Griswold Lake and Ruby Dome

Posted by Ryan C. Jerz on September 24, 2014

“This is the hardest three miles I've ever done with a pack on." That was my cousin, Cotie, as we made what we expected was the last bit of ascent up the trail toward Griswold Lake. We were climbing up rocks and through small fractures in the canyon that housed Butterfield Creek about 20 miles south of Elko and a mile west of the more popular and famous Lamoille Canyon in the Ruby Mountains. Cotie would later revise his statement to this: "That was the hardest three and a half miles I've ever done with a pack on."

Our goal on this day was to get to Griswold Lake and set up what would be our home for a couple of nights. We were here to climb Ruby Dome, the highest peak in the Rubies and Elko County. The group consisted of me, my cousin Henry, who had ridden with me from Reno on this morning to meet up with Cotie who had driven from Salt Lake City with his dog Charlie. Both of my cousins are experienced backpackers. Henry a fan of the Sierra and Cotie a frequent visitor to the Uinta just east of where he lives. This would be my first backpacking trip.

The idea of climbing Ruby Dome came to me earlier in the summer. Having spent my junior high and high school years in Elko, I am a bit partial to the Rubies. I happen to think they're the best looking mountains in Nevada—and there are a lot of mountains in Nevada. But the Rubies just look different to me. Prettier. It doesn't hurt that they're actually close to a decent town and accessible in a way that many other Nevada Mountains aren't. You can drive several miles into them through Lamoille Canyon, which is a detour anyone passing through Elko ought to take one time. They get, and retain, a lot of snow. That means they have lakes all over the place. Therefore, hiking them is a pretty popular thing to do.

So, I had decided to make a run at Ruby Dome mainly because I needed to get out and make myself take that kind of trip--a trip that was far enough away that I had to really pack well, had to stay overnight, and had to work a little to finish the job. I was intent on going whether I went by myself or with others. After reading up on the climb, it sounded like one that fit the bill. I could hike to the lake, stay overnight, climb to the top in the morning, maybe explore around the rest of the day, then stay overnight and head out. I was actually ready to do this by myself until Christy talked with Cotie and mentioned my plan. Basically, she was hoping he'd join because she didn't want me to die. I threw the idea out to Henry once Cotie was confirmed and he got on board as well.

To set the trip up, there are a few logistical things we had to take care of. The trailhead is located inside a private campground. It's owned and run by the Spring Creek Association and gated at the entrance. Not the entrance to the trailhead, mind you--the entrance to the campground. The trailhead is about a mile from the entrance and all uphill. To get the key, you have to pay $10 per person per day and a refundable $25 deposit. The office is open regular business hours Monday through Friday only, so getting the key on a weekend requires some extra arrangements. The original plan had been to arrive on Friday, but due to a Wolf Pack football game on Friday night, I had to leave Saturday. The Association office was fantastic in helping me figure this out. I paid the fee over the phone and was to call their security guy when we were close to the campground entrance. He would meet us there to hand the key to the gate over and take our deposit. It was very easy and the woman from the Association even wrote us a nice note wishing us well.

We got to the trailhead and began the hike at about 1:00. All of us, after reading everything we could find about the trip, figured it was a two or two-and-a-half hour hike to the lake. It wound up taking about three-and-a-half hours in total. After looking back, I'd have to say that the biggest chunk of the difference is probably that everyone whose reports we had read didn't do the hike with a 50 pound pack on. Also, the sign reads that the lake is three miles and the summit is four miles. My GPS numbers indicate that the lake is three-and-a-half, the summit is five-and-a-half. Don't trust the sign.

The trail begins in the open several yards above the creek. For about a mile, it's steep and hot in the sun. After that mile and almost 1,000 feet in elevation gain, the trail moves under some cover and next to the stream. Charlie was able to get water and we were able to cool off a bit. After another mile, it gets steep. That's because the trail gets less visible and rocks become the most prevalent feature. It was climbing time. Charlie had a hard time with the climbing and we had to help him over some rocks a few times. Balancing with the packs became more of a challenge, but not overly dangerous. There were a couple of places where we had to use our hands to get up and over obstacles. It was tight enough in a few spots that I actually lost satellite reception on my GPS watch. The key for that section of the trail is to look for the cairns. There are enough to keep you on track, but you do have to seek them out.

