Mount McGuire

Mount McGuire is the highpoint of the Bighorn Crags, near where the Salmon River makes its big turn west, proving that it really is going to drain into the Pacific after all.  The scenery is spectacular, like a smaller, more concentrated version of the Sawtooths, but unfortunately there was a lot of haze and we only got the gist of it.

hazy ridge

My hiking partner was Jeff Hunteman who lives in Salmon but had never been in the Crags before.  We met at the Crags Campground, adjacent to the Crags Trailhead, which are both part of the Crags Complex.  This is the jumping off point for almost anything in the Crags, and the parking lot at the trailhead was quite crowded, while the campground was mostly empty.  I gathered that this was the normal state of affairs, people just drove up here and started backpacking.  Based on the trail registers, day hikers like us were a rarity.  This is understandable, given what a long drive it is in.

We had a long day ahead of us, so we started at 4am.  We were well inside the wilderness area by the time the sun rose, and we discovered that we had taken a wrong turn.

random peak

In fact, the trail we missed isn't on the paper topo, or the "historical" map that I had downloaded onto my phone.  But when we arrived at Wilson Lake, Jeff knew exactly what we had done wrong.  We added about 2 1/2 miles to the hike, as if the hike wasn't long enough already.  But the trail was very good - not a single stick of deadfall blocked it, amazing in a wilderness area, and the grade was always gentle.  A very stock-friendly trail.  The trail was even more impressive as it descended along the hillsides between Wilson and Birdbill lakes, although Jeff made a good point that it would not be a fun place to be in an earthquake.

As we approached Airplane Lake, Jeff found a good place to leave the trail and contour over to the gully that leads up to the tarn at 9150.

trail cutoff

The hiking up to the tarn was easy.  And for some people, the boulderfield that followed wouldn't be bad either, making for a very long, easy hike all around.  But the boulders were hard for me, and I added at least an hour to our time as I stumbled my way up and then down.  The boulders extended all the way up the ridge to the top.

Jeff on the boulders

At the top we had a hazy view of Ship Island Lake, and we couldn't even see the Middle Fork.  It was a little disappointing, but it was still a pleasant place for Jeff to enjoy his individually-wrapped slice of Spam.

Jeff eating Spam

We had seen a campsite at Wilson Lake, but we had not seen the camper, even though he had seen us.  On the way back, we were past Birdbill lake before we saw our first people of the day, a family of four backpacking in.   I think they thought they had gotten an early start that morning  and were surprised to hear that we had already made it to McGuire and back to here, but they were less surprised when they heard when we started.  We saw another backpacker shortly after we got to the section of trail we had missed that morning, and then passed a forest service work crew.  Finally we made it to the place where we had made the wrong turn that morning, about 4 miles from the trailhead.  There we met the camper who had been at Wilson lake that morning.

Another crag

We stopped to talk to the hiker, who was a philosophy professor at CWI.  We had walked over 20 miles already and I took the opportunity for a rest, and Jeff didn't seem to mind.  Actually, Jeff didn't seem to mind ANYTHING the entire trip - he is a very good natured guy in addition to being an excellent athlete and experienced hiker.  While we were there, another family of four showed up, this time friends of Jeff from Salmon.  They had forgotten to pack all their food, and were running low, so we gave them what we had.  We continued out shortly after that, with the CWI guy, who I think was named Ian.

We got back to the trailhead exactly 14 hours after we left, having hiked a total of 24.6 miles and over 6000 feet of gain.  Our detour and my stumbling up and down the boulderfield cost us at least 2 hours, and fitter hikers could shave off another 2 hours, but it 's probably a long day for just about anyone.  I can see why people like to incorporate McGuire into a backpacking trip.