Buckhorn Lake Idaho Sep 7 - 10, 2011

Darrell, Lynn and I hiked to Buckhorn Lake September 7, 2011. Buckhorn Lake is about 15 miles due east of McCall, Idaho, but is really only accessible by taking the trailhead that starts along the south fork of the Salmon River north of Warm Lake. The USGS topo maps indicate that there is a route accessible by vehicle to get within three miles of the Lake. However, several years ago, the bridge near the current trail head was washed away and has never been replaced.

There is an alternate hiking route that, according to the maps, is only 7.5 miles. What we discovered is that route has so many ins and outs of ravines, ups and downs over obstacles, that the actual trail is 11 miles. It is the most difficult trail I have ever been on. I would classify this route as 'Expert Only'! It took ten hours and all of our route finding skills to follow the trail as best we could and arrive at the lake. On the way in, we lost and found the trail many times and had to bushwhack the last 1.5 miles. The map does not show an accurate route of the trail, which turned out to be a lot further north than we figured. The route to the lake gains 3000 absolute feet, but along the way also loses 1000 feet with all the ups and downs. The first seven miles of the route is fairly well marked, but the last four miles is not well maintained and at times very difficult to follow. The route crosses many areas that have been destroyed from different events such as fire, downed trees, rock slides, runnoff, etc. There is dense brush and dense forests that make it difficult to keep the trail. Fortunately there were several kinds of trail markers that an experienced and observant hiker can follow, including rock cairns, colored tape tied to tree branches and bushes, cut logs, blue reflective triangles tacked to tree trunks.

Here are a few good web sites.

The Road

The road to the trailhead is paved the entire way. Aparently the last twenty miles was recently paved using money from one of the recent Government stimulous programs. It is also a very beautiful drive along the South Fork of the Salmon River.

The Trail

As I said above, this is the most difficult trail I have every hiked. It is for experts only. After starting from the trailhead, we followed a flat, two track road about a hundred yards until we reached the bridge that has been washed out. There is a big log, about three feet in diameter, that we used to cross the river. Other than the log, it would be difficult to cross the river. Even late in the season it was a couple of feet deep in most areas and swift. The trail remains flat for another 300 yards and comes to another bridge, not washed away. After crossing that bridge we made a right-hand turn, heading northwest up into West Fork Buckhorn Creek Canyon. From here the trail ascends and descends, often steeply. It is narrow and often follows along steep canyons and ravines. There are many obstacles such as fallen trees, rock slides, and deep, tangled brush. It is all too easy to loose the trail. Look for rock cairns (sometimes just a single rock sitting on a large rock), cut logs, colored tape, or reflectors tacked to trees that mark the trail. As you get near the lake, don't assume the trail gets closer to the lake. The trail stays well north of the lake until it makes a south turn and comes right into the northwest corner of the lake. The trail comes right into a campsite. There was another campsite on the east end of the lake, near the outlet.

There is no trail to get to the other lakes in the area. Expect to climb and scramble up and down steep mountain sides and valleys.


Fishing in Buckhorn Lake is excellent. We all caught many cutthroat and cutthroat hybrids. We fished in the Rainbow lakes and that was not as good, but still had many fish.


This hike is for experts only. Even though it was after the end of the season and such a remote area, there were still two different parties in the area. One group was familiar with the area and we learned a lot from them. The other party we never saw, but heard their dog in upper Buckhorn Lake and then again in Lower Rainbow Lake.

I don't think I could say that the area is worth the effort to reach. I'm glad I went there once, but I don't think I will go there again. The beauty was not that much better than other areas I've been to and the fishing was not that much better than other areas.

Useful links

Leave No Trace.