Elk Mountain (7826) by Mike Hays

Elevation: 7,826 ft
Prominence: 2,166

Elk Mountain from the northwest. Mike Hays Photo

Climbing information for this p2k peak is found on page 71.


Elk Mountain is the highest mountain of several clusters of granite peaks found inside the curve made by the Selway River as it flows north, then west. In fact it is the highest of the Clearwater Mountains between the main Bitterroots near Montana on the east and the Gospels on the west and between the Selway Crags on the north and the divide between Bargamine Creek and Running Creek on the south, which is the divide between the expansive Clearwater and Salmon basins. From its summit in the center of this approximately 1,300 square mile area (nearly one million acres) tremendous views are dominated by the numerous peaks of the Idaho Batholith and the high Bitterroots along the Idaho Montana border to the east. Smaller, but apparently endless mountains extend to the south and west. The closer views are marred somewhat by the extensive fires of recent years that have left a landscape covered by a spindly blackened and bleached skeletal forest. Along with the ridge to the west, Elk Mountain area may host the largest extended population of the beautiful endemic plant, Idaho Douglasia, a stunning wildflower that was only described by botanists in the early 1980s. Debris on the summit indicates some sort of lookout or station was here, though this does not seem to be recorded on such lists. The 7,826 foot mountain has a respectable 2,166 feet of prominence.

Elk Mountain from the northwest. Mike Hays Photo

Elk Mountain from the northwest. Mike Hays Photo

Hiking in the north basin of Elk Mountain. This high meadow area at the north foot of the summit mass is an unusual landform on this otherwise barren area. July 2007. Mike Hays Photo

Hiking in the north basin of Elk Mountain. This high meadow area at the north foot of the summit mass is an unusual landform on this otherwise barren area. July 2007. Mike Hays Photo

The mountain is not only the highest in the area, but by far the most massive. The summit area maintains substantial bulk into the highest elevations and the north and south ridges extend over a three mile long area with substantial high points. A spur ridge south of Running Lake is capped by spectacular rocks and spires. Running Lake occupies a huge glacial cirque on the east side of the mountain that is the source of Running Creek, which flows into the Selway River after dropping 5,000 feet in a few miles. To the west the summit drops over 4,000 feet into Meadow Creek via the slopes of the Schwar and Spook creek drainages. There are three large cirques on the east side of the mountain. Besides the one holding Running Lake the rugged basin separated from that lake and the main south ridge of the mountain holds two small lakes in a subalpine setting and the northern basin is below the 500 foot cliffs of the main north ridge point. All the mountains in this area are formed in unusually decomposed granite that gives the ground a white powder texture with very little soil development. Large irregular boulders are scattered along these powdery ridges and summits.

Running Lake is the largest mountain lake in the area and sits 1,500 feet below the summit in a huge cirque. The ridges enclosing this lake are steep and cliffy with some high granite spires. The lake is heavily used despite the difficult hike to reach it. There are at least three other small lakes or ponds on the flanks of the mountain. The western slopes have also been influenced by alpine glaciation, but to a lesser extent. The cirques are less defined and the often forested slopes are more gentle, but still steep in many areas.

The primitive Elk Mountain Road passes between the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and the large Meadow Creek roadless area. Meadow Creek is managed much as a wilderness area, but some motorized vehicle access is allowed on some trails. The area is becoming controversial as different factions argue for their interest in the area. Many would like to see it designated wilderness, however it was excluded from designation as part of the compromise to create the massive Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to the south. Some would like to see it managed for timber and other resources as intended when it was excluded from designation. Despite its planning history, it is doubtful the Forest Service would enter the basin for timber purposes, but it will likely never be managed fully as wilderness. In the fall, hunters are common in the area with many four-wheelers on the road and stockmen on the trails. Use caution during this time and wear orange. There are a lot of wolves in the area so seriously consider leaving the dogs home if you don’t want to lose them.

ACCESS and ROUTE (Class 1)

The peak is accessed from the Magruder Corridor and the Elk Mountain Road. Once you reach the roads end on the slopes of Elk Mountain it Is a short mile hike on a well used trail to Elk Mountain to the summit. The trail climbs gradually to the small saddle above Running Lake at the south end of the summit ridge. From this saddle it is a very short, but steep hike up the south ridge line to the summit. It may be best to move slightly to the west, where the slope is still very steep, but may be more negotiable for a hiker. If someone is very adverse to steep slopes, they can continue northwest and west for less than a half mile to where the trail crosses the broad, flat west ridge of the mountain, then follow that to the east for a fairly gradual walk to the summit.

USGS Running Lake

Mountain Range: Southern Clearwater Peaks

Longitude: -115.06179   Latitude: 45.91269

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