With the big winter and long wet spring, I’ve grown weary of running on the paved bike paths around town. I’m itching to run on dirt again. Doesn’t matter if it’s a post-work lap around Ponderosa State Park or a linking together of trails for a half-day adventure, I’m ready for dirt-tan ankles, dipping my head in creeks to cool off, views from high peaks, and a post-run beer at the trailhead with friends.
After seven summers of running trails around McCall, I find myself returning to a few trails each year. These trails take me high and far into the mountains. At the end of a long trail run I may be smelly and physically worn out, but the solitude I experience on the trail is good for my soul.
Here are my five favorite local trail runs.
Ponderosa Park Loop: A Short In-Town Loop
This is a 6.2-mile loop around Ponderosa State Park with nearly continuous views of Payette Lake. While there are a few hills, they are short. The total elevation gain is only 640 feet. The trail makes my favorite list because of the lake and mountain views and because it is close to my house, making it a perfect post-work destination. This loop intersects numerous other trails, creating many options to lengthen or shorten your run. I typically start at the park’s Nature Center and run it counter-clockwise, starting on a portion of Meadow Marsh Trail to get to Huckleberry Trail. The Huckleberry Trail makes up the east side of the loop and in early summer you can fuel up on huckleberries (if you slow down long enough to pick them). The western portion of the loop follows the Peninsula Trail and eventually runs into the paved bike path through the campground. Since both Huckleberry and Peninsula trails parallel the shoreline, there are multiple places where you can go for a dip to cool off.
State Park rules require dogs to be on leashes. This loop is open to mountain bikers but I haven’t encountered too many bikes during the week. There are trail map signs at a few of the trail junctions and the park’s summer trail map is online. [The map downloads as a PDF.] Unfortunately, it’s out of date and the new trails (e.g. Huckleberry Trail) aren’t on the map. But the park is a peninsula, so if you take a wrong turn, you’ll eventually run into the lake shore and then just head south towards the park entrance. You can pick up an updated trail map at the visitor center.
Louie-Boulder Loop: A Moderately Challenging Loop
The 6.7-mile Louie-Boulder Loop features two mountain lakes, one mountain summit, and is within 20 minutes of downtown McCall. The Boulder Lake Trail is featured in a local hiking guide book, which means it’s one of the busier trails near town. Fortunately, most hikers only trek up to Boulder Lake and turn around, leaving the rest of the loop to just a few trail runners and backpackers. The combination of the view of the north face of Jughandle Mountain, meadows full of wildflowers, two mountain lakes, and 1,500 feet of elevation gain makes this one of my go-to training loops.
The trailhead is accessible at the end of the Boulder Lake Road. I prefer to run to Louie Lake first, then over Twin Peaks Summit, turn west on the Boulder Lake Trail, run along Boulder Lake, and back down to the trailhead below Boulder Reservoir. Once you get to Louie Lake, you are on the McCall Trailrunning Classic 20- and 40-mile course all the way back to the trailhead. The first meadow past Louie Lake is full of Indian paintbrush and glacier lilies fill the meadow on the backside of Twin Peaks saddle. If you are feeling ambitious and want more miles, when you get to the junction with the Boulder Lake Trail, go north to take the steep climb up to the top of Boulder Mountain or go east out to Buckhorn Summit.
This loop is on State and National Forest land so dogs can be off leash. The State installed a vault toilet at the trailhead in 2018. Boulder Lake Road is single lane road with only a few turn outs once you leave the asphalt. A zipline business opened in 2018 adding more traffic on the road. Go slow around the curves and don’t get distracted by someone flying over your head. More trail beta is available at Trail Run Project (Louie Lake Trail and Boulder Lake Trail).
Bear Pete Trail: A Long Loop
It you want a long, challenging loop that can end at a hot springs, the Bear Pete Trail is it. Located on the ridge west of Burgdorf Hot Springs, the Bear Pete Trail has two connector trails that create an ideal 18-mile-ish loop with just a few miles of dirt road running. This route is the Legend of Bear Pete 30k trail race that takes place the same September weekend as the IMTUF 100-miler.
The two connector trails are Pete Creek on the north and Nethker Creek on the south. My preference is to start at the trailhead in the Pete Creek dispersed camping area just past Burgdorf Hot Springs. Pete Creek Trail starts through a nice easy, flat meadow, then it begins to climb for 4.5 miles and 1,800 feet in elevation to the junction with the Bear Pete Trail. Once on Bear Pete, the trail becomes very runnable. The French Creek drainage is off to the west. Stop occasionally to check out the views on the east side of the ridgeline. At 4.5 miles on Bear Pete Trail, take the Nethker Creek Trail junction to head east back towards Burgdorf. It’s about four miles of downhill running before you hit a gravel road. Turn left and run out to the hot springs for a soak.
