Backpacking a Bighorn Lake Loop: Lily Lake, Lake Solitude and Misty Moon Lake, August 2018

Day 1

After a night camped at 9500ft in my truck I awoke to a very chilly morning and waited for the sun to peek over the peaks before I stirred from beneath my comforter and blankets. I turned the dogs loose and then we headed for the trail head at West Tensleep Lake.

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I filled out the wilderness permit and shoved it in the box and made use of the bathrooms before heading back to my truck to get a little more organized. I didn’t start the day well as I set my pack down on my big toe…this might not sound bad but my pack has an aluminum frame with a rounded corner…and that is what I set down on my toe. It was that nauseating kind of pain and I cussed up a storm…thankfully no one but my dogs could hear me.

With everything loaded we headed up the trail towards Helen Lake. For the first couple of miles the trail was fairly level and mostly dirt pack and we made good time. We had left the trailhead at 9am and the sun was already getting warm. Since we were not in any rush we paused often to eat a snack, get some water or take a picture…or five.

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The first couple of miles were a mixture of open meadows, creeks and pine groves. Soon the granite peaks began to grow around us and the trail, while still moderate, got a little rockier and a little steeper…but with the climb came the views. I stopped and talked with a couple from Illinois for a few minutes before heading on up the trail. We chatted about my experiences the Wind River Range from last year as they were heading there at the end of the week and I would be heading there in 10 days.

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By the time we got to Helen Lake we were ready for a nap and lunch. I was experimenting with some lunch choices and although I rarely carry canned food I had decided to try out Bumble Bee’s Chicken and Cracker snack box…it was actually not bad. I ended up with too much chipotle chicken and not enough crackers and ended up putting the chicken on my cheese too.

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The views from the south end of the lake were stunning and the breeze kept the flies and mosquitoes away (I had not brought any bug spray) and we spent 45 minutes in the sun napping and eating before finally making a move to cover the next 2.2 miles to the familiar-to-us Misty Moon Lake.

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The trail continued to climb and although it was now a little rockier it was never to the point of roughness like it was on the Uinta Highline Trail. First we passed Marion Lake and took in the views of Cloud Peak beyond before finally climbing up the saddle to look down at Misty Moon Lake.

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Misty Moon Lake (and the Fortress Lakes above it) are one of my favorite parts of the Bighorn Mountains and we took another break as I filled up with water so I could take in the majesty of the place. I was glad I would be coming back through on my way out. I let the dogs play in the lake while a very angry Marmot squeaked very noisily at us for half an hour.

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It was soon 2pm and we had a shortish climb ahead before finally going down again. The pass had no name but climbed up from Misty Moon Lake into the Middle Paint Rock Creek drainage. We could see for miles. It was now getting pretty hot beneath the glare of the sun and we took a couple of breaks on the way down when we could find the shade of a tree. Plenty of creeks, both seasonal and year-round, crossed our path and the dogs were able to cool off and drink without plundering my supply of filtered water.

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About half way down the valley I started to notice tire tracks. I thought I was seeing things but sure enough I saw more and then two parallel lines of flattened grass. I was PISSED. I was still in the wilderness where any kind of wheeled or motorized equipment is prohibited. This wasn’t just a non-motorized trail (although even the part of trail 120 outside of the wilderness was a non-motorized trail) this is a foot and stock trail only…and the more I saw the tracks the more mad I got…and they hadn’t even tried to stay on the dirt trail, they were all over the grass.

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I bypassed another hiker going up, just outside of the wilderness who had also noticed the tracks and then we moved on.  He had mentioned Lily Lake, my goal for the day, was only about another mile…and flat terrain for the most part. I saw some really destructive tracks just below the ATV trail where an ATV had torn through a delicate marsh area. People  make me so mad sometimes. Ugh

There were several groups camped next to Lily Lake, which could also be accessed by an ATV trail, and I stopped to talk to a family group of backpackers who had also seen the ATV tracks in the wilderness. Sadly they didn’t know who it was. They wanted to say hi to the dogs who obviously didn’t object and then we moved on. We passed another camping group just before the turn-off whose tires looked an awful lot like the ones I had seen in the wilderness. (I shall be reporting it to the authorities even if they can’t do anything about it).

I had decided to hike a little further so as to make tomorrow a more appropriate day and climbed up and away from the lake for a half hour. I started hearing voices and then the bellowing of cattle so I hoped the park I was hoping to camp in wasn’t full of cows.

