St. Joe River country in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests offers a myriad of trail-riding delights, from pristine streams to high mountain ridges, from old-growth forests to historic logging sites. Spacious horse camps and a backcountry lodge complete this great riding getaway.
Here, we'll tell you about our recent adventure to the St. Joe, and give you tips along the way for planning your own river-country trek. (Before you go, contact the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, and ask for the St. Joe map, Historic Marble Creek brochure, and Marble Creek Trail System brochures; see the resource guide for contact information.)
Line Creek Horse Camp
We planned to explore two areas of the St. Joe, each with stock camps. Our first ride was from Line Creek Stock Camp on the upper St. Joe. To get there, we drove from St. Regis, Montana, and headed south to Gold Summit on Forest Service Rd. 282.
After Gold Summit, the road turns into a two-lane paved highway and gradually winds down to the St. Joe River. At the river, turn left on Forest Service Rd. 218. From this junction, it's about 11 miles to Line Creek Stock Camp.
Beware of this last section of road! It's one lane with steep side hills along some portions. People do safely drive large truck-trailer rigs here, but be prepared for areas where there's no room for passing vehicles that are coming toward you and where backing up is difficult.
Finally, we arrived at Line Creek Horse Camp and found a spacious camp built in a circular fashion with the river nearby. Camp spots are pull-through with picnic tables, fire rings, and feed bunks. There's no charge for camping, you just give a donation.
St. Joe River Ride
After the long drive, our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Buddy and Scout, were ready to go. Not wanting to disappoint them, we made a quick lunch, saddled up, and took off.
Our first ride was up the St. Joe River to a historic backcountry lodge. It's a mile to the end of the road and the beginning of Trail 48. The road provides an opportunity to get the kinks out of our geldings. With manes dancing and heads bobbing, they eat up that mile while we sit and smile!
The ride upriver is like a midsummer's dream. This portion of the St. Joe River, with its unique, priceless qualities, is designated "wild and scenic"; no motorized access allowed. It's about six miles upriver to the old St. Joe Lodge. Buddy unhappily took note of the six river crossings encountered on the way, while Scout dutifully splashed through them.
Within a few miles, we observed from our hillside trail a pond and what appeared to be mangled metal. When our trail met the valley floor, we took an immediate unmarked right that doubles back along the valley.
Arriving at the pond, we discovered the mangled metal was really a dredge from a long-ago garnet-mining operation. If you look beside the pond, you'll see that the purple sand is composed of tiny garnets. Here, garnets were dredged and hauled out by pack train for use in sandpaper and jewelry.
As we continued upstream, we encountered churning whitewater slapping at rock fists that jutted out along the bank. At one point, we met a pack train taking supplies up to the lodge. A lone cowboy with a good-natured grin easily handled the four-horse pack string.
Finally, we came to the last river crossing and the gate to St. Joe Lodge. The air was blanketed with dense smoke from high mountain forest fires, which turned the sky elephant gray.
The main trail continues to the right around the buildings, but riders are welcome to stop, stretch their legs, and visit the lodge. We rode Buddy and Scout over to the "visitor hitching rails."
There, we met the lodge's gracious owners, Will and Barb Judge. They welcomed us with hot cups of coffee, which we gratefully accepted. While sipping coffee and warming our hands, we learned that the lodge is a historic site and was built in the 1940s.
We learned that there's one main building where tasty home cooking is served family-style, several small cabins with wood-burning stoves, propane-fired showers, a barn, and horse corrals. You can tailor a backcountry vacation at the lodge ranging from 4 to 12 days. Will and Barb also run an outfitting business and can arrange pack trips into the wilderness.
The Judges have been operating the lodge for 17 years. Along with their wranglers, they run a smooth operation that's dependent on detailed planning. They venture out for food and supplies every three to four weeks. Fourteen horses are needed to pack in a ton of supplies to the lodge. No last-minute dash to the store for this outfit!
More Scenic Rides
There are two other rides from Line Creek Horse Camp. One is to ride upriver as before. About two miles up the trail, watch for Trail 79 climbing uphill to the left. This trail switchbacks up to a ridge, then descends steeply down on Trail 279, and comes out across the road from Line Creek Camp. This trail is mostly forested with few views.
Another, more interesting trail is the one to Copper Ridge. To find the trailhead, look on the west side of Line Creek Camp for a trail leading across the river. Follow this trail approximately one mile past wooden fences to a road. Stay left at the road, which will travel uphill and become Trail 263.
Watch for towering tree snags. These lonely sentinels bear mute testimony to the ravages of the historic 1910 forest fire. This fire was one of the largest in United States history. Smoke from the fire was seen as far away as New York. More than one million acres burned. Tragically, 80 firefighters also perished. Today, the only reminders of this fiery holocaust are the almost-100-year-old gray snags.
About four miles from camp and after a good pull, the trail crests a small ridge that overlooks the valley below. This is a great place to stop and experience Mother Nature's ambience.
From there, we gazed 1,600 dizzying feet below, to where the valley floor cradles the St. Joe River. What a view: the meandering river, purple mountain folds, and an endless sky punctuated with red-tailed hawks riding thermal breezes.
