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.

Hoodoo Creek

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.

Hoodoo Lake

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. 

Elk Summit Guard Station
Horse Creek

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.

Grave Peak Lookout stands atop the pyramid looking point in the middle

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.

Diablo Lookout views

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.  

26 Replies to “Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness: Diablo Lookout, July 2013”

  1. Awesome! My husband Grandfather used to man the diablo lookout and was a forest ranger: Lloyd Stewart. We plan to hike up this summer 2018 to view the look out tower that he spent time in. Thanks for all of the great information.

    1. Hello J.S.,

      Thanks for your comment. I was interested to read of your husband’s family connection. How wonderful that you will get to see it in person. Standing in the lookout, I have no doubt that it will feel like a very special place to both of you.

      Happy trails!

  2. I was looking at a satellite map of the area and pulled this up to See when it burned last. Thank you for this artical. The last time I was there was 1958. Diablo peak is one of my great memories.

  3. I was the lookout there in 1976 & 77. It is such a beautiful place. The spring for water is a mile down the trail from the tower.

  4. Lusha, thank you for bringing back memories that I cherish. Until just a few years ago, I was a host at the Elk summit Guard Station for 3 weeks every year for about 8 years. I had to give it up due to some personal family matters.

    I did volunteer duty at the Diablo Tower for a week, one year, but my skill level was nil at being a fire spotter, so in the interest of preserving the forest, I gave that up!. (I panicked with each lightning strike, not knowing for sure what to report). As my wife has contended for years, I am directionally challenged so did not make a good fit for the job!) Bill Moore is a great guy and does so much volunteer work throughout the forest. I miss the people at the Forest Service as well as the people I met on trails and at the Guard Station.

    I recognize the areas in each picture that you presented and have hiked a lot of that area. Thanks for posting the pics and the narratives.

    1. Frank,
      Thank you for visiting and sharing your experiences with us. It is comments like yours that make all the effort of these blog posts worth it! Elk Summit and Diablo are such special places- made even more so by people like you. Thank you for your time spent serving the area and people like us! I can only imagine all the wildlife you saw at Elk Summit…and the mosquitoes, man they’ve been fierce every time we’ve visited! We’d very much like to follow in your footsteps and spend time volunteering someplace like Diablo or Elk Summit here in a few years. Any tips would be much appreciated 🙂
      Happy trails,

  5. I fought a few fires around Elk Summit before the wolf introduction in the early 90’s. Back then there were a lot of moose or should I say an abundance and lots of elk as well. Presently, the wildlife is nothing like it used to be pre-wolf introduction. It was a real spectacular sight to see so much wildlife and I’m blessed to have seen it and the difference between present and pre-wolf introduction.

    If it were up to me those canids would never been reintroduced.

  6. This was just sent to me today. I had not seen it before. Very good job and you picked a good day for photography. The upper Lochsa is wonderful country. Diablo volunteer program is still going strong.

    Rejoice in Wild Places

    1. Bill! Wonderful to hear from you! That was a magical day meeting you at the Diablo Lookout and discussing the area as well as your father’s legacy. I am glad to hear they are still staffing the lookout with volunteers. I remain interested in participating in the program and we are getting much closer to a point in our lives that we could do that. Are you a good contact when that day arrives?
      Happy trails,

  7. Did anybody hike down to Duck lake and was there any fish? I was going to duck lake and didn’t know whether to take a fishing pole

    1. Hello Barry,
      Sorry for the slow reply. We were off-grid for the holiday weekend. We did not hike down to Duck. I’ve heard there are fish there, but I cannot confirm if that is true. Always worth a try!
      Happy trails,

  8. I was on the Powell Trail Crew from 1978-1980. We cut out the trails to the lookout, Big Sand Lake, Selway River, etc. The bugs were bad then too and so many moose it was kind of scary at times, but it was beautiful and I always hoped to go back to Horse Heaven Meadows someday. That might be challenging now that they relocated the trail. One summer we built a new outhouse for the lookout:) Another year I found a lost hiker successfully but could not locate an old Ford Trimotor plane that had crashed on Dan Ridge and been erected as a monument by, I think, Bud Moore?

    1. Hi Bob,
      I love hearing stories like this! Thank you for sharing and thank you for your work on the trail.
      Happy trails,

    2. The only known Tri-Motor to crash around there was in 1959 at Moose Creek Airstrip. N8419 was hauled out and rebuilt and is now at the Air Zoo Museum in Kalamazoo Michigan,,,, in flyable condition. The plane crashed on approach to the strip and there were several fatalities. The airframe was extensively damaged and rebuilding it took a couple other Tri-Motor salvage airframes. It is beautifully restored now.

  9. Nice info. Looking for info before Heading for a Sierra club/frankchurch service trip in 2 weeks. Hoping for nice dry mild weather! Clearing trail/etc. group camping at big sand lake.

    1. Hi KW,
      Thank you for stopping by and for your upcoming service on the trail! Typically you would have great conditions for mid-July. This year has been unusually wet so far, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you actually saw a little precipitation. We tried hiking into Big Sand years ago and were met by a mess of fallen trees. We sure do appreciate groups like the Frank Church and Sierra Club. I hope you will consider giving us an update after your trip.
      Happy Trails,

      1. Definitely will give an update later in July. Me and my friend I met on a similar trip last last year in Nevada are meeting in boise and driving up that way. Our flights to butte were cancelled by united last minute so it became our best option. Looking forward to that road trip up thru McCall and grangeville/etc. looks wild an wooly-I will probably be wanting to stop for pictures a lot. Open for any other tips you may have! Thanks

        1. If you have time on your way north from Boise, swing by the Stanley area. The mountains surrounding Stanley are stunning, especially the Sawtooths and White Cloud Wilderness. I have quite a few blog posts if you are interested (from our homepage hover over Adventures by State, then click on Central Idaho). Also, south of Grangeville, the Seven Devils are also gorgeous and see much fewer people and are closer to your route. I have a couple posts on that area under the Northcentral Idaho category. Near the trailhead for Big Sand Lake, a nearby hike is up to Grave’s Peak Lookout. Highly scenic and a great hike- definitely our favorite in the area. I have a post on that also, again under Northcentral Idaho.

  10. Some clarification regarding Dan Ridge. There never was a Ford Crash in the Dan Ridge area, but there was a memorial flight up there in a Ford Trimotor to drop a memorial cross in memory of Wag Dodge who was the foreman at the Mann Gulch incident. Wag finished his careen as the dispatcher at Powell. The actual site where the cross was positioned was on Fern Ridge. Jumpers had looked for it for many years but with no luck as legend had it located on Dan Ridge close to the old LO. I came across an photo in Pop’s Archives that showed the cross and made it easy to find where it had been. Some jumpers and also I made the hike up there and found the base of the cross where it had been set in the rocks. The cross was long gone. Wag passed in 1955.

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