10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking The Idaho Centennial Trail

Idaho Centennial Trail

The Idaho Centennial Trail is 930 miles long, making it similar in length to the Arizona Trail. Even with this similarity, The I.C.T. is still one of the least discovered long-distance hiking trails in the world. Vast wilderness tracts and the lack of population centers make it a hardcore endeavor that keeps most hikers far away.

The trail was officially designated in 1990 and it follows hiking paths that date back to the days of gold mines and timber extraction. Some of the trails taken follow the same routes that Lewis and Clark traversed when they first crossed Idaho. The Idaho Centennial Trail is a mix of wilderness history and ultimate remoteness. Unlike every other hiking trail in America, the I.C.T. has virtually no trail towns, no trail culture, and almost no cell phone reception. After hiking it successfully in 2018, I want to share the top 10 things I wish I knew before embarking on the Idaho Centennial Trail. 

  1. There Is No Quitting

(Almost) Every hiking trail in the United States is relatively easy to bail from. There are roads and towns, sometimes the trail literally goes through Main Street. The Idaho Centennial is not one of those hikes. For a solid 500 miles, there is no escape. This section of the trail traverses both the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness and the Selway- Bitterroot Wilderness, 500 miles of almost no road crossings. The few primitive jeep trails crossed won’t have traffic on them and are most likely snowed in.  But wait, that’s not the only spot where help cannot be found. The initial 100 miles from Jarbidge, Nevada to the Snake River crosses some of the least populated lands in North America. And then after leaving Wilderness Gateway, there is a 160 mile stretch of no resupply along the State Line Trail, an indecipherable hiking trail along the mountainous spine that makes the border of Idaho and Montana. You’re just going to have to send it. 

2. Burying Water In The Desert

The 100 mile stretch through the Owyhee Desert has almost no perennial water. Hikers have a couple of options, either cache it ahead of time using a 4×4 vehicle or make the strenuous hike nearly 1,000 vertical feet into the canyon to collect enough water for the days ahead. I opted to bury water ahead of time and it wasn’t that bad. If you are planning on hiking, organizing a water drop isn’t difficult. Most likely, another hiker is planning to do a water cache and organizing with them is a painless and simple process. 

3. Aggressive Black Bears

These aren’t your average bears! Bears in Idaho and the Black Bears, in particular, are notoriously aggressive. Unconditioned to humans, they view us as either threats or prey – both of which are bad. I have been charged by a black bear twice while hiking on the Idaho Centennial Trail, in back-to-back seasons. I encourage anyone entering the Idaho backcountry to carry bear spray, maybe even a gun

4. Mail Drops Are Actually Easy To Get In The Wilderness

When planning for the Idaho Centennial Trail my biggest concern was resupply in the wilderness areas. Without roads and post offices, I thought shipping resupply was going to be a logistical nightmare. In reality, coordinating airdrops is as easy as mailing a package to the few ranches in operation. Simply put the address on the box and the mail service makes a run every Tuesday! Plus, it’s cool to see the mail plane land at the airstrip out in the middle of nowhere. 

5. So. Much. Snow.

Idaho gets a lot of snow, and I’m not exaggerating. This landscape is the headwaters for rivers that flow all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These waterways still harbor the longest salmon migration in the world. All of this water is possible because of the amount of snow the mountains get, over 20 feet in some places! The sheer amount of snowpack leaves most mountain ranges iced up until at least the 4th of July. If you are planning a thru-hike, there is a good chance some of these mountain ranges will require crampons. When going south-north, the Sawtooths will most likely be snowed in.

6. Lots Of Water Or Lots Of Fire

When snowpack begins to melt the streams turn into raging torrents of icy water. Early in the season, water is literally gushing from the rocks. I hiked the Idaho Centennial Trail in June and July and endured wet feet every day of the hike

If you plan the hike for later in the season when it’s drier then you have the possibility of forest fires. These aren’t your typical forest fires, these are wildfires that are not put out by the government. When central Idaho burns, the firefighters let it burn. When planning a route through Idaho, you choose fire season or you choose wet feet, there is no in-between.

7.  No Trail For Days

Are you a seasoned veteran at following hiking trails with well-marked signs and white-blazes painted on trees? Well sorry, this trail has none of that. The remoteness of the trail makes it all but impossible for trail maintenance crews to clear the trail every year. Instead, there is a patchwork of maintenance that generally marks the spot where you are close enough to a road that a trail crew can get there. Even if trail crews managed to clean the trail in previous years harsh winters will cover the trail with blowdowns. Even worse are the areas of fresh burn where a fire was put out by snowfall at the end of the season. In the spring, the fresh burn turns into thick viscous charcoal-mud that can be as deep as 3ft. 

And then you have the miles upon miles of bushes, willow trees, and beaver dams that make navigating nearly impossible. Trying to make those miles?? Good luck when you’re literally crawling through the wilderness. I’ve hiked 15 hours to achieve 18 miles of trail. 

8. Embrace the Bushwhack

The Idaho Centennial Trail is hard. Probably the hardest hike you will ever do. Don’t let the bushwhacking defeat you, embrace the experience. Rejoice in your 1-mile/hour pace. This is the last of the frontier, the heart of the North American continent, did you think it would be easy to conquer? Embrace the challenge, embrace the thorns, the mud, the pain, the blood. Because if you can survive Idaho, you can do anything. 

9. Hitchhiking Is Hard

Maybe other hiking trails have the luxury of notoriety where hitchhikers are relatively commonplace to the locals. In Idaho, there is no hiking culture and hitchhiking into town is a lengthy process. It took me hours to find rides –  but the people that did stop were extremely friendly. Remember, this is a 2nd amendment friendly state and if someone is stopping to give you a ride they are packing. Let’s be honest, why would they stop if they weren’t? 

10. There Are No People

Trail culture, campfire stories, trail magic, all things that any long-distance hiker will enjoy on a trail – but not in Idaho. Absolute isolation is the name of the game. Even if you start hiking with other people the statistics don’t lie, they will most likely quit. Taking on the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 is hard enough but the mental isolation is what really drives Idaho Centennial Trail hikers insane.

Hiking The Idaho Centennial Trail

Embarking on a once in a lifetime journey through Central Idaho needs to be on every hiker’s bucket list. The pitfalls that lie ahead of you pale in comparison to the glory that every successful ICTer feels. If you are looking for a challenge and a wilderness experience then this is the hike for you. 

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3 thoughts on “10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking The Idaho Centennial Trail

  1. Hi its Carly. I think I gave you and a friend a ride into Big Sky Montana. Hope you’re doing well and having more adventures! Nice to read about the ICT, sounds like something I dont want to do lol maybe in sections.

    1. Hey Carly!

      Thank you again for the ride, we couldn’t have done the hike without your help! Happy to hear from you 🙂

  2. I live in N. Idaho and was ignorant of just how difficult the ICT sounds. I know there’s terrain that is insane around here but I really would love to hike this some day. Thanks for sharing!
    Buck

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