In some travel, the miles melt away. They slip gracefully by. An open road runs like velvet beneath car tires and distance is reduced to hours spent floating smoothly along.
Backpacking is different. You have to earn your miles. You feel the distance in each trudging footstep, in every shift of your pack’s weight on your shoulders and hips, in the sweat collecting on your brow and neck. The miles don’t come easy, or with much grace.
But the reward of going into the wilderness with all you need strapped to your back is this: incredible scenery few people experience, and the extreme satisfaction of getting yourself and your gear to these remote places and back.
The hike to Edith Lake was my second backpacking trip into the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. Jesse and I hiked to Sawtooth Lake last July, and got rained out and thunder struck. For all the earth rumbling excitement last year brought, we had a tranquil trip this time.
Wind and lightning were replaced by a placid lake and cloudless sky visible through our tent. We fell asleep to an indigo sky full of stars, woke to the moonrise that bathed the peaks in silvery light, and then woke again to the golden light of dawn so warm in the cool morning air.
The trail to Edith Lake is part of a larger loop based at Pettit Lake. The Alice Lake / Toxoway Lake loop is said to be one of Idaho’s top backpacking trails, rivaling the world’s best hikes. Backpacker Magazine picked it as the essential hike in Idaho.
From the forested foothills in the meadow valley, into the rubble strewn canyons, and up near the peaks where glacial lakes pool in placid blue green depths, this area is stunning to behold, and it offers granite slabs and gushing waterfalls that rank with those in Tuolomne Meadows of Yosemite National Park.
This backpacking trip was the kind of experience that leaves you glowing. Adrenaline and altitude, alpine lake water, and the kind of views near impossible to capture in a photograph.
But it’s not all excitement and endorphins. We didn’t reach the trail head at Yellow Belly Lake until after 10:30, well after our goal of an early morning start. We missed the trail as it veered into the forest, and instead followed a muddy road to Yellow Belly Lake so our hike began with backtracking. Deer flies and mosquitoes buzzed around our heads and tried to bite through our clothes. After three and a half miles, we lost shade, and couldn’t find the camp sites suggested in our trail book.
It turned hot, we were hungry, sweating profusely, and lost. But after more backtracking, we finally set up camp at Farley Lake. We took off our shoes, made lunch, and fell into drooling naps for an hour of the afternoon.
After the break, revitalized and on the cooling end of the day, we left our heavy gear and camp behind to climb to Edith Lake.
Veering off the Toxoway Lake trail and further loop, we took the smaller and less traveled trail that cut north. Switchbaking through forest, then a trail of rubble, over creeks, we found ourselves passing Edith Lake’s outlet again and again as we wound our way up to the lake. Two of these passings brought teetering leaps between boulders, and one of the most perfect waterfalls I’ve ever seen.
In a wall of smooth lumps of granite, the wide outlet creek cascades and splits, tumbles around trees and over channeled boulders, in a massive woven tapestry of water thirty feet across. The water slides and splashes wide down this gentle face, and then pools into a calm basin before tumbling again over the next drop, sparkling in the late afternoon sun but cool in the blue shadows.
Edith Lake is small but crystalline, and snow still melts on the rocky shore. When we reach this destination, we take a few photographs, rest a moment in the chilled wind blowing over the lake’s glassy surface, and depart back downhill towards our camp to make dinner as the sun sets.
My favorite parts of backpacking are always dusk and dawn, when the light is most dramatic and everything comes alive with golden brightness and shadows. The air is cool and calm, and the landscape quickly changes from its flatly bright daytime persona to something with more depth and deviousness.
Jesse filters lake water and we boil it near the tent. Dinner is served. Then, we retire to the tent, watching through the mesh membrane the sky turning from honey and pink to dusty purple and deep blue. The stars come out. We sleep.
In the morning, we do it all again. Filter water, light the stove, stir coffee and hot chocolate powder into plastic mugs, wait for our dehydrated meal to rehydrate and become surprisingly good. Roll up sleeping bags, mats, the tent. Repack our backpacks. Fill our water bottles. Apply sunscreen, bug repellent. Zip, buckle, cinch, high-five, and hit the old dusty trail for some more hard earned miles.
And when it’s all over, when we’ve reached our waiting vehicle and have unstrapped, it’s the best kind of exhaustion I’ve ever felt. Because it wasn’t easy. We didn’t just sit idly by and hardly notice the distance traveled. We felt every foot of elevation gain, every stone and stream along the way there and back again.
That’s what backpacking is all about. Rugged vitality. Being self-reliant. Going the distance, by foot.
But most of all, it’s about going beyond what is easy to have an honest experience with the world, when there’s very little between you and nature. To feel the weight of your bones pressing into the earth, while the bright band of Milky Way emerges as the silvery moon sinks beneath the steep teeth of granite mountain… that is everything.