“It got cold last night and everything’s covered in dew”. It was a little after 5:00 and just barely starting to get light. I reached out of my warm down sleeping bag and felt the outside surface. It was wet with dew. On summer backpacks, we typically sleep with the tent side walls open and we’d never had dew like this. I added a second fleece layer plus my down coat and crawled out of the tent. It was time to start day two of our Swamp and Steamboat lakes backpack.
What cloud cover we had the previous afternoon was gone and it looked like a perfectly clear sky was dawning. Everything around us was covered in a heavy dew. I checked our thermometer, it was 30 degrees. As we sat drinking our first cup of coffee along the banks of Copper Creek at 7,381′ elevation, I could feel the temperature starting to drop even lower. I checked the thermometer again—now it was 25 degrees and all that dew started freezing. Soon everything was covered in a layer of ice. What a change from the 106 degrees we had at home just 36 hours earlier!
No surprise, we were cold morning packing up camp. We had adequate layers to keep our core warm, but our fingers went numb try to pack all our ice covered gear. I was ready to go before Jason so I climbed up the hillside into the sun to do my best sun soaking lizard impersonation. By the time we started hiking at 7:00, my toes were numb. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d be stripping, but I started in fleece pants and two long sleeved layers. Just before we left, I saw a young and old man hike past. I think they were with a multi-tent group we had seen up in the meadow the day before. I could hear the old man, “I think they should let us have fires on mornings this cold!”
We made the short hike across Copper Creak Meadows, a beautiful subalpine valley, and then began to climb switchbacks up the side of the canyon. Sure enough, soon we were in the sun and comfortably stripping layers. As we climbed, the trail became rockier and less treed, but the climb was never very steep.
At a mile from Copper Creek, we crossed a beautiful stream lined with wildflowers and climbed up another switchback to find ourselves staring out across Elkhorn Basin at 7,800′.
I hadn’t seen any photos of Elkhorn Basin, but had heard it was nice. Still, I didn’t imagine the small alpine valley would be so beautiful. Shallow Elkhorn Creek had a fine gravel bottom and its banks were lined with beautiful yellow wildflowers. Views up to the cliffs behind the basin were stunning. Jason was struck by the raw beauty of the scene as well. We both agreed this would be a fine place to camp someday.
It was just a quarter mile across the basin to a set of rocky switchbacks leading to a traverse into what I’ll call upper Elkhorn Basin. The outlet stream from Sky Lake ran through this area and we were treated to increasingly magnificent views behind us of Elkhorn Creek, across to Copper Creek Meadows, and beyond to the Lakes Basin. Above us and to our left, large patches of snow lingered on the north side of rocks which began to take on colors of red and pinkish orange in places. The trees continued to thin as we found ourselves in a wonderfully stark landscape.
We passed a spring alongside the trail and shortly after passed an unmarked junction. I suspected this was the side trail to Sky Lake. A short distance later, we headed off trail toward what looked like a nice viewpoint for a break. In the distance were spectacular views of the Lakes Basin and Eagle Cap while directly below us was Sky Lake.
Sky was a small lake and from above it looked like it would only have a couple nice campsites. Views seemed like they would be nice, but not what we’ve come to expect of an Eagle Cap Lake. Still, this is the last area on the route to Swamp Lake with available water. Finishing our break, we met up with a group of three backpackers coming out of Sky. Their only company at the lake had been a Forest Service employee (I had suspected Sky would be much busier on a Saturday night). The threesome was headed to Swamp to fish then would be hiking all the way back out that afternoon, a 13 mile day at elevation. Their gear looked ultra-lite and they clearly were in much better shape than me!
We continued our climb, working our way through granite outcroppings and small meadows. There were few trees at this elevation and patches of snow lingered above us. We had great views back to the Lakes Basin, but I was shooting into the sun so I didn’t get any photos I was happy with. This would be a spectacular location in the early evening.
As we neared the high point of the trip, we started getting views toward the northwest. Across the way, I could see the zig zag of a trail descending a steep open hillside (our trail to Swamp). A couple of horseback riders passed us on their way out. They had camped at Steamboat Lake and had it to themselves.
At 3.0 miles from our camp at Copper Creek, we suddenly felt like the whole world came into view below us. We were standing at the high point of 8,556′ with views all the way to the Blue Mountains to the north—amazing considering the recent smoky conditions across the Inland Northwest. Immediately below us was beautiful Swamp Lake. Its waters were a stunning blue and it had an interesting shape I’ve heard described as looking like Bullwinkle the Moose’s head. We took a long break to enjoy the beauty.
We began a gradual descent and soon came to a trail split to the Minam River. There was no sign to mark the junction, but there clearly had been at one time. This was the junction the Portland boys from the day before thought they were at. We took the trail to the right and headed north.
The initial descent to Swamp Lake was very gradual across an open expanse of rounded pinkish boulders and a few trees. The trail was course sand in this stretch and the hiking was easy. Soon enough, we came to the switchbacks that would drop us to Swamp. Like most Eagle Cap trails, this stretch was well engineered and was never very steep. There were some rocky areas and some skinny stretches with a little exposure that required atention, but overall it was a relatively easy descent. There were few trees here to provide relief from the intense summer sun and this would be a very warm climb out if done in the afternoon.
We reached the inlet of Swamp Lake at 7,859’ after a roughly mile and a half descent. This was a lovely meadow with side channels creating small islands of lush green grass. I can think of few lake inlets that match the beauty of Swamp’s. The trail flattened out and took us alongside the right side of the lake. I expected to find numerous campsites here, but we only found one nice one.
We crossed the outlet and explored the far end. At 5.1 miles from our Copper Creek camp, we discovered the prime Swamp Lake camp site—and it was all ours! We were set atop some rocks with fantastic views in all directions. A side trail lead down to the lake for easy water access (both for swimming and water collection). We had been on the fence about staying at Swamp Lake or continuing on to Steamboat. After finding this perfect campsite, we decided to stay at Swamp. It was hard to imagine finding a more impressive location than this charming lake at the head of a glacial valley.
We went to work with our usual camp set up and chores. We set up the tent, blew up our mattresses (no easy task at almost 8,000′), made our beds, filtered several liters of water, and organized our gear for staying a couple days.
Jason enjoyed an afternoon swim and nap while I continued my reading of Dear Bob and Sue: Season 2. I had really enjoyed their first book and was finding the second just as entertaining. We had full sun with temperatures in the low-mid 60’s in the shade, a wonderful reprieve from the triple digit heat back home. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful location or afternoon.
During dinner, we saw some people looking for a campsite. Upon seeing us, they backtracked and set up their camp a respectable distance away. We could also see two fisherman at the outlet that evening, but we later learned they did not camp at the lake. Aside from two groups we had seen camped down on Copper Creek and the party we met at Sky Lake, these were the only people we’d see all day. As expected,we had beaten the weekend crowds on this route.
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