Posts Tagged ‘Cirque’

In an attempt to keep our crop of bug bites going from weekend to weekend, Amy and I made plans to head up into the Gros Ventre Wilderness Southeast of Jackson, to a destination called Shoal Falls. The drive out there is a little longer than the drive to the park, and the last 10 miles was on a crappy, pot-holed dirt road, so it felt a lot more like backpacking in Washington.

Not knowing anyone who had been to this destination before, we resorted to following some directions downloaded from Trails.com, which turned out to be the biggest letdown of the entire trip. They did, however, get us to the parking circle without too much difficulty, and even there the views were gorgeous.

The Parking Circle
From the Parking Circle

After gathering our stuff, we considered our options. According to our map and directions, the trail for this trip apparently meets again with the parking lot after a 12 mile loop, with Shoal Falls being at the furthest point from us. Given that information, “we” thought that it wouldn’t really matter which side of the loop we started from, so we picked what looked like the long side and started up the path. Now, the people that I’ve spoken to who are familiar with the trail network in the Gros Ventre Wilderness have all basically said the same thing: it’s a mess. Right off the bat, it was tough to decide which sign pointed where, as there were more trails than arrows and designated paths than were indicated on the sign. No worries though, we had our uber-accurate trails.com directions to help us out!

After some discussion, we settled on one path and started up it. Only a few minutes in, I noticed a birds nest just above eye level in a tree right off the trail. I couldn’t see inside of it, but I could reach my camera over the top to take a shot!

Robin Chicks

A few minutes further along, we spotted a small and rather naive buck along the side of the trail. He seemed pretty accustomed to human presence.

Small Buck

The trail winds through the forest along the side of Swift Creek — and in case anyone out there ever uses the trails.com directions, their map indicates that the trail is on the incorrect side of said creek. Just fyi.

Swift Creek

After maybe a mile or so, the trail meets with the creek, and seems to just disappear. We blundered along the overgrown bank for a minute or two before coming to the conclusion that there’s no WAY this is still a trail. Arriving back where the trail and the creek met, I noticed some logs that before looked like they had just fallen across the stream — not so. Three 7″ diameter logs were the makeshift bridge. Happy to have found that the trail continued on the other side of the creek, we continued on. …until a few feet later, the trail hit an unsigned junction. Without any real clue which way to go, we gambled on the left side and kept walking.

At about that time, this trail gets tough. It pitches up pretty steeply and doesn’t quit until you’re up the entire valley and through a couple of snowy basins.

The View Down The Canyon

The first basin (above) was a welcome relief, because you get to walk along flat ground for the first time in hours. Amy made an off-handed quip about maybe just wanting to camp here instead of pushing on to our destination. Little did we know…

Above that basin, we entered a giant cirque that was still filled with snow. We had already been dealing with patches of it covering the trail in places, but here the trail became totally lost.

Upper Swift Creek Basin

The upper basin area was absolutely vast — I imagine it was formed by glaciers many years ago, judging by its immense size. It’s hard to really understand the magnitude of these kinds of areas from pictures alone — they can’t really convey depth in a meaningful way, so I will say right now that the shot I’ve provided sucks. For a scale reference though (Washington folks), it was like standing in the bottom of the Columbia River Gorge.


By now, a few things were obvious: first, the trails.com trip distance estimation was totally incorrect. We had come in at least 4 miles, and judging by the provided map, were only 1/3 of the way through the trip to Shoal Falls (not even the whole loop). Second, it was completely impossible to know where the trail went – by now it was covered under several feet of snow with no indication that it even existed! Begrudgingly, we both agreed that we had been outmatched by the snow and let down by our directions, so the best idea would be to head back down to the basin we saw before. On our way back down the trail, we were treated to some views we hadn’t noticed on the way up!


All told, our “consolation prize” campsite wasn’t a bad spot at all. We set up the tent right next to the stream, and I built a fire pit out of some big loose rocks that had been washed downhill in the creek’s last flood cycle.

The sun started setting and soon our little valley was in the shadow of Antoinette Peak, but the sun illuminated Corner Peak behind us for a lot longer. Our tent and fire pit are visible in this picture if you look closely!


As we watched the sun retreat along Corner Peak, we built a fire in our new fire pit. Big trees here, I might add.


As it got dark, a myriad of photo opportunities presented themselves.

Moonlit Antoinette Peak
Our campfire and Antoinette Peak in the light of the moon.

We weren’t quite able to hold out until the moon rose over the Corner Mountain massif, but a few minutes after we crawled into our tent, the eerily bright glow washed over us. We turned in and had a relatively comfortable night sleep, considering that our tent was pitched on a pretty awful mixture of dirt, peat gravel and washed rock!

Since we did this trip as an overnight, we spent most of the morning hopping around the immediate area taking pictures before we packed up and headed back down the trail.

Campsite in the Basin
Fireside Setup

Swift Creek

Amy by Swift Creek

Morning Butter Cup

The trail back down to the truck was one giant descent down the steep, rocky trail we had climbed the day before. By our calculations, it took us only about half as long to make the journey – 4 hours up, 2 hours down. There was a falls we had noticed on the way up, but we knew it wasn’t our destination so we didn’t bother to stop and take photos. On the way back down though…

Swift Creek Falls

In all, the trip was a successful failure. I won’t ever bother with trail directions from trails.com again; this was too miserable a failure to overlook. I’ll also not expect the path to be visable on North-facing slopes above 9,000 ft. until later in the year — probably much later. We’ll also probably take the short way to our destination around any subsequent loop trails. But in all, we had a good trip and enjoyed some striking vistas. At the very least, it was a good way to be introduced to the Gros Ventres.


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