The snowshoe hike to Sunset Mountain Lookout from Mores Creek Summit north of Idaho City, Idaho allows for solitude and beauty on the way to the deep snow of the summit. You will work to get there, but the spectacular view at the top is worth it.
This explorumentary features photos from multiple hikes throughout the years
Our route and elevation profile from ID 21 parking at More's Creek Summit to the summit of Sunset Mountain Lookout (blue line). Most of hike follows Sunset Mountain Road (FR #316)
We follow the forest road, then climb to ridge and go south, short-cutting the road and head straight up last approach (0.75 miles) to summit.
Eighteen years ago, on our first snowshoe hike to Sunset Mountain Lookout, we ran into a skier coming down from the mountain. He said, as he turned and pointed, "turn left at the tall fir tree when you get to the clearing at the top of this rise." It was a bright sunny day and one of our first snowshoe hikes in Idaho. Every time I do this hike, I remember those directions and that tree, although we know the route so well after having hiked it once or twice a year for 18 years.
Over the years, the snow-filled parking lot at Mores Creek Summit, which is plowed, has more and more vehicles and trailers of snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers. This is where two trailheads are located. The snow machines mostly run on the trail to Pilot Peak, on the north side of ID 21, as well as some skiers, while most snowshoers go up to Sunset Lookout on the south side. Getting up over the berm of snow from the parking lot and onto Forest Road #316 is a bit steep, but once you find the tracks and groove of the road, it climbs at a moderate incline. It heads south and southeastward up and then down a wide creek valley, then up to a clearing at the top of a ridge where the road then heads to the left (northeast) briefly before heading through the forest in a southeastward direction. The first view of Sunset Mountain Lookout can be seen - the building a small speck on the highest rise to the south.
First view of Sunset Lookout to the south - building on top of mountain with clearing of trees at its base
After this clearing, the trail descends briefly and is level for ~ 0.5 miles before it begins to climb again. Clearings show the immensity of the Boise National Forest to the northeast, with mountains, deep valleys and tall trees with snow-covered branches. The only sound on this hike is our snowshoes crunching through the snow; the forest is blissfully quiet.
The last half of the hike is a steady climb that gets steeper as the road approaches the lookout. We short-cut the road and switchback straight up the open, steep slope just below the final rise to the lookout. Once up this steep rise, we meet with the forest road and follow it more or less the last few hundred yards to the top.
This winter’s snowshoe hike to Sunset Lookout proved to be one of the most spectacular trips this season because of record snowfall in Idaho and a recent storm that provided 5 inches of new, fluffy powder over a firm base. On the last 1/2 mile to the summit, we followed a skier’s track that made small switchbacks up the steep, final face to the top, where an expansive 360-degree view of white and grey mountains surrounded us. The fir trees were white, too, with only a few inches of green showing beneath branches under thick snow cover. Grey clouds floated by us, now and then obstructing our view. It was a surreal scene that not many get to witness.
Beth and Fred on trail to Sunset Mountain Lookout
Sunset Mountain Lookout - 7,869 feet - 4 .0 miles one-way from ID 21 to lookout - 1,700-foot elevation gain
Fred and I make this trek every winter. We rarely see others, except the occasional backcountry skier. Once away from the parking lot, the noise from the snow machines that run to Pilot Peak on the other side of the summit quickly dies away. Once we saw a snowmobiler, by himself near the top of Sunset Mountain years ago. We dug him out of a snow hole.
After an initial climb for 1.5 miles, the hike levels out as it traverses across a broad, flat area through a Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest in a southeasterly direction. A break in the forest allows a first glimpse of Sunset Mountain Fire Lookout. At about 2 miles, you find yourself on a ridge overlooking a stunning valley with the Boise National Forest at your feet.
Unfortunately, much of this area was burned in the Pioneer Fire in August 2016. As the trail starts to climb again, you can choose to stay on the path the road takes leading to the right, or stay on the ridge with steeper hiking to the left (east of forest road). Further up, ridge and road meet at a small flat area where the top of Sunset Mountain finally comes back into view. This is where the real climbing begins. We hike straight up the final mountain face, instead of taking the gentler, longer road to the top.
Final steep approach to return to high road near summit - switchback to the right of the face near forest
This steep approach climbs 500 feet in 0.25 miles
Once on top, the breeze is colder and the snow is deeper, for the elevation at the fire lookout, which is manned in the summer is 7,869 feet. The incredible view of multiple mountain ranges is worth the effort. The edge of the Sawtooth Mountains can be seen toward the northeast. We wish we could hang out at the top longer on those winter days. We decide to get some pie at Trudy’s Kitchen in Idaho City. We’ve definitely earned it. The thought of warm home made apple pie and the stinging in our hands motivates us to start descending the 1,700 feet down to the parking lot.
Looking east over Boise National Forest ~ 2 miles into hike
Steep final approach short-cutting road to top
Final climb to summit lookout - back on road after steep climb that bypasses road
View of Sawtooth Mountains in the distance from top of Sunset Mountain Lookout
You never know who you're going to meet on the top of a mountain
Walking back to trailhead
About this blog
– "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. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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