Looking down on Misty Moon Lake
The Solitude Loop Trail is a 55+ mile trail that circumnavigates around the Cloud Peak Wilderness of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. It can be accessed from several trailheads within the Bighorn National Forest; the easiest to access from the highway is Hunter Trailhead off Highway 16 west of Buffalo, while the closest trailhead to the Solitude Trail is at Coffeen Park at the end of a 7 mile high-clearance road.
Day 1: Coffeen Park Trailhead to Camp 1 near Granite Lake
Today began leaving the house just after 7 am and stopping briefly in Sheridan for some breakfast to get me through the morning. The drive up Red Grade was uneventful and we finally turned off towards Park Reservoir. It was a 7 mile rough dirt road to Coffeen Park where the trailhead is. Cody and I got organized (he ate a can of Vienna sausages),added our Wilderness permit to the box, put on our packs and started hiking.
The trail started out very easy through a green tunnel of pine trees. We were very lucky to spook a couple of moose within the first few hundred yards and they took off across the creek. Less than half a mile later we came face to face with another young moose who turned around and headed back up the trail. Not long after we saw a large pine martin. Unfortunately, all of these animals disappeared into the trees too fast for me to get a picture.
We passed several other groups hiking down on our way to Geneva Lake, a beautiful long lake set below immense granite cliffs. The trail was generally easy with a few rocky sections, but it was simple to navigate and well signposted…for a change. An unchallenging trail was nice for the amount of weight I was carrying and my back and shoulders were definitely feeling it, especially without it being adjusted perfectly. It was at Geneva Lake we stopped for lunch and to take a 45 minute nap before continuing on and following the east bank of the lake for a half mile. At the end of the lake the trail got a lot steeper and rockier and disappeared into the trees.
Looking down on Lake Geneva from the steep trail up to Crystal Lake
We hiked up and up switch backs, watching the clouds come over the sheer cliffs to the west and hoping it wouldn’t rain. It drizzled a little when we crossed a creek that fed into Crystal Lake where we stopped to refill with water and take another break before attempting Geneva Pass.
At the creek Cody discovered a porcupine. I didn’t realize what he had flushed initially and was glad I never let my dogs chase stuff…a face full of quills would have put a swift end to our trip. I did manage to get a couple of photos, but the porcupine was pretty shy.
The shy porcupine hidden in the brush as I balanced precariously on a rock in the middle of the creek to get a picture
We continued climbing for a while until we were dumped into the lush meadow below Geneva Pass. It was beautiful with a small creek and towering pinnacles to each side. It was easy crossing the meadow but the hike up to the pass was particularly rough and rocky with hundreds of loose stones. A stream flowed from a waterfall and meandered through grass and careened over boulders before disappearing down a ravine and into Crystal Lake below.
The meadow below Geneva Pass, with Geneva Pass in the background
Looking back down the path to the meadow
From the top of Geneva Pass
We finally reached the pass with a stiff wind ahead of us and some seriously dark and forbidding clouds to the south-west…promising rain. The view from the top of the pass, however, looking both ways was stunning but pictures will never be able to capture the grandeur of the peaks.
We hurried down the valley, hoping to avoid the rain and praying it wouldn’t thunder while we were so exposed and high up. The rain did start briefly and we ducked under a tree to wait it out while I pulled my poncho out of my pack to protect us if it got torrential, but it the only thing I needed it for was protection from the cold wind.
Looking down the south side of Geneva Pass with the incoming rain clouds
Finally the sun came out and we ate some snacks before packing everything away and proceeding. The hike down the valley was just as gorgeous as the hike up and the bald granite mountains made me feel pretty small. Cirques had been carved into the rocks high above and we passed the turn off for the Cliff Lake Loop. I didn’t take it, although I’m sure it would have been a gorgeous side trip.
We took another break at 4pm for 30 minutes for a quick nap and then we hiked on. After only 10 minutes back on the trail it started descending back into the trees so I made the decision to backtrack 100 yards and find a place in the open and airy valley, surrounded by boulders and pine trees and grass. As usual it took me a while to find a flat spot for the tent, and of course after the tent was up I realized, as always, that it wasn’t in a flat spot.
