Monday, October 21, 2013

Cold Lakes

The Cold Creek drainages don't get visited much. The only people who really get up there seem to be hunting guides and their clients, locals setting up a fishing camp and a resident rancher whose family has run sheep and now cattle up there for generations. It's really too bad, because Cold Creek offers all of the spectacular beauty and intimate loveliness that Lamoille Canyon does, without the highway, cars and madding crowds.

I haven't wandered around that part of the range since I was a kid. My dad used to hunt deer along the sagebrush benches in that area, and it's still a popular spot with hunters. I'd never been up to Cold Lakes, although it's been on my Ruby Mountain bucket list for many years. My friend Bruce had a rare day off in town, and I was feeling a bit spunky, and so we decided to head out on a voyage of exploration and see if we could make it up to the lakes.

This trip is usually done on horseback and as an overnight (at least), and after having walked the route I can understand why. It is an absolutely fantastic hike in the autumn - really hard to beat - but there's not a lot of shade and there is a fair bit of elevation gain. It'd be hotter than Hades in the summer. Not only that, but there are three big stream crossings that would be pretty challenging when the water's up, making a spring or early summer trip hard to manage. There's a lot of evidence of huge stream flows along the creek. If walking's your bag, wait until fall, when the sunshine is a welcome partner rather than a gumption-drain, and the creek crossings are fun places to teeter on river rock as you cross.


Length:  13.4 miles round trip from trailhead

Elevation Gain:  3520'

Difficulty:  Class D - R (difficult with route finding)

Time required: Day hike or overnight

The Cold Lakes are a pair of lovely glacial lakes at the head of Middle Cold Creek canyon, nestled beneath one of the iconic and most photographed peaks in the Ruby Mountains, the Old Man in the Mountains. It's a remote, beautiful area, with a decent old trail that's generally easy to follow, and good trout fishing in the lakes once you get there.

There are a couple of obstacles you'll need to overcome, however, before you even set foot on the trail to Cold Lakes. One, access to this trailhead is through private property and you'll need to get permission from the property owner to go through. The good news is that these guys are long time local ranchers, they're great about access, and if you can catch them at home they're generally happy to give you the combination to the gate. The only caveat to that is when it's really muddy up there - they don't want it trashed and they'll keep the gate locked if it's wet. I won't do them the discourtesy of posting their phone number here, but you can call the rec manager at the USFS, 775-752-3357 or Joe Doucette with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, 775-777-2300 and they'll tell you how to reach them.

The second obstacle comes with trying to find the actual trailhead. There was a sign, once upon a time, but it's not there now and if you don't know how to find it you're in for some very steep ups and downs. Fortunately there's a bridge crossing right off the bat, and if you can find the bridge you're golden.

To get to the Cold Lakes trailhead, head south from Elko on Lamoille Highway, drive through the town of Lamoille to the T intersection at the Lamoille Church. Check your odometer. Turn left at this T onto a gravel road, turn right at the next T, and follow this road as it zig-zags through Lamoille's beautiful ranch country. You'll pass a nice ranch house at the bottom of a hill, with haystacks across the road. Follow the road as it climbs and curves around to the right. At 6.3 miles or so, you'll see a right turn that goes up a hill to a microwave station. Take this road to the locked gate, and open said gate with the combination you got from making all of those phone calls. Check your odometer again.

Drive through the gate on the good two-track road (passable by passenger cars) and follow it to an old homestead ranch. Drive past the ranch house through the gate by the corrals. You'll come to a fork in the road with what once was a pretty useful directional sign, now missing. Take the left fork and drive up a hill, paralleling an irrigation ditch. At the top of the hill, at about 1.6 miles from the locked gate, look for a bridge crossing the ditch on your left. That's your trailhead... park here.

It's pretty easy to get turned around right off the bat, because there are a lot of very predominant cow trails leading off of the main trail, and no signs or rock cairns differentiating the real trail from the rest. Count the drainages and don't take any turns. You'll cross one little dip right after the bridge, and you'll climb up and over to an almost immediate second drainage. That's the south fork of Cold Creek. Cross it, climb up again and over another hill to a much larger drainage - the main Cold Creek drainage, which is the one you want. Cross the creek onto a private ranch road and hang a right into a beautiful tunnel of aspens.

