Canyon Creek Trail
Bitterroot National Forest, Montana
June 19-20, 2015
Perhaps more so than any other trail along the west side of the Bitterroots, the route up Canyon Creek has a reputation as a brutally steep and unforgiving footpath. My experience on an early summer overnight trip verified that this reputation was well-deserved. However, the rewards were more than proportionate to the effort required. Rushing waterfalls, vibrant wildflowers, snowcapped mountains, serene lakes — quintessential Rocky Mountain scenery — made this hike one of the most charming, but also one of the most difficult, that I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in the the Bitterroot Mountains.
Arriving at the trailhead around 5 p.m., I quickly shouldered my pack and headed down the trail. The sign said “Canyon Lake – 5 mi.”, a distance that despite 2,600 feet in elevation gain I doubted that I would have any trouble covering before sunset. As a result of the northerly latitude and its location at the far western edge of the Mountain Time zone, darkness wouldn’t cover Canyon Lake, where I intended to camp, until after 10 p.m. I’m not the fittest of hikers and my pack usually isn’t the lightest, but I felt reasonably confident that I wouldn’t be doing any hiking by headlamp. With a destination like Canyon Lake, whose name seems to be an alluring mixture of the generic and the idyllic, beckoning me I made good time along the undulating but steadily uphill trail as it wove through a lush and fragrant forest, never too far from the tumbling waters of Canyon Creek.
I took a short break in an attractive streamside grove of evergreens to rest my legs before beginning the most difficult part of the hike. Snacks and water replenished my energy. A chapter of “Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West” by Cormac McCarthy took my mind off the steep hike that lay ahead and into a captivating tale of “ . . . the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the ‘wild west’”. I had swapped my go-to backpacking book of absurdist, existential poetry (“Actual Air” by David Berman) for the novel at the last minute, and despite the slight increase in weight (both figuratively and literally) I didn’t regret my decision. Once I felt sufficiently refreshed, I stepped back on the trail and continued my upward trajectory.
The last leg of the trail was difficult. The gradient, the terrain — nothing was designed in favor of the hiker. Especially a hiker with a backpack. Steep, rocky, with water running down the trail in places and vegetation from one side touching vegetation on the other, not a trail for those with faint hearts, weak knees or small lungs. Trekking poles provided some reassurance and comfort, and incredible views of the cliffs and of Canyon Falls, not to mention delightful patches of wildflowers, provided soothing visual elements to the exhausting physical demands. The trail became obscure in spots, but cairns and the general notion that “up is correct” made it hard to stay confused for more than a few moments. Some sections of the trail itself, although of course not the surroundings, reminded me of the Deep Creek Trail in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness in North Carolina, although I doubt they had the same engineer.
When the views began to open up and the outlet stream of Canyon Lake became readily visible my anticipation for a view of the lake reached a fevered pitch. I was not disappointed in the least when I got my first glimpse of the lake. Wyant Peak and Canyon Peak dominated the skyline and a waterfall tumbling down the forest above its far shore added an audio-visual attraction. The trail grew increasingly more faint as I made my way along the lake shore. I exchanged a brief greeting with a few friendly campers as I hiked along and looked for a campsite. After only a few minutes, I found a very appealing campsite with great access to the lake and some trees providing shelter from the wind, which could politely be described as “breezy” on that particular evening.
After choosing my campsite, I actually followed my own advice (which I think should be listed among in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Backpackers”) and hung the line for my food bag before attending to the other tasks at hand and relaxing. I speak from experience — looking for a limb to hang a food bag from in the dark after eating, when you’re tired from hiking, when all you want to do is crawl in your tent and go to sleep, is not one of the most enjoyable aspects of backpacking. Once that was out of the way, the tent went up quickly, water was filtered, and before long I found myself stretched out and gazing up at the peaks while my feet enjoyed a break from the boot-bound motion that had defined the previous few hours. My eyes alternated between Wyant Peak and the waterfall emerging from unseen Wyant Lake, noting that climbing the former would entail hiking up the latter. Both of these held an appeal to me. Not wishing to commit myself to anything too ambitious, I decided to sleep on the decision; such is the luxury of backpacking as opposed to dayhiking.
I read a bit more in “Blood Meridian”, entranced by the landscape descriptions as well as the story, before cooking dinner at an hour much later than the abundant natural light indicated. The mosquitoes were out in force and while I had forgotten my trusty Crocs, I had fortunately remembered bug spray. When the sun finally began to set the sky morphed into a beautiful mixture of growing dark grays, lingering blues, and soft pinks and purples. By the time the first stars appeared I had finished dinner and was enjoying a cup of tea and some pieces of chocolate for desert. By the time a headlamp was needed I was hanging my food and heading for the tent.
