John’s Creek


Forest Service Trails #478, #401 & #407

Why? Fine woods and a huge meadow where deer really do play.

Season: Late May through October

Ease: Difficult, a 11+mile circle with over 2,400 feet of elevation gain and loss

Circle hikes are hard to come by, and you have to go some before you’ll find a nicer one than the trail system off the South Fork Clearwater River that sits along and above John’s Creek. In fact, the only real problem with the circle is a scarcity of camping spots if you want to spend more than one day out – something I recommend since it’s just too nice a place to rush through on a day hike.

Either way, day hike or backpack, however, the start of the hike isn’t fun as it’s switchbacks up the steep hillside to a trail split, with #478 going left and above John’s Creek to Blue Ridge, and #407 going right closer to John’s Creek. I’ve always gone left – and been rewarded by a whole bunch more uphill before topping out. At that point, however, most of the hike’s uphill is over and done with except for a short hutch up out of the ranch area heading north on the #407 trail.

There’s open ponderosa pine forest at the start that gives way to a mixed forest including Douglas fir. Bear Springs is easy to spot – it’s a large wet spot in the trail. However, finding camping that isn’t also wet means walking a short distance farther north and camping on the uphill side of the trail.
It’s not far from the springs to the junction with the connector trail #401. The connector travels through lovely woods, thick with trees, hanging moss and a low, bright green understory.

The woods open as you approach the Gilmore Ranch, a private inholding with a private trail to it off to the right. The public trail continues downhill and is marked with brown stakes. It’s here that you can see the huge meadow and where, if you camped above the private property, you could come to watch the animals morning and evening. The other option would be to leave Bear Springs very early in the morning or return to it after dark.

The highlight of our trip occurred shortly after we headed uphill on the #407 trail, after we’d spent a half hour or more playing hide and seek with elk and deer in the woods. Our lead hiker came upon a cow elk with what must have been a brand new calf. We all watched her nudge it along to get it into hiding just off the trail, the calf barely able to maneuver on its wobbly, brand new legs. If we’d been any earlier, we’d have been midwives.

The trail on this side tops out on a steep hillside above Johns Creek, then heads downhill to junction with the other end of the private trail to the Gilmore Ranch. From then on, it’s the usual in and out of small drainages before returning to the junction at the start and then the final switch backed downhill to the trailhead.

Trail Notes: Due to a large inholding at the Gilmore Ranch, about the only place to camp is 4 miles or so in along the trail #478 leg of the circle, near Bear Springs. If you carried large water containers and were willing to haul water a long way to camp, it would be possible to use space along the #401 connector trail before it enters the inholding. Camping there would give you the opportunity to spend some time watching the huge meadow that abuts the ranch buildings themselves, that place where deer truly do play, and both deer and elk graze to their hearts’ content.

Directions: The trailhead is at the footbridge between mileposts 19 and 20 on Highway 14, which is off Highway 13 out of Grangeville

Information: Salmon River Ranger District, NPNF, (208) 983-1950

Maps: USGS Huddleston Bluff and Hungry Ridge, Idaho

Connection: Trail #478 continues to Sourdough Peak, which also can be reached by car, at least in theory. The one time I tried to drive there, I turned around after a few miles on a very bad road.