My heart pounded. The sweat soaked my shirt. The sun was merciless beating down on my back and shiny forehead. I could see the summit just up ahead, so I pushed a little harder. And when I got there – I could see the top ANOTHER quarter mile or so up ahead! Those false summits will kill me yet!
This was the summer that I was going to do it! The Dieties and I had studied and approached Little St. Joe Peak in Montanas Bitterroot Range a half dozen times over the past 3 or 4 years, and each time vowed that the next time we came up we were going to do that peak – no doubt about it! Friends and I had camped at the overlook below the peak at the end of the road a couple of times, started up the peak in slushy snow, or too late in the day. I had made it up to the last hurrah of rock hopping to the top realizing my time for the day was past, and I turned back.
Little St. Joe is not one of the most outstanding peaks of the Bitterroot Range but certainly very approachable, following the windy dirt road past the Charles Waters Recreation Area and Bass Creek Campground, between Florence and Stevensville, Montana. The road up onto the bench below the peak, hits a fairly well marked trail from the parking towards the peak. Truly a favorite, at the end of road 1136, the trailhead begins at a perfect parklike picnic spot with a cliff drop off right next to it. A wonderful lookout viewing point from those cliffs affords a view of the cliffs across Bass Creek canyon and a sweeping panoramic view out across the entire Bitterroot Valley. When my kids were little we picnicked and camped there often, with treasured times settled in camp chairs perched out on the cliff overlook. With the expansive view we watched the mountain mists playing across the Bitterroot Range peaks.
Then again there was that pesky trail… . Finally, all the conditions were perfect. I had an early start on that day in July, the snows had receded on the higher slopes – and I had the whole day to myself and my Cosmic Companions to work this climb without rushing.
The trail departs the parking spot, taking a steep decline off down into the next draw. Passing through a wonderful patch of salmon berries, they delay further movement up the trail, sidetracked into working the berry patch. Taking a sharp incline, the trail almost crawls up the next ridge. Hitting the top of that ridge I am again captivated by the awesome view from yet another outcropping cliff, looking out across Bass Creek canyon far below.
Past the outcrop the trail departs the cliffs, into heavier timber for the next mile or so. Working over logs, and zigzagging through the trees it leads ever higher up the mountains flank. I find again that living, working, and training for such adventures down there along the Missoula valley hills leaves something to be desired. I marvel as I hike short distances up to the next turn, then stand there – breathing hard, waiting for the pounding heart to calm. I wonder then that I had suddenly gotten so fifty something old and out of shape. After all, I routinely do 4 to 6 miles training treks up and down my local hills and hardly break a sweat! Of course, the elevation difference of around 3/4ths of a mile from the valley floor serves a rarefied air, forcing me to work to take in enough oxygen to maintain a pace up here. A factor to keep in mind – unless youre younger than dirt anyway.
From the trailhead to the last hurrah at the base of the peak the trail climbs through the timber from around 6,200 feet to around 6,800 feet. Breaking out of the timber again, spectacular views abound from cliff outcroppings down into Bass Creek and of the ranges to the south. For the lunch stop, I sat above the high mountain basin to the north of the trail. This wonderful basin opening out to the north side features a stream, waterfalls, and high mountain ponds. The Dieties have made sure that it is nearly impossible to get enough of this high country splendor.
The hard part: the last hurrah. The trail nearly disappears as I work up, around and through a series of boulder fields. Where dirt – probably younger dirt than myself – does appear between the rocks you know that you are following some version of high mountain trail. The scramble over the rocks tediously continues for the next hour or so, through boulder fields toward that summit right up there!
The false summit hits me as the true summit finally comes into view – another quarter mile on up the boulder fields! An incredible area though, as I pause in my stumbling up the ridge, turning to catch my breath on the exposed face. I absolutely revel in the views up and down the Bitterroot Valley and over across the Sapphire Range to the east.
That last hurrah: a push from 7,200 feet to 9,033 feet, a good 1,800 foot elevation climb, nearly the undoing of this tired old body. But the absolute thrill! Little St. Joes summit was achieved at last…, the little pile of rocks…, the jar with signatures…, and the view – the splendid view in all directions! Absolutely worth every aching muscle, every drop of sweat, a perfect place to settle in for a while with the Cosmic Companions, drinking in the surrounding mountainous wonder.
And of course, perched there, reveling in the surroundings, the pathway leading across the connecting ridge and on up to the summit of St. Joseph Peak standing even taller behind Little St. Joe looks so available. Oh my, another day perhaps, another lifetime maybe.
Twice since others trekked to the top with me, and well do it again. Thank goodness there are wonderful base-camp accommodations all along the Bitterroot Valley from Missoula to Hamilton, serving comfortable beds, breakfast bars, and jacuzzis to soak tired, aching muscles. The Bitterroot Range produces more than its share of those every summer! Set up your perfect base-camp motel accommodations at: http://www.montanaadventure.com. Then dig in – the Montana Bitterroot Range Dieties and adventure are calling!