First off: I didn’t know how many Crystal Lakes there were in the PNW until I tried to Google our destination just south of Cataldo, ID. If you instead search for Crystal Lake Wilderness Study Area you’ll get a better idea of where you’re going.
This was the first backpacking trip Aaron & I took in Idaho, as well as our first solo backpacking trip (usually we go with family) so to say we were excited would be an understatement. Having been cautioned about the bears in north country we decided to venture southeast for our excursion and were not disappointed by the location. You can reach the Sheep Springs trailhead from either Cataldo or St. Maries, but our house is a short jaunt on the I-90 from Cataldo, so making the drive from the north side was easier for us. From the highway you’ll travel south for a few miles before the pavement turns to winding dirt access roads. It’s not a terrible drive so I wouldn’t say that a 4WD vehicle is required. It was mostly flat, graveled and well-maintained with no downfall blocking the road in early August.
With temperatures in the 80’s during the day, the hike was warm but not unbearable (especially considering our history of summer backpacking in Northern California, the land of ungodly temperatures). The terrain varied quite a bit, so the short hike was very interesting. Nearly the entire trail switches back and forth along a prominent ridge, which makes for lovely scenery, and the landscape ranged from dense forest to shale quarry. About a quarter mile into the hike we realized we had forgotten our dinner in the ice chest in the truck, so Aaron dropped his pack, hiked back to get it and ended up running into a large bull moose! Thankfully he made it back with our dinner intact and we continued on our trek.
Upon our arrival to the modest 5-acre lake we were immediately disappointed to see other campers before we even laid eyes on the crystal clear water. We are typically the type of people who backpack to get away from civilization, so a crowded camp is always a slight nuisance to us, personally. Regardless it ended up being a fun trip, even with the dozens of day hikers and other campers trailing the edge of the lake like human ants.
Anyhow, the first couple of hours were really pleasant – we pitched camp and settled in to cook one of the best backpacking dinners we’ve had to date – two wonderfully rare steaks cooked over the campfire paired with mashed potatoes, coffee and tea.
After this lovely meal we attempted to wash our dishes with a package of Coleman camp soap sheets we purchased, and this was one of the things that nearly ruined our trip. They don’t work AT ALL. Not on dishes, hair, body, or clothes. I wouldn’t even wash my dog with that stuff, so FYI: don’t buy it.
On the second day we took a trip to Reed’s Baldy, a short uphill hike from the lake to a great overlook and a surprise patriotic monument. There was no marker of any kind but it made for a memorable day! The feeling of accomplishment after finishing the hike was compounded with pride upon seeing a pretty sizable American flag blowing atop the peak in quiet solitude. ‘Merica!
Aaron got to do some fishing and through some (highly amusing) experimentation discovered that dragonflies make the best bait for the elusive trout that inhabit alpine lakes.
After a lot of hard work gathering up grasshoppers, crickets and even a cicada, he gave up on these unsuccessful baits, wielded his fishing pole in what struck me as a ninja-like fashion and proceeded to swat the dragonflies right out of the air! It paid off, because he hooked a nice 12″ trout which he immediately released.
What ended up being the big kicker for this trip was that even in August, the hottest month of the year in our part of the state, it was so cold at night that even with freezing-weather rated bags we got next to no restful sleep. The first night wasn’t so awful that my extremities were cold. But the second night I literally chattered my teeth till morning and even then didn’t emerge from my hammock until I’d had enough sun to warm my fingers and toes fully. Aaron had gotten up in the middle of the night, built a fire and fallen asleep propped up on a rock in front of the fire pit.
Needless to say it was quite an adventure but not a place we’ll be revisiting anytime soon.