Pot Mountain


Forest Service Trail #144

Why? Scenery and great rocks.

Season: July through October

Ease: Strenuous. The trail is 17 miles long. There are about 2,200 feet of uphill from Mush Saddle, and 4,800 feet of downhill from near Chateau Rock to the North Fork.

Pot Mountain is arguably the most recognizable feature in the North Fork area of the Clearwater National Forest. From a distance, it looks massive and rocky. On a map, you can clearly see that it’s the reason for the large “U” in the North Fork Clearwater River’s course. In person and on foot, you can check out the details on the 17+ mile trail that travels across much of its top, from Mush Saddle to the North Fork at Bungalow.

But don’t think you have to hike the whole 17 miles to make the trail worthwhile. A hike of a few miles up either end is worth considering, though far from easy. You’ll see different scenery and more of the fine rock outcrops that Pot seems to specialize in.

I did the hike from Bungalow first, up as far as Chateau Rock. It’s definitely your hike if you’re into rock formations – and if you don’t mind a whole lot of switchbacks.
After just an hour and a half or so, you’ll start to see the rocks, on the adjacent ridge on the down river side of the trail. (This ridge is reached on the Cave Point Trail, hike 18.)

What you’ll eventually see, after a few tantalizing glimpses here and there, is a place bare of significant vegetation but full of wonderful looking rocks. It’s as if a Johnny Appleseed-type giant with a handful of big boulders walked the ridge and gave a lot of thought as to just where those boulders should be placed.

While that ridge is my favorite view from this hike, my favorite rock arrangement comes later, a bit beyond the half-way point, and would make a good turning spot if you don’t feel like hiking more uphill. The formation sits just off the trail but is clearly visible from it. One side looks a bit like a profile of a face or head, whether human or not a matter of personal opinion.

Chateau Rock is 5 miles, give or take, and 3,000 feet up the trail from Bungalow. It’s not visible from the trail itself, but there’s a trailside sign saying, “Chateau Rock” with an arrow pointing to the right. Don’t pass it up if you’ve come that far. The rock formation certainly is worth the short spur. It’s dramatic, for one, and huge – definitely the size of a chateau built by someone with no shortage of assets. It’s especially obvious how big it is when you come on it from the other direction if you hike the whole ridge. And when you realize that it’s the bump on the mountain that you see from many other far away places.

Heading back down from Chateau, there are fine views of the Selway Crags and the landscape between you and them.

From Mush Saddle, which is where you’d probably also start a through hike of the entire 17 miles, the elevation gain is less evenly distributed along the first few miles of trail. In fact, you start out downhill, on the old 5259 Road, and continue on down as you take the first right and come to the stream crossing. Then, it’s gently up until Road 5259B goes off to the right and the trail goes off to the left. At that point, according to the sign, you’re 16 miles from Bungalow.

About 2 ½ miles into the hike, it gets steep for maybe a half mile, then flat. At which point you’re in the hemlocks, a fine hemlock forest with stringy moss draped from the bark, softening the appearance of the place and giving it an odd, decorated feel. There’s also little understory beneath the trees, just like in a dense cedar forest.

The trail gets steep yet again, but for last time, and the rewards are views east and a fine spot to enjoy them from. You’ll see back to the trailhead, Mush Saddle, Moose Mountain, Cold Springs Peak and Flat Mountain.

After the trail passes under the high point of Pot Mountain and slightly below the top of a saddle between that and another slightly lower high point, hike up to the saddle and over it just a few yards. This is another view-to-the-east spot, one with fine rocks to sit on and fine rocky ridges jutting out left and right. The former blocks the view of the lakes you’ll see on the topo maps, and the latter is Pot Mountain Ridge.

If you’re hiking the entire 17+ miles, drop back down to the trail and continue south, dropping farther down to the saddle above Fisher Creek. Along the way, there are views to the west, of the ridge to Bar Point, the Mallard Larkins, and the Lookout Peak and Grandmother and Grandfather Mountain area. At the saddle, there are views south, to the Selway Bitterroot area with the Selway Crags and Chimney Peak, and also to Lookout Mountain and Sherman Peak near the Lolo Motorway. An additional downhill brings another hemlock forest, this one without moss or much understory, and bear grass.

As you travel the ridge in a largely southwest direction, most of the views are toward the north or northwest. And, oddly, they are toward the North Fork Clearwater River as it swings back up and around the mountain.

Close at hand, you get to see a lot of Pot Mountain. The rocks are wonderful, whether outcropped on a ridge jutting out toward the Mallard Larkins or sitting around in jumbled piles. You can check out the ridge you hiked up from Mush, a ridge that looks fairly flat from this angle. In the draws between the ridges of Pot, there are trees – lots of trees – and no roads.

Trail #154 down to the North Fork takes off at Buckingham Saddle, and you pass Buckingham Lake shortly thereafter. The #144 trail then swings more to the south, up and over one last little hill before turning south again and passing Chateau Rock. At some point near that last hill, you can briefly see Chateau from above, and it looks huge from that perspective, much bigger than from anywhere else.

Name Note: The shape of the mountain with its steep sides may have given it its name.

Trail Notes: There is a trail junction about ¼ mile above Chateau Rock. It was unmarked when I hiked. Trail #144 goes to the right.

Directions: Take the 250 Road (French Mountain Road) from just south of Pierce, Idaho, to the road along the North Fork of the Clearwater River. To reach the Bungalow trailhead, turn right along the river, then left in a few yards on Road 250F, Station Creek. Stay right at the first intersection a bit over 1/10 mile in, then go straight a few hundred yards later. You’ll cross a tiny creek at 0.3 miles, after which the road ends in a widened spot. The trail takes off on the left and is signed. To reach the Mush Saddle trailhead, continue on the road up the North Fork for 15.3 miles past the turn to Bungalow and turn left onto the road to Mush Saddle. You cross Mush Saddle in 8.1 miles, come to the trailhead in 2.2 miles more. It is not marked but is where the 712 Road takes off to the right. On the left is a small flat area, below which is a good camping area. The trail takes off to the left of the flat area, on the old 5259 Road.

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

Maps: USGS Clarke Mountain, Pot Mountain, and The Nub, Idaho.