Just One More Ridgeline
This week we are prepping to take our first backpacking trip of the year into the Sawtooth National Forest. Yes, we are late getting up into the mountains this year, but that’s life!
Our first extended backpacking trip last summer with family and friends was breathtaking, and immediately had us hooked. That said, it was excruciating.
For those of you who are not familiar with southern Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest: the lakes are pristine and the forest is beautiful, but the mountains and trails will make sure you’ve earned it.
Established in 1905, the Sawtooth range covers over 750,000 acres of forest and wilderness area and includes hundreds of lakes and streams for a lifetime of fruitful exploration (USDA Forest Service, 2018). Needless to say, ever since we moved to southern Idaho we have wanted to explore these mountains and fisheries. Last summer, we got a chance to start our adventures.
Hell Roaring Lake
Hell Roaring Lake is located in the Stanley, Red Fish Lake region of the Sawtooths and sits at an elevation of 7,440 (SawtoothTrails, 2018). To get to the trail head, you have to be willing to drive over a pretty rough road with basketball sized rocks in some places, so make sure to bring a vehicle you’re willing to take off-roading. Thankfully, we built Zeus for these hard-to-get-to trail heads.
Once we reached the trail head there wasn’t much room to park. The trail is open to trekking goats and horses, so there were at least two trailers parked in the already crowded lot. We ended up parking in the only available spot left before shouldering our packs.
Because the sun was going down, we only planned to hike the five miles into the Hell Roaring campgrounds at the main lake. We would continue our trek to Upper Hell Roaring and the Finger of Fate lakes the next day.
In late summer the trail is dusty and a gradual up-hill grade the entire way. The Outdoor Project boasts that the hike is mostly flat and boring. However, we found that it was mostly shaded and a good warm-up for the more strenuous hiking we would be doing later in the weekend. Like anything, you can only gather so much information before actually seeing for yourself.
There is one well-established bridge at the Hell Roaring creek crossing, and the trail is clearly marked by signage. Hell Roaring creek, is a beautiful ribbon of crystal water and colorful rocks that we discovered holds shy but eager rainbows willing to eat a fly.
We made it to our camp on the south side of the lake as the sky began to darken, and were happy to see that there were people, but the sites weren’t over-crowded like we had feared. There are several campsites, but they are spread out enough to give you the sense of seclusion even if most of the sites are occupied. The lake itself was heavily timbered at the outlet feeding into the creek, but most of the water is a pristine, clear blue-green. Most of the fish caught out of the main lake are rainbow as the lake has been stocked with the species since the late 90’s. However, the Upper Hell Roaring and Finger of Fate lakes have been historically stocked with cutthroat off-and-on since the late 80’s. That little piece of information from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is what inspired us to explore the upper and lesser-traveled lakes.
Upper Hell Roaring
There’s not much information about the trail to Upper Hell Roaring and the Finger of Fate lakes. At least, we didn’t find much when we were researching besides climbing posts. But if you’re willing to follow the foot path up the side of a very steep mountain, through slippery switchbacks, and sometimes vertical climbs, you’ll be rewarded.
Does anyone else think the Finger of Fate looks a lot like God’s Thumb from the movie Holes?
Anyway, the view at Upper Hell Roaring is stunning and the camp sites are hardly used. If you do decide to take the vertical trek up the mountain, make sure to bring good gear, shoes, water filters, and enough food to stay a few nights. You won’t want to leave.
We didn’t run into a single person at Upper Hell Roaring or the Finger of Fate lakes the entire two days we camped. We did, however, catch plenty of the cutthroat we had been searching for.
The first night we explored Upper Hell Roaring, fished, and found a rather relaxing table-rock to have dinner on. Judging from the elevation at our first camp, the climb it took to get to the upper lake, and the elevation of the Finger of Fate itself, the upper lake probably sits at around 8,000 feet. Which gives us a good point of reference for the Finger of Fate lakes we explored next.
There isn’t a distinct trail that leads up to the Finger of Fate lakes, but you can pick out a general foot path where other hikers have taken to the base of the rock-face to begin their climb up the granite wall. The hike up to the Finger of Fate lakes is basically climbing over boulders the size of houses depending on the route you take, but it is well worth the view. After the third false-summit though…we started to question if these lakes actually existed. At least, hiking buddy and adventure enthusiast, Cassandra and I started questioning if they existed. The guy’s swore by it though, so we kept climbing.
The highest Finger of Fate lake sits at an approximate elevation of 8,500/9,000 feet and appears not to have fish. But the two lower ones have vividly colored cutthroat eager to eat a fly. They’re smart and shy, but once they take, they put on a great show. We finally reached the first in the series of four lakes after around 2.5 hours of hiking from our camp at Upper Hell Roaring. I have no doubt that it wouldn’t have taken us quite as long if we had a definitive destination and didn’t simply take our time.
The water in these smaller, higher lakes is crystal clear and ice-cold. A refreshing relief if you’re hiking on a clear, hot day like we were. We took our time scouting each lake and fishing for the trout cruising the waters. It was easy to sight-fish because of the lack of brush and timber in the water, and the visibility made for some deceiving depth perceptions. But we found what we were looking for, and once we established what they were eating and threw on extra-long leaders, we started catching fish.
The hike back to the Jeep was easy after the summit to the higher lakes, and only took a few hours. We were exhausted, and jello-legged when we finally made it back to the trail head the next day. But the trek was well worth the exhaustion.
For more information on the Finger of Fate, Upper Hell Roaring, and some fantastic pictures of the view from these higher elevations visit:
Mountain Project: https://www.mountainproject.com/area/106531475/finger-of-fate
Summit Posts: https://www.summitpost.org/finger-of-fate/155213