Friday, September 18, 2015

Sawtooth Range

Hike Track

We have hiked in the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho several times before, but it has been a while. The plan for this trip was to make a grand circuit from the northwest end at the Grandjean Campground and circumnavigate the entire wilderness area in a clockwise direction. After a day off from our Wind River trip for rest and laundry, we were at it again.

Day 1 - The Burn

We got an early start from Idaho Falls for the 4 hour drive to the trailhead.  Passing by the Frank Church Wilderness along the Salmon River we saw evidence of lots of smoke. The entire west is on fire this summer so finding a place to hike without smoke is difficult. Arriving at the Grandjean Campground we found clear skies and were encouraged. The trail starts along the South Fork Payette River at 5,250 feet elevation and quickly crosses into the Trail Creek drainage, climbing steadily through at least one old burn (Grandjean Fire, 2006). 

Hiking the burn
The first few hours climbing this canyon were a little monotonous but we did pick up the expected fire specialists like Mountain Bluebird and Hairy Woodpecker. Near the edge of the burn we passed by McGown Lakes at 8,500 feet and started to feel like we were in the high country again.

McGown Lake
We crossed a divide at 8,800 feet and entered the Sawtooth Lake drainage. We were out of the burn and into the true Sawtooth Wilderness. Things were looking up!

Crossing the divide

Sawtooth Lake
As we descended, Sawtooth Lake came into view. This is the "poster lake" for the Sawtooths, reachable by dayhike from near the town of Stanley in a few hours. The grand Mt. Regan looms over the south end of the lake painting the perfect picture. It was late in the afternoon so we found a campsite and called it a day.

Mt. Regan over Sawtooth Lake

Sawtooth Lake at sunset


10 miles

Bird Lists:

Trail Creek
McGown Lakes
Sawtooth Lake

Day 2 - Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

With an early start we moved south past Sawtooth Lake, beyond an inlet tarn through an alpine area, and crossed a low divide into the North Fork of Baron Creek. All that work climbing nearly 4,000 feet the day before was to be mostly given back over the next couple hours.

Climbing to divide to N. Fork Baron Creek

Tarn near inlet to Sawtooth Lake

Descending into N Fork Baron Creek

N. Fork Baron Creek
We reached the confluence of the North Fork and main Baron Creek at 5,600 feet turning southeast for another big climb. Near the bottom we decided to take a break. The trail was at the edge of the heavily forested creek. While sitting there we heard what sounded like a rock fall in the canyon. But in the middle of a warm day, a rock fall? It wasn't long after we heard the distinctive squealing whistle of a bull elk in rut. And then another bang! And another! Two bull elk were banging antlers not far away and that was the sound like a rock fall. Very cool! Unfortunately for us we were separated from the elk by the thick forest and never could locate the animals. Still, it was a fantastic experience.

Steadily through the afternoon we climbed Baron Creek back up into the high country, eventually reaching the Baron Lakes Basin at 8,500 feet and our camp for the evening.

Baron Creek Canyon

Baron Creek Falls

Approaching Baron Lakes Basin

Baron Creek

Lower Baron Lake

Lower Baron Lake

Lower Baron Lake

Camp at Lower Baron Lake
17 miles

Bird Lists:

North Fork Baron Creek
Baron Creek
Baron Lakes

Day 3 - Hiking on the Moon

Another big day with big miles through the heart of the Sawtooth high country. We left camp and quickly reached the upper Baron Lake just a short distance up canyon before the final climb to Baron Pass at 9,200 feet. 

Lower Barron Lake in the morning

Looking back at Lower Baron Lake

Upper Baron Lake

Baron Lakes from Baron pass
What goes up must go down... From the pass we dropped all the way back to 7,400 feet along Redfish Lake Creek before turning up canyon and heading for Cramer Lakes at 8,300 feet. Continuing on we climbed the divide near Mt. Cramer topping out at 9,400 feet. The section past Cramer Lakes was true high alpine, far above treeline and into moonscape territory. If we were to see Black Rosy-Finches in the Sawtooths, this was sure to be the place. But all we could turn up was a pipit or two, no Rosy-Finches to be found.

Redfish Lake Creek Canyon

Descending into the canyon

Redfish Lake Creek

Redfish Lake Creek

Lower Cramer Lake

Middle Cramer Lake

Climing to the divide

Tarn above Cramer Lakes on the way to the divide

The last of the flowers

Walking on the moon near the divide

Mt. Cramer and the divide
It was cold and windy at the pass but we didn't have far to go. Hidden Lake was just down the slope a mile or so and we quickly made our way there for the evening. 