After crossing first one creek then another I managed to get myself into a marshy spot and got my feet wet and a little muddy. There were no cattle but it was obvious that there had been a herd there recently and I was guessing that they had just been gathered and were in the process of being moved to a different pasture area.

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It took me a while to find a flat dry spot where the sun would also catch me early…helps to get up when it’s warmer…that also didn’t have a ton of cow pies. We eventually found a spot near the trees and I got my tent set up as the dogs ate and played.

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I had to walk a short way to get water but thankfully I didn’t have to go all the way back to the first creek although I did find a drier passage.

My campsite was now in shade so I grabbed the dogs’ bed (my sit pad) and went to cook and eat dinner in the sun where we tried to chill out for a while and enjoy the warmth. Unfortunately the biting flies were too much of a problem and we soon retired to the tent to hideout.

As I was in the middle of writing the coyotes started howling…one a little too close for comfort and made me jump. I yelled at it to move on and I heard no more. Coyotes don’t generally worry me but they have been known to attack dogs on occasion…they prefer to avoid people though, especially in the back country.

With dusk falling it was time to go to bed and enjoy the most recent and hopefully the last quilt replacement.

Day 2

I was expecting the sun to rise earlier than it did, and apparently I misjudged the direction I was facing so didn’t quite get the first rays of the early morning like I wanted. It soon rose above the tree tops though and I let the dogs out. It is always reassuring to hear the rough-housing and playing in the early morning as it tells me they are feeling good.

I slowly peeled myself out of my wonderful new sleeping quilt…I was toasty and warm all night and it was FINALLY a bag/quilt that fit me and was comfortable. With the sun now hitting the tent it began to warm up quickly and soon it was almost too hot as I packed things away slowly. I was in no hurry as this trip wasn’t supposed to be about miles.

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I finally crawled out of the tent and a flicker of movement caught my eye. Just down the valley was a herd of cow elk with their calves, many of who were frolicking and playing…it was very cute to watch. I heard one chirp to its mother before galloping off towards her. Slowly they moved up the valley as I watched and ate breakfast. The rustle of my tent and food bag alerted them to my presence but they didn’t seem too concerned as they climbed up the valley and disappeared into the trees and up the trail I had come down the day before.

With the elk now gone I finished packing up as the day got warmer…I was already in a t-shirt and it was before 8am. We hit the trail by 8:30am and immediately had a hard time finding the trail markers although that didn’t last long as we climbed a treed hump and entered Long Park. We traversed the grassy meadow that was now turning brown with August’s heat and the lack of rain and turned north on the next trail we met.

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The flies which had left us alone during the cooler early hours now started to harass once again and they steadily got worse and worse as the next few miles passed. They were swarming Kye and Cody who had dozens of flies covering their hind ends, and more haranguing their heads. It was worse when we stopped so the only breaks we took were short and not particularly restful.

We were due to meet with the Solitude Loop Trail which I had done two years ago. I would take it for a short way west before heading to Upper and Lower Paint Rock Lakes. However with the dogs looking miserable and being tortured so completely (they bothered me, and bit me, but no where near as much as the dogs) I made the decision to cut the hike a little short and instead of turning west at the trail junction I turned east towards Lake Solitude.

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After a quick break to stuff some candy in my mouth and a short steep climb above the creek the flies seemed to lessen slightly, especially when I killed at least a dozen of them buried into Cody’s fur. I had made the right decision. We covered the mile to the lake quickly and then followed the second mile around the lake to our campsite.

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While I could have rested for a while and potentially made the next 2.3 miles up to Misty Moon Lake to camp, where there had been no flies the day before, the sun was feeling pretty brutal and I knew the climb was pretty open and steep. I was also aware that the Misty Moon Lake area also has a wag-bag requirement and I have no desire to be packing out the poop.

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So even though it was barely noon I set up camp and had lunch. The flies were still irritating but just about tolerable…until they bit you. The dogs, still, had it worse.

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With lunch done we went to filter water and play in the lake. The dogs cooled off a little before we found some shade and spent most of the rest of the afternoon napping or taking pictures. The friendly neighborhood pikas were very accommodating in having their pictures taken although I’m not sure if it’s just because this one was young and curious.

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I ate a small dinner of instant mashed potatoes and melted cheese, which was quite good although way too much for me to eat and I sat deliberating my cold-meal options for the upcoming trip in the Wind River Range…I get a little tired of cooking and I’m rarely hungry enough to eat much.

