It’s been a while since I’ve taken a hike. Hiking is one of my favorite and most frequent activities, but I have to admit I’m a bit of a fair weather participant. In the summertime, I find that I’m almost obligated to step outside and explore, taking on adventures in the comfort of 14 hours of sunlight. Mountain Meadows are much more inviting when they are filled with an abundance of colorful wildflowers instead of ice and cold. So when October rolls into November, and the winter weather settles in, I am usually ready to hang up my hiking boots in favor of a cozy day curled up in my favorite blanket, dreaming of getting back into the mountains.
I was in for a lovely surprise when Thomas and I decided to take a late November hike this past weekend, and despite the snow and cold it was just as beautiful as some of my favorite summer destinations, though decidedly more slippery. After a lazy morning involving some raspberry dark chocolate pancakes and bitter coffee to accompany, we reluctantly shook ourselves out of Sunday slow mode. The sun, gentle but persistent, shone right through my living room window, reminding us that we were wasting a gorgeous day. We dusted off our packs, pulled on several layers and wool socks, and set out for Lava Lake, a short but somewhat steep local favorite. 6 miles round trip, about 1600 Ft of elevation gain, and a gorgeous mountain lake nestled between several peaks down the Gallatin canyon awaited.
We arrived at the trailhead, and remembered only then that we had left our faux YakTrax (rubber soles with spikes you can strap to your shoes) in my apartment. With a few consensual shrugs and tentative tests of our boot treads on the slick trail, we set off. the first quarter mile had a fair amount of ice coating the narrow path, and navigating was slow going, though I was mostly (rightly) concerned with how difficult it would prove to be on the way down. The terrain turned to hard packed snow, and we were able to assume our usual hiking pace, about 2 miles an hour. Grueling.
Hiking is great in so many ways, but I think I enjoy it most for the companionable silences and wandering conversations that ebb and flow with the trail. There are no interruptions, just you and your partner and the wilderness. You keep company with the pines, listen to the chattering squirrels and the insistent chickadees, and stop short when you hear something larger crashing through the brush. You’re transported away from the fast and furious world of technology, the pull of social media, , and the pressure of time frames. Hiking is about moving slow and steady, soaking in the space around you, and appreciating your destination.
Though I’ve been to Lava Lake more than once before, I still revel in the astounding beauty as Thomas and I approach the thinning trees which give way to the glacial lake, completely frozen over and covered with a dusting of sparkling snow. The sun is warm, and even though the air is cold, melting snow drips off of the giant boulders that form the basin in which the lake sits. A single hiker sets off just as we arrive, and we are alone.
The silence is staggering. We both turn our heads as a monstrous black crow alights and we hear it’s wings rustle against the breeze, a strange and quiet noise. Some rock dwelling rodent, likely a timber tiger but perhaps a pika or marten scurries nearby, out of sight but within earshot. Then I sneeze, and it echoes marvelously off the mountains. we laugh and speculate about triggering an avalanche, then with the silence broken and the peaceful moment gone, we dig out our sandwiches from the pack. Thomas presents a thermos of hot coffee. It tastes like the best coffee on earth, warm against my cold cheeks and tongue. we finish our feast with some crumbled brownies, and they too are delicious and gone in a flash. Our meal over, we sit back and enjoy the sunshine, not relishing the idea of a slippery, shaded descent. But the sun, ever lower in the winter afternoon sky, reminds us that we best be on our way.
We strap on our jackets, snap a few pictures of the lake, and welcome a pair of snowshoers just approaching. Lava Lake will be theirs to enjoy as we start into the cool wood, towards the now beckoning warmth of the Jetta in the parking lot below. The descent goes quickly, and our conversation brings talk of Thanksgiving meal ideas, good, bad, and awful yankee swap gifts, and what we stir up for dinner later in the day. The way down is always livelier than the way up. The hard work is done, the best adventure over. All that remains is returning to the vehicle. The trail seems icier towards the bottom, and we have to delicately pick our way along some sections, but within the hour we arrive back at the car. Lava Lake? Check. Winter hiking? Definitely a must. There’s always something new to explore here, and I fully intend to keep doing so.