Between our Chamberlain trip, and my Idaho Centennial Trail trip, I wanted to get in one last training hike. I didn’t want to rest for all the weekends. Unfortunately, Ambrose wasn’t feeling up to a hike, so a short backpacking trip was now out of the question. We had thought about a trip to Johnson Lake in the Queens River area. Ambrose was inclined not to go anywhere at all, but I insisted. I needed that last hike! 

I decided on a short but sweet little day hike in the Boise National Forest. We would drive to Willow Creek Transfer Camp and I would do a day hike up to Grouse Butte. Grouse Butte is almost on the Idaho Centennial Trail. When I did that section of the ICT, I thought about going up to the Butte, but decided against it. It was like an extra quarter mile and 300 feet elevation. But I always figured I’d come back some time and get to the top. I’m not a serious peak bagger, but I like to climb high points. 

I’d actually planned to hike up to Grouse Butte last year, but I wasn’t feeling great that day and I ended up stopping at the top of Virginia Gulch. I hoped that I wouldn’t encounter the same kind of issue, but it was also nice to know that I could get a good hike in even if I didn’t make it all the way up. After all, Virginia Gulch is like 2000 feet of gain in like two miles. It’s a challenge. 

I took off from work early on Friday so we could drive out. It’s a 3 to 4 hour drive, and we both wanted to get there well before dark to get the tent set up. Ambrose drove, and I finally got a picture of a weird house in Featherville that has a sign reading Qspot. I’ve been seeing it since 2020, but hadn’t managed to get a picture until now. 

When we got to the Willow Creek Transfer Camp, I was surprised. I had been there in late June, and it had undergone some changes. New rocks lined the road near the campsites, and there were no picnic tables. The Willow Creek site was still under construction, and I’m pretty sure they were using the tables from transfer camp down there for something. I hope the tables come back, but we made do without them. 

I got the tent set up, and we settled in for some relaxation time. 

The next morning, I got up early, got dressed and got in the car. Sure, I could have walked the mile or so to the trailhead, but Ambrose was able and willing to give me a ride. How could I possibly refuse? Especially since I asked. 

There was one vehicle at the trailhead already, and I wondered if I was going to catch someone or maybe cross paths as I hiked up. I’ve encountered hikers on this trail before, but not a lot. It’s a tough trail. I think more people go up on motorbikes than on foot. Ambrose parked the car, and we both got out. I got my pack on while Ambrose grabbed the camera to take some pictures of me. He got quite a few, though the lighting wasn’t great. He even caught me in the middle of regripping my trekking poles, and I can see my hands in the flicking position, just slightly blurred. 

I started hiking at about 6:40 in the morning. The sun wasn’t shining on me, but it was up enough to give me plenty of light to hike by. Not as much to take pictures by though. The light in the morning always gives me a bit of trouble with photos. I don’t like using the flash, because it tends to put too much light on foreground objects and completely lose detail in the background. With my point and shoot, I need to get good angles and hold the camera quite still to get decent morning light pictures. 

The start of the trail is a bridge over the Boise River. Ambrose took some pictures of me on the bridge, and then crossed with me. It was clear many motorbikes had been crossing the bridge from the tracks in the dirt. Also, and unfortunately, clear, was the pile of toilet paper behind a large tree trunk. It was as if someone asked themselves, what is the absolute least I could do to get rid of this toilet paper? Because the only way this would have been more disgusting was if it were literally in the middle of the trail. I mean, it was less than 3 feet from the trail, and not buried at all. Plus, they were probably no more than the length of the bridge from their car. Why could they not have just walked it to their car to properly dispose of it? Why leave it there? I just don’t get it. 

So that wasn’t the most pleasant way to start my morning, but I tried to let it go. I can’t make other people respect nature and our shared spaces. I can only try to provide the best example that I can with my own actions. 

The Virginia Gulch trail starts off kind of easy. It lulls one into a false sense of security. Sure, you’re hiking up this canyon, but it’s not that hard. Surely it won’t get any harder! Ha!

After maybe a quarter mile of relatively flat trail through nicely shaded woods, the trail begins climbing. Switchbacks start and they just don’t stop. The switchbacks bring elevation and views, but they also have a relentless elevation. Up, and up, and up. Then some more up. 

Having hiked this trail several times now, I was expecting the pain. And to be honest, it didn’t feel as hard as it had the last time. Maybe I was in a bit better shape this year than I had been in 2020. That would make sense, considering how messed up that summer season ended up being. But I’ve also found that familiarity with a trail tends to make it feel easier. 

It didn’t seem to take long at all for me to reach the higher parts of the Gulch. There are some tremendous views, especially when the light is right. Today, I had threatening storm clouds massing in the distance, but no rain. And no one else on the trail. Which either means that whoever parked at the trailhead was walking along the river (there’s another trail that does that) or they were hiking so much faster than me that I couldn’t catch up. But the lack of foot prints made the former more likely. 

