YOST, Utah — After an hour on the trail, the arid sage-steppe country below me had nearly been forgotten. The change to a vibrant landscape — wildflowers and shrubs mixed with a forest of aspen and subalpine fir — felt like somewhere other than just south of the Idaho-Utah border.
While the Raft River Mountains’ lush vegetation might not have seemed as striking earlier in the year, during spring’s ample supply of moisture, August was only a few days away and most of the surrounding country was rapidly drying out.
The succulent growth was enabled by the limited sunlight able to enter the depths of the small canyon carved by Lake Creek as it flowed northward. The shade also benefited me as I labored up the steep, faint trail that shot up the gorge next to the cascading stream. The close quarters screened off any view of the high country that I sought during my frequent stops, but the immediate surroundings were more than enough to enjoy.
The verdant plant life inside the canyon was only the first of many surprises that I would encounter while hiking to the crest of the Raft River Mountains.
While attempting to not lose the trail due to the mass of foliage, I was startled by another visitor who came up from behind me. Malia McIlvenna from Salt Lake City was also visiting the area for the first time, but she had a different mission. Once an avid hiker, she had begun participating in ultramarathons a few years ago and was using the challenging terrain as a training exercise.
With the combination of steep country and fading trail not conducive to running, the forced slowdown had allowed her to better absorb the canyon environment.
“Those wildflowers at the last creek crossing were gorgeous! I just had to stop and take some photos,” McIlvenna said.
After a conversation about running over mountainous terrain and nearing a longtime goal of reaching the highest point of every county in Utah, she continued on her way to Bull Mountain, Box Elder County’s tallest spot at 9,942 feet.
We both lost the trail due to downed timber and thick undergrowth, but there were few options other than to bushwhack up through the canyon. McIlvenna soon disappeared into the trees ahead of me, but after 20 minutes the forest ended, the topography flattened, and I arrived at the edge of a stunning piece of landscape.
The Lake Creek trail that I followed, lost and found again, and the Bull Flat trail about a mile to the west, both access “the heart of the Raft River Mountains,” according to Darlene Bridges, Sawtooth National Forest’s recreation program manager for the Minidoka Ranger District.
She said both routes, which start at the Clear Creek Campground as one trail, are single tracks which allow any type of transportation no wider than a motorcycle.
Clear Creek Campground is south of Malta, just beyond the Idaho-Utah line.
My trail entered a cirque created by glaciers that had settled in during wetter and colder climates and ground through the mountains’ highest altitudes. The half-mile-wide hollow was rimmed with a picturesque set of steep brown and white cliffs that rose above me — though I stood at nearly 9,000 feet in elevation. Large boulders lay strewn in a random fashion, and after sitting on one to take in the view, I continued on the path that veered to the right and led me out of the cirque.
While nearing the top of the west rim, I left the trail when it failed to head toward the highest elevations. A formal route mattered less as there were few trees and shrubs to contend with; the landscape had become a set of open, wind-swept rises that ended abruptly at the edge of the cirque. I worked my way along the top of the rim until I reached its high point on the south side.
While haze from distant fires hampered the 360-degree panorama, I could still make out the Jarbidge Mountains almost due west. As I twisted my body clockwise, the much closer City of Rocks National Reserve came into view, along with the Albion Mountains and farm ground near Malta. In line with a snowdrift near my feet and Bull Lake far below me in the cirque, the Black Pine Mountains rose off to the northeast. Finally, spread off to the south across a wide expanse, lay the Great Salt Lake.
After lunch near the edge of a cliff, only one task remained before heading back down. I wanted to find and then hike to Bull Mountain — the highest point of the Raft River Mountains. While trying to identify the tallest nearby spot would not seem difficult, a number of rises with similar elevations appeared to be candidates.
While checking a topographic map for help, I noticed two people a half-mile distant walking away from a truck and toward a small outcrop. Besides my assumption that the visitors had helped me locate Bull Mountain, their presence also served as a reminder that several roads access the mountains’ upper reaches. During my immersion in Lake Creek’s wilds that morning, I had nearly forgotten about one route that requires four-wheel drive as it climbs to the crest of the range.
Bridges said extra attention has been given to improving a watershed which a connecting road passes through. The Johnson Creek drainage offers critical habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and efforts have included designating specific sites for dispersed camping along the route which originates from the town of Yost, Utah.
“In the recent past, signs have gone missing or broke, but we are in the process of replacing them,” she said.
After walking to the nearly indiscernible summit of Bull Mountain and taking a final circular view, I chose not to go back down into the Lake Creek canyon but rather use the Bull Flat trail. While the plateau is not level and tips to the north, its average 9,000 feet in elevation and treeless environment offer a unique sight. I did not bother trying to locate the trail that crosses the flat and instead headed out cross-country, as there were few obstructions to keep me from moving in my intended direction.
After reaching the farthest point on the plateau and intersecting the trail, a series of switchbacks led me down the steepest slope that I had hiked that day. Rather than the abundance of lush vegetation offered in the Lake Creek drainage, I was surrounded by sparse stands of mountain mahogany and a few juniper and pinyon pine amid sagebrush and curing native bunchgrasses.
This time I was not surprised by the quick transition into yet another landscape. In a single day, the Raft River Mountains had taught me to be ready for anything.