Follow Freeman Creek in the lush Beaverhead Mountains to a high pass on the Idaho/Montana border to look over Upper Miner Lakes, still partially covered by snow in July.
Standing on the Continental Divide - Montana/Idaho border overlooking the highest of the Upper Miner Lakes and Sacajawea Peaks across the lake.
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The Freeman Peak Trail (#6033) out of Carmen, Idaho, just north of Salmon, follows an old mining road past the climbing route to Freeman Peak's east flank, through a glaciated cirque to the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail on the Idaho/Montana border. The pass affords a "wow!" moment with a great view of Montana's Upper Miner Lake, 400 feet below, surrounded by snow-covered jagged mountains. During its almost 4,000-foot gain, this hike will take you from relatively dry and sparse woodlands, through a lush forest with water tumbling over the trail, to alpine tundra above tree line. Rain storms the past few days seemed to leave water everywhere: white water rumbled in Freeman Creek and drops of moisture dotted leaves. Freeman Peak dominates the Salmon skyline to the northeast.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest is a pretty incredible place. It's one of the largest national forests in the lower 48 states. It contains most of the land mass of the second-largest wilderness in all of the U.S., named Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River runs unrestricted through this wilderness - "perhaps the best river trip in the world" - according to the website, Whitewater Guidebook.
Our trip to escape southern Utah's searing heat included a climb up the Wasatch range's highest summit, Mount Nebo on the way up to Salmon, Idaho. We were familiar with this "neck of the woods" since we had spent 20 fantastic years living in Boise, and had done many hikes in Idaho. We stayed at a wonderful Carmen Airbnb that had beautiful horses and green pastures.
Trailhead to cabin at base of Freeman Peak - 4.6 miles
To avoid driving on the steep, narrow access road along Freeman Creek, we parked at the "flat" intersection of Freeman Creek Road and a road that heads due south toward Golway and Kirtley Creek (three miles after taking a right off of Carmen Creek Road). You can drive up further than we did, and we saw a small pick-up parked higher up on the way back, but it gets pretty narrow. Our walk took us quickly to Freeman Creek rushing noisily beside us, thick vegetation blocking our view of waterfalls.
The road/trail climbs steadily east-northeast with one good view of the small stepped waterfalls in Freeman Creek. As with many mining roads in Idaho, it traverses a large talus slope, flattening its base as it goes, and then enters the dense forest. We met Eric, a hiker that caught up to us while we took a break. He had his bear spray canister mounted on his pack's chest strap. We had seen bear claw scratches on one tree (see below). He ended up hiking with us the rest of the way in this bear country - safety in numbers! He was a great hiking companion and he said his wife felt better knowing he was with other hikers.
Run-off from side creeks flowed over the road for a few stretches. The looming point of Freeman Peak comes into view through the trees. A sturdy log cabin sits at its base looking at the steep, snow-filled couloir, the daunting route up Freeman Peak. According to a hiker we met on the trail who had summited it a few times, it's better to climb it with someone who has done it before. It seemed a bit much for me, but I could be talked into trying Freeman Peak with a guide. Tom Lopez, in his book Idaho: A Climbing Guide, states that "This route involves sustained Class 3 climbing and route-finding difficulties. The route can be very slippery when wet or icy." Ore Cash Mine, extracting gold from 1897-1912 is near this site.
Cabin to Continental Divide at 5.9 miles
The road continues past the cabin, ending at tree line. From here, hiking toward the lowest point on the horizon (the pass), we eventually found a trail that ascends to the pass for ~ 0.5 miles. We picked our way through this alpine terrain strewn with rocks and low-profile wildflowers, including one of my favorites, Western Moss Heather. It also grows on the slopes of Alpine Peak in the Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness. It was great to have Eric hiking with us because we got another source of encouragement.
The view we three saw from the Continental Divide was about as picture-perfect as you can get. We stood on packed snow overlooking a small steel-blue lake surrounded by the Beaverhead Mountains, with snow clinging to steep talus fields and couloirs, the clouds reflecting in the water. The actual Continental Divide Trail avoids these high peaks and steep terrain; it heads in an easterly direction just north of Freeman peak to traverse by lakes.
There's a feeling of celebration when you head back to the trail head, a subconscious bonding with your fellow hikers. Inspiring scenes, camaraderie and movement combine to create a certain elation, not to mention the good brain chemicals that are released during exercise in nature. Movement makes you feel better! On our way down the alpine valley, most of the clouds had drifted away, and the forest we had ascended was now illuminated by the sun. It's one of those transient scenes - a fleeting moment of time that I add on to all of the treasured memories I have accumulated while feeling so small in the grandeur of the American West.
"I never knew a man who felt self-important in the morning after spending the night in the open on an Idaho mountainside under a star-studded summer sky."
- Frank Church, former U.S. Senator from Idaho, instrumental in creation of Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness in 1980.
Stay Curious! Keep On Exploring!
For the Geocurious: Ore Cash Mine
This trail gets close to the remains of cabins and some equipment of the Ore Cash Mine. Gold was the primary mineral mined from Oro Cache Mine (on map called "Ore Cash" mine) between 1897 and 1912. The host rock was quartzite (metamorphic quartz sandstone) of neoproterozoic age (1/2 to 1 billion years ago). The deposits were from four veins; the Oro Cache vein was 4-6 feet wide in a shear zone (zone of strong rock deformation). There were 9 adits that became inaccessible in 1976.
Our GPS tracks on Freeman Peak Trail, trailhead to the right, trekking around the base of Freeman Peak to the Continental Divide on left side of map. North points toward bottom of photo. Salmon, Idaho is in valley to the south, at top right in photo.
Freeman Creek in July!
Water flowing over trail in a few places.
Some cool stuff on the trail.
Reaching the pass at the continental divide; Montana's Upper Miner Lake below.
Heading back toward Freeman Creek head waters.
Western moss heather
Sue and Fred on the way down towards remains of Ore Cash Mine.
Looking northwest to Copperhead Peak (right horizon) - another peak seen from Salmon, Idaho.
Click on interactive map of our GPS tracks.
Map of roads from Salmon, Idaho to our trailhead.
from Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho - Visitor Atlas 2020.
Our GPS tracks and elevation profile for Freeman Peak Trail hike. North points to top of map. Trail head on left; Continental Divide (Idaho/Montana border) on right.
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west.
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