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Elk Summit Weekend

The truck was loaded with gear, my clothes were set out. I just needed to roll out of bed 10 mins before my planned departure time of 4am and I would be ready to go. But like an excited child waking up hours early on Christmas morning, my eyes popped open at 2:45 am. I tossed and turned, but it was to no avail. The adventure was going to start early.

I checked and double-checked my gear to kill time and left at 4am as planned. By 5 am Cat and Newt had jumped in, and the truck was roaring down I-90 at 70mph. Around the time we fueled up in Superior, MT, the sun teased us with a show of pinks and oranges on the Eastern skies. Soon the night faded into the day without the blossoming sunset we expected.

A few hundred miles and a few hours later, we pulled up to Elk Summit. With Elk season in swing, outfitters and large wall tents dotted the campgrounds. We wasted little time checking out the area before parking, loading up, and hitting the trail. We had a goal for the day, Diablo Mountain. The fact that we had boots on trail and were only 5 miles from hitting this lookout had me grinning like a Cheshire cat.

I guess I should back up and explain why I was absolutely giddy at this point. You see, I have had Diablo on my mind for a while, and it was beginning to turn into a recurring theme. About a year ago, I started to do some map work of the Elk Summit area to flush out some backpacking ideas. That is when I first realized there was a lookout on Diablo summit. While the pictures didn’t make it appear to be the most unique lookout, the lines on the topo map drew me in. I just felt it would be a special place, how you climbed over a meadow to this ridge with a steep cliff which towered over the lake below.

Fast forward almost 9 months, and a friend introduced me to someone “with a ton of lookout knowledge.” The man I was introduced to was Nate Raff, and it turns out that he was going to be manning Diablo Lookout for a week and invited us up to see it and visit with him.

Shortly after that, Ray Krasek told us about the team that revitalized Salmon Mountain and how they also restored Diablo. And then it came up again when speaking with Mark and Rhett. Mentions of this lookout had been popping up everywhere, and now we were finally on our way.

There was a quick moment of panic about whether we missed the turn before realizing that the USFS topo still showed the old trail along the meadow. We actually had a tad further to go before reaching the new turn. And by new, I don’t think it’s genuinely very new, but it is still more recent than what was on my map. The turn is in a clearing and well marked.

Once you hit the turn, you have another 2.9 miles to go, and for the most part, it’s a gentle climb up to the summit. The lookout itself is in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but most of the trail is on forest service land. It was purposely created so trail maintenance crews could use their chainsaws and dirtbikes, which would not be allowed in a wilderness area.

Only about 2.5 hours or so after we hit the trail, we crested the top. The views were terrific, with lakes known for their goats to the south, another small lake below to the north, and views of hilltops, peaks, and meadows full of autumnal colors for as far as the eye can see. Nate says you can see up to 75 miles on a clear day!

When we arrived, some Elk Hunters from out of state and their guide were spending a little time on the ridge, glassing nearby draws and figuring out what their next move would be. This is the truly rugged and wild Idaho.

We spent the next few hours with Nate. He showed us around his lookout and home for the last week and shared some of the most amazing stories with us. He worked for 25 years with a forest service Helitack unit and helped restore and staff lookouts. We will share his complete interview on this site later.

While chatting with Nate, we were excited to learn that two others we had heard so much about were in the area. Leif Haugen was working on Graves Peak across the valley, and Bill Moore was operating the Elk Summit Guard station. We would do our best to meet up with them.

After a little more chatting with Nate, we took the obligatory pictures and headed down off the peak. We followed the hunter’s trail back to the trailhead, bringing us near the meadows and through the beautiful fall colors. Other than having a short delay navigating a swampy creek crossing, we made it back down to the car pretty quickly.

We drove right by the Elk Summit Guard Station and saw Bill moving about inside. But it was almost dark, and we still needed to set up camp. We drove down to Hoodoo lake and found a nice spot directly across from the lake. It was odd camping in an actual campground as usually, it is backcountry camping for us. Still, there weren’t too many people milling about, so it wasn’t that bad. After dinner and a sip or two of whiskey, we each retired to our tents.

I slept like crap that night and woke up stiff and store. If I had a night like that at home, I would probably be grumpy, but it’s hard to wake up to trees, lakes, and mountain tops and maintain a frown for any length of time. After a quick breakfast, we broke camp. The new plan was to hit the Guard Station and then, if we had time to try for Grave Peak.

Upon pulling up at the guard station, we saw the closed sign hanging outside, and other than some smoke escaping the chimney, there weren’t any signs of life. We really wanted to meet Bill, but we didn’t feel right knocking on the door when he could still be sound asleep, so we hatched a new plan, hiked Graves, and then came back to introduce ourselves.

The road to Grave Peak is narrow like many backcountry forest service roads, and it’s maybe 1.5 lanes wide at best. We saw a truck coming down and scooted over. As the rig passed, we both had our windows down, and I asked, “Are you Leif,” and he was, and that is how we met Leif Haugen. Leif is a lookout during the summer at a very remote lookout in Montana. He is a strong proponent of restoration efforts and keeping the history of our lookouts alive.

After chatting with Leif a bit, we headed further up the road and found the trailhead. We were told that Graves Peak was a challenge and our challenge got bigger right off the get-go. You see, I had used a wrong map that showed we could park about a mile closer to the trailhead than we could, so that’s another 2 miles round trip was just added to our day.

In no time, myself, Cat, and her trusty sidekick, Newt, we’re hitting the trail. The extra mile of trail that we started on was just an old road and slightly downhill, so it was an easy start. And we were busy chatting away about how excited we were when we got our first glimpse of Graves Peak. It seemed so distant, you could barely make the tower out. But we were full of energy and vigor, and I remember the phrase “nothing but a thing” being shouted more than once.

Once we turned from the old road onto the trail at Kooskooskia Meadows, we started climbing, both in elevation and OVER the blow-down that littered our path. Occasionally we would see glimpses of Graves Peak; it was definitely getting closer, but it was still so far away! At this point, we were still jovial; you could feel the burn in your quads, but the incline was steady, and we were able to set a pace that worked well for us.

The trail dropped down into a bowl and passed Swamp Lake, which allowed Newt to jump into the water and refresh. Graves felt much closer, but the elevation difference between where we were and where it sat seemed daunting. Laying ahead of us was the climb up to Friday Pass. Roughly 1000ft of elevation gain a mile. We’ve done this before, but it’s never fun. The day was warm but luckily not sweltering, so we continued.

The next hour or so was climbing, and taking breaks, and climbing some more and just repeating this sequence on a seemingly never-ending loop. I’d like to say that by the time we hit the top, I looked fresh and confident, but the reality is that I was a sweaty mess. Oh, did I mention that we missed the turn that Leif told us about, the one that knocked off a little distance and elevation gain? Well, we did.

After a potty break, a snack break, and a little bushwhacking along the ridge, we were back on track. I think I mistakenly even described the map as a gentle descent followed by a quick climb up to the tower. We were almost there.

As we rounded the backside of Friday Pass, tired and sore from our climb to the ridge, we noticed that the lookout towered high above us still, but the trail was dropping down. You drop down along the side of the hill, and I am convinced the only reason is so that your final part of the trek can be a prolonged climb of agony up and up to the top. The final climb from the last pass is a narrow rocky trail through a scree field. The tight switchbacks reminded you how much elevation you gained with each step forward.

I am pretty sure that at this point, anyone within earshot probably thought I was the most miserable person on a trail. Maybe this would be an easy morning jog for someone in better shape. But for me, it was a long, arduous day on the trail. My constant huffing and puffing were only broken by a random expletive, either in pain or in excitement, for how close we were getting. The tower was right above us now. I could almost feel it.

Cat heard voices, and when we were only a few hundred feet from the top, we met some friendly folks out exploring. They had been camping below near Wind Lakes and decided to come up to the tower. They excused themselves for interrupting our trek to the top. But we nearly held them, hostage, talking about lookouts and whatever stories we could to keep the conversation going. It allowed us to take yet another break without admitting we needed one.

Finally, we crested the peak, and the view was fantastic. It felt like you could see mountains and valleys, lakes, and majestic forests as far as the eye could see for 360 degrees. The view alone was worth the hike, but I knew we were there for a deeper meaning.

We removed the security door from the lookout and let ourselves inside. It’s incredible how I can visit one tower after another. Yet, when I open the door, each tower is similar and familiar to my senses. Each one overwhelms you with its own uniqueness and presence.

Every element of the lookout tells a story, from each name carved in the walls to the jack supporting the corner of a building. Walking around the structure, you see a ladder against the side, carried up by a young man on a mission, carried up the same trail that I just huffed and puffed up for hours.

We took our photos, looked at the building and the views, and tried to spend a few moments thinking about the lives that this tower touched. Those that operated the tower, those that built it, and those that keep it standing.

As with every visit, it was time to say goodbye. We had to get back to the truck before dark and then still had a 4+ hour back to our homes. The walk wasn’t near as draining, but it wasn’t easy in our tired states. I am embarrassed to say that the final mile, on the old road, with the slight incline, was significantly more difficult than it should have been, but we made it.

The weekend was one for the books, even if every mile was earned. The people we met, the towers we visited, and the miles under our boots to see those towers made it worth the soreness the next day.

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