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I had though about fishing once it cooled down but the wind just didn’t cooperate and was just a little too much from the wrong direction for my little 4-wt fly rod on a large lake. The fishing had looked amazing and the water was clear, cool and very deep. When the wind had finally settled it just felt too late to pull out my rod so I just sat and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains and threw a stick for the dogs for a while.

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With the sun gone it cooled down fast and we retreated to the tent with squirrels yelling at us from the nearby pine trees.

Day 3

I slept pretty good and my quilt was definitely a little too warm for the overnight temperatures. I waited until the sun was touching the lake before I let the dogs out and crawled out of my sleeping bag. It certainly wasn’t cold and I took my time packing up. No one in any of the other camps was stirring and I was on the trail before I saw anyone else get out of their tents…I have never been able to sleep like that on the trail.

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Just as I remembered the climb was a steep one up to the waterfall and then beyond. Most of the trail was was actually in shade except for a half mile stretch that followed a cliff towards the head of the valley where it crossed the creek. We took a quick break but the flies that had been absent for the first hour were now haunting us again. I am glad we didn’t push to get to Misty Moon Lake the day before as the flies were still bad up high.

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The views once you reach treeline on this section of trail are truly breathtaking and over all of it loomed the Bighorn’s highest peak, Cloud Peak at 13,171ft. There were many tents at the base of the Middle Rock Creek Falls which is where most people camp who want to make summit attempt.

With the flies being a constant nuisance we pushed on and finally crested the divide between the Middle Rock Creek drainage and the West Tensleep drainage, and arrived back to where we had been not two days before. The views continued to amaze me even though I had only just been there.

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Once we dropped down below Misty Moon Lake the flies seemed to virtually disappear. I am not sure on the reasoning why there would be such a difference in such a short distance. I was thankful they were gone and not bugging the dogs as it was hot and we needed to take a break so we chilled in the shade of a large pine tree for 20 minutes before moving on.

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It was 11am and it was already hot at 11,000ft so I could only imagine what it was like back in town. We took our time hiking back and stopped often for water. It is times like that I don’t envy the dogs’ mostly-black coats but I always make sure they don’t overheat or overdo it. Plenty of creeks crossed our path so the dogs got plenty of cold water to drink and I only had to filter and refill at Lake Helen.

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At the head of Lake Helen, barely a mile below Misty Moon Lake, a decent-sized bull moose wandered out of the trees 100 yards below us. He stared at us for a moment before wandering off into the trees…in the direction of the trail. That was not good; if there’s one animal other than a grizzly bear I don’t want to tangle with it’s a moose. Cautiously I continued along the trail making lots of noise and called out to the moose. I didn’t want to spook him and I kept my eyes peeled.

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The bane of the trail at this point was the dense pine brush that kept visibility to a minimum to either side and suddenly, to my left, behind a tree and not 20ft from the trail the moose spooked. Initially I didn’t know which way he was going and I was definitely jumpy that he’d come at me. Thankfully he headed into the trees, but still in the direction I was going. I continued on slowly, still making noise and still unsure where the moose had gone. I finally reached the end of the pine grove and saw the bull just off the trail, a little further than before and at a slightly safer distance from me.

My legs were shaking and my adrenaline was definitely pumping so as soon as I was a far enough from the trees I sat down for a few minutes to still my jelly legs. The dogs, who had been very interested in the moose, behaved impeccably during the entire ordeal.

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With my legs feeling more steady underneath me we continued on. I warned the next couple of backpacking or hiking groups I encountered about the moose and its proximity to the trail so they could be prepared and aware and no one would get hurt.

We passed multiple groups hiking up the trail including a couple on horses with a pack horse, and two gentlemen leading pack horses in a separate group. A few loose dogs were frustrating as always when not kept under control but none were aggressive and the most friendly of which Cody just wanted to hump.

Finally, at 2:30pm we got back to the trailhead and was surprised but pleased to see that a national forest ranger was sitting in the parking lot. I had hoped there might be one around but didn’t really expect it. I reported the ATV tracks in the wilderness and which party camped at Lilly Lake I suspected it had been due to the matching tire tread. The ranger appreciated the report and mentioned they had another ranger in that area whom she radioed to call in the report. All in all the timing worked out well.


While I was a little bummed to cut the trip short and missed out on some things I wouldn’t have had the moose experience if I hadn’t, nor would I likely have been in a place to report the illegal wilderness ATV use in such a timely manner and place. Sometimes things happen for a reason and the trip, while plagued by, well, a plague of flies, was still a good trip. Sadly it will also be my last backpacking trip in the Bighorn Mountains and that makes it a little bittersweet.

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