Thursday, September 23, 2010
Ruby Crest Trail - beta, maps and photos
I've hiked or ridden a horse on the Ruby Crest Trail for decades - I first hiked to Lamoille Lake as a barefoot nine-year-old, and first overnighted with my horse (and otherwise by myself) at North Furlong when I was about 12. It's been seven years or so since I hiked it from end to end. To me, it's kind of like one of those great books you read over and over and over again - you don't want to over-do it, because you don't want to lose the sense of wonder it engenders.
As it turns out, one of my outdoorsy friends who's relatively new to the area hadn't yet done the Crest Trail, and hell - as far as I'm concerned, if you're at all interested in the outdoors and live in the shadow of the Rubies then there's no excuse NOT to do this trip. It was a great opportunity for me to see the trail through somebody else's eyes, and to enjoy again for myself the beauty that this trail holds.
Right now, the trail is in pretty reasonable shape. We've had a recent heavy snowstorm, so there's a lot of deadfall across the trail from Harrison Pass to McCutcheon Creek. If you're bringing a horse, bring a saw. The early part of the trail, before it leaves the North Smith Creek drainage to head over the crest to Overland Lake, is very findable but quite overgrown. The tread is good, just expect to be wading through a lot of young aspen shoots.
Here's the beta for folks interested in doing this trip:
RUBY CREST TRAIL
Length: 31 miles, plus an extra mile to access lakes
Difficulty: Moderate, all on trail
Day 1: Class B
Day 2: Class C
Day 3: Class D
Day 4: Class A
Time required: 3 night/4 day backpack
The Ruby Crest Trail has a lot to offer just about anybody interested in the backcountry. For backpackers, it's an assessable, beautiful, easy-to-follow trail that wanders through some of the most spectacular desert mountain scenery imaginable. For horsemen, it's a beautiful trail that any reasonably competent mountain horse and/or horseman can do. For hunters and fishermen, there is game aplenty and the fish always seem to be biting. If you have the time and the energy, the Ruby Crest Trail is a must-do trip.
In my experience, it's best to leave a vehicle at the Lamoille Canyon Road trailhead, and arrange a shuttle to start your trip from Harrison Pass. There are a number of reasons for doing the trip this way: first, you'll have the sun at your back, not in your face, for most of the trip. Second, you'll cover the potentially dustiest part of the trail first, as well as the most tedious of the switchbacks. You'll go down the steepest of the switchbacks, not up them. Third, you'll not have to worry about meeting somebody at a specific time at the end of the trip. And, finally, you'll save the best for last... the scenery just gets better as you go along, hour by hour, mile by mile. This is gorgeous country, and it's more beautiful with every step you take. Don't hesitate to dawdle.
Every day of a Ruby Crest Trail trip features something different, if you break it up into a four day trip. The first day, from Harrison Pass, is dominated by a lower-altitude ecosystem full of aspens, creeks, and ranching history. In fall, when the leaves are changing, it's stunning. Day two, heading into Overland Lake, introduces you to the Ruby Crest itself as well as the Ruby Mountain high-alpine ecosystem and some of the most impressive historical CCC trail work of the trip. The third day is dominated by the sweeping Ruby Crest... mile after mile of lonely, austere, wind-swept ridge with unending Great Basin views. Day four is the day of alpine lakes... a chain of glittering jewels scattered among some of the most jagged peaks of the range. Breathtaking.
The trail is open year-round, and you'll want to choose your time for a trip based on your expectations. Some few hardy souls do it as a ski tour. The route is snow covered and/or muddy in many places until June, and the high passes reliably hold snow until early July. Starting in July, though, the route is a riot of bursting spring, with wildflowers everywhere and plenty of water in myriad creeks and streams. In August it can be very hot, with the trail dry and dusty on the Harrison Pass end. Starting in mid-September, though, the colors are back, this time with the changing leaves of autumn. Once the precipitation starts again, with rain or the first little snowfall, travel becomes less dusty and incredibly beautiful again.
To reach the Harrison Pass trailhead, take Lamoille Highway out of Elko to the intersection with Jiggs Highway (there's a stoplight). Turn right and stay on the highway through Jiggs and into the mountains to the top of Harrison Pass. There's plenty of room for parking here. If you are in a passenger car or are towing a horse trailer, this is where you'll start your trip. If you're in a 4WD, you can turn left onto the signed Ruby Crest Trail jeep road and drive another 2+ miles to a kiosk parking area. The road gets significantly rougher after the kiosk, the walking is pleasant enough and the first day is a short one anyway, so there no reason to keep driving past this point.
