On – and off – the Lolo Trail

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Memorial Day weekend started with a misadventure for me and a couple of friends.

After seeing a photo of another friend on the Lolo Trail – a section of the Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark national historic trails – we decided to try to run up to Lolo Pass and back as part of our training for the upcoming Beaverhead Endurance Runs 55K.

While our friend only ran a few miles of the trail, a U.S. Forest Service website and brochure, and a Missoula hiking guide all refer to it being 14 miles from Grave Creek southwest to the pass. Noting that the trail was described as “primitive” and “original historic tread,” and that it crossed a couple of forest roads near Lolo Hot Springs, I called the Lolo Pass Visitor Center for more information and was told it was well-marked.

If we started at Howard Creek, we thought, we could turn around at the pass after about 13 miles and make a 26-mile run out of it.

Long story short: The trail was miles longer than listed and appeared to lack markers in the middle, and  I should have asked when it was cleared last.

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From the parking area at Howard Creek, off U.S. Highway 12 about 18.5 miles west of Lolo, the trail climbed steeply up singletrack past a switchback then just below the ridgeline for about 3 miles. Wildflowers were in bloom and and views down to Lolo Creek and across the Bitterroot Mountains were abundant.

The farther west we ran, the fainter the trail became – but the route was easy to find for the most part, with numerous new-looking markers nailed to trees.

At 4 miles, the trail descended to the south, crossing a couple of old forest roads and switching back several times until we were at the highway. There, not even 6 miles in, we stood confused.

According to maps in the hiking guide, the trail was supposed to parallel the highway on its north side. Private property signs were posted there, however, so the best we could figure was the highway is the trail at that point.

After 1.75 miles southwest on the highway, we came to Spring Gulch, where, again according to maps in the guide, the trail turned west. Finding no trail, we ran up a nearby forest road that it crossed on the maps.

About a mile later, we found an old road where the trail was supposed to re-enter the forest. Comparing the map from the guide to a topographic map downloaded to my iPhone, it appeared to be the right way. About a quarter-mile south, however, the route disappeared in a tangle of downed trees.

Using the topo on my phone, we continued to the south until we reached Fish Creek Road, crossed a bridge and rejoined the trail. After about 1.7 miles along the ridge west of the Lolo Hot Springs, we crossed Fish Creek Road again, just off the highway, and followed the markers back uphill.

The return to the official trail was short-lived, however, as we could see numerous downed trees obscuring the way again.

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We made our way back downhill, crossed to the south side of the highway and followed it half a mile to the Lee Creek Campground, where we could run up the Wagon Mountain Trail and rejoin the Lolo Trail to Packer Meadows and the pass. Already about 11.5 miles in, though, it was clear we wouldn’t be returning.

From the campground, we followed the trail southwest up an old road for about 4 miles – over, under and around downed trees. The route was always apparent, and we saw markers again where the official Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark trails rejoined before the top of the mountain, but there were always more trees in the way.

At the high point on the trail, just below the 5,728-foot top of Wagon Mountain, we ran south down a singletrack trail through an area that previously had been logged and provided views west to the still-snowy peaks of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

After crossing the state line into Idaho, we navigated a short stretch of old road to Packer Meadows at 17.5 miles. There, we saw several varieties of wildflowers along Pack Creek, but were too early for the big bloom of blue camas.

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From the meadows, we ran the final mile of forest road west to the Lolo Pass Visitor Center.

After about 5 hours 40 minutes and 18.5 miles – and low on food and water – we stopped briefly in the visitor center before going out to the side of the highway to hitchhike back to our truck at Howard Creek.

The full, official Lolo Trail may exist, but I doubt we’ll try to follow it again.

Here are a couple of more photos from our run up the Lolo Trail.

Back on the run in Hells Canyon

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The Hells Canyon Adventure Run in March marked the start of my trail-running season this year and represented a return to form after a winter ankle injury.

The three-day weekend over the spring equinox was also the beginning of warm-weather recreation for us and our puppy Gus’ first camping trip.

