When traveling in the Mountain States, Hannah and I love to hang out in small towns of the West. Some of our favorites are: Flagstaff in Arizona; Bozeman and Missoula in Montana; and Panguitch and Moab in Utah. It’s wide open Big Sky Country at its finest. Unable to visit the Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks this early June because of two to four feet of snow on even the lower trails, we drive an easy 170 miles north from Salt Lake City on I-15 to another one: Pocatello, Idaho.
Pocatello is home to Idaho State University with a perplexing nickname: the Bengals, as in tigers. Let me remind you that Bengal tigers are found on the Asian sub-continent primarily in India, a half a world away from Pocatello. Of course, our alma mater (Arizona State University) has a mascot (Sun Devil) from 93 million miles away so we can’t get all hot and bothered ourselves that our mascot is not native.
Set at the base of the Bannock Range, Pocatello sits at an elevation of nearly 4500 feet. With a semi-arid climate, the winters are long and cold and summers hot and dry. That said, this early June day is delightful. With Latter Day Saints (Mormons) comprising 75% of the population, Pocatello is a family-oriented community.
Midday we head south to the edge of town for a favorite local trail, the Gibson Jack Loop Trail, with six to eight cars already at the trailhead. Loving the chance to interact with others, on the trail I am no solitary John Muir or Henry David Thoreau or Hermit D. Wilderness. Energized by the give and take of conversation, I enjoy interacting with fellow hikers on this sunny and 80 degree late spring day. Lathering on the sunscreen and slapping on our fanny packs, Hannah and I immediately start a steady climb at 5000 feet on a rocky-strewn trail through sage, juniper, and pines.
After 45 minutes through mountain meadows of grass, we hit a fork in the trail and choose to cross left over a wooden bridge of planks. Sadly, the trail signage here in the Targhee National Forest is not great and we have no map. We bad. Since today’s trail is a loop trail, we just can’t go up and back on the trail we’ve hiked. We hike on and hope.
Aspens bracket the trail with leaves that are not fully leafed out. Mountain snow rivulets whisk by us. After an hour we haven’t seen another hiker. With a mountain in the distance we are looking for a sign. I mean an omen-type sign. If we see another hiker on the trail in whose advice we have a high degree of confidence, we’ll continue on. If not, we’ll double back the way we came.
The mountain ascent is steep and rocky and makes us wonder, should we go any further? Now five miles into the wilderness, we feel we are out of options and don’t want this late afternoon to be spelled L-O-S-T. Seeing no one around, we turn back the way we came. Denied, we learn later that if we had continued to that mountain top, we would have had just a little over two miles back to the trailhead instead of the five we retraced. Lesson learned: get a map, bucko.
Spent after three and half hours on the trail, we drive a simple ten miles back to our Super 8 motel in Pocatello. After a shower, we toast the Blackfoot Mountains, as the early June sun sets after 9 PM in this part of the northern Rockies.
The Gibson Jack Trail is challenging with a steep ascent to the mountain top, but it’s doable and enjoyable despite the poor signage. As always when hiking, know thyself, thy limits, and the conditions. Be prepared.