This short, but steep, hiker-only trail leads to a small lake with a large campsite. The trail is mostly covered in forest duff due to the limited foot traffic, making the climb much more pleasant. Shallow and grassy shored, Little Joe Lake is well on its way to becoming a meadow in its old growth forest setting.
The current trailhead is the junction of USFS Rd 4312 and gated USFS Rd 4312-121, with a sign for Little Joe Lake and Thorp Creek trails. Walk past the gate, and in 80 yards reach Thorp Creek. This crossing varies from a rock hop to a small log tightrope to a knee-deep rushing ford, depending upon the season.
Once across the creek, climb to the unmarked junction of roads 4312-121 and 4312-123. Go right (east) and follow the road for 0.3 mile to a crossing of the outlet creek of Little Joe Lake. Like Thorp Creek, the difficulty of this crossing varies with the season. Just beyond the crossing is the old trailhead at 0.5 mile from Road 4312, with signs for the Little Joe Lake trail, 1330.1.
The trail takes off steeply climbing at 1,700 feet per mile, a preview of its overall average of 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile. The initial 0.2 mile is through a clear-cut with a few trees from natural re-seeding. The open area has the advantage of a view up the Thorp Creek valley.
Once in the trees, the character of the trail changes to less rocks and dust to more forest duff, making the travel more interesting. After 0.7 mile, the steepness relents for a re-crossing of the outlet creek in a meadowed area followed by a resumption of the climb for the next 0.2 mile to reach the first view of the lake.
Once at lake level the trail goes around the east side of the lake, crossing the outlet and reaching the junction with the Red Mountain Trail, 1330, at 1.7 miles from road 4312.
Take the left branch of trail 1330 and reach a large, forested campsite.
Because of less human traffic, this trail and lake provide a chance for interaction with the local fauna (deer, moose, bear, coyote, fox, etc). Otherwise, Little Joe Lake is a better point of interest on a longer hike than a destination.
In early summer, the inlet meadow is a flower garden. Just be prepared for bugs, as the shallow marshy lake supports hordes of mosquitos, and plan on fording Thorp Creek and the Little Joe outlet creek.
In late summer, the streams and outlet have dried up, but the berries are ripe. Note: accessing water from the lake at the campsite involves tight-roping a 7” log on the grassy/marshy shore, followed by a few steps in 8” deep mud.
In winter and early spring, this can be a destination for a snowshoe trip, although the access to the trailhead may involve miles of road walk, and a couple of tricky stream crossings.