This hike to Middle Fork and Sonnicant Lake basins features the prettiest scenery I’ve ever encountered. You’ll find numerous lakes, an altiplano, fishing, and rugged mountains, plus an unusual summit.
In this post:
- ➻ Quick Facts
- ⤷Introduction to an August Hike
- ⤑19th: Scab Creek Trailhead to Divide Lake
- ⤑20th: Visiting Crescent and Dream Lakes; Camp at Rainbow Lake Camp
- ⤑21st: Summiting Dragon Head Peak, Hike to Bewmark Lake Camp
- ⤑22nd: Kagevah Pass to Sonnicant Lake Day Hike
- ⤑23rd: Egress via Middle Fork, Lee, Donna, Sheila, Bonneville, and Raid Lakes
- ➤Conclusion and Rating
➻ Quick Facts
⤷Introduction to an August Hike
I had just completed my hike to Valaite Lake and wanted to get some more miles in. The Bonneville Lakes area had been on my radar for a bit, and an acquaintance that I had been rafting with earlier in the summer told me that Middle Fork was very pretty to him. He was there when the incredible story of Mike Turner unfolded. See my Beginner’s Backpacking Guide for that.
Looking at my options, I decided to hike to from the 19th-23rd. Starting from Scab Creek Trailhead I’d take the trail up to Divide Lake, then make my way to Middle Fork Lake via either Sandpoint Lake or Rainbow Lake pass. Rainbow Lake would allow me to hit up a Wyoming lake-pair, since I did the Cloud Peak Wilderness’ Rainbow Lake earlier in the year. I’d also done the Solitude Lake in the Tetons and the Solitude Lake in the CPW, but so far have only nabbed one of the (at least) three Long Lakes in the Winds. Anyway, from Rainbow Lake I’d go off-trail to Sonnicant Basin, and exit via Bonneville Pass.
Also, my replacement straps had arrived for my pack, which I had broken earlier. These were not the Osprey replacements, which did arrive later, but I tested them under load and they were fine. I also had managed to find the slow leak in my Big Agnes Double Z and patched it successfully, having tested it under load.
⤑19th: Scab Creek Trailhead to Divide Lake
I had tasks to do prior to leaving, so I didn’t get out the door until after noon; I stopped by McDonald’s (the only food store on the way) and grabbed a big meal so that I wouldn’t need to spend time making dinner the first night. I didn’t need anything from the Boulder store, so I made the right off of 191 there and arrived at the Scab Creek Trailhead, which is really ugly. My immediate family had hiked the first 8 miles before and said it was very unwelcoming. Yay.
Anyway, I got to the TH at 3:38PM. The register said that a man had lost his glasses and Sand Point (Lake), so I considered using the Middle Fork way in rather than Rainbow Lake to see if I could find and return them. The trail started off steeply and dustily, and it was 85F out, which was way too hot for a guy like me. Thankfully I soon got into some trees…and then back out again. But then back in again! The trail had leveled off very quickly in deep forest, and I walked bask an old fence/structure of some sort, before coming out in a little clearing and seeing that I was going to have to climb a lot.
- Above: the first mile or so of ingress.
So the climb began. I stopped in the middle of what appeared to be the main uphill segment and downloaded a few extra podcasts that had just updated on my phone (oops). As I was doing that, three day hikers came walking down the trail with fishing poles and a German Shepherd. The last person in their pack saw me once he was directly abeam my sitting location and exclaimed, “Oh wow! Didn’t see you there. You blend in really well.”
We exchanged pleasantries while the woman in the group lamented how the dumb dog would have gotten them all killed if I’d have been a grizzly. Another woman had made the same type of remark less than a month before during a different hike.
- 1. Looking down at the first platuea.
- 2. Thimbleberries.
- 3. People not paying attention.
After 1.8 miles and a gain of 1200 feet, the trail became somewhat rolling and with much less elevation gain. The first marsh to your left takes your attention, but down the hill a bit is a hidden lake. I continued hurriedly past that ugly area and was soon well above another lake; a hidden trail runs above its banks, so maybe people camp there? Are there fish? I didn’t stop to check it out, and instead made my way across a pretty little meadow area and over a creek before continuing uphill.
I passed through granite knobs that obstructed straight travel, with gross, small, marshy ponds (mosquito nurseries) littered throughout, in addition to some picturesque—at least in the evening light—lakes, though they also had shore-hugging lily pads. This is the Toboggan Lakes area, although there is also a separate “Toboggan Lake” for some reason. My GPS was polling poorly, an ongoing issue that ended up being fixed later by an update to my Note 8.
