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2020: Hell for Sure Lake out-and-back

September 8, 2020

2020: Courtright Reservoir (Maxson Meadow trailhead)
to Hell for Sure Lake
Out and back
(apx. 30 miles)

Nick, John H, and Matt M

September 2–5, 2020

The trip was supposed to be a 5-night, 6-day loop including a cross country (off trail) pass, but as you will see, for a variety of reasons it did not turn out that way .

First, here is some backstory to this trip happening (which you may want to skip): I saw a Meetup hike for mid-August. It was only going to be the guy who set it up and myself leaving out of Sequoia—but the permit never arrived. The National Parks never responded to the request beyond that they had received the application. Then I decided to try to get a permit for a similar hike and post it. I got someone who wanted to go, but I too had the same experience of no response from the Park. At the same time, I saw another hike on Meetup that was going but it was listed as full. I contacted the leader. He said people were dropping and there was room. So, I signed up, and then so did my buddy, who was going to go on the hike I had posted. It turned out this leader was actually a sub for the original leader, and everyone else on that trip had bailed as well. So, it was going to be the three of us.

Day 1: Maxson Trailhead to Fleming Lake (10 miles)
Day 2: Fleming Lake to Hell for Sure Lake (5 miles)
Day 3: Day Hiking
Day 4: Hell for Sure to Maxson Trailhead (15 miles)

John and I had met a few times through an ex of his. As we lived nearby, we drove up together. We had arranged to meet Matt at 5pm at the campground on Monday on the far side of the dam. We found a spot on the left of the road in the trees. There was no one else camping on that side of the dam (where the camping is less developed) (though one other car came in and camped after dark). I had camped there a few years back, a nice spot, though this time the creek that ran though it was bone dry. We had been warned by Matt that there might not be any water, so we had brought enough to start the trip. While the trailhead parking lot does have an outhouse and bear bins, there is no running water. One could go to the reservoir to get water, but it would be a trek.

One nice thing about going this time of year is no mosquitoes!

I started out the trip with a 36 lb. pack, which included about 2 quarts of water (4-ish lbs.), and 9 lbs. of food, so a base weight of about 23 lbs.

Tuesday, 9/1, Day 1: Maxson Trailhead to Fleming Lake (10 miles)

8,000 — 9,000 — 8,200 — 9,800 feet
Camp at Courtright
John and Matt at Maxson trailhead

8:40: We hit the trail which drops a little bit from the parking lot, then heads up gradually, then finally a little more steeply through mostly woods. There was no water until we got up over the crest and back down to meet the Post Corral Creek, about 6 miles in. We broke for lunch there at 12:40 for about an hour. Even that creek was much lower than the last time I was there in 2016.

Nick at Post Corral Creek

Starting up to Fleming Lake is a steep climb, which had me groaning, but after the first hour, while it still mostly climbed, it was much more gradual. We arrived at Fleming Lake at 4:45. Some people said Rae Lakes, another mile up, would be nicer, but we were done for a first day, as well as it being a mile off our route, and we had a nice space just to the left of the trail as we arrived at the lake. Also, horse-led groups go up to Rae Lake.

There was a running stream to the other east side of our camp (opposite the lake), better for getting water from than the lake. Just a little further up at the end of the lake is a nice sandy beach where Matt and I took a refreshing dip in the cold water.

John’s tent at Fleming Lake campsite
Matt and Nick at Fleming Lake

Day 2: Fleming Lake to Hell form Sure Lake. (4 miles)

9,800 — 10,800

8:45: We left camp and headed to Hell-for-Sure. It is a gain of some altitude but mostly gradual. There is a steep part right at end up to the lake, passing Disappointment Lake which is more out in the open.

12:30: Arrived at Hell for Sure Lake and spent some time scouting around for where to camp and checking out the area. Ended up camping near the far end on the west shore. We saw no one else that day there. We also scouted out the pass planned for the next day –east of Mount Hutton—by hiking over to Arctic Lake for a view of the pass. From our vantage it did not look doable—like a sheer climb at the end. It turns out that none of us had actually researched this pass. In reading after the fact, it is doable but quite difficult, and I am just as glad we did not attempt it. The original plan had been to cross country over to Horsehead Lake, and do a lay-over there. Instead we decided we would do our layover day here at Hell-for-Sure and then go to Devils Punchbowl and down and out that way, staying on trails.

Hell for Sure Lake

Hell for Sure Lake is wonderful, sitting in a bowl, looking up and the Goddard divide on one side and a ridge looking back down west, out to the valley. (though due to all the fires going on, we could see layers of smoke),

Hell-for-Sure Lake is full of fish, though none of us fished. Matt and I again took a nice dip.

Matt at Hell for Sure

Day 3: Red Mountain Peak and around the Lake and exploring.

This was our day off, but we took off at 9:00am to head up to Hell-for-Sure pass and then Red Mountain Peak, which you cannot actually see from this side. It took about an hour to get to the pass from our camp. We took a break there for a bit, then got to the peak around d 11:00am, about another 45 minutes or so from the pass. We hung out a while at the peak, and the false peak as well, enjoying the 360° view. My camera had altitude sickness and stopped working for a while, so I did not get any pictures from the pass or peak. But luckily my buddy did get some.

Panorama from Red Mountain
looking down to Hell for Sure Lake

We headed back down and then did a clockwise loop around the lake to get back to camp. While my pals rested, I went and explored some of the other lakes. 

Horseshoe Lake

That evening we enjoyed watching a bat circle our little cove, and it was still light enough that with its reflection in the water it looked like two bats. Then as we watched, we saw a bald eagle fly by as well!

Sunset through smoke layers

That evening we watched the red ball of a sun sink through the layers of smoke from the fires.

Day 4: Hell-for-Sure Lake to Maxson Trailhead. (apx. 15 miles)

10,800 — 8,200—9,000—8,000 feet

When we had gotten up and were getting ready, Matt and John called me over to see out to the west—there was a huge plume of smoke rising up. We could not tell where it was coming from, but after some deliberation we decided, given that there is just one road out of the mountains from there, we should head straight on out. We left at 8:15, and got down to the creek by 1:00. On the way, just past Fleming Lake we got another view of the plume of smoke from what we later found out was the Creek Fire, near Shaver Lake.

Creek Fire Smoke Plume

We ran into plenty of hikers coming in, as it was Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and none of them knew anything about the fire (and the plume was not visible from lower down). Matt decided he wanted to stay, but John and I had already committed ourselves to leaving. It turned out to be a good thing, as the fires were by Huntington Lake, up the highway from the main road out. As we left town we saw Sheriff vehicles everywhere as well as gatherings of fire trucks, and then found they had closed the road to incoming traffic.

John and Nick back at car

Matt was fine getting out the following day, and said there was not an issue with evacuating traffic, which we were glad to hear.

To see more of my photos from this trip click here

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