By the time hunting season rolls around, the high country is typically cold, often white, and pretty empty. Lots of hunting camps with big canvas wall tents; complete with wood burning stoves fill the sites at trail heads and along access roads. This year, Mother Nature has held off a bit, even though just two weeks ago it was snowing and blowing, wet and pretty miserable up high.
I actually was out during that two weeks ago storm (a miserable day!), trying to get in a season ending trip; hoping to check out an off trail lake that I had seen from afar on a previous hike. You never know where you might find a cool fishing spot! I had some friends planning to go, but at the last minute, the flu bug took them out. I decided that since I was packed up and ready, I would go anyway. At the trail head I was pretty bummed as the woods were dripping wet, and it would only get worse as I went higher. Every step brought the autumn leaves and brush showering down on my rain gear. I was soaked in an hour. My feet were still in my trail runners, and at about 7,000 feet, the wetness turned to wet snow, and in a couple of hours my toes were frozen as well. I lost the trail in a blowdown along the side of a narrow canyon; this trail is rarely used, so I had wondered what I might find. After hiking thru downfall and some really sketchy terrain for another hundred yards, I decided that safety was something to think about, and broken ankles and torn knees weren’t really something to look forward to. I retreated. I took a higher line back out of the debris field, and saw across the canyon the trail I was looking for. Oh well, another time would be coming.
Fast forward two weeks and the weather report shouts to the tree tops that it will be warm and sunny. Really warm and sunny! The gang decides that we have to get out to the Sawtooths before the snow flies. I argue for repeating my route, hoping to check out that lake, and then looping around on another trail for a trip of about 15-18 miles. Everyone is cool with that and we are pretty excited to be heading back to the high country.
We leave Boise at about 10:00, and by 12:30 are at the trailhead and ready to hike. The weather is beautiful, there are only 3 permit tags in the self register box, and all are for the previous few days. How can it be that we are probably the only 4 guys in this entire part of the range? I’m always perplexed by the thought that on all of my late season trips, it’s entirely possible to be the only guy hiking in a 20 or 30 square mile area of the Sawtooth Mountains. How cool is that!
The four of us, Pete, Brandon, Chris and I are planning on taking the trail out of Grandjean, then going up one creek drainage, passing by the jewel of the Sawtooths, Sawtooth Lake, and then crossing over and dropping back down a closer drainage, ultimately ending up right back at the trailhead and car. So it will be one of those hike uphill all day, then go over and hike downhill the next day kind of trips. No worries, it’s all good. Oh yeah, did I mention that there is an incredible hot springs waiting for us at the trail head!
Heading out along the trail, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and we are all wearing short sleeved shirts. This is crazy! I mean after all, it is almost the end of October. The trail follows the South Fork of the Payette River until entering the wilderness area, then forks once at the river, and again before heading to the Baron Peaks area. We begin our real climbing about 3 ½ miles in. This is the same area that I day hiked a couple of weeks before. What a difference sun and dry conditions can make. We literally are flying down or up the trail, and when the trail disappears into the fallen debris field, I point across the creek, and we all play circus and cross on a fallen log high above the water. I’m pretty psyched as this is a section of trail that I’ve never been on. The trail is a bit of an enigma. It links to areas that each have their own trail heads, but don’t logistically connect to each other. This coupled with a few thousand feet of elevation gain have really turned people away from using this little piece of trail. For us, it’s perfect, as it allows us to do a loop, and see more country. The added benefit of a couple of off trail lakes that might be worth exploring is an added bonus.
The fall colors are on display, with reds, yellows, and lush greens everywhere we turn. The trail continues to climb, and we can see snow stuck to all of the North facing slopes from the early season storm. We climb higher along the creek, switch backing occasionally as the trail winds its way up and around in a manner that continues to keep us guessing as to where it actually goes! The high country keeps opening up as we gain elevation, and the views just get better. One set of lakes that I have been interested in looks like more of a scramble than we are looking to do, so I set course for another off trail gem that is a favorite of mine.
We finally turn to the North, and I begin to look for a landmark that will clue me in to where I need to leave the trail. Coming from the opposite direction, this is no small feat. I know I am close, and finally after walking back a hundred yards, tell everyone this is it.
The terrain is steep but not really difficult, and we cross thru some forest before breaking out into the scree and gullies of the dried up outlet stream. We are now up in what Louis L’Amour likes to call the “high lonesome”. There are ragged peaks and torn rock faces all around us. Trees show signs of being ravaged by the heavy snows and violent storms. The summer vegetation is brown, crispy and crunchy as we walk through it. As we get close, patches of snow greet us. We are close now, and I let Chris go ahead so he can get the full on impact as we hike up a narrowing gully that ends with the lake at eye level. His exclamation brings a smile to my face; I know what he is seeing. The others clamber up to us, and stare at the beautiful cirque, rimmed by high granite, the lake set like a precious blue diamond in its center.
