Whitman College (my alma mater) has a program called "Semester in the West" in which students get to spend an entire semester traveling around the western US learning about history, geology, literature, ecology, etc. I would have killed to do that but, alas, the program started after I'd already graduated.
But! I'm getting a little taste of that program with this year in Boulder - courses on energy, environment and climate change; field trips; drinking whisky in old-timey saloons. And this semester, I'm picking up some of the cultural aspects - the literature, the cinema - in a class called "Seminar on the American West."
Part of what we'll do in this class is think about the west as a place, what is the west (does it include California? Nebraska?) and how it fits into the larger context of the US. Our professor asked us to write an essay on a location that's of particular significance to us - somewhere that could be seen as almost autobiographical. So I picked Palisades Creek - some of you have been there; others I hope will be so lucky. My essay is below...
Tucked into the Snake River Range in the Targhee National Forest, just to the west of the Idaho-Wyoming border, is Palisades Creek. It’s one of the main tributaries to the South Fork of the Snake River, a home for native cutthroat trout. The surrounding forest provides shelter for moose, elk and deer. And high on the mountain walls, mountain goats can be seen picking their way along the rocky crags.
A well-worn trail crisscrosses this stream as it winds its way up the canyon to the murky waters of Lower Palisades Lake. I love climbing the rise at the lake’s western edge, sitting under the towering pines and looking across the water – last summer, a moose and her calf stood on the edge of the lake, bobbing for plants. It’s four miles from the trailhead – another three miles up the canyon brings you to the much larger Upper Lake. On a clear summer day, the lake looks brilliant blue, almost aquamarine on the edges, and I’ve been tempted to go swimming after walking seven miles (dipping one foot in changes my mind – it’s beyond frigid).
There’s nothing secret about either the lakes or the Palisades Creek Trail. It’s probably one of the best-known trails in the area – an accessible and easy day hike for many locals and the campground at the trailhead attracts out-of-staters. But despite its popularity, it’s still among my favorite places in the West and I’ve been there more times than I can count.
I’ve hiked it in the late spring, when torrents of snow melt tear down the ravine, when the trail is nothing but mud and puddles. There’s still only a hint of greenery on the trees and almost no wildflowers; there are still weeks to go before the lupine and Indian paintbrush and sticky geranium make an appearance.
In summer, people and horses pack the trail – some headed in for overnight camping adventures, others just for a picnic lunch on the overlook at the Lower Lake. At mid-day, the last set of switchbacks going up to that first lake can be uncomfortably warm, with the sun beating down and passing horses trailing flies and kicking up clouds of dust. Fast-moving summer storms can turn the canyon into a deafening echo chamber, as lightning cracks and thunder growls ominously. Buckets of rain quickly transform what was a pleasant afternoon hike into a soggy, slippery retreat to the trailhead.
Winter is quiet. Snow blankets the trail and while there’s evidence of other hikers - footprints and cross-country ski tracks – it’s rare to see another person. Chances are good, though, of crossing paths with wildlife. I’ve seen many moose making their way along the creek in search of food, dipping their heads into the icy water.
But it’s fall that is my favorite time of year to be on the trail. The sky is bright blue, a gorgeous contrast with the aspens’ quivering yellow-gold leaves and chalky white bark. Yellow is the predominant autumn color but there are the occasional oranges and reds; the sunlight shines through those leaves like stained glass. The light makes the trail seem almost magical the way it bathes everything in a perpetual golden hue and sparkles on the burbling water of the creek.
It’s clear I love the scenery. But beyond that, I think I also love this place because I’ve spent so much time here. I’ve been hiking it since I was a kid; when I’m on the trail, I’ll often remember moments from previous hikes and think about people I hiked with – friends both old and new, boyfriends, family. I've been to a lot of beautiful places in the world but Palisades is so much a part of my life that nothing else quite matches up.