There is a lot of evidence of very high stream flows here. The rancher who runs cows here told me that the creek flooded big-time a few years ago. It took him a long time to clear this out. He and the local hunting guides are pretty much the only ones keeping this trail brushed out these days. The USFS trail crews rarely, if ever, get up here.

You won't go far along this road before you come to a new "National Forest Boundary" sign, followed by a much older sign marking the trail fork to North Cold Creek Canyon and to Cold Lakes, which are at the head of the Middle Cold Creek canyon.

The North Cold Creek crossing, right before it merges with the much larger middle fork.

Once you cross the creek, the trail starts climbing up the spine of a sagebrush and mahogany ridge. The trail right here pretty much goes straight up the fall line, as do many sections of the Cold Lakes trail. There's been significant trail damage over the years, from water and from the thousands of hooves that have pounded it for a century or so. By far, though, the majority of the damage has been done by water erosion.

The trail flattens out when it reaches the ridge, giving you a welcome respite from the climb. It starts contouring around the ridge on a very wide bench that has the look and feel of having been a road many years ago. It is quite plausible that it WAS a road once upon a time, as local lore says that the Southern Pacific Railroad used to take timbers out of this canyon back in the 1800s. There are a lot of very old stumps here and higher up the canyon, giving credence to the story.

At about 2.5 miles you're back in the aspens again, heading towards two more crossings of Middle Fork Cold Creek. Immediately after the first of those crossings you'll come to a trail junction. It isn't on current maps, but the 1967 USFS Forest Users Map shows a trail that leaves from about here and goes over the ridge to the South Fork Cold Creek drainage. We didn't follow it, so I couldn't tell you if that's the old trail or not. There are easier ways into that drainage these days, in any case.

After the next creek crossing you'll walk into an aspen wood with another unsigned trail junction at about 3.4 miles. Take the right fork, and you'll eventually reach a hunter's camp at about 3.7 miles.

It's obvious that the Basque sheepherders used this camp before the hunters did, because there are a lot of great old tree carvings through this stretch. We found legible ones dating back to the 1940's. This one, left by a fairly prolific gentleman named Pierre, was apparently his annual calendar.

Once you pass the hunter's camp, the trail gets quite a bit steeper, averaging an 18% grade. There are significant areas of water damage on the trail from here to the lake, as well as a few opportunities to lose the main tread and utilize cow trails as you continue upwards. The cow trails are in better shape than the main trail in a lot of spots. Generally speaking, once you leave the hunters camp, the trail leaves the creek and hugs the climber's left side of the drainage.

There are great views of the back side of the Old Man of the Mountains through here.

After a couple of steep, erosional climbs, you'll come to a set of rock cairns marking your way through a spot where the tread is pretty much missing. When you reach the first cairn, look to your right for the next one. The cairns in front of you mark what is essentially a cut switchback... the right route is much easier.

Once you pass the cairns the tread is very easy to find, even when snow-covered. There are some switchbacks and rock work to show you that someone did, in fact, construct this trail once upon a time.

It's truly lovely through here, with the austere alpine beauty that has made the Rubies famous. Best of all, you'll very likely have the place to yourself.

The final approach to the lake is pretty steep with a lot of trail damage, and runs along the climber's left side of the outflow stream from the lake.

Last few steps - you won't see the lakes until you're about standing in them.

The Cold Lakes sit in a rocky glacial cirque at just short of 10,000'. There's great fishing up here, and most visitors come up with horses and plan on staying several nights. We found a fully-stocked fishing camp between the lakes, complete with saw, shovel, tent, MREs, pots and pans, fishing pole... and wall art. Quite homey.

Overall, this is a great hike - well worth doing. Next time I'll bring a backpack and fishing pole, and head up a few weeks earlier before the lakes freeze up. This trip, though, was a fast one, and Bruce and I had to take off from the lakes pretty quickly to get back to the truck and beer before dark.

Here's a map of the route. Click on it to make it bigger.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

John Day Trail

If you're looking for an easy - really easy - day hike full of fall color, then the John Day trail is your hike. I wanted to get out yesterday but didn't have much time, so figured I'd re-visit this lovely small canyon. What a treat... surprisingly rarely visited given its accessibility and beauty.