This trip is described as a four day backpack; however, extra days can easily be added by spending an additional night at Overland, Liberty or Lamoille lakes. Hunters might consider spending a night in the McCutcheon Creek drainage, as well.
DAY ONE - HARRISON PASS TRAILHEAD TO SOUTH FORK SMITH CREEK
Distance - 8.5 miles
Elevation gain (loss) - 1800' (1900')
McCutcheon Creek Drainage
The first day of the trip is spent winding in and out of a series of drainages, walking through a tunnel of aspens through an overgrown part of the trail. The tread is good and you won't lose your way, but expect to spend some time brushing through low-slung aspen shoots or occasionally watching your head. This part of the trip can be full of bug dust in late summer, be advised.
Once you leave the kiosk, you'll walk uphill along a rough jeep road for about three miles, until you reach a saddle with a sign that points varyingly to the Green Mountain Trail (indistinct) and the Ruby Crest Trail. At this point, the route becomes singletrack, and you'll reach the wilderness boundary in less than a mile. The trail traverses along, never losing or gaining much elevation. You'll pass an intersection with a trail down Gilbert Creek along the way, and will see an old Forest Service sign there telling you that you're on the Harrison-Lamoille Trail. There are a few boggy spots along the way. At five miles you'll reach McCutcheon Creek. If you get a late start or are out looking for deer, there's decent camping here, along with reliable water. Otherwise, press on into the next drainage.
Once you cross McCutcheon Creek you'll start walking somewhat steeply uphill to a saddle between the McCutcheon and Smith Creek drainages, and then unfortunately you'll lose a lot of the elevation you gained walking downhill to the south fork of Smith Creek. Get used to it, you'll be gaining and losing elevation for the duration of the trip.
You'll eventually enter a forest of large aspen trees that holds a lot of carvings from the sheepherders who have been working in the area for decades. At first, the sheepherders who left their marks here were Basque; these days they're mostly from Peru. There are quite a few names carved in the trees from hikers and horsemen as well... if you're a local you'll likely recognize a few of the names.
At 8.5 miles you'll reach the south fork of Smith Creek. There's a good campsite in an aspen grove near the creek crossing. Antonio Hidalgo, a sheepherder from Peru, spent 1982 and 1983 here, "con mucho cojones y poco dinero." If you're on a horse, there's a spot just downhill from the campsite where you can build a temporary corral in the aspens. Unfortunately, we didn't see any fish in the beaver ponds that abound in the area, perhaps you'll have better luck.
Day 1 map... click on it to enlarge:
DAY TWO - SOUTH FORK SMITH CREEK TO OVERLAND LAKE
Distance: 6 miles
Elevation gain (loss): 2600' (1000')
This is the day you'll first be on the actual spine of the Rubies, at least for a while. It's a short day, which is a good thing because you'll want to take time and savor the sights today. If you're traveling on horseback, give your horse a chance to graze in the morning because the grazing at Overland is very limited.
North Fork Smith Creek
You'll climb fairly steeply out of the South Fork of Smith Creek, and then lose elevation gradually to cross the Middle Fork. You'll intersect a trail here that goes down to Mound Valley, and uphill to a small un-named lake. There's reliable water but no place to camp. Climb uphill again out of the Middle Fork drainage... and keep climbing into North Fork. The climb's not steep but it is steady, and is largely through a forest of scrub aspen. You'll pass a marked intersection with the North Fork Smith Creek trail, which goes down to private property at the base of the range. There's minimal camping available in the last stand of large aspens at timberline, as well as a small trickle of water from a spring uphill. The trail climbs steadily up a series of switchbacks about 1500' out of the bowl, to finally reach the spine of the range.
The views here, of Ruby Valley and the endless ranges of the Great Basin, are breathtaking. In July there will be masses of wildflowers - mule-ear daisies, paintbrush, lupine, maybe even phlox and forget-me-nots, if you're early enough. And, take note of the trail itself - the men of the CCC did amazing rock work here, clawing this trail out of the mountain. It's truly something to see and appreciate.
Overland Lake Cirque
After a short time traversing the ridge, you'll be greeted with a stunning view of Overland Lake and the beautiful tarn above it. The trail makes its way down a series of steep switchbacks to the absolutely lovely little tarn, and then switchbacks again through a field of red and yellow columbines and willow bushes down to Overland Lake itself. If you choose to visit the tarn, stay on the rocks - the grass around the tarn is actually a bog, and something you don't want a careless boot or hoof to damage.
Once you reach Overland Lake, you can find a number of campsites around the cabin and the rocks surrounding the lake. Firewood is scarce, as is grazing. DON'T tie your horse to a tree next to the lake, as some careless folks had done shortly before our trip. Instead, look for the horse camp downhill a bit from the lake, to the east of the outlet stream, and build a temporary corral there. It's well-established, horse campers visit Overland quite regularly. Again, there's little grazing here, so you'll want to bring some horse nuts or other type of weed-free feed for your pony.