We met one person on the trail. He was on his way down and had hit the summit that day. He was a local veterinarian who had a lot of good information for us--he gave us a few tips on which route to take up the mountain and told us that Charlie shouldn't make the trip to the summit. It was nice and reassuring that this is a possible day trip. It had been a tough trip to this point, but knowing that we were on a trail that was basically a simple trek kept spirits up.

The last bit of climbing was marked by a few trees that seemingly stood on the edge of a plateau. As we made it to a few hundred feet below them, it became apparent through how far we had come and where they were that they might be the end of this. It still took a while to reach them, but they indeed were that mark. We got to the edge and saw the bowl of higher mountains surrounding us on three sides. This was a familiar sight to me from the many times I had looked at this place on a mapping application or on a topo. Finally. And the lake, the quality of which we hadn't been sure about until talking with our fellow hiker, was awesome. It was about 100 to 150 yards wide and close to round. It was pretty shallow but a deep spot lies on the right as you approach. There is a small dam to hold it together at the outlet to the stream that runs the length of the canyon we had climbed through.

We found about five campsites in various places around the lake. One as you approach about 50 yards from the shore. Another, which we chose, was bigger and closer to the shore. One right on the shore would have been a tight fit for the three of us. Another off to the right side looked pretty good. And the final one we found was off to the left, but a bit uphill along the trail toward the Dome's summit. It was well covered with trees and we didn't find it until returning from the summit hike. I loved the spot, but it would have been a bit of a chore to get down and collect water and wood. Just about every site had some wood gathered near a fire pit. We were able to find some more ourselves, but it's not too abundant up there. Many trees have been cut down or were cut through that we noticed. While we were able to find what we needed without much effort, I don't know that it will be that way for long.

We set up camp and got ourselves a fire to cook dinner, which consisted of some marinated steak and fresh vegetables from Cotie's garden. It was tremendous. We also proceeded to drink a lot of the weight I had been carrying in the form of beers. Already, I felt great about not having to carry that back down, but it was also well worth it to carry up.

The next morning Henry and I were to take off and make a run at Ruby Dome. Again, we had expectations that it would be pretty basic. We knew that there was to be some scrambling toward the end, but we would be carrying nothing more than a little food and jackets in day packs. I brought along my SLR camera to get some shots from the summit. The difference in carrying about five pounds as opposed to the 50+ I had carried the day before is remarkable. I felt more energized right off the bat, which was great because we immediately started climbing in a serious way. The two miles to the summit each had over 900 feet in elevation gain, and that includes the quarter to half mile that was relatively flat overlooking Griswold Lake.

Once we reached the plateau overlooking the lake, we had to find our way. You can see Ruby Dome set back behind some other mountains at this point—something you can’t see from the lake. There were some cairns leading us to a small climb and cut in the rocks. A very light stream was running here. It wasn’t enough to even worry about stepping in as it mostly ran under the rocks, but was audible. Another quarter mile put us up on another plateau. We had one ridge to get over before facing the Dome itself.

The topo map Henry brought came in very handy here. While we had that one ridge remaining, we didn’t realize it just by looking at the unfamiliar landscape. We were making route decisions as we rested and ate, but we were wrongly thinking we were a little farther along than we actually were. The guy we had met on the trail had suggested we go right to finish the mountain, so we were discussing how going right would work. It appeared that it would be pretty difficult. He had told us that left was much harder to climb, but it sure looked easier. As it turns out, he was probably right, but we were looking in the wrong place. We finally figured out that a place on the map called “The Ledges” was not right next to us, but was instead another quarter mile up. We left not completely sure of that, but willing to give it a try. So, from where we were, we stayed left and found that next flat spot to plot upcoming moves.

