Monday, November 28, 2011

Griswold Lake and the Hennen Canyon Trail

I've always kind of "dissed" Griswold Lake as a hiking destination, largely because I generally have more distant goals in mind: Ruby Dome and Lee Peak, to be exact. The trail up Hennen Canyon to Griswold Lake is the easiest way to access those two peakbagging goals, and so Griswold tends to be a snack stop along the way.

That said, the hike to Griswold is well worth doing. I had a chance to walk up there this weekend, and really enjoyed the snow, the silence, and the herd of big bucks I saw along the way. ATVs won't make it up this canyon, so the bucks are largely safe from Elko County hunters. Given the sometimes slippery footing and the late start I managed, I was happy to have a headlight along. It got pretty dark around 4:30pm. The trail's so good, though, that getting back to the truck was easy-peasy.

Here's a little beta for those interested in making this trip.


Length: 6 miles RT from Spring Creek Association campground trailhead

Elevation gain: 2750'

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

Time required: Day hike or overnight
The Hennen Canyon trail is a great day hike or overnight for those interested in an easy-to-moderate, accessible, low-commitment trip away from the mass of people that populates Lamoille Canyon. Because this trail is the main access to Ruby Dome, it sees regular use in the summer and a fair bit of use in the fall and winter. Most people don't go far up the trail when the snow comes, though, and you can just about be guaranteed of having the place to yourself as the days start growing short.

Hennen Canyon Trail

If you choose to make this an overnight, there is good camping at Griswold Lake. The lake itself is very shallow, with a mud bottom and a rock in the middle that makes for an excellent swimming goal. There are fish in the deepest part of the lake. An overnight at Griswold and a hike up Ruby Dome makes for a fun weekend trip.

The Hennen Canyon trail is a non-wilderness, non-motorized trail, meaning it's open to hikers, horsemen, mountain bikers, skiers, etc. However, while the trail clearly sees some maintenance from USFS crews, there are some large-diameter deadfall logs that make the going pretty difficult for the horsey set. In addition, once the trail leaves the trees, it spends a lot of time traveling through some very rocky terrain. While I know that horsemen can and do occasionally get their animals up there, it's very difficult going in places and there's a high probability that your horse will be injured. Be advised. As far as MTBs go - it's well beyond the capacity for my legs and lungs. If you're up for a steady 16% grade, have at it. I've never seen a bike up there, or even tracks... that doesn't mean that it can't be done, but it certainly isn't an entry-level MTB trip.

I couldn't begin to tell you the "official" USFS name for this trail. It is located in the bottom of Hennen Canyon, along Butterfield Creek, up to Griswold Lake. I'll call it the Hennen Canyon trail, but if you ask at the ranger office they may well call it something else.

The hike is rated Class C-R (moderate with 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. The first two miles or so are on good, reasonably well-maintained trail that's easy enough to find, even in winter. That said, you will be spending some of this hike off-trail following rock cairns, some of which are difficult to see. Not only that, but you will need to be comfortable out there on your own - there's no road up this canyon, no way to get an ATV up there, and you'll need to be prepared to self-evacuate if you have an issue.

One other note - if you are not a Spring Creek property owner, you are technically trespassing using this trail. You have to go through a section of land owned by Spring Creek Association to get to it. I've never heard of anyone being hassled about this, but if somebody does get in your face about it, don't say that you haven't been warned. Stay low-profile, be a good guest, and hopefully their non-harassment policy won't change.

Hennen Canyon is accessed through the Spring Creek Association campground. 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 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 dirt road and take the right fork up to the campground. The road switchbacks up past some pull-out campsites and eventually dead-ends at a flat turn-around with a nice view of the valley. There'll be a large sign that says "Ruby Dome 4 mi, Griswold Lake 3 mi". Follow the arrows, cross Butterfield Creek on a nice new-ish bridge, pass through the man-gate and you'll be on the trail proper.

The trail maintains a pretty steady 16% grade overall. This can be a little... eye-opening... right out of the gate. It can also be fairly annoying in August, when the trail tread is dusty and somewhat slippery, particularly on the downhill. It does get better when you get past the initial sagebrush rise. The grade doesn't really relent but the trail surface improves. Other times of the year, when the trail isn't dusty, it makes for fine walking.

You'll pass through a second man-gate somewhat more than half a mile up the trail. At this point, you're on the Forest proper and are no longer trespassing. Be sure and close the gate behind you.

Butterfield Creek

The trail climbs up to the left of Butterfield Creek, weaving in and out of the aspens and mahoganies on the way up. It's easy to find, even with the snow - follow the tree carvings and cut logs if you can't see the tread itself. There are carvings by Basque sheepherders dating back to the 1930's that are easy to find without much looking. You might find even older ones if you look hard enough.

Old carvings

At about two miles in you'll reach the end of the aspen grove and will be faced with a large, flat rock outcropping. This is a good turn-around spot if you're on a horse or are interested in a shorter, easier hike. If you're interested in pressing on, head up the rock, walk uphill and start looking for rock cairns.

The rock bench begins

There are some really nice views of Spring Creek, Elko Mountain and the Adobe Range from here. Don't forget to take time to gawk.

Valley view

There are about four lines of rock cairns that will eventually lead you up the rock bench to the lake. They all follow roughly the same path, so it doesn't really matter which line you follow. The cairns pretty much hug the left bank of the draw in the middle of the rock bench - if you lose the line it is no big deal, it just might take you a couple minutes more getting up there.

You'll go through a bit of a squeeze right next to the creek, and then the canyon will widen out again. At this point, there are two draws below the lake. The cairns, again, hug the left bank of the left draw, the obvious snow-filled gully in this picture.

Final approach to Griswold Lake

Once the grade begins to relent, you'll know you've all but reached the lake itself.

Griswold Lake

Griswold campsite

If Griswold Lake is your goal for the hike, hang out for a bit, have a snack and enjoy the day before heading down. If Ruby Dome is your ultimate goal, I'll do a real write-up for you one of these days. Generally speaking, though, the easiest way to do it is to circle around the left of Griswold Lake, making your way uphill to the wide saddle between Hennen Canyon and the right fork of Seitz Canyon. Stay on the rocks, stay off of the plants! Once you've gained that saddle, skirt to the right of the large knob, then start picking your way across the boulders up to the obvious low point to the west of the Dome. Once you've achieved that low point, Ruby Dome is to your left, Lee Peak is along the ridge to the right.


  1. Thank you for your wonderful account of this hike. I hiked it today with my two boys, 10 and 7 yrs. Only made it past the aspens. Next we will leave earlier and beat the heat. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks. We started to late to get as far as we wanted. Weren't sure to keep going with winds getting bad. Now we know what to watch for. Great directions. Visiting from pittsburg. Pa