When you think of lava in Idaho you normally think of Craters of the Moon. Or you might think of the lava tubes and flows around Twin Falls and further east. You certainly do not think of the Payette National Forest north of McCall.
About a month ago my wife and I decided to try to escape the 100+ degree heat here in the valley and make a hike to Lava Butte lakes north of Brundage ski resort.
My son had made the hike the year before and commented on the outstanding views and pretty good fishing. He also commented that the hike was long and steep but that there was a shorter version.
So my wife, Vicki and I got an early start to beat the afternoon heat.
There are three trail heads that lead to Lava Butte Lakes. My son took the long route (Big Dave trailhead) that climbs up a ridge (Lava Butte Ridge) and then down to the lakes.
We opted for the lower and shorter route (Clayburn Trail Head) that more or less takes you straight to the lakes without cresting a high ridge.
It’s about a 5 or 6 mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of around 800 feet. The hike isn’t that bad but it is a bit of a drive to get there. To complicate things there are two Clayburn Trailheads that lead to Lava Butte lakes.
As I said we took the shortest route (hiking wise) but the longest route driving. The drive starts at Goose Road at Brundage ski resort. Once you make the left turn at Brundage Ski resort you are in for about a 2-hour drive to the trail head.
You continue on Goose Creek Road 20 to 30 miles to Hazard Creek Reservoir. Continue past the reservoir a couple miles until you reach an intersecting road that turns south (right.) The road is marked Elk Meadows or Elk Meadows Creek Road.
This road is a little rough and takes you high above Hazard Lakes. It’s a nice view and gives you some idea of the vastness of the Payette Forest.
It’s about 8 miles from the turn off to the Clayburn Trail Head. It is a slow 8 miles. There is a small unimproved camping area at the trail head.
I tend to get a little anxious on a new hike. I worry that the hike may be too long and steep and the weather may get too hot. I worry I might made a wrong turn and get lost.
When we arrived we met a 78 year old who had just completed the hike the day before. That is the kind of encouragement I needed.
The start of the hike is a little exposed. Part of the area had burned decades before. However, the wildflowers really put on a show. After about a half mile or so you enter old growth and unburned forest. It was like a fairytale land.
It’s a little steep through the shaded forest. After a mile or so you come to a long grassy meadow. The hiking is pretty easy along the meadows. By this time you can see the lava ridge off to the left. An intersecting trail comes in from the north and climbs the lava ridge.
We opted to continued straight. At about 2 miles in you have one final push up and over a flower-filled ridge.
There are three Lava Butte lakes. One is a smallish frog pond and one is larger. You can see both when you summit the ridge. In late July there was still a large snow field on the ridge.
The much larger lake is not visible.
To reach the larger lake you continue down the trail towards the two smaller lakes. To the north up on the ridge you’ll see a box-shaped lava butte. The largest of the three lakes is between you and the butte.
You follow the trail down towards the smaller two lakes and then up towards the saddle to the east.
Before you to make it to the saddle, bushwhack about a quarter mile north up towards the butte. You’ll see the outlet creek and up and over the last terrace is the largest and prettiest lake.
This lake is full of brook trout. The best fishing is towards the west along the scree slopes.
Return the way you came.
It’s not a particularly tough hike, but it is a long drive.
Next time we are camping at the trail head.