Ascent of Mississippi Source Knoll on 1989-06-23

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Friday, June 23, 1989
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mississippi Source Knoll
    Elevation:9400 ft / 2865 m

Ascent Trip Report

My goal now was to find the furthest source of the Mississippi River, the point in the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border where the Red Rock River was born, flowing into the Beaverhead, then the Jefferson, then the Missouri, down into the Mississippi near St. Louis and then down to the Gulf of Mexico at Southwest Pass below New Orleans, 3700 miles downstream from the source.

I had a xeroxed USGS map (from the Stanford Library) and determined that I best approach the point from a road to a radar station atop Sawtell Peak. In the town of Island Park, ID, I stopped at a ranger station to inquire about this road, and the disinterested ranger there gave me a road map of Targhee National Forest, told me the road was gravel but in very good shape, and said that grizzly bears (whose greatest population in the lower 48 was on the Idaho-Montana border) were rare in the Centennials.

I drove north on U.S. 20 past many campgrounds, souvenir stands, and other rustic tourism development for longer than I thought I would have to, looking for the Sawtell Peak road carefully before I, of course, drove right past it. I quickly turned around and started up the road that, like the ranger had said, was gravel, but well graded, car friendly gravel.

It was a long road, though, flat at first, but soon switchbacking more and more steeply up to the 9,500 foot peak. I carefully matched the road to my USGS map, and noted the switchback corner where I could strike out into the woods towards the Mississippi source (a pickup was parked there) but passed it, deciding that I might as well drive on up to the top of the peak. The road became incredibly steep with sheer drops on its edges as it neared the summit, and the hairpin turns were nasty, but I made it up fine by staying in second or first gears the whole way.

The top of Sawtell Peak was open, windy, and dominated by a huge radar tower. It was partly cloudy, but the views of the surrounding mountains and parks were very good. I walked around the summit area, saw some tourists who had been there when I arrived leave, and took a picture of myself before starting the treacherous descent in my car. It was flurrying out at this point, but it didn’t seem like it would last long, and it didn’t.

I stayed in first gear all the way down the steep gravel switchbacks, and the hairpin turns were, well, hairy—it was the kind of driving where safety is the only concern, where going off the road means a spectacular plunge over major cliffs.

I was shortly back at the hairpin turn where the pickup was parked. On my map there was a jeep trail marked off of the Sawtell road a little ways up from the curve, but I didn’t see anything at all, so I parked behind the deserted pickup, as out of the way on the narrow road as I could, and started off into the open woods westward, towards the continental divide about a mile away.

The ground was about half snow covered, but this was enough to obscure the jeep trail to the point where it was impossible to follow, even though I did occasionally find it. So I just contoured west along the south side of a ridge, closely following my map. I didn’t break through the snow very badly at all, which was good, since I was wearing my sneakers for this hike. There were high clouds and strong wind, but no rain or snow, and after a while the ridge flattened out, and I became disoriented with respect to the topography. The terrain was very open, beautiful timberline-type landscape, and I finally decided that a little knob I saw was the Mississippi Source knob. I trudged across a snowfield to get to it, rested, explored its vicinity a little bit, and became concerned that an ID-MT border monument wasn’t just to the south of the knob like it was supposed to be.

Checking my map and looking around again I realized that the Source knob was a little bit north and higher up, and I soon found the border monument and the correct knob, and my subsequent exploration conclusively established that I had indeed located the right place—the cliff to the north of the knoll was the clincher. (The upper Red Rock River has two short branches, and it seemed to me from the USGS map that the northern was minutely longer than the southern one, although I could be wrong. I was at the source of the northern one. I didn’t go to the southern source because of my footwear and the threatening weather, but I was less that a mile away from it.)

Just down the slope from this grassy knob was a snowbank with a tiny trickle flowing from it to form a miniature brook in the soggy grass, and this was the beginning of the longest river in North America and the third in the world. Maybe you have to be a geographer to get off on this kind of stuff, but I thought it was pretty neat. I rested, took pictures, admired the views, explored down the nascent river valley a little, and then headed back towards my car. It looked like it could rain any minute.

I stayed on the ridge for a while on the way back, climbing an unnamed 9,480 peak while ferocious winds ripped at me from the high drop-off on the north edge of the peak. I retreated to the open forest in the lee, made my way back east over the mixed snow and bare ground, occasionally finding my outbound footprints in the snow, and got a little disoriented (not lost) in the trailless woods before sighting my car up where I had parked it and making a beeline for it down and then up steep slope to the road.

My sneakers were very wet, but I kept them on to dry them off as I carefully drove down the gravel road back to U.S. 20 as it rained lightly on and off. I had already descended the worst of it before my little hike.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:410 ft / 125 m
    Elevation Loss:70 ft / 21 m
    Distance:1.6 mi / 2.6 km
    Grade/Class:Class 2
    Quality:4 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Open Country, Snow on Ground
    Weather:Drizzle, Cool, Windy, Partly Cloudy
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:410 ft / 125 m
    Extra Loss:50 ft / 15 m
    Distance:1.5 mi / 2.4 km
    Route:From east
    Trailhead:Sawtell Peak Road  9040 ft / 2755 m
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:20 ft / 6 m
    Distance:0.1 mi / 0.2 km
    Trailhead:9380 ft / 2859 m
Ascent Part of Trip: 1989 - Miss River Source

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Mississippi Source Knoll1989-06-23 b
2Jefferson-Sawtell Ridge1989-06-23 c

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