No bugs. Impressive color. Mild temperatures. Falling leaves. Empty trails. How can you not love the serenity of fall hiking? Most people associate Labor Day with the end of mountain play, but veteran hikers know this is the most spectacular time of the year to enjoy the woods.
Depending on where your fall itinerary takes you, here are three excellent hikes in our local mountain havens. Your best bet for peak fall foliage is the third week of September through the first two weeks of October.
Taylor Canyon Loop
Location: Near Ketchum
Trailhead: From downtown Ketchum, drive north on Highway 75 for 3.2 miles and turn right onto Lake Creek Road. Follow the road 1.4 miles and turn left onto FR 249 (Taylor Canyon Road). Follow the road 0.5 mile to its end and the trailhead.
Not only does this loop offer outstanding fall color, you will also find superlative views of Bald Mountain, the Big Wood River Valley and the Pioneer, Bounder and Smoky mountains. Total distance for the loop is 4.1 miles with 1,300 feet of elevation gain.
From the trailhead, hike north through Taylor Canyon. At 0.7 mile, bypass a large aspen grove and at 1.2 miles turns left (west) gaining over 300 feet through Douglas fir forest to a saddle. The trail contours around a knoll with outstanding views of the Boulder Mountains and turns south at 2.2 miles. Follow the route along the open ridge, enjoying the outstanding vistas down into the Big Wood River Valley and west to the Smoky Mountains, to a series of five switchbacks at 3.2 miles. At the bottom of the switchbacks, arrive at a four-way unsigned junction. Turn left, and descend 400 feet to the trailhead.
West Mountain Trail
Location: Near Smith's Ferry
Trailhead: From Smith's Ferry, turn left onto the well-graveled Forest Road 644 and proceed 1.9 miles to a signed junction. Turn right on Forest Road 626 following the sign to Sagehen Reservoir. Follow Forest Road 626 4.1 miles to an unmarked dirt road on the right. Turn right and follow the road 0.1 mile to the unmarked trailhead.
In addition to fall foliage, observant hikers are apt to see deer, elk and other wildlife. This long trail meanders through meadows, over forested hillsides and eventually climbs to Tripod Peak. You can hike a few miles or all the way to Tripod Peak (6.3 miles one-way with 3,200 feet of gain) for some of the most spectacular views of the Salmon River and West mountains, Long and Round valleys, and on clear days, distant views to the Sawtooth, Seven Devils and Wallowa mountains.
From the trailhead, hike along the dirt road for about 100 feet and turn right onto a singletrack trail. Descend into dense forest and eventually trek past rock outcroppings and aspen. At 1.5 miles, enter dense forest and pass through several small meadows. At 2.2 miles, enter a large meadow that offers the first views of the 8,082-foot Tripod Peak. This is an excellent destination for a short hike. To continue to Tripod Peak, continue along the undulating trail to another meadow at 4.4 miles. Veer left (west) and ascend to the signed junction with Joe's Trail at 5.5 miles. Turn right, and follow the signs to Tripod Peak.
Fishhook Creek Trail
Location: Near Stanley
Trailhead: From Stanley, travel south on Highway 75 for four miles and turn right onto Redfish Lake Road. Follow the road 1.7 miles to a large parking area on the right. The Redfish Lake Trailhead is located on the north side of the paved road that leads to Redfish Lake Lodge.
This easy hike parallels Fishhook Creek and terminates in the beautiful Fishhook Creek Meadow. Although a popular hike in the summer months, the fall sees a fraction of the visitors, and hikers will likely have the trail to themselves. What makes this an exceptional fall hike are the numerous gold and yellow aspen on the neighboring hillsides. In addition to the aspens, Fishhook Creek Meadow is a sensational destination that offers dazzling vistas to the more notable peaks in the Sawtooths, including Mt. Ebert, Mt. Heyburn and Horstmann Peak.
Out-and-back distance is 4.2 miles with 200 feet of elevation gain. If you are looking for a longer trek, turn right 0.7 mile into the hike at a signed junction. The trail ascends 500 feet to another signed junction (Alpine Way Trail) at 1.3 miles from the Redfish Lake Trailhead. For some of the best views near Stanley, turn left (west) at the junction and hike the Alpine Way Trail along an exposed ridge. Views down to Fishhook Creek Meadow and beyond to the jagged peaks in the Sawtooths are spectacular. The trail eventually leads to Marshall Lake in another 3.5 miles from the Alpine Way junction.
Scott Marchant is the author of four Idaho hiking guides, including Hikers Guide Greater Boise. Visit hikingidaho.com for more information.