Buckhorn Lakes expedition


We visit a mess of lakes, climb a few peaks, and do a total explore of some of Idaho's best country.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

It was 4th of July weekend, so we were looking to get about as far away from McCall as possible. Not air miles, mind you, but isolated. Socially distanced. It worked out great; until we were a couple miles from the car on our way home, I only saw these two rough characters. If you don't know them, that's Tuesday Dave on the left, my brother Tom on the right.


We started off walking, nay, strolling, up the East Fork trail. After about 3.5 miles, we did a deep and very cold wade of the East Fork where we left the trail, and then Dave led us up the short route to what he calls Secret Lake. But let me tell you, it's no secret that this is a soul-crushing 1800' off-trail climb, especially soul-crushing with full packs. The fish weren't too active, but there were fish.


From the lake, it's up and over the ridge to a nice side-hill traverse into the bench that holds the Idler Lakes. Park-like. And snowy!


Yes, the lake is partially frozen over. But not so much that you can't get a good reflecting picture.

But wait...there's the lake at which we intended to camp. Less lake, more ice. Are we gonna find dry ground to set up the tents? Surely July is way too late to be camping on snow. Trailhead

We went around to the camp spot we had seen last fall. Dry here. Dry enough to remove the boots and have an afternoon glass of wine.

And although we were tired, Ruby was ready to play stick. Again.


And yes, enough room for the tents. Barely. But don't bother trying to put tent stakes in the 1" deep dirt.

July or not, when we woke the next morning there was a fresh skim of ice on the open leads of the lake.

It was a gorgeous morning, so we got an early start. There's our camping lake below us. The shadowed valley on the right is Idler Creek, which we would be visiting in a couple of days. Trailhead
Meanwhile, our focus was up to Idler Peak. To get to this point, we had had to negotiate some fairly steep snow. No ice axes or crampons, so last night's freeze sort of added to the excitement. Trailhead
When we got to our peak, we dropped the big packs. By this time the snow had been in the sun for a while, so the steep headwall of the peak was a little less terrifying. The highpoint on the horizon is Nick Peak, which was on our agenda for tomorrow.. Trailhead
Once we gained the summit ridge, it was easy cruising. Click for a bigger image so you can see Ruby smiling. She was having a blast blasting around the snowy hillside at full tilt. Trailhead
Tom celebrating Idler. You can see McCall in the background. Tom, our Idler virgin, was sort of astonished that after all that effort town was so close. Trailhead
Too bad the scenery wasn't better. Trailhead

Across the way, that's Bearpaw on the right, Rainbow on the left.

In the middle background you can see the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River. And on the horizon, peaks of the Frank Church.

Time to head down. I'm not usually so lucky as to catch my Bro on his butt. But there you go- my weekend is complete! Trailhead

When we got back to our loads, it was a short traverse into the pass above Buckhorn Lakes. Once through the pass, we were on a southern exposure so no more snow. Or not much, anyway.

Below, the view from our campsite. Too bad it was so crowded. But it was only noon, so we had more work to do.

We set up camp and then headed down to the big Buckhorn Lake. This is the view from the outlet. Trailhead

And this was our view of Ladyfinger.

On the map, it's sort of an inconsequential bump on a ridge, not even having a full 300' of prominence. But on Lists of John it shows as a peak, so for me it was a must-climb. But with this view of the little bump, I wasn't too sure.

But as our first bite of the elephant, we have to get up into that saddle. Even that presented some challenges. We eventually found what is best described as a low-angle waterfall that although not brushy, offered up slimy, slippery rocks to climb. And of course, waterfalls have water running down them, don'cha know?

From the saddle atop our 'waterfall', we turned the peak on its south side, glancing nervously up at the towering cliffs. On the southeast corner we found a sandy chute full of loose boulders. Yumm. But at least there was the possibility of uphill progress if we could just avoid beaning one another with the boulders. Trailhead

With a few twists and turns, plus a few intense discussions about the looseness of our route, especially with Ruby who seemed happy to run all over the place, we made it.

Then back to camp. Descend Ladyfinger, and climb back up the 800' to the upper lake. Tired boys, and this had supposedly been our rest day, and only day two.

The next morning we were only slightly slower getting out of camp, despite the fact that our first step was steeply uphill. After 1100' of that, we were on top of Bearpaw, looking north up the ridge to Rainbow in the foreground, and finally Nick. Trailhead
Summit of Bearpaw. What you don't see here is the HUGE drop off the left side. Trailhead
The north ridge supplied endless fun for Ruby, who was running downhill as fast as she could, then cycling back up to do it again. Us humans carefully plunge-stepped, stomping forcefully into the frozen snow for grip, meanwhile trying to not go all the way through to our crotches. It's a delicate dance. Trailhead

At this point I need to apologize.... my camera has been on the fritz ever since I went swimming with it in an irrigation ditch. To keep the battery alive, I have to remove it. So I didn't take a lot more photos. Please take the time to visit Dave's blog, linked below, to see more of the wonders of this trip.

As we neared the summit of Rainbow, I was searching my aged brain trying to remember the secrets to the rock tower on top. In my efforts to focus, I missed the goat. Dave says he stared into the goat's black eyes. Hearing his exclamation, I looked up just in time to catch a glimpse of its disappearing haunches.

And here's Dave at Nick Lake. Note the cliffs behind him. We had to find a way down those cliffs to get here.


So while the battery is in the camera, here's a shot of the huge Nick Lake. We didn't do much exploring here, but there was a little fishing going on.

That's the summit of Nick in the background. The original plan was to try to tag the top. But I was feeling pretty fried about here, so my try was now converted to simply get back to camp. Once we struggled back out of the Nick cliffs, we headed down to both of the Rainbow Lakes.


This is the outlet of the lower Rainbow Lake, looking up at Rainbow Peak, center.

From there, we had a stiff climb up and over the ridge, a climb aided by finding a game trail of ancient tread for a while. Then we rounded the ridge only to find a monstrous slab blocking the way. Up, up, and up some more. And then what seemed an interminable side hilling traverse back to camp. But in reality, not much more than a mile.


Once back at the upper Buckhorn Lake, there was fishing. Napping. And then the wine was all gone. Time to head home.

The next morning we groaned as we donned the big packs to climb the 800' back to the saddle above Idler Creek. Going down Idler worked pretty well; the snow burying a lot of the deadfall, and I only sank to my crotch a couple times. Dave and Tom found my floundering both entertaining and useful.

Down lower, the brush hadn't fully filled in so the doGPS was able to follow the trail most of the time. Her trail memory is truly amazing. And her nose.

And then there was the crossing of the East Fork. The water was fast and deep, like crotch deep. Like, yeah, my crotch was in the water. Brrr! Little Ruby made it about half way across before clambering up onto a submerged boulder. From there, the creek was channelized and moving fast. She wasn't sure what to do, so I got into the eddy behind her boulder and simply flung the pup across the channel. Mission accomplished.

The last four miles, now on a good trail, seemed to take somewhere just short of forever. We saw people. It was hot. Thankfully, the beers in the truck were cold. What a great adventure!

See Dave's excellent photos:



Please note that a trip like this is not for the faint-hearted. Most of it was off-trail, or perhaps following faint, unmarked game trails.


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