Thinking about climbing Mount Borah, the highest peak in Idaho? At 12,662 feet, Mount Borah is just the challenge you did not know you needed. The adventure is full of steep climbing, rock scrambling, and breathtaking views.
Why Climb Mount Borah
People choose to climb Mount Borah for various reasons. Whether you are a weekend warrior, accomplished athlete, or regular outdoorsman, this adventure is one you do not want to skip out on. I had never really considered climbing to the tallest peak in Idaho until my friend mentioned it. It is only about 4.5 hours from the Boise, Idaho area but I had never ventured over that way. With a busy obstacle course racing schedule it seemed fitting it in this season would not happen. When me and a couple of my friends decided to forego the Spartan North American championship race in Kelowna, Canada we found ourselves still wanting to adventure and so formed the idea to camp at and climb Mount Borah. As competitive obstacle course racers we are used to running trails and climbing hills and mountains, but the rock scrambling was less familiar, especially for me. I had literally never been to the stop of a mountain that had big boulders and scree that needed traversed the way this peak did. If you want to be a little scared, a lot challenged, and very much proud of yourself then climbing Mount Borah is the right move.
Camping at the Base of Mount Borah
Camping at the base of the mountain was a different experience. There are only five designated campgrounds, meaning that only five spaces are marked and include a true fire pit with a cooking grill attached and a picnic table. We got there around 2 PM on a Friday afternoon the last weekend of August and were able to snag the very last, and very small, campsite. Many people camped in the parking lot (which is quite large) and along the road up to the campsite as there is a lot of open public land. However, when we went, the fire danger was very high and you were only allowed to burn in designated fire pits and were required to put your fire dead out if unattended. That being said, it is illegal and unsafe to build a fire if you get stuck camping outside of a designated campsite. I recommend you bring some firewood with you. We almost ran out and ended up gathering some of the sage branches around camp to burn but those have a very strong smell, and the smell really soaks into all of your stuff. As far as the bathroom situation, there are two volt toilets near the parking lot that are within walking distance from all of the campsites.
Our campsite was the second to last one and had just enough space for a small 3-person tent, our picnic table and fire pit, and a few chairs. We had a truck and jeep which we parked in the driveway that led up to our site. The driveway to our site would not have been ideal for cars with low clearance. We unfortunately also got the campsite with the least amount of shade, but we did not spend much time there anyways and it was not too hot given the time of year. The mornings and evenings were plenty cool so luckily, we had sweats, sweaters, and plenty of blankets and sleeping bags, the fire was certainly nice as well.
On Friday night we went for a short run down the road that leads into camp to make sure our legs were ready for the climb the following morning. It was quite dusty and hot so afterwards we ventured over to the creek that runs parallel to the road you drive in on. The water was absolutely freezing but refreshing. We rinsed off and hung out in the shade for a while before walking back to camp and starting dinner. We went old school and cooked our dinner over the campfire. We had a ground beef, rice, and veggie bowl, providing us with plenty of protein and carbs for the upcoming adventure. Of course, we also had s’mores and plenty of snacks. Be aware, there are some very friendly chipmunks that like to share your snacks and are not afraid to jump into your lap or hang out in your bed while you are gone if you leave it available.
One last thing, it is not quiet. Vehicles were coming into the parking lot all hours of the night. People were chatting and car horns were going off and headlights were constantly beaming towards our campsite. It was really bad Friday night; I assume since most people climb Saturday. Saturday night was much less chaotic. When we woke up Saturday morning, the parking lot was absolutely jam packed with hikers.
We did not start our climb until after 8 AM, at 5 AM there were already headlamps on the mountain that could be seen from our campsite. Apparently, we did not get the early start memo. We ate whatever breakfast we could scrounge up after an oatmeal fail the night before and drank cowboy coffee before gathering our things and heading up. The parking lot and campsites were a ghost town by the time we got going.
