|no words for this spot|
Grandjean-Sawtooth Lake-Three Creek Loop
Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho
August 9-12, 2018
|jaw dropping view of Sawtooth Lake (photo by AJP)|
It’s 2 pm Oregon time as we cross past Ontario in the eastern part of the state. We’ve been driving since 7am, minus a longish stop that involved dropping off the mongrels with a good friend who is willing to dog sit our two hellions (thank god for Hope).
Then, Google tells us its ANOTHER almost FOUR hours to the trailhead. Whaaaat?
I’m usually an over planner when it comes to backpacking trips- my darling husband teases me that I love the planning as much as I love the actual hiking (he *might* be right). But, I’ve been busy lately so my research this time was haphazard at best. Thursday morning saw us throwing some gear and various loose itineraries in the car and off we went for a trip to the Sawtooths. The question was where?
We were leaning towards the White Clouds but, at this time, I seriously couldn’t fathom how we had another four hours to get to the trailhead. Damn, we forgot about the time change. And once we turned off the main freeway, it became very evident that, unfortunately, The Googles was correct.
Change of plans.
We chose our last pick of itineraries at this point simply because time was of the essence- we needed to be able to get to the trailhead and hike in enough at this late a juncture to find a site. We arrived at the Grandjean campground at approximately 5:30pm, quickly finished packing gear and tossed ourselves up the trail.
Day 1: Grandjean to North Fork Baron Creek ~4 miles
God it was hot. 96°F at the trailhead at 5200’ elevation. That is almost unheard of in my hood. Really, Idaho?
Less than a mile into the South Fork Payette River trail, I was really, really glad we had decided to leave the dogs at home. Firstly: the heat would have killed both of them (likely literally). Secondly: we had already startled several ptarmigans (one of which is going to end up a Darwin Award soon, given that its idea of “hiding” was to continue to warble up the trail in front of us for an extended period of time) and multiple chipmunks. While we love Dory and she has finally, finally, after two years, settled in nicely, her prey drive remains a challenge. She would have already been eager to kill every small furry and feathery squeaky/squawky thing we flushed out of the brush. This makes backpacking with her not so much fun.
At 1.5 miles in we veered left, up the Baron Creek trail, hoping for a campsite within the next 2-3 miles. The heat had quickly rendered both of us monotone, and we slogged up the valley in silence, sweating, yet nevertheless in awe of the scenery as the Sawtooth range began to open up in front of us. The smoke haze in the air had given the landscape an odd caramel tint which strangely complimented the features of the area- both jagged and smooth granite, avalanche ridden slopes colonized with sagebrush, the scattered ponderosa and all the various berry-laden bushes I wanted to nibble on (but since I couldn’t identify them, rationally decided against poisoning myself).
|heading up Baron Creek trail, smoky evening light|
First ford. North Baron Creek. No easy rock hop, no log, no bridge. Shoes off it is, yodeling across the calf-deep stream as ice seeps into your pores.
Not hot anymore.
We found a small campsite in the trees, nothing spectacular, and settled in the for the night. One blessing, minimal bugs. We slept with the fly off, in shorts and tees, at nearly 6000 feet and were completely comfortable. My Portland bones don’t know what to do with this.
|after crossing Baron Creek, looking down at the valley we just came up|
Day 2: Baron Creek to Sawtooth Lake ~7-8 miles?
I get up early with the dawn, make coffee, and feel myself slide into contentment. I love the silence of the backcountry. Wind, water, earth. This area smells of sagebrush and dirt, and, faintly of smoke, a reminder of all the wildfires burning in the West at this time. I gaze ahead, into the valley, my eyes following the invisible lines of the creek as it winds it way up towards Sawtooth Lake, our goal for the day. By 8am we are hiking, hoping to beat some of the heat and some of the sun. There is precious little respite from both on this trek.
|Early morning start (photo by AJP)|
The climb up the N. Fork Baron-Sawtooth trail is remarkably well graded, considering we are gaining nearly 3000’ in elevation today. It is, however, exceedingly brushy as it traverses an old burn, reminding me of that left my legs battered and scratched. Andy is smart, he wears pants.
|Andy's wearing pants|
We cross Baron Creek again and converse briefly with a family from Germany trekking here in an attempt to give their children some “real wilderness.” I wonder what they make of it.
Continuing the climb out the valley, Andy and I contemplate the value of our wildernesses, our national parks, our yet undeveloped lands. To a certain extent, I think this country takes it for granted, yet once wild places are lost they cannot be easily reclaimed. I recently met a gentleman from New York, who, touring Utah’s national parks and the Grand Canyon called coming out West a “revelation, an almost spiritual experience.” When asking the family from Germany if there was any true wilderness left there, they scoffed. “The Alps are absolutely stunning, but they are Disneyland. There is nothing like this there.”
Feet plodding forward, driven uphill only by our own power, I hope we remember to cherish these places.