Camp 1 near Granite Lake
Dying light over the mountains
I cooked a dinner of rice and pasta on my little alcohol stove, fed Cody and hung my food bag. I actually managed to find a decent branch and get the rock over it the first try…I must be getting better. I had discovered at this point that the heavier the rock, the easier it is to get the bag over the higher branches.
There were no biting flies this time like on my trek over Walker Prairie and Horseshoe Mountain, and there had been a fairly consistent breeze. There were a few mosquitoes, but nothing the breeze couldn’t handle…or me killing them!
Sadly the breeze died down just as it was time for mosquitoes to come out, and while waiting for what I was hoping would be a beautiful sunset. It wasn’t, but the dying sun and dark clouds over the eastern peaks created beautiful lighting. It was also during this time that I heard a female elk bark and we crept to where I thought they were. There was a small herd of about ten cows and a couple of calves eating and drinking in the meadow just beside us. They continued to bark and grunt for a couple of hours, well past the time I went to bed at 8:30.
I got a decent amount of sleep but not great, which is typical for the first night out.
Day 2: Camp 1 near Granite Lake to Camp 2 at Lake Solitude
Woke up this morning around 5:45 to the irritating “caw caw” call of a crow or two. I dozed fitfully for a while and made it to 6:45 before I actually crawled out of my sleeping bag and got dressed. It was chilly as the sun was still hidden behind some ominous looking clouds. The sky was leaden as I retrieved my food bag and ate breakfast. I started packing everything away as a few rain drops fell. I stuffed my backpack quickly as I rolled up my tent…more rain drops. Looking at the sky I debated leaving my poncho within easy access but decided against it. By 8am we were packed up and heading down the trail just as the thunder was rumbling over the peaks to the east. Black clouds shrouded the granite, merging together like Thor and Atlas (yes, I know, two different mythologies).
We didn’t get far before I had a major mishap crossing North Paint Rock Creek. I’m not sure if I tripped, slipped or if a rock rolled but I fell…hard. Now, my trekking poles have saved me from many hard falls on multiple occasions, but this time they were the cause of my injury. I planted mouth first onto the head of one of my trekking poles and one of my teeth ripped a rather large and bloody gash inside of my lip (don’t look at the pictures if you are squeamish), and put a hole in the cap of my pole. My mouth was numb for a while but the pain and shock caught up with me quickly and I had to sit down along side the creek as I was feeling a tad bit nauseous. I took that time to filter some water as I recovered.
After about twenty minutes I felt okay to continue, drank some water (which stung) and headed down the valley, which was gorgeous and was mostly grassy open meadows, and followed a very fishable creek…I looked in one pool and saw two or three 8-10″ trout.
We finally reached Teepee Pole Flats and the junction to go to Poacher Lake, which was the way we were to take. The trails in the wilderness have all been well marked so far but I have been curious about where each one leads so I stopped and pulled out the map to take a look what trail we were merging with.
Teepee Pole Flats and the junction with trail 059
We crossed the creek…again…and started hiking up a rather rough and rocky trail which, similar to others I have done, never seemed to end even through it was only supposed to be just over a mile from the junction to Poacher Lake. It felt further.
We paused at Poacher Lake for lunch and I was disappointed. We had just finished our water and I was hoping to refill, but the edge of the lake was really hard to access and very marshy from the east side. It would have been possible to walk around but I knew, from the map, that there was a creek only another half mile further on, and a pretty easy hike downhill.
Cody looking less-than-impressed for some reason
At the unnamed creek, with an incredible view of the peaks to the east and marshes below, we refilled with water and took a nap…or at least I did; Cody kept watch.
Nap time…and yes, I love my shoes, gaiters and suitably-ugly hiking pants
Another climb over a low saddle dropped us into the Paint Rock Creek valley and we got our first glimpse of where we would be climbing the next day. It looked impossible from our vantage point. The climb down was treacherous for a short stretch and reminded me of Wolf Creek Trail, except it was shorter and the footing was slightly better. The trail dumped us out on the banks of Paint Rock Creek, and try as I might I could not find a way to cross by rock hopping. This was our first wading creek of the trip so far and I had a hard time getting Cody to cross the deeper water. There were rocks he could manage (I just couldn’t do it with a backpack) but I had to walk a short way up the stream to show him. He eventually figured it out and we again refilled with water before the mile to Lake Solitude.