John Day is the small canyon looker's right of Soldier Canyon, and the easiest public access is from Soldier Canyon itself. This means two things to visitors... one, fall is hunting season and the Soldier Canyon area is one of the few places hunters can access without having to arrange for permission from private landowners. That means that it's heavily used, often by hunters who don't have a whole lot of experience. Keep yourself safe by wearing day-glo orange - a lot of it. And if you're not absolutely certain your pooch will stay right at your heels, leave him at home.

The second thing to remember about Soldier Canyon is that the access road is closed to motor vehicles from November 15th through May 1st. A lot of people can - and do - use the canyon in the winter, but they park on Lower Lamoille Road and access the canyon on skis and snowshoes. If you want to drive to this trailhead, keep this closure in mind.

Here's some trail beta for you:


Length:  4 miles RT from trailhead in Soldier Canyon

Elevation gain:  1100'

Difficulty:  Class A (easy)

Time required:  Half-day

The John Day trail is in good shape and is easy to follow. The Backcountry Horsemen and local hunting guides have done a good job keeping this trail brushed out, at least for the first couple of miles, and there are only a few spots where you'll have to step over or duck under deadfall. One guy with a chainsaw could have it cleared in about half an hour.

You'll find the trailhead you're looking for about 3.2 miles along the Soldier Canyon Road after it leaves Lower Lamoille Road. It's the first obvious grassy parking spot once you enter the canyon, and the trail itself is marked with a sign. The trailhead of the John Day Trail is all that's left of the old Secret-Lamoille Trail as it crossed Soldier Canyon. That trail ran from Secret Pass to Lamoille Canyon, largely across the benched foothills of the range, and the John Day Trail junction was about .2 miles in on that trail as it headed south and west from the Soldier Canyon Road.

The first .2 mile of this trail is quite steep - a 21% grade - because it is, in fact, a cut switchback. The original trail actually intersected the Soldier Canyon road a few hundred yards upstream. David Ashby, the former local USFS rec planner who inventoried all of the Ruby Mountain District trails a few years ago, told me that there wasn't a lot of point in re-establishing the old trail since the cut switchback was fairly stable and led to a natural parking area. So - unless you're interested in rooting out the old benched trail bed, this steep little climb right off the bat will be the beginning and the ending of your day. It's not as bad as it looks, and there's thankfully not a lot of dust and loose rock to jeopardize your footing.

Once you gain the top of the little ridge you'll see an old cairn fading into the grass. This old cairn marked the S-L Trail/John Day Trail junction, and if you look you can see the old trail down to Soldier Canyon road off behind the cairn. Unfortunately, the junction it marked no longer exists, as John Day Creek flash flooded a few years back, destroying the crossing and creating an impressive, steep-walled gully barring you from reaching the S-L Trail. It's uncrossable without a rope and a belayer, and dangerous to try. Fortunately, a old subsidiary trail takes off from the John Day trail a little upstream. There's no cairn marking it and it wasn't readily obvious, but I'll chase it down and do a write-up on that one another day.

After you pass the old cairn the trail maintains a steady 10% climb, but the trail's so good and the grade is so consistent that you hardly notice you're gaining elevation. The first half mile or so contours around the climbers' left side of the canyon, through sandy soil with only infrequent shade provided by sparse mahoganies. It's pretty hot and dry through here in the summer, but the views make it worth the walk. There's a relatively new cairn along this stretch - not sure what it marks, perhaps an easier crossing of John Day Creek. Worth exploring if you have the time and aren't afraid of rattlesnakes.

It doesn't take long for the trail to dive into a tunnel of aspen, and this is where it becomes truly lovely. The trail crosses the creek a few times, and you will probably have wet feet if you do this hike during high water.

At 1.7 miles, you'll reach the end of the nicely brushed-out trail at a grassy hunter's camp. Unlike some others, this one's pretty clean and is still a very pleasant place. I was more than surprised to find it unoccupied.

Past the camp, you can walk another quarter of a mile along the creek to a lovely little spot where the stream babbles and laughs in the summer. In the fall, it provides a peaceful spot and a great photo opportunity.

The map shows that the trail goes on for another half-mile, but there's very little evidence past this point that it ever existed. I was able to follow it for another quarter mile, but it was completely overgrown and a full-on bash through waist-deep brush. This trail would be easy enough to reclaim, if anyone were interested. It's a shame to lose the rest of such a nice walk.

