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:

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

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.


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.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

A Night in the James Peak Wilderness

It’s been a month since we’ve arrived, time to check out the backpacking around Boulder. Honestly, coming from Wisconsin I’m overwhelmed with choices on where to go. In the end we settled on James Peak Wilderness leaving from the East Portal/Moffat Tunnel trailhead. It’s 45 min drive from home, we get to camp at an alpine lake and walk on the continental divide. Sounds too good to be true. Turns out it isn’t.

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We arrived at the trailhead just before lunch and started walking the 4 miles to Rogers Pass Lake where we hoped to find a spot to camp. The aspens are already starting to turn and the first section of the walk through the forest was gorgeous.

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To the lake it’s a steady incline, about 1,900ft, with plenty of places to rest and fill up with water on the way up. It took about 2 hours to get to the lake and we had many spots to choose from. After a bit of a rest we hiked up another .75 miles and 800ft to the the divide. On the way up we passed Heart Lake which was very windy with little cover. Glad we choose a spot at Rogers Lake. After Heart Lake it’s a steep push to the top.

At this point the ridge is very wide and you can walk miles in either direction. To the west there are great views of Winter Park and the mountains beyond and to the east there are views down the valley all the way to the front range.

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After hanging out on the divide we headed back down to our camp. By then it was much busier by the lake, good thing we grabbed a spot when we did. It was a cool clear night and we had a great dinner of sausages and roast vegetables with some wine (hey it’s only a 4 mile hike in, might as well take advantage of it!).

If you go:

Great Divide Trail - Fire, Bears & Section B

Fire has hit the GDT in a big way. At present we are in Banff and a big chunk of section C (near Banff is closed).

We saw signs that fire season was coming all along the way. It hasn’t rained a drop since our first day (2 weeks ago) and it’s been hot, like 30C hot, on most days. Along some dirt roads the fire service has set up outposts and are just sitting and waiting for fires to break out.

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We depart Coleman and start section B with the forecast calling for 7 days of sunny and hot weather. In Coleman we stayed at A Safe Haven B&B and the hosts, Alannah and Dan, are among the few trail angels on the GDT. They offer discounts to hikers and even load us up with food as we head out. We were so busy before we left we completely forgot to call and book (or even state our intentions) to stay with them. I felt pretty sheepish showing up at their door unannounced but they didn’t bat an eye and welcomed us into their home.

We end up grabbing a hitch out of town to the Dutch Creek Provincial Recreation Area. This goes against the thru hiker ethos but after reading trail reports about the section before Tornado Mountain we decide that hitching saves us a day (we are on a tight schedule). It gets us to the Dutch Creek CG in 29km vs 64km on the primary route.  

Dutch Creek Campground is a beautiful spot nestled near a boulder field just before Tornado Pass. This early in the season it’s fairly marshy and it takes a bit to find a dry site. In the night I’m awoken by the sound of rocks being tossed around in the boulder field. It’s a near a full moon and fairly light out. I don’t see anything but I do remember seeing a decent amount of bear poop on the trail up. I toss and turn for the rest of the night unable to sleep thinking about what might be flipping the rocks...

The next day we head up and over Tornado Pass, made more challenging due to an avalanche over the trail. The trail up is steep shale, definitely our hardest climb of the trail thus far.

After last night’s sleepless night I’m definitely a bit freaked to sleep out in the backcountry again. The Oldman River Road is only 3.2km off trail and there is more car camping, campgrounds etc along the road. It’s illogical to think it’s safer around car campers but it comforts me and we choose to camp along the road.

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The next day we hear from campers that there are fires burning in British Columbia and possibly close to the GDT itself.

Which brings us back to Banff, right now trying to figure out the game plan. Given our short window of time and that we weren’t planning on doing the whole GDT we’re torn on whether we try to keep going somehow or switch up the plan. We still have about 3 weeks before we need to head home.

For now we wait.

Great Divide Trail Section A

We begin our adventure on the GDT with a climb from Waterton to Alderson Lake, our first camp. It’s only 7.5 km (4mi) but it’s a nice way to ease into the trail.

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A contentious issue before we started the trip was the matter of camp shoes. I was staunchly against, K was in favor of a pair of cheap flip flops (7 ounces, insane!). It’s day 1 and we come back from cooking dinner to a missing flip flop. We hunt for it with no luck. I’m blamed. I swear it was a marmot (it was, honest).

