We had planned to leave early on the last day so we could get to town for some food and some drinks before heading home. So we got up early and were packed and ready to go by 8:30. Once again we were shrouded in fog as we headed for the car.
To leave Blue Lake there is a small trail that leads to the NW from the lake's outlet stream. It is not marked but should be fairly obvious if you are standing on the north side of the outlet stream. The trail that connects Blue Lake and Pilot Ridge trail, which is part of Blue Lakes high route, is roughly cut but much easier. At times it is like bush-whacking and at other times it is a nice stroll through some grassy meadows. All I can say is avoid it early in the morning, we got soaked trying to get through. After about 0.2 of a mile you will reach a trail junction. It was here that our day began to fall apart.
View from Pilot Ridge trail (wrong direction)
In an apparent misreading of the trail junction sign, we headed in the incorrect direction on the Pilot Ridge trail (for the record, the correct direction to head is right). It was not until we reached the wrong terminus of the Pilot Ridge trail that we realized our mistake. By this time, we had headed nearly 2 miles in the wrong direction and did an extra 1200 ft or so of elevation gain. With our already weary feet barely carrying our worn out bodies, it was a disheartening experience to realize our mistake. After a few angry words, plus an agreement that we should take a short break, we picked up our packs and headed in the correct direction. After we arrived at the trail junction and took the correct trail, it
quickly turned back into what is the typical of this trip, a beautiful
ridge walk this time with a view towards Monte Cristo Peak, Goblin Mountain, Keyes Peak, Cadet Peak (The Monte Cristo Peaks), Sloan
peak and a dozen others to the west and south as you walk along the ridge.
View from Pilot Ridge trail (correct direction)
In some spots along this section there is grass growing over the trail and loose rock hidden underneath. I tripped several times in this section in spots where it was very steep. Be aware of foot placement when travelling through this portion of the trail. This may be more difficult than it sounds with the ever distracting views around you.
For 8 miles or so, the trail winds along the ridge around Johnson Mountain. This is where our slight detour started to catch up with us. Having already gone nearly 12 miles for the day, the steep descent to the North Fork Sauk River made our day feel like an eternity. It has been a long time since I hiked until my feet were numb. Once in the woods, it is 2 steep miles through thick woods as you descend around 3000 ft to the valley floor. Even with fresh feet, that is not a fun descent.
When we finally arrived at the beach, we
quickly sat down to filter some cold water and give our feet a nice
rest. After a few minutes we noticed a trail that went off to the
right and thought that was the river ford as there were clearly logs going over the river. We would later discover
that the actual river crossing is down the river from where the trail
meets the beach, not up like we went. So when you get there, go left
not right. After the crossing, it's an easy walk back to the car along the trail you came in on. While the car was a welcome sight, I was sad to be leaving such a
beautiful place. Once we had made it back into cell range, my wife phoned her mother to let her know we had returned safely. However, as we had told her we would be home 4 hours earlier than we were, she had already contacted search and rescue. Luckily we made it back before they deployed people to look for us. That wrong turn haunted us all day. The thing I find most surprising, though, is that - despite the frustration, pain, exhaustion and near SAR experience - we still managed to find joy in the views and trail of the day. This is a special place and it will certainly please all those who visit.