42 Mile Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Trek to Bitch Lake

Running Lake, Idaho
Running Lake, Idaho

The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is 1.3 million acres in size – the 3rd largest wilderness area in the lower 48. Seperated from the Frank Church Wilderness by the Magruder Corridor – a road that is only traversable 4 months of the year – it makes Central Idaho both the most remote and largest intact temperate wilderness area on the globe. Hidden deep within this land of extreme topography and evergreen forests is one of the most remote lakes in America – Bitch Lake. The name raises eyebrows but it’s well deserved. It is a small glacial lake fed by springs erupting from the cliffs surrounding it. Full of naturally reproducing west-slope cutthrout trout, the journey to this remote eden is well worth it.

Elk Mountain Trailhead

Over 3 hours northeast of Elk City, Idaho, the Elk Mountain Trailhead is at the literal end of the road. Pavement ends immediately upon leaving Elk City and part of the journey follows the legendary Magruder Corridor. Lack of maintenance makes it a requirement to carry a chainsaw to get a car into the wilderness. Trees litter the roads and the only way to get a vehicle through is to cut a way in. Having a reliable vehicle is highly recommended, making this journey to the middle of nowhere also means there is nobody around to help you. We drove to the trailhead on 4th of July weekend and were the only people up there.

Click Here For Directions to Elk Mountain Trailhead

Day 1, Running Lake

The trek begins instantly. Leaving the small parking area behind, the trail switchbacks up Elk Mountain. There is a saddle near the peak from where Running Lake is seen. This beautiful body of water is larger than Bitch Lake and arguably almost as remote. The hardest part of the hike is actually dropping into the basin where the lake sits. There are remnants of a trail but the years of isolation make this trek a classic Idaho experience full of bushwhacking, and ankle breaking slopes.

Running Lake, Idaho

Deep cold blue water makes for a paradise hidden away in the mountains. Excellent brook trout fishing is found in the waters of Running Lake. The limit is 25 per person and catching your limit is not hard to do. There is also a nice little campsite on the western edge of the lake.

Day 2, 17 Mile Trek To Bitch Lake

Climbing out of the Running Lake Basin will be one of the gentler aspects of the hike to Bitch Lake. Although most of the hiking follows ridge-lines, the unforgiving terrain of Idaho makes it mandatory to drop into steep-sided valleys with slopes greater than 27-degrees. The rocky 7,000′ mountains offer views that are as magnificent as they are isolating. Few trees cover the hill sides which allows for incredible views. The magnitude of the wilderness is all encompassing. In every direction – 360 views – there is not a road or a radio tower in sight. The mountains stretch endlessly like waves on the horizon. If it’s your first time in Idaho, it might take a few days of full immersion to appreciate the beauty in the expansiveness.

The hike is incredibly remote and the hills of central Idaho see little human traffic. As a consequence animals, such as bears, act as if they have never seen a human before, which is likely the case. We highly recommend carrying bear spray or even a gun if you’re hiking solo.

Bitch Lake, Idaho
Bitch Lake, Idaho

There are trails for the entirety of the trek except the last .2 mile descent to Bitch Lake. The lake is devoid of all human impact – no fire ring, nothing. The lake is relatively shallow and the water is warmer than Running Lake. Bitch Lake provides the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos and insects. The bugs are brutal but the fish are big because of it.

Day 3, Leaving Bitch Lake Behind

The return journey retraces the path followed to gain access into the wilderness. However, hiking the same trail the other way is like exploring new terrain. New mountain ranges and views that were unseen before provide an entirely new perspective. The huge size of the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness provides a backdrop for a true Idaho experience.

selway bitterroot wilderness, idaho

Idaho-famous Moose Ridge provides stunning view points of the landscape surrounding it. The monolithic Bitterroot mountains thrust their jagged peaks into the eastern horizon. Snow-covered for 12 months out of the year, these are the same mountains Lewis & Clark called, “the most terrible mountains we ever saw”. On full display is the harsh beauty of North America’s heart. This landscape is truly the wildest and least trodden in America.

Day 4, Back To Running Lake

This last day of hiking was short and sweet. The trail is well taken care of thanks to guided tours using pack animals on this section.

Another example of the free market doing more for trail maintenance than the federal government.

The numerous springs and streams in this section originate from above 7,000′ and are safe to drink from. We only filtered water collected from lakes and drank freely from every stream and spring we crossed. None of us got sick.

Central Idaho is a land of extremes where all 4 seasons have an equal foothold on the landscape. From harsh winters and snowpack that is sometimes greater than 10′ to hot summer temperatures that reach into the triple digits. Fire, rain, hail, and lightning, this is not a place for those seeking comfort.

selway bitterroot wilderness

Like all aspects of Idaho, the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness is a place of extremes where nothing comes easy. This hike shows off some of the “most terrible” landscapes in America but the rewards are just as great. World-class trout fishing and wildlife viewing awaits the brave few who make it this far into the dark spot on the map.

Wild West Trail Notes

Do not attempt this trail early in the season without crampons and an ice axe. There are many miles of bushwhacking and knowing how to follow your GPS and/or read a map and compass is a mandatory skill for a successful traverse. Carry bear spray and tree your food, these animals are not conditioned to seeing humans

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