This strenuous hike passes through varied climate zones of the Sawtooth Range, ending at stark Libby Lake, tucked into a talus bowl with a larch-fringed outlet. Enjoy the view, soak your feet, catch some fish, or for those so inclined, backtrack to the cabin and scramble up Hoodoo Peak.
While the goal is Libby Lake, be sure to enjoy the journey. Yes, the lengthy level sections in the trail mean the climbing sections are steeper than one would expect (you've got to gain that elevation somewhere, after all). But as you huff and puff, you'll also see a change in climate zones as you ascend through the various forests, some severely impacted by the 2018 Crescent Mountain Fire.
From the trailhead (elevation 4430 feet), the trail starts with an easy climb through grassy meadows with spring flowers dominated by arrowleaf balsamroot with some yarrow. Most of the secondary trails shortcutting the switchbacks are created by the cattle that periodically graze in the lower reaches. As hikers, it's best to stay on the built trail, which is more sustainable than a grazing path. Of course, this means careful stepping may be required to get around cowpies.
Continuing up, the density of ponderosa pines increases with a grass and sage understory, until 0.8 miles in, where the effects of the 2018 fire are seen. The patchwork of burn for the next 1.7 miles is where the fire overran the ridge between the East Fork Buttermilk Creek and the North Fork Libby Creek. In the passes, it's easy to imagine the blowtorch effect of the wind, which caused intense burning. Very little survived here. Underfoot, burned out roots are cause holes both seen and unseen. Tread with caution.
Up on the ridge, the surviving forest is alpine fir & lodgepole pine. The orange-red dye on the ground and trees is the remnant of the fire retardant used to fight the fire. There is a spring at 0.6 miles in, in a pocket of surviving forest that flows well into the summer.
At 0.3 mile from the spring, the trail enters the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness area, as indicated by the slightly charred wilderness boundary sign on the blackened tree. The next 0.8 mile is more fire devastation than patchwork burn, with little shade.
At the end of the burn zone, the forest understory includes flowers (like lupine and paintbrush) and berries in late summer. The crossing of the North Fork Libby Creek, with a campsite, makes a nice shady spot for a break at the halfway point to the lake.
After the creek crossing, the way climbs in fits and starts through the rocks for the next 2.0 miles. It passes large smooth granite areas, some with large boulders. This forest has less fir, adds whitebark pine and has a more meadowlike understory (think pink heather and asters), with a few stream crossings. This section ends at the dilapidated 1900’s cabin (elevation 7170 feet). The trail here goes to the left of the cabin (southeast side). The other trail to the right is the start of the climbing route for Hoodoo Peak.
If the mosquitos are not too bad, a short break at the cabin provides a refresh for the final half-mile push up 470 feet to the lake.
The steep climb after the cabin seems long, due in part to the high elevation. The trail picks its way through a now mostly-larch forest and smooth white granite outcroppings. In fall this is a beautiful section of trail surrounded with larch gone gold.
The trail peaks out at an elevation of 7740 feet as the lake comes into view. To the left is the spillway through the 1911 rock dam you are standing on. Above is Raven Ridge, towering 800 feet over the lake, and the source of the talus and boulder shoreline to the south and west.
There are a few campsites below the lake to the left (south) and others near or above the lake to the right (north). Libby Lake has lots of trout and at times a few hardy souls taking a dip in the cold water.