Sunday, August 8, 2010

Seitz Lake Trail beta

Why is it that every time I go up Seitz Canyon I end up in a rainstorm? Today's drenching was actually pretty welcome - no lightning and I was beginning to get a bit ripe. In the past, though, I've been caught up there in "Holy SHIT find cover FAST" kinds of lightning storms. Nevada - don't like the weather, wait a minute. ;)

Seitz Canyon holds some good memories for me. Waaaaaaaaaay back when, Seitz Canyon was the scene of my very first backpacking trip - as well as my very first "Holy SHIT find cover FAST" backcountry experience. When I was sixteen years old, the trail up this canyon was in good shape. Now, not so much. It's there, but it's a "Where's Waldo" hide-and-seek-fest.

Flowers are putting on quite a show right now, and there's no need to die of scurvy - currants are everywhere. The serviceberries are just starting to generate fruit, not close to ripe. There'll be a lot of chokecherries this year, too (if Seitz is any indication).


Figured I'd throw up some beta for those Californians looking for Ruby Mountain trail info.


Length: 10 miles RT from Spring Creek Association 4WD "trailhead"

Elevation gain: 2700'

Difficulty: Class C-R (moderate with route-finding)

Time required: Day hike or overnight

The Seitz Lake trail is a great day hike or overnight for those interested in getting off the beaten path. Literally - the trail is very faint and there's a high probability that you'll spend at least part of the trip routefinding. Be that as it may, Seitz Lake is one of the most beautiful destinations in the Ruby Mountains, and that's saying a lot.

The Seitz Lake trail is a non-wilderness, non-motorized trail, meaning it's open to hikers, horsemen, mountain bikers, skiers, etc. That said, it is not even remotely SUITABLE for mountain bikes, and unless you have legal access you'll have a hard time getting a horse in there. And, once you do - this is no trail for a $30,000 sandbox horse, or for a horse that stands around six months at a time. This is a trail for a steady, strong, self-confident mountain horse. Be advised.

The hike is rated moderate due to the necessary route-finding. The hike itself isn't difficult - there's not much elevation gain in the scheme of things, it's not that long, there's no scrambling or exposure. That said, you will be spending much of this hike off-trail, and will need to be comfortable with cross-country travel. Not only that, but you will need to be comfortable out there on your own - there's no highway up this canyon, cell phones don't bounce, and the cavalry will NOT be coming. I doubt more than a couple of dozen people make this tour every year.

Seitz Canyon can be accessed three ways without getting into mountaineering, none of them particularly easy. You can travel overland legally from Lamoille Canyon, starting your hike by the pulloff for the Powerhouse Picnic Grounds. That makes for a long day. You can ask for access from Ruby Dome Ranch - you're not likely to get it, but you definitely won't get it if you don't ask. Don't trespass, these guys will not put up with it.

The easiest way to access Seitz Canyon is through the Spring Creek Association campground. If you're not an SCA homeowner, you'll be trespassing, but I've never heard of SCA having problems with it. Be a good guest, stay low profile and it's likely that they never will. That's how this trip will be described.

To reach the SCA campground - from Elko travel SE on Lamoille Highway (5th Street) approximately 17 miles to Pleasant Valley Road, a dirt road that takes off straight as an arrow towards the Rubies. The road will make a 90-degree turn - at this corner you'll see a locked green gate to the left. If you have a key to the gate and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, you can save yourself some walking by driving in. Otherwise, park here and climb over the gate.

From the gate, walk or drive up the section fenceline (it'll be on your left). The road will very quickly turn into a rutted 4WD road. If you're adventurous you can take this road almost all the way to the ridgeline and save yourself a bunch of hiking. You are here to hike though, right? The road will bear right away from the fence and you'll come to a convenient wide parking spot. Leave your vehicle here if you've driven in.

You'll start the trip cross country. Find a nice contouring cow trail and head north east towards the section fence. There are plenty from which to choose and there's no reason to turn this into a brush bash. Make your way uphill to the ridgeline... you'll likely want to follow the contour trails and make switchbacks for yourself. When you get close to the ridgeline, be near the section fence, where you can pick up another nicely contouring cow trail heading into the canyon.
An altimeter or GPS comes in handy here. You'll need to cross Seitz Creek at right around 7000', otherwise you'll be tangling with a hell of overgrown chokecherries. Stay climbers right of the creek and contour your way along the hillside - it's a pretty walk and, again, there are plenty of cow trails and game trails to keep the brush-bash to a minimum. When you get to about 7000', look for a portion of the creek bank that's been cut away by the water. There are some deer trails through the trees about here, and the creek's comparatively shallow at that point. Once you cross, walk straight ahead and you'll be able to get onto an old jeep road that goes another 1/2 mile or so up Seitz Canyon.

As you walk up the road, keep an eye out for the "trailhead" - a rock cairn by a mahogany tree. If you get to the end of the road, at a hunting camp, you've gone too far. Backtrack about 150'.

Once you get on the trail, it becomes very lush, very overgrown, very beautiful. The route largely sticks with the route shown on the USGS topo... if you get that route into your GPS you'll likely stay pretty close. If you don't have a GPS or can't be bothered with trying to find this ephemeral trail, don't worry. Stay climbers left of the creek, stay out of the beaver ponds. The trail will skirt climbers left of those ponds.

There'll be two big benches you'll want to climb... it's best done by getting above the rimrock shelves on your left. There are a fair number of rock cairns, as well as other routefinding friends - sawn deadfall and branches, a few blazes, bent/broken grass. There aren't a lot of tree carvings, but there are a few.

Once you top out on the second bench (past a couple of truly lovely waterfalls), you cross a large field of slickrock as you make your way to the lake. Take some time and savor this - it's beautiful and it gets more so with every step you take.

After about five miles, you'll be at Seitz Lake.

Keep your eye out for critters, I've seen river otters up here (very cool). There are also a lot of ducks and plenty of the other usual suspects for the Rubies.

Heading down, you'll find that it's a whole lot easier to stick with the trail. Don't miss the creek crossing, it comes up faster than you expect. There's a big glacier-remnant erratic boulder with a rock cairn on it, that's your clue to leave the jeep trail for the creek.



  1. Good job - excellent and informative article. Congratulations on your engagement and good your marriage. Start it out right and do not go backpacking on your honeymoon.

  2. Heh. Do you speak from experience? ;)

    We're due for a local backpacking trip, although it'll likely be pretty low-key with the kids here. Maybe Smith Lake? That's a great kid trip. If we do, I'll do a write-up.

  3. My wife and I spent our honeymoon in a tent at Verdi Lake.for about 5 days and nights. Nothing like high altitude, blaring sun, sleeping in sleeping bags in a tent whipped by cold howling wind, dehydrated food, and John Sustacha arriving with a party on horseback while my wife was bathing in the lake, to solemnize a marriage. Every night deer would congregate in a meadow below the lake. There is also a spring below the lake where the coldest freshest water I have tasted just bubbles out of the ground. And a very old emaciated tree (not a bristlecone, as I first thought) next to the trail at the top of the switchbacks before the broad glacial valley. That is what keeps me going into the mountains. Hiked to Lamoille Lake last week - sublime. I have never been to Seitz Lake and your trip description has motivated me to try it. Looks like a world class hike into unparallelled beauty and solitude. Thanks.

  4. Seitz is an amazing hike, and I hope you enjoy it. I haven't been up to Lamoille Lake yet this year - since the snow melted, anyway. I tend to spend most of my Lamoille Canyon time in the winter, skiing.

    Your honeymoon sounds like the kind of adventure of which the best memories are made. Knowing Johnny, that encounter had to be funny as hell.

    I like Verdi Lake, a bunch. The first time I was up there, as a teenager, I figured I'd catch a trout for dinner, and didn't know enough to bring some sort of backup meal. It's a good thing I was fishing with corn rather than worms, because that's what dinner ended up being. No fish caught.

  5. I am looking for a good place to take my scout troop backpacking in late june, and have been looking into the ruby's. As a result I stumbled onto your blog and this post. I think the boys can handle the difficulty of the hike, and they might even enjoy the adventure of having to do some route finding. However, my concern is the snow pack. Is the Seitz lake area likely to be generally snow free by mid-late june, or is that a bit too optimistic? Thanks


  6. Late June would probably be better. We had an odd year this year, in that there was pretty normal snow up high and extremely light snow low. It's holding snow pretty well up high right now… we haven't had blazingly hot days yet this year, knock wood. In an average year, you can count on the high passes being open after the 4th of July. We've had a bit more moisture than usual this spring but I think you'd be good with a late June trip. If all else fails, you can camp below the rock bench (you'll know it when you see it) and visit the lake if it's still too snowy/muddy to camp there.

  7. I'm hoping to go backpacking in about a week. Do you think it will be too snowy this early in the season?

  8. It's still pretty snowy up high. Personally I like snow travel, and it's a great time of year to do snow climbs. If that's not your gig, though, you'll probably want to stick to lower elevation routes.

    Check out the route descriptions for John Day and for the Ruby Crest Trail. The first section of the trail, before it climbs out of the Smith Creek drainage over the top to Overland, should be largely snow-free. You can also pack in to the hunter's camp on the Cold Lakes trail. It'll be snowy up at the lakes but the trail should be clear up to the hunter's camp, and that's a pretty hike.

  9. Used this route description last Tuesday. Accessed the canyon through the SCA campground. Made it to Seitz Lake, was still a bit frozen over but melting quickly. Very beautiful canyon. Thank you for the very helpful and informative trail description! Helped my friend and I a lot.

    1. That's great to hear, Michael - glad you got up there! Seitz is gorgeous, isn't it? I was up there this winter, would like to get back up there again this fall.

  10. Thanks for the info! We used Seitz lake as a basecamp for a big ridge traverse including Gilbert, Mazama, Sillman, both the South Echo lake peaks (EchoBox and No Echo Knob) Ruby Pyramid and Ruby Dome. We were going to add on Lee, but we were tired, it was getting dark and the Echo sub-loop took longer than we thought it would. We descended the 10,200 ft saddle west of Seitz outlet to make the loop work. What a fabulous area! Seitz is a gem and I can't believe the trail is as faint as it is. I guess its the access issues with Spring Creek. Sad really as this is a world class place that people would travel to and dump money into the Elko economy if access wasnt so difficult.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Sounds like a very fun trip. Long ridge-runs like that are a blast, that's for sure.