Sunday, July 27, 2008

Horseshoe Lake: Where Uncharted is Shilled

Tired of shilling yet? I'm not. Behold:

Horseshoe Lake, where Frogs and Elk are King

The road twists through the woods, thick with pine and quaken aspen. Sometimes the road is only wide enough to let our little Toyota pickup pass, dragging our camper behind it. Sometimes the road isn’t even that wide, and the needles and leaves hanging from the roadside trees brush and scrape against the fenders, pop through open windows, stirring air fragrant with pine sap, road dust and yarrow. Over the low rumble of the tires on the rutted dirt road, we hear the calls of telephone birds, the warning chirps of robins. And always, below the din, the ribbit of frogs.

Through the trees, we see the first patch of blue, bright sky blue lower than the lowest branches of the trees. One more twist in the road, over boulders, we descend to Horseshoe Lake.

Horseshoe Lake is one of the many puddles splashed over the landscape within a hundred miles of Wyoming's Yellowstone Lake. This lake lies in Idaho, about eight miles south of Yellowstone National Park's southwestern border. Unimproved campsites – read, no outhouses anywhere – ring the lake's shores and are open to campers. A state campground on the lake's southern shore is used intermittently by individuals in the state's juvenile detention program, and is not open to casual campers. The campsites are divided, by Nature, into two areas: Those mostly on the west shore of the lake are in heavily-wooded areas and are best used by tent campers. Those on the north shore of the lake are in a gentle meadow and are best used by those brave enough to bring campers up the rough road.

Not being fishermen, we like the lake for its swimmability – it's rather shallow and warm , if a bit clouded with organic material – for the scenery: Wyoming's Grand Teton Mountain range can be seen poking above the forest canopy to the southeast, and for the flora: starting in mid-summer and extending long into the fall, vast patches of the lake are covered with floating lilies, with their dinner plate leaves and yellow and white blossoms providing landing pads for the lake's innumerable dragonflies. We like to canoe out into the patches and sit, soaking in the quiet as the dragonflies buzz the pads around us. We never saw any frogs, but we certainly heard them. Throughout the day, we heard random croaks, but as the sun set and for hours afterward, the little kickers chirrupped and bugarrumphed loudly.

But after the sun goes down is when the show really begins.

The lake, far from man-made light, reflects stars and a faint band of the Milky Way as the sun sets and nature's nightlights come out. This tiny lake, calm as a mirror at night, looks like a hole in the earth to an alternate universe of stars.

Then, too, in the fall, after the sun sets, the woods surrounding the lake are filled with bugling elk, who offer their eerie wails and yelps to nights so black and calm that even the campers are quiet as they listen to nature's symphonies. Sometimes the elk will bellow all night. They're loud enough, at times, they wake me up – and I'm a sound sleeper. But I don't mind. I just lay back and listen. They sing be back to sleep.

Getting there:

From Ashton, Idaho, follow Idaho Highway 27 east through Marysville for about twelve to fifteen miles. Shortly after the highway curves to the north but before it begins its ascent up the Ashton Hills, watch for signs pointing to the right for Cave Falls. The road is paved for the first few miles, but then turns into a rather good two-lane gravel road. Travel along the road for a good eight miles or so after the pavement ends, and watch for signs pointing to the left for a girl scout camp. The road for the scout camp angles off to the northwest. Don't take that road, but use it as a landmark. The road you're on will cut through a meadow. The road to Horseshoe Lake lies just past the meadow, off to the left. The Forest Service tries to maintain a sign pointing the way to Horseshoe Lake, but more often than not the sign has been knocked to the ground, so don't depend on it.

A few cautions:

The road in to the lake is 4 ½ miles of one lane dirt road, and is rather rough. I recommend not taking cars down the road unless you don't have a particular attachment to your undercarriage. The last 100 yards of the road is especially rocky and rilled with water tracks, so descend to the lake at your peril.

As this is a lake, there are mosquitoes. At times, clouds – no, thunderheads – of them. Bring repellent and pray for hot weather, which keeps the mosquitoes down. The later in the year you stay at Horseshoe lake, the fewer bugs there are.

The woods around the lake are wild and, at times, rather swampy, especially to the east of the lake. Just be wary where you walk.

What to bring:

Aside from your regular camping gear, bring bug repellent, swimming suits, a canoe or raft, fishing poles (and licenses, as the Sneeds patrol the area) and firewood. Though the campground is in a wooded setting, there's little deadfall for campfires. Also, check on local fire conditions by calling the Ashton Ranger Station at 652-7442, as extreme conditions means an automatic ban on campfires.

Also in the area:

Cave Falls, another ten miles up the road. This National Park Service campground (it's just inside Yellowstone) provides access to Cave Falls which, as the name implies, is a shallow cave right at the cusp of a modest waterfall on a tributary of the Snake River. The area is also a springboard for back country hikes into the park itself.

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