Sunday, May 16, 2010

Big birds, small lake

Published in the Post Register, April, 2010

GRAYS LAKE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- Sandhill cranes stand about four feet tall and have a wingspan of up to six feet. That is one big bird.

As lakes go, on the other hand, Grays is nothing to write home about. Maybe a dozen feet deep at its most lake-like, it’s really more a marsh, full of hardstem bulrushes and cattails, with plenty of sage around the edges. Look more closely, particularly in late spring, and you’ll find dozens, maybe hundreds of sandhill cranes.

That’s not all. On a recent visit we spotted a couple of bald eagles and other birds of prey, some trumpeter swans, numerous shorebirds and nearly no human beings. At nearly 6,400 feet, Grays Lake (there is no apostrophe) gets about 10 feet of snow a year and has a short season suitable for viewing.

There are more convenient places to watch waterfowl. Mud Lake is a quick freeway trip north of Idaho Falls, for example, while getting to Grays Lake requires a meandering route of mostly dirt and gravel roads and is a round trip of 100 miles if your starting point is Sunnyside Road east of Idaho Falls and you drive the entire loop around the lake.

Passenger cars can easily handle the road, so long as it's not rained recently and you don’t mind a little teeth-chattering washboard and plumes of dust. All of this is the bad news.

The good news is that the drive winds through pretty high desert with Caribou Mountain looming to the east. Once at the lake a stop pretty much anywhere along the way, from the marshy north to the watery south, will yield views of beautiful landscapes and bountiful wildlife.

The best time to visit Grays Lake is now -- between mid-May and the end of October. The main reason to go is that Grays is home to the world’s largest nesting population of greater sandhill cranes, which are fascinating to watch on the ground and a spectacular sight when they take flight. In early fall there are as many as 3,000 cranes in the refuge.

If you have the whole day, expand your loop. Take Sunnyside to Bone Road, connect to Long Valley Road and follow it to Grays Lake Road on the lake’s east side, continuing all the way to Idaho Highway 34. Once back on the pavement, take 34 to Soda Springs for dinner, then make your way home via U.S. 30 and Interstate 15. Alternatively, turn left (east) on Highway 34 and head to Freedom, Wyoming and return home via Palisades Reservoir and Swan Valley. Either choice will add about 100 miles to the return trip, but it might save you a few fillings.

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