Johnson Creek Loop…or that’s what I’m calling it! And the Elk Lake Loop

Johnson Creek Loop

Day 1

I had grander ideas in mind than the trails would allow today.

Kye and I started out at Hunter Trailhead, but instead of heading into the wilderness we followed the road for a short way then turned onto a jeep track. We saw multiple riding groups from the Paradise Guest Ranch and they were all very friendly, although some of the horses weren’t completely sure about the pack I was carrying, and several of the riders complimented Kye as always. We followed one group at the turn off to trail 167 and hiked through a myriad of pine trees on an easy trail as it meandered through many blow-downs of pine trees. I tried to keep my distance from the horse group so as to not bother the horses too much…some horses don’t like backpacks.

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Looking east along French Creek; the trail went below the cliffs in the background

I caught up with the riding group at the bottom of the hill just after they crossed French Creek, a willow-bordered moderate creek with cold water. As always I looked for a way to rock hop across and didn’t have to look far. The horse group went one way, and we turned east following the valley downstream as we sung nursery rhymes to keep any bears aware of our presence. Apparently I need to learn some more songs!

After about a mile and a half a trail led north. It wasn’t marked and but it was in the right location according to the map. What I didn’t take into consideration were the maze of riding trails in the area that lead back to the ranch, and it was these trails that were clear and obvious…the one I wanted didn’t have a turn off and I bypassed it early on. A mile or more later I discovered my mistake and back-tracked and headed across country until I found a reasonable trail to follow in the right direction. Thank God for GPS again because even when I was on the supposed “right” trail it was pretty much non-existent. There were a few stretches where it could be seen, but many places were buried under fallen trees or completely grown over with low growing plants and grass.

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My only water source…kinda unpleasant!

We got to the destination creek, Johnson Creek, after spooking some antlered critters (I couldn’t tell if they were bucks or bulls) a little further east than I should have been. It was slow-flowing and didn’t look great, but I needed water and I needed to cook lunch which also required water. I filtered two liters and hiked up the valley, following a cattle path…yet another horrible, hard to follow route…to where the “trail” headed up to an ATV road from the marsh. I boiled water and “cooked” pasta and potatoes for lunch but didn’t heat quite enough water and some of the pasta was still slightly crunchy…I didn’t care, I was starving and my body needed some energy; it was 3pm already and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

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One of the many upland game birds that ALWAYS make me jump when they fly noisily out of their hiding places in the downed timber and low brush

It was due to the lack of trail and the amount of time it was taking me to get anywhere that I decided to change my plans slightly. Instead of aiming for Elk Lake, which was too far distant for the daylight and tired legs and frustrations, I decided to take a different trail, pick up some water at the South Fork of Sayles Creek and camp at a four-way trail crossroads near the boundary of the Bud Love Wildlife Habitat Management Unit.

The initial trail was great and easy to follow and hike but when I checked the GPS I was off-course…apparently! I backtracked to the point the trail was supposed to go but the trail was another one of those barely-there trails that must have been re-routed. I needed the water from the creek that the trail supposedly went by but I was seriously let down by the total lack of water…it was a seasonal flow higher up but this area was supposed to a continuous creek. I didn’t have enough water to camp where I’d planned and I was a little concerned. I looked at the map and figured I’d make a decision at the crossroads…there were options, but not good ones.

Somehow, as we climbed over and under trees, there was a little water in what was supposed to be a seasonal drainage. We disturbed a golden eagle drinking in the rocks but of course as soon as I went to pull my camera out it took off. The water didn’t look great but it was flowing and I had my filter. It was all I needed to see and I set up camp above the “creek” and below two beautiful rock formations, and surrounded by cow poop! I didn’t care.

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A pretty open and stunning campsite location; a little windy but it was stunning!

I ate jerky, cashews and cookies for dinner, fed Kye and then went to filter some water. I managed to get enough floaty-free water to mostly fill my water bottles and enough to get me to the faster and cleaner creek in the morning.

After pulling water from the creek (pre-filtering) we came up the hill and found a cow and calf glaring at my tent. Kye of course wanted to run them off and take care of cow-dog business but I didn’t think it was necessary and they eventually wandered off, down to the water below. I did not see them again.

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Who can stare the longest?

We sat outside, on the saddle between the two rock formations, enjoying the last warmth of the sun before it disappeared behind the trees as I filtered the water from the wannabe creek; it actually looked and tasted good once it was filtered. With the air temperature dropping without the sun it was time to put my jammies on, crawl into my sleeping bag and write the day’s journal.

