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.
What a weekend we had at Shorty Peak Lookout! Standing in solitude atop Shorty Peak in the Cabinet mountains of far northern Idaho, this primitive cabin is a special treat for those who have the gumption to reach it.
To begin, I’d like to stress that fire lookouts are a wonderful getaway, but are EXTREMELY hard to book. Six weeks after the booking window opened I was only able to reserve a mid-week stay at the tail end of the season – in fact, we were the last reservation of the year and were on our way out of the lookout when the Forest Service lockup crew arrived. So if you are planning on booking a lookout in 2019, be sure to be online at midnight on January 1st to get the days you want at the location you want!
That being said, it was an adventure as unforgettable as they come.
Day 1 – It began to rain as we suited up to hit the trail. Before we hit the quarter mile mark we had to stop three times and take refuge beneath the massive pines that stand tall and proud alongside the trail. They made for dry shelter while we waited for the worst of the storm to pass. After that it continued to sprinkle all the way to the lookout – and when I say ALL the way, I mean it in the nicest way possible. While the trek is relatively short at only 2.5 miles, it is a moderate one, and a long-winded journey with fully-loaded packs. Our stay would cover the better part of four days, so me with my 35lb pack and my husband with his 37lb pack, took almost 2 hours to reach the top. Although I do have asthma and require frequent stops to recover my breathing rate I still feel like we pushed through at a pretty good pace. Even hiking unburdened it takes over an hour to reach the top – but more on that later.
We reached the antique cabin by about 4pm, and while we brought two half-full bladders of water for the hike it wasn’t nearly enough to get us through the night, so we dumped our packs and headed back down the hill to the “spring” to pump water. I use that term loosely because while there was relatively fresh water to be had – barely more than a puddle – we were lucky it was there at all. Another hiker told us that some years it is completely dry, and while the USFS web page does mention either to A.) pack in your water or B.) bring equipment to purify, it does NOT in any way state that there’s a possibility of no water supply. That being said, I strongly suggest you make this determination prior to departure to avoid a hike back to the trail head to find another water source and haul 4 gallons of water back up to the peak.
By the time that was all said and done we were swiftly approaching the first sunset of our trip, shrouded unfortunately by thick, ominous-looking clouds rolling in from the west. We quickly changed out of our sopping wet clothes before retiring for what would be a minimally restful night.
On a side note, when Aaron attempted to hang a clothesline for our damp clothes he learned the hard way that there was a map hanging from the ceiling on a piece of painted particle board. Upon stretching the line tight it unlatched the map which swing down with incredible force and struck him straight between the eyes. He wrote a warning on the map but he suggested I mention it here just in case – it did leave a nice shiner and a pretty good ache on his forehead.
I snapped some pictures of the storm breaking just before dusk which was a surreal thing to watch. You could see the rain coming down in sheets starting half a mile a way, then creeping steadily toward the cabin with what seemed like alarming speed for weather. I’m sure the improved visibility made this seem more abrupt than it really was.
Luckily there wasn’t any thunder or lightning, so we didn’t have to get out of bed in the middle of the freezing night to stand on the glass-bottomed chairs that inhabit the cabin in case of a storm. It was a cold and windy night but we stayed relatively warm bundled up together in a double sleeping bag, and Cookie settled into her kids’ mummy bag nicely.
Day 2 – We awoke to the wonderful warmth of sunshine on our faces on the morning of the second day, and we probably would have done some exploring had our shoes dried out at all. After the rainy hike in our feet were swimming in their socks, and although we laid them out to dry overnight, none of the moisture had left them in the freezing temperatures. Aaron built a fire in one of the pits below the cabin in an effort to dry them out, and after a day of hard work, we came away with dry shoes and some toasted socks! Luckily he had a few pairs to spare.
Spending the day tied to the cabin (there was no way I was going hiking around in socks or bare feet in that weather – can you say frostbite?) gave me a great opportunity to photograph the interior of the lookout and get some fantastic photos of the panoramic views we came for. I had made the decision to leave my Canon at home this trip because with a four-day pack, our longest backpacking trip to date, I knew I’d need to cut ounces wherever I could, and given the quality of my cell phone camera and my Sony ActionCam, I decided the weight wasn’t worth the reward. Regardless I managed to capture some breathtaking shots with my Google Pixel phone camera and my ActionCam, a Sony product similar to a GoPro, although a much better product in my humble opinion.
The day indoors also allowed for me to lay out and photograph everything I like to take backpacking, which I will discuss in a later post. I am very particular about what I pack and I’d like to offer an in-depth explanation for other backpackers who have struggled with the ever-changing luxury-to-necessity ratio that plagued me as a novice packer.