Here's the map - click on it (and on any of these photos) to make it bigger.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Autumn on the Secret-Lamoille Trail

We are in the throes of a stunningly lovely fall here in Lamoille, one of the most beautiful in recent memory. I'm not sure why we got so lucky this year, but the leaves started turning up in the Rubies several weeks ago and are showing an absolutely wonderful propensity for hanging on. That may change at any moment, of course, depending on weather. Today's snowfall up there may well have sounded the death knell for Fall 2013. I hope not, but you never know.

I've been doing a little hiking recently, gearing up for ski season. There's nothing to get me out on the trails faster than fall temperatures, golden leaves and the sure knowledge that my primary ski partner is working his butt off getting in shape. If I don't want my ass handed to me even more so than is usual, it behooves me to get out there and walk uphill pretty regularly.

I hadn't been to the end of the Secret-Lamoille trail project since spring, and so decided yesterday to walk to the end of this year's construction and see how far they've gotten. The answer - not much farther than they were at the end of last construction season, but they're moving through rough country and are doing a decent job with it. They have a snowfence closure at 3.96 miles, and the roughed-in trail ends another .22 miles past that. Their closure was at 3.68 miles this spring.  There's a dead doe at the end of the roughed-in part who caught her foreleg in a pile of rocks and died of entrapment... let's hope she finishes decomposing before the city kids doing the trail work get back up there next spring. I didn't see a lot of point in stepping past her and enveloping myself in an aspen tangle bushwhack. I did that back when we did the NEPA survey for this trail, and that was plenty, thanks.

They'll be at approximately the half-way point in another half mile, as well as the most viable camping spot on the trail. That is a very sweet place to pitch a tent, with a drippy little spring nearby and endless Great Basin sunset views. The trail right now averages a 7% grade - aerobic but quite doable on a mountain bike and a whole lot more kind than the other hiking trails in the Rubies these days.

Right from the outset it's clear that this trail is getting regular use from hikers and mountain bikers, which made me happy to see. I've seen a lot of horse trailers parked up there this summer, too, which means the horsey set is out enjoying the new trail as well. Multiple-use... so nice to see everybody getting along.

They've gone back in and fixed a few old problems with the trail, although the switchbacks by and large still don't come close to meeting specs for a Class 2 equestrian trail (5' turning radius). It's a good thing there's no reason to take a pack string up there right now... that will change, though, when the trail gets to Talbot Creek. Personally, it doesn't make sense to me at all to build something wrong when you can build it right the first time, but so it goes. Based on what I'm seeing up there they have some folks on board now who have a clue, so hopefully they'll go back and bring those things up to spec down the road. We'll see.

The first few miles of the trail are settling in nicely, and weave in and out of some lovely drainages and through some beautiful little aspen groves during the initial climb. What a difference from when we had to bushwhack through that for the NEPA survey! So beautiful and such nice walking and riding right now.

The views out towards the Lamoille Valley are stunning, and they really give you an appreciation for the local ranching community. Without their passion and tenacity this whole area would be built up... covered with pavement and housing. Views like this one show the difference in our landscape the ranchers make, and I for one am very glad.

The portion of the trail that they worked on this year is a little rougher than what they finished previously, but based on what's been happening on the trail thus far I imagine they'll go back and polish it up a bit next summer. I was really glad to see that they fixed this asinine area... a couple of summers ago the brain surgeons running the show had the kids put in a couple of non- horse- or- bike- friendly stairs right here rather than taking the fairly obvious step of routing around. Fortunately, they went back in and fixed it and hopefully the screwed up part will fill back in sooner rather than later.

Some of the nice rock work on the new section... the rock work is worth taking time to examine all along the route.

Hopefully Ma Nature will give them a hand this winter, and break a little rock on this outcropping by freezing and thawing their drill holes.

All in all, it's a very enjoyable hike right now, as well as a great trip on a horse or MTB. Just remember to play well with others. I ran into a local rancher out walking up there a couple of days ago, and he commented on how much he was enjoying the trail. I did have to laugh to myself when he said it, remembering some of the comments from the yo-yos who so vehemently opposed the project. "It's ugly!" they said. "Nobody will ever use it!" They were wrong, and it gives me pleasure every time I'm up there and see all of those visitors' tracks.