Goat Lake – High in the Sawtooth Mountains…
Goat Lake is truly an amazing hike to one of the most beautiful high-mountain lakes in the world. The best time to go is in July, August or September and while there is snow at the lake all year round, it is only safely accessible these three months. It’s a solid 8 mile round trip hike so it’s great to get an early start by spending the night at Red Fish Lake Lodge. It’s a full service, rustic resort right on the lake and offers morning views like this.
To get to the trailhead, start by driving up Iron Creek road to gain access into the Sawtooth National Forest. This Forest Service road is just east of Stanley Lake. Iron Creek is perfect base camp and from here you can access so many high mountain lakes it would take a lifetime to access them all. There is a sign-in box for you to record how many in your party and where you are going. This information is used to track usage and help the Forest Service keep an eye out for stranded hikers.
The first leg of the hike is peaceful and sets the mood for the adventure. It’s a easy trail that meanders through Ponderosa Pines and up and over rock outcroppings. Keep an eye out for wildlife. We ran into a flock of sage grouse. They were so tame, you could almost reach out an pet them. The first sign of water is the wandering stream that comes out of the mountains. From here, you will turn left and start the hike around the mountain you are staring at.
At the left turn, follow the trail around the base of the mountain. You will stay low and get a feel for the vertical difference that you will eventually have to navigate. About your second mile you will start to climb while still wrapping around the mountain. Eventually you will go all the way around the face and start to get a view of the mountains to the north.
Now is when the fun really starts. As you look up and see the beauty of the rock formations, you continue to work you way around the mountain. Up and up you climb and you travel completely around the outcrop and enter the side of a new canyon. As you hike along the ridge you look down about a thousand feet to the valley floor. Looking ahead, you glimpse the view of the waterfall. You have gained the altitude and your first inclination is to travel down the path your on to the small lake at the base of the falls. If you do, you will miss the real treat.
The secret to finding Goat Lake is to think like a goat. Where the trail starts to drop, there is a rock that you have to boulder up to find the goat trail. At this point, you are exposed on the rock face that is made of the decomposing granite of the mountain. Dig in and hold on to the tree roots and climb. It’s a little hand over hand but doable. And when you gain another 500 feet, you’ll see the falls again but this time from an amazing vantage point.
After a stop at the falls, head up. The trail is boulder strewn and you have to just pick your way up. We call this leg the “Boulder Hop”. Goat Lake is up and off to the left.
After negotiating the boulder field, you find the trail head to the left…keep climbing. It’s a funny feeling. You know the lake is just ahead, you can see sky and know you are almost there but you keep hiking. Then, you finally hit the top, it flattens out and Goat Lake is right in front of you. It is in a bowl with mountain peaks over another 1000 feet all around you. Looking out, you see a snowfield with a waterfall…a high-mountain pass that will take you to another amazing set of lakes. It’s like climbing to heaven.
One of the amazing things is the color of the water. At the edge of the lake you can clearly see the bottom. As you look out further, light blue. Further out, the blue turns to cobalt. As you look around the mountain peaks you realize that the snow here remains all year. These snow fields are mini glaciers that even in September have great mass.