My first backpacking trip of the year is a two-night stay at the Renegade campsite, high up on the Tonahutu Creek Trail. It’s not the highest campsite on the trail; the group site Timberline is about a quarter-mile farther. I hiked most of the way there back in 2013 when I visited Haynach Lakes. The plan this time is to bag Murphy Lake.
My only concern from the start was that there’d be too much snow. Last year, about a week earlier in the season, snow at 11,000′ stopped me short. Murphy is at 11,200′ and we’d need to cross some north-facing slopes.
Sunday, July 12
Gordon agreed to drive. I arrived at his place at about 6:30 and we were on the road in good time. I was shooting for boots on trail by 9:00. Traffic was light, there was no line at the entrance station, and we were parked at the Green Mountain Trailhead by 8:30. The sky was clear; it was cool but not cold.
Renegade is about seven miles from the trailhead, but a fairly gentle slope, climbing only about 1,700′. The first section of trail connects the trailhead to the Tonahutu Creek Trail. In a bit less than two miles it ascends seven hundred feet, passing three or four small meadows.
Make a left turn onto the Tonahutu Creek Trail. The trail skirts alongside the northern half of Big Meadows. You come across two ruined log structures almost immediately, then come to the junction with the Onahu Creek Trail. Continue to skirt the meadow on the Tonahutu trail.
Not long after leaving the meadow the hiker reaches the Big Meadows burn scar, from the 2013 fire. When I hiked it then, immediately after the fire, these burned areas had no life at all, not an insect nor a blade of grass. Seven years later, the ground is covered with grasses and flowers and the occasional pine tree all of eighteen inches tall. Most of the dead tree trunks are still standing. I wonder how often one of them falls down?
Many of the hikers on this part of the trail are headed to Granite Falls. It’s a nice falls, but seems like a long way to go (5.1 miles). I wanted to take a break there, but didn’t quite make it. We stopped about a half hour short of it and I ate some fruit and trail mix. We took another brief break at the falls.
After Granite Falls there’s another large burn scar. At the eastern end of this burned area looks to be an avalanche debris field. The trees aren’t burned, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t there last time I hiked here. Quite a bit of work was invested in cutting trees to clear the trail.
About a quarter of a mile after the junction with the spur trail to Haynach Lakes you arrive at the Renegade campsite. It’s fairly close to the trail. Renegade doesn’t have a privy, but Timberline does, and it’s only another quarter of a mile up the trail. Water is easily accessible. Renegade has a remarkable number of downed trees around it. We decided that they’d cut down all the beetle-killed trees that might fall onto the campsite.
I was moving slower and slower and I told Gordon that he could go ahead of me. I told him we were at Renegade, and that it was the second left turn. When I arrived, he was nowhere to be seen. I started to set up my tent. Then a hiker came up to the campsite and asked if I was hiking with another fellow. “He’s up at Timberline. You might want to go get him. It’s only a quarter-mile up the trail.” I headed up that way and met Gordon, who was on his way down, having realized he wasn’t in the right place. I gave him a little grief, pointing out that the sign might be tricky to spot, being that it’s pretty much at eye level.
After setting up camp and a short break, we headed up to Haynach Lakes. Unfortunately, you give up 150′ of elevation going back to the Haynach Lake trail, where you are faced with a brisk 400′ climb before the trail mellows somewhat. The forest thins quite a bit, and there are a number of scenic meadows beneath the southern flank of Nakai Peak.
Haynach Lakes sit in a fairly broad, grassy valley that is thinly forested. The broad flank of the Continental Divide rises twelve to sixteen hundred feet above; not jagged cliffs but a much more gentle slope. Nakai Peak is to the south. It also lacks steep cliffs and the combination of all this makes the valley perhaps appear wider than it is.
Standing at the outlet and looking southwest, you get a nice view of Snowdrift Peak over the top of a sizeable pond. Snowdrift Peak is a bit less than three miles distant. Although it might be easy to think that Murphy Lake sits on a bench that’s visible, its location cannot be seen from here.
We spent about an hour here, sometimes watching the clouds, sometimes looking for interesting things a bit closer. There didn’t seem to be fish in the lake until we found a small school of them congregating at the outlet. There were some elk bones – part of the vertebrae, a scapula, a few more small bones. There were a number of tufts of fur nearby as well. I’d guess fur would get blown away fairly quickly.
Not long after we arrived at the lake, my SLR died. I found that quite disappointing. It’s not exactly a light camera, so if it wasn’t going to work, it means I put a non-trivial amount of effort to bring it for nothing. It’s been a few weeks since I charged the batteries, but the meter indicated 2/3 of a charge.
Back at camp, killing time by telling stories, we saw a doe working slowly down the hillside. She didn’t pass through our camp, but skirted it on three sides, calm as can be. It was getting dark now, so I headed down to the stream to fill up a bottle of water. It was perfect timing: when I got to the spot that Gordon filled up at on the way back from Haynach, I found a bull moose standing there. He was about twenty feet away. He slowly sauntered parallel to the trail and until he was a bit farther away, I kept some trees between us. Filling my water, I saw that he left a footprint in the mud.
Before it was even dark, I crawled into my tent. I never go to bed before eleven, but all that walking had me pretty worn out. I retired at nine, before we spotted a single star.
And now I was confronted by another battery problem: my headlamp. It illuminated, sort of. If you looked at the light, you could see it was on, but it cast so little light as to be useless. I really need to check this stuff out beforehand.
My bladder forced me up at 12:40. The sky was clear, what I could see of it through the trees. The stars shone brightly and there was no moon. I managed to take care of business in the darkness, neither tripping over rock nor root and not getting lost.