I felt pretty good when I reached the point where the trail crosses a road. It actually follows the road for a stretch, so I hoped I was remembering correctly to take a left. I walked for a bit farther than I expected, but I had indeed chosen the right direction. The trail veered up away from the road and I followed it up. This is where the hiking stops being so relentlessly uphill and starts rolling. Plus, the views began to include expansive views of the Sawtooth range. 

I don’t know exactly what it is about those views, but they fill my heart. They uplift my spirit. I try, again and again, to capture their essence in photographs, but I only get poor substitutes. Well, some of them are pretty nice photos, but they fall short. The best they can do is remind me of being there, which gives my spirit some secondhand lift. 

The combination of clouds and sunlight gilded the landscape even more impressively than usual. I probably could have stayed there a while, but I wanted to keep moving. Just because the hardest part of my hike was done didn’t mean my hike was done!

I took a break at the same spot I took a break the first time I hiked the trail, where a sign was posted on a tree, despite there not being any intersections at that spot. I also took that opportunity to go off trail and dig myself a hole. I was glad that I was able to wait until that point for hole digging, because the switchbacks don’t offer a lot in the way of off trail space. Up here, I can find a spot well off trail to do my business. 

Then I hiked on. The trail crosses a road, and then I came upon an intersection that I didn’t remember where the trail split. I decided to stick to the high road, just in case. I was pretty sure that was the route I’d taken last time. It brought me to another road crossing, and I could see where the low trail seemed to join back up right at the road. I figured I’d try that one on the way back, see how it was. 

Here, the trail becomes road. There’s a gate that allows the road to be closed off to vehicles. I think they close it in the winter, because the snow gets too high to safely drive. Oh, and in the spring, it keeps vehicles away from migrating animals. I do know the last time I was up this way, which was in early May of 2018, there was snow on the trail. If there’s snow in May, there’s definitely going to be a lot more snow in, say, January. 

Past the gate, the road wound on for longer than I remembered, with more uphill. And more switchbacks! But soon enough, I could see Grouse Butte up ahead, getting closer and closer with each step. I took another break along this stretch of road. I sat with my back against the embankment and watched as the line of sunshine crept from the edge of the road towards me. I ate a snack and enjoyed the incredible views. 

I was very excited to see the junction where the road I was currently walking on met up with the North Fork Lime Creek trail that I’d hiked before. When I hiked there in 2018, the entire junction was covered in snow. I had no idea what it really looked like. 

I suppose that excitement was why I found the sight a bit underwhelming. And it seemed like the signs must have changed, because I thought that the sign post was in a different position than it was before. Still, it was neat to see where the Lime Creek trail actually met the road – it was nowhere near where I had hiked over the snow. 

Then it was time to climb the butte, at long last. There’s not really a trail up to the top of Grouse Butte. There’s use trail, and maybe old trail, but nothing recently maintained. I remembered when I first saw it that there were tire tracks going up the butte, but I didn’t see any tracks now in the dirt. 

I did hear the roar of a motor in the distance, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out if it was a motorcycle or an ATV. I had a butte to climb! 

After a short hike up, I found a sign marking Grouse Butte. The map has it at 6941 feet of elevation, but it’s got fairly good prominence. To the north, the sprawling giants of the Sawtooths dominated the view, while to the south, rolling foothills gave way to green fields. The wind blew, and insects whirred, and I was delighted. 

As I hiked back down, I could see what looked like an old trail going up another butte right across from Grouse. I didn’t know a name for it, but I was out here to train. Why not climb another hill? When I got back to the junction, I could see there was a sign on that old trail. It stated that the route was closed to vehicles, but it wasn’t one of those “area closed behind this sign” signs. Since I’m not a vehicle, I decided to go on up. Especially because the motor I heard earlier was sounding closer, and I needed to dig a hole. What better place than up a hill where no one could see me? 

This butte had less of a top than Grouse. I’m not even sure it’s technically a butte, but I’m going to roll with that anyway. I wasn’t sure exactly where the high point was when I got up there, so I walked around a bit on the lumpy dirt interspersed with grasses and bushes. Then I caught sight of something weird, a shade of orange that I was not expecting to see. I mean, there are some orange flowers out there, but this orange was way too concentrated to be natural. 

I headed over to check it out and found a very strange sight. There were two shades of orange, and even some pink now that I was close. Most of the orange was like cellophane, broken and scattered over about a square yard. Then there were strings and balloon remnants, plus a white tag. At first, I thought it was a weather balloon. I’ve found those out in the woods before, and I think it’s really neat. But there was no box with instructions for return, just the tag that warned against touching if the balloon was still inflated, due to the dangers of explosive gas. 

At that point, I figured it must have been a part of fire retardant disbursement. I’m not sure that makes sense or not, but I couldn’t think of what other purpose sending a balloon like that out would be. Since I was on a day hike, I gathered up what I could (after taking pictures) and stuck it in my pack to take out to the trash. I wished I could take it all, but I wasn’t really equipped to hoover up cellophane from the dirt. I hoped that the cellophane was a modern biodegradable type; it was falling apart quite easily. 

