People seek out the 50 U.S. state high points for many reasons – the views, the personal challenge, or the opportunity to experience the richness and diversity of the American landscape. In terms of elevation, Idaho’s Borah Peak ranks eleventh on this list. At 12,662 feet, Borah Peak offers a formidable trek and very rewarding summit for hikers and mountaineers alike.
Once on the trail, however, thoughts about precise elevation or various lists of peaks are replaced by the experience of the dry, but vibrant landscape. Hikers ascend from sagebrush valleys, through forested slopes, and finally to alpine heights, experiencing the variety of life in Idaho’s mountains.
Borah Peak can be found in the Salmon-Challis Nation Forest. Aside from Idaho’s tallest peaks, the Salmon-Challis includes more than half of the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness, the largest unbroken wilderness area in the contiguous United States. Borah Peak rises in the middle of the Lost River Range, stretching southeast from Challis to Arco, Idaho. The sparsely populated valleys surrounding Borah are a paradise for those seeking solitude. On summer days there will likely be some fellow hikers only on the Borah trail, but odds are you will find yourself alone on the mountain outside of July and August.
Although it requires no technical equipment, Mount Borah is neither easy nor harmless. Use caution when navigating the notoriously named “Chicken-Out Ridge.” Portions of this ridge require more than steep hiking; you’ll have to scramble with hands and feet. With favorable conditions, however, a cautious and motivated hiker can certainly reach the summit. The best climbing conditions occur from early July through the middle of August, when the standard trail is largely free of snow. At other times, be prepared for a snow climb. Visit Salmon-Challis National Forest’s Borah Peak home page for more specific climbing information.
My climb was quick and quiet. The sun is hot in the sagebrush valley, but in a matter of minutes the trail enters the shady band of mountain mahogany and Douglas-fir that wraps the lower third of the mountain. I saw massive limber pines (Pinus flexilis) near treeline. These trees seem as old and resilient as the mountain itself, but at their feet you’re likely to notice the fleeting and delicate blooms of desert evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa).
The trail steepens above the forest and hikers might not notice much for quite a while, besides their footing and shortness of breath. But then, finally stopping to rest and look back at the now deep and distant valley, the sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum) growing from the cliff faces silently greet you. This is the best spot. The valley is an indistinct memory and the summit is close enough to seem completed. It is a good time to notice the wind, rock, and snow and wonder how such flowers make their home here.
“One feels far from home so high in the sky.” – John Muir, An Ascent of Mount Rainier