The latter part of the day became overcast once more, and after some light showers we were able to enjoy not just one vibrant rainbow, but two! I managed to capture a panoramic shot of one before it faded into twilight and we retreated from the biting wind into the cabin for dinner and card games. That evening was slightly warmer on this night than the first, undoubtedly due to the sunshine that graced the tar roof of the lookout during the day. An overcast but colorful sunset closed out a relaxing day spent at the cabin in the clouds.
Day 3 – After breakfast and some knitting we set out for our only excursion away from the lookout – a hike back to the trailhead, over to Red Top Mountain Trail to find West Fork Cabin, a seasonal hunting cabin maintained by the Forest Service and open for public use.
The hike to the cabin was very relaxing compared to the hike up to the lookout, so it made for a nice, peaceful walk. We stopped to play in the creek before greeting the occupants of the cabin, a group of hunters, joined by a single traveler on vacation from city life on the East Coast.
I didn’t manage to get any pictures of the cabin so I’ve borrowed one from the Forest Service website.
The day was relatively uneventful until the hike back to the truck. On the return trip from West Fork we ran into a black bear! Luckily Cookie barking scared it off, but it was a close call nonetheless. We barely saw the tail end of it before it sprinted down the mountain, leaving us startled and wielding our bear spray. Surprisingly enough that was the only major wildlife we saw on the entire trip! It seemed like the entire area was devoid of any indigenous wildlife. I say that because there was a large number of cattle roaming the national Forest, but these obviously were working visitors.
After making it safely back to the truck we headed up Shorty Peak once more for our last night of relaxation at the lookout. This was the best sunset of the entire trip and it was absolutely breathtaking. It dawned upon me that I could take a video of the whole sunset, which was only about 30 minutes worth of film, and speed it up into a neat fast-motion video.
It also made for some fantastic pictures, the below one of my personal favorites.
It was this night that we decided to make a fire and try to roast marshmallows, but due to the high wind at that elevation the heat quickly blew off the fire and hardly made for a relaxing night. We were both bundled up next to the fire and were still cold!
Soon after our dessert the wind began to blow snow flurries at our faces, with no sign of letting up. We took the hint and headed inside.
Day 4 – Again we awoke to the sun shining but the last morning spent at the lookout was a somber one. I put our entry into the logbook, one of my favorite parts of staying at lookouts. I always love to read the stories of guests who come to the same place on vacation or as a tradition, returning year after year. We drug our feet at the prospect of leaving, stretching breakfast out as long as we could before packing up and tidying the cabin. One of the things I love most about my husband is that be likes to fix and improve things. He used a sharpie to label many of the more obscure items at the lookout, as well as tightening a screw or bolt here and there. I organized the pamphlets and games and swept before we locked her up, just in time for the Forest Service board-up crew to arrive for end-of-season closeout. We were the last guests to stay at Shorty Peak for the 2018 season!
The hike out was much less strenuous with most of our food and water used up, but was a good workout anyway. Hiking downhill with a pack is always hard on the thighs and calves! It was a beautiful day to hit the trail for the pack out, sunny and clear and with the wind at a comfortable bellow.
I am torn on whether or not I would return to Shorty Peak. On one hand, the experience was unforgettable. We had a wonderful time and made some great memories this trip. But given the number of lookouts in Idaho, I think I’ll be trying a few others before I consider returning here. Here’s why:
The wind was so cold. I think even in summer it would make the nights too brisk for comfort. And I’m not sure I’d want to pack up there in summer because there aren’t any bodies of water close to this lookout for swimming. We always like to be able to swim if we backpack in the hotter months. Aside from the chill, it made it difficult to have a fire.
There wasn’t a ton of stuff to do. Once you reach the lookout, that’s pretty much it. There aren’t any major hikes to be taken from the lookout, which for the day-hike kinda people (like us), requires hiking back down to the truck to take a day trip, which makes it almost not worth it. If you plan on staying put for a few days to relax, this is a great trip for you. Those who have children or who are high activity/adventure-seekers, find a lookout that’s on a major trail system. This is not the place for you!
There was next to no wildlife. Aside from some chipmunks and a pair of grouse, there wasn’t as much as a songbird as far as the eye could see – and that’s for miles! We like to spot mammals and birds as well as fish when we can find them, so this was disappointing.
It was a tough trek. We don’t normally attempt difficult hikes with fully loaded packs, and this being our most extended trip to date, I think if I was to return here I would take a shorter trip to lessen the load on our backs. Even the trip down was a fair workout.
All in all, Shorty Peak was a rewarding experience like no other. I’m so glad to have taken my husband here for his first lookout experience. it definitely did not disappoint!
