Selway Bitterroot Wilderness
The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (SBW) is 1.3 million acres in size - one of the largest wildernesses in the contiguous United States. The SBW straddles the Bitterroot mountain range along the Idaho and Montana border. It includes large parts of the Lochsa and Selway River drainages in Idaho and a portion of the western Bitterroot River drainage in Montana. Elevations range from 1,600 feet above sea level on the Selway River to over 10,000 feet on Trapper Peak. About 38 percent of this wilderness is on the Bitterroot Forest. This portion is readily accessible from local roads along U.S. Highway 93 and the road following the Nez Perce Fork of the Bitterroot River. More detailed information is available from Ranger District offices in Stevensville, Darby, and the West Fork.
The SBW has outstanding opportunities to test your outdoor skills in a remote and rugged backcountry. There are thousands of miles of trails but many of them are not regularly maintained. You should be prepared for difficult terrain, unpredictable weather, high stream and river crossings, and a physically demanding trip. The rewards are many and the risks are real - plan your trip and be prepared!
Trailheads are located off major highways - US Highway 12 along the Lochsa River in Idaho and US Highway 93 south of Missoula, Montana. Other trailheads can be reached from secondary and Forest Service roads. Snow and road conditions are not always predictable. Contact a Forest Service office in the area where you will be traveling for current road and trail conditions.
Permits are not required to use the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Generally, groups are limited to 20 persons and 20 stock, but there are some areas with smaller group limits. All visitors are expected to know and use Leave No Trace camping and traveling techniques for stock and backpacking. Stock users are required to have certified weed- seed-free feed. Contact a Forest Service office before your visit to get information on any fire, camping, group size, or grazing restrictions.
Permits are required to float the Selway River from May 15 through July 31 from the Paradise launch site to Selway Falls. For river information and how to apply for a permit click here or contact the West Fork Ranger District.
General Wilderness Prohibitions:
- Possessing or using a motor vehicle, motorboat or motorized equipment except as authorized by federal law or regulation. 36 CFR 261.18(a)
- Possessing or using a hang glider or bicycle. 36 CFR 261.18(b)
- Landing of an aircraft, or dropping or picking up of any materials, supplies, or persons by means or aircraft including a helicopter. 36 CFR 261.18(c)
Prohibited by Special Order in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness:
- Permit required to float the Selway River May 15 to July 31 (36 CFR 261.10k).
- Any float group over 16 people from May 15 to July 31 (36 CFR 261.57b & 261.58f).
- Any group over 20 people and 20 head of stock (36 CFR 261.57b & 261.58f).
- Campfires within ¼ mile of Gem and Middle Lakes (36 CFR 261.52a).
- On trails, stock must be ridden or led in single file (no loose herding) (36 CFR 261.58aa).
- Camping or otherwise occupying a single location on all National Forest System lands within the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness for a period longer than 16 consecutive days.The term “location” means the occupied undeveloped or developed campsite and the lands within a 5 mile radius.After leaving the location, a minimum of 7 days is required before any group or persons from that group may reoccupy the original locations.(36 CFR 261.58a).
- Using or leaving any camping equipment at any location on all National Forest System lands within the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness for more than 16 consecutive days.The term “location” means the occupied undeveloped or developed campsite and the lands within a 5 mile radius.(36 CFR 261.58e)
- Do not burn foil or plastic in campfires. Prevent littering by packing out all garbage & possessions, including excess livestock salt.(36 CFR 261.57g)
- Wagons, carts or other vehicles are prohibited.(36 CFR 261.57h)
- Shortcutting a trail or switchback is prohibited.(36 CFR 261.55e)
- Livestock salt, if used, must be in block form and contained off the ground surface.(36 CFR 261.57b)
Information about hunting and fishing in the SBW can be obtained from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 1540 Warner Avenue, Lewiston, ID 83501, 208/799-5010 or the Montana Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, 3201 Spurgin Road, Missoula, MT 59801, 406/542-5500.
More important than regulations are the responsibilities each traveler has to protect the Wilderness. It is necessary for all users of the SBW to practice minimum impact camping techniques. The motivation to do this derives from a respect for the land and water and consideration and courtesy for those who will follow after you. Fundamental principles and techniques have been developed using the “Leave No Trace” philosophy. A complete narrative and description for all of the principles can be found on the numerous “Leave No Trace” websites. Listed below are some of the most critical practices:
- Travel in small groups, usually no more than 10 to 12 people. The maximum group size is 20, without prior approval. Be quiet and unobtrusive. Respect solitude, one of the most valuable wilderness resources.
- When traveling the trails, stay on the trails to avoid widening them and causing erosion. Do not cut switchbacks.
- Camp out of sight and sound of other campers, and where possible, at least 200 feet from rivers, streams, and trails.
- Keep soap and detergent out of hot springs, lakes and streams. Wash and rinse using buckets or pans, and dispose of water at least 200 feet from lakes or streams.
- Select a camp that has already been impacted, if you have a larger group (more than 6).
- Pick up and pack out all unburnable litter and trash. If you have camped in a popular area, leave the campsite in the best possible condition for the next users. If you have camped in a little-used area, leave absolutely no evidence that you have been there.
- Be responsible for human waste. Carry a small shovel or trowel to help dispose of human feces. When traveling overland, bury feces. When floating the rivers, use the required sealed portable toilets and pack them out.
- Do not build facilities like lean-tos, fire circles, bough beds, or gear racks.
- If fires are permitted (not in fire-restrictions), build a small one, and use only dead or down wood of small diameter. Remove bits of garbage that will not burn and pack out.
- Feed for stock must be “Weed Seed Free” supplemental feed, when needed, and should be alfalfa hay, processed pellets, and grain in order to prevent non-native plans from getting established in the Wilderness. No straw is permitted in the Wilderness. If you bring salt in for stock, it must be mixed with grain, or in block form, secured off the ground, and removed when you leave.
- The Antiquities Act prohibits the collection of archeological artifacts. Look at the many artifacts, but leave them for the next visitor to enjoy.
For volunteer opportunities with the Frank Church Selway Bitterroot Foundation click here.
You can learn more about the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness at wilderness.net.