I slept in later than usual, oddly eager to lay in my sleeping bag rather than explore the surroundings. It wasn’t until the morning was half-over that I found myself sipping coffee and contemplating how to spend the rest of the day before heading back to the trailhead. I’m not sure exactly when I made the decision, but not too long after I finished breakfast I found myself throwing a few necessary items in my backpack to attempt an ascent of Wyant Peak. Within two hours of emerging from my sleeping bag I was hiking up the outlet stream of Wyant Lake. The going was easier than I anticipated and the views, both of the waterfall and of Canyon Lake, allowed for macro and micro perspectives on beauty. I’ll attribute my distraction to the scenery, which resulted in a misstep that found my right leg submerged in the frigid stream up to the knee. I muttered a few words I’d rather not put in this trip report before I paused to remove my boot, wring out my sock, and do my best to dry the inside of the boot with a bandana.
Wyant Lake was simply jaw-dropping in its beauty. The cirque was enchanting beyond words and I nearly called it a day there, content to simply bask in the sun by the lake and stare at the clouds. But the allure of Wyant Peak and the challenging but achievable look of the route convinced me to make an attempt at reaching that lofty point of rock. I admired the lake while simultaneously working my way around it to the snow-filled couloir which would allow me to gain the ridge and head to the peak. I took a slightly different route than that described in the “Bitterroot Mountain Summits” guidebook to reach the access notch and the scrambling was fun; granite slabs interspersed with patches of glacier lilies made for pleasant travel. Several hundred feet above the lakeshore, I stepped off the rock and onto the snow.
If I had to choose a word to describe the route up the final stretch of the couloir, “intense” would be first and foremost. Gaining the ridge on the very steep, but well-consolidated, snowpack pushed me to the limits of my comfort zone. The descent nearly pushed it past. After a half-hour of bootkicking steps in the snow and carefully shifting my weight from foothold to trekking pole to foothold to trekking pole I reached the ridge. On the crest I was greeted with views of the Bitterroot range, which while terrific, were just a warm-up for the views from the summit.
After hiking across the stable talus of the ridge crest, and experiencing only a few minor route-finding issues along the way, I arrived at the summit. The views from the summit were magnificent and even a bit dizzying. The views from the precipitous ledge of the peak into the lakes was almost overwhelming without being tethered to a rope. I soaked up the views from the summit for a few minutes before backtracking just a few feet into a natural windbreak where I made tea, snacked, and watched clouds drift overhead and mountains stretch out across the landscape.
The sparkling blue of Wyant and Canyon Lakes, the muted gray of the mountainsides, the deep green forest and its trees dwarfed from such an elevated perspective. What a view. The depths of the lakes were revealed in greater clarity as well, the boulders that rested on their bottoms punctuated the blue with spots of sandy white. Snow still clung to the upper elevations, while a lush green forest heralded summer at the lower elevations. A profound sense of vastness radiated from the mountains, although trying to truly comprehend the scale and wildness was impossible. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilerness, 1.3 million acres without a traffic light, piece of pavement, or an on-off switch. Not a bad place to spend a lifetime or two.
After a hour or so perched atop Wyant Peak, I complied with gravity and my “schedule” and headed down to Canyon Lake. For some reason the route along the ridge seemed even more beautiful on the way down than on the way up. I arrived at the top of the couloir that would take me to Wyant Lake and began the descent, carefully picking my way down, at times facing inward to the snow and downclimbing some sections like a ladder, using the bootkicked steps I had made on the way up as rungs. Other times I had to do long switchbacks through the moderately steep sections. I breathed a sigh of relief when I was finally able to plant my feet back on snow-free and somewhat level ground. Rather than descend via the outlet stream, I cut through the forest on the edge of a talus slope. I doubt I saved any time, but the terrain itself required slightly less focus than navigating beside a water hazard.
It was mid-afternoon when I arrived back at camp under a beautiful summer sky. I packed up the gear I’d left at camp (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc.), took a short break and a frigid but refreshing swim. Despite the brisk temperature of the lake, the bright sun and the satisfaction of swimming in a mountain lake that I had been looking down on from above only a few hours earlier gave me a “warm fuzzy feeling” that balanced out the water temperature. After drying off, putting my boots on and adjusting my pack I bid farewell to Canyon Lake and started the bone-jarring descent.
Trekking poles helped, but an elevator would’ve been a better tool. This is not a section of trail to let your mind or eyes wander when hiking down (easier said than done in my case), but fortunately I didn’t have many major slips or tumbles on the way down. The stretch of trail through the forest was a welcome reprieve and felt mercifully level to my knees when compared to what I’d just descended. I talked to two backpackers heading up to the lake on the way out and answered at length and with enthusiasm their questions about the trail ahead, wishing that I was spending another night at the lake. The rest of the hike back to the trailhead was simply a few thousand steps and a few thousand breaths of mountain air. A perfect combination for Saturday evening entertainment.