Big Creek Lakes Trail to Unnamed Lake
Bitterroot National Forest, Montana
May 21-24, 2015
As a backpacker, few things are as gratifying as when a trip that looks good on paper exceeds expectations to such a degree that it barely resembles the trip you planned. The type of trip where for days afterward your soul glows with the deep, slowly dissipating pleasure of the experience before it fades and becomes internalized and eternalized in memory. The type of trip where you laugh out loud at how woefully unable we are to describe the overwhelming beauty of Nature; its subtlety and majesty. They type of trip that happens with a level of frequency somewhere between rare and seldom, perhaps just often enough to ensure it is never taken for granted. I was fortunate enough to have this type of trip in late May on a three-night solo backpacking trek to an unnamed lake in the Bitterroot Mountains.
Although this was a solo trip, I did have company on the drive to the trailhead. The morning of my trip it occurred to me that if I was operating a Weapon of Mass Destruction (see also: Automobile) to reach the trailhead I might as well see if anyone else could benefit. My friend Matthew, an avid cyclist, seemed like the ideal candidate — he could ride with me to the trailhead with his bike tossed in the back and enjoy a mostly downhill mid-afternoon ride back into Hamilton. He agreed that the offer held a certain appeal and took me up on it. Matthew walked perhaps a mile or so down the trail with me, during which I was able to greatly benefit from his knowledge of the native plant species, before we parted ways. He returned to the trailhead and his bicycle, I continued down the trail, crossing the wilderness boundary sign after another half-mile or so of hiking.
My destination for the first night was Tipi Rock, a large flat area with massive boulders and good campsites according to guidebooks and other hikers. At just shy of five miles this was an easy distance to cover in an afternoon and gave me plenty of time to pause and appreciate the trail during the hike to the campsite. I found myself awestruck by the abundance of wildflowers, the sounds of the rushing stream and wind through the trees, and the light as it broke through clouds and filtered through the branches of the evergreens onto the forest floor. The hike to the campsite was uneventful, not especially difficult, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Aside from the natural beauty of boulders set amidst pines and within earshot of a mountain stream, one of the most compelling features of Tipi Rock was a remarkable lack of trash. I suppose I’m a bit cynical, but after seeing so many “backcountry” campsites in the East absolutely trashed, it really stands out to me when an easily accessible campsite doesn’t have at least one fire pit full of half-burned tin cans and aluminum foil. After filtering water from nearby Big Creek, I found a spot for my tent (carefully checking for dead and/or snagged trees nearby), hung the line for my bear bag, and headed over to a flat boulder at the base of a talus slope. The boulder was an ideal dining room table, sun porch, stretching bench, and reading lounge, as I found out during the hours between my arrival and sunset. When I scrambled back to my tent a beautiful slice of moon was visible through a gap in the pines as I zipped up the fly of my tent and settled into my sleeping bag for a night’s rest.
By 8:30 the next morning I was packed and enjoying a cup of coffee under a blue sky with a few clouds overhead; both myself and the clouds were in no apparent hurry. I had all day to cover the seven miles or so to the small subalpine lake which would be my basecamp for the next two nights, so a relaxed pace seemed like the most appropriate. The section of trail between Tipi Rock and Big Creek Lakes was outstanding. It was an even better way to start the day than my usual bike ride to work, which as far as commutes go is definitely on the “pleasant” end of the spectrum.
Gorgeous streamside scenes were interspersed with glimpses of granite peaks before the trail would drop into shady groves of fir and cedar rich with trilliums and assorted wildflowers. Whites, yellows, pinks, reds, and purples were the primary colors of the ephemeral and eye-catching highlights on the forest floor. Even absent the wildflowers, long stretches of the fir and cedar forest, which was punctuated with several massive ponderosa pines, had a majesty and enchantment all their own. The evergreen canopy refined the light until it illuminated the moss and ferns of the understory in a way so aesthetically pleasing that not even a professional lighting engineer could duplicate it.
When the trail did emerge from the forest for a bit as it climbed toward Big Creek Lakes, the views were jaw-dropping. Snowcapped peaks with rocky slopes rose out of foundations of dense forest and snowmelt rushed down channels in the mountainsides. The stunning views were a good visual warm-up for the scenery that I would encounter later in the day.
Big Creek Lakes are separated by an often underwater piece of terra firma, giving the appearance of one massive body of water rather than two. Regardless of any technicalities or optical illusions, this particular topographical feature was superb in a way that surpassed any sum of its parts. Although dammed by a concrete structure that doesn’t exactly blend into the landscape, this detracted less than one would expect from the “wilderness” quality of the lake(s) as it was surrounded by rugged peaks and dense forest that filled in the gaps between the mountains and the water. The stillness of the lake was contrasted by the sight and sounds of an immense cascade tumbling down from the west. As I walked around the lake I was hardly able to stay focused on any one scenic element, as my eyes drifted from the lakes, to the peaks, to the sky, and along my feet at the vivid wildflowers that flanked the trail. Not wanting to rush by such quintessential mountain scenery on such a nice day, I took a break on a rocky peninsula, stretched, made some coffee, read some poetry, and soaked up the views and some sun. I closed my eyes for a bit and just relaxed, knowing that it would be the last break I would have before the challenging part of my hike commenced.
