Unfortunately, though we went to bed early, I had my most fitful nights sleep at Sawtooth Lake. Whether it was the temperature (it was cold) or anticipation of our upcoming adventure to Goose Lake I don't know, but as the sun rose over Sawtooth Mountain around 8:00am, I was happy for the warmth and to get out and explore.
As usual, I had nothing to complain about as I set out around the lake; the water getting glassier over time, our camp reflected perfectly by the morning sun.
As I made my way around the lake's edge, every few hundred feet seemed to present a new dramatic feature to check out. Rocky outcroppings dipping into the water, creeks ending in waterfalls just feet from the lake, and stands of vibrant grass were among just a few of the stops I made in my circumnavigation.
Then, as I passed the apex of my tour, I noticed a flock of terns(?) flying fast and low across the water. Swooping left, right, up, and down, they performed a beautiful, high-speed circle around most of the lake - an amazing sight that I stopped to take in.
Eventually I noticed life stirring in camp - which I took as a good reason to be heading back. And then, along the way I stumbled upon another camp site - this one with a huge fire ring and a custom-made TW bench. Could the TW stand for TacomaWorld?
Back in camp, folks were starting to be up and about but there was clearly no big rush to get going. We had a relatively relaxing day ahead of us - the trip out to Goose Lake our only goal - so we soaked in the beautiful morning, Devin @MissBlackdawg making enough bacon for everyone to have a bit!
Eventually we started to put things away, and we were all sure to air down - no one wanting to experience the rocky trail at full pressure again.
As it turned out, our exit from Sawtooth Lake was the most staggered we'd have all trip. Save Monte @Blackdawg and I, trucks seemed to leave at 5-10 minute intervals for some reason, which spread us out most of the way along the trail. Not an issue, as we all continued to enjoy the beautiful scenery as we made our way to the highway.
Eventually though, those of us in the back caught up to those in the front and we were a bad-ass-Tacoma gang again. And we happened to be next to Chain Lakes at the time. Things couldn't be more perfect, and we took full advantage. Even Mike @Digiratus was out of his truck - maybe not quite so cranky anymore - taking advantage of his "leader of the pack" positioning.
Eventually, after we each took our turn capturing the moment, we got back in the trucks and made the final run to the highway, the Beartooth Mountains rising up in the background. That's where we were headed - back up to Goose Lake - and I for one was definitely excited about that!
A bit of time on the highway, Index and Pilot Peaks filling our view, and we found ourselves back in Cooke City, MT where we fueled up the trucks and stocked up on snacks - Cooke City being our jumping off point for the afternoon's adventure.
The plan from here was to hit several peaks - each one hopping us not only a bit closer to the Goose Lake trail, but also higher and higher in the Beartooth range. So we headed out, the back way up Daisy Pass, to our first overlook - Crown Butte.
The higher we climbed, the bigger the views got. At some point, we took a turn on a road that even Monte had never explored - a cool first for all of us. We could still see Index and Pilot Peaks, but we could now also see the valley's below - some dilapidated old structures to be explored on another adventure.
And then, we reached the end of the road at Crown Butte. The views were spectacular. As we let the dogs out to run around and enjoy themselves, we gazed north and south - mountains as far as the eye could see. Some taller, some shorter than our current viewpoint - but all of them combined to create a picturesque panorama. Oh, and of course - trucks.
Legs stretched, and the promise of even grander views, Monte led us back down as I brought up the topic of lunch. It was after-all nearly 2:00pm and with Dan @drr gone, I had to make sure we didn't skip our mid-day meal. Soon, I was promised. Soon. For now, we had a peak to bag.
That peak was Henderson Mountain, and the promise that it was even better than Crown Butte was absolutely the truth. At 10,004 feet, we were not only higher up, we were also on a peak, 360º views all around us. We soaked it in, Monte and his parents @woodnick pointing out places they'd explored, and where we were headed.
But eventually we took our turns heading down the mountain - everyone now getting at least a little hungry for lunch. The initial descent was steep, 4Lo our friend as we headed towards our next peak.
Above the treeline for the most part by this point, I suggested to Monte that we stop if we happened to find some shade. The group was good with that, and as luck would have it, a few high-altitude trees presented themselves just as we spotted three UTVs occupying our next destination: the top of Fisher Mountain.
Fisher Mountain had clearly had some "work done to it," lots of drainage and erosion control evident on it's faces; every creek bed completely lined with granite rock.
As we remarked on all the work, Monte suggested that it was due to the plethora of mines in the area. He also mentioned that the pad at the top was relatively small - likely too small for two groups - so we pulled over to the side of the road, made our sandwiches, and ate them while we waited for the guys at the top to make their way down. Satch and Bix were out of the kennels at this point - running around, digging for squirrels and having just as great a time as we were. In the distance, we spotted an old mine shaft - one that Monte had noted before but never explored. Again, another great reason to return in the future!