There is really only one good spot for four, up above, and it is covered with 5 or 6 inches of snow. We stomp it kind of flat, and decide that instead of pitching tarps or tents, we will throw the tarp down and sleep out. The weather is stable, the view astounding, and we are thrilled to be where we are.
My special treat to my friends is that unbeknownst to them, I already know that this lake is also stuffed with trout. I don’t know what this late season visit will do to the fishing, but I feel it’s worth a try. We get the camp put together, brew up some warm drinks, and with the sun starting to set, I throw out that we should go spend the last hour trying to see if we can fool a few trout into hitting some spinners.
Hiking down and around the lake a couple of hundred feet, three of us, Chris, Pete, and I find ourselves all casting out into the clear waters. As I reel in I get one hit, miss it, and then a couple of seconds later have another and its fish on! Pete and Chris are staring in disbelief when suddenly Pete yells, fish on! Within seconds, Chris yells, and his pole is bent over as well. A TRIPLE!!! Way cool! A minute or two later, the three of us, whooping and hollering, are standing together with some beautiful cutthroat trout in hand. Unhooking and releasing the fish, the guys are flying high with energy.
We fish for a while longer, catching a few more before the sun begins to set in earnest. I’m standing with Brandon, and mention that this lake has a history of great alpenglow. Like throwing a switch, the heavens light up, and words can’t describe the views we are treated to.
Brandon tells me he has been skunked fishing for the last two years. I point off to spot in the lake, I tell him to cast off over a nice ledge and drop off, knowing that it’s a great ambush spot for fish. Wham, fish on and his skunk jinx is over!
We race the setting sun back around the lake and to our campsite. Now it is time to cook some hot food, re-hash the days hike, tell lies and generally enjoy the rest of the evening. The temps are dropping, but there is some cloud cover to offset any real chance of cold over the night. We cook, eat, brew up more hot drinks, and sit around until the chill finally drives us into our bags.
The night is quite moderate, probably not even dropping much below freezing. I left an entire bottle of water out all night and it didn’t even freeze around the lid. (I set it upside down; a trick that keeps the tops from freezing up for when you go to open them the next morning) There were meteor showers in the forecast, but the cloud cover effectively shut us out from the show. Maybe next time we will have a chance to take them in.
We take a really leisurely wakeup call as the sun comes up, brewing up some breakfast, more hot drinks, before we finally pack up our packs and start out on the second part of our loop. I tell the guys that for all the cool views and beautiful spots we have seen so far, it is really the second part of the loop where the real peaks and big scenes are at. Pete has been up here before, but for Chris and Brandon, they look at me and just go “are you serious?” I love taking friends into the high country who have not had the opportunity to really see some of the unknown parts of the range; areas where the guide books don’t really mention much about it.
Hiking down from the lake we can look out over the mountains, watching the morning sun begin to burn off the clouds, discovering the blue sky breaking out underneath. We catch the main trail once again, and begin hiking past a series of small lakes and ponds, finally scaling a short climb up to one of the landmark destinations in the Sawtooth Mountains; Sawtooth Lake.
Sawtooth Lake is the largest alpine lake in the range, and it is backdropped to the south by Mt. Reagan. It sports the most photographed view in all of Idaho. I swear that every mountain calendar has this shot on it! Our route traverses the entire length of the lake, and then cuts across back to the west to catch the Trail Creek trail system. The remnants of the early snow storm are in evidence as we trek across the windswept shores of Sawtooth Lake. The air is brisk, and we are all just enthralled with the views and the solitude. During the regular season, there might be 40-100 people day hiking up to this lake. From the little town of Stanley, it is a very moderate 5 mile hike up to the lake. It is on everyone’s “to do” list. Here in October, we have the entire lake and its beauty all to ourselves. What a treat this is!
Our day is fast running by us. We continue down the canyon, fighting thru some crusty snow on the north faces, and dropping altitude as we hike down, down, down to the long awaited soak in the hot springs. The canyon had a major burn a few years back, and I had not been down this trail since the early 80’s. The stark contrast of burned trees and fall colors lend a strange pallet of colors as we hike. The hike down canyon is all of about 5 or 6 miles, and we stop for a brief lunch break in a sunlit meadow. Munching on smoked cheese, clams, and crackers, we are absolutely content with our hike through the region. The lure of the hot springs draws us out of our lunch stupor, and we hit the trail for the final mile or two.
Along the South Fork of the Payette River just down from the trail head is a natural hot spring. With the late season river flowing slowly, and the water level low, would be engineers have stacked rocks and built pools along the rivers edge to trap the hot water and make for some great soaking pools. We change into our shorts, and slip into the hot water. The dust and grime from the trail washes off, and the heat melts our tired muscles. As lethargy begins to take over, we rouse ourselves from the water, towel off and head for home.
Back in civilization, I am still amazed that we were the only hikers in the entire area. I make a mental note to force myself to keep hiking into the fall months until the weather truly forces me to stop. This trip was a great reminder that with only a couple of extra pieces of clothing, and a little bigger sleeping bag, the trails are just as accessible, and even more fulfilling. Oh yeah, I’m still needing to get back and check out that lake…