GET OUT: Crystal clear and quiet
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The two toughest things about hiking Crystal Creek happen before you even get started. First, the access road is fairly awful. Put it in low gear and crawl the 2.2 miles. You’ll be glad you did and your undercarriage will thank you. The two-track shoots off the main entrance road to Red Rock Ranch in the Gros Ventre. You fork from it to the left after an eighth of a mile.
The second toughest thing about this hike is the immediate ford at the start. You’re usually not warmed up sufficiently to feel like a cold refreshing wade across a swift-moving creek.
I once disrespected its power, but not anymore. People have drowned in much shallower water and Crystal moves deceptively fast. Try it too early in the season and you will lose your footing for sure. The water in early summer is high on my thigh and moving very fast. The rocks in the creek bed are smooth and slippery. You are going down.
Here’s what I suggest: Bring a pair of old sneakers and put them on right out of the vehicle. Throw your hiking boots and socks across the creek. Lean upstream and wade until your feet get swept out from under you, then scramble for it. If you have a dog smaller than a lab, he or she probably will need some help. When you get to the other side, leave your sneakers there for the return trip. You will have more crossings but none like this.
Expect a few fly-fishers here. This place was well off the radar until it appeared in some guidebook or something. Now, plenty of out-of-state plates bump down the road to wet their fly in the first mile of Crystal.
Immediately after fording the creek, you start on a deep and dusty trail. Straight ahead is the accurately named Shorty Creek. It funnels snowmelt down a narrow chute from an unnamed bowl just southeast of Sheep Mountain. Shorty’s full run is 4.4 miles.
After a quick stretch in the open you will encounter a short 400-foot climb into the trees. It tops out and you are then headed back down in no time with a splendid view of the Crystal Creek drainage. In exactly one mile you will have to cross Crystal Creek again. This spot is wider and shallower. A deeper pool at the far end is a good swimming hole.
Along your left-hand side is a steep ridge where firefighters prepared to beat back flames during the Red Rock Fire in August 2011. A few hunt camps and cow camps up Jagg Creek were evacuated and fire managers were worried the fire could back up and fall down into Crystal Creek drainage and head for Red Rock Ranch. It never did.
About 3.25 miles in, there is an awesome campsite tucked away in the trees on your right with the creek nearby. GPS it at 43˚31.563’N; 110˚22.792’W. It’s located immediately after a trail split. Go left to head toward Jagg Creek, where you soon enter the beautiful Two Echo Park area and could hook up with the West Goosewing Creek trail, which comes back out to the Gros Ventre Road (another 9.25 miles from this split).
Jagg Creek trail heads into some remote Gros Ventre backcountry, including Six Lakes and into Bear Cabin Creek and straight to Ouzel Falls (both of them). The falls got their name from a curious swimming bird sometimes known as a Dipper, North America’s only swimming songbird. They are tough little buggers who survive the winter by slowing their metabolic rate to nearly nothing.
If you are on horseback or a serious hiker, you could continue on along Crystal Creek to the 13.5-mile mark, where you will be at 10,300 feet at this point. If you were to hang a right, you could pick up Swift Creek and be at Granite Hot Springs pool (about 5.8 miles coming in right behind the Open Door). Continuing on the Crystal Creek trail will eventually peak out and drop into a basin that is the headwaters of the Gros Ventre – a bowl that collects the melt from Steamboat and Black peaks.