Steep Mine hiking, an Idaho-style Via-Ferrata, & a Little History.

  • I was somewhat younger, bolder, & more agile, when I enjoyed this Idaho Mountain historic mines adventure. Only age 64 at the time.

    Idaho magazine published my story in their July 2014 issue & named it Of Mountains & Mines. You can access it here, but you have to pay to read the whole story.…/of-mountains-and-mines/

    After I drove to the end of the rough road up Horseshoe Canyon, the main southern tributary to Spring Mountain Canyon, I found some old cabins and mine dumps dating to the 1920’s or earlier. The end of road area seemed to be popular with those that like to shoot holes in old mining equipment. Every metal object in sight had scores, or hundred of bullet holes. Cartridge cases were everywhere.

    Miner's cabin at the head of Horseshoe Canyon, under 10,519' Trail Peak. There are a bunch of mines in the cliffs in the background. The blue arrow shows the highest large mine, which one of several tramways in the canyon, went to.
    Spring mt tramway head in blue.jpg

    A number of old wire cables go up to mines in the head of Horseshoe Canyon, but no roads to those mines have survived the many years of erosion by avalanches and rock-fall, since they were scratched & blasted out of the mountainside in the 1880’s. Reading mining history has informed me that ore was brought down from mines on those wire-cables. Those “tramways” predate the first chairlift at Sun Valley by about 55 years. The mine-dumps in the cliffs above me, that extended up to a 10,000 Ft. ridgeline, clearly called for exploration.

    My adventure started with hiking up the steep mine-dump of a mine named “The Iron Mask”, that was first mined in the 1880’s. I worked up hundreds of vertical feet of loose debris, exploring steeper and still steeper mine dumps, looking for desirable mineral specimens.

    As the terrain started approaching vertical, I ended up scrambling up a cliff right beside a cable that had been used to carry ore down to the valley floor. I eyeballed the cable and thought: "if things get hard, I can grab onto this." After deciding I had better test the inch-thick cable, to see if it still was attached at the upper end, my reward was a shower of small rocks. “Oh-well,” I thought, "back to trusting myself."

    At the top of the cliff, I had to go up another 200 feet of 50 degree mine-rubble leading to the old mine portal. I hated that part, since it became a matter of surviving the “make two steps up, and slide back one, slog for life." When I finally reached the area carved out of the mountain for mining in the 1800’s, I perused the mining artifacts and excavations at the upper cable terminus. The other attraction was a mine-shaft that had caved in, but still had a large opening downward, surrounded with crumbling rock.

    The shaft! Rocks dropped down it could be heard bouncing for a long time. It was a little loose on the edges, & getting around it was tricky.

    3 ..JPG

    I found an iron wheel about 24” in diameter, with a yoke that may have held an ore bucket onto the cable, some mine cart railroad track, & lots of old boards.
    2 Some part of the cable system from a mine in the cliffs, and my trekking pole for scale..small.jpg

    Among the metal artifacts, were several 30 caliber steel bullets that I assumed had been shot up at the mine from far below. I found myself hoping "Billy-Bob" would not arrive at the cabins far below, and start shooting. (After inquiry on this subject among my select group of Idaho “Billy-Bob” friends, it appears that a now-deceased machine-gun collector from the Salmon area, did like to test his machine guns in Horseshoe Canyon.)

    The ridgeline above the shaft, also called out to me, and I continued upward on terrain that was a little easier than what I had just climbed. When I got to the 9,900’ ridge, I found an old track along it, and several small mines along a half-mile of pleasant walking. I enjoyed the artifacts, some interesting rocks, and the great views along the way.

    Dendrites on Dolomite -----manganese stains, not fossil leaves
    4 Dendrites on Dolomite -----manganese stains, not fossil leaves-small.jpg

    For my return trip to my vehicle, the problem was, I didn't really want to climb back down the way I had ascended. It was not going to be pleasant and could end up being a little more risky than I enjoy. At the end of the ridge, near a collapsed cabin, I noticed a very old, but distinct, track that headed steeply back down towards the valley I had climbed from. It took me easily down through much steep terrain, but ended abruptly just above the collapsed mine shaft I had previously visited.