What to Take with You
We all took a couple bottles of water with hydration/calories mixed in. I used Skratch Hydration as well as some running fuel, Untapped Maple gels and Base Electrolyte salts for me. We also each packed a snack or two to eat at the summit. For my snacks I packed Skatch sour cherry chews with caffeine and a nature valley honey oat granola bar. In all, I had about 920 calories with me. I can’t remember exactly how many I ultimately consumed.
I wore a MyZone heart rate monitor and Garmin Fenix 6s fitness watch for tracking my activity and had my phone in a Spibelt as well, primarily for taking pictures mostly since I knew service would not be promised. Some other must haves you might not consider are sunglasses, lip balm, and sunscreen to protect yourself against the varying elements as you ascend and descend.
As for clothing, I wore compression biker shorts, a tank top, a hydration vest, and Altra trail shoes. Many people seemed to think we were crazy for wearing shorts, but it was plenty warm for us other than at the summit. However, I also packed a light windbreaker that could be easily folded up and tucked into my hydration vest to wear at the summit (thank goodness). Me and my friends all wore different brands of trail shoes, but all our shoes had good tread and were made for being stable and grippy on rocks. This is an absolute must because of the loose rocks close to the top and the steep downhills.
What to Expect During the Climb
It is steep. The first half mile is not too bad, but it gets steeper and steeper, as you would expect a mountain climb to do. Until you get closer to the top there are not a lot of switch backs so be prepared for leg cramps if your legs are not conditioned for climbing. Many people stop along the way to snack and rest, there is a lot of shade and stumps to sit on if you are doing this adventure at a leisurely pace. My friends and I powered through, not stopping until we got a bit hung up by others at the ridge. Once you come out of the trees (probably around mile 2-2.5) the views are amazing and the rock scrambling beings. Don’t worry, you get to ease into it. At first you will just have some rocks here and there. Slowly but surely the entire path becomes loose scree and eventually full-on large rocks and boulders (this happens around mile 3 I believe). The last mile took me just over an hour. SO MUCH ROCK. It was a bit scary at times due to the unstable footing, I tried hard to be brave and eventually did get more comfortable, but caution is necessary to an extent.
Chicken out Ridge
Chicken out ridge is sketchy enough to make you question yourself but easy enough that you can assure yourself you will live to tell the tale. Trust me, I saw a 12-year-old do it. Many people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and skill abilities completed the traverse right in front of me. I felt scared but once I completed it, I realized I had no reason to be. You do not need rock climbing experience, but you do need to have some sense of body awareness in order to help boost your confidence as your shift your body over ledges. You should probably expect to be held up a bit by other people who are working to overcome their fears. I was held up from probably 7+ minutes. While that was not ideal since I was trying to summit quickly, it was awesome to see all types of people out there doing hard things. My friend and I did get a bit screwed up and ended up below the ridge with a wonky looking ascent that we would have had to do but we saw some others up on the ridge and they sort of guided us back to the path more traveled. Thank goodness. I was not feeling great about it.
What to Expect at the Summit of Mount Borah
It was cold, even in August. Thankfully I had my windbreaker, which I put on just before the summit. The views were beautiful. Me and my friends sat with another woman down in some rocks to shelter ourselves from the wind and ate snacks as we chatted. It was really cold and a bit sketchy standing at the top of the summit, but I quite enjoyed the little area we hunkered down in. Our very fast friend unfortunately had to wait an hour for us to reach the summit. I wish I would have brought something with a bit more substance than a granola bar to eat at the summit. I was pretty hungry and desiring real food not just liquid calories.
If I did it again, I would pack my gorilla gloves that I used for racing. This may seem silly, but I have two reasons for this. One reason is that my hands got SO cold at the summit and took a long time to warm up as I came back down which was uncomfortable when I needed to use my hands to steady myself as I scurried over rocks. The second reason being that my hands got pretty sore from using them to scramble over rocks. Some of the rocks are actually quite sharp and it definitely roughs your hands up. I consider my hands to be pretty callused and it still happened.
