Pretty stream and impressive views in the new Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness

Distance: 8.0 miles roundtrip

Type: out and back

Difficulty: moderate with 1,100′ elevation gain

Best season: summer and fall (I suspect the wildflowers are spectacular in July)

Smoky Septembers seem to be the new normal in the Pacific Northwest. Even when our area isn’t having a bad wildfire year, someone up-wind is. We experienced such a summer in 2017. Our area was having a relatively quiet fire season, but we spent much of the summer choked with smoke from massive wildfires burning in the Cascades and British Columbia.

And so Labor Day 2017 found us debating where to go for a week’s vacation. Anywhere in the Northwest was a gamble, but we finally decided on a trip down to one of our favorite areas, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area north of Sun Valley, Idaho. The area is home to several wilderness areas and offers more great hiking and backpacking than you can shake a stick at. Some of our fondest backpacking memories are from this area.

Conditions were just slightly smoky when we arrived in Stanley, Idaho. We continued south along the Salmon River and over Galena Pass before turning the Jeep onto a rough side road where we set up base camp for a couple nights. We planned to do a few day hikes in the Smoky (ironic, I know) and Boulder Mountains before doing a four day backpack in the Sawtooth Wilderness that would involve both a car and boat shuttle.

base camp along the western flank of the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness
Those are the Smoky Mountains behind us- normally they aren’t THAT Smoky

First up was a hike along the North Fork Big Wood River just inside the southern border of the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness. This relatively new wilderness (designated in 2015) is 67,975 acres and includes some of Idaho’s highest mountains. Twelve summits top 11,000′ and only 29 miles of trail penetrate the area providing solitude for the few who probe its depths.

Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness

Our journey began at the North Fork Trailhead (elev 6,904′) where we found five vehicles upon arrival. This was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend so I have to believe this was “rush hour”. We had awoken to a light frost and 33 degrees at camp. Temperatures had risen slightly by the time we started hiking, but it was still cool enough that we were bundled in several layers. We were forecast for a beautiful day with full sun and temps warming into the 80s. Conditions like this are typical of the Sawtooths in September—expect cold nights and warm sunny days. Perfect hiking.

North Fork TH

Two trails leave the North Fork TH. The left trail follows the West Fork North Fork Big Wood. We took the trail to the right which leads to the North Fork Big Wood. Almost immediately, we crossed into the wilderness and made a short, but moderately stiff climb to the ridge separating the West and North forks. The trail then descended to the North Fork which was just a small stream this late in the season, but was pretty enough.

new sign for a new wilderness

Shortly after descending to the river, we came to a spot where the trail was eroding away. There wasn’t much left of the trail in a couple spots, but we quickly passed that and had good trail the rest of the hike. It was also in this area that views opened up to the north revealing the impressive peaks at the center of the wilderness.

The trail alternated between forested sections and then open areas where avalanches sweep down the canyons in the winter months, clearing everything in their path. We came to a talus field below one such chute and entered a stretch of stinging nettles alongside the trail. We proceeded with caution and were soon free of the nuisance.

stinging nettles

At 1.5 miles in, we came to a faint trail split to the right that goes north to West Pass. We took the main trail to the left which continues grading northwest along the North Fork Big Wood River. At about two miles in, we came around a corner and found ourselves standing about 15 yards from a bull moose feeding along the creek. He stared at us, but seemed little concerned by our presence so I cautiously snapped a couple shots before moving on.

Our views ahead improved as we continued up the canyon.

As we continued on, the trail began a series of climbs followed by brief drops. This added a bit to the overall elevation gain for the hike (not factored into the stats at the beginning of this post). Temperatures had quickly climbed into the upper 70s and those climbs sure did feel warm since there was little shade along that stretch.

In one of the more dramatic sections of trail, the North Fork disappeared into a steep canyon. We hiked off trail to a viewpoint overlooking the river as it squeezed through the rocks. This would be an impressive spot earlier in the season when the water flow is more substantial from snow melt.

The official trail ended at about 3.5 miles in, but a faint trail continued. We made it four miles in (elev 8,006′) before turning around.

Conditions were smokier for our return hike. Temperatures had climbed into the mid-80s so we took the opportunity to splash around at the couple creek crossings we had encountered. All of the crossings were easy this late in the season, but I imagine you can expect wet feet earlier in the summer.

Traffic on this trail was light, especially considering it was a holiday weekend. We only saw one other hiker on the hike in. On the return hike we passed a pair of day hikers, a solo backpacker, and a bird hunter. Not exactly high traffic and just the way we like it.

This hike wasn’t nearly as impressive as most of the nearby Sawtooth Wilderness hikes we’ve done, but few things are. This was an enjoyable hike along a pretty little stream with views of some colorful mountain peaks, solitude, and a moose sighting. I would enjoy returning and doing the hike earlier in the season when the North Fork is running higher and the wildflowers are out.

Direction to North Fork Trailhead: travel north of Ketchum on ID-75. Turn right at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Headquarters and drive 5.3 miles to the trailhead at the end of the gravel road. The road was moderately rocky and bumpy, but we saw passenger cars making it just fine.

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