Winter Walk to Emerald Lake

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It seems like I never go to Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer (not to hike anyway, we’ve driven the Trail Ridge Road a couple of times). I suppose it makes sense; it’s less crowded in winter and in the summer I’m usually backpacking somewhere I don’t need permits or to plan months in advance.

Anyway - Emerald Lake. It’s one of the more popular hikes so even though there was a ton of snow we didn’t need snowshoes, just microspikes, since the snow was packed down. It was super windy at Emerald Lake (I suspect common) but the sunny skies made it feel much warmer. For a short, ~3 mi out and back hike, it was nice to get out into the mountains, even if it’s only for a few hours.

If you go:

Winter Camping

I don’t winter camp. I love the idea in theory but in practice the long hours of darkness cooped up inside a tent just put me off it. Get me a hut with a woodburning stove and I’ll walk/ski/snowshoe miles back to it.

Living this close to the mountains it kills me that prime backpacking season is 3, maybe 4 months max. After a few weeks of coaxing I finally convinced K that we should try it. She’s from the desert, this is probably the last thing she ever saw herself doing.

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At the Moffat Tunnel trailhead , the gateway to the James Peak Wilderness, there are some camping options within a mile of the trailhead. Seems reasonable, close enough to escape if we can’t handle it but far enough away to make it feel worth it.

We headed in midday and found a nice spot between some pines and packed down a nice spot for the tent. After everything was all set up we snowshoed around the area and found a side trail leading up to a frozen waterfall.

About 4pm the sun set in our little valley and we got into the tent. Only 15 hours until the next ray of light…

The temps dropped to the teens and the wind howled through the trees but we stayed nice and cozy in the tent armed with books, crosswords and some warming stout.

I’d do it again, but I think I’d still take the hut and woodburning stove.

If you go:

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Twin Sisters Peak

As winter closes in my range of hiking options shrink. Luckily the front range near Boulder stays snow free longer than the mountains farther west. In Rocky Mountain National Park the Twin Sisters Peak Trail is about 7 miles out and back and gets you to 11,427ft. It is straight up and straight back down. There are a few views along the way but it is mostly through the trees until the last half mile.

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There was already snow on the trail and there were a couple dicey spots of ice (yep, I left my microspikes in the car…) on the way up but going slow it was doable. Once we got out of the trees the trail was clear. It was blue skies for miles and the views from the top were stunning.

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Never Summer Wilderness Weekend

It feels appropriate to ring in the fall equinox in the Never Summer Wilderness. I wasn’t sure what to expect here having not read much about it (and really I shouldn’t be surprised) but, wow, it was an excellent trip. Scenery was top notch, it was only 2 hours from my door to the trailhead for an amazing weekend loop. And the bonus: from Boulder the fastest way is to take the Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. Not. Bad.

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We hit the trail the first day around 11ish (yes we are lazy). From the parking lot the trail skirts the side of the mountain until it intersection with the Bowen Trail, which is also part of the CDT! From here we began to climb up Bowen Gulch. Our total gain was 2,800ft over 8 miles but given the consistent increase it didn’t feel too bad. We split off the CDT onto the Bowen Lake Trail for the last 1.25 mi to get to Bowen Lake, a great place to set up camp and chill for a few hours before sunset. There were a few people around but it really wasn’t busy. The hike up was mostly through the forest, not much for long views but a very pleasant hike, especially with the aspens starting to change. Scenery at the lake opened up a bit and we could see the ridge we were taking the next day.

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Day 2 we hit the trail early and got up onto the ridge behind Bowen Lake, the Cascade Mt Trail. The ridge section is about 4 miles and there are amazing views in every direction. And a summit of Cascade and Ruby Mt if you choose to (the trail itself goes just below the summits). The trail is easy to follow, in a few sections it became faint but since we were following a ridge, no problem.

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The ridge descends down to Bowen Pass and intersects with the CDT/Bowen Trail. We headed west on the CDT for a ¼ mile before the intersection of the Jack Park (?) trail. There is a small creek here and it provided a sunny spot for lunch. The trail winds up the side of Fairview Mt and after a mile we bore right at another unnamed trail junction. We headed up to the pass between Fairview Mt and Parika Peak getting good views along the way. At the pass we could see down to Parika Lake and the Baker Gulch, our way back to the car. Parika Lake is exposed and would make for a tough camp in windy weather if doing the loop in the other direction. There are more sheltered spots a bit farther down Baker Gulch near an unnamed lake at approx 11,000ft that would make a good camp. The walk out down the valley became mostly wooded and was similar to the Bowen Trail we took up.

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Made it back to the car around 4pm, I was tempted to stop in Estes Park but I’m glad I was able to wait another 30 minutes to Lyons where we hit up the Oskar Blues Taphouse for a delicious burger and a beer.

