Hikes to heaven
Wedged between mountain ranges to the north, west and east, Sun Valley is a virtual mecca for summer hiking. But with such a bounty of trails, navigating the almost limitless options can seem overwhelming. To steer you to the path of righteousness, Steve Benson coerced five local hiking gurus to open their vaults and share their favorite treks.
Pick a hike from those numbered here, read up on its special features and make it your favorite this summer. Click on map for a larger version.
1. Herd Peak from the
When other local trails are still buried under snow or glazed with mud, Herd Peak, with its generally south-facing aspect, is a perfect early-season alternative. “This hike is all south-facing on a sagebrush hillside,” said Kathie Rivers, author of Idaho’s Scenic Highways. “It’s melted out way before a lot of other stuff is.” Located up the remote North Fork of the Big Lost River, “you don’t see anybody on it,” added Rivers. But what you do see are “stunning views of the Devil’s Bedstead, the Pioneers and the high peaks in the Boulders.” Additionally, Rivers said she always encounters big game, including elk and deer. “But more than anything, the hike is about the views.”
From the trailhead, hikers climb about 1,400 vertical feet in 2.5 miles up the Horse Creek drainage to the saddle of Herd Peak at 8,600 feet. An out-and-back, hikers can turn around at any time, but Rivers recommends getting as high as possible. “It’s easy to make the saddle your destination, but I recommend turning right at the saddle and hiking up another level to the next high point on the ridge where there are more dramatic views.”
From the saddle, it’s an
additional 1,260 feet to the top of Herd Peak and sweeping panoramic views.
“It’s just this gorgeous ridge walk,” said Rivers.
2. West Fork of the
One of the many favorites of Ed Cannady, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area’s backcountry recreation manager, this tough grunt is rewarded with alpine bliss. “Most people won’t do this, because it’s a lung buster,” said Cannady, who spends as much time as possible in the backcountry. “The peaks that confine the drainage are fabulously beautiful, but it’s beyond the trail that the drainage really shines.”
Cannady said the euphoria begins about five miles up the trail, when hikers meet a towering waterfall that marks the entrance to a glacier-carved basin, ringed by 11,000-foot peaks and smothered with wildflowers. “Once you get to the waterfall, you’re in an alpine wonderland. There is a little flower called an ‘alpine forget-me-not,’ and that’s what I would call that hike, an ‘alpine forget-me-not.’” In the first few miles the trail has some steep sections, but for the most part it’s pretty easy. “After that, it’s relentlessly steep, and then it fizzles out altogether. That’s when the options become unlimited.”
Cannady cautions even the
most experienced hikers and route finders to take extra care in the upper
reaches of the drainage. But, he says, it’s worth it. “What I find most
enchanting when you get up there is it’s just so wild.”
3. Johnstone Creek Loop
This 11-mile loop accesses the legendary Pioneer Cabin through seldom-traveled, wildflower-speckled canyons in the shadow of the Pioneer Mountains. Approached via Hyndman Creek Road by way of the East Fork drainage, the area sees little foot traffic compared to Corral Creek, which provides access to the historic cabin from Trail Creek Road.
“It’s an area that affords some beautiful scenery,” says Ted Angle, a hiking hound who has maintained sections of this trail system for the last 18 years. “The wildflowers can be really unique and spectacular, but the real highlight is the scenery. There is one point in particular where you can get a panoramic view of the Pioneers.”
From the trailhead,
hikers follow the steep Johnstone Creek drainage for about three miles
before joining the Corral Creek Trail at about the four-mile mark. From
there, it’s a quick glide up to Pioneer Cabin and an unrivaled view of the
Pioneer Mountains. Rather than retracing steps, hikers can drop into a
series of long switchbacks down into the North Fork of Hyndman Creek valley.
The trail flows through high meadows along the drainage back to Hyndman
Creek Road. To complete the loop, follow the road about a mile back down to
the Johnstone Creek parking area. “On this loop you won’t see nearly as many
people,” Angle said. “I do this hike every year, and I like to take
friends—that’s a nice endorsement.”
4. Norton Loop from Baker Creek Road
Located in the heart of the Smoky Mountains northwest of Ketchum, the Norton Loop guides hikers through large, old-growth Douglas fir (some trees are 6 feet in diameter), wildflower meadows and a string of alpine lakes. A favorite of Frank Rowland, a former interpretive biologist for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the five-mile loop is accessed via Baker Creek Road, 15.5 miles north of Ketchum off Highway 75. The hike starts with 1,500 vertical feet of climbing in the first two miles to lower Norton Lake. But after a short scramble to a saddle above the lake—the high point at 9,200 feet—hikers are rewarded with sweeping alpine vistas.
Numerous lakes pepper the area, offering good fishing, but Rowland says the main draw is the wildlife viewing. “Anywhere along the trail you have a good chance of seeing deer, and when you’re up in the lake basin portion, there’s an excellent opportunity to see mountain goats, and the wildflowers in the early part of the year—up until mid-July—can be really spectacular.”
The trail is long enough for a fairly decent workout, said Rowland, “but it doesn’t necessarily take the whole day.” There are numerous opportunities along the hike to branch off trail and explore, particularly in the lake basin.