I had fair warning about the final leg of my route, as a guidebook stated that “the biggest challenge of hiking the Goat Rocks Trail (306) lies in simply finding its takeoff point.” I had also ran into two backpackers earlier in the day who had been at Big Creek Lakes and asked if they had ever hiked the trail. They replied that they had not, as they had never been able to locate the unmarked junction on two separate attempts. Not exactly encouraging, but I consider myself fairly competent with a map and compass, and am experienced at locating faint trails. Plus, I had given myself plenty of time to find the trail. Free of hurries, free of worries, as they say.
Balancing my confidence with humility, I admitted to myself that I would likely overshoot the junction at first, but the outlet stream of the lake crossed the trail shortly after the junction and would serve as a perfect “backstop” and alert me that I had gone too far. And that’s exactly what happened. After reaching the outlet stream, I took a short break — and seriously considered just hiking up the outlet stream, which was a breathtaking, steep cascade — before retracing my steps and focusing on anything slightly resembling a footpath that led uphill from the main trail. My second attempt at finding the trail also failed, so after double-checking the guidebook description and the map I decided to head uphill through thick but accommodating forest and keep my fingers crossed that I would hit a switchback and be able to follow the trail to the lake.
Within 100 feet of the main trail, I hit the “delightfully primitive” but distinct footpath which was surrounded by, and in spots covered with, glacier lilies. There was even a bit of blue flagging tape visible further uphill. The first 100 feet had been obscured by deadfall and undergrowth and rendered virtually undetectable. Unfortunately, the trail was in rather poor condition and I found myself constantly scrambling over deadfall, second-guessing myself as to whether or not I had overshot yet another switchback, and just generally being off the trail as much as I was on it. It seemed like I spent most of my time hiking uphill and zigging where the switchbacks zagged. It was not a graceful ascent done in harmony with the footpath. But it wasn’t brutal hiking, just frustrating. Eventually, I ended up on the edge of the lake’s outlet stream and simply followed that for the last quarter-mile to the top. By that time I had hit deep snow drifts and at approximately 6,800 feet a pretty solid snow line, although a few patches of bare ground were scattered around.
Closing in on the lake, which sat at approximately 7,000 feet, the creek became covered by snow in many places and the high crest of the Bitterroot Divide became the backstop for my upward glances. The dim but persistent and powerful sound of falling water filled my ears as I emerged from the last few stunted trees of the lakeside subalpine forest and finally stood on the lakeshore. Incredible is an understatement for the scene that stretched out before my eyes. Except for a small pool at its mouth, the lake was entirely frozen. Waterfalls cascaded down the cliffs that met the lake and a craggy ridgeline blanketed with snow and punctuated by rock outcroppings stretched above. Clouds gave the atmosphere an ethereal texture as they rolled through a sometimes blue, sometimes gray sky.
For a few moments I stood spellbound and gazed at this nameless lake of indescribable beauty. Later, I pondered the difference between “unnamed” and “nameless”. From a certain perspective, “unnamed” implies that such a feature could — perhaps even should — be named. I look at “nameless” as being akin to “timeless”, a positive quality with no implication of a lack of any sort. I’d read recently in a decades old guidebook (“Bitterroot to Beatooth: Hiking Southwest Montana” by Ruth Rudner) a quote attributed to a forest ranger that said “naming features is perhaps the most subtle way of subduing our wilderness” and I believe the notion certainly has merit. Sometimes unnamed, or nameless depending on your philosophical perspective, is best. I’d recommend anyone wishing to see an example to visit this particular lake.
I spent the better part of the next hour walking the lakeshore trying to find the ideal campsite. Since I would be here for two nights, I wanted to take my time choosing a place to call home. I also wanted to avoid camping on snow if at all possible. After considerable effort and careful deliberation, I ended up camping within about 50 feet of where I initially arrived at the lakeshore. I ended up at a snow-free campsite, although this was somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory as the approximately 18 square feet that I occupied — with grass clumps, roots and rocks in equally inconvenient amounts — was an appealing “campsite” only when compared to the melting and uneven snow drifts. I think I proved my obstinacy to a much greater degree than my prowess at finding desirable campsites in tough conditions. Regardless, I ended up having some of the best sleep I’ve had during backpacking trips at this spot.
With my tent and sleeping gear set up, I headed to the lake to filter water and read and relax, with a bit of photography thrown in the mix. The weather had turned overcast by mid-evening and a few brief periods of light rain, as well as dropping temperatures, necessitated my rain jacket being added to my evening attire. Birdsongs mixed with the sound of the distant waterfalls and occasional gusts of wind. By the time I had finished my dinner, the wind had picked up significantly. Good kite-flying weather, but not great weather for sitting around in a light rain, so I found myself in my tent by 9 p.m. Although I considered getting back out and making tea once the weather calmed, I had become much too cozy to follow through on such an indulgence. Instead, I fell asleep slightly before darkness to the dreamlike sounds of waterfalls, raindrops, and bird chirps.