We got that next quarter mile by climbing over more rocks. At this point in the hike, there’s -almost- no trail and all rock. Whether you’re going across or up, it’s footing you have to pay attention to, or something could go really wrong. And it’s not a place you want something to go wrong. We were alone and far from help. We did, however, have cell service almost the entire way. It was spotty at the lake, but as we climbed up, we were within sight of more of Spring Creek, so service improved. That was somewhat reassuring, but it didn’t make traversing the rock any easier.

We had reached the base of Ruby Dome. It’s a mountain that was once probably rounded at the top, but the north facing side—our side—has calved and fallen over the millennia, so there’s a sheer cliff for about 500 feet or more. You get to the top by scrambling up the right side chute (longer, less steep, by the looks of it from our vantage point) or the left side ridge (steeper-looking, like as in dangerous). We chose the chute on the advice of our fellow hiker the day before. It’s all just rock. You’re taking steps to make sure you have steady footing, grabbing the next rock to step up, etc. for the last half mile. And you are really climbing. According to my running GPS watch, which I have found is not accurate (on the ‘it cheats you out of altitude’ end), we went up 785 feet in six tenths of a mile to the top. That’s steep and required some actual rock climbing for us. We were not prepared for that and had not found anything that went beyond “there’s some scrambling in the last half mile” in what we read leading up to this. So, yeah, it’s a lot harder than we thought it would be.

The top is spectacular. The Rubies are beautiful and you can see an awful lot of them from the summit. Looking south toward the rest of the range is probably the best view, but north toward Elko is pretty great as well. There are two rock structures up there marking the highest points. They are a few feet tall and one of them houses the summit log—a large veterinary pill bottle taped to a branch with a couple of pens attached. It was only a few weeks old. We had learned the day before that the old log book had disappeared recently so people had started using this one in its place. It had been contained in a bigger ammo canister, but someone either took that away or it had perhaps gone over the edge.

After about 15 minutes of picture taking, eating, calling people (we had four bars up there), we decided on a way down. Henry didn’t want to go back down that chute as it had been brutal coming up. We scoped out the ridge and decided to try it. There is one very sketchy part that gives you maybe five feet of side to side room with drops on both sides. You have to be careful here because falling off toward the left is death. It’s sheer and a few hundred feet down. To the right it’s a little sloped, but probably not enough to stop you from falling a long way and sustaining serious injury or dying. So, yeah, pay attention and use your hands.

We were attempting to reach a saddle between the main peak and the east peak. We got to a steeper part that would have forced us to boulder down. Henry decided to go right from there and see if he could find a way off the backside to the saddle. I followed until he told me to wait as he continued down. Probably 200 feet below, he came to a cliff edge and couldn’t go on. So, we started back up and found our way to that ridge. We thought we may have to go all the way back and out the chute, but I found a way to where we had wanted to get earlier. It turns out that we would have had to boulder down, but that would have perfectly put us on the path we wanted to take. After the detour, we were ten feet below where we had turned and it was easier from there.

The hike back was just a reverse of coming up. We got some more beautiful views of Griswold Lake and made it back in a total of about five hours. Dinner was some rice and packets of Indian food that boil in water. It was also fantastic. Cotie had tried his hand at fishing in Griswold Lake. He had heard rumors that there were fish there and only after failing to catch anything realized that might be near impossible unless it was stocked. It’s probably not stocked.

In the morning, we broke camp and made our way down the trail to the cars. My legs were weak from the heavy pack again and the soreness of two days of climbing. We hit the cars in about an hour and a half with no incidents. We saw some younger guys making their way up to the Dome and chatted with them a minute. They said that had done it before and knew what they were up against. At the cars, we went separate ways. Cotie headed back to Utah and Henry and I dropped the campground key off and hit The Star for a fantastic Basque lunch. From there, the drive home was easy.

The trip was fantastic. Ruby Dome is situated among some of the best looking mountains in Nevada, so taking it on was a special treat. It’s a trip I probably would do again, but I’d maybe like to do the entire Ruby Crest Trail. It’s stunning out there. I actually don’t think I could say that enough.

Here are the vitals: