I recently spent a few nights in the Sawtooth Mountains, about a three-hour drive from home. Elizabeth Lake, destination for my first hike, lies barely five miles from a trailhead that begins in a lovely pine forest and leads into Elk Meadow, a broad, grassy expanse that has caught my fancy for years as I drove past its northern edge on my way to Stanley, Idaho.
My guidebook ranked this 9.8 mile excursion as “difficult.” I assumed it garnered this lofty rating from the last mile and a half that climbs 1,150 feet. Fall seemed the perfect time to explore this area, as the meadow would be drier and less mosquitoey than earlier in the season.
As a training run for a trip to Yosemite next month, I strapped on my fully loaded pack. My book, The Day Hiker’s Guide to Stanley Idaho, by Scott Marchant, warned:
Crossing Elk Meadow, where the trail is overgrown and nonexistent in some sections, can be a challenge. Fortunately, the Forest Service has placed a couple of signs in the meadow to help with navigation.
Heck, I can navigate my way through a meadow for Pete’s sake. No problem, I thought. I arrived at a junction, mentioned in the book, and crossed a small stream.
The trail disappears for about 20 yards into the boggy section of the meadow. The water is usually about a foot deep, so have an extra pair of shoes or prepare for wet boots.
Ach, this time of year, I bet I can hazard this in my boots, I thought.
After crossing this area, come immediately to the crossing of Elk Creek; it may be up to your knees, depending upon snowmelt. After crossing the creek, a signed junction 1.4 miles from the trailhead points to the lower Elk Meadow and the upper Elk Meadow. Although this junction is signed, it is almost comical because there is little sign of a trail. This is where the trail can get tricky. The grass may obscure any note of a trail…
Up to my knees in summer, probably to my ankles in fall, I thought.
I followed a well used trail for about 10 yards. It began to get boggy, very boggy. The trail splintered into several faint slices through the thick grass. I learned that it was easier to step on the untracked grass as it elevated me out of the bog ever so slightly. I saw some posts in the distance and I mucked my way to them, assuming the Forest Service sign would be there. What I found was some sort of fenced plant habitat test site. No signs. No more tracks in the grass. Hmmm. Well, nothing ventured . . .
I headed in the direction I supposed would lead me to Elizabeth Lake, pressing through thigh-high, crackling-dry, meadow grass, sprouting from a bog that covered the tops of my boots with each sucking step. Ah, here’s Elk Creek. Screwing up my nerve, I splash-hopped across the creek in two quick steps. The water came to mid-calf. Moisture sloshed in my boots now. May as well keep going.
But then, there was another creek, and another, and another. Elk Creek dreads its way across the meadow. I never saw any Forest Service signs. I saw multiple old posts that might once have been signs. There were game trails crisscrossing and circling each other. I finally reached the far side of the meadow where the forest begins again. I walked up and down this meadow/forest convergence, crossing countless streams and rivulets, in search of the trail that enters the forest and leads to the lake.
After stumbling through this mess for over an hour, I capitulated and began the complicated return slog till I finally reached firm ground where I’d left it, and trudged back through the forest to my car, squishing with each step.
To add insult to injury, the next day I headed off for Marshall Lake; 9.6 miles; difficult. Based on the instructions in the book, it looked cut and dried. Easy peasy, except, of course for that darned 1,850 foot elevation gain. So, I stupidly left the book in the car and started trekking through beautiful aspens, rising above morning fog to the looming peaks above. I was getting close to the proper mileage when I saw a well-used path veering to the right, in the direction of the lake. That’s gotta be it! I congratulated myself on not missing the turn.
I clambered up an incredibly steep meadow (which I remembered reading about) and kept going until my trail became a goat trail and my nerve evaporated.
About five minutes after turning around, I encountered a young climber who enthusiastically asked? “Did you summit?”
I laughed. “ME? The last thing I want to do is summit. I just want to find Marshall Lake!” He whipped out his cell phone, swiped and scrunched, looked up and said, “Oh, it’s over that way, one more drainage over. But heck, you’ve already got the worst part of the elevation knocked out. You may as well summit.”
I thanked him and continued down the mountain. Defeated once again.
Have you ever completely missed your destination?
Note: I have no complaints with Marchant’s book. I’m only disappointed in my own poor route-finding skills.