Exploring the Heart of the Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area

ML Map

The Mallard Larkins Roadless Area consists of 260,000 acres between the St. Joe River in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and the Clearwater and North Fork Rivers in the Clearwater National Forest. It’s about 60 miles north of Orofino, and it was the furthest off the beaten path we’d been as a group. Our target was Heart Lake, the largest of thirty-eight named lakes in the area. It sat below Crag Peak and Heart Peak in the middle of the Pioneer Area, just west of center in the overall Mallard Larkins Roadless Area.

I found two informative sites while researching our overnight trip. I offer them here as superior resources to my own account of this adventure. The Friends of the Clearwater offer a brief yet insightful article with a helpful map included, but by far the best article I found on the area was written by mrh and posted here on Summit Post. I highly recommend the read for detailed information on surrounding peaks, trails, wildlife, and even history of the area (ever heard of the Ridgerunner?).

Our plan was to leave from Orofino and drive to the Smith Ridge Trailhead where we could park our vehicles at the Saddle and hit the trail. There are other ways in, from the St. Joe to the north and from Isabella Creek to the east, but we chose to come in from the west since it was a more direct route for us. Well, that and because the trail from Isabella creek is essentially a vertical climb up the side of a very steep mountain; unfortunately, we were fresh out of hoverboards, so off to the Smith Ridge Trail we went.

Our typical meetup

We met up at the Orofino City Park pretty close to 7:00 AM. Some of us drive in from an hour or more away, so we wait at the meetup spot a little bit longer. By about 7:30 there were five Clearwater Trekkers – seven if you count the two dogs. We picked which vehicles to take, filled up on gas, and hit the road just before 8:00.

Who brought the map? Are we there yet?

According to Google Maps, Orofino is two hours and seven minutes away from the Smith Ridge Trailhead, which seems accurate to us. We were able to reach the Smith Ridge Saddle parking area pretty close to 10:00 AM and be on the trail by 10:15.

To get to the Smith Ridge Trailhead from Orofino, we drove east through town on Michigan Ave. This turns into Grangemont Rd just past the Konkolville mill. We passed under a trestle bridge and began the climb up towards Pierce, ID. There’s a lot of logging out here once you get past the houses, but it’s still a beautiful drive through the trees.

Eventually, the Grangemont Rd intersects Highway 11. We took a left, heading north towards Headquarters and away from Pierce. Headquarters was a booming little mill town back in the day, sitting at the northeast end of the Camas Prairie railroad and running lumber for the Potlatch Corporation. If you have a minute, this 30-second video on YouTube will give you a glimpse of Headquarters from Christmas past.

Once we reached Headquarters, we took a left on to Forest Service Road 247. This is a delightful drive along Beaver Creek up to the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Some of the best fly fishing in Idaho happens here. It’s also the top end of the Dworshak Reservoir. We crossed the bridge and took a left onto Forest Service Road 700, quickly leaving the pavement behind.

FS Rd 700 follows Isabella Creek up into the mountains for two or three miles then turns away from the creek at an unmarked intersection, climbing up to the Smith Ridge Saddle. Of course, it’s a left turn. There’s no sign indicating which way to go, but the intersection is open and obvious.

From here the road gets narrow and riddled with large potholes. Take your time and enjoy the magnificent views. You’ll be looking down the Salmon Creek gulch and can even catch a glimpse of the Reservoir.

Saddle up, cowboy!

The Saddle is an old prospector’s campsite that now serves as a parking area complete with an outhouse. As you approach, the Saddle is on your left, the trailhead is on your right. Heart Lake lay eight miles in, so we parked, loaded up our gear, and hit the trail, delaying only briefly for a quick group photo.

Didn’t we already drive up this mountain?

While the Smith Ridge Trail is well maintained and easy to follow, it is also a steady ascent for the first three miles or so as you climb up from the Saddle onto the ridgeline. Once we broke free from the tree line the trail leveled out quite a bit, but it was still rising. Delicious huckleberries line the trail, though, and the view of mountain ridges cresting into the horizon was well worth the effort.

