Among the numerous mountain ranges jutting up from the Idaho landscape, the Black Pine Mountains might not win many popularity contests. They are mostly unrecognizable by name to even the locals, yet anyone cruising down Interstate 84 to Salt Lake City passes by them.
But while lacking the pizzazz of other ranges that sport rocky crags or alpine lakes, the Black Pines contain a certain appeal of their own.
The mountains have been described in a book titled “Exploring Idaho’s Mountains,” as “the most distinctly defined mountain range in Idaho; it is surrounded by wide flat valleys, and rises steeply on all sides.” The author, Tom Lopez, writes that the 17-mile string is “a textbook example of a Great Basin range.”
That appreciative analysis struck a cord with me. After further reading I learned that a hiker standing on one of its mountaintops could see the Great Salt Lake, and I immediately began planning a trip.
Hiking accounts posted online and information from Lopez’ book present a multitude of routes to the Black Pines’ summits. I chose to drive south from Malta and approach the mountains from the west. A dirt road departing from State Highway 81 gradually climbs that classic product of a basin and range feature, an alluvial fan, before ending inside Sixmile Canyon.
No ATV trail or hiking path exists beyond the road’s end, which, according to Scott Nannenga, supervisor for the Sawtooth National Forest Minidoka Ranger District, is a common characteristic to the mountain range.
“The Black Pines are the least accessible in terms of motorized use and formal trails, of the three units that we manage,” he said.
The range hosts few hikers, Nannenga said, but is favored by a particular type of deer hunter, who, if lucky enough to draw a tag, wants a different experience than that found in places like the South Hills.
With no conventional route to follow, I wove through the juniper forest that reaches down into the bottom of Sixmile Canyon.
After escaping the tangled trees and attaining the ridge, the hike became a simple, not-too-steep climb toward Black Peak. Luckily, the timing of my journey coincided with a flush of flowers composed mostly of Indian paintbrush in various hues spread out across the open mountainside. A couple of voluntary detours led me to several north-facing pockets of quaking aspen and Douglas fir, but with sizeable mounds of snow still drifted around their trunks, I returned to unobstructed progress up the mountain’s colored slope.
I discovered a pair of bluebirds perched in a tiny grove of short, twisted aspens and shortly after imagining their song as a chorus of encouragement, I stood atop Black Peak. That apex offers a spectacular view westward to the Jim Sage and Albion Mountains, and with binoculars, an inspection into portions of the City of Rocks.
Far beyond those granite formations and their surrounding hills rise the peaks of the Jarbidge range; northward across the Snake River Plain the Soldier, Smoky, Pioneer and Lost River mountain ranges blend together into one long fortress.
A rock cairn on Black Peak marks the highest point of the Black Pine range at 9,395 feet, and after removing a couple of stones from the monument, I found the summit register. Only six entries from the past two years, with my note representing the first of this season, confirmed the mountain’s obscurity.
It wasn’t yet time to descend, however — an unobstructed view of the Great Salt Lake could only be attained from Black Pine Peak, its summit resting only 10 feet lower and just more than a mile southward. Traversing the crest that links the range’s two highest peaks requires little more than an easy stroll with little up-and-down.
Massive snow drifts still hanging from the eastern edge of the crest served as an intriguing feature along the route.
A small metal structure that houses communication hardware sits on top of Black Pine Peak, but its main attraction consists of the view offered southward into Utah.
Haze and dust stirred up from the valley floor limited the visibility somewhat, but not enough to keep me from sighting the north end of ancient Lake Bonneville’s salty remnant.
And while the lack of pristine air proved frustrating, it also provided motivation, along with the surprising ease in reaching the top of this lonely mountain range, to some day make a return visit.