North Fork of the Big Wood

Boulder Mountains

Sun Valley + Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

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North Fork of the Big Wood

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  • The North Fork of the Big Wood Trailhead.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • The North Fork Trail leaves the northeast end of the parking lot, and the West Fork of the North Fork of the Big Wood Trail leaves from the west end.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • A view looking up the entire North Fork of the Big Wood Canyon from Ibex Peak. The trail stays on the right side of the canyon through the many open avalanche-swept meadows. The limestone gorge and waterfall is in the lower left side of the photo.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • The turnoff to West Pass is just under 2 miles up the North Fork Canyon.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Above the West Pass junction the trail contours above this pale limestone canyon that contains the stair-step waterfall.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • The falls remain mostly out of view of the trail, though a short scamble can offer a reasonable view.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Several huge avalanche paths keep large sections of the canyon free of permanent pine and fir trees.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • The beautiful south ridge of Peak 10,886 is crossed by several colorful intrusive dikes.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Looking into the headwaters of the North Fork to the divide (low saddle left) with the West Fork of the North Fork drainage. Peak 11,298 is the peak in the middle of the skyline.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Above 8,200 feet the trail fades into the landscape. Hikers have to negotiate steep, forested hillsides to reach the upper alpine basins. This is a view partway up that climb.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Another view of the south ridge of Peak 10,886.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Evidence of glacial activiy can be recognized by the glacially polished slabs along the hike.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • A veiw down the North Fork of the Big Wood from about 9,400 feet.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • The treeline is around 9,600 feet where hikers will enter the upper alpine basins.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Mostly a wasteland of broken sedimentary scree and talus, the headwaters of the North Fork are a challening off-trail scramble.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Small pockets of shrubs and flowers cling to some slopes.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Snow detail in the creek.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Sticky polemonium (Polemonium viscosum). This is an alpine version of Jacob's ladder.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • Looking down the North Fork of the Big Wood before the final climb to the divide with the West Fork of the North Fork.- North Fork of the Big Wood
  • A view down onto the alpine rock and scree slopes of the North Fork headwaters from the divide with the West Fork of the North Fork.- North Fork of the Big Wood
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Huge open canyon. Waterfall. Mid-summer flowers. Access to headwater peaks.
Cons: 
Can be hot. No main destination. Trail fades toward the end of the hike.
Region:
Sun Valley + Sawtooth Mountains, ID
Congestion: 
Low
Pets allowed: 
Yes
Net Elevation Gain: 
1,380.00 ft (420.62 m)
Parking Pass: 
Not Required
Preferable Season(s):
Spring, Summer, Fall
Suitable for:
Hiking, Horseback
Total Distance: 
7.80 mi (12.55 km)
Trail type: 
There-and-back
Trailhead Elevation: 
6,880.00 ft (2,097.02 m)
Current Local Weather:
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Hike Description

Hike Description

Contributor

North Fork of the Big Wood Overview

The North Fork of the Big Wood drainage is the hiking epicenter of the Boulder Mountains.  The main canyon accesses two large tributaries, the West Fork of the North Fork (WFNF) and the East Fork of the North Fork (EFNF). The hikes ascend dramatic, steep-walled canyons, that access multiple alpine cirques ringed by the highest peaks in the range. 

The underlying geology of the North Fork of the Big Wood River is a combination of sedimentary and volcanic rock. Neither is particularly durable, and both rock units tend to break apart. A wide variety of individual rock units provide a wash of reddish and brown hues that blend together in large, sweeping faces of talus and scree in the upper elevations. Below tree line much of the underlying rocks are covered with forests and soil, but the canyon walls are consistently steep down to the valley floor.

North Fork of the Big Wood River

While not as dramatic as the West Fork, the trail up the North Fork of the Big Wood River offers a nice walk across open sage hillsides above the north side of the creek. A pretty waterfall cascades over a limestone ledge about halfway up the canyon. This trail accesses the West Pass Creek adventure.

Look for the trail leaving the east end of the parking lot. After climbing 200 feet through a shallow notch past an old mining prospect, the trail drops steeply to the creek to access an alternate route for horses. Hikers should continue along the east side of the canyon and climb across a steep, narrow side-hill above the creek. The trail then meanders across sage benches and through open Douglas fir forests for the first mile.

After a mossy creek crossing, the trail skirts the edge of a large alluvial fan accumulating beneath the west face of Ibex Peak. Observant hikers will notice a patch of wild raspberries that begins to bear fruit in mid-July. Continue through a short section of shady, aromatic forest before reaching a cairn/sign in an open meadow that marks the junction with the West Pass Trail

Enjoy another half mile of shade before emerging into a landscape of sagebrush slopes swept by frequent winter avalanches. A narrow limestone gorge comes into view at 2.5 miles, and hikers will enjoy the waterfall cascading out the bottom. 

Beyond the waterfall, hikers are greeted with a sweeping panoramic view of the peaks at the head of the drainage. The trail continues its gradual climb beneath avalanche paths and across several springs between short fingers of forest before fading into the woods after 3.9 miles.

Off-Trail Hiking

There are three main lobes at the head of the North Fork of the Big Wood that are ringed by a massive 10,000-foot to 11,000-foot ridge. Though much of the terrain above 9,500 feet is dominated by challenging talus and scree slopes, there are several routes worthy of exploration. 

The northernmost lobe offers two great off-trail scrambles. The main access to Glassford Peak (11,602 feet) climbs to about 8,800 feet before trending northeast into a prominent 10,000-foot saddle above West Pass Creek. For a less committing peak scramble, continue up the left side of the northern lobe for before finding a way onto the south ridge of Ibex Peak (10,896 feet).  This picturesque ridge is dominated by broken reddish rock with several prominent white dikes that cut horizontally across.

Ambitious hikers with good off-trail map skills might choose to navigate the western lobe through patchy forest to tree line. From here it is possible to climb to the divide with the West Fork of the North Fork and make a loop route through both canyons. Once at the divide, it is a relatively short scramble up the southeast ridge of Peak 11,298.

Reference: All content excerpted from Exploring Sun Valley - A Comprehensive Guide to the Boulder, Pioneer, and Smoky Mountains by Idaho River Publications.

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Published in collaboration with Idaho River Publications

Our mission is to inspire adventure with beautiful, comprehensive and waterproof map-based guidebooks.  Owner, publisher, and photographer Matt Leidecker, grew up exploring and guiding on the rivers in central Idaho.  His award winning Middle Fork of the Salmon River – A Comprehensive Guide is the standard by which other river guidebooks are measured.  Printed on virtually indestructible YUPO paper, IRP guides are truly unique all-in-one resources for adventure.  Each book is loaded with full-color maps, stunning photographs, and information on the history, geology, and wildflowers.  Visit Idaho River Publications to explore our guidebooks to the Rogue River in Oregon and the mountains of Central Idaho.

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