The trail was good, compact dirt for the most part. I stopped a couple of times to take pictures of the little lakes, and once to get water at pond 9430. I also found the world’s worst podcast called “I’m Listening : A Frasier Podcast.” Wow was it awful. For the majority of the entire trip, however, I listed to the Reason.com podcasts and William Lane Craig’s very long series on The Creation of Life and Biological Diversity, which explores much more than title suggests, including different types of ancient literature. (Myth vs legend vs folklore, for example.) I also had downloaded a number of other podcasts of his on different topics.
The walk seemed to be taking a long time, but that was due to the fact that I got a late start, and that deepening shadows were around me seemingly persistently. I had hoped to make it to Lightning Lakes, but that seemed like it might be a mile more than I could handle, even at my quick clip. The trail just meanders so much that I think an intrepid individual might make better time in the late season by following some of the fields. (For example, look that the fields between Lake 9438 and Toboggan (singular) Lake.
- 1. Toboggan Lakes.
- 2. More mosquito factories.
- 3. Toboggan Lakes.
As I descended into the creek area near Toboggan Lake, I realized that it was very close to the trail, so I might as well bag it. 3 minutes later I was looking at it. My friend Seth Banham would look at it and say, “More like a glorified swamp,” and he’d be right. Back to the trail I went, and finally climbed out to an overlook of Little Divide Lake. I felt a bit confused by the trails here, and the area around the Divide Lakes also has some old, disused ditches. What are they about?
- 1. The Climb to Toboggan lake.
- 2. Toboggan Lake.
- 3-5. Back to the trail.
- 5-6. Cresting out above Little Divide Lake.
Circling along some high ground, I came across a hiker’s magic stick. I sure hope he made it out alive. Suddenly I was overlooking a pond from a rocky cliff—ugh, it was getting dark, so I needed a place to camp. I made my way down one cliff and up another, cursing myself for not following the trail, and then, suddenly, I was back upon it! Yay.
- A magic stick and an unnamed lake.
Since I was back on the trail, the smart thing to do was to immediately leave it again as I saw a distant fire ring, and then cross through darkening woods to (big, ugly) Divide Lake. Walking around the shore was hellish; it was downed trees on one side, with tons of underbrush, and the other side was burned, downed trees, with tons of underbrush. In between I found some places to camp that were…well, excessively dirty, if that’s a thing. I crossed the stream between Divide and Little Divide Lake, and noted another ditch and flow channel. Why? What’s the history? There was also a weird depression at the top of a hill with a pseudo-hoodoo. What a weird place.
EDIT: Answered by Gary Lee Thompson in a comment at the end, so let me share:
Although it doesn’t show it on my GPS tracks, I navigated the northern section of lake a bit, and found nowhere to camp. It was getting very dark by this point, so I took out my flashlight and camped too lose to the lake. There was a meadow down below my site, but it was filled with water and rocks. I hate camping so close to a body of water, but I ran myself out of time, and the downed trees made everything very difficult.
- Above: I thought that Divide Lake would be prettier. It was very ugly and exceedingly dirty, just like me. You can see a ditch and a weird depression.
Oh well. I set up my tent and got water for cleaning up. The lake seemed to have no fish (that I saw, and saw no signs, such as them hitting the top), which was strange, given that Little Divide Lake is filled with brookies. It did have a billion amphipods, which I hate, as they make water collection laborious.
As I set up camp, I ate some gummy worms and some chips, but didn’t make an actual meal. I also discovered that I’d accidentally brought my Klymit Static V ultralight. How in the world did I manage to pack it in my bag? Really, Lucas? I wondered if I should leave it cache it or take it with me. In the end, I decided I’d take it with me the next day, since I wasn’t certain that I’d come back exactly this route, as I like to orienteer off-trail.
I used my Big Agnes and my Thermarest RidgeRest® SOLite™ and left the Klymit packed up. No need to expend air. Coyotes made their Cthulhuian sounds in the distance as I went to bed.
That night, a bear visited my camp. He snuffled around loudly, but I yelled, “GET LOST BOZO! SCRAM YOU CLOWN!” and he trundled off into the woods.
Day 1 totals: ~6 miles, +1936’/-429′. Elevation min/avg/max: 8210, 9240, 9708
⤑20th: Visiting Crescent and Dream Lakes; Camp at Rainbow Lake Camp
- My camping spot!
