A Visit To Sheep Lake (Part 2)

After posting Part One, I realized I did not share the location of my new favorite lake. Sheep Lake is nestled beneath Coffin Mountain's overhanging brow. While it is shown on the Lee Metcalf Wilderness map - an area which encompasses much to the west of Yellowstone National Park; is located only about 20 miles from Elk Lake (as the crow flies - but only the crow travels straight in this mountainous country); and is in Montana (never a given around here), I am not certain to which mountains it belongs. Is it in the Lionshead mountains? The Henry's Lake Mountains? The beginning of the Madison Range? All three intersect near Raynolds Pass where one finds Sheep Lake's trailhead.
The golden sun beamed from a robin's egg sky. Our trail wandered from meadow to meadow then along a rock-strewn hillside as we worked our way ever forward, ever upward.
Last year (another one of those hikes I see I failed to write about - definitely a must-do for the near future) Lesli (a summer helper and a great hiking companion), the kids, and I made another trek - to the other side of the mountain (literally). If we had the time - and the energy of the 9-year-old - we could have traveled across a 'divide' and dropped into the Sheep Lake Trail. In fact, for a one or two day overnight backpacking excursion, it would be fun to park a vehicle at each trailhead and explore the country between the two lakes.
The map showed the junction. We looked for it, but not seriously as we were not planning to head that direction. I'm just glad we did not have to find this junction to reach our intended destination because, it is WELL HIDDEN! In fact, when the USFS horseback team finally reached Sheep Lake, I asked them about the trail junction. They responded: We discussed how difficult the sign is to spot on our way up today. And, it was difficult. While we might have spotted it if we had not been watching our step on the rocky trail, I'm not certain. The trail jutted off at a sharp angle to our left, nearly parallel the trail we were hiking and in a seemingly unlikely location. The trail sign (which we nearly missed although we were looking carefully on our way back) had fallen over and was nearly overgrown by the surrounding short but heavy foliage. All-in-all, unless they fix the sign (and the crew we met were doing trail work but had left this sign lay so. . .), if you plan to make the loop, be aware the junction is difficult to spot, especially if you are heading up the hill.
As we gained elevation, the view back down the valley we had traversed began to open up. The Madisons rose majestically in the distance while the rocky hillsides in the foreground rallied 'round their snow-capped cousins.
It seems the trail's designers wanted to make sure any visitors were seriously motivated. While the majority of the trail is nicely graded with a steady but not steep climb, the last section was quite steep. At this point, the most challenging part was not knowing how long we would have to climb - and how many more climbs were awaiting us after we tackled this one.
The dusty, rocky climb dumped us at the foot of a charming little 'park'. A slow moving stream meandered through its center. Beautiful fish drifted lazily just under the water's surface. The surrounding mountains embraced this emerald valley while Coffin Mountain sat like a king enthrowned at its head.
The castle rocks looming over our shoulders further enhanced the 'royal'
impression. With ease we could imagine ourselves tucked away in a fairy
kingdom with castle walls and giant mountains. Further down the valley
we had even spotted what looked like a giant rock chair perched high on
the mountain side.
Maybe it is a good thing we were nearing our destination. Maybe all that fresh air and healthy exertion had gone to our heads. Maybe in another mile or so, we would have convinced ourselves our mountain kingdom was more real than the world we'd left below. Perhaps we were spared further delusion. Regardless, we were very happy to see what appeared to be a small rock dam just ahead. And, it was a dam of sorts, although I've never seen a high mountain lake with a man-made dam at its foot.
No doubt about it. Sheep Lake is a watery jewel tucked high in a rugged
landscape. Coffin Mountain looms ahead - the ever protective uncle. Rocky
arms encircle the lake with a posessive air. Beautiful fish work the shoreline
flashing their colors up through the clear waters.
Only at the foot, back toward the creek outlet and the little rock dam, do the mountains relax their guardianship enough to allow the lake to trickle through their fingers into the valleys below.
The time had come to rest our feet and fill our tanks. With relief we settled down on the warm rocks to enjoy a lunch of fresh baked sourdough bread, grilled chicken, fresh veggie strips, Cliff Bars, nuts, and cool water. Ahhh - lunch in paradise!
It was amazing the way the elements came together on this hike to provide an almost unearthly feeling. The castle-wall mountains. The lush, rich setting. The giant 'throne'. The brilliant and abundant wildflowers. A 'cultured' setting the rival to even the finest 'designer' garden. Even the rocks glowed and glistened as if they were drenched in precious metals.
About half-an-hour after we'd reached the lake, in rode the USFS trail crew. As we'd hiked the trail ahead of them, we knew they had only had to deal with one log in the trail. I suspect they stopped to discuss things like swampy areas and nearly invisible trail signs, but their amazement nearly matched our own. They did NOT expect us to beat them to the lake. We didn't expect to beat them, either - especially by such a margin. Nonetheless, as we pulled our packs back onto our trail-weary bodies, it was a bit energizing to realize we were facing the down-hill part and to know we'd already proven ourselves more than competent hikers.
Down. Down. Down. We worked our way back through the meadows, across the rock-strewn hillsides, down the several switchbacks, back through the open timber, and found ourselves once again deep in the tall, thick brush. Moments later we popped out in the lower section - the upper Madison valley at our feet.
The end! We made it! All the way up and back with no injuries and TONS of memories.
The hike up took us about 3 hours with just a few brief water stops. The trail back took about the same time, but we spent about 30 minutes picking a few of Montana's special treasure - huckleberries! Yumm - Huckleberry Pancakes, here we come!
Lady of the Lake

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