Believe it or not, I used to hate being out in nature. My parents were not people who enjoyed immersing themselves in the outdoors. Growing up, when my friends would all be headed into the mountains to go camping and I would inquire as to why we never went camping or hiking, my mother would respond “do you really want to shit in the woods like a wild animal?” She had a point. No, no I did not want to shit in the woods like a wild animal. In college, I attended Humboldt State University for a year, which is a fairly picturesque little college town nestled between the Redwood Forest and the ocean. I never once went out into the Redwoods. I did occasionally go to the beach, but that was usually just to sit and read or get drunk with my dorm mates. But never to *explore* nature. It wasn’t until I returned from my year-long stint in Germany, after hiking through the Bavarian Alps and getting lost in tiny villages along paths that stretched for miles that I truly embraced the idea of being outdoors. I went on my first camping trip, I invested in a fabric coffin (aka sleeping bag) and started hiking more frequently out in the woods. I’m also very fortunate to live in Idaho, a place with an overabundance of not only outdoor activities, but people who are more than willing to share their passions for the outdoors with newbies.
When Emily and I started dating about a year-and-a-half ago, we discovered our mutual love of camping and outdoor exploration, but mostly from a casual recreational adventure sort of way. Last summer, we went on several camping trips, and this past winter, we explored the numerous hot springs in southern Idaho. Something I have always wanted to do but never had the guts to do was go on a backpacking trip. You know, the one where you pack everything you will need on your back, hike into the middle of the mountains, set up your tent, and take in the fact that there is not a single car, not a single restaurant, not a single building as far as the eye can see. Emily had also never been on a backpacking trip, and we resolved to make that happen this summer.
We decided, rather quickly, that our first backpacking trip would be to Goat Lake outside of Stanley, Idaho. Goat Lake’s reputation as one of the most beautiful alpine lakes had propelled our motivation, and we happily shared with family and friends our intention to ascend to the shores of this pristine lake. Their reactions should have been enough of a clue that we were possibly biting off more than we could chew, but I chalked it up to people thinking we weren’t bad ass enough to make it all the way to the lake, and we were determined to prove them wrong. If only that had been the case.
We stayed the night in Ketchum at my parent’s place on Friday and left for Stanley early Saturday morning. We actually picked the perfect weekend for this hike, as the scorching hot temperatures in southern Idaho had subsided, and it only peaked at maybe 85 degrees. The previous weekends had seen 90+ degree weather, and the mosquitos and horse flies, apparently, had been awful. We used the facilities in Stanley one final time (my mother’s voice about shitting in the woods echoing in my head) and finally arrived at the Iron Creek trailhead.
The Iron Creek Trailhead is the starting point for several trails through the Sawtooth Mountains. Last year, we parked at that same trailhead to go to Alpine and Sawtooth Lake. The path forks at about mile 1.4, and to continue to Alpine and Sawtooth Lakes, you stay right. To head to Goat Lake, you turn left towards Marshal Lake.
I could detail how to get to Goat Lake, but I’ve found that, no matter how prepared you are or how thoroughly you memorized any sort of directions, until you are actually on the trail, it does absolutely no good. I found this particular blog post to be the most accurate description to get to Goat Lake: https://33andfree.live/2017/09/18/hike-to-goat-lake-via-iron-creek-stanley-idaho/ I appreciated all the photos (which came in handy in certain spots), and also the detail with which they described the trail.
The first 3.5 miles of the trail were fine. There were parts that were a bit laborious with our giant, ill-fitting packs (more on this later), and the endless switchbacks started to get a bit tedious, but eventually we found ourselves on the other side of the mountain, with views of Stanley and mountains stretching for as far as the eye could see. To say the views were breathtaking is an understatement. We rounded a corner and came across a lovely little sitting area with striking views of mountain peaks jutting into the sky, and a group of older people who were also on their way up to Goat Lake. We struck up a conversation with them, and they were a bit alarmed at not only the size of our packs, but the fact that we had chosen Goat Lake as our first backpacking trip.
“Are you sure you want to haul those crazy backpacks up to the lake? This is really a nice day hike instead.”
“Oh yes, we are sure. We’ve heard Goat Lake is beautiful, but maybe a bit difficult to actually get to.”
“Well, they don’t call it Goat Lake for nothing.”
Huh? Neither of us understood her reference, but we were about to find out.
As you continue on the trail, a short while after this little break, a giant rock slab appears on the right. This is where you start scrambling. Not hiking. Scrambling. Per the instructions on the website, we were somehow supposed to figure out how to not only get our bodies up and across this giant rock, but our packs as well, which by this point were teetering on being a little too heavy. The card games I had packed now seemed rather silly. As we sat there pondering exactly how gravity was to work in our favor during this particular junction, two hikers working their way down the mountain informed us that if we went a bit further down the trail, there would be a sort of stair-like rock formation that made getting onto the actual side of the mountain much easier. We found the stairs and managed to somehow climb up them, and that is when the real fun began.
