Three Blaze Trail

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A search for the lost portion of the Three Blaze Trail.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

This was an Idaho Trails Association project in support of the Heritage Program on the Payette National Forest.

The Three Blaze Trail was originally built in 1902, and this area has been burnt over several times since then. Our mission was to try to find a lost portion of that trail. We were partially successful last September, when we came in from Chamberlain Basin and started at Wet Meadows and Shake Cabin, the top of Trout Creek Ridge. This time, we started at the bottom at Campbell's Ferry. If you'd like to know more about the Ferry and its history, buy a copy of Doug Tims' book Merciless Eden.

Our efforts this year were a success on the first day, so we also spent a day looking for the "new" trail that went up Little Trout Creek (there is also the newer, current trail). And we spent part of a third day, after a night of rain, trying to establish how the 1902 sourdoughs crossed Trout Creek, a raging whitewater torrent.

The following photos (the critical ones) are shown with their coordinates, elevation, and time of day.

Day 1: Three Blaze Trail

Our flight left McCall just after 7am under clear skies and cool temps; perfect flying weather. We had each imbibed part of a Dramamine tablet, fearing that we might get airsick and spend part of the day moaning on our backs. As it turned out, it was a very smooth flight, from take-off to wild landing. If you look at the upper left quadrant, you can just see Payette Lake and part of town.

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From the green of town, we were quickly in the winter of the higher peaks. That's Diamond Ridge Peak.

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And not much later (it's a 50-minute fight, give or take) we were looking up the mighty Salmon, "The River of No Return."

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And then down upon Campbell's Ferry Ranch. We would be sleeping in the shiny roof on the left.

Wait... where are we going to land?

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The airstrip is one of Idaho's famous backcountry strips. About 700' long, and on a grade of around 15%. Perpendicular to the canyon, so as you come in on final approach, from the passenger's seat it looks like you are flying right into the hillside.

We survived!

And TSA here is very friendly, even carrying our bags for us. River, the ranch dog, did a very thorough sniffing of them as well.

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After sorting our gear and claiming our beds (beds!), we whipped up a pot of coffee in Francis Zaunmiller Wisner's historic kitchen. After all, it was just barely after 8am.

Ron Watters tells about meeing Francis.

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But soon after our joe, we were hard at work. Doug walked us up the current trail. As we went, we started looking for any sign of the old trail. But the area along the creek has been grazed, camped in, hunted, and burned. This poor tree had marks that might have been a blaze at one time, but they could have been anything. Take a picture. Move on.

9:44:32 AM
2678 ft
N45.49228° W115.32596°

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This is looking up Trout Creek from the bridge. It doesn't look like a fun wade, even on horseback. The whole canyon here, or at least as much canyon as we could see through the dense brush, was like this; foaming whitewater roaring over boulders of various sizes.

9:47:19 AM
2699 ft
N45.49270° W115.32603°

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We did find some tread through "the flats". Red dots have been added to assist those with less experienced "trail eyes." Note that in addition to the previously mentioned uses of this area, it is also popular with elk, deer, and bear.

10:17:36 AM
3079 ft
N45.49249° W115.31881°

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Did someone say bear? Trailhead

As you move upstream, the hillside angle increases.

This is looking uphill from the previous waypoint.

 

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Then the trail leaves the gentle climb for steeper terrain. Hiking steeply uphill gives one time for more thoughts about the trail: it has 120 years of pine needles on it!

Taken on descent
2978 ft
N45.49256° W115.31997°

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Soft soil. But easy walking.

10:39:23 AM
3337 ft
N45.49497° W115.32099°

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11:15:45 AM
3667 ft
N45.49621° W115.31574°
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This bowl-shaped hillside is the steepest part of the ridge that the trail traverses. Due to the soft, granitic soil, any tread is on its way downhill. The only persuasive evidence that this is the trail is a near-constant grade all the way across the slope to a switchback of sorts, followed by the same grade back the other way.

11:28:37 AM
3768 ft
N45.49567° W115.31477°

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Here it moves into the trees seen in the picture above as the far side of the slope.

11:33:16 AM
3839 ft
N45.49478° W115.31439°

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And now, just past those trees.

11:35:48 AM
3889 ft
N45.49432° W115.31428°

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From the other side of the bowl, looking back toward the switchback.