Day’s Note: After some modifications to the lumbar area of my backpack at home (some faux sheepskin wheelchair-arm-covers, some velcro and part of a thin yoga mat) I have found it incredibly comfortable all day which is awesome. My legs, having had a two week hiatus from hiking, are not happy with the weight. I didn’t realize such a short break would make that much of a difference…wussy legs!

Day 2

I almost got ate by a bear this morning!!!

Actually, that’s not true. Something rattled and shook my tent at about 5am and I woke up abruptly, screaming at the critter to leave…or more screaming/roaring at it! Of course I had been dreaming about bears, but after yelling at the culprits and rattling my tent at them I heard pounding hooves take off in the darkness. I got out of my tent with my headlamp and saw three pairs of eyes looking back at me in the darkenss from the ridge beyond the icky drainage water. I am 99.9% certain they were cows, and not a bear sow with cubs, trying to figure out what strange construction was in their pasture.

I managed to sleep until 7am despite the adrenaline coursing through my system from the scare. The sun penetrated my tent from over the eastern plains and warmed the tent quickly. At that point there was no more sleeping and we got up.

If you know me by now, you know my normal morning routine and I need not repeat it yet again. The only thing new was the enjoyable Snickers bar for breakfast and the inaugral use of my new titanium cat-hole shovel, which worked fabulously…I won’t go into details!

After packing up camp we followed the trail south, crossing the nasty drainage “creek” and up and over a saddle in the trees into the Johnson Creek drainage. We spooked a herd of bull elk…yet another occasion I spooked wildlife but barely saw them. The hike through meadows and aspens was pretty and serene as we hiked down from the top and we passed a young man on horseback, with his dog. They were polite and courteous and we continued down the trail after they had gone on their way.

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The ONLY hoofed animal that allowed me to get a picture

From that point until French Creek the trail was a mix of pines and open meadows. The meadows were hot but a welcome reprieve from the closeted evergreens and often provided decent views…however, the trees provided shade from the ever-present sun that was beating down pretty intensely. We passed another couple of men on horseback, and one of the horses decided to crow-hop when he saw me…he eye-balled us big time and snorted a little as he went by.

We reached French Creek Cow Camp and took a break and ate a snack or two while relaxing in the shade of the quaking aspen trees. It didn’t last long (I never can sit still for long which is why I need a hiking partner) and we continue to follow the creek to where we had left it the day before (trail 106…the non-existent trail). We retraced our footsteps from this point, playing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack at a moderate level to keep bears aware of our presence, until we reach the creek crossing where trail 167 and 042 merged. Cows relaxed in the shade of many of the trees, rocks loomed over the valley and the brooks babbled incoherently as we took another break and filled up with water…our first since the icky water of the previous night.

Relaxing in the shade of the pine trees along French Creek I chugged almost a liter of water while I ate some lunch. Jerky, cashews and M&Ms were on the lunch menu, followed by a breakfast bar for dessert.

After about 30 minutes of rest and relaxation we hiked on, following French Creek for a short way before turning up a draw and over another saddle into an area inhabited by the saddle-horses of Paradise Guest Ranch. It was a beautiful scene seeing the horses in such an open meadow with the rugged peaks of the Cloud Peak Wilderness in the background.

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Paradise Guest Ranch

The trail mostly disappeared, but having checked Google Maps before I left I knew where the trail went through the fence/gate and out to the road. A few of the horses were intrigued by our presence but were more worried about eating and getting to water (a nasty “pond” they seemed to revel in).

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Ranch horses heading for a drink…and I thought they were coming to see me!

The ATV road seemed to go on forever. I was worried that the map was incorrect (again) and kept an eye on my GPS app. The biggest issue was that my GPS app (Earthmate for DeLorme) showed too many of the available trails this time and was of little help. I felt like I had been hiking for two miles on the track (it should have been one mile) when we finally came across the junction that split the road…one heading back to the car, and the other heading towards South Rock Creek and Soldier Park. I was relieved to see the sign but also had to resign myself to another 30 minutes of rocky, boring ATV-road hiking…not the most fun or the most scenic.

The only interesting thing along this stretch were the countless frogs in the wide fords crossing a couple of creeks.

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Around 2pm we arrived back at the car at Hunter Trailhead, used a real restroom and headed home to a beer or three. It wasn’t the greatest or prettiest weekend of hiking, and it didn’t go as planned, but a rough weekend hiking beats a day in the office any day of the week!


Elk Lake Loop

Day 1

With the weather looking pretty warm for the weekend I decided to try a shorter version of the hike I had intended to do two weeks ago.

