The Lakes Lookout
By JAYSON JACOBY
The Lakes Lookout is the easiest hard hike in the Elkhorn Mountains.
Or the hardest easy hike.
Either way, the view from the top stretches a long way and is quite fetching besides.
As the name implies, you can see lakes from up there seven, in fact, although not all of them at once.
Although when it's foggy or snowing you might not see any lakes at all even if you have the peripheral vision of a halibut.
And snow falls frequently at the Lakes Lookout, which explains the nearby ski chairlift, which you also can see.
If it isn't snowing.
Last Saturday, when I hiked to the granitic peak's pinnacle, there was neither snow nor fog nor even any clouds to filter the bright sunlight, and so I could pick out all seven lakes.
Except I noticed there were eight of them.
I had forgotten one lake, possibly because that lake doesn't have a name, although I don't see how that excuses my forgetting it since it really is a lake, with real water that I once dipped my hands in, and anyway it's about as big as one of the other lakes which does have a name.
Although that other lake's name is Mud, and if I were a lake I would rather be called "that other lake" than "Mud Lake."
Lakes or no lakes, the trail to the top is steep, gaining about 730 feet in elevation and that's if you embark from the higher of two trailheads (start at the lower, as I did, and you'll climb 1,400 feet to the summit).
But the trail's also relatively short a bit less than a mile, one-way, if you start at that higher trailhead (it's about 2 miles from the lower).
The group I tagged along with on Saturday my wife, Lisa, and our friends, Stuart and Meggan Hills hiked the longer route, and although none of us has lungs to rival Lance Armstrong's, neither did any of us wheeze in an alarming fashion on the way up.
Not even Stuart, and he had good reason to gasp since his backpack contained, rather than feathery scraps of fruit leather and a handful of dry cereal, the considerably heftier Caleb, who is the Hills' son. Caleb, who turns one on Friday, weighs about 20 pounds, but hauling his 20 pounds isn't the same as hauling 20 pounds of typical backpacking fare at least I've never had, for instance, trail mix yank my hair or shove my head so it can watch a squirrel scamper up a whitebark pine.
(But then trail mix doesn't smile in a way that makes you want to take it home and read it a story, either.)
When you clamber up to the Lakes Lookout's 8,522-foot summit and take in the three-state vista, you'll understand why the Forest Service built a fire lookout tower there about 1920.
You'll also understand why the Forest Service tore that tower down about 1966. (This courtesy of Leo Poe, a Baker City man who spent the summer of 1962 manning the lookout.)
The structure was made mostly of wood, scraps of which still lie scattered among the summit boulders, along with bits of glass and rusty nails. Wood buildings can't survive long on such an exposed place. Whenever I sit up there, wincing as my shirt, sweat-soaked from the climb, clings to my back in an unpleasantly soggy embrace, I imagine the gales that batter the peak in every season, and the arctic temperatures and the squalls of snow and icy rain, and the bolts of lightning that infuse the air with the odors of ozone and burning electrical wires.
And when, as on Saturday, the sun shines warmly and there's only a tranquil breeze, I'm happy that I can imagine all that inclement weather without having to endure any of it.
Anyway, I've always preferred my scenic vistas without frostbite.
IF YOU GO
To take the long way to the Lakes Lookout, drive to Anthony Lake. Park in the circular gravel lot at the southwest corner of the lake. There's an outhouse here, and a picnic table.
Hike south on the wide trail for a few hundred yards, passing several campsites, then bear right at a sign for Hoffer Lakes. This narrower trail climbs for half a mile to the lakes, paralleling Parker Creek most of the way. Look for brook trout darting in the creek's bigger pools.
When you get to the first of the Hoffer Lakes, turn right. This trail skirts a meadow and then meets a dirt road about a quarter-mile from Hoffer Lakes. Turn left (uphill) and follow the road about a quarter mile to the top of a ridge (you can see the top of the ski chairlift above and to your right). Stay on the road and hike due south for about an eighth of a mile to the trailhead, which is just left of, and steeply uphill from, the road.
If you'd prefer a shorter hike, and you have a high-clearance vehicle (four-wheel drive isn't necessary, though) you can drive to the upper trailhead by either of two routes.
The first follows the dirt road mentioned above. It starts at the south end of the parking lot at Ski Anthony Lakes resort.
Alternatively, you can continue past Anthony Lake on the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway for about five miles. At a pass, turn left at a sign for Crawfish Basin Trail. Follow this road (No. 210) about two miles uphill, to the top of the ridge. Turn right and drive the eighth of a mile to the trailhead.