By JOE CARTWRIGHT
Special to North Palm Beach Life
Photos by Joe Cartwright
This trail was a hard one to find, at first. For some time I had wanted to hike to this seldom-visited lake near the Continental Divide. Just west of Summit Lake are Smokejumper Hot Springs, the only hot spring group actually located on the Divide. Before the Park Service did some trail improvement this was a chancy trail to even find: It spins off a convergence of trails, long and short; none were well marked. On my third or fourth attempt, though, enough modifications had been made that I was able to find the correct trail and hike to the lake.
The Summit Lake trail is a 7½ mile trail with a steep climb in the first 1½ miles, and a slow climb for the next six miles. The trail follows a creek bed for most of its way to the lake. The lake itself is relatively small – only a few acres in size. The main attraction of Summit Lake is its isolation and solitude, and it is a beautiful mountain lake. Views at the lake are nonexistent, except for one small meadow, trees surround the lake. I found out that there are no fish living in Summit Lake; apparently it’s shallow enough that it completely freezes solid, all the way to the bottom, most winters.
On my first visit, I found the remains of a patrol cabin from the 1886 – 1918 period when the U. S. Army patrolled the Park. All that was left was a crumbled pile of logs that had fallen in, overgrown with moss and weeds. On closer inspection, I saw that the logs had been shaped to interlock into a cabin. I doubt that there is now anything recognizable left, after over a hundred or more years of Yellowstone winters.
When I hiked alone in Yellowstone I would always make sure I made plenty of noise on the trail, either with bear bells hanging off my pack, or shaking an empty beer can with rocks in it, or occasionally playing rock music on a tape player I carried. On one trip, I was playing The Who at appropriate volume (LOUD!) when I saw a shaggy brown shape lumbering toward me on my trail. It was a huge bison bull, completely unimpressed with my choice in music. He was staking an undisputable claim on this trail, so I retreated to the tree line and put a couple of sizeable lodgepole pines between me and the bison. His disinterest in me was palpable. I watched him shuffle down the direction I had just covered, watched a while longer to make sure none of his relatives were trailing behind, then continued on to the lake.
A short distance beyond Summit Lake, the trail leads through the Smokejumper Springs, a hot spring basin that is unique in that it is spread lengthwise along the Continental Divide. Like other back-country thermal areas, it has no boardwalks or signage to show safe and dangerous areas. Thin crust above boiling water can be almost anywhere in the basin. Anyone wandering carelessly through this isolated area is likely to join the “Whatever Happened To . . .” Club. The times I went there I restricted my wandering to areas with foliage on the ground. If an area becomes more thermally active, the grass and trees all die off on the ground above.