Bootprints Hiking Guide: The mysteries of the Gore Range, Part 2
BY THE NUMBERS:
Mileage: roughly 22 miles from Rock Creek trailhead to Green Mountain Reservoir
Time: 12 hours (over two days)
Getting there: From I-70 take exit 205 for Silverthorne/Dillon. Travel north on state highway 9 for roughly 7.7 miles. Turn left onto Rock Creek Road (FDR 1350) across from the Blue River Campground. Follow the gravel road for approximately 1.2 miles and turn left at the road marked “Rock Creek.” Pass the winter parking lot on the left and continue up the 4WD road for about 1.7 miles to the Rock Creek Trailhead and parking lot.
DAY HIKES IN THE GORE:
Rock Creek Road to Bouler Lake: 5.4 miles round trip, rated easy
Lost Lake: 11.2 miles round trip, rated moderate
Surprise Lake: 5.2 round trip, rated moderate
ALPINE LAKE HIKES:
Upper Cataract Lake: From the trailhead at Lower Cataract Lake, Take the Gore Range Trail and in 0.2 miles the trail passes Surprise Lake. Continue another 0.6 miles to the intersection with the Upper Cataract Trail, turn left. Travel approximately 1.9 miles to Upper Cataract Lake.
Mirror Lake: From Upper Cataract Lake, there is an unmarked spur before you cross the outlet that will take you to the lake. Continue hiking 1.3 miles up the drainage (on Mirror Lake trail) to Mirror Lake.
Mahan Lake: From Eaglesmere Trailhead hike for about 2.75 miles until the intersection with the Gore Range Trail, then follow that trail for about 2 miles until the intersection with the Mahan Lake Trail.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series. Read on for Part One from the southern stretch of the Gore Trail.
Last week as I headed north on Highway 9 — leaving the county on a road trip to the mountains of Wyoming — I rode alongside the Gore Range in complete awe. Looking across Silverthorne valley, I stole glimpses at the craggy mountaintops I now recognize from having spent two weekends right underneath them. Memories, good and bad, come to mind when I drive past this northern end of the Gore. I think of the tedious, hot stretches through pine forests, the bushwhacking through thick vegetation and the relentless mosquitos. My exasperation recedes, though, when I think of how I bonded with those hillsides and how fortunate I was to be able to set out, satisfy my curiosity for the trail and return, knowing now what I would do again and what I wouldn’t. Despite my frustrations with the trail through the Gore, I still can’t summon anything but respect and an unfailing admiration for the range.
MORE OF THE SAME
We resumed our Gore Range trek with the goal of hiking from Rock Creek trailhead to the Eaglesmere and Surprise Lake trailheads near Green Mountain Reservoir. Before even taking off on Saturday morning, we were shocked by the filled parking lot at Rock Creek Trailhead. Parked cars overflowed out of the parking area onto the 4WD road leading up the trailhead. We expected the northern section of the Gore Range Trail to be very unpopulated, and past Boulder Lake it truly was solitude that we found.
The Rock Creek trail to Boulder Lake was relatively flat, shaded and easy to move through. Along this stretch we saw many groups of hikers. The offshoot to Boulder Lake, despite being crowded, was well worth the extra 2 miles. The lake is framed by magnificent, sheer rock facades and dense forests. Although I would have liked to spend more time circumnavigating and exploring the Boulder Lake area, it was time to push on.
From Boulder Lake, we headed north for roughly 3.6 miles, passing a turnoff for the Harrigan Creek Trail. This section of the trail was pretty unremarkable, but at least it was well shaded, unlike section of the trail we would encounter later that day. It wasn’t that the trail was ugly by any stretch, but that there weren’t any vantage points to take in. We were longing for the expansive mountain vistas we had our first weekend on the Gore Range Trail.
Not A Soul to See
Just before the intersection with Slate Creek Trail, we were rewarded briefly. We cheered together when the trail finally opened up some, depositing us in a dry meadow of tall grass. From here, we could see in the distance some of the most jagged scenary we had seen so far on the trek: Mountaintops that rivaled what we could see from Eccles Pass. Trying not to abandon my “I’ll take what I can get” mentality, I wished that the trail would take us into the mountains.
I was simultaneously grateful for the mountain views, yet was frustrated by what my expectation of the trail was and the reality of it. What I had envisioned was hiking right underneath the Gore Range’s peaks, not miles and miles away while on the trail. From Highway 9, the Gore Range looks so accessible and close. In reality, there are a series of what I’d call foothills that stretch across the valley floor. From the feet of the Gore Range to lowest point in the town’s valley is a greater distance than the eye beholds.
What I began to realize was that really get into the Gore Range itself would require mountaineering and some serious research and determination. It is a remote and under-appreciated range. Many of the alpine lakes and highest, most scenic points don’t have trails. The inaccessibility of the Gore Range is almost a double-edged sword. Its remoteness allows for solitude and peace on the trails, yet the range doesn’t get explored nearly as much as it deserves.
