This summer has felt both interminably drawn-out and excruciatingly short. Some weeks breeze past, while others drag on. I can’t seem to figure out my pace – should we camp every weekend, do we need a break when it feels like we’ve done nothing? Ah, the beautiful combination of energetic activity and depressed malaise that has blossomed amid this pandemic. Though I continually remember how fortunate we are to live near so much national forest land, I find myself desperate to take the little city trips that we love too.
Anyhow, in mid-July, we decided to venture up to the Payette National Forest outside of McCall for a short getaway – two hikes and a night of camping. We’ve visited McCall a few times pre-pandemic, so we have some sense of the town. Located at the head of the Long Valley, it sits along the wooded shores of Payette Lake. Long a quick getaway for Treasure Valley residents, McCall is a more down-home resort town than Sun Valley. It feels more accessible without (as many) luxury mansions reminding you on your way to the trailhead that you don’t in fact have it all, and you probably never will. (We still really love Sun Valley!)
Instead of leaving after my work day on Friday, we decided to drive up on Saturday morning. We’d have plenty of time to scope out a dispersed site and get in a solid day hike. The two-lane highway winds along the Payette River from Horseshoe Bend until just after Smith’s Ferry, and then enters the broad Long Valley, passing through smaller resort towns like Cascade and Donnelly before arriving in McCall. It’s a shorter distance than Sun Valley, but with the serpentine route the road follows along the river, it takes nearly the same amount of time. The Payette National Forest encompasses 2.3 million acres, and prior to this trip, we had only completed one hike in its environs, a beautiful fall hike to Boulder Lake when the larches were aflame with color. For this trip, we heeded the recommendation of a colleague of mine to check out the forest just east of McCall off Lick Creek Road where there are several great alpine lake hikes and fewer people.
As we drove away from McCall, the crisp air imbued with pine needles, I was glad we had taken the time to get away even if only for a night. We drove along Lick Creek Rd. scouting dispersed sites and gaining our bearing. I had a few potential hikes from our McCall hiking book in mind and thought it would be best to camp within reach of those trailheads. There were far fewer dispersed sites along the road than I expected, but we were able to snag an open spot not too far from the trailhead for Snowslide Lake. We unpacked the car and set up, then drove back down to the trailhead for a late-afternoon hike.
Typically, I am an early-start evangelist. In recent years, as we’ve tackled some well-known and increasingly popular hikes, we’ve learned that starting early is always best. But this summer, it has been difficult to find that motivation, particularly since we aren’t going to be surrounded by a throng of thrill-seekers in Idaho’s national forests. So, getting a 1pm start on a hike I know we can finish well before sundown doesn’t send waves of anxiety through me like it may have in the past. (Maybe I’ve learned to relax??) We decided to hike up to Snowslide Lake, string up the hammock, hang out a while, let Zach do some fishing, and then head back down to cook up some dinner. The hike itself is short, only 1.7 miles to the lake, but there’s a staggering elevation gain of 1,300 feet over that short distance. Once we forded the creek, there was a brief interlude of dreamy forest stroll, and then the full assault on our thighs began. The pain was accompanied by dramatic views from time to time, as we popped out of the forest every now and then. Tru surprised both of us by bounding up and over rocks, keeping our pace fairly steady.
We didn’t see any other humans until we neared the lake. There a few people passed us on their way down, and we noticed a few couples and groups scattered about the lake – no more than 8 people at most. Zach led us around the lake and through brambles to find a waterfront spot where he could fish and I could hang the hammock. Then we settled into a leisurely afternoon fishing and reading, watching hikers come and go, until we were the last ones left. Zach caught two small Brook Trout, and Truman discovered fish for the time! He curiously watched Zach release the first trout into the creek outlet and then spent the next half hour eagerly patrolling the outlet, pawing at the bottom in search of his own catch.
We descended around 5 o’clock or so, taking our time to find the right footing on the loosely packed trail. By the time we reached the more level forest floor, all of our legs needed a rest. We returned to our site, made a hot meal, and tried to relax among the skeeters. When we couldn’t stand it any longer, we retreated to the tent to read and drift off under a canopy of stars.
In the morning we took our time making breakfast and packing up. We weren’t in any kind of rush knowing that the traffic from McCall would be worse the earlier we left. We planned to do an easy hike and hang out until mid-afternoon and then make our way back down to the highway. After our thigh-burner on Saturday, we opted to hike to Duck Lake, a temperate stroll for the most part with a paltry 300 feet of gain. Known to be a popular weekend hike, we were surprised to find no one on the trail and only retreating backpackers at the lake.
We nabbed a nice large campsite near the head of the lake to make our day camp. Wedged under a partially submerged tree trunk, Zach discovered a wooden raft by our site outfitted with a rudimentary oar and all! Latching on to his childhood Huck Finn dreams, he decided to paddle out into the middle of the lake to fish. I met this idea with a giant eye roll and cracked open a beer. Tru and I watched him navigate between tree debris until he was out in the lake, the only form other than a few ducks. He didn’t have any luck with the fish, but he was the object of envy of two hikers. “He’s livin’ the good life,” they quipped.
I can’t recall now how long we stayed by the lake. I was nearing the end of my book and wanted to finish, and Zach had a helluva time maneuvering the raft back into its “dock.” By the time we decided to pack up, it was early afternoon and a few groups of hikers had begun to descend on us. Our solitude broken, it was a good time to hike out.
Overall, it was a great little weekend trip. Knowing that our time in Utah was limited, I always wanted to pack in as much as possible on weekend trips. But, I don’t feel the same pull in Idaho, partly because we expect to be here a while and partly due to this moment of suspended reality we all find ourselves in. Or maybe I’m just getting old! Either way, it was a nice weekend in the forest. We still hit some slow traffic on our way home, just before the two-lane highway became a four-lane road, but it was hard to be upset since everyone around us had sought the same escape.