This squirrel was completely unphased by us watching him eat not 10ft off the trail
The initial climb away from the creek was steep and slightly rocky but easy to follow as there were many foot prints, although I had seen no one since Circle Lake the day before. We rested a couple of times as my new pack as been causing me some of the same issues as my Arc Haul, as well as some new ones (so at least I know it’s not the pack, it’s me), and we were pushing ourselves the last couple of miles.
One of the many great fishing spots
We reached Lake Solitude and were met by a very friendly white labradoodle. At least he was friendly! The one thing I can’t abide on trails is people not keeping their dogs under control. While this dog was friendly and Cody seemed to like him/her, there’s always a chance that something not so genial could happen.
First view of Lake Solitude
The labradoodle belonged to a group of young men with horses who had paused at the beginning of the lake. They also had a blue heeler with them who didn’t seem impressed with Cody…but he pretty much ignored her and we kept going. I had planned to pause for another rest at that spot but with only another mile of fairly flat, decent trail to go before my chosen campsite I delayed delaying and kept going. I was definitely hurting, but not enough to stop.
Trail built on broken boulders…and Cody with his very fashionable pack
The east end of Lake Solitude. My campsite would be to the very left of the picture.
Lake Solitude, looking from the east end
We reached the eastern end of the lake and grabbed a snack of M&Ms before crossing the creek. Of course we managed to spook a cow moose who eyed us very warily. She was very close and I hurried to get across the creek. Of course nothing is ever simple when you are in a hurry and the creek was impassable with shoes on. I hurriedly pulled off shoes and socks and gaiters and waded the creek quickly, not even stopping to put shoes or socks or gaiters back on when we reached the other side.
A large meadow, used extensively by horsemen, provided ample camping opportunities. It was way too early but I was spent and we found a previously used flat spot (actually flat for a change) and put the tent up amid some major blustery wind which continued well into the evening. I fed Cody and gave him the last of the water while keeping an eye on the creek to see if the cow moose would show herself for a photo…she didn’t. That’s four moose now I’d seen and not one picture to show for it.
With the wild wind I decided not to cook and ate tomorrow’s lunch instead along with a couple of extra snacks I hadn’t eaten. I decided I would eat dinner for lunch the next day when I could find a more convenient and less breezy (ie safe) spot to cook. As I was eating a couple of other backpackers arrived from the other direction and their dog decided to be their welcome party as he bounded into my camp. Cody liked him and wanted to play…again, not impressed with people allowing their dogs to run wild.
I filtered water from the lake and then washed my socks (not IN the lake; Leave No Trace principles), leaving them on a rock by my tent to dry. I hoped the wind wouldn’t blow them away and made sure to bring them under the tent awning before bed.
I did not hang my food bag today for two reasons…one, no suitable trees this high up, and two, the chipmunks are more of a worry here than bears. Hoping I don’t get eaten tonight!
We watched sun disappear behind the cliffs of the lake and then crawled into the tent to escape the wind which blew insanely hard for two minutes…it almost felt like the tent was going to blow away with me in it. I hoped everything would still be there in the morning. Also went inside to write the day’s journal before dark.
The cliffs on the far side of the lake looked stunning in the fading light…unfortunately we lost the sun ourselves and that meant it was getting to be time to crawl into bed, even with it still being daylight out.
Unfortunately it seems that even up here in the wilderness you can end up with some noisy neighbors. They were across the valley from our campsite, but I could still here them…inconsiderate poofballs!!!
Day 3: Camp 2 at Lake Solitude to Camp 3 near Trail Park
Woke about 6am after a fairly restful night. The noisy neighbors didn’t stay noisy and the only thing that woke me was Cody constantly moving himself under the floor of the tent…don’t ask! I think he is probably getting cold, but he’d be cold inside the tent or out since there is only mesh separating us. It would help if he stayed sleeping on the insulated sleeping pad I always bring for the dogs.
I was out of my sleeping bag a little before 7am and watched the sun hit the highest points on the south side of Lake Solitude…it was really beautiful. It also got colder as the sun pushed the colder air down into the valley. I was glad to see that I had camped far enough away from the lake that I didn’t have a condensation problem.
