GET OUT: Mud, snakes and slides

By on July 21, 2015

Embracing unexpected adventure in the Gros Ventre

A bird’s eye view of the Crystal Creek landslide. (Photo: Matt Lancaster/USFS)

A bird’s eye view of the Crystal Creek landslide. (Photo: Matt Lancaster/USFS)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – My strong desire to see something new recently collided along with rumors of a legendary disaster in the Gros Ventre led me to the Crystal Creek landslide. No, it’s not the famous Gros Ventre Slide but another slide that happened in the last decade or so. The National Forest Service website made it sound enticing: “More recently the Crystal Creek landslide has challenged the Gros Ventre Slide’s ferocity, forever changing the path of Wild and Scenic Crystal Creek and the mountains and meadows surrounding it.” I had to see it to believe it.

We began from the Crystal Creek Trailhead, a couple miles up from Slide Lake. A young couple car camping scarfed up the last of their breakfast and joined us for the first creek crossing. I felt further validated in the destination choice because others were curious about this feature as well. While the official trail map suggests the path begins on the east side of the creek, experienced hikers have suggested that crossing the creek at the trailhead saves some strife, avoiding a loose and rocky side hill at the base of the red cliffs.

From the creek, we walked up a horse trail over a small knoll leading back down to the water. About a mile in was another creek crossing, but from here the trail became fairly consistent and easy to follow. It was clear that a lot of horses travel up the path as it quickly turned to hardened prints of horseshoes. Walking on this surface was a bit awkward but bearable.

With each consecutive creek passage, my feet lost a bit more feeling. After the fourth one, we arrived at a newly formed lake, created by the slide. Mass amounts of boulders, trees and mud swept down into Crystal Creek, creating a natural dam. The slide itself looks like a chunk of the mountain fell off. Trees with branches stand tall in this freak of natural wonder and you can see down to the bottom of the crystal clear lake. We walked around the lake until we hit a creek inlet, and then scurried across the creek to the side of the landslide.

Walking on the landslide felt similar to what I imagine walking on the moon is like. A few invasive weeds and some flowers grew in the red mud. The slide required multiple trail reroutes, which appeared as old sticks, propped up with rocks. The ground had hardened so much that it was impossible to imagine digging anything into this earth. Nearing the shore of the lake, we stumbled on some of the purest mud I had ever seen. Comprised of a thin layer of crust, the silky mire lie just below the surface and felt interesting on the feet. We continued our jaunt around the lake and decided to cross on the north side of it back to the trail.

The crossing looked shallow and a faint path in the water hinted that someone or something walked through in the recent past. It was here that my beloved partner almost became a fossil. After a few steps, he sank in to his thigh.

“Don’t come closer,” he yelled. “And take my fanny pack.”

I grabbed his stuff as I sunk up to my knee. He got on all fours in the water, fighting the suction of the powerful mud pit of doom. Eventually he got out and we found some firmer ground to cross on. The treacherousness served as good reminder that things aren’t always as they seem, especially in the case of a recent landslide.

Continuing our way down the trail, we made it to the meadows by the creek and decided to have one last snack before finishing up the last mile of our jaunt. We stopped at a little bench looking down into the creek and whipped out some high-quality calories. Again, this proved to be a poor choice for a snack when a dozen snakes slithered out of the crumbling creek side. Although they were harmless little things, the overwhelming presence of such creatures was a little shocking. I screamed, and then we hastily made our way back to the car. The small and unexpected adventure to the landslide made this journey a memorable one.

The Beta

Hike: About 5 miles each way

Difficulty: Moderate

Stream crossings: Supposedly moderate, but very cold

Maps: USGS quad maps for Grizzly Lake, Crystal Peak and Darwin Peak

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