The day started like most summer days with a brilliant sun peeking over the mountains and warming the valley below. It was a Fourth of July weekend, and I met my friends that Saturday about 30 miles southeast of Elko at Thomas Creek Campground, in Lamoille Canyon within the scenic Ruby Mountains of Northern Nevada. As I pulled into the gravel parking area of the campground, I saw my comrades doing final preparations for our two-day hike.
I parked and joined in on the discussion of logistics, gear and food. We’d planned on a freeze-dried potluck dinner. Appetizing entrées such as beef stroganoff, sweet and sour chicken, and Leonardo da Fettuccine were on the menu. Anticipation filled each of us as we hoisted our packs onto our backs, and set off for the trailhead.
For the two of the five of us who had hiked this route before, we knew once we conquered the first 500 feet of steep trail, the rest of the hike would be a relative breeze. We took that first step up the challenging intro, and began our journey with smiles on our faces.
The aspen tree leaves shimmered green against white and black bark. We collectively locked into a steady rhythm suited to the weight of our packs. Once on top of that first slope, we took a break to admire the scenery. The floor of this glaciated mountain valley was a wildflower garden of blue lupine, red paintbrush and purple larkspur, with yellow flowers yet to open. Above this assortment of vegetation, a crown of jagged rocky formations surrounded us. Across the creek were the remnants of an old beaver dam that had been there for decades, but had finally succumbed to the earlier powerful spring runoff. We continued.
The day warmed, and we stuffed extra layers and convertible clothing parts into our packs. Along the trail there was evidence of beaver activity with cut branches and drag marks throughout the aspen forest. The last mile of trail, before the meadow, was lined with yellow and orange columbines, and tucked amongst the moist rocks were the brilliant pink monkey flowers. As I ventured near the creek’s edge, I found purple stalks of elephant’s head, a plant aptly named for the shape of its flowers, and my favorite, the alpine shooting star, a flower that looks a lot like a rocket with a trail of yellow, white and pink flames.
The creek cascaded over a series of ascending plateaus creating miniature waterfalls as it tumbled along. The meadow at the end of the trail was tucked into a pocket against a hanging valley. It was filled with tall grass from end to end. Above the meadow was a formidable headwall and a slim waterfall cascaded down hundreds of feet.
There we stopped and enjoyed our packed lunches. As seasoned backpackers, the group decided to continue off trail up the headwall to the hanging valley perched at the very end of the canyon. We climbed up over rockslides and through thick brush into the far reaches of the upper meadow. There we found a serene oasis with a mountain spring, a pond and evergreen trees poking out of thickets of red and orange willows. This was the optimal camping spot we had all imagined, and so it became our camp.
That evening we prepared the potluck dinner of freeze-dried meals. We sampled each other’s selections and voted on favorites. As twilight progressed, the cold night air enveloped us and we bundled up around a small campfire. Clouds moved in, but we still had glimpses of the stars in the Milky Way. We joked and told stories of other backpacking adventures until weariness caught up with us. There is nothing quite like snuggling up in a down sleeping bag, listening to the trickling water from a nearby creek, while a light breeze lulls you to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to dim light. The air was cold and crisp; I got dressed and unzipped my tent. To my surprise everything was covered in a light fluffy layer of snow! Apparently winter was either early, or not quite finished.
As I crawled out into this new white wonderland my friends began emerging too. We looked scruffy with mussy hair and bristled faces, and we accented our fleece jackets with “sock hands.” That is, an extra pair of wool socks as mittens. We boiled water over a morning campfire to hydrate our oatmeal, freeze-dried eggs and bacon, and of course, coffee!
Without need to rush, I savored the snowy summer view as much as the breakfast vittles. Maybe my thoughts got a little carried away at the idea of heli-skiing this time of year, but the scene served as a good reminder of the winter activities on the cooler side of the calendar. Maybe next time.
After breakfast we packed up camp and started to make our way back down through the snow flurries. Misty clouds blew low across the sky, obscuring the landscape ahead like some sort of deep misty dreamscape. Slowly, we descended out of the chilly haze, and reached the lush meadow below. There we took a break to enjoy the serenity of the morning. Looking from the green meadow back to where we had been, we saw a frosty white scene. The contrast was clearly visible almost like a line had been drawn to split winter and summer.
We leisurely made our way down the trail past the old beaver dams and aspen trees. The farther we walked, the warmer it became and we began shedding layers. By the time we reached the trailhead again we were in shorts and t-shirts. Though the journey was a challenge, the tranquility of nature propelled us forward and the pseudo change of seasons awakened our senses. We lingered at our vehicles savoring nature’s beauty before returning to the particulars of our lives.
I noticed the smiles on the other guys’ faces. In contrast to the excited grins at the outset, they looked subtler, more tired, but more satisfied. Clearly our time was well spent.