Windy Ridge


Forest Service Trail #167

Why? Views and the possibility of hiking from the Lolo Motorway to the North Fork Clearwater River.

Season: July through September

Ease: Difficult. It’s about 4 miles and 2,700 feet up to Bear Butte Saddle, 24 miles and a lot of up and down to the Lolo Motorway at 12-Mile Saddle.

I’ve hiked the Windy Ridge Trail between the North Fork of the Clearwater River and Bear Butte twice, once as an out and back day hike from the North Fork, and once heading down to the North Fork at the end of a 24-mile backpack from 12-Mile Saddle on the Lolo Motorway. Both times I thought it a fine hike, well worth the elevation difference between the butte and the river.

The trail starts at the Fourth of July Packbridge across the Clearwater and for much of its length follows the drainage of Fourth of July Creek. There are small cedars at the start, then other conifers as the trail climbs higher. The trail crosses several small creeks. The under story is full of bushes, in bloom or in berry depending on the season, with plenty of other wildflowers in bloom when the time is right.

While there are occasional glimpses of the other side of the North Fork when you’re in the woods during the first half of the hike, it’s not until you pass the halfway point and circumnavigate a butte largely devoid of trees that the views get tremendous: Pot Mountain and all the area between it and you, Cold Springs Peak and Flat Mountain. I can’t imagine getting any better views from anywhere else, although the Junction Mountain Trail is a close contender (hike 24) and you can’t beat the view of Pot from Clarke Mountain (hike 20). It was from the Windy Ridge Trail that I first realized how massive Pot Mountain is, even though I knew beforehand that the large “jog” in the North Fork goes around it.

Close to the saddle and the top of the ridge there’s a small stretch of deciduous woods topped off with a grove of aspen. The latter made nice gentle background noises in the breeze when I sat on the flat top of the ridge to rest, snack and ponder the trip down.

At Bear Butte Saddle, the trail appears to join with two trails. The sign says that the one heading upriver is not maintained, and that looked to be the case. It became faint within a few yards. The trail in the other direction actually is the continuation of The Bear Butte Trail.

The trail to and from the Lolo Motorway crosses Cook Mountain, a worthy destination all on its own. It has a relatively flat top, with water available just a few steps down at the top of Johnny Creek. From various places on the top, there’s a 360 degree view – and a lot to see. The year I hiked was an awesome beargrass bloom year, and Cook was a fine place to see it.

One of the earlier campsites was at the head of Fourth of July Creek. Next to it I saw my first wild marsh marigolds, and my first wild white violets. The last campsite was at Camp George, with outfitters buildings and corrals and some rather noisy, barking elk in the evening.

Note: This hike, especially the day hike, has been a good bird hike. On my way up during my day hike, I was carefully watched and was actively buzzed by a Northern Goshawk. On the way down, the reason was obvious: what I assume was its young, though I admit that identifying hawk young is a job for someone more expert than me. A brown hawk was sitting on a tree stump at the edge of the trail near where I’d seen the goshawk. When it finally “flew” off, it was obviously a juvenile: it couldn’t really fly, just flap its wings and move over the low brush until it disappeared.

Up on the ridge top, I watched two woodpeckers whose nest was about 25 feet from where I sat to eat lunch. One of them would come to the nest hole in the tree and then I’d hear chicks. Sometimes the adult went inside the nest for a second or two, as if to deliver a quick meal, and sometimes it stayed longer as if to feed and perform other nesting duties – or maybe just rest. Both adults looked striking, with bright red on the top of their heads and under their chins. I decided later that they were red-naped sapsuckers because they also had red splotches on the backs of their heads.

Coming back down the trail I saw a salamander, always a fine sighting.

Trail Notes: The entire trail is open to two-wheeled motorized vehicles. We did our backpack from the Lolo Motorway to the North Fork over a fairly leisurely 5 days, during which we saw one. The hike easily could be done in four, with a long first day to past Monroe Butte.

Directions: Turn left off Highway 12 just past milepost 51 at Greer and onto Highway11. Turn right on French Mountain Road just before mile marker 29. Turn right when you reach the North Fork Clearwater River 29 miles later. The packbridge is a few miles upriver from the Weitas Creek Campground, and it’s one of those “You can’t miss it” kind of things. The trailhead is signed.

Information: North Fork Ranger District, CWNF, (208) 476-4541.

Maps: For the North Fork end, USGS Junction Mountain, Idaho, has all but the start of the trail, which is in USGS Pot Mountain, Idaho. For the Motorway end, USGS Lookout Mountain, Idaho. For the middle, Cook Mountain, Idaho.