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Copyright © 2004 
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Norton Lake. photo by Lynn Stone
photo by Lynn Stone

The Harriman Trail's alter ego

by Greg Stahl


The Harriman Trail is like a pony ride that leads to the rodeo.

While the Harriman meanders gently through big green meadows and majestic stands of Douglas fir along the banks of the Big Wood River, several lesser traveled trails branch off the Harriman, reaching deep into the mountains to serve up big grunts and scenic alpine tarns.

These hiking and biking opportunities spiking off the Harriman Trail compare favorably with anything available in the massive Idaho backcountry, only on a smaller scale.

“You’ve got lakes, deep and narrow canyons, streams, high ridges, heavily used trails like Prairie Creek, lesser used trails like Gladiator—a really good representative sample of what the Idaho backcountry has to offer, and scenery that will just blow your mind,” said Ed Cannady, a backcountry ranger for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

To the west of the Harriman, the Smoky Mountains cover a large geographical area that includes rolling conifer-covered ridges and alpine peaks. The Big Wood River, which the Harriman follows for much of its length, is the range’s eastern boundary. To the trail’s east are the formidable ramparts of the Boulder Mountains, a range that extends from Ketchum to Galena.

For the Harriman Trail hiker, most spur trails meander into the Smoky Mountains. The Boulder Mountains are predominantly on the east side of the Big Wood River and State Highway 75 and therefore not accessible directly from the Harriman.

Prairie, Miner, Mill and Titus creeks all descend from the 10,000-foot peaks of the Smoky Mountains to empty into the Big Wood River. Each creek originates at a lake by the same name, and the lakes are popular hiking and biking destinations for travelers looking for a little more adventure than the Harriman’s wide, rolling terrain has to offer. Baker and Norton lakes are situated in the Baker Creek drainage, but travelers eyeing these little gems should drive about 10 miles to the trailheads by the same name.

At the Harriman Trail’s northern terminus, a 3.5-mile grunt awaits hikers wishing to trek into high-elevation regions of the Boulder Mountains. Rather than a lake, hikers who reach the 9,800-foot high point of Gladiator Creek Trail are treated to stunning views of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, a region of Idaho proposed for wilderness designation. Gladiator Creek can be done as a day hike (up and back) or linked with trails in the East Fork of the Salmon River or Pole Creek for an extended backpacking trip.

Though its trails do not connect directly to the Harriman Trail, Prairie Creek is home to three mountain lakes. Prairie Lake, the most popular, is a 4.5-mile hike that ascends 1,500 feet of moderate terrain.

“The Prairie Creek Trail is increasingly popular for mountain bikes as an up-and-back,” Cannady said. “It’s pretty low-angle for the most part. It’s open to motorbikes, horses, hikers, mountain bikers. It parallels the stream part of the way. I’ve sat on the side of the trail and seen coyotes and elk, black bear. I’ve never seen a deer up there, but deer are like Hummers, once you’ve seen a few they blend right in.”

Miner Lake is about a mile from Prairie Lake and can be connected with Prairie Lake as a loop or chosen as a destination of its own.

“The loop is a more challenging bike ride,” Cannady said. “When you leave Prairie Lake over to Miner Lake, it’s fairly rocky and kind of technical. For hikers, it’s no problem. Miner Lake doesn’t get much business. It’s a good place to go for a swim.”

Another trail that doesn’t get much use is the West Fork of Prairie Creek, which travels for several miles up a narrow canyon before petering out and vanishing into the forest floor.

“It’s just a beautiful drainage, and there are a lot of mountain goats up there, too,” Cannady said.

Closer to Galena Lodge, the Titus Creek Trail winds into the northern Smoky Mountains on an old road before turning into a trail that ascends to Titus Lake. “It’s got great views of that drainage, some really spectacular views, and a fair amount of traffic,” Cannady said. •

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