Fire smoke hung densely in the air as the four of us wound our way up Coolwater Road towards it’s junction with Idaho Point Road. The staff at the Fenn Ranger station said there would be room to park there and that the road going forward would not be good for driving. Coolwater Road looks like somebody’s driveway as it turns off of Selway Road, but it is clearly marked as Forest Service Road 331. It’s well maintained up to the junction with Idaho Point Road, but like the Rangers had said, it gets pretty rough after that.
Prolific fire damage scorched the hillside all around the junction, leaving broken, black trees and dry, soot covered dirt in its wake. A decrepit privy stood among the scorched trees, but only a desperate need would compel someone to actually use it. We set about getting on the trail as quickly as we could.
I wouldn’t recommend taking anything more than an ATV down the trail, or a horse, but it was altogether pleasant for walking. Climbing a mere 1,000 feet over three miles, the slope is very gentle and offers wide open views of the Selway River drainage. Even with the heavy smoke clogging the sky, the views were still impressive. Of course, the open views mean little to no shade cover, so bring your sunscreen and wide-brimmed hat.
The trail forks just below the lookout tower. To the right you can continue on for another five miles to Roundtop Mountain, and to the left you can follow a series of switchbacks to the top of Coolwater Mountain.
We were met at the top by Tom, the Fire Tower Watchman, who graciously invited us up and showed us around. He showed us the map and compass he uses to locate a fire and how he can cross-reference sitings from other towers to pinpoint a fire’s exact location. The tower looks down on two lakes. Tom named the one to the north (on the left) as Coolwater Lake and the one to the west (on the right) as Fire Lake. He also pointed out various peaks on the horizon and how we could hike along the ridges all the way to the crags around Fenn Mountain, a worthy adventure!
After listening to several of Tom’s stories from his summers spent manning the Coolwater Mountain Lookout, we settled down for some lunch. While we ate, the winds picked up and cleared out some of the smoke. It was nice to see some blue sky, but it also made the walk back much warmer. All in all, though, it was a pleasant hike along a welcome trail with fantastic views all around. It’s a great trail for beginners, casual hikers, or for the more adventurous who want to explore along the mountain ridges.
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