What to Expect Descending Mount Borah
Making our way back down against the traffic that was coming up was one of my least favorite parts. It was quite the traffic jam situation. It also gets irritating because you just want to be out of the rock, but you have a half mile or so and it seems impossible to do it quickly enough. Many times, during the initial part of the descent I was like hmmm, I don’t remember seeing this. There is less of a path during the rockier part. You can see one from a distance but as you get closer it is challenging to see where most people have walked. You sort of just need to wing it and hope for the best. It is super open so not like you will get lost.
Going back over Chicken Out ridge from the opposite direction feels so much different and scary in its own way but much less scary than the first time going over. Once you get past that point, there is so much stepping down. My knees got so tired from side stepping down the rocky hillside. I was desperate for runnable trail, and it took FOREVER to get there. I mean really you don’t feel like you can run until the last mile before the trail head. It is so steep, and your legs are so tired from the climb. I mostly just did a bit of a quick shuffle, opening stride when I could. I just kept thinking, “GET ME DOWN THIS MOUNTAIN!” I actually liked going up more. The constant impact of doing back down is irritating and uncomfortable. I rolled my ankle with about two miles left to go but bounced back just fine. Just keep on keeping on!
What to do After You Climb Mount Borah
Eat. Eat all the food. Get those calories in. Especially if you are an athlete. My legs were trashed. You can feel your body breaking down. Make sure to get plenty of protein and simple carbs into your system right away. We had a lot of snacks waiting for us at camp. We made sandwiches and fruit salad with chips for lunch and just sort of relaxed around camp. We eventually ventured to the creek to splash some cold water on our faces and sore feet as well. Later, we old school roasted sausages over the fire for dinner and finished off our last night at camp with smores. The second night of sleep was much better. The trail was not nearly as busy Sunday morning, so cars were not coming in all night long. We got some decent rest and then the next day we ventured onto the dirt roads and did some running and biking.
Do it! If you are considering doing it, go for it. I would love to do it again and see if I can beat my last time. It took me a total of 4 hours and 40 minutes round trip (not including our break at the top, that made it about 5 hours). The views were amazing and so was the sense of accomplishment. It absolutely made me want to do some of the other summits in Idaho or even nearby states. I am a trail runner and I love the trails and long runs, but this was a different and special experience. I am so glad we did it. I also loved that we decided to camp on site and were able to get a spot. It was very cool to wake up and wander over to the trail head. I have been telling everyone about the experience and I hope more people give it a try!
Is there cell service at the Mount Borah campsite in Idaho?
There is some service over by the bathroom and fence behind the bathroom for Verizon users, but AT&T users have less luck. However, if you drive to the start of the road that leads to the campsite you should be able to get service just fine (it is only like a 5-minute drive). The service was hit and miss up the mountain, but a lot of people seem to get pretty good service at the summit. I just walked over to the bathroom and sat by the fence here and there to check in with people on my phone.
At the end of August there was a small creek that was dammed up in spots enough to get in up to your thighs and dunk your head and rinse your body if needed. It was VERY cold but nice. You can see an area of the creek at the start of the road that leads to the campsite and from there you can follow it up the open field area a bit and there is a little pooled area in the trees. There is also a reservoir not far away, but it was pretty dry at the end of August and the water did not look like something I wanted to swim in.
Are there supplies available near the Mount Borah campsite in Idaho?
The town of Mackay Idaho is only like 15-20 minutes from the campground. They have some small stores and restaurants if you happen to forget any supplies.
How long does it take to climb Mount Borah in Idaho?
It depends. Going full speed with minimal stops, as an experience endurance athlete, it took me 4 hours and 40 minutes. It seems most people with some fitness complete it in around 6-7 hours while people who are truly in it for a full day hiking experience take closer to 9-12 hours (which explains why some people start at 5 AM.