Tarn above Hidden Lake from the pass

Hidden Lake

View across Hidden Lake from camp

Camp at Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake
We had found a protected spot along the lake banishing the winds to the open areas. By sunset most of the clouds had cleared for what looked like a beautiful evening. I had picked up a weather forecast on my phone from near Sawtooth Lake only two days before - 30% chance of afternoon showers, lows in the 40's. We hadn't seen a single drop in three days. The weather gods hadn't yet figured out that I had moved from Wyoming to Idaho. Little did I know but they were preparing to punish me profoundly for that trick... 

17 miles

Bird Lists:

Baron Pass
Redfish Lake Creek
Cramer Lakes

Hidden Lake

Day 4 - SNOW!

Imagine it is 3AM, pitch black dark -

Susan, in a panic: The tent is on me!
Bob, half asleep: I told you not to lean your pack against the tent pole.
Susan, more than a little agitated: No, you're not listening, THE TENT IS ON ME!!
Bob: What the f%&*!!

The are POUNDS of snow on the roof of the tent and one of the support line stakes has pulled out of the ground, all collapsing the roof of the shelter directly on top of Susan. We manage to push the wad of heavy snow off her and I get out the door to put everything back in order. There are inches of snow on the ground, that wet slushy stuff that falls when the temperature is hovering right above the freezing mark. The "snowflakes" coming down are the size of a silver dollar, splatting everywhere. Shelter back in working order we settle back in to ride out the rest of the night. From inside we can hear the big flakes splat on the roof. We quickly realize that when you can't hear them splat anymore the buildup is getting heavy and someone needs to bang the roof from the inside and knock it off. This goes on for hours, banging the shelter roof every 30 minutes to cause another inch of slush to avalanche down the sides. By daylight there is a nearly foot tall pile of snow at the corners of the tent where the slush slides off to rest. Finally around 9AM it stops so we can get out and assess the situation.

Hidden Lake in the morning

Our poor little shelter

Christmas on Labor Day weekend!
I check the thermometer tied to my pack, 34F. The ground is not frozen yet and the air temperature is slightly above freezing so the snow is melting fairly quickly. If this is the worst of it we can continue our hike. The next section though is the highest country of the trip, never dropping below 8,500 feet where we currently are and going above 9,500 feet twice in the next two days. Time for a clearer picture of the weather situation... I carry a Delorme InReach satellite communicator/gps tracker and now is the time to use it. I send a text to a couple of friends asking for a National Weather Service point forecast for the area we are headed into. Hikin' Bill gets back to me first: Today, rain and snow 40% with a high of 54F, low 36F. Tomorrow 70% chance of snow with high of 45. That is a dangerous forecast for so remote of a location using summer hiking gear. We've hiked this next section twice in years before and there is always next time. Luckily there is a connecting trail from near where we are that goes down in elevation quickly, eventually leading back to our originating trailhead.
Disappointed but making the right call, we decide to bail out.

It takes a long while to get everything packed up. First I had to find everything I had foolishly left lying about camp that is now buried under the snow. That done we pack up the last of the wet stuff and set off. The precipitation has fallen so quickly and in sufficient quantity to flood the trails with water and melting slush. Keeping our feet dry is out of the question, and it is cold!
Heading out

Cold, wet feet

But it sure is pretty...

Dropping down canyon into the South Fork Payette River canyon we find the last of the snow at 7,000 feet. After that it is just wet and flooded from rain - lots of rain. And to add insult to injury, the trail crosses numerous rain swollen side creeks and the Payetter River no less than 7 times as we walk down canyon! Wet feet were the order of the day.

Fall leaves

No shortage of water crossings

Crossing the Payette River

Moving down canyon

Reaching our final water crossing at the confluence of the Payette River and Baron Creek I find a nice stand of Jeffrey Pines. I think of these as Sierra trees, but obviously they occur other places. Alongside the many Doug Firs and spruces, they did seem a little out of place.

Jefferey Pine
With the late start and so many miles to go, it was a close call getting to the car before headlamp time. We arrived minutes before sunset after a long and tiring day.

21 miles

Bird Lists:

Upper South Fork Payette River
Lower South Fork Payette River

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