There’s your proverbial end of the road and then there’s your literal end of the road.
Elk River is at the end of the road. Literally. But it’s where the cars and trucks stop that the fun begins for snowmobilers. Thousands of acres of untouched powder, hundreds of miles of groomed trails and hundreds more of old logging roads lead sledders into some of Idaho’s deepest backcountry with thick stands of fir, cedar, tamarack and hemlock trees.
We tackled the terrain around Elk River last winter for two full days. After returning from our second day of riding we looked at the map and realized we barely made a dent in what the area offers, maybe covering a quarter or a third of the trails and vast country among the Clearwater Mountains in Idaho’s Clearwater County.
Riding begins right from town, where sleds are allowed on city streets. That means you can park your sled right outside your lodging and hit the trails for the short jaunt into the backcountry. We rode primarily north and a bit west of town on our first day in Elk River, staying mostly in the trees as we rode during a steady snowfall nearly the entire day. The snotel site (http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snotel/snotel.pl?sitenum=466&state=id) on Elk Butte (a little less than three miles as the bird flies from town) recorded six inches of new snow that day but we were out in it and would swear it was more like 10-12 inches. Regardless, that new snow only added to the already plentiful powder from an earlier storm. We’re talking coming-over-the-hood kind of deep snow—everywhere. Shovels and Snobunjes were the tools of the day.
As Old As—
One of our first stops was the Giant Western Redcedar, which sits in an old-growth cedar grove. Giant would maybe be an understatement … this particular tree is 18 feet across and 177 feet tall and is 3,000 years old. It’s about a half-mile hike to the tree from the trail but it’s definitely worth it. Just to the north and west of the Giant Redcedar is the Iron Gate Loop, where we spent a lot of time playing in clear cuts, busting trail on old logging roads and digging. There is an open hillside along here below the trail where we dropped off and then battled to get back up. The trail goes right by Hemlock Butte (elevation 5,750 feet), one of the tallest mountains in the entire area.
The Elk River area is dotted with clear cuts, which are akin to open meadows but with stumps from logging operations in years past. Normally you’d be worried about stumps but the snow was so deep we rarely clipped any, especially when we could see where we were going (remember the heavy snowfall). It was stand up riding only, though, because the powder was pouring over the hood.
We didn’t make the trip that day but the locals say a fun ride off the Iron Gate Loop is up to Telephone Booth Hill (4,330 feet), accessed by an ungroomed trail. Instead we headed towards the east fork of the Potlatch River on our way back to town. It’s on, or just off, rather, this trail that you pass the Morris Creek Cedar Grove, one of the few remaining old-growth cedar stands in Idaho with trees in the 500-year-old range.
While we were confined to bigger stretches of trail than we would normally ride, it was the best of both worlds on the trails that day—they had just been groomed and now had several inches of new snow on them. Bonus.
Clear And Cold
The storm blew over sometime during the night and the next day was bright, sunny and cold. And you could see forever in any direction.
Our first destination the second day was Elk Butte, which, at 5,824 feet, is another one of the tallest mountains in the area. We eventually made it to the butte as we stopped to play in a few clear cuts along the way.
On top of the butte are an active fire watch tower and an old cabin—and some of the best views of the surrounding forests and mountains anywhere. And, as mentioned, there is a snotel site there, too. It was plenty cold, as well, with the thermometer reading a balmy minus-3 degrees F. Plus there was a bit of wind to help drive the temps down even farther.
From Elk Butte it was trails, logging roads and boondocking through the trees up and over Isabella and then on to Green Mountain (5,285 feet). Green Mountain is more like a long, fairly treeless ridgeline rather than a summit like Elk Butte. The treeless part made for some great views in any direction. And some pretty fun wind drifts.
It’s from the southern portion of the trail system (east of Elk River) that you have the best views of Dworshak Reservoir, a long, narrow body of water fed by the deep snows the region receives.
Riding around Elk River is by no means intimidating as there is no real extreme stuff like big, long pulls up a gnarly chute. The challenge here is the deep snow and boondocking through the trees. Some of the most fun aspects of the riding is blasting through the clear cuts, which are either below or above you as you ride the logging roads. Go along for a while, come to a clear cut and dive off into the powder. Mark up the hillside and move on. Much of the time you’re riding off-camber as there are always slopes of varying degrees, which also adds to the challenge.
Aside from the great snow conditions and great on- and off-trail riding, one thing that struck us as we pulled out of town on Idaho Highway 8 was that we only saw one group out on the snow the entire two days. We guess that some people don’t have the patience to make it all the way to the end ….
Okay, so Elk River isn’t the end of the earth … but it is the beginning of awesome snowmobiling.