Sunday, June 3, 2012

Flower show in Soldier Canyon

With the dry, dry conditions we've been "enjoying" this year, flowers have been few and far between, much to my dismay. However, usually reliable Soldier Canyon is coming through, and those looking for flowers will do well to head to this somewhat off-the-beaten-path destination.

There's no possibility that Soldier or any other canyon in the Rubies this summer is going to have the riotous display that we saw last year. But, I saw a very nice array of arrowleaf balsamroot, penstemon, rock geranium, columbines, chokecherries, etc. etc. etc. Certainly plenty to provide happy respite for my flower-starved soul.

It's gorgeous up there right now, and spring is slowly marching to higher elevations. As I gained elevation walking up the trail, the flower show morphed into blooming serviceberry bushes, and then into a generous scattering of buttercups. And then into plants just coming out of winter dormancy. There were butterflies everywhere, and a symphony of birds, bugs and chuckling creek... dappled sunshine and wide open Nevada blue skies. And I had the whooooooooooole place to myself.

It doesn't suck living here, truly.

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If you're going to head up Soldier Canyon, or to any lower-elevation destination in the Rubies, be aware that there are rattlesnakes around. This isn't a deal-killer as far as trip planning is concerned, because they're every bit as interested in avoiding you as you are in avoiding them. Just stay on the trails, be deliberate about where you're putting your hands and feet, and give them plenty of room to get away.

Rattlesnakes are very courteous animals, when you think about it. They let you know they're there, generally before you get close enough to cause problems for them. Show them the courtesy of not harassing them, and let them get back to their jobs of keeping the rodent population under wraps.

A bit of rattlesnake lore from my rancher dad, who knew these mountains better than I ever will: common "knowledge" among the old timers here is that there aren't any rattlesnakes above the elevation of Scout Camp in Lamoille Canyon, at about 7200'. Couldn't tell you how accurate that is, but the fact is that I've never seen a rattler above that elevation, and I'm willing to bet that my dad didn't, either.

Another tidbit from my dad: stay out of rattler territory in late July/early August, when they're shedding their skins. He always told me that they were a lot more irritable at that time of the year, as well as about half blind. I was never interested in testing the theory and so have avoided lower-elevation trails that time of year. Those trails tend to be hot and dusty in August, anyway.

Here's a write-up on today's destination, Hidden Lakes.

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HIDDEN LAKES

Length: 10.5 miles RT from Soldier Creek trailhead

Elevation gain: 2734'

Difficulty: Class C (moderate, all on trail)




The Hidden Lakes are a pair of glacial gems tucked up on a bench above Soldier Basin. Now that they've signed the trail turnoff they're not all that hidden any more, but back in the day you pretty much had to know they were up there to go looking for them. They're not all that obvious until you're almost standing in them.

This hike is quite different from many in the Rubies. For one, it's much lower elevation, meaning that you spend a fair bit of time walking through the dappled sunshine of aspen groves. You walk uphill through a narrow canyon, alongside the boisterous Soldier Creek, until suddenly the canyon opens up into a beautiful mountain basin, with gentle slopes and only a scattering of trees. The grade slacks off considerably and it becomes a very mellow walk. The lack of shade makes this a better hike very early in the morning or at times of the year when it's a bit cooler out. You'll be sharing the area with a lot of hunters in the fall, so if that's not your gig you might want to find another destination.

To get to the trailhead, drive through Lamoille until the pavement ends at a T intersection by the Lamoille Church. Turn left, and then turn right when the road makes another quick T. Stay on this road as it roughly follows the line of foothills at the base of the range. After the road dips to cross Cold Creek, look for a small brown sign at about 10 miles that says "Soldier Canyon" and points to the right. Go through the gate onto a somewhat rougher road (still passable by passenger car) about 6 miles to a small turnaround with an outhouse and a hitching rack. Park here unless you have a high-clearance vehicle and don't much care about your undercarriage.

You'll immediately cross Soldier Creek and then walk up the jeep road for another 3/4 of a mile or so until you reach a USFS kiosk and a gate blocking access by the ATVS that were continually encroaching on the trail. (Thank you, Backcountry Horsemen).

The trail is a bit rocky at first as it climbs through the aspens, gaining elevation at a 13% clip. It smooths out pretty quickly, though, and is downright pleasant walking. The canyon gets narrow and the creek gets closer, until fairly suddenly at about 2.25 miles in the canyon opens up, the grade slacks off a bit, and you leave the aspen forest for a scrub hillside.

For the next 2+ miles, you'll follow the creek as it and the canyon bend around to the right, still gaining elevation but not steeply at all. The plant communities will change as you gain elevation, until you start to see limber pines and skunk cabbage.

You'll pass the turnoff to Ross Creek and the Krenka Creek trailhead at about 3 miles. Those rough trails will get you to places very few people other than hunters go. Good stuff for those with adventure in their souls.

At a little more than four miles, you'll see the first of the tarns that have collectively earned the name Soldier Lakes. There are five of these tarn-sized lakes up here, all of them lovely in their own ways. Soldier Basin itself is fairly treeless and windswept, and very open.

At 4.5 miles you'll see a new-ish sign marking the turnoff to Hidden Lakes. It's pretty obvious which of the two forks gets more traffic - and it's not the fork we're planning on taking today.
The trail to Hidden Lakes pretty immediately overlooks the largest of the Soldier Lakes, and makes its way up a mellow grade on wonderful tundra slope. The tread is very thready but it's impossible to lose your way as it's marked by the most obvious rock cairns in the Rubies. They immediately brought to mind the signal fires of Gondor. If you do manage to lose track of the next cairn, just stop where you are and look around. You'll see it.

Oddly enough, the cairns will dump you onto a beautifully benched trail that contours around the hillside and takes you the rest of the way to the lake. If I had to guess, it looks like somebody started rebuilding the old trail from the lake on down, and ran out of money, oomph or weekends about half-way into the project. At any rate, the trail's great and will get you where you need to go.

You'll come up on the twinned Hidden Lakes right at 5.25 miles.

As at most lakes in the Rubies, there are far more fire rings than necessary, all of which are filled with burnt cans and broken glass. I didn't have a garbage bag with me today... if you head up there, bring one along and pack some of that stuff out of there. If we all take a little none of us will have to take a lot and eventually it'll get cleaned out.

There are tent sites at the south end of the southern lake, if you're up for an overnight. There are cutthroat trout in these lakes, although they had a big winter kill event in 2010-2011. They re-stocked the lake last year with fingerlings... too small to keep. Give them a couple of years to grow up before trying to tempt them into your frying pan. There are lots of brookies in Robinson Lake down the hill, though, so you don't have to go hungry. To get to Robinson, walk back downhill to the main trail, hang a right, walk past (fishless) Soldier Lake a few hundred yards to Robinson, the last (and largest) lake on the bench.

Here's the map. Click on it to make it larger.

One final note: this is a great opportunity to give a shout-out to the Backcountry Horsemen, who have been the ones maintaining the Soldier Creek Trail for years. Without this group of volunteers the trail would be ridiculously overgrown, much more eroded, and a significantly less pleasant place to visit. Thanks, folks, for all of your hard work over the years!

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