The morning was nippy, so I didn’t pack until 0900, instead using the time to read and stay cozy. My Big Agnes hadn’t deflated, so I was pretty happy. Once I was packed, I headed down to the marshy meadow and crossed it, aiming for Lightning Lakes (cool name) while crossing the forests. The walking was straightforward with only a few granite outcroppings marring the experience; I came out at a marsh that I had to walk around, and then was back on the trail.
- A deer trail through the forest.
- Lightning Lakes and surrounding area, plus a field that made me tempted to go cross-country.
I passed by one of the Lightning Lakes, but didn’t visit its big brother. The area was ugly, so I kept going. Part of my wanted to cut straight for Middle Fork drainage, rather than following the path and adding so many miles, but I was worried that it might end up being a marsh and blowndown-riddled hellscape, so I suppressed the urge. Plus, when I was truly considering it the hardest, I was at the top of a ridge-like area and didn’t want to walk all the way down and back up again.
The trail stayed decent, but it was dry. Have your water handy. About 8 total miles into the hike, I crossed a creek and got my first view of the actual mountains; I was then back in the trees for a few hundred feet, but upon exit, the Bonneville/Dream Basin opened up before me. I sat on a rock and took pictures, plus snacked around. The vista is gorgeous, and probably better in springtime, when it’s very green. Raid Peak, Mount Bonneville, Pronghorn Peak, and Dragon Head reared above the altiplane; I used my long lens to look, and decided that I’d have to climb at least one of them.
- Now that’s what I’m talking about!
Packing up, I continued on my way, getting a picture of the junction of trails 167 and 110 as I left the area. I kept to trail 167, crossed South Fork Creek and then found an unexpected trail going off to the left that was very well-worn. It looked like it went to Crescent Lake, so heck, why not bag it? I could off-trail my way to Dream Lake if it ended. I headed toward Crescent Lake with Mitchell’s Nipple rising from the plains behind me.
- 1. Another pond.
- 2-3. The intersection. I came out here later on, but split down the middle.
- 3. Creek crossing.
- 4. Crescent Lake.
- 5. A campsite at Crescent Lake.
Crescent Lake was only a couple minutes of walking, and was pretty enough, though I again saw no fish. I also didn’t see any amphipods, so I got water tried my fly pole a few times, and then left. The Crescent use trail goes up a hill and overlooks Dream Lake a bit, while the main trail seems to keep a bit lower. All things considered, the main trail is probably better if you don’t care to see a somewhat boring lake, as you’ll gain less elevation.
- The Temple Peaks rising over the altiplano.
I walked downhill to Dream Lake. Around Dream Lake there are a number of meandering trails, so I just picked the one that I thought was quickest at getting me to my destination, which I decided was Rainbow Lake, as I had gotten it into my head that Pronghorn needed climbing. Sorry about the glasses, guy who lost them at Sandpoint Lake.
- Dream Lake area.
Though I fished Dream Lake, I again saw no activity nor got any bites. Alas. I rounded the northern corner of Dream Lake and came across another trail, and then another trail after that…one of these was the Continental Divide Trail. Rainbow Creek was quite pretty at this intersection of trails, though I didn’t feel like following the CDT until I got to the Rainbow Lake/Middle Fork Connector 112. Instead, I walked along the bank until I had to cross and climb the rocky far side and into the trees. The creek, by the way, had been laden with brookies.
Once in the forest, I made my way north until I came upon trail 112; I was basically at the creek crossing by this point, and it was easy. I had a little regret for not checking out Sandpoint or Bobs Lakes, but pressed on. The trail is steady, gradual uphill through grass, and the creek mostly vanishes. Nick Gillespie of Reason argued in my ear about Diamond and Silk and whether or not Facebook should be nationalized. Time seemed to take longer for some reason.
- The hike up from the creek crossing almost all the way to the lake.
Right before 3:30, I reached Rainbow Lake! Yay, my second Rainbow Lake in less than a month. This lake was much more attractive, being sandwiched between mountains, and with trees around much of it. The trail on my plastic map was listed as going to the east side of the lake and terminating, while my digital map showed it as going to the west side and continuing up and over a hump to Lee Lake.
- Rainbow Lake and Trail.
I picked the east side and decided to camp there. It was early, but if I kept going, I’d just end up not being able to climb a mountain, so I might as well stop. The south edge of the lake is heavily wooded, and has an inlet stream from an unnamed lake between Rainbow and Sunrise Lakes, so I kept going, looking along the east and northeast edges. I chose a spit of land on the “plain” as no one was around, then set up my camp and bear bag. As it was still so early, I considered climbing the western ridge, but I didn’t really feel like it was worth it, since I planned to do a larger peak the next day. However, it did seem like it’d be an easy little jog up.
I fished and caught many brookies on dry flies, and found a discarded partial pad. I don’t like litter, so I picked it up…and then realized that I could put it in my backpack’s sleeve as extra padding. That made my willingness to dispose of it much higher. I also learned about how stupid so many of the federal laws are, and how easily you can break them, such as getting time in the slammer for making cheese with the wrong shape.
- Notice in the second picture the INTERLOPERS.
This was all great fun until I went back up the hill to my camp and saw 2 couples in expensive puffers walking by and looking at my camp. Rainbow Lake is a mile long. These dear folks saw my tent, walked over to it, and then decided to camp 230 feet away, in plain sight. As I was making my dinner, one girl broke off from the group (they were chatting at that point) and came over by my tent to pop a squat and take a piss WHILE I WAS OUT COOKING.
No shame! NONE! I mean, I guess enough that she wouldn’t piss in front of her little friends. Ugh. Who does that? I’m always very quiet and try not to be near others, but these people parked right beside me and hooted and hollered as I ate my dinner. Even after I bathed (in my little vestibule, which made me sad, though I guess I could have returned the favor and gone over and got naked by them), and was trying to sleep well after dark, the continued on with their howling. What doofs.
Day 2 totals: ~5.7 miles, +1364/-661′. Elevation min/avg/max: 9676, 9975, 10,424′
⤑21st: Summiting Dragon Head Peak, Hike to Bewmark Lake Camp
Although I woke up early enough, I had little distance to travel, so I let the 4 schmucks adjacent to me clear out. Once they were gone, I got my pack ready for an ascent of Pronghorn Peak or Dragon Head. Pronghorn is a little bit higher than Dragon Head, but also a bit farther away, so I decided to climb Dragon Head and see if I could just walk the crest to Pronghorn. Leaving camp, I crossed the trail and came to a creek, which I also crossed, and then made my way up a rocky chute. The mountain has a little flat area at the top with some water, so I drank some more and then followed the path of least resistance of some cliffy spots with intermittent, grassy ramps.
- 1. My route in. Can you spot the hikers?
- 2. Looking back during the initial climb.
- 3. Can you spot my tent?
- 4. Higher.
At 11, 180 feet there was a wider, flatter area, and I could see a ridge that I could more easily climb; the mountainside directly in front of my was steeper than I wanted to tackle, so I headed south to the ridge, and made my way up toward the northeast-running spine of the mountain. The area on the south of the spine is very vertical and impassable, but it’s safe enough if you stick to the north. Soon it was mostly boulderfield with intermittent patches of grass, though the rocks were large and stable for the most part. I had great views of Sunrise Lake, which is oddly blocked from seeing any sunrises by the mountains. A picture I took revealed later that some group of hikers had egressed through the Rainbow Lake area while I was climbing.
- Views from the climb. Notice how few clouds there are. Also notice how one could easily traverse the spine in the last picture to Pronghorn Peak.
I’d left camp around 0900, and I arrived at Dragon Head Peak at 1040. I was feeling good enough that I’d even jogged some of it!
The views were AMAZING. I was enthralled. Lee Lake was 1,800 feet below me with a sheer drop, so I stayed back from the edge, as it was windy, and I never want to fall to my death. Worst way to go! Middle Fork and Bewmark were also in view, as well as all of the peaks around the area, and even Lake Donna. I took some pictures with Peak Finder, too, so that I wouldn’t have to write them all out by hand. I also found a safe spot to sit and took pictures of my feet over the 1,800 foot drop. I was able to hook myself in with my arms so that my shoulders wouldn’t fit through the slot in the rocks, so I felt pretty safe. Still, it made my toes tingle.
- 1. Bewmark Lake and my campsite.
- 2. Noel Lake.
- 3. Lake near Mount Medina.
- 4. Overview of the plains.
- 5. 1,800 feet to Lee Lake.
- 6. Kagevah Pass. (You can see the trail.)
- 7. Lake Donna.
- 8. Middle Fork Drainage.
- 9. Boulder Lake with fire area.
- 10. Lake Donna, which I’d visit in a bit.