There's a good chance that you'll find equipment and supplies in the old cabin on the shores of Overland. They were likely left there by one of the guides working in the area. Don't plan on using the cabin for sleeping unless you like mice and spiders.
The fishing at Overland is fantastic, so anticipate augmenting your dinner with trout. They won't be big but they sure are hungry.
Day 2 map... click on it to enlarge:
DAY THREE - OVERLAND TO NORTH FURLONG (FAVRE)
Distance: North Furlong - 11.5 miles, Favre - 13.5 miles
Elevation gain (loss): North Furlong - 4500' (4000'), Favre - 4800' (4700')
Day Three will show you how well your backpack and hiking boots fit, as well as demonstrate the beauties of Ibuprofin. It's the longest day of the trip, with some of the most spectacular scenery. Once you leave the Overland Creek drainage, there is no water along the trail until you reach North Furlong, so plan accordingly.
Whether you head for North Furlong Lake or Favre Lake depends on your priorities for the trip. If your emphasis is on fishing, head to Favre. I've been staying at North Furlong since I was 12 years old, and have yet to even see a fish in that lake. They're supposedly there, but I have zero first-hand evidence of it. Favre, on the other hand, is full of enthusiastic and suicidal trout just waiting for you to tempt them into your frying pan.
If fishing isn't all that for you, stay at North Furlong. One, it's a shorter day, but two (and most importantly) the terrain between North Furlong and Favre is breathtakingly beautiful, and it really is best to enjoy it in the morning with fresh legs and eyes. There's plenty of camping at the lake itself, as well as a really nice campsite right at the intersection between the Ruby Crest Trail and North Furlong Trail. You can get water by walking several yards up the Furlong trail.
Either way, get an early start from Overland Lake. You'll be above timberline for the majority of the day, so you'll want to try and minimize any potential exposure to afternoon wind and lightning.
Sunrise at Overland Lake
The trail takes off next to the old cabin, and starts off by dropping down to the intersection with the Overland Creek Trail, leading to Ruby Valley below. It then begins a 4 mile rising traverse around the huge Overland Creek drainage. This is lovely country, complete with some beautiful waterfalls (large and small), a nice hanging valley that makes for a good side trip if you have the time and energy, and some impressive trail-building work by the men of the CCC.
Overland Creek drainage
Top off your water bottles at the beautiful black slab waterfall, if you haven't already. You may cross another stream after that, but it's not as reliable and it's better to be safe than sorry.
After four miles and 2500' of elevation gain (with 1800' of loss, there's that recurring theme again), you'll reach the spine of the range at Peak 10,207', and you'll see what the rest of your day will look like. You'll be hiking up, down and around a series of six "Groundhog Day" points, all along an austere, wind-swept ridge that offers stunning 360' views of the best of the Great Basin. Shade is nearly non-existent - there are a few wind-sculpted pines up here, but most of the plants are ankle-high. The trail grades aren't steep and the walking is very pleasant. You'll get a great view of some of the range's named peaks along the way, including Ruby Dome, Ruby Pyramid, King Peak, Snow Lake Peak, Silliman, Mt. Gilbert, and Lake Peak, among others. The third peak you go over, instead of around, will be Wines Peak, and the last of the points you'll climb for the day. Watch out as you switchback down to the sweeping saddle between Wines Peak and Lake Peak for a gorgeous wind-sculpted pine teetering over Ruby Valley, with an old USFS sign nailed to its trunk. Both are testaments to the extremities of weather here.
Looking back towards Overland Lake, Ruby Crest Trail
Gedney Creek drainage from Ruby Crest Trail
You'll drop off of the broad saddle into a quiet and lovely limber pine forest. If you're staying at North Furlong, or particularly at the camp at the trail intersection, you're a few feet from done for the day. If you're planning on hiking to Favre, your route will start to climb again after that intersection to a narrow pass between the North Furlong and Kleckner Creek drainages. PLEASE stay on the trail, even if there's snow - there has been a lot of damage here from people (and particularly horses) cutting switchbacks.
Trail between North Furlong and Kleckner Creek
Once you clear the pass you'll switch back down into an intimate, spring-filled drainage... a beautiful Ruby Mountain garden. Take some time to enjoy this, even if you're tired - it's your reward for a lot of work getting here. The trail wanders around a little bit, gradually losing elevation, until you round a big rock corner and start making your way to Kleckner Creek. You'll pass an old, decommissioned trail that goes to Favre Lake, will cross the creek and pass a trail heading down the canyon, and will eventually reach a good trail leading to Favre Lake itself. There are a couple of very nice horse camps downhill from the lake, as well as good backpacker camping in the trees next to the lake itself.
While you're here, take a few minutes to hike the short uphill to Castle Lake. You won't be disappointed.
Day three maps, south to north. Click on them to enlarge.
DAY FOUR - NORTH FURLONG (FAVRE) TO LAMOILLE CANYON TRAILHEAD
Distance: North Furlong - 7 miles, Favre - 5 miles
Elevation gain (loss): North Furlong - 1250' (2500'), Favre - 900' (1600')
Keep your camera at hand this last day of the trip, because the opportunities for stunning photographs are endless. This is the day you'll walk to (or past) the chain of lakes that is the heart of the Ruby Mountains - Favre, Castle, Liberty, Lamoille, the Dollars.
Favre Lake and Liberty Peak
Once you leave the shores of Favre Lake, you'll switch back uphill to Liberty Lake - deep, blue, nestled under Liberty Peak in a beautiful mountain cirque. There is wonderful camping here, and if you're looking for a way to stretch out your trip, this is a great place to stay. Gain a little more elevation, and you can catch a view of Liberty, Favre and Castle, all three, along with jagged Lake Peak towering over them all. Along the trail, as you climb above Liberty, there'll be thousands of wildflowers in July, as well as small springs hosting an evident population of wild onions. Convenient for the onions and trout to be so close together.
Liberty Lake and Lake Peak
You'll reach 10,400' Liberty Pass less than two miles after leaving Favre, and will get your first look at sweeping Lamoille Canyon. You can see the tiny trailhead below from here, as well as Verdi, Snow Lake and Full House Peaks, although you won't be able to see any of the lakes from the pass itself. Switchback down the impressive trail, keeping your boots on the tread in order to avoid destroying the thousands of fragile alpine flowers you'll pass. This pass holds snow quite late into the summer, so staying on the trail will require a conscious decision on your part to do the responsible thing. The trail winds its way down from Liberty Pass to reach Lamoille Lake in about a mile.
Swimming in Lamoille Lake
Lamoille Lake is a beautiful, greenish-blue lake tucked into a rocky cirque, full of trout and with good camping nearby. It gets a lot of day-hiking visitors, so you likely won't have the place to yourself. If you have the opportunity, take out some of the trash that's inevitably been left behind. Your backpack will likely be pretty light at this point, and there's a trash can at the trailhead. The place isn't a disaster by any means, but you may have a chance to pick up an item or two as you walk along the trail.
The trail forks just below the lake. It's 1.5 miles to the trailhead via the left fork Stock Trail, and 2 miles to the trailhead via the right fork. The right fork is shadier, if longer. The left fork is largely in the sun, steeper, and bursting with wildflowers in July. If you take the left fork you'll miss the Dollar Lakes, which are well worth seeing. Let your knees and your appetite for alpine lakes and/or wildflowers be the deciding factor.
One of the Dollar Lakes
Hopefully, once you've reached your vehicle, you'll also reach a cooler full of beer and some sandals to change into. Both will be very welcome after your days on the trail.
Day 4 map - click on it to enlarge.
If you want to make this a four night trip, instead of a three night trip, consider camping at Liberty or Lamoille Lakes, or spending an additional night at Overland.
There's a peak register on Wines Peak, if you want to scramble the ten feet or so to the actual peak and look for it.
Lake Peak is a very easy climb from the Wines Peak/Lake Peak saddle. Liberty Peak is a very easy scramble from Liberty Pass.
If you continue on the Favre Lake trail, rather than returning to the Ruby Crest trail, you'll contour around the east end of Favre and eventually gain Liberty Lake that way. It's a very short walk up to the saddle above that trail to peer into the isolated Colonel Moore drainage.
If you want to avoid the Harrison Pass end of the trail altogether, you can access the trail via the Overland Creek trail that leaves from Rock House in Ruby Valley. That is a steep, dusty trail that sees a lot of horse traffic, but because it does it'll likely have been recently cleared of deadfall by one of the packing guides. If you know one of the private property owners in Jiggs along Smith Creek Road, there's good trail access that way, as well.
Bailing out of a Ruby Crest Trail trip isn't easy and will require a lot of travel through some very isolated terrain. Be advised that you won't be able to get a reliable cell phone signal for much of the trip. Once you leave the Overland Creek drainage, you're probably best off staying on the trail itself, if possible. That said, there are good trails out of Smith Creek, Overland Creek, and Long Canyon, all of which (eventually) will get you to civilization. The trails out of North Furlong and Kleckner are unmaintained and sometimes hard to find.