The Grandjean trailhead and lower South Fork of the Payette River trail is the jumping-off point for many different adventures. Destinations in the lower canyon include a shorter hike to Taylor Springs as well as this hike to Elk Lake. There are also several adventures that extend up tributaries of the lower South Fork including Trail Creek Lakes, Baron Lakes, the North Fork of Baron Creek and Pickett Mountain. Adventures upstream of Elk Lake to the headwater tributaries include Everly Lake, Benedict Lake, Ardeth Lake, Virginia Lake, and Hidden Lakes. Check out any of those adventures for a comprehensive overview of the upper South Fork.
The middle section of the South Fork of the Payette River trail climbs up the steepest and narrowest part of this impressive 20-mile-long canyon. The valley narrows dramatically above Taylor Springs at the upstream end of Big Meadows, confining the south fork between massive canyon walls. The north wall in particular is a formidable presence, rising more than 3,600 feet directly above the river in less than a mile beneath Peak 9,765.
Between Garden Creek and Drop Creek this massive granite face is split by many northeast-trending joints, creating a complicated series of impenetrable ridges and towers. The bottom 1,000 feet of the canyon was scoured by passing glaciers, leaving long smooth slabs that curve upward into the maze of towers and gullies overhead. On the opposite side of the canyon, a handful of large tributaries join the Payette, breaking the south wall into a series of hulking portals that flank the mouth of these hanging valleys.
Confined to its narrow channel, the South Fork is a dominant presence in the canyon. At times the river slips quietly through braided channels as it reworks sediment deposited by large landslides. Most of the time, however, it roars downstream through steep boulder gardens or over bedrock-lipped waterfalls. At one point, the entire river is channeled (at low water) through a 4-foot-wide slot in a red granite slab. Though the route stays above the river most of the way, the sound of cascading water is always beckoning hikers to leave the trail in search of some hidden cataract.
Towards the end of the climb the trail switchbacks alongside Fern Falls, offering a first-hand view of this stair-stepping cascade and entry gorge upstream. Then, as if someone switched off the volume, the river quiets down as hikers crest the upper basin and the South Fork glides silently through grassy meadows from the outlet of Elk Lake.
The massive gorge is also lush. Choked with trees for much of its length, good perspectives of the canyon are limited. When the trail does leave the forest, the open slopes are covered in thick shrubs, head-high ferns, and thimbleberry bushes laden with sweet, red berries. Level spots for a campsite are few and far between, and it can be difficult to judge your progress up the narrow canyon. It is an awesome place, a long way from the trailhead and the domain of backpackers willing to plumb the deeper reaches of the Sawtooth Wilderness.
Most of the rock along the South Fork of the Payette is the favorable (for climbing) Sawtooth Batholith granite. The long approach and extremely steep and complicated access to the spires on the north side of the canyon has inhibited development. There are, however, several long slabs and vertical towers that appear to have good rock and crack systems. There are also a few walls that drop off the west ridge of Elk Peak into Drop Creek that may relinquish some quality climbing. For climbers seeking adventure, it would be worth the effort to pack in the rope and rack for an extended exploration. If you are looking for established routes and straightforward climbing then stick to the Elephants Perch on the east side of the range.
Most of the trail lies within the Sawtooth Wilderness. Please observe the following regulations:
• Mountain bikes are not allowed past the wilderness boundary.
• Self administered wilderness permits are required and available at the trailhead.
• Dogs must be on a leash between July 1 and Labor Day
• Camp 100-feet from trails, lakes and streams
• Pack out all garbage.
• Human waste should be buried in a cat hole 6-8 inches deep, buried and well disguised. Pack out all toilet paper.
• Campfires allowed ONLY in a backcountry pan or fire blanket
• Campfires are NOT allowed at some lakes and in some drainages in the Sawtooths. Please review the campfire restrictions at individual trailheads.
• Permits required for all stock use in the wilderness. No grazing allowed in the Salmon River watershed (This includes the Alpine Lake drainage)
• No equine stock at Edith Lake. ALL stock prohibited in the Goat Creek and Alpine Creek (Alturas Lake) drainages.
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