I followed the normal morning routine in packing up, and thankfully my food bag is starting to feel lighter. That’s a good thing since my pack is not so comfortable.
From Lake Solitude we hiked up another crazy steep and rocky hill and through some pine and aspen groves until we crossed a bridge below a waterfall. I believe this is one of the few permitted structures in the wilderness. We continued climbing…and climbing…and climbing and crossed a hump that put us back in the Paint Rock Creek valley. The walls of the canyon were steep, shear and overly impressive. I’m not sure whether I stopped more to catch my breath or to look at the view. Mostly the trail was open but occasionally ducked into stands of trees, depending on the terrain.
Waterfall of unknown name or origin
Only bridge in the wilderness (that I know of)
Looking back at Lake Solitude from the high trail along Paint Rock Creek
The trail dropped down slightly (ugh) to cross Paint Rock Creek before rising sharply again (yes, more climbing) to parallel the creek on the southern bank. Eventually it levelled out slightly and rose out of the trees to Moor-like tundra and rocky outcroppings. From this point on until I reach Misty Moon lake I stopped so often I was barely hiking…there was just too much view to take in.
Had to keep stopping to look at the views…I’m not smiling because my lip hurt and was puffy!
We rounded a bend high above the valley floor and saw some rock climbers and then a small tent village. It was at the base of a waterfall and it is my belief that this is where most people camp who are summitting Cloud Peak. It reminded me of the videos and images I have seen of Mt Everest base camp.
Cloud Peak summitters base camp…you can just make out a few tents below the boulders
A lazy marmot who just wanted his picture taken…he didn’t move even when we got really close. I think he was enjoying the sun.
There were many more tents around Misty Moon Lake, which was as picturesque as it sounds, although busier than you would think for somewhere you can only hike or ride to. We climbed down a small slope to the edge of the lake and found the perfect spot to cook lunch. I am very careful with open flames anywhere in the forest, and even more so when fires are such a risk. It was an open dirt area that looked like it had probably been full of water when the snow melted but had since dried out. It was perfect for a safe cooking spot, and protected from the wind. Pasta with enchilada-soup sauce was on the menu today and it turned out really well. It was very satisfying and I have decided that it is actually better to cook lunch than dinner. I rarely want to cook at night and a bigger meal in the middle of the day when I am actually hungry gives me a good boost for the rest of the day. It also forces me to take a good long break half way through the day which I often have a hard time doing.
Misty Moon Lake, and where we also ate lunch
After refilling on water we circumnavigated the lake while taking the usual obligatory pictures and then started the climb towards Florence Pass, the first step of which was up a steep ravine in which flowed the creek that fed Misty Moon Lake. I ran into a horse rider just before the top and we talked for a short while…she warned me how pretty it was.
The horse lady was right…it took my breath away. Granite walls rose straight out of the valley like fortress walls (hence the name of the lakes) and turquoise-blue lakes rippled like eyes, something living in the face of the mountain. If I thought I had stopped a lot before it was nothing compared to this valley…two steps stop, three steps stop. I took so many pictures but nothing could capture the grandeur and majesty of such a place…I just wanted to keep absorbing it all as much as I could.
The first of the Fortress Lakes
Another boulder trail and looking back on the second and third of the Fortress Lakes
From Fortress Lakes we continued hiking up the valley until we had to cross a talus field where it was obvious someone had put a lot of work into making a path through the boulders. It was an artform in itself. There had been a short one yesterday as I had followed the bank of Lake Solitude, but nothing on this scale.
At the top, which I didn’t realize was the top without a sign, was Florence Pass and it looked down on Florence Lake, another blue-green lake encompassed by yet more steep slopes of granite boulders and cliffs with just one tiny cornice of snow still hanging on high above. We paused for a break at the lake’s outlet and looked at the memorial plaque for the bomber plane that had crashed into the mountain above us. It was renamed Bomber Mountain in honor of the men who died there.
Below Florence Lake lay a mile or so of boulder fields. The book had warned horse riders that this was a trail not suitable for novice riders or inexperienced horses. After hiking down it and wondering who on earth ever though it would be a good idea to build a “trail” from Medicine Cabin Park to Florence Pass I came to the conclusion that only the most experienced riders and most sure-footed horses should ever attempt such a trail…and only going up.
