moon. At 4:30 the following morning we awoke to the sound of wolves howling. As often as we are in the Idaho wilderness, we don’t often hear that haunting sound. During breakfast, three large bucks strolled into our camp. They seemed unconcerned by our presence and proceeded to feed within yards of us. Elk Summit was putting on quite the show.
After packing up camp, we drove the short distance to Big Sand Lake trailhead located next to Elk Summit Guard Station. We were on the trail by 7:00 which made us happy given the warm forecast. There were only two other cars parked at the trailhead, likely backpackers to Big Sand Lake. Odds were good we wouldn’t see anyone on the trail.
The first mile of trail was enjoyable as the trail mildly rose and fell through the lush green forest.
This trip was too late for wildflowers, but the lower trail had awed us with an explosion of color during our previous visits.
About a mile in, we saw our first burned areas—a change from our first visit. A large fire had moved through the previous summer, scorching much of the area. Sections of trail were still lush and green, but much had burned, adding to the feel of Diablo.
The lower section of trail through Horse Heaven Meadows was relocated in 1995, no doubt to protect the fragile area. The new route passed across a low hillside providing occasional glimpses down into the meadows.
At almost three miles in we came to a well-signed trail junction. Big Sand Lake trail continued straight ahead while we turned to the right onto Diablo Lookout trail. Shortly after this split, the trail began to climb in earnest and we were treated to views down into Horse Heaven Meadows and over to Grave Peak Lookout where we outran a forest fire a couple years before.
It was about a two and half mile climb to the lookout. As we continued to climb, the views got better and better.
Goat Heaven Lakes off in the distance
As we topped out and approached Diablo Lookout, we were surprised to find it manned by an older gentleman and his dog. He greeted us with a wave and “Welcome to Diablo, come on up!” What a fantastic treat! Lookouts in our area are usually unmanned and locked up.
Diablo Lookout, elevation 7,461′. Built in 1965 to replace a gable roof L-4 lookout that was built in 1926. Powell Ranger District, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho.
We climbed up into Diablo and were treated to 360 degree views of the Bitterroot Divide. Bill Moore answered our questions about the area and lookout. He is a Forest Service volunteer who organizes volunteers for the lookout. It was only their second year manning the lookout, but so far it had been a success.
As I snapped off photo after photo of the panoramic views, Bill told Jason about growing up traveling the forest with his dad, a Forest Service ranger. Something clicked in my head. “Your dad isn’t Bud Moore, is he?” I’m not sure if Bill’s look was from surprise or being impressed, but he gave me quite the look and answered, “yes, he is.” Bud was the author of one of my favorite local history books, The Lochsa Story which chronicles the history of the Selway-Bitterroot region and is a fascinating read. How very special—Bill keeping watch over the very wilderness his dad had trapped as a youth during the depression.
We had an enjoyable hike back. As suspected, we didn’t see anyone on the trail all day. From the trailhead we made the drive down to Lochsa Lodge where we stopped for an early dinner. The lodge is a favorite of ours, especially in the summer when they have their Sunday bbq special. Yum!
Directions to Big Sand Lake trailhead: from the town of Lolo, Montana drive west on US 12 for 42.8 miles. From Lowell, Idaho drive east on US 12 for 67 miles. Turn south on Elk Summit Road. Follow this two lane, very washboard road to the signed intersection with Forest Road 360. Turn right and follow this single lane road 18.9 miles to the Elk Summit Recreation Area. The trailhead is located next to the Elk Summit Guard Station next to loop A of the campground. There is ample parking and a privy at the trailhead.