Non-Wilderness Offers Solitude And Cleared Trails
The “Smokies” were definitely smoky for our first backpacking visit in September sometime in the late 1980s.
A wildfire in the Sawtooth Mountains to the northeast provided hazy skies for the whole trip. It was also very dry. Besides smoky skies I recall dry Apollo Basin, recently hammered by a band of sheep, and motorcycles passing us on dusty Big Smoky Creek Trail (as we were heading west for a large loop).
We found a very different place during 2022 revisit after a rainy spring. No dust, clear skies or showers, and mostly good trails already cleared of logs even in an area recently burned. It was reminiscent of hikes prior to big fires that have burned most Western mountains since 2000 (often leaving down logs, washed out creeks, and heavy vegetation regrowth).
Since Smokies are non-wilderness, motorcyclists apparently clear trails with chainsaws, banned in national forest wilderness by the Forest Service. Agency only allows handsaws which require more labor and skill; consequently many trails in nearby Sawtooth and Challis wilderness areas have not been cleared for years after fires.
The June trek was planned to go from the outskirts of Hailey to Prairie Lakes but was aborted at Apollo Creek due to late spring snow on passes. We resumed it together in July after snow melted. Most trails were good but skittery Idaho Batholith soils were slippery on steeper stretches. All but half mile of entire trek was cleared of logs from recent fire-killed trees.
Both parts of trek were graced with lavish fields of floral splendor, solitude except near popular trailheads, and stretches of excellent trails—many shared with motorcycles and mountain bikes.
Northwest from Hailey
David started the trip in June off Broadford Road between Hailey and Bellevue as a solo trek. Since I was recovering from knee replacement surgery and not yet ready for backpacking, I dropped him off at a gated road just after a Wood River crossing. He had previously found the property manager and obtained permission to cross. Tromping through tall grass wet from the previous night’s rain in his gaiters, he was happy to find a bridge crossing a canal on the boundary of private land.
He followed bright green grassy Star Gulch on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and private lands through fields of larkspur, penstemon and lupine, connecting to Colorado Gulch and Croy roads. A BLM ATV (all-terrain vehicle) playground allowed him to circumvent private neighborhoods to connect with Bullion Gulch Road, passing remnants of Bullion, a mining town of 700 residents in its heyday.
For the next two days, David followed ridges and creeks of the lower Smokies on roads and motorcycle trails. Although the area had burned in recent Beaver Creek and Castle Rock Fires, all trails were cleared of fallen logs, either by trail crews or trail users with chainsaws. All had bridges across the creeks—until Meadow Creek with five crossings and no bridges. David donned sandals, then added some rocks to hop across Warm Springs Creek.
He saw a few signs of people; one sheep camp and dog walker the first day, two motorcyclists and two mountain bikers on the second day, one motorcyclist and one car on the third, a father and son on the fourth by Baker Peak.
A half mile stretch of Castle Creek Trail to a pass near Baker Peak was the only uncleared section of the whole hike. Coming down to Baker Creek was snowy.
After camping near the road, David hiked up to half-frozen Baker Lake. On the next pass, slushy new snow on hardpack was slidy even with snowshoes. He saw tracks from weekend skiers.
In snowy Apollo Basin, David decided to abort the trip, rather than cross three more snowy passes before Prairie Lakes. Using inReach satellite phone, he texted me for a ride and dropped down the Apollo Creek trail. We met on Baker Creek Road a few hours later.
Prairie Lake Loop
By mid-July the Smoky Mountains were melted off, and David wanted to complete the trek. We planned to hike from Prairie Lakes to Apollo Basin, covering the section he omitted. We would return to Prairie Creek Trailhead by looping on a connecting trail to Miner Lake.
We started on a stormy morning that cleared by midday. We met a backpacker at Mill Lake trail junction, then three separate day hikers. A gung-ho couple with two small kids tag-teamed us to Prairie Lakes where David fished, and I tried to find a warm spot in shifting sunlight.
Enroute to Prairie we had passed through fields of Indian paintbrush, lavender and blue penstemon, yellow balsam root and while alpine fleeceflower. Above the lake, snow was gone from the steep trail to a pass. It next contoured above a basin, crossed a drainage, then climbed sharply to the ridge. I quailed at slidy rocks and left my pack for David, pulling myself up low-growing subalpine fir instead of slippery trail. After skimming above Royal Gorge, the thin trail contoured on other side of ridge above Norton Creek through more fields of arrowleaf balsamroot.
I was glad to rejoin the Baker-Norton motorcycle trail at the next junction. The sketchy route from Prairie was rightly marked “hiking only.” We crossed three more small passes and descended to Apollo Basin, bright green instead of snowy. The creek was dry; a quarter-mile winding down Apollo Creek Trail, we found it running again. We camped at a horse camp with picnic table David found on his June trek; I wore my “gnat hat” to fend off aggressive mosquitos.
Instead of returning to Prairie Lake, I suggested taking Prairie-Norton motorcycle trail and climbing Norton Lakes basin over a pass to Miner Lake, a partial loop. My real motive was avoiding the slidy route back to Prairie Lakes.
We first took a brief day hike down Royal Gorge Trail which I think we hiked to Smoky Creek on our first 1980s hike. We did not go far enough to see the gorge or the creek. Trail was slick from motorcycle use. Luckily Prairie-Norton was mellow so less slipping. The canyon slopes were walls of yellow balsamroot. We also saw more penstemon, paintbrush, and lupine.
Norton Lakes trailhead was packed with vehicles and we met most of the occupants coming down from a day hike; many with dogs. Perhaps mostly local residents, as Norton Lakes is one of the closest lake basin trails from the Wood River Valley.
We had Lower Norton Lake to ourselves. I saw a trail on the far side of the lake and thought it might go to Big Lost Lake shown on my map in an adjacent trailless basin. No time to check it out (but we returned in October and did that loop, discovering an old trail washed out in some sections but accessing Lost and Smoky lakes then descending to Norton Creek; see red GPS track on map below).
One backpacker was camped at Upper Norton. He reported good fishing; two big cutthroats cruising the lake backed his claim. His friendly border collie brought David a stick which he threw in the lake, grieving the water aversive dog. We climbed a narrow switchback trail to the 9,999-foot pass. A snowdrift on top worried me but the trail went around it with long (snow free) switchbacks to Miner Lake.
The granitic Idaho Batholith soil was like tiny buckshot underfoot; the well-engineered trail was very slick! It took me ages to creep down to the lake where we found a Douglas fir grove. David set up the tent and began fishing. A couple showed up, eyed our tent, and disappeared around the lake to another site. No luck fishing and we thought wistfully of the big fish in Upper Norton.
We had begun the trip in a morning thunderstorm and ended it the same way. Rain caught me on way down from Miner and I donned rain gear. It was sunny by the time we met the Prairie Creek Trail. Passing a big meadow, I saw a couple packing up a tent while a large dog waited.
Crossing the creek, we met a local nanny with kids and doggy-care clients. At the trailhead, the meadow campers overtook us. They were camping their way from Colorado. Also joining us were two bow hunters scouting for mountain goat up West Prairie Creek. They reported a big elk herd and a billy goat. No doubt they would be back!
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)