Mallard Larkins


Forest Service Trails #240, #65, #108, #110, #11, #399, #685, and #396

Why? Lovely lakes and fine views in a pocket-sized roadless area.

Season: Mid-July through September

Ease: Strenuous, even if you’re just day hiking.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool, “Oh Look! There’s the place we hiked to last year,” kind of person. Meaning that I love to hike to places where I can see other places that I’ve also hiked. And there is no better place for someone like me to get instant gratification than hiking the U-shaped trail circuit that follows the ridges of the Mallard Larkins. In the space of a few days, you can look back at where you’ve been many times over.

But there are many other fine reasons to hike the Mallard Larkins: beautiful scenery with vistas that stretch for miles, clear mountain lakes begging to be swum in, and huge hemlock trees, to name a few. What I didn’t expect to find there was relative solitude on a July weekend or during a September week. In July, there were enough mosquitoes to keep all the people that I thought might be there swatting. In September, there were none.

The Mallard Larkins is a small pocket of exceptional beauty, a glimpse of seemingly untouched Clearwater high country. It’s not alpine, however, so its mountain tops rarely protrude above the tree line. But the greens of its trees are dark, those of the underbrush and grasses bright. For contrast there are light and dark grey rock walls and outcrops as well as blue-green lakes stocked with fish and patrolled by mountain goats. In the fall, the grasses turn tan and the huckleberries, dark red, and it is perhaps even more beautiful.

The #240 trail along Smith and then Goat Ridges is the easiest way into the Mallard Larkins, and I have used it for entry on both of my trips into the area. The first couple miles along Smith seem the hardest, for they cover the 1,200 feet of elevation gain needed to reach the top of Goat. But once there, the ups and downs are relatively easy all the way from there around to Black Lake, though there’s almost always a downhill of several hundred feet when you want to get to a lake.

The #240 trail follows Goat Ridge from just behind Grassy Point around to Larkins Peak, skirting the Goat and Elmer Creek drainages and Isabella Point and looking down at the area covered by the hikes up Elmer and Isabella Creeks (hikes 17 and 16, respectively). Crag and Heart Peaks offer rocky relief to the greens of the trees and meadows.

The #65 trail heads east from Larkins along the ridge that is the east-west backbone of the area and ends at its junction with the #110 and #399 trails. The former heads northeast, the latter heads south toward the Nub. All the lakes on the north side of the area are on trails that intersect with the #65 trail except for Mud, which is off the trail that leads to Larkins Lake. Crag Lake was our destination on my first trip, and from there we day hiked to Mud, Heart and Northbound Lakes. On my second trip we camped at Mud, which is a much lovelier spot than its name suggests, and then at Mallard and Black Lakes, the latter for two nights.

Mallard Lake is reached using trails #110 and #11. Its surrounds are marshy, which is not a problem in September but could be earlier in the season. Black Lake is on the #685 trail that continues past the lake to the Black Mountain Lookout, a site definitely worth a side trip.

What ties the area together for the “Oh Look!” kind of person is that when you’re on the inside of the ridge (the Larkins is a sort of an inverted U-shaped area) you can often see the opposite ridge and mountain tops – where you have already hiked or where you will be in a day or two. And when you visit the Black Mountain Lookout, you can do even more of that, and more easily since you can sit there with your map and scope it all out. From the lookout – and other spots along the trail, too – you also get a fine view of Pot Mountain and other high areas of the North Fork Clearwater Country.

In the fall, the combination of foliage color, dark trees, rugged white rock and tan grasses always seems to me to be about the most glorious combination you could ask for.

As for wildlife, you should expect to see at least one of the mountain goats that frequent the area – we met three at Heart Lake, saw one at Black lake. I like the way they tilt their heads to the side when they look at you. But my favorite wildlife from either trip was the frog that showed itself each time I sat at the Crag Lake outlet to pump water. Given the number of mosquitoes that joined me whenever I pumped, I didn’t delude myself that it was me the frog came to see.

Or, maybe it should be the bald eagle that sat high up on a tree just above our campsite at Black Lake.

Decisions. Decisions.

Note: Mallard Lake and peak were named for the large number of mallard ducks that come to the lake in the fall.

Trail Notes: The #685 trail is fine at its junction with the #399 but deteriorates soon after. It is difficult to follow in places, ugly in others. However, Black Lake and the Black Mountain Lookout are worth the trip, as are the views from occasional open spots along the trail.

The turnoff from the #11 trail to Mallard Lake is unmarked and easy to miss. Keep in mind that the lake and its meadow make for a huge hole in the tree canopy, and watch to your right when you level off after walking downhill on the #110 trail for same.

Also note that on some maps, the trail numbers are different than stated here and on the map in this book.

Directions: Turn left onto the Grangemont Road over the bridge in Orofino and drive 26 miles to its end. Turn left onto Highway 11, then left again at Headquarters onto the Beaver Creek Road. When it crosses the North Fork, continue on Road 700 rather than turning up river. Take the left fork to Smith Ridge 3.3 miles later. The trailhead is a total of 13.5 miles from the North Fork. There is parking on the left while the signed trailhead and a pit toilet are on the right.

If you want to through hike from there to the North Fork near Canyon, as we did on the longer trip, leave a car in the parking area just above the Canyon Work Center.

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

Maps: USGS Buzzard Roost, Mallard Peak, and Sheep Mountain, Idaho.

Connections, sort of: You can no longer hike down into Elmer Creek from the goat Ridge Trail #240.

A hike up to and along part of Smith Ridge would be well worth doing, for the views from it down into the Isabella Creek Drainage and of the ridge from Mallard Peak to the Nub are well worth the effort. Hiking up from the North Fork to Black Lake, however, not only would test your mettle but also would not reward you with much in the way of views. Hiking down it, as we did the last day of our five-day trip, was not even remotely enjoyable. Our trip totaled about 31 miles plus our hike to and from the Black Mountain Lookout. Our last day, on the #396 trail, was 8 miles and 4,600 feet downhill.