The trail was built almost entirely on boulders
Yes, there is a trail there somewhere
The hike down was slow and it was definitely hard on the feet, but we made it while taking our time being careful…one bad move would send you down to a very ugly grave. I really still can’t fathom how much work it must have taken to put in the usable trail as it is now…so much work and dedication.
At the bottom of the Stone Giant marble-alley (Hobbit reference) we reached the green meadows of Medicine Cabin Park. I had planned on pausing for a while to kill time but the black clouds behind us had us scurrying quickly down the trail to avoid the rain. For about a mile we stayed in the open meadows and then the trail took us back into the trees where we pretty much stayed for the rest of the day, except for a few view-points of waterfalls and two creek crossings, both of which forced me to remove my shoes. This water was quite a lot colder than the crossing of Paint Rock Creek…no idea why except maybe that Lake Solitude is 2000 ft lower that the source of this creek (Florence Lake) and thus warmer.
Finally the end of the boulder trail; looking back up the pass
Looking down at Medicine Cabin Park
We got caught in a short rain shower after the second creek crossing as I was trying to put my shoes back on and we ducked under some thick-branched pine-tree limbs. It didn’t last long and I looked at the map while we were waiting. It was about another mile to the last water before tomorrow’s hike over Ant Hill and to Elk Lake so we planned to stop there and find a dry campsite.
We found a secluded campsite on a grassy knoll just off the trail and with views up the canyon we had just come down not too long ago. We put the tent up and I bent more tent pegs (I already bent one the first night but had a spare). Sometimes the most level place to put a tent doesn’t have the greatest soil. The tent pegs still work though.
With the tent up, sleeping pad aired up (for now) and sleeping bag re-lofting I fed Cody and ate dinner then returned to the creek for water. I was beginning to wish we’d stayed in some of the flatter spots nearer the creek, but since it was prime moose habitat I didn’t want to get stepped on during the night. We took 3 liters from the creek so I wouldn’t have to go back in the morning if I decided I needed more for yet another steep climb first thing. We lugged the heavy weight back to camp and chilled out for a while as I cautiously watched the sky for rain. Two thunderstorms skipped by us with barely a drop of rain, one to the west and one just barely to the east of us. We were lucky. I had already thrown everything in the tent and was ready to dive in myself, with Cody, if the rain hit.
I remained cautious and decided to wait out the rain in the tent and write since there was so much to record about today. It was the one part of the trip I had been looking forward to most and it certainly didn’t disappoint in any way. Every hard step was completely worth it and I hope the pictures can show at least a little of what I was seeing.
We also, finally, got a beautiful mountain sunset…the first of the trip.
Day 4: Camp 3 near Trail Park to Hunter Trailhead
It was cold last night…so cold that I had to put my down jacket on inside my sleeping bag, and despite having the tent doors open there was condensation inside the tent and my sleeping bag was thoroughly damp from head to toe.
I was awoken by a very angry squirrel outside my tent this morning…it was only 6am! How inconsiderate of him to be yelling in the tree next to my tent at such an early hour. It was a good thing we got up when we did for the frigid temperatures last night had frozen the water in Cody’s water bowl. The sucky thing about that is that my water filter should never be allowed to freeze, and this meant an emergency message sent from my DeLorme InReach satellite messenger to have my parents meet me at the nearest trailhead. I had to replace it, unfortunately, and that meant a 6 mile hike out.
The best thing about the morning, despite the chilly temperatures and potentially frozen water filter, was the moose cow and calf that wandered into camp around 7:30. They trotted off into the trees before I could grab my camera but I stalked them to the far side of the clearing and managed to get a few shots before I let them be….finally some pictures of moose!
The hike to Hunter Trailhead was long and boring, being mostly on rough ATV trails which are never fun to hike. I swear it was divine intervention that the filter was at risk of freezing last night as the day brought rain, thunderstorms and more rain. It would have been miserable hiking. On top of that both my sleeping bag and tent were wet, Cody was looking stiff and a little sore first thing and my sleeping pad was losing air over night, and I was glad of the opportunity to switch packs.