I can’t even explain, by the way, how much I loved the views from this mountain. I could see Saint Lawrence Ridge and Bald Mountain toward the east, which look so very different than what one’s used to in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem
The ridge that runs to Pronghorn Peak looked like an easy walk, so I really wanted to go nail that mountain, too, but 20 minutes (Not. Even. Kidding.) after my arrival, the sky was no longer clear. No, it had gone from a few clouds to ragged overcast. Ugh, would I get rained on? As I went to get my pack on and check out Pronghorn, thunder cracked around me. Shoot. I vacillated. It might just be cloud-to-cloud that would pass quickly. (CRACK.) Maybe I could (RUMBLE) wait. They couldn’t be too high, those clouds. (GRUMBLE.)
- Bad weather on top plus a critter. Last image is a super-high rez version of the entirety of the South Fork flats!
I walked back and forth a few times, not wanting to abandon Pronghorn, and checked the forecast. It was going to be windy and possibly stormy. Well…welll…I saw virga to the east. Gah! It drove me made, but I walked quickly north to look down the mountain into Middle Fork, and very reluctantly started heading downhill. Then it was quiet. No thunder. Yay! I started back up and CRACK. Dang it. There was no sunlight anymore, just shadows.
Fine. I scuttled downhill, sticking to the north side of the mountain. The going wasn’t as easy here, with more boulders that were shifty. As I descended, I listened to the Reason folks talking about Democratic candidates such as Angry Amy Klobuchar who likes to eat salad with a comb or pick.
- Going down and the NOLS camp.
A ridge runs down to the west, and I stayed just south of it. Beyond the ridge I saw a group of campers, all in the trees above my lake, with orange tents, all of the same design. Probably NOLS folks. I chose to descend via a long gully with a creek and experienced no issues, though I crossed farther south when I got to the first lowest “flat” section, which put me into rocks that were filled with deceit and teachery; I about had a very nasty fall.
Thankfully I made it to the creek again, and crossed higher up; I saw some brookies in it! Cool. Once nearing my camp, I smelled smoke. The NOLS group must be cooking, or at least so I hoped. The wildfire at Boulder Creek was still in mop-up, and I hoped that there wouldn’t be more fires. I reached my camp at 1:35 and decided to make dinner, too. It was Backpacker’s Pantry, which is consistently HOT GARBAGE somehow. Really, their food is always a letdown. And heavy. Well, heaviest meal first. This meal was just so bad that I don’t want to remember it. Oh Lucas, what poor choices you have always made.
Packing up didn’t take me too long, and while I was packing, the orange-tent people went down to my lake and fished. At 3:50 I set off for Middle Fork Lake, crossing the inlet creek to Rainbow Lake and keeping west to avoid the tents in the trees. The trail continues on and up to a pass at over 10,800 feet. I realized that I could go off-trail and follow the 10,560 contour line around to the outlet of Middle Fork Lake, so I elected to do that. As I got above 10,500, I made my way by some pretty ponds.
The trek from this little plateau to Middle Fork wasn’t terrible, with only one boulder field and not too much elevation gain and loss, but I did have to grab on to a few trees at times when descending, and I’m not sure that it saved me much time. There were some nice views of the creek below the lake, at least.
- 1. Leaving Rainbow.
- 2. A little pond.
- 3. Dragon Head Peak from a different angle.
- 4. Ponds at top.
- Rest: the off-trail trek on with some camping spots near Middle Fork Lake. Shhhhh.
During the descent to Middle Fork Lake, I found a few, very flat, well-hidden camping areas, and stashed their location away in my mind palace for future use. So don’t camp at them, please.
My feet crossed Middle Fork Trail and I arrived at the lake at 4:55. It was windy, but I got out my grasshopper and caught some brook trout. Across the lake and near the inlet there were a couple of people up on a hill, with some tents stationed by some trees. I still had extra time, so I decided to head on up to Bewmark Lake, so that I’d be closer to Kagevah Pass the next day.
- Middle Fork Lake.
- Creek crossing. Can you see tents?
- Across! Whoo!
Crossing the outlet of Middle Fork was challenging but I made it without getting wet, and headed along the lakeside until I caught a use trail, which I followed. The use trail climbed gradually, probably heading toward Bewmark or Photo pass, but my map indicated that it might go toward the latter, following a tack best suited for those going toward the remote Milky Ridge drainage east of Europe Peak. I was having none of that, so I kept “right” and crossed a flat meadow above Middle Fork, passing over a creek and entering a forest. Beyond that there were steep, grassy cliffs that I thought were maybe a little more than I’d like, but doable. I set about climbing them; at one point, the gradient was so sharp, and I was looking down, that I ran straight into a clump of grass…with my forehead. Steep, indeed.