Over the 4th of July weekend we had an invite to join some friends on a three day backpacking trip up to Thousand Island Lake. Having done the trip last year, I declined the offer and decided on what I thought would be a much easier paced trek in the Hoover Wilderness. I was familiar with the lower portions of both Molybdenite and Burt Canyons from previous outings, and they are easy enough. All that was left to chance were the upper canyons and the climbs over Hanging Valley Ridge. How hard could it be? When it was all said and done, accepting the invite to the other hike may have been the easier choice! But where’s the adventure if everything goes smoothly and as planned?
Following a little used trail toward Rickey Cabin
Our route would take us up Molybdenite Canyon the first day, over Hanging Valley Ridge near the top of the canyon to Burt Canyon the second day, and then back to the vehicle the third day. Knowing we’d be happy to be done hiking by the end of the trip, we parked our vehicle at the Burt Canyon trailhead where we’d come out on the last day. Just past this trailhead is a little used trail to Rickey Cabin across the bottom of Hanging Valley Ridge to the east. The plan was to stay on this trail all the way eastward until we reached the Molybdenite Canyon trail, a distance of about a mile over easy terrain said the map.
Near Rickey Cabin
When we got to the top of the ridge, the trail fizzled out, and we found ourselves southwest of the cabin. No problem, we’d just continue east cross country. And that’s what we should have done, but there was a trail of sorts that was heading off to the southeast that looked like it might take us in the right direction. Had I looked at my big map instead of basing my decision on my GPS, I would have not followed this trail. Paper maps are much better for route planning. We continued on.
Me: “Look at the size of those claw marks!” Kristy:”We need to get out of here.”
Let’s see where this goes…
The trail we were following felt like it was going the right way, but my compass was telling me different. I even tried to veer to the east, but terrain kept forcing us south. As we approached the mountains of Hanging Valley Ridge, I realized we weren’t nearly as far east as I thought, and were still right above Burt Canyon. The only way to break our current direction of travel was to crash through the wall of aspens to the east and head uphill. It was hard to walk a straight line in the thick woods, so we checked our compass heading regularly and tried to keep from climbing higher than we needed to.
Navigating the thick aspens
We eventually broke through the aspens and into a more open spaced pine tree forest. The walking was much easier now, but we ended up having to head back to the northeast to keep from gaining too much elevation. A thunderstorm was headed in from the east when we finally got out into the open. We were all a bit nervous now, exposed as we hiked quickly through the brush to get over the ridge and down into Molybdenite Canyon. We felt relief getting to a small grove of trees near the ridge line. When we finally crested and were looking down into the canyon, the rumbling to the east had started to subside. Looking at our position, we weren’t too far from where I had planned to camp for the night. Even with the errant route, we had still made decent progress to the southeast. New energy filled us when we saw a nice trail on the valley floor, just a short bushwhack below us. We took a nice break when we reached the trail, then began our hike up the canyon in search of a good place to camp.
Not out of the woods yet
Nearly over the top of Hanging Valley Ridge
Finally on the Molybdenite Canyon Trail
Making our way up Molybdenite Canyon
Less than a mile up the trail, we crossed the creek and came to a clearing near some pine trees. It looks like an area that has been used as a herding camp. We found a little spot in the trees the perfect size for our tent, and went about setting up camp and cooking dinner. I filtered water from the nearby Molybdenite Creek. It was cool, but not cold. The water was swift where I was at, but there are frequent beaver dams along the creek. For good measure, I hit it with the UV light (SteriPEN) just to be on the safe side. We joked about the challenging route we took that day, and I wondered how the hiking would’ve been had I stuck to my original plan. We hoped the next day would be easier, but we were headed into unexplored territory and didn’t know what to expect.
View down Molybdenite Canyon from Camp #1. We had Wi-Fi!
The next morning we awoke to the sound of some backpackers hiking out from McMillan Lake up the canyon, the first sign of people out on the trail since we started the day before. We were looking forward to hiking on an actual trail, and had hopes for an easy traverse of Hanging Valley Ridge at the top. The forecast for the day showed early thunderstorms, and it was already overcast. I was eager to get moving.
Continuing up Molybdenite Canyon
The first part of the hike was easy enough, a gentle grade up a well defined trail. Wildflowers were exploding everywhere. We passed the site of McMillan Cabin on the map, but it was too far up the hill to be part of today’s hike. Soon we were past where we had turned around on last year’s hike of Molybdenite Canyon and into new territory. This is also about the time the trail started to become more vague. We came to the intersection where the short trail to McMillan Lake begins, but the sign post was missing its sign.
Lots of wildflowers along the trail
Not certain if these posts are trail markers or part of an old fence
The turnoff to McMillan Lake, minus the sign
We could now see the top of the canyon. It didn’t look too far off, but the trail was starting to go away, and the brush, bushes, and flowers were getting thick with all the water coming off the sides of the canyon. We had to carry the dogs through the worst of it to get through the mud and overgrown foliage. Sometimes we’d get some dry trail, but it was taking longer than expected to make our way up the canyon.