A brief reprieve meant a shower, a chance to wash clothes, eat some good food and drink a couple of beers…as well as the trip to Walmart to get a new filter. I will be dropped back at the trailhead tomorrow to continue my hike on the Solitude Trail.
Day 5: Hunter Trailhead to Camp 4 at Willow Park Reservoir
The parents dropped me back at Hunter Trailhead at 9:45 with my other pack, a different dog and a new sleeping pad. I still hadn’t decided exactly which route I was going to take…stick to the Solitude Trail as a purist and hike the extra 6.2 miles back to where I left it, or take a slightly shorter (by 4 miles) non-Solitude Trail route. I hiked a short 2.5 mile trail to Soldier Park where I made my decision; I would regret it if I didn’t hike the whole loop. It was also here that I paid my respects at the graves of the two soldiers buried there, and for which the park is named.
With my fate decided we hiked the last 3.5 miles back to the junction of trails 038 (the Solitude Trail) and 024 and started the hike up the Ant Hill trail portion of the loop. As with most of the trails encountered so far it was steep and rocky but we made good time for the first section which was well marked trail through pine trees and some meadows. Once the trail crossed South Rock Creek it became very faint and often non-existent, relying on the presence of cairns to show the way. Unfortunately the cairns led straight up the side of the mountain; after having done 6.2 miles I hadn’t planned on it was tougher than I cared for, and after I reached one cairn I thought was the top there was another, higher up and further on…that happened more than I care to think about. Once Kye and I finally reach the real top we took a break…or at least I did. Kye was way too interested in the marmots to take a nap or rest.
Back at Trail Park and the view up to Florence Pass
At the top of Ant Hill
Kye watching marmots at the top of Ant Hill, plus the top-most cairn
The way down wasn’t much easier than the way up since there was no trail, but the north side of the pass was rougher and rockier although at least we had gravity on our side this time. The trail led back into pine trees and boulder fields as we cut down towards Elk Lake. It was here where I finally got a picture of one of the elusive pika that live in similar rocky areas to marmots.
The elusive (at least for pictures as we saw quite a few) Pika
I spooked some elk (I had my music playing quietly to makes bears aware of my presence) but still managed to get a couple of pictures before they completely disappeared.
We circumnavigated the lake and lost the faint trail a few times. I knew where we supposed to go so wasn’t worried about the lack of cairns or signs. I had planned on camping at Elk Lake but thought it was a little early so looked at the map and decided to get water and camp a little further on…big mistake! I met a nice Hutterite (I think) couple on horses, who had spooked a cow moose and her calf just in front of me, and they asked me about camping at the lake and if there was an easier trail to Hunter Trailhead than the one they had had come up on from the Bud Love WMA.
Spooked cow moose and calf
After explaining the trail from Elk Lake to Hunter via Triangle Park I was looked for the trail to Gem Lake…it wasn’t signed so I never found it and ended up hiking to the ATV trail and the next creek crossing. Of course, from that point on there were no suitable places to camp in the dense forest and we just had to keep hiking. I made use of my GPS map and satellite tracker and was glad to see we were only 1.5 miles from Willow Park Reservoir which is where we stopped for the night…after 7pm. I did see a bald eagle fly just over the lake within minutes of our arrival which was pretty neat…no pictures though.
I got the tent up, fed Kye and hung the bear bag. I wasn’t even hungry enough to eat anything and I was exhausted, and with the rain that had been threatening all day starting to get more serious it was time to crawl into my sleeping bag at 8:30, write the day’s journal and listen to all the creatures making noises outside the tent…including a screech owl (I think) and a deer (I hope). I made sure to have my bear spray close by and easy to grab. No food or smells in the tent except me and the dog, but being alone spooks me with the bears…probably more likely to get stepped on by the deer than anything else.
Day 6: Camp 4 at Willow Park Reservoir to Camp 5 at Highland Park
Not a great start to the day…it rained most of the night, off and on, so both the inside AND the outside of the tent were wet with no chance of the sun helping out for a few more hours due to the trees and the clouds. I carry a half of a small Tek Towel by Sea to Summit for just such an occasion and got the tent dry enough to pack away.
The morning routing was normal except I didn’t get up at the normal time and I refused to get out of my sleeping bag until almost 8!