11:52:42 AM
4146 ft
N45.49524° W115.31255°

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Standing in the same spot as the previous picture, this is looking uphill.

Yeah, it's steep.

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At the top of that steep bowl, the ridge finally moderates. Good going. Don't let the paintbrush confuse the red "trail eyes" dots on the left of the trail.

12:04:08 PM
4332 ft
N45.49483° W115.31100°

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This picture should give you some idea of how far up the ridge we have come. That's Campbell's Ferry down there on the left, near the river.

Looking downhill from the previous picture spot.

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This is a test. Do you see any artifacts of significance?

12:53:44 PM
4697 ft
N45.49186° W115.30734°

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If you said "battery pack for an old Forest Service headlamp" you win a prize!

My father, who worked for the Forest Service, had these in the 60s. Four 'D' cells, and heavy as hell. I don't know earliest and last use dates.

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Here's a philosophical riddle: Is the tree stuck on the saw, or is the saw stuck in the tree?

12:58:27 PM
4711 ft
N45.49170° W115.30652°

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There are several little rock towers (or big rock piles) on the ridge. This one had a really nice bypass trail, although we didn't find this until we had already bushwhacked up on the north side. It pays to look back now and then.

1:15:35 PM
4823 ft
N45.49030° W115.30420°

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This part of the ridge (and trail) is not very steep, but with few exceptions it is steadily uphill.

1:19:25 PM
4845 ft
N45.49011° W115.30399

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At a slight saddle, we found a huge ponderosa that had been carved on heavily. You can see tool marks. Art's hand is normal size.

1:19:55 PM
4858 ft
N45.48989° W115.30401°

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A little more nice trail.

1:43:22 PM
5192 ft
N45.48930° W115.30044°

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From the same spot as the previous photo, this is looking down hill. About here, I was really enjoying this trail. Trailhead

Uh oh. I think I jinxed it with that 'enjoyment' stuff. What's that ahead?

1:50:35 PM
5291 ft
N45.48925° W115.29935°

 

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Oh, yuck. We call this "pick-up sticks." But we could still see sort of a tread. Well, where we could see the ground, anyway.

2:24:08 PM
6042 ft
N45.48900° W115.29324°

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When we got back into standing forest, the tread was again quite clear.

But right after that, it got really, really bad. Old dead pickup sticks mixed with fresh, green downfall. I climbed up on the first pile of it, and Art said, "Are you really going to do that?". From my vantage point five feet off the ground, I could see there was more ahead. Art's wisdom won the day. And so did his GPS. It showed we were within 100 feet or so of where we had turned around last September. Plus, we were only 5 minutes shy of our planned turnaround time.

2:38:30 PM
6223 ft
N45.48855° W115.29278°

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On the way down, we really enjoyed the views back to the bottom and Campbell's Ferry. Except I couldn't resist spewing the number of descent feet we had remaining: "That's only 3500 feet!" (groan)

Side note: If you watched the movie of Francis linked above, she says you can't see the ranch until you are pretty much there. That's correct, because this route was no longer in use; in 1940 she wasn't on the original trail.

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This is looking up at the ridge from Campbell's Ferry. The red arrow here indicates our approximate turnaround. Just to the left you can see the pick-up sticks zone and transition to green trees shown two pictures above here.

 

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Map

Note: This shows both my up and down routes. Also note that because we were "sweeping" the ridge for clues, my tracks and Art's tracks are slightly different.

 

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Map

This shows today's work combined with that from last September.

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Don't bypass Dave's photos .

More of Dave's photos.

And more yet

Another dose

And finally, the concluding photos.

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Day 2: Little Trout Creek

We had a decidedly successful day yesterday, so had free time.

Last September Art had noted a trail going up Little Trout Creek, and he had noticed a spur off the upper ridge of new Three Blaze Trail. And it appeared on the old maps. So he wanted to see if we could join the two.

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This is looking into the bottom of Little Trout Creek (which Dave and I were referring to as "Little Troutner Creek"), with the 'new' trail traversing the hillside in front of that.

11:04:37 AM
2754 ft
N45.49852° W115.32294°

Trailhead

After crossing the creek, an easy big step, you walk up a short hill and turn right onto an obvious spur. That's Art 100 feet above the 'new' trail.

11:22:17 AM
2691 ft
N45.50115° W115.31999°

Trailhead

This trail has some growth and grass, but is easy walking, following the grade of the creek.

