End Of An Era - Again

I guess Wilderness means no bridges

Since I will be starting my new job on Monday I figured that I should do some hiking while I still could. The forecast for Friday was possible afternoon thunderstorms so I didn't want to plan anything too ambitious or travel too far. I did an easy hike with Laney up at Bogus Basin. Even for a weekday there were some cyclists doing the hillclimb as we drove up. On the way down we even saw a whole team coming up, in formation and wearing identical jerseys, complete with support vehicle with the team logo painted on it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We started from the Pioneer Lodge and went up the Tempest Trail. I hardly ever go up the service road anymore. At the junction with the Face trail I was planning to continue on Tempest and maybe take the Face Trail down but Laney was far ahead along the Face trail. She obviously thought that it was more interesting. Ok, I thought that I would let her pick. The trail makes an impressive traverse across the south face of Schaeffer Butte. It stays pretty much level but winds half way around the mountain. I had only taken it once before and thought after the traverse it just went up to the saddle just below the summit. No, actually it goes past and continues to traverse, paralleling below the summit road which drops off to the east. It continues for another half mile and drops a long way before it finally joins the service road far to the east of the top. Ok. We got to do an extra mile and another 300 feet of elevation gain. That was fine. Overall we ended up with a two hour hike, about four miles and a thousand feet of elevation gain. We only saw four people and three dogs the entire time. Bogus Basin is quite crowded with hikers on weekends in the summer. I was a little sad that this was my last "have the mountain to myself because I'm hiking on a weekday" hike.

Impressive peaks lining the south side of Baron Creek

The next day Laney seemed pretty stiff. She is getting older and needs a day or two to recover from a hiking trip. So I went to the Sawtooths by myself. I had called the Forest Service and they said that the snow level in the Sawtooths was between 7500 and 8000 feet. Since most of the high lakes like Alice and Sawtooth are 8000 feet or higher it would be tough to reach them. So I decided to hike a long, low trail - the South Fork of the Payette River. From Grandjean to Elk Lake is eleven miles each way so I could have as long a hike as I wanted and wouldn't have to worry about snow.

But I forgot about the other problem for early season hikes - high runoff can make stream crossings very tough. I started up the South Fork trail and hit the junction with the Baron Creek trail in an easy forty five minutes. A few hundred meters past the junction I had to cross Baron Creek just before it flows into the South Fork of the Payette. And it had a lot of water in it. It was about a foot deep and twenty feet wide at it's narrowest. Too deep for rocks to stick out for boulder hopping. No downed trees across it to act as a natural bridge. There was no way it would be possible without wading - a lot of wading. I looked both upstream and downstream from the trail and didn't find even a hint of a possibility for a dry crossing. I had only hiked this portion of the trail thirty years ago and thought I remembered a bridge across Baron Creek. But there was no bridge now. Maybe it washed away years ago. Maybe the Forest Service took it down because it was in a wilderness area. Or maybe I remember wrong. But there was no bridge now and no easy way to cross. So that meant Plan B. I backtracked to the trail junction and headed up the Baron Creek Trail.

N Fork of Baron Cr was a formidible crossing

A short while later I was talking with two hikers about the problem crossing Baron Creek. They said that they didn't remember a bridge ever being there. I noticed that one of them had a good solution to trail fords - he was carrying a pair of sandals on his pack. Dave Thiel and I had been stymied in Utah by the numerous river crossings required in canyon hiking. It obviously required sandals - boots and socks would just get soaked. I was worried that I couldn't find sandals that were comfortable enough to wear hiking for many miles. But for occasional crossings carrying sandals and changing just for the crossing would work. I will keep that in mind for my next trip to Utah canyon country. It still wouldn't solve the problem of canyons where you had to hike a major portion of the time in the river, like the Zion Narrows. But it would be a good solution for hikes like the Escalante River which stopped up last time.

I was pleased that I had been able to recover from the obstacle on the South Fork of the Payette River Trail so easily by switching to Baron Creek. It offered two options a little further along where the canyon split. I had done each of them about five or six years ago. The North Fork of Baron Creek climbed to Sawtooth Lake. A beautiful route but the Forest Service said that there was several feet of snow at Sawtooth Lake. Baron Creek continued up to Baron Lakes, about the same altitude as Sawtooth Lake so they were probably buried as well. But both routes were quite long so I figured either would provide sufficient hiking before I was stopped by snow. But as I left one of the guys on the trail said "Good idea - if you can get across the North Fork crossing". Oh, oh. I forgot about that. For either trail you have to cross the North Fork of Baron Creek just before the confluence.

More peaks on the north side of the Baron Creek drainage

An hour later I reached the North Fork of Baron Creek and it didn't disappoint. It was different from the previous crossing but difficult. The creek was dropping very fast so it was in a deep channel. Not nearly as wide but a lot deeper and with a large volume of water. It was impossible to see the bottom of the creek beneath the white water except for the occasional rock sticking out. It would be a very challenging ford. There was a single wide log across the creek but it looked scary to try to walk across. Because of the deep channel it was a good five feet above the creek. Below that was swirling whitewater that was deep and certainly hid a lot of rocks. Falling off didn't mean getting wet. It probably meant breaking a leg. I looked a short way up and down stream but it was difficult because the vegetation along the creek was very dense. No joy. So I sat down at the crossing and decided to concede defeat. Not a crossing I wanted to do hiking solo. I decided to have a quick snack and then head back. At least I would be back home early and could get some other stuff done.

