The Peace Creek Trail
How to Watch a Total Solar Eclipse From a Wild Idaho Mountaintop, Part II
We woke up early to perfect conditions the day before the eclipse: clear skies, cool air, a Christmas-Eve level of excitement about the adventure to come. Eager to drive up to Boise National Forest and get started on our hike, we grabbed our packs, walked out of our AirBNB to our rental car and ... it wouldn’t start.
Apparently we’d left one of the doors unlatched overnight, and the battery was completely dead. I started to panic. Who could possibly help us at 7am on a Sunday in a residential neighborhood? No one would be awake, let alone outside so we could see them and ask for a jump. We’d have to call a tow truck, which could eat up hours of our day. Our plan to hit the road early and avoid traffic seemed dead in the water — which meant we might not finish our hike and find a campsite before sundown.
We surveyed the landscape. Our AirBNB was a freestanding “tiny house” located behind a multi-family home, and as it turned out, on the front steps of that building, someone was enjoying their early morning cigarette. To make a long, lucky story very short — he was parked just across the street from us and was happy to jump our car. Lesson learned and crisis averted, we were on our way.
We stopped for a few last-minute supplies and grabbed some diner omelets from mildly amused Boisie-ans before getting too far from town. While we waited for our meal, we chatted with the hostess and a few other hikers — apparently RV parking spots were being rented for $1,000 a night within the path of totality! Our plan to hike and camp for free seemed both genius and incredibly naïve. What if we weren’t allowed in the forest, or it was swarming with tourists like ourselves? What if our plan had all sorts of flaws we weren’t thinking of?
We kept driving towards the forest, periodically trying to call the Lowman Ranger District station to see if they could put our minds at ease about any holes in our plan. We thought they’d be familiar with the trails in their district and eclipse preparations, but we couldn’t get a helpful person on the phone — so when we drove past a ranger station on the side of the road we decided to stop in. Turns out that was actually just a satellite office for the Emmett Ranger district, who manage the west half of the Peace Creek area, while the eastern portion falls into the Lowman jurisdiction. We just wanted to ask for a detailed map of the area, but the Emmett Rangers really saved the day...
Even though she wasn’t very familiar with the trail we were asking about, the elderly woman on duty realized that that the one-lane dirt road we planned to take into Boise National Forest was being shut down after 1pm — because of all the traffic, it was one-way into the forest early in the day, and one-way out in the afternoon. She warned us that we wouldn’t make it there in time, and then wouldn’t be able to get to the trailhead! However, since the Peace Creek Trail runs through the forest to another trailhead on the Emmett side of the ridge we planned to camp on, she helped us plot out a new route to there instead.
Following our new directions took us further and further from civilization. The highway gave way to two-lane country roads, and eventually the one-lane dirt roads that access the forest and campgrounds. We could tell that the folks camping out in official sites had been posted up for quite a while, and frequent signs advertising parking spaces or private homes with campsites for rent kept us excited and giddy about our adventure.
We finally reached the trailhead and pulled in to a small parking lot, and a scenic one at that! With the mountains towering off in the distance, bright blue skies, and vibrant trees with the trail already in sight, our adventure felt too good to be true. We laced up our trail shoes (I’ve got to buy some real hiking boots) and gave our packs a quick once-over, then headed into the forest. Follow along on Strava if you’re curious about our route or elevation stats!
The trail was quite flat at first, letting us warm up and get used to moving after a few hours of driving. We passed two hikers who had stopped for lunch, and one couple heading back towards the trailhead, but no one else — maybe we’d get some wilderness to ourselves after all!
As we started to climb the mountain, the views got more and more spectacular. The forest felt a little thin, but we knew there had been some wildfires recently — when we’d paused for lunch on the drive up, we’d even overheard some rangers parked nearby talking about them and seen some far-off smoke. The combination of new growth, sparse patches, and burned out trees made for some interesting vistas! I fell in love with the bright purple flowers carpeting many of the slopes: I learned later they’re one of the first plants to grow back after fires, aptly named fireweed.
We kept an eye on the time and how far we were hiking, and pointed out suitable campsites and fresh water. We agreed if we were really dissatisfied with the water sources or campsites near the top of the mountain, we’d hike back down to these and return to the peak in the morning for the eclipse itself. We knew we could even head back to the car if no trees felt strong enough or spaced properly for our hammocks, but we soon found plenty of campsites and water sources to choose from. In hindsight it seems silly that we worried we wouldn't be able to find the right kinds of trees in such an enormous forest, but we were trying to play it safe! We were lucky to find lots of fresh water, though, we didn’t bring very much with us — another valuable lesson in priorities for our next trip.
We hiked steadily upwards, keeping an eye out for twists and turns in the trail to check our progress against our map. The trail was mostly sandy and narrow, with the occasional motorbike track, but little evidence of other foot traffic. After a few hours we were confident we were the only ones for miles around — an invigorating but slightly daunting realization!
I don’t like narrow cliffs or rocky trails that run along the edge of ridges much, but handled the one or two we encountered quite well (I think!). I would never attempt this trail on a bike though, I have a hard enough time trusting my own two feet to keep me stable. I’m less adrenaline junkie, more endurance runner, though if I keep these trips up maybe that will change!
After three hours, we reached the top of the mountain: we’d covered about 6 miles and climbed almost 3,000 feet, nearing the 7,000 feet of elevation overall! The trail rounded a short turn and lead us into a clearing with the remains of an old campfire ring — a good sign for our campsite needs, and with gorgeous views to boot. Even better, we’d passed a clear water source only a few minutes before. Being that close would almost be like having a tap in our campsite!
But we kept hiking another mile or so along the crest of the mountain to check out the rest of the ridge. The early area was sheltered and calm, but the trail only grew more rocky and exposed before heading down the other side of the ridge. We realized the inhospitable area of the trail was in Lowman District side of the mountain, while the appealing, sheltered area was Emmett territory! We decided we officially had a favorite Idaho ranger district, and hiked back to the overlook that caught our eye to settle in.
We “pitched” our hammocks between some perfectly spaced trees and after quite a few tries, managed to rig up a rope over a sturdy tree so we’d be able to hang our pack safely. After a 5-minute jog back down to the stream crossing the trail, so we wouldn’t have to worry about collecting any water in the morning before the big event, we were ready for dinner. I moved a few rocks from the old campfire ring to make “table” and “chairs” overlooking the trail, and we settled in with some with peanut butter, tortillas, and chocolate to watch the sun set.
We wound up having quite a chilly night —and think we heard some animals moving through in the wee hours!— but overall the hammocks were a success. Next time, we’ll bring heavier sleeping bags and even warmer clothes. We will continue not thinking about which kinds of animals might be nosing around when we can’t see further than our mosquito netting. Having taken out my contact lenses I felt especially vulnerable, but a combination of mind over matter and exhaustion kept me dozing pretty peacefully. I’m sure after more than one night in a hammock I’d sleep more easily, too!
After our first night out in the open, we woke up to a new friend investigating our campsite. This curious deer didn’t stick around to watch the eclipse with us, though!
More on our next day coming soon, from our early trail run to investigate other eclipse-watching points on the Lowman side of the mountain, to the eerie and awe-inspiring eclipse itself!