With mostly sunny skies and wildflowers on the hillsides, we pitched our tent at Pittsburg Landing on the Idaho side of the Snake River on Friday, surrounded by several friends from Missoula.

In January, I had to stop running and see a physical therapist for several weeks after it became painful walking even a few blocks on my injured ankle. I started running again in February, going only 1.5 miles on a level, paved trail, but by the weekend before Hells Canyon was up 17 miles and back  in the hills.

The unofficial, self-supported Adventure Run along the Snake River National Recreation Trail has 15- and 25-mile options, so I was able to wait until that morning to decide on a distance.

When I woke before sunrise Saturday, I was feeling confident so boarded the boat for the longer ride upriver – and longer run back.

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After being dropped off below Granite Creek Rapids, several other Missoulians and I started running the rolling trail to the northeast, crossing creeks and passing historic homesteads in the first 15 miles.

As our group reached the bigger climbs of the day, we began to split into twos, threes and fours. At about 17.5 miles, Suicide Point offered the always-scenic view of the Snake winding upriver from 400 feet above the water.

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Up the steep switchbacks past the Kirkwood Historic Ranch at about mile 20, I met Jen, Josey and Gus as they descended to their turnaround spot and a stop for water. At the end of the day, Gus had about 11 miles on his paws – not bad for a 7-month-old.

After a high traverse across a steep hill and a couple of stretches on the edge of a cliff, we finished back at the trailhead with a total of about 25 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain.

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As has become tradition, the Missoulians staying a second night gathered for a potluck dinner and stories around a campfire before bed and the drive home Sunday.

Here are more photos from the Hells Canyon Adventure Run.

A Hells Canyon trail run to start spring

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

As it did last year, my trail running season opened in late March with a trip to western Idaho for the Hells Canyon Adventure Run.

The event isn’t an organized race – jet boats ferry runners up the Snake River about to drop-offs at 15 and 25 miles, and they return unsupported along the national recreation trail, ascending and descending the eastern side of Hells Canyon. The “organizers” send out an email with the date in advance and request replies in order to arrange for the boats. The only payment is made to your boat driver.

This year, Jen and the dogs came along and hiked out and back on part of the trail while I ran. We spent Friday and Saturday nights camping at Pittsburg Landing, southwest of White Bird in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, with a group of Missoula friends.

Early Saturday morning – the second day of spring – we made our way to the trailhead at Upper Pittsburg and warmed ourselves by a fire while waiting for the boat. Due to the timing of the daylight saving change, dawn arrived before we departed upriver; last year, most of the boat ride was by moonlight.

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

After being dropped off downstream from Granite Creek, several of us from Missoula set out as a group. A light rain fell as we ran, keeping it cool, and we stopped several times to eat and take in the view. The first 10 miles of trail rose and fell along grassy slopes and through occasional stands of trees, crossing creeks and passing a couple of historic homesteads.

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

About 15 miles in, we passed the drop-off for the shorter run at Sheep Creek, and our group soon began to spread out. After taking in the view of the winding Snake below and the sun breaking through the clouds above from a high point at about 17.5 miles, I ended up on my own for the next few miles.

The historic Kirkwood Ranch in Halls Canyon

With about 5 miles to go, I arrived at the historic Kirkwood Ranch, and just as I was departing Jen and the dogs hiked in. After spending some time with them, other Missoula runners caught up and we left as a small group, our younger dog Josey coming with me. The climb out of Kirkwood was the single largest ascent of the day, rising more than 400 feet in about a third of a mile to a steep traverse looking down on the river.

After dropping closer to river level, Josey and I got ahead of our group again and finished the last couple of miles on our own, taking a break at a creek to cool her paws in the water then running along a shaded cliff and back to the trailhead. In the end, I logged about 25.5 miles and 4.300 feet of elevation gain.

We cooled off in the river there as we waited for the other Missoula runners, Jen and our older dog Belle to return, and that night we shared food and stories around the campfire before bed. On Sunday morning, we woke, packed up camp and drove back to Missoula, stopping for a hearty breakfast along the way.

Here are more photos from Hells Canyon.