My husband and I have both been working full time (plus overtime) as well as traveling to central Idaho on the weekends to help my parents renovate their second home, so in lieu of a normal update I’d like to share a few photos of our adventures where the land meets the sky.
The house is situated on 10 oblong acres above the Clearwater river in an area that residents are proud to call “almost heaven,” and the expansive views, tranquil silence and 360-degree mile-long views are a testament to its title.
Aaron and I have really enjoyed spending our weekends here with my parents. One of the only downsides of our relocation to Idaho is that we’re further away from family than ever before, so the opportunity to work, share meals, and visit with them again has been more than welcome.
Being our first wedding anniversary that Aaron hasn’t been working out of town as well as our first holiday as residents of Idaho, I knew I wanted this Valentine’s Day to be special. While we visited Coeur d’Alene over the New Year we unfortunately missed the opportunity to take the famed Eagle Cruise, a birdwatching cruise hosted by CDA Resort during the winter migration of Bald Eagles through Northern Idaho. But the resort didn’t let me down this time!
We boarded a double-decker ferry at the Resort docks, were seated at a table for two, clothed in white and set with champagne glasses, and patiently waited for our voyage to begin. The decor, the drinks, the food, and even the lighting was perfectly romantic! And running only $50 a person, a three-course dinner with complimentary toast aboard a ferry boat on the beautiful lake was an experience worth paying for. We enjoyed a good quality buffet-style meal and subsequently enjoyed our glasses of bubbly on deck, admiring the view from the top level and marveling at the engines through viewing windows on the bottom level. The staff was even kind enough to snap a photo of us on the bow of the “Kootenai” as she gracefully glided back to port.
Alas, I couldn’t let the night get away without a good story! As we took the photo together standing at the front of the boat, what you can’t see is the giant mountain of hard-packed snow that we’re standing on! We walk on snow all day long now that we live in Idaho, but what I didn’t think about while we were traipsing around the freezing deck was that my high heels had felt pads on the soles, which promptly froze solid after stepping off of Glacier Mountain to return to the heated dining room.
While I thought I’d wiped my shoes thoroughly on the door mat, we quickly discovered I was oh so very wrong. The second my feet hit the polished wood floor of the main hall I went into an instant (and incredibly unrefined) moonwalk across the entryway, As I slid from toe to toe for about ten feet I heard the whole room suck in their breath and wait for me to fall – but my loving and ever-attentive husband grasped my elbow and held me steady until we made it to our table, where I was able to pick the ice off the bottom of my shoes as I reveled in the safety and security of my bottom in my chair!
I also managed to make three dozen cake truffles and took them to work. Needless to say they were gone before the day was over!
After many car troubles, potty breaks, and general FUBAR’s, we have finally made it to our new home! I start work Monday and Aaron is set to begin his new job at a moment’s notice. I’m sure the next few months will be nothing but hard work (unpacking, settling in, etc.) but I am so glad to be out of California it’s unreal! Idaho is affordable, quiet, friendly, and absolutely gorgeous. As I’m writing this I’m propped against the kitchen counter watching the midnight snow falling on the quiet neighborhood street. Over the top of our neighbors’ houses I can see what would appear to be a greenbelt but it in fact is national forest that stretches all the way to Montana. Such beauty and tranquility has me absolutely buzzing with excitement at what adventures our new home state will hold for us!
Aaron and I are relocating from northern California to the great state of Idaho. We’re not sure where exactly yet, but we know we no longer wish to reside in Redding, or anywhere else in California. After everything we’ve been subjected to in this state (skyrocketing crime, a broken penal system, financial hardship, among other things) we’ve decided there is no reason not to relocate now, when we don’t have anything preventing us from doing so. Because we are leaving my entire family behind, it was an incredibly hard decision to make, but we feel it’s what is best for us and our future as a couple and future family.
That being said, we could not have had more fun in the Gem State. Boise was quirky and hip; from there we traveled through forest after forest, only stopping for good food and the occasional excursion to stretch our legs. We left pins in Riggins, Lewiston, Lake Cascade, and St. Maries before finally driving up the east lide of Lake Coeur d’Alene, our predicted landing spot. We spend almost a week in the “City on the Lake,” met with a wonderfully warm community, boundless opportunities for recreation, a thriving job market, and affordable living costs. This is exactly why we came here, we decided. This is what we were looking for and it’s what we found easily throughout most of the state, although CDA was our definite favorite town, not in the least for its resemblance to Lake Tahoe, a magical and meaningful place for my husband and I.
So we’ve returned to Redding with a renewed thrill for what the future holds for us, and an overwhelming sense of wanderlust. We cannot wait to get out of Commie-fornia and begin this new chapter in our lives. The next step is to take another trip upstate to secure housing, and then it’s all moving from there!