The first sign we came to was posted to a tree at about the three-mile mark. It politely let us know we were headed in the right direction and that we had about five more miles to go. Closer to the lakes there would be more signs as various trails merged with ours.

We enjoyed lunch on a rock outcropping perched above a narrow valley and looking out over the vast landscape. From here we could see the two mountain peaks that Heart Lake nestled below. After such a steady climb, those peaks looked awfully far away.

For purple mountain majesties

Heart Lake is the third of a series of four lakes in this stretch between Larkins Peak and Mallard Peak. The first lake that we came to was Larkins Lake. It’s a short step off the trail to a ledge where you can look down upon Larkins Lake and gaze out at the mountains in the north. We met up with two more of our Clearwater Trekkers here. They’d gotten a much earlier start in the day to beat the heat and decided to wait for us in the shade above Larkins Lake.

We passed right by Crag Lake on our way in but stopped for a quick look and a couple of photos on our way back out. To see it you have to climb up a short ways off the trail, but it’s a pretty neat view of a small mountain lake set below an impressive rock crag. Hence its name.

About two-thirds of the way along the ridge the trail had really started to level out, then descend, so the going was pretty good by the time we’d turned east at Larkins Lake. We dropped back down into the tree line and the shade…and the mosquitos. They were really bad. We even passed a couple who had stayed at Heart Lake the night before but were chased out by the mosquitos in the morning. Fallen trees were more numerous in this area, too, but they were easy enough to skirt or step over.

Getting to the Heart of the matter

There was no going back for us now. We pressed on and were soon rewarded with our first view of Heart Lake. Crag Peak drops precipitously into the lake on the Northwest side. Heart Peak rises to the Southeast. On the other side of Heart Peak is Northbound lake, but we didn’t go that far, instead, we began our descent down the rocky trail to Heart Lake.

After eight miles of hiking, the descent to Heart Lake is a tough one. The trail is strewn with broken boulders and rocky debris. There was a large patch of snowy ice that Sassy, my lab, enjoyed rolling around on. The trail wraps around the side of the lake as it descends, offering a plethora of opportunities for stunning photos of the lake.

Finally, after a little over six hours of hiking, we reached the bottom of the trail and eagerly dropped our packs. The main camping area was open and level enough to support three tents. We pitched three more in near proximity. The fire pit sat on the lakeside of the camping area, just before the ground sloped down toward the shore. There wasn’t much shoreline to speak of, just a couple of spots between saplings where we could reach the water or cast a fishing line.

Everybody told us to take a fishing pole because the trout fishing was supposedly worth the hike in. Amanda gave it a shot, but even though there were fish jumping all around her, she wasn’t able to catch dinner. No luck on breakfast, either. Apparently, we weren’t the first hungry hikers they’d seen.

We chased the mosquitos away with a smoky fire and a few gallons of deet and spent some time around the fire getting to know each other over our boiled dinners. Not a bad way to end the day.

Exploring Heart Lake in the morning

The morning sun rises behind the trees, bathing Crag Peak in its early light. The stillness of the water calms my soul.

I took a few minutes before breakfast to explore the area with fresh energy. Heart Lake pours out into a valley bowl just past the camping area. It’s a steep drop to a meadow with a crooked stream running towards Northbound Lake. The camping area itself is broken up by large boulders, and there’s no easy access to the water. Logs fill up the north end of the lake. I returned to camp for breakfast.

The Ascent

We began the ascent out of Heart Lake ready for the worst. It had been a difficult descent for all of us the night before, but we were quite surprised at how short the climb out seemed to be. One foot in front of the other, steady as she goes, and we were at the top in no time.

Heart Lake is awash with sunlight. She’s posing for our photos adorned in her finest array of colors.

Back in my day, we hiked uphill both ways!

Since we were following the ridgeline on our way in we expected the trail to be fairly level on our way out, but the truth was we had to climb past Larkins Point back up onto the main ridge. What seemed level yesterday had really been descending, and we were feeling it today.

Some of our group spied mountain goats climbing around Crag Lake, others were spotted against the far hillside further down the trail. The views were just as majestic on the way out. Our group of Clearwater Trekkers spread out along the trail, meeting up again at our lunch spot overlooking the narrow valley.