If I didn't make it obvious, Little Trout Creek is much smaller than the Trout Creek from yesterday.

11:28:19 AM
2817 ft
N45.50130° W115.31685°

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We found a hunter's camp with fire ring and wood stove.

After the camp, our trail got a little thinner; more brush, a few extra game-trail braids, etc. But still a trail.

11:51:02 AM
3184 ft
N45.50273° W115.30739°

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We think these are old-style batteries? Still on a trail.

11:52:36 AM
3183 ft
N45.50291° W115.30749°

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Eventually the creek forks, and this hillside/ridge sits between the forks. The leaves in the foreground are just a taste of the thick brush armoring the resistance one would meet in a potential creek crossing.

But we were pretty sure the trail went over there. In fact, we thought we could see it traversing the hillside. By visually extending the line of said trail, we could imagine a possible intersection with the trail and our creek. We agreed that we needed to go farther up the north fork before attempting to cross the brush.

11:53:11 AM
3194 ft
N45.50287° W115.30719°

Trailhead

And there was worthwhile tread to follow.

1:00:43 PM
3623 ft
N45.50700° W115.30139°

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From here, we could no longer see our hillside and its trail. But the elevation seemed about right and there appeared to be a game trail going through the brush. Game on.

1:07:07 PM
3651 ft
N45.50605° W115.30055°

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We got through the brush hole easily, but then things sort of petered out. We pushed through to the ridge anyway.

From this point, we had lunch then separated. Dave wanted to reduce the pounding his knees were going to get on our descent, while Art and I decided we could get to the top of the slope above in 20 minutes or so.

I took off up the hill, but below Art was investigating some tread he discovered that pointed back at the creek. He followed the tread some way with great success.

1:30:16 PM
3927 ft
N45.50319° W115.30088°

Trailhead

Grinding my way up the steep slope above the rock did not find any tread, but this is a steep, soft hillside, prone to erosion or slippage.

But just by luck I found this section of telephone wire exposed. Only about 5 feet were visible, running straight up/down the slope.

1:56:07 PM
4301 ft
N45.50326° W115.29840°

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The point that Art and I were considering our turnaround had several trees. I inspected the trees for telephone wire or insulators, but didn't see any. Here Art approaches our top tree at 4418'.

2:10:24 PM
4269 ft
N45.50267° W115.29844°

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Map

For reference, this includes our work yesterday up Trout Creek Ridge. Today's hike was the upper trail shown here with the 'lollipop'.

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Day 3: Moore Place and a creek crossing?

It had rained off and on most of the night, although often more of a thick mist than real rain. But regardless of the description of the precipitation, the brush was wet. And we were tired. So we started off the morning by visiting the Jim Moore place, which is across the river.

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Looking down the river. Mist and clouds. Trailhead
There are quite a few old cabins on the Moore place. Trailhead

Then we went back to Campbell's Ferry, where we walked the upper ditch from the airstrip to Trout Creek, thinking that the ditch diversion might have been where the sourdoughs forded the creek. Nope.

So we started backtracking. As we re-crossed the ditch, yours truly grabbed an old alder stump for leverage. When the stump collapsed, I was unceremoniously dumped fully into the icy stream. Everything but my hat was immersed. Fotunately, the camera and GPS were closed in bags so only slightly damp.

Feeling somewhat discouraged (or at least I was- I suspect Art and Dave were stifling laughter), we continued our way down the creek, although I wasn't quite so enthusiastic about it.

Along the way, we theorized that maybe there was no ford. Maybe they built a bridge. It would certainly be easy enough to drop a couple of the huge ponderosas, and even to put on some decking.

When we got to the current bridge, we noted that it sat on two huge boulders, each about 6' tall, and not more than 30' apart. Great spot for a bridge.

Then, in examining it's underpinnings, we noticed sort of "grooves" on the hillside on each side of the creek, maybe 30 or 40 feet downstream. Could this be our ford?

Art "in the groove."

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Looking across Trout Creek from near where Art was. Dave and Art on the other side.

The creek crossing will remain a mystery for now, but we do have an unsubstantiated theory.

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From the bridge, it's a short walk back to our cabin, where I changed into my dry sleeping attire and sandals to quietly await our plane.

Right on time, and then a surprisingly (again!) smooth flight back to McCall.

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