June 19-21: Mt. Elwell Loop

To celebrate our wedding anniversary, and to keep with my goal of backpacking in every month of the year, my husband and I enjoyed a lovely loop hike this weekend. Work schedules dictated that we had to start the hike in the evening, so we arrived at the trailhead at 6:00pm on Friday. This late start meant that we got to start out hiking in the shade, which was nice given that the initial climb from the trailhead was south-facing and fairly exposed.

Less than a mile into the hike we came to the first fork in the trail. A right would take us to Smith Lake, a left to Mount Elwell. We went left. The newly-rerouted trail climbed through beautiful red fir forest. We hiked uphill for three miles and set up camp at little Maiden Lake just as the sun sank below the horizon.

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Sunset at Maiden Lake.

The next morning we packed up and continued on. A short but steep climb brought us nearly to the summit of Mount Elwell. Neither of us felt the need to scramble to the top, so we pressed on and enjoyed the views from the trail as we switch-backed down the side of the mountain.

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Near the summit of Mount Elwell. Long Lake, Mud Lake, and Sierra Buttes in the background.

The trail descended toward Long Lake, then climbed up to the ridge on the far side of the basin. We stopped for lunch at a small green meadow, where we were buzzed by a gorgeous little Rufous Hummingbird and had to fend off a hungry golden-mantled ground squirrel. After lunch we resumed our trek, and our trail merged with the Pacific Crest Trail. We followed the PCT for a few miles, then veered off onto a jeep road that crossed the trail. We followed this road through a gorgeous wildflower-filled meadow on the top of a ridge. Spencer Lakes were below us to the south. To the north was our next destination: Jamison Creek drainage.

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Spencer Lakes

We caught our next trail after walking the dirt road for less than a mile, and immediately began descending into Jamison Creek basin. Our original plan was to camp at Wades Lake, which neither of us had ever been to despite hiking the Jamison Creek trail many times. When we arrived at Wades Lake, however, we found a crowd of campers, so we promptly decided to continue on.

We hiked across the basin to the Rock Lake-Jamison Lake connector trail, but due to the steady stream of backpackers coming up the trail we opted to bypass those lakes and make for Grass Lake instead. At Grass Lake we would rest, eat, and reassess. Halfway to the lake my husband spotted a bear in the hillside above the trail and quickly pointed it out. I got a good view of the blond bear as it ran away.

We arrived at Grass Lake and located a lovely campsite adjacent to a large willow thicket. It was late afternoon but the birds were still singing, and as we reached the campsite I heard a Swainson’s Thrush – an uncommon bird and a real treat to hear! We liked the campsite so much that we decided to stay here for the night. But first a nap was in order. We pulled out our sleeping pads and flopped down the ground and soon fell asleep.

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Our campsite at Grass Lake.

It’s interesting how perspective changes based on the type of trip one is taking. I’ve hiked by Grass Lake many times and have never considered spending the night here. This lake is not a destination. But on a multi-day loop hike the lake made a perfect campsite. The impressive variety of birdsong was an unexpected bonus. And as an added bonus, we had the lake entirely to ourselves – all other human visitors were camped higher in the drainage.

After our nap my husband took off to go fishing and I set up our tent. A few hours later he came back with a large brown trout, which he cooked for our dinner. We enjoyed fresh trout in Paleo Wraps with lemon squeezed over the top! By the time we’d cleaned up it was dark, so we climbed into the tent and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning I woke to a symphony of birdsong. As we were camped next to a riparian thicket, I expected this, but it was still impressive to hear. The thrush was singing almost directly overhead. The dawn chorus also included a dozen other species. What a treat! We ate, packed up, and made our way back to the trail.

After less than a mile our trail, to Smith Lake, branched off to the right and we immediately began to climb. This trail was not as well maintained as the others we’d followed on this trip, and we were soon negotiating fallen logs. Shortly after we gained the ridge I saw a Northern Goshawk winging its way through the trees – another treat!

We continued down to Smith Lake, taking the older, unmaintained trail along the south shore of the lake. Neither of us had been to Smith before and we found it to be a charming lake, even with a wind strong enough to instigate white-caps.  We stopped halfway around the lake and ate lunch. My husband took the opportunity to go fishing one more time. He returned empty-handed and we continued on to complete the loop.

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Smith Lake, from the old trail along the south shore.

We soon returned to the fork where our trail had split on Friday night. Less than a mile later, we returned to the trailhead and completed our hike.

This loop hike was a fantastic way to see and appreciate familiar territory in a new way. My iPhone GPS estimated the total distanced hiked as 16.5 miles, which is probably a little high. On Saturday we hiked about nine miles – the most I’ve hiked in one day since I got so sick last year. I was tired, especially on Saturday afternoon, but I never felt like the distance was too much. I can’t wait for the next trip!


Bird species observed:

  1. Western Wood-pewee
  2. Purple Finch
  3. Olive-sided Flycatcher
  4. Green-tailed Towhee
  5. American Robin
  6. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  7. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  8. Western Tanager
  9. Brown Creeper
  10. White-breasted Nuthatch
  11. Northern Flicker
  12. Band-tailed Pigeon
  13. Dark-eyed Junco
  14. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  15. Mountain Bluebird
  16. Steller’s Jay
  17. Mountain Chickadee
  18. White-headed Woodpecker
  19. Yellow Warbler
  20. Rufous Hummingbird
  21. Song Sparrow
  22. Anna’s Hummingbird
  23. Rock Wren
  24. Swainson’s Thrush
  25. Lazuli Bunting
  26. Warbling Vireo
  27. Red-winged Blackbird
  28. Mountain Quail
  29. Hairy Woodpecker
  30. Osprey
  31. Canada Goose (with goslings)
  32. Mallard (with ducklings)
  33. Bufflehead
  34. Fox Sparrow
  35. Cassin’s Vireo
  36. Brown-headed Cowbird
  37. Wilson’s Warbler
  38. Savannah Sparrow
  39. Pileated Woodpecker
  40. Northern Goshawk
  41. Common Raven
  42. Common Merganser (with ducklings)

Mount Elwell Loop (from Gray Eagle Lodge trailhead)

Total distance hiked: approximately 16 miles

Total elevation gain: 3,860 feet

Note: Camping is prohibited at all lakes in this region expect those in the vicinity of Smith, Grass, Rock, Jamison, and Wades Lakes. Consult a map or the local USFS office prior to planning your trip.


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