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AN UNNAMED INTERSECTION
Slate Creek was our first water source of the weekend. The water was swiftly moving, so much so that the foot bridge across it had fallen partially into the creek making it unpassable. Every time I fill up my bottles from a trailside water source there is an initial hesitation. I look down into my bottle, waiting for the air bubbles to settle, then look for little pieces of dirt that the filter might have missed. Why is it though, that I trust the water that comes from my sink more than the water coming right from our mountaintops? It’s backwards thinking, but the more time I spend backpacking, the more I begin to trust the water found there, as opposed to the water found at home.
After filling up our water bottles, we forged the creek with pant legs rolled up, no shoes on our feet. The forests began to change just slightly, from thick spruce and pine forests to an aspen grove. Directly across from the Slate Creek Trail intersection, there was an old, fallen-in cabin. Past the cabin were signs posted to trees saying “No trespassing. Private property.” On our map, we could see that we were close to a National Forest boundary line, which we assumed was partially responsible for the lack of maintenance this portion of the trail had seen.
The trail was faint from this point on. Most of the time it was almost unclear if we were even on the trail at all. Countless dead pines covered the trail. With roughly 30-35 pounds on our backs, stepping over or having to limbo under dead trees was the last thing we wanted to do. Having a skyscraper of gear on your back takes a lot of the grace and finesse out of hiking. I wanted to avoid the frustration towards the trail that I had felt the previous weekend. Instead, I tried to see the dead pines as a challenge accepted.
I focused on the balance needed to step up and over these logs. Having this approach to the trail helped immensely. I found a stride through this section, a rhythm on the trail. The miles went by like minutes, despite the blazing heat from the sun. Hiking, regardless what terrain, is this incredible, timeless process of where to step, where to plant your poles and keeping a mind-body connection as you move through spaces.
Since Slate Creek we’d hiked roughly 3 miles through some of the most unkempt portions of the trail we’d seen so far. Emerging from the pine forest, we came into a small meadow with three unnamed trails. One trail went to the left, another to the right and one kept going straight ahead. To me, the far left trail looked the most traveled, but ultimately we decided to continue straight. We thought keeping the same direction we’d had all day was a safe bet.
Nature Taking Back the Trail
I started to worry slightly if we had made the wrong trail choice when bushwhacking became a factor. The trail became so heavily vegetated and overgrown that I was having to stomp down on obstacles in my way, push back at tree branches and swat my way through what I believed was the trail. At times, we hiked through thick muck — mud up to our ankles in places. We passed stagnant pools of water than had turned bright orange, with no footbridges to help us pass smoothly.
It became obvious to us that this section of the trail needed some love and attention. We would round a curve in the trail or top out on a hillside, just hoping the trail would finally open up. As we neared the forested areas just before Lost Lake it was beginning to get dark. We found an open meadow near a water source, and decided to call it camp for the night. As we slung our bags down, a group of elk that had been resting in the tall grass sprung up and bolted up the hillside. The flat place where they were lying down was where we’d pitch the tent.
Waking up Sunday, we hoped for a change in scenery, but found Sunday’s section of the trail to be similar to the rest. Although there was less bushwhacking, there was barely any shade. We had to take periodic breaks in what shade we could find to hydrate. After about 4 miles we came to a stunning overlook of Black Lake, Black Creek Reservoir, Dora Mountain and its neighboring peaks. This was the most rewarding moment on the second part of the Gore Range Trail for me — the kinds of views that are so stunning you almost have to pinch yourself.
Down the hill from the Black Lake overlook, the trail was completely un-maintained. The vegetation was thicker even than the swampy sections the previous day. My calves and thighs were completely cut up from moving through weeds, prickly bushes and undergrowth. Nature was slowly starting to take back the trail.
A wild beast of a range
After traversing through thick growth for about 20 minutes, we reached the bottom of the hillside, having then to cross yet another stream by footbridge. From the banks Black Lake, the trail took us across private property briefly. There was a private dirt road, that apparently was not part of the NFS land. A couple cars drove by us on the dirt road, and we contemplated half-jokingly, thumbing a ride back to the trailhead. The harsh conditions of the trail were starting to weigh on us.
With 6 miles to go, much of it uphill and without shade, we had to keep the morale high. From Black Lake to our car at the Surprise Lake parking lot, the trail improved significantly. The only obstacle here was a series of switchbacks through a slippery, rocky part of the trail. Once we tackled this, returning to shaded forest, it was key to find rhythm again on the trail. I was genuinely relieved when we finished the Gore Range Trail by the end of the afternoon. This trail is beautiful and leads hikers into one of Colorado’s most rugged mountain ranges.
The Gore Range trail wasn’t what I expected it to be for the most part. The trail isn’t as much as a thru-hike as I expected, but gives one access to some of the most incredible alpine lakes in the state. I’d have to return to the Gore Range to reach these alpine lakes and the mountain remoteness I sought. The Gore Range is a wild beast, there for the determined mountaineers that want to access it. It is wild and for the most part, untraveled. I have only gotten a taste for the Gore by hiking its trail. There is much more to be seen in the Gore, but something tells me the best parts of it don’t have trails.
This story originally published July 29, 2017. It appeared in the Explore Summit 2018 summer magazine.
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