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It rains overnight and we wake up to a misty morning. The trail to Carthew Lakes is clear until just before the last steep climb to the lake, here we encounter a ~6ish foot snow wall. We make it over by cutting in foot and hand holds and slowly making our way up. At the top we see the lake and tons of marmots hanging out on the rocks (which one of you is currently lining your burrow with a comfy stolen flip flop?). When we get to Cathrew Summit the fog has lifted and the views are jaw dropping. We are definitely take an early lunch break here.

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At Cameron Lake the sun is shining and it’s packed. We just left Waterton yesterday but it feels weird to see this many people especially since we only saw one other camper last night. From here we head down the road to the Akamina Trail and the Akamina Creek Campground. We make it to the campground by 4pm and enjoy the rest of the sunny day relaxing near the creek.

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Day 3 we head back out to the road and take it to the Tamarack Trailhead. We debated taking the Mt. Rowe-Sage Pass alt but it’s only day 3, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The trail up is mostly shaded, good cause it’s getting warm, and the wildflowers are everywhere. About 5km (3mi) from the start of the trail we reach an open meadow before we start up the ridge. From here the ridge looks impressive, and it is, there is 1,500ft of elevation gain in the next 1.5 miles.

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Walking up to the ridge we are going over snow patches, most are fine, a few are a little steep and deeper than I’d like. What makes me more nervous is the snow above us, it looks stable but it’s overhanging the edge. We hurry past this part of the bowl and just before the apex of Lineham Ridge there is one last lick of snow to cross. The ridge comes to a point and the trail goes up and over. To our left it’s steeper with deeper snow (see: slide back down the 1,500 ft we walked up), to our right a ~700ft drop off (see: death). There’s a big bear paw print in the snow, and the view past it is obstructed by a small rock pile we have to cross. From looking at either side of the snow in the small dip before the rockpile I come to the conclusion that it’s probably not a snow bridge. K really doesn’t like the “probably” qualifier. We brave it over and thankfully it’s not as bad as it looked once we get on it. Once we’re on the other side the entire ridge down is snow free with views for miles.

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The Tamarack Trail follows the northeast facing side of the valley and there is still snow (and snowmelt) here making it a slow slushy walk. We come across many bear prints and fresh-ish scat on this section of trail. I’m glad Lone Lake, our destination, is in another valley.

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Day 4 and another day of clear blue skies. I didn’t get very cold last night so I’m expecting today’s going to be a hot one. We head out toward Twin Lakes, no one else in sight. The trail into Twin Lakes is the same as into Lone Lake, snow covered and some postholing is required to get down. When we get to Twin Lake we stop and have our first major trail discussion of the trip.

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After yesterday's freaky snow experience on Lineham Ridge we’re not sure what the GDT primary route over Sage Pass will be like. We don’t have ice axes for snow travel and we know the next 2 days involve some very steep ridges. Could be dicey. The alternative is to take the Twin Lakes Trail down to (I think) the Avion Ridge Trail. Once the trail hits the border of the park we should be able to take an old fire road down to the South Castle River and then follow the road/ATV trails out to the road and rejoin the GDT at A31/Syncline Mountain Trail. It’s a big detour and it’s skips some great ridge walking, but much less risky.

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In the end we take the detour, I’d hate to come across a situation feel “obligated” to continue on a dangerous path. It’s a bummer but the route ends up being a fun journey through the castle river valley. Once we are at the edge of the park the trail stops but the fire road is obvious the whole way down. There are a few blowdowns but nothing too intense. When the trail levels out there are sections of brushy willows bushes over the trail, annoying more than difficult, but otherwise a clear trail. We camp about ⅓ of the way down the valley.

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Day 5 is mostly walking down the rest of the Castle River valley and then out to the 774 road. The walking goes fast, as we get closer to the developed road the trail changes to ATV to gravel road. We spend part of the afternoon “swimming” (more like running in and running out of the water before we freeze) in the Castle River, later we find an old campground near the river to stop for the night. The walking was easy, mentally it was tougher thinking about the ridge section we were skipping.

Day 6 We begin the day by hitting the 100km mark of the trail (although with our detour i’m not sure how far we’ve actually walked), then immediately onto a cutline straight up 1,000ft. After that we’re mostly on ATV roads for the rest of the day until we get to Willloughby Ridge and start to climb again. It’s windy and we end up camping on the east side of the ridge instead of the ridge itself to provide some shelter. The only flat-ish spot is the trail itself which is also covered with bear track (black bear I think/hope). Yikes.

Day 7 Walking Willloughby Ridge is beautiful and the weather is calm. We’re not in the mountains but the views of the mountains from here are stunning. After the ridge it’s 16km of ATV trails into Coleman. Section A complete!