Joined: 16 Sep 2005
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Location: If its sunny, try the mountains
Twin Lakes is found 20 miles off the highway along Big Creek in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. This gentle day hike was enhanced with endorphins fueled from hiking through forests renovated not only by mother nature, but also by wildfire fighters, and volunteer trail crews. Although under 9 miles round trip, and a gentle elevation gain well less than 1,000 feet, the day’s turn around point topped out near 8,000 feet, and curiously close to a section of the Continental Divide Trail.
Timing is everything
The Labor Day forecast offered a break from summer heat, as well as from what may have become usual hazy and foggy wildfire smoke-filled summer skies. The decision was to explore an area beginning to recover from recent summer wildfire activity. The weekend through and around charred wildfire landscapes brought back memories of decades-old hiking and backpacking experiences in multiple Western States.
The rest area near Lost Trail Pass was filled with tents and construction huts holding still active, but temporary, fire camps. Semi-trucks detached from long-bed trailers were closely parallel parked in the nearby cross country skiers’ parking lot. They silently stood ready to retrieve logging equipment from wherever their existing destination was located near distant fire burned mountainside roads.
To drive along the highway recently closed for fire activity revealed the wonder of nature’s remodeling efforts already in progress. What seems beautiful and plentiful to one, is ugly and sparse to another. While stream side meadows seemed untouched from the wildfire’s fury, evidence of how close the flames came as they roared down the mountainsides was clear. Trees that perhaps long ago were stands of beetle-killed kindling or healthy evergreens remained still standing but now were charred skeletons reflecting a forest that once stood a few weeks ago. Looking closer, charcoal-ed grounds had already begun sprouting with new growth, sometimes looking blowy and grassy with young greens, and in stark contrast to the charcoal colors now blackening the surrounding areas.
The popular May Creek campground, while still closed to the public, revealed how concrete picnic table footings and other structures effectively survived the fingers of flames and heat that recently reached into the area. It is clear this area will benefit from some downtime to recover from the burns and from regular use by humans.
From the highway, it would seem nearby fires might now be out, as no bellowing clouds of smoke could be seen from the ridge lines. But as miles passed and the other end of this canyon-like area drew closer, there were signals that the fire still smolders and is very much alive up at higher elevations. The forest transitioned into open cattle grazing pasture and meadowlands. Haze from out-of-state fires obscured the horizon’s mountainsides that often draw oohs and awes on bluebird days like these.
A turn onto a side road, no longer closed to public access, soon converted from forest into unexpectedly open areas where firebreaks had recently been logged into place. An assortment of live and dead tree stands, were now piled into future truckloads to eventually be taken away at a landing base quickly cleared for this temporary purpose. This seeming ugliness is necessary to prevent potential raging fires from crossing over from dense forestland onto and blazing across open grasslands as far as the eye can see.
A dozen or so miles down this side road, a single truck with firefighting equipment was parked, and two personnel inside were peeping through binoculars at the ridge lines where smoke could be seen through the haze, billowing high up on the forest land beyond the ridge lines. Standing guard, ever aware of increasing gusting winds forecasted for later in the day, one becomes aware how it can be more helpful to strategically fight some fires from a distance, as you can’t always see the bigger picture then when you are right on top of the flames.
This campground had a trailhead
Back to the main highway, and then around toward the south, a different side road was taken and 20 miles off-road from there, a “safer from wildfire” campground was discovered near the outlet of a reasonably sized lake which prohibited gasoline powered boats. Tent pitched, campground explored, and trailhead located - most of which still remained open until you apparently can reach a crossing with the Continental Divide Trail that is not shown on some maps
An evening stroll along the lakes edge served as bait and lure for the next morning's hike.
This mountain lake is rimmed with lush evergreen forests and offers peeks of faraway mountaintops, as well as deciduous foliage that rustles when the wind blows. The ground, although dry, offers evidence of lichen and moss planning to replicate, and of sturdy old trees now fallen over to make way for new growth.
Peek-a-boo views of meadows and marshlands near the lake’s inlet beckoned to be explored further, and lake waters quietly became calm and still as daylight descended into darkness.
Despite a forecast for potential hard frost and gusty winds, the night proved calm and remained relatively warm. As the sun rose, streaming beams of light came through the trees, and an occasional gust of very warm wind suggested a day that would be warmer than what is typical of early fall, and yet cooler than the ending season of summer heat.
A small work crew was clearing the trail, and a brief conversation revealed another nearby trail now had about 150 fewer trees to climb over. Today’s unintentional hiking goal would be noticing how far up the trail clearing efforts would be completed before the crew's anticipated noontime turnaround. Trees to be cleared were not counted on the way up, although upon return, it seemed as if less than 15 remained for another time; those final steps back to camp were much easier. Shoutout to Wild Montana fka Montana Wilderness Association. Nice work!
The trail gradually gained elevation following along lakeside and heading upstream. It provided the kind of peek a boo views that encourage you to wonder what is around the next corner or over the next hillside and if you might see some wildlife nearby. Sunlight danced perfectly on meadows as if pulling back curtains revealing what nature painted around a winding creek feeding the marshy lands by this mountainside lake. Evidence of the forest’s lifecycle provided a backdrop reminding one how rugged the backcountry can get despite close proximity to growing civilization.
A variety of natural texture really is what keeps hiking interesting.The trick is to notice the changes, as sometimes they’re less obvious than with this comparison.
The occasional blooming wildflower provided sufficient accent to invite a return trip in a different season.
And evidence, perhaps from a mining operation long ago abandoned, showed itself as a steel wagon wheel frame leaned against a tree and rails long ago pulled from the underbrush and left trailside. One drifts back to a more difficult time and wonders how this area once bustled with mining activity and what treasures these mountainsides held.
Huckleberry leaves and underbrush had already begun to turn red, painting a green lush forest floor with textures that took my breath away.
While squirrels and chipmunks close to the campground chirped with hearty conversations, and a few waterfowl swam along lake edges, there was a brief sighting of a few cow elk higher up on the trail.
A final peek at open meadows and it was time to head back toward reality.