A brief respite and we were off again, the trail rising to meet us. All the way up we talked about how wonderful going back down would be until we were going back down. Descending a mountain is to carry the promise of relief on the pains of your knees and the soles of your feet. But we made it, and oh how sweet the relief is to drop your pack and switch out your boots for sandals. Even the dogs wasted no time in loading up, and since many of us had long drives ahead of us, we headed out fairly quickly.

It’s all about the Journey

The Smith Ridge Trail is a decent ways out, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s the kind of hike that makes you feel like you accomplished something, a victory made all the sweeter by the new friendships and memories earned along the away. Well worth the effort indeed. I kicked on an early Journey album and let my passengers sleep while I wound our way down Highway 11 and headed home.


-Snapshots from the Trail-

10 Responses

  • My dad and a brother visited Heart Lake with me in the early 60s. I was 12. We came from the north side via Avery. We camped two nights at Northbound Lake at its outlet. It was uncrowded on the Fourth of July holiday. Just one other group of people came via a guide on horseback.

    There was plenty of snow on the ground .. we kept our fish in a snowbank. The fish at the outlet were stubborn and would not react to worms dangled in front of their faces. It got very cold at night. On the second evening, we dug trenches, added stones, and built a huge fire inside them and covered them with dirt. The warmth during the night was glorious. Archaeologists can probably discover them .. lol.

    Within a few feet was a large dump of old tin cans from the logging days (1920s or 30s?). Most were rotted and mostly iron dust. On the second day we made the climb to Heart Lake. We fished with little success … they were fat on natural food supplies prolly.

    Anyway, we have plenty of snapshots and home movies. Some day I will have to donate them to the agency which controls this sector. From viewing the photos, I can state that it seems unchanged over these 60 years.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Paul. I can’t imagine the stories we’d come up with if we stumbled upon your trenches! Of course, we didn’t make it down to Northbound Lake on our trip, but if, or when, we get back up in that area, it might be nice to spend a couple of nights out there visiting the four lakes.

      Thanks again for stopping by and telling us about your trip.

  • Great report and pictures! I’m starting a backcountry route series this year to promote wilderness preservation, and I was wondering if I could use some of your pictures for my “Idaho Sisters” route up in the Clearwater. If you’re on Instagram I’ll credit you (@wildidahoendurance)

    • Steven, sorry for the delayed response, but I just got back from my wilderness guiding shift and saw your comment. Yes, you may certainly use my photos with credit given to @clearwatertrekker. Thank you! I look forward to seeing the work you do in your series.

  • Thanks for the trip summary. I’ve hiked in the Mallard Larkins several times and recently returned from an excellent trip to Fawn Lake. Summer of 2019, a buddy and myself are tentatively planning a loop trip starting at Sawtooth Saddle then hitting Northbound, Heart, and Fawn Lakes. We’re looking for a couple of experienced hikers to join us for the fun. Let me know if you’re interested.


    • Dave, thanks for reading the blog! I agree, the Mallard Larkins area is beautiful and enjoyable to hike through. Your trip sounds amazing, and I’d love to be a part of it. I’m sure there are some other Clearwater Trekkers who would like to know about it, too. If you send me the details, I can add your trip to our Calendar. I also invite you to check out our hiking club on Facebook. We are The Clearwater Trekkers. We can post an event there that all the members will see.

      My plans for next summer do include another season in wilderness therapy, but with enough notice I can arrange my schedule to be part of this trip. Let’s stay in touch! You can use the contact form below to reach me directly.

  • I’m researching for an August backpack into Larkins & Heart Lakes and couldn’t resist checking out this post on clearwatertrekker! Thanks for the great information and photos. I’m hoping we see plentiful fish and few mosquitoes 🙂

    • Good luck with the no mosquitoes! LOL. That hike was so fun because it was challenging, beautiful, and so rewarding. Very much what you picture when you think of hiking through the mountains and along the ridges.

      When you’re looking for a September hike, do consider coming south with us. I am planning a trip for the Clearwater Trekkers to Crystal Lake in the Buffalo Hump Wilderness area for Labor Day weekend. I should have details up on the calendar soon.

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