Trails in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana often consist of miles of drainage travel before arriving at a gorgeous high alpine lake or a jumping off point to reach a summit. But the route to Little Saint Joseph Peak and (big) Saint Joseph Peak is one of the few that begins at a higher elevation, thus making these alpine summits more accessible in a day.
Returning from Saint Joseph Peak
The trail begins unassumingly. A hiker friendly grade leads you up and away from the dirt parking area and winds through a fir and larch forest with underbrush that turns all shades of orange in the fall. The pleasant grade ends abruptly at the one mile mark, however, and the trail ramps above 25% grade, but fortunately the climb is interrupted by expansive views into the Bass Creek drainage, which provide plenty of opportunities to justify pausing to catch your breath.
Pleasant trail in the early miles.
The tread remains straight forward and clear, albeit rocky, for a couple miles, but as the trees become stunted, so does the trail. Cairns lead you a bit further, but eventually route finding becomes your responsibility. And this is why you should commit to at least summiting Little Saint Joe's.
As far as off-trail travel goes, this adventure is a great place to gain confidence. With only one ridge to follow, you'd be hard pressed to miss the summit. Just keep going up. My preference was to find the abrupt edge on the south side and follow that to the summit of Little Saint Joe's. This route was straight forward enough with only a few detours to avoid the thickest of the krummholz and find the smoothest of the talus. But not having a trail is not an excuse to avoid Little Saint Joe!
The view from Little Saint Joseph Peak
The summit of Little Saint Joe's is little more than an upswell of rocks rising higher than the points around it. But the views are incredible on a clear day. For the relative ease of travel (aside from the gasping for air on the steep climb) the sense of adventure is high.
From Little Saint Joe's you have a choice to return to the car, or continue your adventure to Saint Joe's. Looking beyond the summit of Little Saint Joe's, it's easy to see the ridgeline to follow to get to the higher summit. Speaking from a technical standpoint it is a more difficult climb, but can still be done with low class three routing (Little Joe is maybe class 2 if you pick the rockier routes) with the option to increase the difficulty and exposure if desired.
Working around a knob on the ridge
The ridgeline descends from the first summit three hundred feet before dog legging to the left and beginning to climb again. It's roughly 2.5 miles between the two summits, depending on your route, but aside from a few small spots here-and-there, it's only the last mile that involves route planning.
During the dog-leg to the south, be sure to look at the north bowl coming off Saint Joe's to start thinking of your route. As you draw closer much will be cut from your view.
The side-hill traverse if you choose the south side of the ridge
When the ridgeline turns west again, putting you in direct line with the summit, it narrows and becomes rockier. A band of rocks 5-15' high runs along the top and is a fun spot to work on rocky travel, or you can avoid most of the scrambling and walk next to the band.
Unless you are up for some serious rock climbing (not me) the final summit push will force you to choose which side of the ridge to jump off on. To the south is a much less technical and longer, while the north is a bit more exposed, but shorter. If you opt to head on the south side of the ridge simply hug the bottom of the rock face while traversing to the obvious shoulder that leads to the summit. The side-hilling can get tedious, but it's relatively straightforward.
The top of the big couloir
If you choose to head on the north side of the ridge (my choice), aim to initially traverse at the same height or slightly higher as the ridge you approached on. This will keep you above the band of rocks you observed while covering the dog-leg south. Near the center of the cirque, a large couloir will appear that is a steep and loose, but still relatively low exposure, to the top. Looking up some of the other couloirs on your way can be discouraging (again, unless you want to seriously rock climb), but there will be a big, open one, I promise!
Never more technical than this(unless you want it to be!)
I particularly enjoy the view from this summit because it feels more adventurous than nearby Lolo Peak or Saint Mary's. Lolo also involves off-trail travel, but less of it, and the ridge, although still fun, does not feel as "adventurous". A well-earned summit strokes the ego just a bit more.
Like all adventures, especially off-trail, there is an element of risk. However, this area is a fun place to work on scree/talus skills and confidence without the exposure that often accompanies rock in the high mountains.
(This post originally appeared at boughnerblog.blogspot.com)