    A cabin high on the ridge, with a view east to Birch Creek & mountains on the Montana border.
    5 Cabin on Ridge -small.jpg

    I carefully down-climbed shattered rock rubble past the gapping mine shaft, to the cable terminus at the top of the steep mine dump I had clawed up earlier in the day. For my return down, after deciding the cable was well-anchored: I pulled out my leather gloves and climbed back down the cable through the steep mine dump and over the cliff, to easier ground. Happily, I was able to shake the cable below me to dislodge loose rubble, as I slithered down the steep mine dump above the cliff.

    Near the top of the cable, looking into the void. The cable comes out of left side of this photo, about where my shadow head is.
    6 Near the top of the cable, looking into the void.  The cable comes out of left side of this photo, about where my shadow head is-small.jpg

    Red marks the old cable I climbed up beside, & used as an "Idaho-style" Via-Ferrata line going down.
    7 red marks my cable route..jpg

    With that adventure as a “warm-up,” I ventured up to some other interesting looking mines on the north face of Trail Peak 10,533’. These mines had also been served by another cable tramway that went up from the last flat spot in Horseshoe Canyon. But, there had never been a road, or even a discernable trail carved out to them. I had more “interesting” hiking up to the highest large mine, which was the terminus of the cable tramway. Two 3’ in diameter iron wheels reside there on a platform, each looked to weigh hundred of pounds Someone must have worked out a way to pack or roll them up 1,000 vertical feet with several short very steep areas. I was impressed.

    3' diameter steel wheels at a high mine on the north face of Trail Peak.
    tramway top Spring Mt 1880s-small.jpg

    Spring Mountain Canyon, which extends west from Hwy 28 into the Lemhi Mountains, just south of the ghost town of Gilmore, offers an opportunity for folks to explore a scenic high mountain area full of historic mines. The Forest Service put up some signage for roads sometime in the past, but it appears road maintenance has been on hold for the last few years. The area is mainly visited by ATV and dirt-bike riders, and my high-clearance four-wheel-drive SUV was a little wide for a few of the roads. Hiking or mountain bikes would certainly offer a quiet & healthy alternative method of access.

    The steep mountains are scarred by numerous mines dating back to the early 1880’s, although the area enjoyed active mining up through the 1920’s and again in the 1940’s, with more recent attempts to find mineral wealth contributing to the network of passable roads. Recorded mineral production includes silver, lead, & copper that at current prices, totals around $3,000,000 in value.

    Nothing but foundations and an informational sign mark the town-site of Hahn at the mouth of Spring Mountain Canyon. Hahn existed for a few years in the early 1900’s as the supply and ore smelting center for nearby mines,

    After I finished with my Horseshoe Canyon adventure hikes, I drove back down to Spring Mountain Canyon, then turned onto a good four wheel drive road up its main northern tributary, Quartzite Canyon. I pulled off that road and car-camped at 8,500 ft., slightly above the mosquito zone in the valley below. As sunset alpenglow lit Trail Peak 10,533 ft. and the ridge to the left that I had hiked earlier in the day, a mule deer doe walked up and posed for me.
    8  Mule deer doe posing above my camp with Trail Peak ,10533 Ft. in the background..jpg

    I was out of camp by 7:30 A.M. and I drove up rough but passable (with high-clearance 4-wd, low range vehicle) old mining roads to the Bruce Estate mine at about 9,700 ft. From there, I hiked north up gentle terrain towards the summit of 10,685 ft. Sheep Mountain.

    It was a beautiful morning in the mountains, with the temperature pleasantly cool, but not cold, and no wind. I wandered up easy slopes covered with wildflowers and interesting rocks, many containing fossil shells & corals. A geology book that covers the Lemhi Range tells me most of the rock on my hike up Sheep Mountain is likely Devonian Era Dolomite, dating to around 400 million years ago.