If you don’t want to run the road section, stash a bike in the woods at the Nethker Creek trailhead for a self-supported shuttle. The full loop is close to 18 miles if you make the off-trail side trip up to Bear Pete Peak. Cutting out the road section will save you five miles.
Snowslide Climb: Short Out-and-Back, but Steep
The Snowslide Trail is steep, really steep: over-1,900-feet-in-elevation-gain-in-two-miles kind of steep. The climb up to Snowslide Summit is one of the steepest trails I have encountered on the Payette National Forest, but it makes my favorite list because of the challenge and visual rewards when you reach the summit. (Side note: in Idaho “summits” are not peaks of mountains. Most everywhere else they would be known as “passes” or “saddles.”)
Snowslide Trail starts with a creek crossing and a short runnable section, maybe 200 yards long. Then the climbing starts. When you pause to catch your breath, turn around to enjoy the scenic views across the Lick Creek drainage towards Box Lake. Snowslide Lake, a classic high mountain lake, appears at 1.5 miles. It’s a destination spot for backpackers and anglers. Pass through the dispersed camping area and continue on for another 0.4 mile to reach the summit and incredible views of the Salmon River mountains. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, you have options to gain more elevation: Sawtooth Peak and Snowslide Peak require some scrambling over rocks and finding your own path but are worth the additional effort.
The Snowslide Trail is part of the IMTUF 100-mile race course. On even years, they go up Snowslide; odd years, they go downhill. A word of caution on going back down: go slow. There are a few sections where the trail tread is loose rock. Mix that with the steepness and you have the perfect set up for your feet to slide out from underneath you if you are going too fast. IMTUF race director Jeremy Humphrey cautions racers with “If you go fast down Snowslide, you better have Kilian skills or be ready for hospital bills.”
The trailhead is on Lick Creek Road, about 40 minutes from McCall. More trail beta is available on Trail Run Project.
Snowslide Link-up for a Long Point-to-Point
This link-up of the 20 Mile Trail, Lick Creek Road, Snowslide Trail, and the East Fork of Lake Fork (EFLF) Trail is my current favorite for a long day on the trails. It starts at the 20 Mile Trailhead on Warren Wagon Road just past Little Payette Lake, travels to the southeast to just below Lick Creek Summit, onto the dirt road up over the summit and down to Snowslide trailhead, up Snowslide Trail, and around to the EFLF trailhead. That’s 25.5 miles with about 3,000 feet cumulative elevation gain, high elevation mountain lakes, several creek crossings, and summit views.
The 20 Mile Trail is runnable with modest, short uphill sections and stays on the valley floor. There’s not much shade as portions of this valley have burned. At 8.7 miles, Duck Lake and day hikers appear, signaling that you are almost at the eastern end of the 20 Mile Trail. There’s a vault toilet at this trailhead. Turn up Lick Creek Road towards the summit and then run down to the Snowslide trailhead. (The road section is about 4.5 miles, fortunately most of it is downhill.)
You’ve already read about the climb to Snowslide Summit and you know it will be a grind, but that’s what makes a long day on the trails so rewarding.
At Snowslide Summit, the path to the EFLF Trail is not obvious. The trail angles off to the southeast (to the right) and after about 100 feet there is tree with a trail sign for Maki Lake. Go left at the tree for EFLF Trail (the trail to Maki Lake fades out quickly). The next quarter mile of trail requires a bit of heads-up wayfinding, but it soon becomes distinct again. After the summit, the EFLF Trail is basically all downhill, with the last four miles lined with huckleberry bushes for late-run snacking.
Running this link-up takes several hours (nearly seven hours the last time I did it), and a kind friend or loving spouse to shuttle your car to the end, but the solitude, the views, and challenge make it worth the effort. This run comprises 25% of the IMTUF 100-mile race.
Hit the Trails: We are fortunate to live in a mountain town with numerous trails within an hour-or-less drive of McCall. Except for a couple of really well-known trails, the trailheads are typically empty and you are likely to have an adventure all to yourself. Keep in mind once you are a few miles outside of McCall, cell coverage is rare but occasionally you get reception on ridgelines. When I run solo, I carry a SPOT satellite messenger so that I can summon help if needed. So far, I have only used it to let my shuttle driver know I am nearing the designated pick-up location. In seven years I’ve only seen one bear and it was running away from me as fast it could.
The recent rains and warmer temperatures are melting the snow fast, it won’t be long before we can all lace up the trail shoes, pack some snacks, and find a trail that will take us far into the mountains. I hope to see you out on the trails this summer and fall.
Keith Lannom is training for the 40-mile McCall Trailrunning Classic in July with the goal of finishing just ahead of the cut-off. If he could land a corporate sponsor, he’d give up his day job with the Forest Service to run trails full time. His favorite post-run beverage is a PBR because it’s almost like drinking water.
All photos courtesy Keith Lannom.