No real trail leads up the steep granite slopes between Upper Canyon Creek Lake and little"El" Lake in its secluded cirque, but there is a route, marked by ducks and orange-painted blazes. To find the route, walk north along the strip of grass and beach on the east side of Upper Canyon Creek Lake to where vertical granite blocks your way. Climb up a gully behind a very poor campsite that should not be used, turn northeast across the top of the first granite knob and you should soon pick up ducks and orange blazes marking the route south of some cliffs.
You continue generally northeast, very steeply at times, up and up over ledges, through gullies and past two small ponds. Along the way you have spectacular views back across the Canyon Creek Lakes and up to Mount Hilton on the horizon. At .7 mile from the start of the climb, you top out on a ledge overlooking a very green valley, through which the outlet stream from "El" Lake wanders. The lake is beyond a shoulder of rock to the east, in a cirque surrounded by an amazing tableau of cliffs and peaks.
Permanent snowbanks on the towering north face of Sawtooth Mountain, the south wall of the cirque, reflect in the quiet, rock-dotted surface of "El" Lake. The 2-acre lake obviously gets its name from its shape, a contorted L that wraps around rocks and plush little meadows. Weeping spruce, mountain hemlock and red fir grow in pockets of soil along the steep west shore and up the walls to the base of the cliffs. Talus slopes at the base of the upper cliffs are so white they look like snow at first glance.
The timbered ridge across the valley north of the lake is the divide between this drainage and the head of the Stuart Fork. A strenuous cross-country route runs through a saddle in this ridge and down to Mirror and Sapphire lakes in the giant cirque beyond. The part of this route running around the head of the Stuart Fork cirque to Mirror Lake is potentially dangerous due to unstable rock, and should be attempted only by experienced cross-country hikers.
A small, poor campsite in the rocks where you first reach the shoreline of "El" Lake is too close to the lake and should not be used. Look for better sites along the edge of the meadows below the lake. Small eastern brook trout rise to almost anything that touches the surface of the lake on summer evenings.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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