If you go

Mt Bierstadt

My First 14er.

I’m not a peak bagger. I love getting a view but I’d much rather walk a ridgeline than summit something. However, it is rather embarrassing that I’ve lived in Colorado for over a year now and I haven’t hiked a 14er (aka a 14,000 ft mountain).

Mt Bierstadt seemed like a good place to start as it’s considered one of the easier 14ers. We got to the trailhead around 6am and it was already full. It was right around freezing and the boardwalks were slick with frost but once we got moving it was a beautiful clear day for hiking. Little patches of ice crunched under foot where the puddles were the day before.

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The trail itself is well trodden and easy going, especially the first mile or so and we made good time. We hit the switchbacks as the sun started peeking over the ridge and then a short section of rock hopping and we were at the top. Snacks and views were consumed. The way down was a breeze. Lots of crowds were heading uphill, glad we got an early start.

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The overall elevation gain is ~2,600, which isn’t that different from a lot of day hikes I do but getting up to 14,000ft certainly makes it more challenging. I recorded a trip time of just over 4 hours including a 20 min break at the top, 7.25 miles total.

If you go:

Guanella Pass TH

Trail Map: Caltopo / Gaia

20 Hour Getaway

Its a busy Labor Day weekend for me but I have the itch to camp. 

After shooting photos for a client in the morning i grabb my pack and hastily shove my gear in. Luckily, in the spring I got on kick making a bunch of meals in anticipation of hiking season. I grab one of those and some oats and hop in the car. An hour later I’m at the Moffat Tunnel trailhead ready to hit the trail. The beauty of living in Boulder.

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I’ve been to James Peak Wilderness before and I know there are multiple lakes with awesome campsites within 3-4 miles of the trailhead. This time I’m headed to the Crater Lake area, about 3 miles from the car. 

It’s late afternoon by this point and most people I pass are headed back to the trailhead. After 2 miles of steady gradual incline I get to the turn off to crater lakes. From here the trail becomes more steep before eventually flattening out near the lakes.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of activity around the lakes. On another weekend it could be a nice place to camp but for tonight I’m going another .5 mile and 400ft up to Upper Crater Lake. 

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This is the steepest part of the climb and at lake level it becomes more of a rock hopping experience than actual trail. Not a lot in the way of flat sites but I find a little spot for my tent near the east side of the lake just past the outflow. The bonus is no one else is up here camping. 

By the time I finish dinner it is already fairly dark and the Milky Way is starting to emerge. The job I was working this morning was using a Canon 5DS R with an 16-35mm zoom. Perfect for having a bit of fun messing around with long exposure shots while the sky is still moonless. This is a great camera, it’s completely impractical to bring into backcountry but, hey, what the hell.

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The next day I make it out early to get home. From door to door the whole trip was only 20 hours but was a great reset.

If you go:

Capitol Creek Circuit+

Summer is finally here and we’re starting it out with a big trip. The Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness has been on my list of places to check out since moving to Colorado last summer. The issue is it’s also on a lot of other people’s lists too. Solitude in wilderness is what really resets and invigorates me. The super popular 4-pass loop is out. Enter the Capitol Creek Circuit route.

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After reading up on the Capitol Creek Circuit there are a lot of things going for it over the 4-pass loop: longer, more elevation, not as busy and “circuit” sounds cooler than “loop”. It’s not as busy as 4-pass but it still is popular (if a route has a name it’s a “thing”, and if it’s a “thing” people will hike it). Which isn’t a bad thing, I’m just a grump.

Route planning is one of my favorite parts of planning a trip, after pouring over the maps and devising no less than 6 ways to do the loop I settled with what I’m calling the “Capitol Creek Circuit+”.

What makes it “+”? 1. It’s longer (+6 miles), it has more elevation (+2,000ft) and has +2 more passes. And it has a bonus side trip. I’m certainly looking forward to all the +’s, K maybe not as much. You can view the route on Caltopo or Gaia.

We’re starting from the Maroon Snowmass trailhead at the base of the Geneva Lake trail. The parking lot is small so plan to arrive early if you go. From here we backtrack a ¼ down the road to the East Maroon Trailhead. We’re choosing to go this way (clockwise) because Willow Lake, our campsite for tonight, is the highest and most exposed of the sites we plan to stay at and the forecast looks clear with little wind.  

100ft up the trail we hear some rustling in the bushes about 20ft off the trail. It’s a bear! It’s sitting on its haunches eating berries facing away from us. It looks over its shoulder at us, stares for a second or two and nonchalantly goes back to the berries. Ok then, I guess we are not a threat.  

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The East Maroon trail is a steady, beautiful slog 6.75 miles up to the pass. From the pass, the highest point of our hike at 12,627ft, we can see Willow Lake and the Willow pass we’ll head out on tomorrow. From here it’s only another 1.5 miles down to the lake to camp. We saw one other person on the trail and no one else is camping here tonight. Perfect.

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Day 2: We head up the Willow Pass and down to the Maroon Snowmass Trail. Gone is the solutiude, we’re now on the busy 4-pass loop. I shouldn’t be so crabby. The people are all stoked to be up here and there is a reason why this is a popular trail, the scenery is out of this world.

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The next pass is Buckskin (again, amazing) and after we head down hill to Snowmass Lake, about 3.5 miles from the pass. It’s early afternoon, we had thought about pushing on to Geneva Lake but it’s just too nice here and there are still tons of good tent spots left. Plus we’re not on a tight timeline so why push it. Being on the 4-pass loop the campground fills up by late afternoon and it’s a bit of a zoo, but there are plenty of nice spots to sit and enjoy the lake as the sun goes down.

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Day 3: We head over Trail Rider pass and down to Geneva Lake. At the north end of the lake we decide to try the side trip to Siberia Lake I scouted before we left. On the Forest Service topo maps there is a trail here but I had read the trail no longer exists. That’s ok, it makes the side trip more fun.

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The first ½ mile alternated between tall grass and shoulder high brush, there are a few faint game trails occasionally to make it a little easier. Once we enter the more forested section it becomes easier to walk up the creek itself for a little less than ¼ mi to the base of a boulder field. The creek has really cut out a gorge here, going up the boulder field to the east is a steep but doable affair. The trail levels off into a narrow meadow with the creek flowing through it. It’s a little marshy but there are a few spots, especially later in the season, that could definitely be doable for a small tent. You certainly wouldn’t be bothered up here. We spend a while chilling in the meadow and decide not to go all the way up to Siberia Lake, another scramble up a boulder field would get you there.

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We head back down the boulder field this time starting a little farther east through the woods which wasn’t too bad. Less brushy but more blowdowns to hop over. We get back to the main trail and make camp around Geneva Lake, much more private than Snowmass Lake. The spots are farther apart and much more defined.

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Day 4: As we’re breaking camp I grab a trekking pole and think, “this feels weird”. I look down… some little bastard decided to chew through the grips on two of our poles and began to munch on a third. Hell. My guess is a marmot. Here is our quick tape fix. Classy, eh?

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After that debacle we walk downhill to the Geneva Lake trailhead, which is accessible only by 4WD and not very busy. From here it is a 2.25 mile walk back up the 4WD road to the Silver Creek trailhead. The roadwalk provides spectacular views south into the Raggeds Wilderness and not much traffic, but the best part is the wildflowers. The entire slope is awash in color as we switchback up it. Turning onto the Avalanche/Silver Creek Trail the flowers refuse to let up and we hike higher into wildflower laced meadows. As we are heading up the pass (our 5th of the trip) we realize we have been circling Meadow Mountain, which couldn’t be more aptly named. Heading down the other side of the pass the terrain changes to a rocky meadow dotted with pine trees.

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There are other trip reports that this loop is difficult to follow. I assume people are referring to this section of the trail, which at times is faint/non-existent, but never for more than 100 yards. We didn’t have trouble following it, using our maps and GPS it’s pretty clear where we needed to go to stay in the right direction. Without going off on a tangent let me just say if you’re heading into the backcountry, even on well travelled trails, it’s a good idea to have knowledge of how to use a map, compass, and GPS. If visibility was low this section might have been tougher.

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After the meadow the trail stays relatively level just above the tree line at approx. 11,600ft skirting along the east side of the valley for a couple miles and then ascends to just over 11,800ft through a small pass (#6 of the trip). From here the GPS and the National Forest topo maps diverge but there is never any question where the trail is and after a steep descent we make it down to Avalanche Creek. Walking up the creek ⅓ of a mile we end the day at Avalanche Lake.

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Day 5: Our final day and our final 2 passes. At 14 miles this will be our longest day, but the lure of a hot shower and a cold beer should be enough to give us the extra push back to the car.

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We start the day by walking back down Avalanche Creek .5 mile before turn onto the Capitol Creek Trail. We climb 1,600 ft to the pass which sits at 12,000 ft. Beautiful views of Capitol Lake await us at the top. After the lake the trail descends into the forest and after about 2 miles we head onto the West Snowmass Creek Trail. Here again the GPS and National Forest topo maps are different but the trail on the ground is obvious. Heading up to Haystack pass the trail has been rerouted to stay along the creek for longer before climbing to the pass (the FS map has it following a spur uphill.

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Pyramid Peak comes into view as the trees thin and we get to the wide pass (#8 and final!) and take a break for lunch. It’s all downhill for the last 6 miles, through pine and then aspen forest. With 3 miles left to go a light drizzle comes and goes, the only rain of the trip. 1.5 miles from the end we get to Snowmass Creek, the only real creek crossing of the trip. With the early season snowmelt it’s knee deep. After crossing you’ll be tempted to take a left onto an old trail, but the no trespassing signs etc should clue you in you’re going the wrong way. Seems counterintuitive but take a right to find the Geneva Lake Trail. From here the trail levels out and it’s a fast walk to the car.

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The circuit was just shy of 46 miles and 14,300 ft of elevation gain. Our side trip on day 3 was an additional 3 miles and 1,000 ft of elevation gain.

If you go:

Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Backpack

I wouldn’t call this loop challenging by any stretch of the imagination and the views are nice but not going to top any “best of” lists for Colorado. But when the more scenic trails are still covered in snow and you’re looking for an easy, pleasant weekend trip it does the trick. You could easily do this route as a day hike too.

The loop is 11.5 miles total with a net elevation gain of ~2,000ft and no steep climbs. It’s located just south of Fairplay, CO. Access is an easy 2WD gravel road.

We did the loop counter-clockwise starting from the Rich Creek trailhead. The trail is a steady uphill for the first 5 miles (most of the elevation gain for the hike) through aspen, pine and then a meadow: the high point of the hike.

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Just after the high point we started looking for camping spots. As you go downhill a small creek starts to form. I suspect as the season goes on this creek dries up. We chose a spot not too far off the trail here amongst the trees about 50 yards from the creek. Turns out there is a more popular (and flat) camping spot about a mile down the trail just before the Tumble Creek trail junction, but the privacy we had was worth it.

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On day 2 we spent the part of the morning looking for the Buffalo Ridge 1470 trail but we couldn’t find the access; it may have been partially under water as the marshy area was full with spring snowmelt. Regardless the area was fun, we saw turtles, beavers and many birds in and around the water.

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We followed the Tumble Creek trail for the rest of the loop back to the car getting nice views of east and west Buffalo peak along the way. I’d certainly recommend this loop if you’re looking to get away from the crowds and have a relaxing backpacking trip.  

If you go:

Rich Creek TH

Maps: Caltopo / Gaia

USFS Buffalo Peaks information

Lily Mountain - Short Hike, Long Views

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Lily Mountain is short but packs a punch. The trail itself is just under 2 miles each way with ~1,100ft of elevation gain, but the sweeping views from the top are some of the best, looking directly into Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great place to go for a short hike or, in my case, maximum reward for minimum effort for an out of state visitor.

Finding the trailhead can be a little bit of a challenge as it’s not really marked and there is no parking area. Use your GPS or just look for the cars parked off the side of the road near the start of the trail. The hike is mostly straightforward with a little bit of off-trail scrambling at the end to get to the official top. It’s a great place to hang out, eat some lunch or snacks and head back down to the parking area.

If you go:

Great Sand Dunes National Park

“Use the heater on the dash to warm up the turkey leftovers.” This is how our trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park started.

We had an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving weekend to get out and check out the dunes. The days are getting short, not much time left for hiking after a slow start and 4 hour drive from Boulder. Permits were easy to get, after talking with the ranger it seemed like we might be the only ones camping in the dunes tonight… Good sign? Bad sign? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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The basic backcountry instructions are to “go at least two ridges over from the visitor center, then camp wherever you want.” We took off from the parking area near the Medano Pass Road (which was closed) and hiked about 2 miles into the dunes before it started to get dark. The wind was intense but we managed to get the tent setup. I’m really glad we chose our heavier freestanding tent vs our Tarpent, which would have been near impossible to pitch in the dunes.

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Backpacking in the dunes is slow going, day 2 we made it a grand total of 5 miles. On top of the sand slowing us down we also were carrying all of our water for the day - there is no water in the dunes themselves and it was highly probable that we wouldn’t have water at the Aspen campsite either (there wasn’t).

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Early afternoon we exited the dunes and reached the Aspen campsite, aptly named as it is nestled in a grove of aspen trees with gorgeous views of the dunes and the mountains. It was much less windy here and with temps near 60 it was a great spot to lounge for the rest of the afternoon and enjoy the sunset.

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We headed out early in the morning, using the last of our water to eat our breakfast and coffee. Little Medano Creek, our nearest water source, is about 1.75 miles from Aspen and we had a long break there refilling water and basking in the early morning sun. From here back to the car it’s about 5.5 miles and for the most part the sandy trail parallels the dunes. The last mile we chose walk on the 4WD road. The views were similar, just less sand.

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