    There was even a small mine or two on the ridge to check out. Occasionally there was a distinct trail to follow, which had led up to a one-time Forest Service Fire Lookout on the summit that was built in the 1930’s, & removed sometime in the late 1980’s. The terrain is so user-friendly that the sometimes missing trail does not affect access. It was a pleasant stroll to the summit.

    My “Selfie” Summit shot on Sheep Mountain! The wire visible in this photo is a left-over from the Forest Service fire lookout that once stood on the summit & the summit register is to my right.
    13 My “Selfie” Summit shot! The wire visible in this photo is a left-over from the Forest Service fire lookout that once stood on the summit. .JPG

    When I got back down to the road-head, I relaxed for a while and had an early lunch. Then, it was time! I cruelly beat my SUV over three very-rough miles of “white-knuckle” ATV tracks to the south, parked at 10,000 Ft. and hiked an old mining road around Big Windy Peak over towards Trail Peak. Near my parking spot, was the upper terminus for an ore tramway that ran from 10,000 ft. down to the floor of Spring Mountain Canyon. Ore from the nearby Elizabeth & Teddy Mines went down the tramway, until the mines closed in 1930.

    Top of the ore tramway that moved ore from the Elizabeth & Teddy Mines at 10,000 ft. to the valley floor of Spring Mountain Canyon. A tram tower and a tram wheel show

    17 Top of the ore tramway that moved ore from the Elizabeth & Teddy Mines at 10,000 ft. to the valley floor of Spring Mountain Canyon.   A tram tower i and a tram wheel show.jpg

    I found myself wondering if the miners worked year around at this elevation. The two remaining nearby cabins look substantial, and there are a few tree stumps around that were cut with axes several feet above their bases. Perhaps that indicates that the miners did spend winters in this scenic, but inhospitable spot. There are also some ancient telephone poles on the ridgeline that show a onetime phone line went down a less steep canyon west to the Little Lost River drainage. From my parking spot I followed an old mining road past the Elizabeth & Teddy Mines and another old miner’s cabin, around to the west and the south slopes of Big Windy Peak & then after some downhill I hiked to the summit of Trail Peak.

    Old miners cabin at 10,000 Ft. and a view into the upper Little Lost River headwaters
    18 Old miners cabin at 10,000 Ft. and a view into the upper Little Lost River headwaters.JPG

    View off the steep north-side of Trail Peak into upper Horseshoe Canyon.

    21 View off the steep-side of Trail Peak into upper Horseshoe Canyon..jpg

    On my returned, I enjoyed a short walk up to the large & roomy summit of Big Windy Peak. Near the north-most high-point, I found what appears to be the remains of an early 1900's tent cabin. There is also a fallen telephone pole with missing insulators. A very well defined trail leads a few feet to the summit, where a small flat area has been cleared in the distant past. No mines are closely adjacent to relate to the tent cabin. I speculate that this might well have been an earlier fire-lookout, before one was built on the top of Sheep Mountain.

    23 Tent cabin debris from an early 1900s fire lookout-small.jpg

    From there, it was an easy hike back down, but I had a great view north at Sheep Mountain, my first hike of the day, from my 3rd mountain of the day.
    24  View is to the North toward Sheep Mountain from the north summit of Big Windy Peak, and my car is a barely visible dot in the center of the photo.-small 2.jpg

    About the time I reached my vehicle, a small group of friendly folks on ATV’s rolled up. They looked at my SUV in some astonishment. One noticed the rock hammer hanging from my hip, and asked me if I was a government geologist. I assured him I wasn’t, and added that if I wasn’t so poor, I too would own an ATV for roads like these.

    I drove back down the ridge a little ways, found a scenic camp-spot on the ridge at 9,500 ft. and enjoyed great views that evening. Ah Wilderness!
    25  Last night camp at 9,500 ft..JPG

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