Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sawtooth Mountains Solo Trek

Nothing ever seems to go as planned; but, I guess that's part of the fun of backpacking - adapting and overcoming.  I try to schedule one or two big backpacking trips per year - traveling remotely, for multi-day solo hiking.  This year was way too busy at work, so I was really looking forward to this trip - the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho.

Thanks to all the business travel that I had to endure recently, though, I was able to swing a free roundtrip flight from Philadelphia to Boise using my Southwest Airlines points.  And all of my stays for work also netted me a couple of free nights for this trip - one on my first night in Boise before hitting the mountains, and one near the trailhead the night before my return flight.  I had my route all planned out - a 6-day loop through the northern Sawtooths from the Gandjean trailhead...then comes the monkeywrench - Forest Fire.

2016 was a big year for wildfires - California, Wyoming, and Idaho.  I had been watching the news from Boise, tracking the Pioneer fire in the days before my trip.  The fire was growing, but was far enough north of the Sawtooths that it wouldn't affect my access to the forest.  Then, on the day that I flew out, the fire expanded southeast and closed Rt. 21 between Boise and the trailhead...Hmmm.

Smoke haze

So, on the early August night before my hike, I sat in my hotel room and replotted my route.  By heading southeast from Boise, I could circle around to the southern Sawtooths and head out from the Queen's River trailhead.  I charted a new loop that would take me up the Queen's River valley, across the Blacknose Pass, then back down the Little Queen's River valley.

Before first light on Thursday, I headed out; and after an exciting journey of taking the rental Hyundai Accent across some serious Jeep-trails, I made it to the trailhead by mid-morning.  On longer trips, I always like to start mid-week, so that you can get deep into the wilderness before the weekend day-hikers descend on the trailheads.

The Sawtooth Mountains get their name from their steep and sharp profile, with jagged peaks that look like a sawblade.  The ridges have steep slopes that divide deep valleys.  Backpacking through this wilderness includes traversing the valley floors, scrambling and climbing steep ridges to mountain passes, and occasional side treks from the passes up above treeline where it is more possible to reach alpine conditions.

Everly Lake - still smoky
Starting at about 5200-ft elevation, I spent my first day trekking up the steep-sided river valley, wading across the river several times, before the valley widened out enough to venture up the shoulder of the ridge to find a suitable camp in a pleasant meadow at around 7000-ft.  As the day progressed, it became more hazy and the smell of the distant forest fire (approximately 15 miles upwind) began to settle into the valley, with the occasional flurry of ash.  After a night with a little excitement provided by a field mouse that managed to squeeze through the 1/2-inch space where I didn't close the zipper of my tent, I awoke refreshed and with my hiking legs ready to go.

Blacknose Pass
The morning of day two, there was a light dusting of ash on the fly of my tent and a smoky haze across the valley.  As the day progressed, the smoke lifted, but the smell of fire lingered.  The hike was a moderate uphill climb for most of the day - north to the headwater of the river at the mountain pass on the shoulder of Mt. Everly.  Circling around Everly, then up through the notch to Everly Lake at 8700-ft.  Hiking the Sawtooths is a bit unusual with respect to navigating.  The trails are not marked with blazes, but trail junctions typically have wooden sign markers.  The trails themselves range from clearly worn and visible, to overgrown game trail-like, and even to completely unapparent.  It is imperative to have a topographic map and be able to read it - at times it will become necessary to bushwack where no trail can be identified to find you next waypoint.  Because of the steepness of the valleys though, getting completely lost is not likely, as you could always follow the river back out.  By then end of the day, smoke settled back in as the sun started setting.

Browns Pass - through the looking glass
Day three of the loop had the most change in elevation, with some steep ridge climbing and multiple switchbacks.  The morning started with retracing the path back around Mt. Everly to the north and west, to cross Queen's River and make the ascent to Blacknose Pass at 9400-ft and a fantastic viewpoint (as the smoke had again lifted).  Given the more difficult hiking, I made this a shorter day, descending 1000 feet down the western side of the pass to Pat's Lake.  The blacktail deer were everywhere around the lake, prancing and bounding through camp at regular intervals all evening - quite the parade to watch.

Sunday proved to provide the most dramatic day of hiking as far as scenery goes.  There was little smoke haze even in the morning, and the day was bright as I continued the descent from Pat's Lake along Johnson Creek down 1500 feet into the valley below along thickly overgrown trails.  Crossing the valley to the south leads up the notch in the ridge to Brown's Pass heading into the Little Queen's River basin.  Reaching this pass is like Alice crossing through the looking glass - the south side of the ridge is another world.  Almost the entire Little Queen's River valley is burned out by previous forest fire.  It is a ghost valley of blackened skeletons of trees and bare ground with just the start of new growth.  It is a stark contrast to the lush green of Johnson valley.  After switchbacking like a zipper down the south face of the pass, a quick left turn takes you to a similar climb, back up to Browns Lake.  The lake is hidden in a high alcove of Brown's Peak, with towering walls of stone all around, and a few oasis' of greenery that were not scorched by fire.  Again, the smoke fell as the sun set, and it was particularly windy.  I was impressed with how well my Hewolf tent held up on this trip, particularly with the heavy wind gusts - this was my first substantial trip with this tent and it was everything that I thought it could be (I'll have to update my review).
Browns Lake - oasis in the burnout

The last day of hiking, from Browns Lake back to the trailhead, was a fairly relaxed 9-mile trek, downhill, following along the Little Queen's River for its entirety.  By 2:00 I was back to the car and ready to head back to Boise.  The thought of taking the Hyundai back over the mountain trail was a little daunting, so instead I followed the dirt road of Rt 82 west along the middle fork of the Boise River from its headwaters as a small creek, all the way through Arrowrock Reservoir and dam, back to Boise.  What a phenomenal drive - almost a vacation itself.

Sometime it really works out when you have to change plans.  
Boise River

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