We left the Sawtooth Valley, winding up the road to Galena Summit, and made our way down to Galena Lodge for coffee and pastries, before continuing into Hailey to stop for provisions. Then we began the somewhat lonely trek down Highway 20 toward Idaho Falls. This route took us through the ranchlands of Blaine County and past Craters of the Moon National Monument. It’s an eerily striking landscape, at one point on our left we could see the southern-most reaches of the area that holds Copper Basin with its smooth slopes and on the right, the otherworldly basalt sea of Craters of the Moon. Soon enough we reached Idaho Falls and continued southeast, coming to a valley just southwest of Idaho’s Teton towns – Driggs and Victor – where the South Fork of the Snake River cuts through large swaths of rich farmland and the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
Since we hadn’t been to this part of Idaho before – and we hadn’t done much research about it – we decided to try our luck with the national forest campgrounds that dot the Snake River and Palisades Reservoir. We stopped at the first campground on my list, Falls Campground, and found one open site for the next two evenings. Taking it as a sign, we decided to camp there, rather than take our chances elsewhere. It was noticeably warmer, not hot by Texas standards, but more so than the valley we’d left that morning, and it was going to be one of the warmer weekends of the year in southern Idaho. The campground sites were generously spaced apart and surrounded by cottonwoods and willows which gave ample shade (depending on the time of today) and privacy. We paid for two nights – unsure whether we wanted to stay a third – and began unpacking.
When we finished setting up, our site was square in the sun’s glare and we wanted to escape. We decided to check out Palisades Reservoir, a colossal 16,000 acre artificial lake stretching to the Wyoming border. We drove its length in search of a picnic area where we could cook our dinner and hang out overlooking the water. We quickly realized that wasn’t going to be possible. The road along the reservoir is high, winding, and provides little room for vistas. We still admired the sheer size of the reservoir; it seemed to stretch on forever, met on both sides by steeply sloped hillsides. There were a couple of areas along the shoreline where people boondocked with their RVs or pitched tents, but it was completely exposed and didn’t offer much in the way of solitude.
So, we returned to our site, for what we anticipated would be a quiet evening enjoying the cooler temperatures and sitting around a fire. As night fell, Truman turned in early, curling up on my sleeping bag before burrowing inside. Zach and I sat up around the fire that we hoped would stave off the mosquitoes that weren’t deterred by our repellent. It had just become dark enough that the surrounding foliage had merged with the inky blackness of the sky. Apart from occasional voices from one or two louder campsites farther away, it was quiet and still. In the brush to my left, I heard a branch snap. I got up to get my chapstick from the car when suddenly Zach’s voice broke the silence with a shout and I could hear him scrambling out of his chair. He yelled for me to stay where I was, there was a moose! Coming on us as suddenly as she had, we were momentarily without any light. My phone was on the picnic table next to her, and Zach’s wasn’t bright enough to dissuade her. I was able to grab my head lamp from the car but I’d been neglecting to change the batteries, so its dull light also did little to discourage her. We were both stationed by the car, ready to thrust ourselves inside if need be. She stood at the other end of the site, near Truman, in the tent. Initially unaware of her presence, he soon registered the disturbance and began barking. We realized she had a calf with her, and if you’ve read our past experiences encountering moose cows and calves, you’ll know that this fact compounded my anxiety all the more. So there we were, yelling and cajoling her to leave our site without success. She galloped in front of the tent (and Truman) three times, first entering our neighbor’s campsite and returning, then again to munch some willows near the tent, before crossing to the other side of our site and eating the foliage there. Finally, for reasons that are unclear to us, she decided to leave. It took me quite a while to return to any normal state after that. I was worried she would re-emerge just when we felt comfortable again, but she didn’t. She disappeared into the willows and cottonwoods, hopefully making her way out of the campground and to the national forest on the other side of the road.
We had only one hike planned for this area, purportedly the most popular hike in all of southeast Idaho if you are to believe one of the websites I found. Located across the valley from our campground, the hike begins along Palisades Creek and leads to Lower and Upper Palisades Lakes. When I researched the hike, I was able to find some descriptions, but never any concrete information about the length or elevation gain. The only distances I found weren’t specified as one-way or round trip. I wasn’t terribly worried about this; I assumed we would go as far as the lower lake and could determine whether we wanted to continue. When we started out, it was cool and comfortable in the canyon. We followed Palisades Creek for the first mile or so, then crossed a bridge over the creek gaining some elevation as we continued to parallel the creek. It remained mostly shaded and we admired the sheer rise of the canyon walls around us. We zig-zagged across the creek a couple more times before arriving at Lower Palisades Lake.
