Crystal Lake Trail #299: The Knee Breaker

  • Trailhead Coordinates: 45.656273, -115.650857
  • Elevation
    • Low: 7400 ft
    • High: 8600 ft
    • Gains: 1560 ft (one way)
  • Distance: 6.8 miles (one way)
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Best Seasons: Summer
  • Maps
    • USGS Topo Map Quadrangle: North Pole
    • Nez Perce NF Map Quadrant: J10
  • Fees: $0.00
  • Directions: From Grangeville, take Mt. Idaho Grade Rd to Highway 14. Go east on Highway 14 for 34 miles, then turn south (right) on Crooked River Road #233. Stay on NF-233 through Orogrande, staying right at the intersection with Orogrande-Dixie Rd (NF-311), continue to the Orogrande Summit. At the Summit, stay right on NF-233I past the Orogrande Summit Campground. You’ll come to a three-way intersection. The right hand road will take you to the Wildhorse Lake Campground and trailhead. The center and left lanes merge and take you to the Wildhorse Lake day rec area. No camping is allowed at the day rec area.
  • Notes: The roads past Orogrande have been carved up by water run-off, and the roads up by Wildhorse Campground are VERY rough. You might as well be driving on a river bed. Not recommended for low clearance or two-wheel drive vehicles. Overall, the Crystal Lake #299 trailhead is about 2.5 hours from Grangeville, Idaho.

Crystal Lake Trail #299 in the Gospel Hump Wilderness is 6.8 miles from the Wildhorse Campground Trailhead to its junction with Hump Trail #313 on the south end of Hump Lake. The first 2 to 3 miles is a beautiful ascent to the eastern face of North Pole mountain. The trail wanders past a marshy clearing and a natural spring, then climbs up through grey-white rocks into stunted, wind-torn White Pines. You can stand on the ridge just off trail and see the whole world between Cottonwood Butte on your left and Elk City on your right. Once you reach North Pole, a short divergence from Trail #299 will take you to the summit. You’ll have to backtrack to continue on, but the views from the top are well worth the extra effort.

Brandon and I did lunch at 8,818 feet on top of North Pole. It took us 2 hours on the dot to get there, which felt like a pretty good pace to us. Once we started to feel the chill of the wind, we decided it was time to keep moving. So we headed back down to the trail where we’d left our packs, loaded up, and headed out across the face of North Pole.

Looking down at the Kelly Lakes, Brandon began to imagine a year-round hotel built into the steep mountainside offering swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter. We thought the connection between the two upper lakes could be turned into a waterslide! Of course, you’d have to helicopter in during the winter. It was a fun idea.

We stopped to rest on the south side of North Pole before making the descent to Wiseboy creek. I showed the topo map to Brandon and pointed out the final ridge we had to climb over before dropping down to Crystal Lake. 

Brandon got a worried look on his face at the trail ahead of us, and then told me that both his knee and his ankle had been hurting for a while now and he was concerned that if he finished the hike in, he might not be able to hike out in the morning.

That story sounded familiar.

“I’d rather hike you out than drag you out,” I said. We talked about how bad his knee and ankle were feeling, what our options were, how I might manage to drag him out, and ultimately decided to hike back. Better safe than sorry when you’re a 3-hour drive into nowhere, right?

 Part of what draws me back to the mountains, and inspires my work in wilderness therapy, is the way nature cuts through our everyday posturing. There is no “saving face” when you’re making eye contact with nature, she’s too much of a mirror. You have to come to grips with your own limits when you’re out there, and I love that because it’s the only way to expand those limits and discover new horizons within and without.

The trail is just as beautiful on the way out.

This won’t be the last time I make a run at Crystal Lake, so if you were hoping to go you’ll get another chance. Third time’s the charm, right? Just make sure you’re knees are good, and pack a brace!

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