The bald eagle showed up again this morning as I was cutting crossing country at the head of the reservoir.
The lack of a good start continued when I couldn’t find the trail leading away from the reservoir…in fact, nothing was signed at all. Checking the GPS it said I had passed it…NOPE. Where the trail was supposed to be there was nothing…not even the faint hint of a trail left behind. That was frustrating so I kept walking back along the road to look for trail 118 which went via Beaver Lakes but wasn’t actually part of the Solitude Trail, just a more scenic route. I couldn’t find that trail either and ended up back where I started by the bridge over the creek. I sat down and almost cried…the two routes to Highland Park, and thus back to the car in Coffeen Park, just didn’t seem to exist.
I got up and crossed back along the head of the resevoir to where my GPS said the trail should be. I made a risky decision to try and bushwhack along the route and see if there was a remnant of a trail. Thankfully there was but somehow I ended up off course (too many deer trails) and found myself wondering how good an idea it had been. I retraced my steps to a decent path and followed the direction my GPS told me I should be heading…it turned out that track was actually the trail I needed to be on, even though it was rough and unused. Many downed trees had to be navigated over, under or around during the descent to the creek. And there was another challenge…crossing not just one, but three creeks. The first was easy with a sandy bottom and the second was more like an irrigation ditch, but the third was tougher. I gauged the speed and depth of the water and decided it was too deep and fast for Kye to carry her pack across so I removed it and carried it for her. She struggled a little with the crossing but managed it without incident after a little encouragement. The whole ordeal left us exhausted, tired and frustrated, but we did it and I was proud of myself for not giving up and going back like I almost had several times. (It should be noted that the book does not list this as the correct route for the Solitude Trail even though it is listed as such on the map; it takes the hiker/rider around via ATV roads and then a pack trail).
We found a spot to sit and put shoes back on and were finally reacquainted with a proper ATV trail. Except this one didn’t look like it had been an ATV trail for a year or two…I’m guessing that’s why the other cut-across trail was closed also. At least it was a worn trail with no trees to climb over and easy to find. We followed it all the way to Kearny Lake Reservoir. It was a pretty tedious and boring hiking through never-ending pine trees and no views. The only exciting things in three miles were the waterfall and the three cow elk I spooked out of the river just above it.
Waterfall on Kearny Creek.
Kearny Lake Reservoir was nothing special and in fact I barely saw it, just as I topped the dam and then followed the road away again; you couldn’t even access it for water. I hiked on and climbed one of the steepest hills yet, all to get to Lake Winnie and a water supply since I was out. With all the frustration earlier in the day I hadn’t been drinking much and was a little dehydrated.
It was still early and the mosquitoes were bad so I made the decision to push on for Highland Park and a dry camp. Those two full liter bottles of water were heavy! I also knew that it would have to last for a few miles out of camp in the morning since the map showed no creeks for a while.
The hike up to Highland Park looked steep on the map but wasn’t as bad as I expected, mainly due to the fact that I was trying to kill time and not get to camp too early. I hate sitting around for hours with nothing to do but stare at the sky or the view.
Looking back on Lake Winnie (left) as we hiked up to Highland Park
First view of Highland Park with Black Tooth Mtn and Mt Woolsey in the background
Some of the best views were to be had from Highland Park as the trail dumps you just below Black Tooth Mountain and Mt. Woolsey…a very spectacular last campsite for the trip. I’m glad it was a good one.
Day 7: Camp 5 at Highland Park to Coffeen Park Trailhead
It was pretty cold last night…or at least I started out that way and I put my down jacket on under my sleeping bag and pulled my Buff over my beanie to cover my ears and my neck. I stayed warm after that and woke up so toasty I didn’t want to crawl out of my sleeping bag into the chilly morning air. I watched the early morning sun touch the peaks of Black Tooth Peak and Mt. Wolsey through the door of my tent…it was definitely a good way to start the day, and a much better beginning than the one I had yesterday.
After the normal morning routine I packed up quickly and looked at the map to gauge how long it would take me to cover the remaining distance back to Coffeen Park. I figured it would take about 5 hours to cover the distance, which would put me back at the car around noon.
