This magnificent traverse begins in an open meadow in the center of Pole Canyon, climbs the north ridge of Peak 8376 (Juniper Valley Peak), does a horseshoe-shaped ridge traverse around the south end of Pole Canyon, scrambles over the tops of War Eagle Peak, Black Pine Peak (the highest peak in the Black Mountains), and Black Peak/ Black Benchmark, and returns to the canyon floor and the open meadow. No vehicle shuttle is required. You might even get lucky and see your first moose-deer hybrid in the meadow as I did.
The traverse entails 10.0 miles of hiking/scrambling and 4,850 feet of elevation gain. It is a campaign that is waged almost entirely off-trail. The views of both the Juniper Valley to the east and the Raft River Valley to the west are simply stunning. As of this writing, it is arguably my favorite Idaho mountain ridge traverse. YES, IT’S THAT DAMN GOOD.
I provide a brief overview of this wonderful traverse here. For a nauseatingly-detailed version of the components of the traverse, please consult the north ridge and southwest ridge routes for Peak 8376, the east ridge and northwest ridge routes for War Eagle Peak, the southeast ridge and north ridge routes for Black Pine Peak, and the south ridge and east ridge routes for Black Benchmark/Black Peak. You will bag four summits in completing this traverse—two ranked summits (Peak 8376 and Black Pine Peak) and two named, but unranked, summits (War Eagle Peak and Black Benchmark/Black Peak). If you’ve been doing your aerobic training, you’ll be back at your camp/vehicle in time for lunch.
Leave the grassy meadow (6,210 feet) and walk (or drive) up Pole Canyon Road about 0.4 miles to the base of the north ridge of Peak 8376 (Juniper Valley Peak). Bushwhack up the steep hillside through thick brush and blowdown to reach the open terrain of the north ridge. Follow the ridge southward over a couple of gentle ridge humps to finally reach the open summit. The views of the Juniper Valley to the east are magnificent (as is the warming, early-morning sun on a chilly morning) from the north ridge and the summit. You also have a splendid view of the second-half of the ridge traverse to the west that awaits you (War Eagle Peak, Black Pine Peak, and Black Benchmark/Black Peak).You cannot see the Raft River Valley from here, but you soon will.
From the summit, a 7-minute stroll down the open southwest ridge gets you to the head of Pole Canyon at Pole Canyon Pass (7,980 feet). From the pass, follow the open terrain of the east ridge up to the rocky, narrow summit of War Eagle Peak. Sheep/game trails will help you for most of this almost 750-foot ascent. There is a small section of forested terrain to wrestle with but it’s not too bad. From the summit of War Eagle Peak, follow the ridge crest northwest over Point 8708.
Descend the rockiest section of this journey (Class 2 scree/talus) from Point 8708 to a small saddle. Continue northwest along the ridge on easy, open terrain with a steady uphill ascent to the large cairn and repeater antenna atop Black Pine Peak. This is the highest point in the Black Pine Mountains. The views of the Raft River Valley to the west are superb from both the summit and from the long north-to-south ridge that you have been, and will continue, to traverse.
Continue northward along the ridge crest in easy, open terrain over three ridge humps to reach the final saddle of this journey. Scramble up one final hump to reach the summit of Black Benchmark/Black Peak. You will find a large cairn atop two summits here. The south summit (which you first reach) is the high point. The north summit (not too far away) is about 10 vertical feet lower and has two USGS benchmarks as well as a handsome cairn (with a triangulation post sticking out of it) built by YOURS TRULY. Visit both summits to make your high-pointing complete for the day.
From the south summit of Black Benchmark/Black Peak, descend the east ridge on open terrain. Partway down, you must down-climb a hidden cliff band in the ridge (Class 3 ledges). Continue eastward down the ridge briefly. The ridge then bends left/northeast and the terrain gets thicker and more forested. Bash your way down through this mess, staying just to the right/southeast of the ridge crest for the easiest going. Finish the descent by dropping left/northwest into the mouth of a gully at its juncture with Pole Canyon Road. Follow the road northeast then east back to the lovely meadow where you are parked.
The beauty of this ridge traverse is that you can see the Juniper Valley to the east from the north ridge of Peak 8376, but you can’t see the Raft River Valley to the west. You can see the Raft River Valley from the ridge traverse on the west side of Pole Canyon (War Eagle Peak/Black Pine Peak/Black BM), but you can’t see the Juniper Valley from there. But, in combination, you have a birds-eye view of both valleys. With the exception of the lower sections of the ridge entry/exit terrain near the valley floor, the ridge traverse is on easy, open, Class 2 terrain—a combination of short desert scrub and embedded talus/scree.
Many of Idaho’s mountain ridge traverses involve narrow (sometimes knife-edged) ridge crests, rocky outcrops that must either be climbed or circumvented, and wickedly loose rock. Such is not the case with this ridge traverse. You can actually ENJOY YOURSELF and you will not have to perform any death-defying maneuvers. Just don’t do this traverse on a windy day or if there are thunderstorms in the area.