Shining yellow-white fringes of sunlight crept across the afternoon horizon. Yellow leaves gobbled the light of autumn sun and slowly released it. We were at peace with ourselves and our horses.
Marble Creek Horse Camp
Our next stop in the St. Joe River country was the Marble Creek Campground, which can be accessed by driving downriver from Line Creek Camp. Our route was south from Wallace, Idaho, on graveled Forest Service Rd. 456.
This road is a journey in itself; it crosses a high mountain pass, then descends to the St. Joe River valley and Highway 50. The last portion traverses an old railroad bed that travels through seven tunnels and over two railroad trestles.
Follow Highway 50 downriver approximately 12 miles to the entrance of Marble Creek. The Marble Creek valley was the site of large-scale logging operations occurring primarily in the early 1900s.
Logging was done using horses, steam donkeys, and a series of splash dams. Close to 40 logging camps existed in the old days. Many early day relics await discovery by today's explorers and horseback riders.
Drive approximately 15 miles up Marble Creek (Forest Rd. 321) to Camp 3, the Marble Creek horse camp. Our camp there was located at the end of a half-mile side road with room for trailers and a turn-around. There are two corrals; Buddy and Scout soon found themselves in one of them. There's also room for highlining and electric corrals.
Early next morning, first light brought autumn stillness to our camp, which was very cold! Morning grasses stood at attention in uniforms of white frost. We warmed our hands by the fire and watched Buddy and Scout groom one another. Scout's grooming technique needs improvement, as evidenced by Buddy's mane, which has ragged chunks missing from it.
Our first ride from this camp was up Trail 261 to see an old splash dam. To access this trail, ride about a mile from camp, or park at the bend in the road uphill and south of the trailhead.
We rode out with a steep side hill on the right. This soon gave way to forest. The ride varied a great deal in elevation. First, it's 300 feet up to a ridge then 300 feet down to the river. Ride 700 feet up to a junction with Trail 251, take the right fork, and ride 500 feet down to the splash dam.
The dam is a wonderful place to stop and explore. Absolutely do not ride on the dam! It's composed of old, dirt-covered logs. Horses could sink up to their chests between cracks in the logs.
Splash dams were used between 1915 and 1931 to flush logs down to the main river, which carried them to Coeur d'Alene Lake and sawmills. Logs would be stored behind the dam and released when the gates opened. Downstream, succeeding dams released water at carefully orchestrated times to continue a "flood" of logs to the main river.
We continued to ride upriver. We crossed the river and did a 1,300-foot-elevation pull. Finally, we passed an old cabin and arrived at the remains of a bygone logging camp.
To arrive at this point, we traveled 2,300 feet up and 800 feet down. Buddy wasn't a happy camper. To his dismay, he realized that this elevation must be repeated in reverse to get back to his beloved grain and hay!
This logging camp was cloaked with the rich, moist vegetation of the St. Joe forest. To find it, look closely among the fragrant pines on the left of the trail. Maybe a fire claimed this camp; maybe it was abandoned. Rusty saw blades, lantern skeletons, and tin plates fused together like rolls of Oreo cookies lay scattered among pine needles and rotting logs. We looked and wondered, then continued on our way.
Hobo Historical Trail
The Hobo Historical Trail is very short. However, it has examples of everything found in early logging days, complete with interpretive signs.
Drive south about three miles from Camp 3, and pull off at the signed trailhead on left side of road. The trail is a loop; we ride to the right descending about 500 feet into the forest valley below.
Within a short time, we spot the rusting hulk of the Hobo Creek steam donkey. This steam-powered machine was used in the 1920s. It had 5,000 feet of one-inch diameter cable that was used to pull logs cross-country to a log chute. Down the chute the logs would go, in place for stream transportation.
Walk a short distance down the trail to see the remains of another splash dam that was built in 1923. Logs from the steam donkey were stored behind this dam until the gates opened and the logs propelled out amidst a torrent of whitewater.
Our next stop was the small ghost town of Camp 5. Look for a spur trail that goes sharply to the right down to the stream bottom. We took this right and arrived at Camp 5.
Unlike the earlier logging camp, foundations and decaying walls were still visible. We poked around and tried to imagine life here in the 1920s. If walls could speak, which buildings were the blacksmith shop, cook shack, boarding house, and barn?
In logging days, there were no roads to this camp. Everything-food, bedding, even spare parts for the steam donkey-was brought by pack trains over 16 rough trail miles from Clarkia, Idaho.
As we emerged from our history ride into the present, we wound through an old-growth forest spattered with sunlight filtering between trees. "Golden sunshine drips down the towering cedars like melted butter," says Charlene Krone.
On the morning of our departure, we noticed an old wagon road coming into our horse camp at Marble Creek. Look for it disappearing into the trees across from the cabin.
We walked up the road a short distance. A portion of it was cleared of trees and there were horse tracks. According to the Marble Creek Historical Society map, a splash dam, logging camp, and steam donkey are located up that way.
This and other mysteries would have to wait for another day. Buddy and Scout don't want any grass to grow under their hooves! Give us a holler if you discover anything up that old wagon road.