In case you’re wondering, Goat Lake is called Goat Lake because only mountain goats are crazy enough to attempt the final mile to the lake. There is really no designated trail, but loose rocks, loose boulders, and loose tree roots protruding through this incredibly steep and incredibly slippery mountainside. I’ll spare you all the cursing and near-tears we experienced on this part of the trail, but suffice it to say, we now understood why people thought we were crazy for wanting to haul all our backpacking shit up this hill to camp. It wasn’t a hill. It was fucking Mt. Everest. It took us over an hour to get to the top of the mountain, and mind you, this was a little less than a mile. My lungs burned. My thighs burned. My skin was actually burning from our close proximity to the sun. We slipped, we stumbled, we fell. I can unequivocally say it was one of the most difficult hikes I had ever done, and I’m sure it had more to do with the drunk frat boy strapped to my back than the actual hike, but I’m not entirely sure. This is definitely not a hike for the faint of heart, but it is absolutely worth it.
The entire time we were able to hear the falls to our left, so we knew, regardless of the lack of trail, that we were headed in somewhat the right direction. Another gentleman working his way down the mountain told us the best advice he could offer was to stay left. If we had an option between routes, take the left route. He said to stay as close to the falls as possible (without getting too close) and once we arrived at the top, instead of scrambling across ¼ mile of scree (which would have been a death trap with our packs), to get to the creek and follow the somewhat visible trail next to the creek. When we actually made it to the falls and tried to follow the creek, we couldn’t find a trail, so we headed back and began crawling meticulously over rocks and boulders, always glancing to our left to see if a trail would ever emerge. Eventually, we did find the trail (I think) and crossed the creek on a makeshift log bridge to the other side. A woman, sans backpack, came cruising up behind us, and we followed her the remainder of the way up to Goat Lake along the waterfalls.
Suffice it to say, that long, difficult, torturous hike was worth it. As we glimpsed Goat Lake under the massive, massive mountains, I almost started crying. Photos will never do this place justice. It wasn’t just the lake, whose waters were a stunning turquoise green color, or the water rushing down the mountains, or the mountains surrounding the lake that made you feel so small and so insignificant. It was accomplishing something that we had set out to do, that we wanted to quit several times during but didn’t. And we were rewarded with the most beautiful place we had ever been.
We set up our camp and ate food while listening to new age music blasting from the young couple just a few feet away. We met our neighbors who were also staying the night (case in point, when we first arrived, there were five other people camping up at the lake. By the time we went to bed, there were well over eight tents all dispersed throughout the area—apparently the word is out on Goat Lake). Emily and I had a fantastic evening complete with Mac and Cheese, vanilla whiskey, and the sweet, soothing tunes of Ani DiFranco. At one point in the evening, as Emily struggled to tie our garbage and food high up in a nearby tree (I don’t think bears would have been an issue, but who knows) and I searched for a place to pee that was out of eyesight of the 20-somethings set up on the hill above us, the Indigo Girls came on and I looked around and realized, this is, like, the most lesbian thing I’ve ever done. And started laughing. And couldn’t stop laughing. I almost fell in my own pee.
Here are a few photos from Goat Lake:
So things we learned on our first backpacking trip:
- I didn’t think it was important but getting fitted properly for a backpack is SO FUCKING IMPORTANT. We had ordered our packs online from REI when they were severely discounted, and while I thought I had measured our torsos correctly, I apparently had not (I would also like to point out that after this trip, when we went into REI to exchange our packs, turns out I had measured us correctly, but Gregory packs tend to run larger). Going up the mountain was rough but coming back down with that pack on my already bruised shoulders and bruised tailbone was almost unbearable. As soon as we arrived at the car, I threw my backpack off and vowed never to wear it again (that being said, we both now have new, properly fitting Gregory Deva packs that we thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy, and can’t wait to take out on our next trip!)
- Make a list of everything you want to bring, then cross off the things you can do without. Water filter? Check! Three different lighting sources? Uncheck. As it turns out, being forced to carry everything you need for the night will really make you reevaluate what is important and what may just be a nice thing to have.
- HIKING POLES.
- The corn nuts from Trader Joes were possibly the best snack in the entire world and much needed on the trail. Make sure that you’re eating regularly, and not just once you get hungry, because once you’re hungry, it’s too late. Same with water. Hydrate regularly to avoid dehydration or loopy brain (what I call when I try to stand up too quickly after sitting down with not enough water).
I’m sure we learned other things, but I think those are the most important. We woke up early, packed our things, ate stale bagels with peanut butter, and headed down the mountain. It only took us 2.5 hours to make it back to the car, and I’m attributing it to us really wanting to get the backpacks off and shower.
We would absolutely recommend Goat Lake to everyone, but maybe as a day hike, if you’re unfamiliar with the trail and the terrain. We can’t wait to go back, but may leave our backpacks at home.