Copper Butte


Forest Service Trail #602

Why? Views, solitude, and a great entry into beautiful backcountry

Season: Mid-July through September

Ease: Difficult, with 2,000 feet up and 1,600 feet down one-way over about 5 miles to Little Copper Butte.

If you value solitude yet want to visit the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, try the trail to Copper Butte and beyond. Unless you stop at the lookout up the road from the trailhead, you’ll be alone except during hunting season. Not that I’ve found the rest of the wilderness crowded, just that this is certainly a quiet section of it.

The hike to Copper and Little Copper Buttes is a ridgeline walk that roughly follows the wilderness boundary for the first 5 ½ miles to just shy of Little Copper. It spends most of that time in the woods, but with enough open areas offering flowers and views to keep you interested.

The trail starts with a swift downhill of 1,000 feet that you’ll feel more on your return to the car, then crosses the saddle above Mica Creek, where you’ll find the wilderness sign. Then it’s uphill 1,200 feet or so, mostly via switchbacks. The first views are of the Meadow Creek drainage, then of the Coolwater Ridge, Fog Mountain and Selway Crags area. As the trail detours around the top of Copper, there are first glimpses of the country to the southeast, over green, green drainages to the Indian-Rocky-Vermillion Peak ridge, with Square Rock and Wylies Peak beyond in the distance. This is not an area you’re likely to see from other hikes.

One of the more interesting sets of views are from the saddle after Copper Butte, next to the junction with the trail to Prospect Point. They’re of the Selway Crags, but from an angle they’re rarely seen from. It’s also a fine and shady lunch spot.

At the next saddle, just before Little Copper butte, there’s a trail junction. If you’re looking at a forest map, the trail on the map is the one on the right. It stays below the ridgeline, tracing the drainages between Little Copper and Drake Saddle. If you’re looking at a USGS topo map, the trail on the map is the one on the left and the one that goes to the top of Little Copper, a good stopping place for an out and back day hike.

Once you’ve done this out and back, however, you’ll surely want to backpack farther in (see Connections, below).

Directions: Turn right onto the road along the Selway River just shy of mile marker 97 on Highway 12. Turn right again at the bridge over the Selway, upstream from the falls, about 18 miles later. Continue on this road until it crosses Meadow Creek, then turn left on Road 290 for 12 miles of single lane, slow going from 2,000 to 6,800 feet. The trailhead is well marked on the right about 8/10 of a mile before the lookout, which you should visit so as to get a sense of the area.

Information: Fenn Ranger Station, NPNF, (208) 926-4258.

Maps: USGS Fog Mountain and Vermillion Peak, Idaho.

Connections: A backpack out of Indian Hill is definitely worth the effort. Mine from Indian Hill to Grave Meadow, a trip of14 miles with 5,000 feet in elevation change each direction, covered four nights, one each at Drake Saddle, Red Lake, and Grave Meadow on the way in, so to speak, and at Buck Lake on the way back to the trailhead.

There’s almost adequate flat space for camping at Drake Saddle, but water is maybe ¼ mile back. Buck Lake is up and over the next rise from Drake, and the trail from there to Indian Park was perhaps the easiest part of the trip.

Indian Park is an open meadow with a meandering stream or streambed, depending on when you visit. In July, the higher parts of the streambed were carpeted in buttercups. If you walk to the top of the hill above the meadow, you can look out in two directions on land that’s never been mechanized, never industrially developed. Probably the closest people are at Moose Creek Ranger Station or back at the Indian Hill Lookout. Up close, there are great snags and just below the ridge, a fine rock pillar.
Leaving Indian Park requires a bit of attention. If you hike to the saddle for views soon after leaving the park – views well worth the short hike – you might make the same mistake as we did and not get all the way back down to the trail. There’s an old trail, the one on the USGS maps, that follows the ridge. It’s blocked off shortly thereafter. The current trail stays below the ridge top, on its right side if you’re hiking in.

Red Lake comes soon after, a right off the trail that’s not marked. If you take a right on the second fork on the trail to the lake, you’ll find a small camping area at the lake’s north end. While we were there, three elk bulls visited the south end. One went for a swim, ducking down in the water and generally looking as if he was having fun.

From Red Lake, it’s a short hike to Grave Meadow. Along the way, there are great rocks at the saddle, great color, and great views. You can even see the pillar just below Indian Park. There is a grave at Grave Meadow, a pile of rocks a few yards off the trail, as well as remnants of an old cabin in the form of a rectangular arrangement of old logs. The meadow itself has two levels, the lower wet with pools and meanders, and the higher dry, for the tents. Both sit below the rocky face of Indian Peak.

Even if you’ve no wish to hike beyond, a short walk farther along the trail will give you some fine views of the next ridge over, from Elk to Bilk Mt and beyond.

The morning we camped at Buck Lake on the way out, my getting out of the tent scared two bear out of what would have been the next tent spot over had there been anyone in it.