There’s a trail in the Payette National Forest not far from my home that has always been a favorite. A few days ago, I got lucky: the morning I decided to run/hike there with the dogs – October 5th – the wildfire smoke that had been blanketing this area cleared out the night before.
The sky at high elevation is more intense, more blue. Worth seeking.
In three miles one climbs 1,738 feet to a seasonally staffed Forest Service fire lookout tower on the summit. After climbing less than a mile an alpine lake comes into view, water level low this late in the year.
Some sections of trail, including near the trailhead at the bottom and close to the fire lookout at the top, are relatively gentle in grade. The middle section through a scree field, however, climbs steeply (44% grade, according to one trail website). My dogs and I run some sections of the trail, others I carefully hike, including the scree section with its loose rocks and obscure path (several small cairns help). Those are really just excuses for me to slow down admire the veins of quartz in the granite at my feet, or to look out across the stunning landscape.
At 8,479 feet in elevation, the views from the summit are amazing, 360-degrees of mountains, forests and river valleys. Definitely worth the effort.
All morning I could see wildfire smoke from a 20,000 acre wildfire roughly 50 miles to the southeast, slowly spreading west, close to the ground. Another smaller wildfire (about 500 acres on that day) 20 miles to the northwest was putting a steady stream of smoke into the air but the breeze sent it directly south, well away from us. The boys and I found ourselves in a sweet spot of clear air between fires. As a bonus, we had the mountain to ourselves, sharing it only with a few birds.
My idea of nirvana.
I always take lots of photos when on this trail.
Did I mention the unique trees? Up here, I get to be close to some majestic whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis), a relatively rare tree that sadly is becoming more rare. The Forest Service estimates nearly 51% of standing whitebark pines are dead, and that populations will decline 57% by 2100. Two major threats are white pine blister rust and the mountain pine beetle.
Whitebark Pine is a slow-growing, long-lived tree with a life span of up to 500 years and sometimes more than 1,000 years. Although Whitebark Pine can occur in pure or nearly pure stands at high elevations, it more typically occurs in stands of mixed species in a variety of forest community types. Whitebark Pine is considered a keystone or foundation species in western North America where it contributes to critical ecosystem functions.
The seeds are dispersed almost exclusively by Clark’s nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana), a jay-like bird of high altitude forest habitats. Consequently, Clark’s nutcrackers facilitate the regeneration of Whitebark Pine and influence its distribution and population structure through their seed caching activities. A single nutcracker can cache up to an estimated 98,000 seeds during a good seed crop year.U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Many of the whitebarks I see here are dead; standing, but bare, no needles. Yet others seem to be thriving. There are also lots of subalpine firs.
When I first moved here, my dogs Maia and Meadow helped me explore this place. A kind lookout employee took photos of us at the summit in July, 2008.
Those happy times with the girls on this mountain compelled me to bring some of their ashes and build a small cairn on the shoulder near the summit to memorialize them after they passed in 2013.
Because the trail is on the east flank of the mountain, exposed to the early sun, I avoid it in July and August – too hot. It’s fun to attempt in early June, when there’s still a lot of snow on the upper reaches. The boys love the snow, eating it whenever they need a sip of water, and I love how pristine everything looks covered in white. We don’t always reach the summit on those early attempts; often the snow is too deep. Soon after most or all of the snow melts – late June, very early July – the wildflowers appear and are gorgeous, although offering less variety than in lower-elevation and less wind-swept sections of the forest.
The mountain is also pretty in autumn, when the leaves of an abundant shrub turn a dark reddish-brown, giving the mountainside at higher elevations the appearance of rusting.
By October it’s cool enough that the boys and I don’t suffer too much from a hot sun. I carry water for the boys to drink at the summit. Heading down is always easier, and offers views not noticed on the way up. Conall loves to get ahead, perching on outcroppings in the scree field, scanning for movement.
Soon, when there’s a nice dusting of new snow, we’ll head up again. We all love running in fresh snow, and I won’t have to be the boys’ water carrier.
This – easy access to this forest – is why I live here, why I’ve worked hard to create a lifestyle that affords me and my dogs the time and energy to revel in this natural beauty while it’s still here to enjoy. We never take it for granted.