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Kye and I started at Hunter Trailhead again, spooking a curious coyote, and retraced our footsteps for the first mile, crossing French Creek before turning left instead of right and following in the footsteps of the mile I hiked near Paradise Guest Ranch…this time, knowing where the gate was I made a direct line for it and found an easy trail to follow. Once through the gate we followed an ATV road down to the South Fork of Rock Creek before climbing gently out of the valley.

For once the trails had moderate inclines and weren’t too rocky. After Rock Creek there were no more views and we spent the rest of the day hiking through pines, aspens and undergrowth. The only wildlife we saw were the rear ends of some elk I spooked near a hunting camp.

As I hiked down towards the Middle Fork of Rock Creek a palomino horse was standing to the side of the trail, not tied and not with anyone. He or she (I forgot to look) had a bow scabbard on the saddle. He looked pretty happy to see me and followed me down the trail. I tried to get him to stay but he was having none of it, so I had another companion with me for a half mile or so. We got to the Middle Fork of Rock Creek and another horse whinied at us. I assumed they were together and sure enough I found the other half of a red lead rope on the ground. There was no one around, but a jacket had been left on a branch. I tied the horse with what was left of his lead rope, which was barely enough, and got back on the trail.

At this point my map and GPS didn’t agree with where the trail should be and it wasn’t marked (surprise!) so I actually went past it the first time until the other trail I was following petered out and I had to backtrack. Even following the trail, which went in the right direction and was well-worn, I couldn’t get my GPS position to admit that I was on the right trail…hmmm.  And there was snow!

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Snow, and one of the better parts of the steady and steep trail

The only opportunity for a picture across the plains was as we got towards Gem Lake…after a constant upward slog for several hours. I was making poor time as I was out of energy and needed to reach the lake to cook dinner. It was very picturesque. I had planned on getting water and hiking a little further on but I was spent so I made do with a narrow meadow over-looking the mountains and the lake.

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Cloud Peak Wilderness in the background, and Gem lake to the right

We set camp and took some photos as we listened to an elk bugling to the north of use. One elk appeared across the lake and I tried the elk bugle call on my phone, with no success. Dinner was hot and very welcome after such a tough day and hiking for close to 8 hours and with the sun setting Kye and I made a quick walk to the lake edge before crawling into bed to listen to the elk.

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Kye keeping me company while cooking dinner in the safety of a rock well

I was definitely hoping nothing would rattle my tent during the night. I didn’t bother even trying to set up my hammock which meant I was carrying that extra pound for no reason.

Day 2

Damn it was cold and windy last night. I wore three layers in my sleeping bag, mostly because I couldn’t be bothered to take them off and I was toasty in my sleeping bag. The only chill was the wind creeping under the doors of my tent. It was also the wind that kept rattling my tent that kept me awake for much of the night; I certainly wasn’t cold because of the outside temperatures. I even closed all four doors of the tent to keep the wind out, but it only did so much. I was surprised there was no condensation in the morning…I guess the wind was good for something!

I pulled all my clothes under the quilt before I changed and kept all layers on until I left camp. It was definitely a chilly morning and Kye’s water bowl had frozen. Learning from experience I had stored my water filter under my pillow and on top of my down-filled sleeping pad to keep it from freezing!

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Bundled up just after leaving Gem Lake

The morning sunrise was gorgeous over the peaks and Gem Lake, and I got to witness all of it since I was up before the sun. We took the trail south towards Elk Lake, through yet more trees before opening onto a mountain-side meadow and came across a small herd of cow elk up on the hillside.

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The watched me for a while and I was able to take a few pictures. The trail dumped us out above Elk Lake with the sun highlighting the peaks to the west. The previously mentioned elk herd was above us and was accompanied by a rather large bull elk. I tried to get pictures but they were quite a way from us.

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I crept quietly between pine groves to see if I could get a better picture or two but they disappeared into the trees. I pulled out my phone and played the one elk bugle call I have downloaded. The bull and I talked back and forth a couple of times before he disappeared over the hill, apparently bored with us. We saw no more elk.

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Elk Lake. The Solitude Trail led me on the far side of this lake the last time I was there

We hiked through trees and crossed creeks back towards Hunter Corrals, trying to hurry in order to make it back home in time to talk to my sister in
England before the end of the day. Trying to cover 10 miles in 4 hours was more than I was accustomed to and I spent a most of time tripping and cussing the roots and rocks in my path. We took no breaks coming down and my legs were like jelly by the time I reached the car; it didn’t help that I’d had very little sleep the night before and I was beat.

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Kye taking a break before the long march back to the car.

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