This was a shortened loop as local conditions and my own abilities were not conducive to finishing my planned hike in the amount of time available to me.
I got to the trailhead a little late due to road work on Hwy 3 and an underestimation of the time to drive the length of Coffee Creek Road to the Big Flat Campground and Trailheads. I got my gear together and hit the trail a little after 11 AM. Making good time on the initial climb, I arrived at Browns Meadow with time for some relaxation after refilling my water bottles and enjoying a quick lunch consisting of a Rise protein bar. The views on my way there offered excuses for several short breaks to take pictures, as well.
Arriving at Snowslide Lake, there were four tents already set up, which didn’t bode well for Caribou Lake based on the first time I was up here. However, after the final climb I made my way around the ponds and remaining snow fields to the last crest above Caribou Lake and was welcomed by the site of no tents on the north end of the lake. I had originally planned to make camp on the rarely used south end of the lake near its inlet, but the snow remaining in the basin convinced me and my tiring legs that was a bad idea. After wandering around the north end of the lake, I settled on the same site I had used for a 2018 group hike, about as far as I could get from the lake itself without pitching my tent on the crest where there would be no wind protection. It was only 4:00 PM, but I settled in for a leisurely late afternoon and evening of podcasts, two salami and cheddar wraps, and dozing off under the protection my tent provided against the clouds that had started to fill the sky.
I had a fairly good night, only awaking a couple of times due to congestion; however, the morning brought solid cloud cover.
After finally dragging myself out from under my quilt and getting dressed, I was met with fog rising from Caribou Lake in thin twisting vapor trails, seemingly filling the sky and hiding the jagged surrounding peaks.
It was looking like my plans for the day would be changing. Between the remaining snow and the threatening clouds, a hike up to Little South Fork Lake was beginning to look less likely. Leaving camp at 8:15, I soon crossed the Caribou Lake outlet on some solid and some not solid at all logs jamming the lake outlet. I then took the faint trail climbing up towards the ridge that separates Caribou Lake from the Middle Fork of the Little South Fork of the Salmon River (MFLSFSR), a name about as long as the waterway itself.
There were a few remaining snow fields and several snow melt streams obscuring the trail, but cairns and a single set of boot prints headed in the opposite direction helped me find the trail. I also saw some bear prints, fresher than the boot prints. The paw measured 8½ inches from the rear edge of the pads to the furthest claw mark, a little bit longer than the distance from the base of my palm to the end of my middle finger. I enjoyed the nearby views with tendrils of cloud snaking around the granite walls but missed out on the wide-open views that you would normally have of the Caribou Creek drainage and the mountains to the north. After reaching the ridge line, I was able to look down on the headwaters of the MFLSFSR and views of the mist-shrouded, jagged ridges ringing it.
The trail down starts out steep with tight switchbacks through a brush field. Fortunately, the trail appears to have been cleared within the past few years. Shortly after entering the forest, I cam across some fresh bear scat that stopped my internal conversation and turned it into a very vocal discussion with myself and/or Mr/s. Bear. There were several spots where the bear had industriously dug up the earth along the trail as well. I also came across some allium on the way down. I broke off a single stalk and smelled onion. I gave it a nibble, getting an initial sweetness followed by the green onion bite, letting me know that it was probably safe even though it didn’t look like the wild onion I was familiar with from the Sierra. It tasted good, but I decided against collecting some to go with this day’s salami and cheese burritos. (After I was back home, I looked it up and confirmed that it was safe to eat and was “wild garlic”.) This would mark the end of the views for the day. After crossing the Middle Fork, etc., I climbed up over the next ridge and debated heading off trail at the pass, contouring around to Little South Fork Lake. The overcast skies and the snow I had seen at Caribou Lake convinced me to stick with the trail. Though honestly, I think it was the sight of all of the blow downs from a fire that had passed through a few years ago and all of the feelings of misery from my previous attempt at hiking to Little South Fork Lake flooding through those giant piles of pick-up sticks that convinced me to stick to the trail. After crossing the Little South Fork of the Salmon River, rinsing out my shirt, and rinsing off myself in the freezing cold waters; I sat down for a relaxing lunch. Just over an hour later, I was packed up and leaving for the South Fork of the Salmon River crossing. The river was flowing pretty good but never got above crotch depth as I waded through to the other side after moving everything out of my pockets and into my pack. Just as I reached the other side, the raindrops started falling. The gray sky was finally delivering on its promise. Shortly after, the wind picked up and the temperature started to drop even more as I climbed up and up above the river, eventually passing Lakeview Ranch, a pair of houses that is only accessible by several miles of trail. The last site of note was a mining shack located along an unnamed creek just east of Lakeview Ranch. Not exactly historically, the main feature is the internal combustion engine that hasn’t fallen through the floor…yet. After refilling my water from the creek, I began looking for a flat spot free of rocks to pitch a tent. The rain continued off and on; the rain came on every time my jacket came off. Over the next two miles to Blue Lady Spring I saw nothing even close to a flat spot other than the trail itself. At that point, I knew that I was less than 3 miles from the trailhead and my car and should be able to make it back to my starting point by 6 PM. After arriving at a trail junction about ½ mile from my car, I stopped to consult my maps one last time. That’s when the hail started, because I had taken off my jacket, of course. Knowing how close the end was, I didn’t bother with putting my jacket back on and just started down the trail through the hail. I arrived at the edge of the meadow next to the campground and that’s when the wind really started blowing and the hail turned into a downpour of rain. I just laughed, as I walked the last 100 yards to the campground through a flooded meadow, the dark soil sucking at my shoes, one last parting gift from Mother Nature.
If you are interested, there is room for 2 or 3 tents and one fire ring at Caribou Meadows with a water source just north of the campsite, as indicated by the concentration of brush. There are several established tent sites, a couple of fire rings, and easy access to water at the edge of Browns Meadow. There are several established campsites on both sides of the trail as you pass between Snowslide Lake and Lower Caribou Lake, though some are too close to the water to meet LNT requirements. Caribou Lake has at least a dozen established campsites from the north end where the trail arrives at the lake circling around the east side of the lake. Once again, several are unfortunately well within 100 feet of the water. I saw a single campsite where I crossed the Middle Fork of the Little South Fork of the Salmon, but I didn’t take a closer look at it. On the west side of the Little South Fork of the Salmon there is a large campsite and fire ring that could hold several tents. It looked like there was a campsite at the crossing of the South Fork of the Salmon, though once again, I didn’t investigate further. After that, I didn’t come across any other potential campsites until just before the trailhead and the end of the hike, though there were some side trails that may have held campsites.
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