Halfway up the climb to Sawtooth Lake, Andy is starting to crap out. We’re both surprised by how poorly he feels, but likely it is combination of heat, no shade, and altitude (we will camp at 8400’ this evening). Training takes over, and I lovingly browbeat my poor husband into rest stops, electrolyte mixes, and force feed him more water and food. He is recalcitrant but ultimately cooperative. Nevertheless, it’s clear the altitude has affected him- high heart rate, fatigue, dizzy/nausea, no appetite. Damn our low- lander lungs.
|It's still very brushy after crossing Baron Creek, but the views are starting to open up|
|Heat, unrelenting sun and altitude|
|We started the morning waaaay down there|
We cross Baron Creek one more time and begin the final ascent to Sawtooth. Here, the world begins to take on the high alpine quality I dream about and progress crawls to an Oooohing and Awwwing halt.
|world opening up|
|unnamed lake on the flank of Mt. Regan, 10,190' elevation|
Andy has rallied somewhat but still feels crummy- we take a quick peek over the pass at Sawtooth and decided to camp at some ponds prior to the lake.
|continuing past the tarns towards the pass near Sawtooth Lake|
|tiny husband for scale (left hand side). This area made me feel very small|
|for us wussy Portlanders, this was a lot of sun, lol|
|final climb towards the pass|
Best. Campsite. Ever.
|Andy and the best campsite ever|
|<3 me some feet pictures|
|it's impossible to describe how much I love this guy|
|fly off at 8400', Mt. Regan keeping us company|
That night, we lay outside, watching the Perseids, gazing at Mars and the Big Dipper framed perfectly between the goliaths of Mt. Regan and Alpine Peak. It is absolutely quiet. Even my mind isn’t chattering.
|I fell in love with this little tarn and its views|
|tomorrow we will climb up the the valley thru the notch in the center towards Sawtooth Lake|
Day 3: Sawtooth Lake to Trail Creek Lake ~7 miles
We’re hiking by 7:50 am, again hoping to beat the unrelenting heat. It’s clearly cooler this morning, but the day promises little shade and at least two decent climbs. As we crest the pass just before Sawtooth Lake, it quickly becomes clear that our choice of solitude the night before was perfect for us.
But there is this: Sawtooth Lake is spectacular. A grandiose, deep blue water with several outstanding campsites on the north shore and some of the “most scenic switchbacks ever.” Mt. Regan, at 10,190’ dominates the scene. We see at least 10 parties camped here, compared to the four parties total we encountered the last two days. The early morning light is mesmerizing, the first few miles flowing by.
|just beyond the pass at the outlet to Sawtooth Lake|
|the most scenic switchbacks ever|
At the junction with the Iron Creek trail, we hop the creek and immediately begin climbing. The view though, is outstanding, and the time passes quickly as we head up a seemingly fairytale trail flushing thousands of butterflies in our wake, all soaking in the morning sun and flowers.
|junction with the Iron Creek trail. Up we go|
Cresting the pass, the view of Sawtooth Lake is majestic. The opposite side of the pass, and our planned route for the day, tells a different story.
|entering the burn zone, it came right up to Sawtooth Lake|
Wildernesses are on fire lately, the air quality in Portland today as I write this is testimony to that. Our remaining hike would be thru an old burn zone, the Trailhead Fire from 2006.
Regardless, dropping thru the McGown lakes area had a beauty of its own, old silvered snags in meadows coming back to life with flowers, bubbling creeks flowing thru. We saw no one thru this section, which added to the quiet, eerie sense of solitude in the burn.
|cresting the pass towards McGown Lakes|
|Upper McGown lake in the burn zone|
Later, two lone elk would thunder thru, rolling up the uneven landscape and disappearing over an edge, out of our line of sight.
By the time we turned up the trail for the Trail Creeks Lakes, both of us were feeling the altitude, the sun, and the unrelenting three days of heat. Andy was grouchy, I was grouchy. It was one of those days where,, I was stupidly hoping for more solitude than we got, but that’s the nature, now, of beautiful places. Solitude is hard to find anymore.
|looking for the turn off to Three Creeks Lakes trail|
We found a campsite high up above the lake, complete with a lone deer friend and tons and tons of ash and dust. The type that grinds itself into your pores. Still, it’s hard to argue that Trail Creek Lakes are phenomenally beautiful…it’s just that everyone else is there too.
|campsite above the cirque|
At the risk of sounding/waxing like a jerk-hole, I have found myself thinking a lot lately about social media and the backcountry.in fragile places like No Name Lake, places like having quotas imposed due to being loved beyond reproach.
It’s part of the reason I haven’t posted in so long, yet I recognize that wilderness and “getting out there” are becoming integral to our lives now. The fact that so many people are moving towards an outdoor experience speaks to the monotony and grind of our lives, yet it is disheartening to see Forest Service budgets cut year after year, and trails disappearing into oblivion without the funding to revive them. Do I have the answers? No….I worked for government for years and years, and still I have no answer. But I think the need for more trails, for keeping our wildernesses open and preserved and expanding, is evident.
I thoughtby another blogger I follow summed up many of my feelings quite well.
Although Trail Creek Lakes was absolutely beautiful, I didn’t feel much like staying or exploring due to the sheer number of people there (which wasn’t much by Oregon/Washington standards). I couldn’t begrudge them their time, but also wasn’t interested in staying long.
|lower Three Creeks Lake|
Day 4: Trail Creek Lakes to Grandjean ~6 miles
Andy and I were off by 7:30am, powering down the trail, intent on food and drinks and showers and real bathrooms. That time in the trip where civilization rears its ugly head and asserts its dominance. We made good time down the trail, arriving by 9:50am and only having seen one other person on our way down. Our next to final crossing of Trail Creek had me falling in, nearly submerged, and flailing like a graceful penguin to get out.
|last picture before I fell in the creek and broke my lens|
(SUCH. A. KLUTZ. Not hot anymore).
The valley, although reminiscent of old burns, was still beautiful, open and smelling of sagebrush and something else I couldn’t identify. The hills spiraled above us, white granite and blue, hazy sky.
We met a few, final horsepackers and some dads carrying beers in the early morning on our way to the trailhead. I washed off at least three layers of filth at home and enjoyed a nearly miraculous sub sandwich on our way thru I-84. Andy took about two days to feel human again, then his appetite reappeared with a vengeance.
We will be visiting the Sawtooths again.