Nelson Ridge Loop

Nelson Peak is located just east of Avery, population 25, sandwiched between the St. Joe River and its north fork. The Milwaukee Railroad put Avery on the map in the early twentieth century by routing a railroad through Montana and down the North Fork St. Joe and St. Joe river valleys. The North Fork section is now a rail-to-trail called Route of the Hiawatha. From its beginning at the St. Joe River, the Nelson Ridge trail climbs the eastern flank of Nelson Peak, traverses the southeastern face below the peak, drops down the western side along Telichpah Creek and returns to the trailhead following the St. Joe North Fork. It is a National Recreation Trail.

Location Bitterroot Mountains
Rating 3.3 out of 5
Difficulty Moderate (some uphill hiking; creek fordings)
Distance 17.2 miles
Duration 5:41 hours moving time (hiking)
Elevation Gain 3,350 feet
High Point 5,739 feet (Nelson Ridge)
Low Point 2,413 feet (Trailhead)
Trail Type Loop
Trailbed Packed dirt, loose rocks, dirt road
Water Little on the ridge trail (there are 2 seasonal creeks on the east side of Nelson creek). Water is readily available at Telichpah Creek and the North Fork of the St. Joe
Status Unprotected
Administration St. Joe National Forest
Permits None required
Conditions Good, with a few trees to climb over and under. There is still snow up on the ridge in June.
Camping There are a couple of sites along the ridge hike, one a bit before the intersection with Packsaddle Trail and the other at the intersection with Packsaddle. Telichpah Campground has a number of car camping sites and a cault toilet.
Maps USGS Avery, Sheefoot Mountain
Trailhead From St. Maries, take the St. Joe River Road east for 47 miles. There is parking shortly after Avery. Drive past the first pullout with interpretive signs and park at the second one; the trailhead is across the road. If you’re at the pavillion you’ve gone too far.

Google Directions (47.251826, -115.790278)

Season June – November
Squirrel Density Lots of ground squirrels
Features Mountaintop, Riverwalk, Meadow
Distance From
  • Coeur d’Alene 100.3 miles
  • Lewiston 145.2 miles
  • Sandpoint 144.3 miles
  • Seattle 387.4 miles
  • Spokane 109.6 miles
Resources
Nearby Hikes
    Date June 10, 2017

    TrailheadFrom the trailhead near the St. Joe river, the path heads uphill towards Avery at a steady incline, covered with rubble and loose rocks, and lightly shaded by open fir forest. Soon the trail switchbacks and turns eastwards, while continuing to climb. This time of year, the trail is hemmed in by pretty wildflowers, among them wild roses and many kinds of fern. We encountered the “obligatory” carcass along this section of trail, but it proved to be far from the last one. 

    Indian paintbrushShortly past the 1-mile mark the trail reaches the Nelson ridge with view towards the hamlet of Avery. The trail, a single-track of packed dirt now, then flattens out for a bit, and the wildflower galore continues, supplemented with beargrass at the higher elevations. Ground squirrels thrive here, judging by the burrows, which Naughty tried to dig up. The trail follows the ridge fairly closely, though dropping to one side or the other every so often, and is nicely cooled by a canopy of fir and pine.

    Campsite in the woodsAround 4 miles into the hike there is a well-shaded campsite in the woods, albeit dry. Shortly afterwards the trail moves away from the ridge and traverses Nelson Peak’s east face. This is a very open area, likely from clear-cut logging, with sweeping views of the snow-capped Clearwater Mountains. You’ll also see the checkerboard of logging on the opposite hillsides.

    Snow up on the ridgeThere are a couple of small brooks along this traverse, but come August these are likely dry. Around the 5-mile mark you’ll come upon the intersection with Packsaddle Trail #26, which drops down to the St. Joe River Road in about 3 miles. There is a decent campsite just following the fork, but it is dry. Stay on the Nelson Ridge Trail, which will head upwards and regain the ridge in another mile or so. The ridge is covered with a dense pine forest that harbored a few patches of late snow at an elevation of around 5,800 feet. In the shadier sections these were about two feet deep and at some point even extended out so far that the trail could no longer be identified. To top it off, it started to snow very very lightly, but luckily it ended as soon as it started.

    Telichpah Creek TrailThe walking is pleasant along this ridge, with frequent views to the east, where we saw billowing black clouds accumulate. Around the 7-mile mark you’ll come to the fork with the Telichpah Creek trail. Striving for political correctness, the forest service renamed Squaw Creek into Telichpah Creek. Evidently, the local administrators didn’t get the memo, for the signage still refers to the trail as Squaw Trail #196 and its end point as Squaw Creek Campground. The older USGS and USFS maps also refer to the trail and creek that way. Continuing on the Nelson Ridge trail will eventually get you up to Shefoot Mountain, and from there you could traverse the ridge on trail #189 to Big Dick Point, which, by the way, escaped the naming purge unscathed. From Big Dick you could take trail #501 (White Woman trail) back down to Telichpah Creek.

    Telichpah Creek. Fairly tame high up.The likelihood of substantial remnants of snow on Shefoot Mountain at an elevation of 6,300 feet, coupled with the dark clouds over the Clearwater Mountains, convinced us to bypass the higher peaks in favor of Telichpah (aka Squaw) Creek trail #196. This trail plunges steeply downhill and has seen a fair bit of motorbike traffic (though none while we were out there), resulting in deep rutting in the topmost section. After the first switchback, the trail levels off and meets up with Telichpah Creek. This creek needs to be forded about six or seven times over the next few miles. The first crossing occurs around the 8-mile mark and is not really a problem as the creek is quite small this high up and there are plenty of logs to ease the endeavor.

