As far as the eye could see, red soil and a thick sea of mature sagebrush flowed throughout the landscape. We were taken aback by the otherworldly vistas surrounding us in this vast, arid landscape. It was early morning, and a group of ICL Wilderness Stewards including myself were hiking up Herd Creek Trail in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the ancestral lands of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes, to complete a sign installation project with Salmon-Challis National Forest personnel.
We hoped an early start would get most of our hiking in before the heat set in. Following a short introduction to the project, geography, and safety guidelines, we set out to install signage at two wilderness junctions to help distinguish between trails leading into Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness boundaries and into the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
After we reached the first junction of our sign project, we surveyed the area to find the most appropriate spots for signs, taking many things into consideration. We thought about the needs and habits of pack animals that would come through the area. Erosion was also a big concern — if we put the sign in the wrong place, people may have to turn around, inevitably causing erosion off the trail and destroying some of the old-growth sagebrush that is abundant in the area. After much discussion, we finally found the perfect placement for the signs. The peace and solitude of the area was replaced with the clattering and clanking of tools as we got to work.
Surprisingly, the work to install the signs was quick, therapeutic, and rewarding. Afterwards, we tested our decision by walking by the signs with our arms out, mimicking the width of a mule. Pack animals work hard, and we wouldn’t want to spook any with a harmless Carsonite sign. The mule impersonations were spot on — confirming that the extensive planning and back-and-forth process of sign placement was successful. We packed up and began our trek to the next junction, leaving the area in the solitude we had found it in.
We zig-zagged up and down the landscape, taking in the bright orange and red hues surrounding us and engaging in great conversation about conservation and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness. JMJP, as many call it, is one of Idaho’s newer wilderness areas. It was designated in 2015 when the neighboring Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness and Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness were designated.
JMJP has 116,843 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. National Forest Service. Much of the wilderness is predominantly a sagebrush steppe with steep yet rolling slopes, lush riparian areas, sporadic conifer stands, and geological features that geologists and rockhounds dream of. The area is home to elk, deer, antelope, moose, and greater-sage grouse. The area’s hydrology makes up the East Fork of the Salmon River and its tributaries, many of which begin in the JMJP and provide critical habitat for spawning chinook and steelhead.
During this second leg of our adventure, Jerry Peak’s lone wilderness ranger was in the middle of telling us about a moose he had been encountering when suddenly a beautiful, nearly all-black rattlesnake announced its presence. The snake sat in the middle of the trail with its upper body erect and fangs out, ready to strike. As we volunteers quickly stepped back, our ranger friends sprang into action – using a full-size shovel to safely remove the snake from the trail. Once our adrenaline calmed, we picked up the pace to get to our next destination.
After miles of arid hiking above the creek and riparian areas below, we finally reached Herd Creek. The aftermath of this year’s wet spring was still evident – water swiftly flowed past us, providing a slight reprieve for the dry landscape. We carefully trekked across the creek to the second junction needing signs, wincing at the cold water enveloping our legs.
Upon arriving at our final junction, we repeated the steps from the previous sign installation: pick a spot, pick another, pace back and forth, put arms out a mule’s width, look at potential erosion problems, repeat. After selecting the best possible spots for the signs, the clanking of tools once again filled the landscape.
After installing the signs, we crossed the creek again and made our way into the willows to celebrate a job well done with a shady lunch break. Hues of brown, green, red, and orange surrounded us on our hike back down, and the entire group had a deep sense of gratitude for all our public lands provide.
ICL’s Wilderness Stewards Program, which is in its sixth season, gives volunteers opportunities to give back to public lands through individual patrols and group events like this sign installation project. This particular trip also gave us the opportunity to enjoy some Idaho wilderness.
The vast landscape of Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness is unique. Despite it being one of the less visited wilderness areas, it is easily accessible and provides different scenery than surrounding wilderness areas. It also possesses a deep sense of solitude and provides escape for visitors – fulfilling one of the fundamental purposes of designated wilderness.
For those in search of solitude, Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness is the place for you — and because of ICL Wilderness Stewards, you’ll be able to find at least two junctions on the eastern side of the wilderness to guide your next adventure.
To learn more about ICL’s Wilderness Stewards, and get email updates on enjoying and protecting Idaho’s public lands, — sign up for our Public Lands Campaign email updates.