Since it was Memorial Day weekend, and I was on vacation, I slept in late even though I’d gone to bed early. I laid in my sleeping bag drifting in and out of sleep and supremely comfortable until well into the morning before exiting the tent to make coffee and oatmeal. I enjoyed my breakfast stretched out by the lakeshore, noticing how the drop in temperature overnight had caused the waterfalls, fed my snowmelt, to decrease in volume. By mid-afternoon they would be flush with snowmelt again and the hypnotizing churn of water, rock and gravity would again fill the cirque.
With no set plans or obligations for the day, I was forced to entertain myself. Fortunately, I was in an ideal playground for an able-bodied and inquisitive human being, and I made the most of my location. A supportive crust topped the snow, so I wasn’t limited to any certain path or route. With a blue sky overhead and a light breeze at my back, I decided to head up to an unnamed mountain pass visible from the lakeshore. From there, I could shuffle across the state line into Idaho, if the urge struck me, and have an excellent vantage point of either side of the mountain. I made good time along the lakeshore despite stopping often to appreciate the different perspective on the lake.
After emerging from the subalpine forest, which appeared to have experienced a recent but not terribly intense fire, the terrain steepened. I was able to bootkick steps into the snow and, although quite a workout, it was not an entirely unpleasant way to gain the elevation required to reach the pass. The views on the way up and the effort required to obtain them were figuratively and literally breathtaking, respectively. The last leg up to the pass I found myself following the obscure tracks of a large ungulate, not sure if it was an elk or a moose — but if the route was good enough for another mammal weighing a few hundred pounds, it was good enough for me.
I reached the crest shortly before noon and walked along it for several hundred yards, alternating Idaho for Montana as terrain dictated, until I found a pleasant spot for lunch, which also happened to be where a long unmaintained trail crossed from nameless lake over the mountains into Maud Lake. Taking my time to carefully peruse the rocks that formed the backbone of the Bitterroot Mountains, I found a natural piece of furniture in which to recline. With a closed-cell foam pad thrown over it, it was better than a La-Z-Boy. From my chair I could look down into Maud Lake, which was entirely frozen and had a lovely blue tint to its ice.
Only a few minutes after settling down, a muffled explosion accompanied by a dull road erupted from the mountainside just above Maud Lake. The small avalanche lasted only a few seconds, but it captivated me completely with its sheer power and chilling beauty for long afterwards. Perhaps a half-hour later, I heard another avalanche further away and out of sight. Somehow, after that much excitement, I was able to take a brief nap in between stretching, reading Herman Melville’s “The Belltower”, snacking, and catching glimpses of a pika — a small, furry mountain rodent with a sharp call. Once I became sufficiently, or maybe overly, rested I explored along the rocky spine of the crest for a while until increasing winds and some rain showers convinced me to descend to a more sheltered location.
My descent was quick but without any undue difficulty and I arrived at camp just before the heaviest rain arrived, which I enjoyed from the comfort of my tent while finishing the Melville short story. The rain continued for an hour or so. Light, medium and heavy at times, and a few rumbles of thunder added some bass to the soundtrack of precipitation; the waterfalls provided an excellent rhythm section. After the rain tapered off, I took a walk around the lake to stretch my legs and headed to the lake shore to prepare for dinner. Despite the easy day, I had a feeling that I would be turning in early again, either due to weather or the simple desire to lay down and rest. My prediction was accurate, as off-and-on rain discouraged me from lingering too long after I’d finished dinner and a cup of tea. I found myself in my sleeping bag just as the sky was beginning to darken; I was probably asleep by 10 p.m.
I awoke the next morning faced with the difficult task of leaving a beautiful place. Rather than delay the inevitable, I was packed, fed, caffeinated and on the trail by 8 a.m. I had a long day ahead of me — just shy of 12 miles the trailhead. Since trying to follow the trail from the lake down to the main trail would be an exercise in futility I chose to descend by paralleling the lake’s outlet stream, which turned out to be a direct and scenic method of connecting to the main trail. Several beautiful waterfalls and vistas into the Big Creek Lakes and surrounding peaks made for a great start to the hike.
Despite retracing my steps on the way out, the scenery didn’t seem repetitive in the least. The two miles around the lake stuck out as being particularly scenic. For some reason beyond my comprehension, the wildflowers seemed even more impressive on the way out and the downward trajectory of the hike gave me a new appreciation for many features of the landscape. Several of the creek bottom sections of trail, with rich evergreen groves, were glowing with a light that made the trilliums in particular stand out. Their warmth, charm and verdancy created an ambience which reminded me some of the denser, high-elevation evergreen forests of the Great Smoky Mountains; certainly an enjoyable comparison to be able to make.
I reached the trailhead around 1 p.m., feeling accomplished but not overexerted. The four days had passed at a natural pace that left me fulfilled, but not complacent. Satisfied, but not satiated. Many hikers have told me that the best is yet to come in regard to the hiking season in western Montana; that I’m still heading out into the woods before the going really gets good. Assuming their statements are accurate, I’m going to need to drastically increase my vocabulary and writing skills if I plan to keep on documenting these trips which have brought me enough joy to last a lifetime in only a few months.