    A pretty mountain meadowImmediately after the crossing, the clouds above us burst and we got inundated for the next quarter hour with pea-sized hail. Hail and fordings aside, this creek-side walk is actually exceedingly pleasant, nicely forested and interspersed with occasional mountain meadows. Around the 10-mile mark, you’ll meet up with (as in, cross) White Woman Creek. At this point, crossing the creeks requires wading, with Telichpah Creek about knee-deep. Shortly after crossing White Woman Creek you’ll stumble upon the fork with White Woman Trail #501, which heads up to Big Dick Point in 2 miles. Continue on the Telichpah Creek trail instead and be treated to another creek crossing…

    An inviting bench near Telichpah CreekThe forest gets a bit thicker now, with a few western red cedars tossed in for variety, but you can still make out the sheer cliff walls of Big Dick on the opposite side of the creek. The trail drops steadily, but not as fast as the creek, and just before the 11-mile mark the path switchbacks for a bit to get down to the creek level. There is a rustic bench there for the wary, and an even more welcome bridge across the creek for the wary-of-fordings (the Scribe’s feet were soaked). The creek is fairly torrid at this stage, so the bridge is appreciated.

    View back towards Big DickThe trail continues high above the northern shore of Telichpah Creek and with the forest soon receding grand views into the St. Joe Mountains to the west open up. Over your shoulder you catch a glance at the sheer rock face of Big Dick. The trail then declines once again to the level of the creek, which needs to be crossed one more time, again via a bridge, and soon after you reach Telichpah Creek Campground (formerly Squaw Creek Campground), a car campground.

    Moss-covered rock wall along North Fork of St. JoeBear left at the campground, traversing it, and take the dirt road paralleling the North Fork of the St. Joe on the eastern side (don’t cross the North Fork). Cars and ATVs are allowed to use this road, but this is not likely as FR #456 on the other side of the North Fork is much wider and well-graded. We met neither vehicle nor people along this stretch. It parallels the river for about five miles, at first fairly closely, then rising up a bit for elevated views, especially when you look back towards the campground. To the left the road is bordered by a steep rock wall, dissected in places where tributaries carved out notches and entirely carpeted with dripping mosses in others.

    St. Joe at the trailheadThe dirt road emerges onto the St. Joe River Road near the confluence of St. Joe and North Fork. From there it is less than a quarter mile on the St. Joe River Road back to the trailhead.

    Enjoy this hike? Let us know in the comments below!

    St. Joe at the trailhead
    St. Joe at the trailhead
    Trailhead
    Trailhead
    Wild rose
    Wild rose
    Avery, viewed from Nelson Ridge
    Avery, viewed from Nelson Ridge
    View east up the St. Joe river valley
    View east up the St. Joe river valley
    Indian paintbrush
    Indian paintbrush
    Mariposa Lily
    Mariposa Lily
    Most of the trail is a nice single-track
    Most of the trail is a nice single-track
    Caterpillars
    Caterpillars
    A checkerboard of clearcuts
    A checkerboard of clearcuts
    Some kind of bell flowers. Tritelia?
    Some kind of bell flowers. Tritelia?
    Campsite in the woods
    Campsite in the woods
    False lily of the valley?
    False lily of the valley?
    Naughty found a seasonal brook to cool down in
    Naughty found a seasonal brook to cool down in
    Much of the eastern face of Nelson Peak is clearcut, providing ample views
    Much of the eastern face of Nelson Peak is clearcut, providing ample views
    Looking eastwards from Nelson east face
    Looking eastwards from Nelson east face
    Snow up on the ridge
    Snow up on the ridge
    Intersection with Telichpah Creek trail (left)
    Intersection with Telichpah Creek trail (left)
    Telichpah Creek Trail
    Telichpah Creek Trail
    Telichpah Creek. Fairly tame high up.
    Telichpah Creek. Fairly tame high up.
    Hail
    Hail
    A mighty big stump
    A mighty big stump
    A pretty mountain meadow
    A pretty mountain meadow
    Telichpah Creek down low
    Telichpah Creek down low
    Beargrass
    Beargrass
    Telichpah Creek growing bigger
    Telichpah Creek growing bigger
    An inviting bench near Telichpah Creek
    An inviting bench near Telichpah Creek
    Bridges make the lowest two fordings easy
    Bridges make the lowest two fordings easy
    Alas, this is actually the trail…
    Alas, this is actually the trail…
    Rocky Mountain groundsel?
    Rocky Mountain groundsel?
    View back towards Big Dick
    View back towards Big Dick
    St. Joe North Fork
    St. Joe North Fork
    Moss-covered rock wall along North Fork of St. Joe
    Moss-covered rock wall along North Fork of St. Joe
    St. Joe North Fork up close
    St. Joe North Fork up close
    Confluence of St. Joe and North Fork (beyond the bridge)
    Confluence of St. Joe and North Fork (beyond the bridge)
    The end of the trail: St. Joe and St. Joe River Road
    The end of the trail: St. Joe and St. Joe River Road
    The obligatory carcass
    The obligatory carcass
    Trailmap
    Not so great

    • Trail is shared with motor bikes


    Alternate Routes

    • Continue on trail #186 to Shefoot Mountain, then take trail #189 to Big Dick Point and the White Woman trail (#501) down to the Telichpah Creek trail (#196). Or, continue on #189 from Big Dick all the way to FR 456 if you have a shuttle car.
    • If you have 2 cars leave one at Telichpah (aka Squaw Creek) campground. This will shave off a good five miles


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