The first quarter mile of the Canyon Creek trail rises slightly. You then level off well up on-the side of the canyon before turning east into the shaded side canyon of Bear Creek. A few spots of fire burned across this part of the trail. Lush stands of dogwood and big-leaf maple line the descent to the crossing of Bear Creek. Beyond a boulder-hop across the creek, you climb a short, steep pitch to a shoulder far above Canyon Creek, and continue north through open, dry, hillside forest of canyon oak, black oak, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and a few incense cedars. At 1.5 miles a few fair campsites are on a bench in more lush forest, but it's a long way down to Canyon Creek for water.
At 2.5 miles from the trailhead you skirt the top of a cliff above boulder-strewn Canyon Creek. Across the canyon, tongues of fire ran down the east-facing canyon wall in 1987. Lightening strikes started the fire on the west-side crest, and it is easy to see that it burned its hottest there.
The Helena 1951 quadrangle shows McKay Camp beside the trail less than 2 miles from the trailhead. The trail has been rebuilt and relocated, and a junction turning left down to the present McKay Camp is 3 miles from the trailhead. Rough trail descends steeply 200 yards through heavy brush to a large flat-actually an island between two channels of Canyon Creek. Both channels are usually dry by midsummer. The creek disappears in"The Sinks" upstream, buried by a huge rockslide, to emerge again at the downstream end of the island. A number of excellent campsites are on the island and on another flat west of the creek. Fishing for native rainbow trout to 10 inches is excellent below McKay Camp and in holes in the rockpile upstream. The old trail on the Helena quadrangle ran on up the bottom of the canyon from here, but you will have trouble finding a trace of it now.
Back on the wide, smooth tread of the present-day Canyon Creek trail, you climb moderately, far up on the east side of the canyon, with a view across to the wide scar left when a big piece of the west wall fell, creating "The Sinks." A half mile from the McKay Camp junction a fresh-looking little creek falls from above and flows across the trail. Don't get water from it at the first crossing because the trail switches back and crosses it two more times. You should purify the water, wherever you get it.
Not far above the switchback you will first hear, then glimpse, the high cascade that used to be known as the Canyon Creek Falls. The old trail on the floor of the canyon climbed up right beside it, but you will have to crawl back down the creek to find it now. The new trail comes close to the creek just below another, less spectacular fall now known as Lower Canyon Creek Falls. A beautiful swimming pool is at the base of this fall, offering a refreshing dip after the 3.8 miles of trail you've traversed so far. Several weeping spruce trees grow beside the trail here. Long fronds hanging straight down from the branches distinguish these trees from other conifers. Ignore the small, poor campsites beside the trail here better ones are in a grove of mature firs .5 mile farther on just below Upper Canyon Creek Meadows. There is even a cave under a huge boulder, if you didn't bring your own shelter. You will see no further evidence of the 1987 fire beyond this point.
Almost level trail along the east side of Upper Canyon Creek Meadows runs through shoulder-high ferns on the forest floor. Masses of flowers bloom in the marshy meadows in mid-July. Above the meadows the trail deteriorates badly as you climb moderately over exposed roots and rocks away from the creek. At 5 miles from the trailhead you climb over some granite ledges just above the creek, then turn up the side of the canyon again on rough tread through rocks and brush.
A large, heavily forested flat, littered with boulders and crossed by several midsummer-dry watercourses, begins 5.5 miles from the trailhead. Several fair-to-good campsites are among the boulders not too far from Canyon Creek. As you approach a cliff at the north end of the flat, a use trail branches west to the foot of Middle Falls, a spectacular cascade over granite ledges into a deep granite bowl. The creek spreads in a number of overgrown channels below. Somewhere on the west side of the flat, Boulder Creek merges with one of these channels, but you would have to search hard to find it.
A difficult, steep, cross-country route to Morris and Smith lakes runs up the south side of the gulch east of this flat and over the top of the ridge south of Sawtooth Mountain. The first and most difficult obstacle on this route is a band of heavy brush in rock falls at the base of the ridge. Once beyond that problem, the way is very steep and requires good orienteering and mountaineering ability, but is generally considered to be an easier approach to Morris and Smith lakes than the route up Bear Gulch from Morris Meadow on the other side of the ridge.
The main trail turns east at the base of a cliff at the flat's north end, and soon begins a series of moderately steep switchbacks north beside a little creek. -At the top of the switchbacks you enter a forested, azalea-floored dell, where the well-signed Boulder Creek Lakes trail forks west 6 miles from the trailhead. If you follow the Boulder Creek Lakes trail .2 mile west across bare granite and down to Canyon Creek, you will find many excellent campsites in forested flats on both sides of the creek.
Continuing up the Canyon Creek Lakes trail, you come close to the creek again above the azalea dell, pass more good campsites, and then turn east to climb another set of switchbacks around the next set of falls. A small, fair campsite nestles under fir trees near the top of the falls as you approach the creek again. This is the last campsite before the climb up to the lakes. The rough trail climbs moderately steeply through rocks and brush up the east side of the canyon, then turns north to the outlet of Lower Canyon Creek Lake 1.4 miles from the Boulder Creek Lakes junction.
The very deep, blue, 15-acre lower lake sits in a bowl of solid granite, which is very steep on the east side leading up to massive Sawtooth Mountain, but lower and shelving on the other three sides. Only a few clumps of brush and scattered weeping spruces, Jeffrey pines and red firs break the expanse of smooth, glaciated granite sloping up from the west shore to a row of cliffs. Beyond more cliffs and rugged ridges, snow-capped Mount Hilton towers into the western sky. To the north, the jagged top of Thompson Peak fits nearly into a notch at the head of the canyon.
Be very careful crossing the outlet of the lake if the water is at all high. A woman was swept away and drowned here in 1983. Beyond the crossing, look for orange-painted blazes on rocks showing the way northwest to the base of some cliffs. Your route turns north below these crags, and from this vantage point it is easy to see why you should not camp at this lake. The only possible places to camp are on the sloping shelf of rock below you, and it is obvious that any waste deposited there will inevitably wash into the lake. The painted blazes lead to a gully through which you climb northwest to your first awe-inspiring view of Upper Canyon Creek Lake. From your viewpoint at the west end of a granite dike between the lakes, you look north to vertically tiered strata resembling irregular slices of toasted bread rising directly from a deep bay. Jagged Wedding Cake and Thompson Peak top the granite skyline beyond. Canyon Creek flows in several meandering channels across lush green delta to enter the lake from the northeast. A frozen cascade of glacier-rounded granite falls to the east shore from the cirque containing "El" Lake. A strip of grass and gravelly beach, backed by willows and alders, runs from the outlet at the east end of the dike around to the bare granite south of the inlet meadow.
You will find more orange-painted blazes marking the way east along the top of the dike. The outlet of the upper lake runs through a steep-sided cut where a wood-timbered dam once raised the level of the lake 6-8 feet. Although no evidence of ditches or flumes remains, the additional impounded water was probably used for mining somewhere down the canyon. Crossing the outlet can be dangerous when the water is high.
A few poor campsites are in the pockets of brush and trees on the dike and on a little strip of beach. None of them should be used. Please camp in the canyon below the lakes it's not that far to walk and you will be more comfortable while helping to preserve the fragile beauty of the lakes basin.
Brown trout up to five pounds and eastern brook and rainbow trout almost as big have been taken near the outlet and the inlet.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication