Nee Me Poo Trail At Lolo Pass Mt, To Bob Cat Cr. Sat. July 23rd, 2022
Participants: Steve Schombel, David & Julie Kahl
The Nee Me Poo (NMP) trail was just one part of a longer -long planned weekend in a deluxe cabin at Lolo Hot Springs. We went up Fri. afternoon and settled into our room and had some tamales for dinner, then wanted to go for a drive. The plan was to drive up the East Fork of Lolo Cr road, but first we drove up Hwy 12 a bit further to check out the trail head where the NMP comes out onto Hwy 12, a short ways past the Bobcat Cr parking area (1 mile/1.61k west of the Lee Cr Campground). You can’t really see the trail heads when you are west bound, but turning around and coming back eastbound you can. It was there just where we expected it, we had hiked up from this end a few years ago. We turned up the East Fork Rd to the snowmobile parking area and found that the road was closed for fish habitat restoration. Yea fish habitat restoration! So we decided to drive up Fish Cr Rd instead, my goal being to check out the new trail head at Burdette Cr. Driving along a section of Mud Cr, before the road goes over into the Granite Cr drainage, in wet areas off the road we saw what kinda looked like fire weed, but didn’t quite look right, they turned out to be very tall monkshood, lots of them. On the other side of the Granite Cr drainage is the saddle between Granite Cr and Fish Cr. Here we were surprised to find a sign saying that a road going east was the Wagon Mountain Rd (WMR). One of the oldest roads in the region, the Wagon Mt road, named for a summit near Lolo Pass, was the original road that went to Lolo Pass and the access for both Lolo and Granite Hot Springs. “In the old days” Granite Hot Springs was the more developed and “resorty” of the hot springs. From the hot springs the route then continued west to today’s Lee Cr Campground where it went up onto Wagon Mt, and on to Lolo Pass. WMR ran the Clark Fork/ Bitterroot Divide from Blue Mountain Road to Granite Cr. The eastern most section went through today’s Blue Mt Rec Area, west around on the north face of Blue Mt to Woodman Saddle. Woodman saddle in those days was a major through fare for traffic between the Lolo Cr Valley and Missoula. From the South Hills if you look to the south of Blue Mt it is where the Bonneville Power Line crosses behind Blue Mt today. From Woodman Saddle it followed Telephone/Telegraph Butte, it makes sense that if this was a major road, that is where those communication lines would have originally run. Woodman Saddle is still accessible by road, and the old WMR still leaves the saddle, but before it drops down into the Graves Cr/ Petty Cr saddle, today, it becomes a “pack trail.” I had thought that a similar fate had befallen the Graves Cr to Granite Cr section, so I was delighted to see an actual road there. We decided to drive it coming home on Sun. Continuing on down into Fish Cr. we could see the White Mountain Lookout silhouetted against the sky on the western rim of Fish Cr. We found the Burdette Cr trail head, it’s a stream on the east side of the Fish Cr drainage, just south of Deer Cr, and part of the new Deer Cr Wildlife Management Area. It had a trail that was a little over 2 miles/3.22k long that just dead ended with out any connection to any other trails. I had hoped they had connected to some other trails but that didn’t seem to be the case. It’s a nice, easy, short hike. Going back up to the saddle I noted side roads and gates that had extensive old logging roads behind them for future reference. Back at the three way junction of Fish Cr Rd and Granite Cr Rd – that goes up to Lolo Pass, is what we’ve always called Spring Gulch Rd. (My GPS was calling it Cedar Run Rd, Cedar Run is a tiny creek way to the east in the Howard Cr drainage.) Spring Gulch Rd comes out to Hwy 12, just below the last set of curves to Lolo Hot Springs from the east. We went that way to get back, it runs along the east bank of Granite Cr, to a gully just above the highway-Spring Gulch. I believe this is the route that was followed by the original access road to the hot springs from the Granite Cr/ Fish Cr Saddle.
On Sat. morning Steve joined us at the Lolo Hot Springs parking lot and we left our Tacoma at Bobcat Cr. Thinking that as it was really uncomfortable to have three people in it, we would be close enough to drop off the third person back at our cabin so only two had to go back up to Lolo Pass. We went up to Lolo Pass in Steve’s car, and 3/4 miles/1.21k down Elk Meadows Rd to the trail head. The trail is marked with signs and with emblems on the trees, on one side of the trees was a Nee Me Poo Trail design, and the other side of the same tree had a Lewis & Clark Route design. A few hundred feet up the trail was a sign in box. Inside was a small spiral note book curled up inside a mayonnaise jar and pencils, the last entry was from early June, apparently from before the trail was cleared as they didn’t go far before turning back because of blow down. We had no such trouble on the entire trail. This first section climbs gently toward the low hill that is the MT/ID border and the divide between Pack Cr/Locsha, The Clearwater River (Snake River) and China Cr/Lolo Cr, Bitterroot River (Clark Fork, Columbia River). In here the dominate flora was vaccinium (whortle berry) some of the largest plants I’ve ever seen, maybe 2 ft/0.61m tall. There were some very healthy looking huckleberry plants but no berries. We were seeing the type of flowers we expected in this open woods terrain: asters, lupine, yarrow, groundsel, harebells and some still blossoming arnica. After about 1/2 mile/0.80k the NMP trail comes out on the road that today is best known as the Lee Cr ski trail. It follows the road up over the divide, then shortly goes back into the woods again. In bygone days this road was the stem A, B ski trails as they went east to the Lee Cr Campground. If you continue on the road it shortly drops down to cross the main stem of China Cr on what seems to be a bridge but may actually be a culvert. Just before you get to the bridge there is a road that goes left (west) and runs along China Cr’s south bank. Just across the bridge is a place that anchors the history of the trails in here. There is a road that goes right (south) that originally ran along the main stem of China Cr to a clearcut on its headwaters at the base of Lee Ridge. Lee Ridge forms the “south wall” of Lee Cr, China Cr, and the area that the road follows back to Elk Meadows on the Idaho side. The old A&B trail road went straight up a steep ramp into what, if it had a name, would be the East Fork of China Cr.’s drainage. To the southeast is a high hill that skiers would climb to telemark ski or ski down through the trees back down to the road. To the northeast is a long hill on the flank of Wagon Mountain, that the B ski trail went up. Between them was the Lee Cr Saddle. After a scant 1/2 mile/0.80k the B trail leaves the road to the left (west) and the A trail road continued up the bottom of the drainage to dead end at the headwall below The Lee Cr Saddle. From here you had two choices, either continue to bushwhack up the steep remainder of the draw, or if you climbed up to the right (south) you would come to a road that came over the Lee Cr Saddle and continued a short ways before ending. The road was the easier way, but in the 1980’s when the slopes above had been freshly clear cut they would get wind loaded slopes that could avalanche down onto the road. From the time you left the end of the road avalanche awareness was important until you went over the saddle. If you went on the B trail it had a sign at the edge of the East Fork “gully.” Clear cutting really trashed this area and the last time I saw the sign was maybe in 2004 or 5. The gully was steep with thick trees and sometimes it was easier/safer to take your skis off and wallow through the snow then try and ski it. The stream in the bottom always had some open water, like there was a warm spring or just a ground temperature spring there, but it was easy to get across. The other side of the gully was just as steep and long and brought you out onto a road that ran along the north bank of China Cr. Wallowing through the snow didn’t help here, and the gully served as an interesting test, if you didn’t have the equipment, stamina or ware-with-all to get back up it, you probably didn’t have what it takes to get up the steep hill that was just on the other side of the road. Many ski trips ended here. Though I am focusing on our ski adventures here, this was also a favorite summer hike, and the trail up the face of Wagon Mt had a nice solid tread, wandering through shaded woods where you saw deer and five foot tall bear grass, could catch a breeze and long views. You didn’t mind that long climb so much. Around 1995 this all changed, this face and the adjoining ski-down-through-the-trees-hill were both clear cut. As part of that, a short road connected the end of the A trail to the road above, and the road above was extended to go around the face of the tree-skiing hill to loop around and connect to the road that ran to the right from the China Cr bridge. Today, this is the route of the Lee Cr trail and the B trail has been abandoned. I have never been back up the route of the B trail since the clear cutting, the thought of that beloved trail being gone was too much for me to bear. When the face of Wagon Mt was clear cut the entities involved knew that the Nee Me Poo Trail, the Historic Wagon Mt Road and the B Ski trail all traversed that slope, and no attempt was made to preserve any of it. In my times up there I have never seen any obvious way that the WMR came down the slope. But, presumably, once it did and crossed China Cr, “terrain logic” says it followed the stem road to Elk Meadows road and then to Lolo Pass. Not sure on all of this though.