By this point it was hot, what little shade we’d enjoyed had slowly left the canyon as we inched closer to the lake. Over the first four miles, we had determined that we would only go to the lower lake, spend time there, and turn back making it an eight mile round trip hike. However, when we arrived at the lower lake, we quickly realized there was nowhere to hang out along the lake aside from a few small points that led to the water’s edge. The lake was surrounded by a marshy perimeter preventing us from even circling the lake without bushwhacking or getting covered in muck. We went down to one of the only lakeside spots, large enough for us to sit down in the full sun. It was disappointing. We sat there, had a snack, and debated continuing to the upper lake. We hadn’t planned to do a 14 mile hike. Generally for a hike of that length, we would start even earlier and bring sandwiches or tuna and extra water, but finding the lower lake lackluster, we decided to continue.
The first 2.5 miles to the upper lake were hot, but still pleasant. Beyond the lower lake, the canyon opened up in a wide delta offering us gorgeous views of the upper canyon and the now serpentine manner of Palisades Creek. The trail ultimately left the canyon, and 2.5 miles down, it felt as though we’d never reach the lake. I could tell we were drawing closer on my map, but it felt like an eternity. We were hot, getting a little frustrated, and still the lake wasn’t anywhere in sight. I even told Zach we could turn around(!). Fortunately, we didn’t and soon we appeared at the head of the lake, emerging from around a bend with no clue the lake would soon be spread before us.
Exhausted but relieved, we followed the trail around the edge of the lake through several campsites and down a side trail to the shore. We searched for a place along the water to set up for an hour or two. Admiring the cerulean water with turquoise accents, I knew we had made the right decision. We found an empty campsite where I could string my hammock in the shade, and Zach traipsed down to the shoreline to fish and swim. Although I think we could have stayed longer, our evening plans – to have a burger and beers in Victor – dictated that we needed to begin the 7 mile descent. It wasn’t too long after we left the lake that Zach told me he was out of water. I had a liter left, so I poured more into his bottle, and we continued through the shade to the creek once more. What had been a relatively nice jaunt through the open canyon from the lower lake was now a full sun hike during the hottest part of the day. I realized our water reserves weren’t going to last us. Since I felt relatively hydrated – I’d consumed a liter on the way up – I started to reserve the remainder of my water for Zach, as he also carried Truman on his back. We’d never found ourselves in this type of situation before. We were always the hikers with too much; we scoffed at people who hiked with a single plastic water bottle. But we hadn’t been prepared for the heat that day and the way it would zap us of our strength and energy over the length of our hike. We made it down to the car, only truly out of water for the last 1.5 miles, but boy, was it not the right day for that. Utterly depleted, we climbed into our furnace of a car, and started toward Victor.
It has become something of a ritual for us to get burgers at The Brakeman American Grill and take them to Grand Teton Brewing anytime we are near Victor. I called in our order ahead of time, so we could pull into town and pick them up. We love Grand Teton Brewing, but they close at EIGHT PM, so we needed to get there quickly to maximize our time. It all worked out, and once we were chowing down on our burgers, safe in the arms of an Adirondack chair on the lawn of Grand Teton, the pains of the day were deep in the past. (Grand Teton had a great pandemic set-up too! They spray painted various sized squares across their lawn, each with a collection of chairs and a side table or two. Once you were inside your square, you no longer needed your mask, but outside the square masks were required.)
The hike to the Palisades Lakes had done us in. We might have stayed an extra night, taking the kayaks out to Palisades Reservoir for a day, but now we were drained. The thought of another day in the sun was too much. We decided to head back to Boise on Saturday. We passed a moose-free evening at our site and packed up in the morning. On our way out, we stopped at Fall Creek Falls, a stunning cascade of water falling into several pools as it descended to the Snake River. From the road, it was virtually hidden, but a network of trails through the towering thistles and brush, led us to the bank overlooking the falls. The best view would be from the river itself, but that was a task for another visit. We were in for an uneventful drive. After a brief stop for coffee and sandwiches in Idaho Falls, we glided down the interstate straight home.