Top of the canyon in view
Finding our way through the willows
On “the trail”
A brief section of dry trail!
Looking for the path of least resistance
Kristy finding her way through the brush
Eventually we gave up on the trail, and just started trying to find routes around the mud and bushes to find the path of least resistance. The sky was also dark, so I was keeping an eye out for a safe place to retreat to if a thunderstorm broke out. We finally came to a spot that I thought was high enough up the canyon, and we started planning our crossing of Hanging Valley Ridge. There were two options: Go all the way up the canyon and cross over at a lower spot, or climb up to the ridge directly above us to save some distance. Eager to get out of the muck, we decided to start climbing from where we were at and get it over with. From what I could see on the map, and the actual landscape we could see from where we stood, it didn’t look too bad. Just steep.
Top of our canyon climb
Looking up at the top of Molybdenite Canyon
Starting the climb over Hanging Valley Ridge
Climbing through the brush
The way forward was drier now, but the brush still took some navigating to get through. Kristy found a rocky drainage that proved to be the easiest way up. It also turned into a small creek that made a nice place to rest and refill our bottles. We still couldn’t see over the immediate rise, but we hoped to see our pass over the ridge soon.
Following the rocky drainage
Break time at a cool water source
Ugh, we still need to climb over that!
Climbing again, we finally crested over the hill and into a big bowl. Instead of an easy pass, there was still a big steep ridge ahead of us. My first thought is that it looked like a big tidal wave bearing down on us. As the trip and route planner, it’s always stressful when I see something unplanned like this. How will the rest of the group react? Other than a sarcastic, “Is this the flat spot you were talking about?”, everyone kept moving forward. At this point, though, what else can you do? We didn’t want to go back by any means.
Is this the flat spot you were talking about?
After getting across the bowl, we picked a spot to climb over the ridge. I looked up with much worry, hoping that this was indeed the top. Otherwise there may be a mutiny. The thunder began to rumble to the east. We were tired from the climb, but now we had a sense of urgency to get over the top and down to safety. Everyone was giving it all they had to get up the mountain.
Looking down from the top…almost there
I went up ahead to scout the route ahead (please be the top!) and make sure there was a safe route down the other side. Just past a snow bank, I reached the top at 10,935 feet. I was overwhelmingly relieved to see Burt Canyon on the other side. My son was nearing the top, but Kristy and the dogs were still a ways down. It started to rain and the thunder rumbled in the distance, so I took off my pack and went down to help her get to the top as quickly as possible. The sense of urgency now felt like an emergency.
Ponchos on! Let’s get off this mountain!
Almost the very second we were all on top of the ridge it hit. CAAARRRAAACK! The thunder boomed directly above our heads. The wind picked up violently and it started hailing along with the rain. I struggled to get ponchos on the family, the wind fighting to rip them off and blow them off into space. I had to tuck them into straps to keep everyone dry. Scared dogs were carried under the ponchos. I didn’t even have time to mess with my rain gear at first, figuring being a little wet was much better than electrocution. As quickly as we could, we made our way down the other side to the safety of the trees. Kristy was taking photos and video of the scene, and I humorously wondered if she was recording evidence for the divorce lawyer. It was definitely not the position I had wanted to put my entire family in!
Descending to Burt Canyon
Flatiron Butte in the clouds
Once off the ridge, the rumbling stopped, but we still had a challenge before us. The valley floor was still 1,500 feet below, and it was steep and slippery all the way down. All of us fell on our butts a few times to the point of it being a laughing matter…in a hysterical sort of way. We all agreed we’d find the first flat spot and make it our camp if we ever got off this mountain.
Finally at the bottom, we scouted for a camp. Kristy found the perfect spot right next to the Little Walker River, an existing camping area with level ground, a fire ring, and a nice log to sit on. We immediately went to work cooking, setting up the tent, and getting into dry warm clothes. The sun came out as we ate dinner, and it was so peaceful that it was hard to really believe what we had just been through. I looked back up the mountain and it didn’t seem possible that we had just come over it. We made nine miles this day, and the terrain made the first day seem so easy. We went to bed early that night, and slept very well.
Little Walker River near camp
So peaceful compared to just a couple hours ago!
We took our time getting up on the third day. I don’t think my son even rolled out of bed until after 10:00. It was a sunny day, and this time we were fairly certain we’d have an easy day of hiking. It was all downhill, open meadows, and lots of trail. Once hiking, we first had to find a way across the Little Walker River. It’s small, but just big enough so that it’s a challenge to keep your boots dry. After that, we set out across the low brush in search of a fading trail.
Morning view of Flatiron Butte
Even the dogs were taking their time waking up
All packed up
Setting out across the low brush
Looking back at the top of Burt Canyon
Very large boulder in the middle of the meadow
Soon we were hiking across the meadows with outstanding views in front of and behind us. There’s a huge boulder right in the middle of the upper meadows, most likely deposited by a glacier long ago. It was times like this that made us forget the hard parts. After enjoying the scenery and a bit of exploring, we picked up the trail. It fades in and out this high in the canyon, but it’s pretty easy to find. We found what I think was the turn off to Anna Lake, but the sign that was there last year appears to be gone.
Back on the trail
Partway down the canyon, we saw what looked to be the remains of a mudslide coming out of a side canyon off Hanging Valley Ridge. The river course had obviously been altered since we were up there a year ago. Beaver dams were washed out, and many ponds along with it. We stopped for water along the Little Walker for lunch, and got hydrated for the walk out. We wanted to sit at the water the rest of the day, but we could already see the storm clouds brewing. We headed on our way. Soon we were in the woods where we made camp last year near Piute Canyon, and we ran into a family headed up for some fishing. We were almost shocked to see other people.
Nearing Piute Canyon
In the woods near Piute Canyon
Busted beaver dam and dry pond
Lots of Indian Paintbrush
We were making a good pace down the canyon, already talking about where we’d eat that night. All-you-can-eat sushi was topping the list. Our legs were starting to get tired from the previous day’s efforts, and we were all feeling like we wanted to be done hiking. Through a narrow section of trail in the brush, Kristy caught her boot on something, and it sent her tumbling into the bushes. My son said, “Whoa! Mom just did a flip!”. Kristy tore her pant leg and banged her knee up pretty good in the process. I was thankful now for my bulky first aid kit, and went to work practicing my Wilderness First Aid training. We got her all bandaged up and back on the trail, but understandably, our pace was now slower.
Crossing the Little Walker for the last time
Just a little past the scene of the tumble, we came to our last crossing of the Little Walker River. There was no way we’d cross without getting our boots wet, so we stopped to change into our sandals. Once on the other side, we took a snack break to get energy for the final push out. As we were sitting there, my son said, “I think I see a tick on mom’s pack.”. I told him not to touch it, because I wanted to verify the sighting. I made my way over there to see the tick, but when I got there, I couldn’t see anything. My son informed me that it had crawled up into the pack while he was waiting for me. There was some miscommunication here. I wanted to make sure he didn’t flick the bug off where I wouldn’t be able to identify it. He took it to mean not to interfere the natural course of things, so now we had a missing bug. I opened the pack up and made a thorough search, but could not find the bug. Nor was it on the ground in the immediate vicinity. Apparently what may have been a tick was gone. Or so we thought…
Trail wash out
Kristy’s leg improved as we hiked, and the pace picked up. We came to a section of trail that had been totally obliterated by the flooding. Rock cairns marked the way through the mud, and we picked up the trail again on the other side. Soon we were down to the bottom of Burt Canyon, and the hiking was flat and easy. All of us were glad that we had parked where we did and didn’t have to hike any additional mileage to get to the trailhead. We were done.
Through the aspens
And through the brush
I would have to say this was the most challenging family backpacking trip we’ve ever done. Over the course of 22-23 miles, cross-country navigation, overgrown trails, bugs, injuries, and thunderstorms all made this a difficult hike. At the same time, though, it was ruggedly beautiful and we enjoyed the solitude, only seeing a few people over the three days. I don’t think we’ve ever seen more wildflowers.
One of the first things I did after arriving home was check the GPS data to examine our route over the top of Hanging Valley Ridge, the hardest part of the hike. Looking at Google Earth, I had originally planned to cross just a little higher up at the next pass. This section is 300 feet lower, but required more hiking to get to. Also, the descent to Burt Canyon didn’t look any easier than the route we took. Either way we would’ve gone would have been difficult, and I don’t know where we’d have been when the thunderstorm hit had we gone the other way. I suppose the only way to know for sure would be to go back and see for myself, although I’m fairly certain I’d be on my own for this excursion.
And what of the missing bug? A day after we had been home, Kristy came to me with her fingers in her hair. She felt something on her scalp, and asked me nervously, “Is this a tick?”. I was fully prepared to ease her mind, but when I looked, there was indeed a tick there. I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t begin a complete panic, but ended up just being honest and said, “Yes it is.”. We got her seated and calmed down, and I worked the tick out of her hair very slowly with some tweezers. The tick was still small, and looked like it had just bitten her. Over the next day, we learned a lot more than we ever wanted to know about ticks. We identified it as a female dog tick, and felt pretty confident there was very little risk of Lyme disease. No further complications came out of it. On the bright side, we discovered some new bug repellents from Sawyer that we’ll be testing out on our next outing that should keep away the mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks…all of which made an appearance on this trip.