Then I hiked back down to the junction. I had to step carefully, because the old road no longer resembled a good walking surface. I caught a glimpse of the motorcyclist I’d been hearing, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t see me. Then I started back down the road. Before I had time to get into my rhythm, I heard another motor coming. I stepped as far to the side of the road as I could, while also trying to be visible. Luckily, the driver of the ATV saw me and slowed to go around me. I exchanged smiles with the driver and passenger, and then kept on hiking. 

The clouds that had been threatening as I hiked got a bit more threatening as I descended towards the gate. I even felt a few raindrops. It was also time for lunch. When I got down to the junction below the gate, I picked a spot to sit and eat lunch that was sheltered by evergreens. I might get a little wet if the rain were to start in earnest, but I’d be well protected from sprinkles. I sat down to eat my lunch – a Sans bar. While I sat and ate, two ATVs came down the road. Both drivers looked like hunters, but only one of them noticed me. They drove off well before I finished eating, motor sounds echoing through the hills. 

When I was ready to move, the threat of rain had moved on. It still wasn’t sunny, but that’s not a bad thing when I’m hiking. I had a choice at this point – risk that the low trail would rejoin the high trail or just take the high trail again. 

I took the risk. 

It paid off. This trail was better maintained than the other one, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the high trail were closed the next time I got up there. The low trail stayed low longer, which made the climb to rejoin the high trail a bit steeper, but I liked it. 

I continued on the trail, crossing the road again and taking a break at the same spot by the sign that I had on the way up. I spotted a gnarly looking bit of junk on the dirt of the trail. It looked like a fistful of mucous, but it was a weird brownish color. I did take a picture, but I’m not going to post it. I wondered if it was some kind of afterbirth or maybe even part of some animal’s menstrual cycle. Personally, I found it fascinating, but I didn’t have time to linger and examine it more closely. 

The descent of Virginia Gulch is steep and pretty quick. By now, I have a good idea of the trail. I can tell when I’m getting close. But I fell prey to my overthinking. 

You see, throughout this hike, I had been using my InReach Mini to communicate my progress to Ambrose. We were using this trip to test how well the InReach to InReach communication worked since we’d be relying on that for my ICT trip later in the month. I’d sent him a message when I got out of the gulch, another at Grouse Butte. But the main thing was going to be sending him a message when I wanted to be picked up. It’s hard to judge how long it takes the messages to get through. We were hoping to figure out how long I might have to wait if I send him a message right when I need to get picked up. 

So I know I’m getting close to the bottom of the gulch, to the bridge where Ambrose will come and pick me up. I’m within an hour for sure, maybe half an hour. So what do I send to Ambrose? Something that makes sense to me as a “get ready to be at the bridge soon,” right? I tell him I’m on my final approach. 

To me, that means, get yourself ready and head over to the bridge. 

That’s not what it meant to Ambrose. 

I was actually within about 20 minutes of the bridge. I arrived and saw that he was not there. There was another vehicle parked, though not the one that was there in the morning. 

Now, I could have walked to the campsite. It’s not that far. But by now it was the principle of the thing. I’d asked for pickup, and to walk back would defeat the purpose of the exercise! So, I waited. 

Then I sent another message, less subtle. “Pick me up.” 

But that took a while to get through. I parked my pack on the ground so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I sat on a crooked bench that lives near the bridge. I sat on boulders that border the parking area when the shade left the bench temporarily. 

About half an hour after I had arrived, Ambrose finally pulled up. It wasn’t that he hadn’t gotten my message about the final stretch. It was that he did not at all interpret that message as a call to come to the bridge soon please honey. I definitely learned an important lesson there. Be clear and specific on my satellite messages. 

We got back to camp around 3:30, and I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering. I made sure to drink a lot of water and eat sufficient fuel, including post hike protein. It was a nice, relaxing afternoon. 

In the morning, we had breakfast and then drove on home. Time to get ready for the Idaho Centennial Trail!

Ambrose got some pictures of me getting ready.

Ambrose caught me mid-trekking pole adjustment.

Crossing the bridge over the Boise River.

I can’t believe people just leave toilet paper on the ground like this.

Mmm, ripe thimbleberries.

Virginia Gulch is starting to get steep.

A little sunshine.

ICT sign!

Scarlet Glia.

The clouds were hanging out, but the sun was warm.

Transitioning from trail to road.

The gate is open.

I couldn’t get enough of these views.

This junction looks so different when it’s not covered in snow!

There’s the butte!

Bird in flight.

And here’s the top!

Butte selfie!

So beautiful!

Another butte’s top.

That butte had a mystery balloon.

I really hoped these clouds would not drop rain on me.

Heading back down.

Teeny-tiny flowers way close up.

I couldn’t get the camera to focus on that flower without my finger in the frame.

I love the Sawtooths.

More views.

The threat of rain has passed.

Back to the bridge!

Now to wait at the parking lot…

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