Ryan Jordan

Finding Lightning

It’s not hard to find something if you know where to look.

After all, Lightning Lake is on the map, you can get GPS coordinates for it, and you can see it with Google Earth.

However, Lightning Lake has a long and storied history among Golden Trout fishermen and backcountry addicts as being notoriously difficult to reach.

The easy way (if you can call it that) requires a very long day involving several hours of trail followed by a few – or more – hours of steep, high altitude plateau-hopping to reach the lake. Most people opting for this route take two days.

Confident Zealots take the much shorter (mileage) but much more painful bushwhack route up Lightning Creek. It’s steep, full of deadfall and dense brush, and offers known but awful opportunities to camp on a steep and slippery forested slope. Darkness has claimed more than a few traveling this route and turned their weekend into a suffer fest.

The last time I took the Lightning Creek route I navigated in the dark by GPS and bled. I vowed never to come back again.

But here I am.

The allure of trophy goldens is too tempting.

This time we came to the cairn that marks the point at which the naive should leave the trail and tackle Lightning Creek. We kept going.

After another mile or so we veered south in an attempt to thread the needle through the Twin Creeks.

We covered these six miles in two and a half hours.

After crossing the numbing cold waters of the West Fork of the Stillwater River, we entered the bush. I started having flashbacks when I came to my first climb-over deadfall.

The next half mile was steep and laborious, but it only took us an hour and a half. This route is Disneyland compared to Lightning Creek!

Once we got out of the nastiness the rest of the way up to the plateau and down into Lightning was actually some fine wild trekking.

We made the lake at 5:30, only 6.25 hours after leaving the trailhead.


Today was a cold day. We spent most of it in the shade and rest breaks brought shivering. There is a dusting of snow on the ground at all elevations. Forest streams are frozen and giant icicles hang from the sweepers dangling over the West Fork.

We have spooked mule deer and several grouse. Otherwise, it feels like everyone has gone elsewhere now that summer is long gone.

We are camped on a nice bench overlooking Little Lightning Lake. We can hear the howling of winds swirling around on the 11,000+-foot plateau to our east, and I’m glad I’m not camped up there tonight.

I’m tucked under the cover of a dense stand of white bark pines in my bivy sack, protected from the elements by a winter down quilt and parka, and I’m wearing all of my clothes. I’m sleeping with my water bottle, wet shoes, so they aren’t frozen solid in the morning.

Tomorrow we fish.


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