Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Great views and slow birding on Snowbank Mountain

In early July we took a drive up to Snowbank Mountain (southwest of Cascade). We hadn’t been before, but had been looking forward to checking the area out after I learned about it the prior fall. We were just waiting for the winter to pass and the snow to melt off so the roads would be clear. We have been spending most of our weekends in the mountains, moving up a bit in elevation each week as the snow continues to retreat. Places like Snowbank aren’t completely snow free until well into July, though the road is probably mostly clear sometime in June.

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Google map of the drive from Boise to the top of Snowbank Mountain.

Idaho is covered with little roads that criss cross all over the mountains and desserts, but seeing a line on a map is no guarantee that you’re going to find a safe road. I have lower standards than most do and am willing to drive on a lot of rough roads, but it makes for a more peaceful weekend if we can avoid too much time on harrowing roads. I’d seen Snowbank Mountain (and that there was a road up to the top) before but I figured it was either restricted access due to the antenna equipment on top or that it was just an abandoned logging road that likely wasn’t passable anymore. Luckily I decided to google it and was happy to find out that the road is in fairly good condition all the way to the top, and it’s listed as the #1 trip in a pamphlet called “Cascade Side Trips” created by the University of Idaho Extension Cascade – Horizons Program. Here’s the description they provide:

“This is the #1 trip for a reason. It will be the most inspirational and awesome 2 hours that you spend in the Cascade area. DO IT! You won’t be disappointed. Snowbank is the highest peak in the West Mountain Range. It is a twin summit, with the east elevation at 8211, the west at 8322. Begin the tour driving south from downtown Cascade. Turn right on Cabarton Road, (about ¼ mile north of where the RR tracks cross Hwy 55). Go 6 miles south to a right turn at Snowbank Road (USFS road #446). This road starts in the middle of the MacGregor Ranch buildings, interestingly located on the former townsite of Cabarton. Cabarton was named for a mill owner named C. A. Barton.

Snowbank Road is a U. S. Forest Service Road which for its first 1-¾ miles crosses private land, so please respect the private property. It is 11 miles to the summit. There are 2 Forest Service roads that join #446; stay on the main, or mostly traveled, road. 4.5 miles up is the maintenance building, Although not open to the public in winter, this road is kept open all year because of the FAA radar facility located on top of the mountain. 6 miles up the trees start thinning and you can see all of Round Valley to your left. Looking at the ridgeline, you can see Tripod Peak to the south and the towers on top of Snowbank to the north. 8 miles up look left & down to see Blue Lake. Just ahead on the left there is a restroom that marks the start of the 1 mile trail, #119, to Blue Lake. It’s an easy hike for kids. On your right is Potters Pond. Drive to the far side of the pond & park. Walk to the east side of the parking area to the small swale for an amazing view. At 9+ miles you go over the pass and can suddenly see into Oregon. STOP! If you hike for 5 minutes, about 200 yards up the ridge to the right; you will have scaled Granite Peak. Unbelievable wildflowers are all around the loosely defined trail. From here you can see the south end of Long Valley, the North Fork of the Payette River, Round Valley, Cambridge to the northwest and the Tripod lookout tower to the south. It’s about a 3 mile walk to Tripod - the trail runs along the ridge.

1.5 miles from the pass is the top of Snowbank, leveled for an FAA radar facility, along with many other towers & antennas. You might see the cow camp cabin to the west. Collier Peak, elevation 7982’, is close by, just 2 miles northeast. You can see Cambridge about 30 miles northwest on the far side of the valley. Oregon is in the distance to the west and you can see all of Round Valley to the southeast. To the north Tamarack ski runs are visible and Brundage Mountain to the far north.”

The drive up was pretty impressive for sure, but we were a little disappointed by the heat and the lack of birds. We used to live in Colorado where “high” elevation could easily mean 12,000+ feet (with some drives and hikes that we really enjoyed taking us all the way up to 14,000+ feet) so going up into the mountains on the weekend meant a guaranteed way to beat the heat. Mount Evans was one of our favorite drives, and it’s the highest paved road in North America, going all the way up to 14,240 feet. At that elevation, we could leave 100 degree temperatures at home in Denver but find ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm on the top of the mountain in the middle of July with just a couple of hours of driving. Snowbank Mountain is just over 8,000 feet, and apparently that’s just not high enough to cool down very much in the summer.

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Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

Despite the higher temps than we were hoping for, it is still nice to get up into the clear air, and to enjoy the different type of habitat at those elevations. The grasses, flowers, and trees that dominate the landscape can be quite different than at lower elevations, so at least we get to enjoy the change of pace for a while. Just before the summit, we drove past a nice little pond.

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Pond at Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

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View of Long Valley from Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

I suspect the lack of birds had more to do with timing than anything else. It was the middle of the day on a hot day, and July is always a slow month for birds anyway. (Spoiler alert – we came back here a couple of times later in the year and enjoyed MUCH better birding). Well that’s what you get when you go birding when you can, rather than when it’s best.

When we got to the top we got a good look at the FAA equipment at the top. The large sphere on the right below is part of the Joint Surveillance System, a joint U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration system for atmospheric air defense of the United States. The only other facility in this radar network in Idaho is in Ashton. It’s mostly unmanned, except for occasional service/maintenance visits.

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Radar and other radio equipment on top of Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

There’s a second peak that you can drive to, but our car was struggling with the heat during the climb and barely limped it’s way to the top, so when we saw a few patches of snow on the road we decided we’d better not push on to the second peak. Normally our SUV has no problem plowing through a bit of snow here and there, but it’s getting a little older and we didn’t want to push our luck after the way it struggled with the ascent.

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Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

We got out and walked around a bit on the first peak, and did see just a few birds, including a couple of Townsend’s Solitaires, a Cassin’s Finch, a Western Tanager, and a Prairie Falcon.

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Townsend’s Solitaire on Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

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Cassin’s Finch on Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

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Townsend’s Solitaire on Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

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Prairie Falcon on Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

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Townsend’s Solitaire on Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

The trip back down was full of great views around every bend, and our last bird on the way down was a Chipping Sparrow (which are never in short supply this time of the year).

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View of Long Valley from Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

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Chipping Sparrow on Snowbank Mountain, Valley County. July 6, 2014.

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