I left camp at 7:15 and hiked to the top of the ridge overlooking Highland Park, and the valley of the East Fork of Little Goose Creek, scattered with boulders and pine trees to the north. The hike down was fairly easy and we crossed the seasonal trickle that was the beginning of the East Fork of Little Goose Creek where I made sure Kye got some water. I hadn’t planned on there being water available in this creek as the map had suggested it wasn’t always flowing, and being a dry year I wasn’t relying on it. With only a liter of water left from yesterday I was glad to make use of the water available for Kye.
From the creek we hiked back up towards another ridge, through the pines with only an occasional view of the pine-clad hills in the valley. It wasn’t the most scenic stretch of the trail, but it was short and soon took me back into boulder-fields and grass meadows which then led me over the second ridge of the day. The view to the north and east was expansive and I could make out the line in the trees and fields that was FSR 26, aka Red Grade. It looked so far away.
The trail remained at a similar elevation for a couple of miles, following cairns from point to point before dropping down into the trees again. The grade was pleasant and the rocks weren’t too irritating (for a change). We ran into a group of four women backpackers who were on their way up to spend a few days at Highland Lake, above Highland Park. We chatted for a few minutes while they were resting before Kye and I continued down the mountain.
As we hiked I started to feel as though the trail was taking us in the wrong direction so I pulled the map out to check. It wasn’t particularly informative at the time as I had no reference point to go by, but since there had been no other trails joining the one I was on I had to trust that I was going the right way.
The trail dropped me out at the head of Bighorn Reservoir…not where the map said I should be coming out at, although the sign at the junction of the trail and the ATV road said “038 Solitude Trail”. I traversed Cross Creek barefoot since there was no way to safely boulder-hop and filled up with water on the far side. I was half a mile too far north on FSR 625 and questioned an ATV rider as he went by. He said he was heading towards Cross Creek Reservoir but had never seen a trail sign off that road before; that was not information I wanted to hear.
Bighorn Reservoir and Cross Creek
We hiked half a mile up 625 and found where the Solitude Trail originally joined FS 625, coming in from the east, but the trail leaving the road and heading west did not seem to exist. Both the map and my GPS agreed on the point it SHOULD have been, but there wasn’t even the hint of a trail there. I knew there was supposed to be a well-worn trail crossing the ridges between me and Coffeen Park as I had passed the junction of the two trails the day I had started, on my way up to Lake Geneva.
I steeled myself to having to hike across country again and kept my GPS on, checking it every few minutes to gauge my location in relation to the “trail”. We went straight up a ridiculous incline littered with boulders, downed trees and shrubbery. It wasn’t impossible, but it was difficult. At the top, stepping over, around and under trees and “hiking” for a short distance we finally found the actual trail coming from the north-east. I was interested to know where it had started and how we had missed it. I was sure there had been no signage anywhere we had walked along FS 625, and I had been looking pretty intently even at the start of the road; of course I have been known to be blind on occasion. I couldn’t locate it on Google Maps when I got home either.
Now back on the proper trail the hiking was much easier but remained within the trees. With the last ridge climbed and crossed the trail meandered steeply down…and down and down and down. I was glad I hadn’t started the trip going this way as it would have been a little disheartening to climb such a steep hill for so long and with no views. I did note that the trail I was on didn’t line up with the one on my GPS, and my location was nowhere near the trail on the map or Earthmate App for the GPS. If my GPS location was wrong, it would have been a first as I had been consistently checking its accuracy.
Two hours later than expected we finally reconnected with the Geneva Pass Trail I had started out on, and I did a little dance and “whooped” a little as I celebrated completing the Solitude Loop Trail, (plus 14.5 extra miles hiking out to and back in from Hunter Trailhead, and the mile in and out to Coffeen Park Trailhead). It was a proud moment as I finished one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
Yes, I am kissing the sign…I was so relieved to see it and to have completed the trail
All done! Just have to take 592 a mile back to the car.
Kye getting her moment of glory too
We hiked the last mile back to the car and of course I hadn’t taken the key out of my toiletries bag and put it in my belt pouch like I had planned to, and it was buried half way down in my pack. Oops!
After I got the car open I gave Kye a treat of a whole can of Vienna sausages, which she wolfed down pretty fast. I loaded everything into the backseat and headed back to civilization, not really ready for such an epic trip to be over.