Eventually the UTVs passed us on their way down, and we headed up. Most of this trail was steep and rough, but completely reasonable and no trouble for any of our trucks. There was however one scree field that we had to cross where I found myself thinking, "I think there's a road there. But boy, maybe it's just a deer trail."
Whatever it was, it was too narrow to get out of the truck to take a photo, so I had to take one from inside as I slowly made my way up, my adrenaline pumping the entire time.
As we ascended, we all hugged the uphill side of the road. Perhaps a bit too much - the FRV in front of me causing a small scree-slide resulting in more rock covering half the road. With no other choice, I drove over the extra rock, the truck off-camber and leaning downhill.
But I made it. And so did Zane @Speedytech7 behind me.
Eventually we made it to the top and the views from 10 10,214-feet were even better than those we'd had at our last stop. Mike, recognizing this immediately, pulled his truck into the perfect position - and then broke out the big grin when Monte mentioned he'd stolen the best spot.
As always seems to be the case, we never really get enough of a place like this before it's time to leave. As we got ourselves turned around, Monte's mom started down the hill on foot - I can only imagine because her experience in the FRV climbing the scree field on the way up being traumatic enough that she would have nothing to do with it on the way down. Smart woman if you ask me.
Eyes forward and wheel straight, we made our way across uneventfully, and then down the switchbacks leading to the main road and our final peak before the Goose Lake trail: Sheep Mountain.
While we waited on the main road for the caravan to tighten up, we spotted some UTVs attempting the switchbacks on the north face of Crown Butte. Clearly difficult to navigate, it was clear from their troubles that there was no way we'd have stood a chance in our Tacoma's a week before.
An then, everyone back together, we were off. At 10,414-feet, Sheep Mountain is the highest road in Montana and on our way we marveled at the views - stopping only once at some old structures along the way.
It was at this point that we nearly lost Monte's parents - their time with us running short and their trip home long. But in the end, the pull of the highest point and the fact that it was only 15-20 minutes away kept them going and there was no doubt when we exited the trucks that they'd made the right decision.
The view from Sheep Mountain was a grand finale. In the distance, Goose Lake and it's surrounding mountains - Mt. Fox, Wolf Mountain, and Iceberg Peak.
Photos really can't capture the beauty of this place - the views so vast and the colors so bright. Eventually, we put our cameras away and we just looked out over it all.
...well, most of us anyway. Some of us just dug for squirrels.
But by now it was getting late. Whether we called it late afternoon or early evening, we needed to make our way to Goose - a 2½-hour trek, and Monte's parents needed to make their way home. So we called it quits on Sheep Mountain and made our way back down over Lulu Pass to our next trailhead.
There, we said our goodbye's to the pups, Monte's folks, and the FRV and turned north - unlike our previous foray to Goose, under blue skies and sun. Perhaps this would be the time it didn't rain at Goose Lake.
The trail was spectacular, and the views were even better. Though we'd been here less than a week before, everything was different. Not only was the road drier, but we could see - close and far, the landscape beckoning us forward. Into what we thought we knew, but had never seen before.
I would call the trail to Goose Lake very similar in difficulty to what I'd thought to this point was my favorite trail of all time - Boulder Basin. The difference though is that there's a lot more to see and enjoy because you're in and out of the trees, and passing small alpine lakes all the time.
Tacoma's just seem at home here, and though it was getting late, the urge to stop and enjoy it was strong.
Before long, we came to both of the tougher obstacles we'd encountered earlier in the week. Having conquered them both at that time, we all opted for easy lines this time - enjoyment winning out over excitement. Truly, we were out for a fun drive - the destination the goal this time.
And then, as we rounded the final corner, Monte came over the CB, "We've got the place to ourselves, boys!" he exclaimed excitedly - something we'd all been hoping, but had been afraid to bring up in the fears that we'd jinx ourselves.
Now, a bit more relaxed, we setup camp in one of the most beautiful valley's I've ever camped in. I can see why Monte considers this such a special place - the mountains, the water, the green, blue and white. Amazing.
As the sun began to set, we ventured up to the lake to try not only to capture the light on the mountains, but also to enjoy all that was unfolding before us.
We spent a good 30 minutes up at the lake before heading back down - the last of the sun having left the peaks. Then, as we prepped our dinners and got the fire going, we glanced up. The light display that had so recently illuminated the mountains around us was now working it's magic the only place higher than the mountains - the clouds above.
White changed to yellow. Yellow to Orange. And Orange to red, purple, and magenta. It was our last night as a group and it was the perfect crescendo.
Our camp fire that night was - as is often the case on the group's last night - a mixed bag. On the one hand, we were all enjoying it to the max; on the other, we knew that by the next morning we'd be parting ways. In the end, we focused as much as we could on the former, knowing that the later was only temporary - in fact, we already had our next trip together planned, and it was going to be epic!
Once again, we'd found a pile of wood, the near endless supply meaning that our fire could be large, hot, and long. Still, we called it a bit early, Mike and I wanting to hit the road by 7:00am - a long few days ahead of us to get home "the back way."
...which would definitely end up differently than we'd ever imagined.