Looking down Baron Creek as I climb out at its head

But a few minutes later a couple showed up at the crossing. They were backpacking in for the weekend and were carrying full packs. I had passed them earlier on the trail. They noticed a side trail a few yards back that went downstream. I decided to follow them to see if I had missed something. Sure enough there was a crossing possibility. There was a single large log across the stream but in the center section there was another down tree about five feet higher and two feet away which could serve like a hand rail for balance. They started to fix up their packs to cross. Balance is more difficult with a full pack so they were tightening everything down. I decided to give it a go and shuffled across sideways using the other log for balance. Easy! I was across and took off down the trail. About a hundred meters further was the trail junction. The sign said that I was three and a half miles from the trail head. It was still seven miles to Sawtooth Lake up the North Fork of Baron Creek. Alternately it was another seven and a half miles up Baron Creek to Baron Lakes. I opted for Baron Creek. My recollection (which hadn't been that reliable so far) was that the Baron Creek trail climbed much more slowly till there was a steep climb near the end. I figured that I could get farther before I might hit snow. And Baron Falls was at the end of the valley. A goal to shoot for since I probably couldn't make it to the lakes.

Baron Falls - this was about the best view from the trail

Hiking up Baron Creek was easy from there on. The only crossing that was any effort was Moolock Creek. It was only six inches deep and just required hopping across on logs on boulders, unfortunately spaced wider apart then I would have liked. A minor slip resulted in getting one foot slightly wet. Most of the hike was through forest but there were enough meadows to allow good views of the peaks on both sides of the drainage. Baron Peak was especially prominent. I could pick out what looked like a feasible route to climb it. A worthy objective. Maybe some day. I put it on my To Do list.

After two more hours of hiking the trail started to climb the headwall at the end of the canyon. Down timber was a bit of a problem here - obviously the Forest Service hadn't sent in a trail maintenance crew yet this season. At one point I was stopped by a whole tangle of down trees that completely blocked the trail. But since the trail was switchbacking at this point I cut upslope. There was a light track so others had tried the same maneuver. Sure enough, I hit the next switchback about a hundred feet higher up the slope.

Looking across the canyon to Tohobit Peak

Pretty soon I was out of the trees and on a scree slope. I had good views all around. I could see Baron Falls about a quarter of a mile off the trail. The Sawtooths are wonderful mountains but they don't have many big waterfalls. They are quite dry so they just don't have many streams with high year round flows. But Baron Falls is one of the few exceptions and it had a lot of water in it this season. The trail doesn't go right past the falls though - it's in a dead end in the canyon. I had a good view but not that postcard perfect picture. I still hadn't hit snow yet but had been hiking for over four hours. I considered trying to make it to the lakes but remembered that there was still quite a way to go from the top of this slope, probably another hour. Since it was already 3 pm that meant it might be getting dark by the time I got back to the trailhead. Not a major problem normally since I knew there was an almost full moon in the evening this week. But I really didn't want to be coming out late and have to cross the North Fork of Baron Creek in fading light. So I decided that this was a good turn around point. I wasn't tired though. No sir. Not one bit. Didn't influence my decision at all.

Heading back towards Grandjean Peak

I sat down on some boulders and had a wonderful spot to eat my lunch and enjoy the view. Then it was just a long hike back. I encountered the backpacking couple some way down the trail. They had set up camp and were day hiking up to the falls view. I saw one other day hiker. With the two day hikers I had seen on the way up there were only five other hikers past the ford. Farther down the trail I ran into a group of about ten young people hiking in with full packs. The last guy stopped to talk. He asked where I had been and about trail conditions. He wanted to know if there were campsites near the confluence. I said there were but they were across the river. I gave him a briefing on where the best crossing point was which he appreciated. I felt like the Old Man of the Mountains dispensing advice.

There were quite a few people in the last two miles - mostly hikers taking a short hike from the campground at the trailhead. It was kind of a good sign that I was getting close to the end, which was welcome since I was pretty tired. Total for the trip was fifteen or sixteen miles and 2200 feet of elevation gain in just under eight hours. A good workout. And most of the time I had the mountains all to myself. I guess I shouldn't have been worried the day before about having to fight crowds if I can only hike on the weekends. One of the great things about the Sawtooths, and most of the mountains in Idaho, is that there really aren't crowds. Well, ok, avoid Redfish Lake in July and August. But if you are willing to hike more than a mile or two from the road you can have a great wilderness experience just about anytime.

I figured that the hike the day before was the last "hike any time that I want" trip of my Sabbatical. Baron Creek was my first weekend hike as a working man again. But it was a good one.