After going back into the woods the NMP Trail went through a boggy area and in about 1/3 mile/0.53k came out on the road that runs on the south bank of China Cr. This was as far as we had gone on skis, so from here on until we rejoined the old B Trail (blue diamonds) was all new territory. There were several crossings of old roads and sometimes where you came onto the road wasn’t where yo left it. Most were marked with karins but you may have to just look or walk a bit up or down the road to find it. It didn’t bother me when we started to drop down to cross Chins Cr, but knowing how much we had to climb once we got on the other side I took exception to the trail meandering down stream more. We crossed China Cr on one of those “big log with a flattened side and a hand rail (part of which was broken)” bridges, there was quite a bit of water still flowing in it. On the other side the trail kinda side hilled and there were two boardwalks through boggy areas, one was just a trickle, but the second was the East Fork coming in. Down here in the ticker woods with lots of shade and water we were seeing a lot of different flowers: white bog orchids, three leafed foam flower, bugbane, coral root (regular, not spotted or striped), lots of pipsissewa wintergreen and even a white-veined wintergreen. From here the trail started to climb and we came up on a long unused road, barely discernible in the terrain, climbing up a bit more we were on a better conditioned road, probably the one that was climbed up onto from the B Trail gully. Now the trail was climbing more steeply slightly to the west of where the B trail went. After the area had been clear cut young tress had grown up until they were like 10-15 ft/3.5m -4.57m tall, and then the stand burned. Now the trail was steep and rocky, in places eroded into a “V.” There was no shade and though the days temps were supposed to be in the 70’s/23C, it was around 11 AM with a hot sun over head. We started running into blue diamonds, both on the trees and as debris on the ground, we had rejoined the old B Ski trail. David pointed out the summit of Wagon Mt. above, and where the route of the Wagon Mountain Road was obvious on the south flank of Wagon Mt the clear cut ended and there was timber and shade. Just before reaching the WMR we crossed yet another new logging road that hadn’t been there before the clear cutting. This one comes up from the Lee Cr Saddle, now just below us, and today would be the best way to access the WMR. The high point of the hike was on WMR just inside the timber from the cut boundry. This is the best spot to drop off and hike to the Wagon Mt. summit. We considered it but the cutting boundary was just to the east of the summit and we had the choice of either going back out on to the hot dry slope or fighting blow down in the timber. We opted not to. It was too early for lunch so we took a short cool down break and continued on. WMR runs on the south flank of Wagon Mt. with views down into Lee Cr and of Lee Ridge on the other side. Going got slow in here as there were huckleberries to eat, some nice large trees and we could hear some crows over in Lee Cr carrying on about something, probably the hawk flying over. After maybe a mile/1.61k the road goes out onto a narrow saddle where the terrain drops off steeply on both sides. Now we could see into the Lolo Cr side and were high enough up to see over Granite Ridge into Fish Cr and see the White Mountain Lookout. At the end of the saddle the road goes up over a knob to continue on down the ridge to drop down to the Lee Cr Campground. But we didn’t need to climb the knob as the NMP trails turns off here and starts its 1300 ft/396.24m drop down to Hwy 12. It was just past 12 noon and we stopped for lunch, then started down. The trail is somewhat steep but did have some flatter spots to break it up. In one flat spot we found a carpet of twin flowers. The trail dropped steadily and towards the bottom we crossed three roads from the east side phase of the old West Lee Cr logging road complex. There was a steep trail between them and after the last we made our way down the steep bank to Lolo Cr. Now I would have sworn when David and I did this part of the tail years ago there was a bridge over Lolo Cr, but now we found none. We could see the trail markers on the other side and knew this was the crossing. The was a large tree down over the creek, but it had old branch stubs sticking up into what would be the center of the route discouraging walking or any other way of making it across. David did check it out briefly. Just below the tree was a wide sandy area, maybe a horse ford, that could be waded. Steve sat down to take off his boots and socks, knowing I had dry clothing just minutes away I just forded in my boots and the water got to about knee deep. They crossed behind me. On the other side Steve wanted his feet to dry off before he put his socks and boots back on so he suggested that David and I walk back to the Tacoma and leave one of us at the cabin and come back and get him. Just below the highway was a board walk over a small dry side channel. Walking along the highway motorcyclists and motorists were giving us thumbs ups. GPS’s said we had gone roughly 5 miles/8.05k. Back at the cabin I changed out of my wet boots, socks and running tights, left them on the porch to dry, and grabbed some cheese for us to snack on before going back to pick up Steve. He had also walked to Bobcat Cr and on the way up to Lolo Pass, to pick up his car, filled me in on his plans to go from there to doing some camping in Idaho.
We had steak dinners at the Hot Springs restaurant, and later in the evening went back to soak in the hot springs. The inside pool was way hotter than we remembered and we ended up in the big pool standing by the hot water intake and remembering 40 some years of family and friends in that pool.
Sunday morning, when we walked over to the bar for breakfast it was mostly sunny and getting warm. By the time we had the truck loaded some darker clouds were moving it. It was just around 10 AM when we turned onto the Granite Cr to Graves Cr section of the Wagon Mountain Road -14 miles/22.53k and we got our first rain drops. Once up on the Bitterroot/Clark Fork Divide we could see that it was raining at the north end of Fish Cr. We heard thunder but didn’t see any lighting. Later it would be raining hard enough so it intermittent wipers almost weren’t enough. It was a nice wide gravel road until we came to the junction with the road that comes up out of Howard Cr, to our south (Lolo Cr side). After that it narrowed down and became rocky in places. We slipped around the south end of the Fish Cr/Petty Cr Divide. There were fantastic view in all directions from up there, but it was cloudy and raining on all sides making everything dark. Howard Cr was still below us at that time, but soon we left it behind and the ridge began to drop with Petty Cr to the north and Graves Cr to the south. We came out to the Graves-Petty Cr Rd at the saddle and followed Graves Cr out to Hwy 12. The road was dry there in a notorious rain shadow section of the Lolo Valley, but before we got to Lolo it was seriously raining, that continued all the way into town, we saw a big lightning strike down into Miller Cr. What better ending for the weekend end than some serious rain on a day in late July.
Nee Me Poo Trail At Lolo Pass Mt, To Bob Cat Cr. Sat. July 23rd, 2022