Idaho? I kept mulling the idea over in my head. I had never been hiking there before; hell, I barely knew anything about the state except that they had real beer and a highway that led towards Yellowstone NP. My first trip through the state had come last summer on our way to the country’s original National Park, but now we were considering it for a backpacking destination. With snow still stacked 8 feet high in the Uintas, we needed an alternative. The desert was simply too hot despite the promise of cold streams and waterfalls, and essentially any destination at or around 10,000 feet was snowed in. So the idea of checking out Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest was suggested by Skip, and after a bit more mulling I was in.
We took off as early as we could, which translated to about 9am. A few hours later we crossed the border into the Gem State and kept on truckin’ through Idaho Falls. Within four hours we had arrived in Swan Valley, a lush hollow nestled between the Snake River and the respectable peaks of the river’s namesake mountain range. We whipped by small drinking outposts, stately log cabins and a couple of outfitters before finally arriving at the turn for Palisades Creek. The campground and trailhead both had a healthy amount of cars parked in them, and I started to get a bit worried that it might be too much for Janna Pup to handle. My trusty dog is a mix of German Shepherd and Border Collie; at five years young she’s as crazy as the day I found her at the animal shelter and sometimes her enthusiasm is a bit much for fellow hikers. I would be needing her leash for a lot of the hike.
We geared up and hit the trail. Within a mile we had already crossed two bridges that spanned the usually docile Palisades Creek. Flush with snowmelt, the creek was a raging river, spilling over its banks and turning the trail into a sloppy mess in many places. The sun was high overhead and temps were well into the 80s as we made our way through the rocky canyon. We passed many dayhikers on our way to Lower Palisades Lake, most of them college age or younger. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many BYU hats or shirts along a trail, not even in Utah. These folks sure love their Cougars! We arrived at Lower Palisades Lake just before 4pm. The lake is usually a haven for fly fishers and dayhikers, but now it was empty. Not a soul in sight. We paused only for a few moments before resuming our trek… we were eager to knock out the next three miles to Upper Palisades Lake, which was to be our home for the next two nights.
As we made our way around the lake, the scenery changed dramatically. No longer hemmed in by high canyon walls the views opened up with every step. Steep fields of wildflowers rose to our left; yellow, purple, blue, red- the hills were popping with color. Burned pine trees told tales of wildfires come and gone. A mile past the lower lake we arrived at an old emergency cabin. Skip investigated; inside was a bunk bed, potbelly stove and small table that had a few tin cans of “emergency chow” sitting on it. It was in shabby shape but could be considered four star to the right person. An inscription read “Respect this cabin because it could save someone’s life.” Indeed.
Soon we crossed the last and best constructed of the bridges- a sturdy steel monster that I can only assume was airlifted into place. Can’t imagine someone lugging all those steel beams all this way, even on horseback. The trail began to climb and the group began to tire. A lot of sweat and mosquito bites later and we finally topped out at Upper Palisades Lake. We had to hike damn near a full mile before finding the first (and possibly only) lake front campsite. It looked good enough so we dropped our packs and I took a celebratory shot of whiskey. Skip and I decided to venture a bit further down the trail to see if we were missing out on a really great camping spot, turns out we really did have the only spot on the trail. Seems like there should have been more camping available on such a popular lake, but I guess the Forest Service felt one was good enough. Soon we had camp set up and I decided it was time for a dip. The water felt good on my legs and I made the plunge. Holygoddamnshit that was some cold water! I took about two strokes before retreating to the shore and sunshine. I glanced at the snow covered slopes surrounding the lake and decided I shouldn’t have been surprised by the water’s icy temperature.
It was a relaxing evening of dinner, a couple cold beers and a nice campfire. Just before nightfall Skip managed to chuck the beer bag into the lake without clipping it to the length of rope. He stared at the sack and decided he was going to have to make the swim. I suggested that it would have been a shame to lug those beers 8 miles into the woods and not get to enjoy them, and with that he plunged in. I can’t imagine how cold it was, but he had to swim about 30 feet from shore to grab the bag… good on him! He emerged shivering but triumphant and dried himself by the fire. Some star watching capped off the night and I drifted off to a restful night’s sleep.
Day 2 had a short hike on the menu. We ate breakfast and geared up. The party was on the trail by 10am, and soon we discovered more camp sites. An old outhouse marked the end of the Palisades Lake Trail, and it forked to the Waterfall Canyon and Vacation Canyon trails. Just past the fork were several well appointed sites. Seemed strange that they were so far off the lake, but hey, at least they existed. We took the Waterfall Canyon trail and soon the woods became dense- far more dense than those in Utah. Shrubs, trees and flowers of every variety thrived here, it was outstanding to see such healthy and undisturbed land. Switchbacks led us up and up, and finally the land flattened out. We passed numerous unmarked ponds that were filled with snowmelt. The creek was raging and even obscured parts of the trail which made the hiking interesting. The sign has promised it was only a 1.5 mile trek to the waterfalls, but at this point we had been hiking for almost two hours and hadn’t arrived. We glanced at the map and decided they must be just ahead. We forged on.
Good thing we did, because just 10 minutes later we arrived at a large, open meadow. We could hear the roar of the falls before we spotted them. On one side of the meadow was a gently sloped path of water that culminated in a decent falls… and on the other side was a smaller waterway with a far more impressive finish: the water spilled off the lip of a cliff and plunged at least 50 feet to the rocks below. We decided to eat lunch near the latter. Some exploration revealed a massive snow bridge at the foot of the falls, and we dared not tempt the strength of it. Cool air blasted us from near the bridge- a natural air conditioner! We soaked up the beauty of Waterfall Canyon before heading back the way we came. The entire afternoon was ours- two men and two dogs, save for the mountain bikers we viewed from across one of the glacial ponds. It was refreshing to be able to come to such a “popular” area and still have it largely to ourselves.
Back in camp it was similar to the fist night. I dared to take another dip in the lake (which had risen almost a foot in 12 hours), and yes, the water was just as cold. We busied ourselves collecting firewood and making dinner. Skip snapped some photos of us enjoying beers around the fire while the dogs, worn out from the adventure, did their best to stand guard. I slept soundly under the Idaho stars.
The next morning we broke camp and busted our asses down the trail. Our bodies were worn but our packs were much lighter than on our hike in. Just before the lower lake Skip spotted a cow moose drinking from the stream. As we hiked around her, we saw that she had a newborn calf with her. Mother and her baby, enjoying a morning drink high in the mountains- scenes like that one are the reason I will always love coming out to the wild places. Whether it’s Idaho or elsewhere, there is unmatched splendor to be found out here: mountain lakes, the wild animals, or just an unobstructed view of the stars. My shoulders ached from the weight of my pack and miles we had traveled, but the simple pleasures we found along the trail were, as always, totally worth it.