Hiking guide to Upper Slate Lake and Slate Lake near Silverthorne
August 31, 2017
As I descended from Upper Slate Lake through rabbitbrush and sage, I whistled, "It's a long way to Tipperary," after hiking a couple hours in the darkness. In answer to my tune, a wolf howled across the valley from the ridge behind me. Only the single, low, long howl created an echo against the opposing slope on the south side of Slate Creek. The sound of the wolf provided me with comfort, knowing the wolf shared with me the desire to roam a great distance to explore remote and solitary places.
My long day hike began at the Rock Creek Trailhead at about 9,500 feet, a half-mile east of the Gore Range Trail. Two months earlier, I had tried to make the trek to Upper Slate Lake as an overnight backpacking adventure. I slept overnight above Lower Boulder Lake, spent the morning cutting 27 logs out of a mile of trail, then ended my hike mid-day at the washed-out bridge in the rushing, swollen stream of Slate Creek.
This late-summer hike, I decided to travel light and fast with scattered showers in the forecast. When I reached the Gore Range Trail about noon, I turned north and ascended the ridge at the eastern base of Keller Mountain. I descended on the switchbacks into the next watershed, arriving at the bridge across Boulder Creek an hour later. Despite the light mist created by passing clouds, I appreciated the cool temperature and lack of mosquitoes on the trail.
An hour and a half later, I reached the watershed of Harrigan Creek after climbing over a second ridge, 3.7 miles from the trailhead. I scooped a liter of water into my filter and filled my water bottle at the double-plank bridge across the trickling stream.
I quickened my pace over the gentle slope into the next watershed, passing through a mixed forest of spruce, fir, aspen and willows in the boggy lowlands before Slate Creek. As I descended on switchbacks, I found dark blue scat in the trail, evidence of the black bears grazing on ripe blueberries along the way. After three hours, 6 miles from the trailhead at about 9,050 feet, I arrived at the broad, fallen pine tree that served as the substitute bridge to cross over to the north side of Slate Creek.
The abundant clumps of blue columbine, scarlet gilia, mariposa lily, false forget-me-not, asters, wild geranium, monkshood, peavine and paintbrush of early summer were gone from the meadow before the intersection of the Gore Range Trail and the Slate Creek Trail. I turned west, crossing the dry field of rabbitbrush, cinquefoil and sage for a few miles before entering the dense fir forest and willow wetlands on the steep slope beside tumbling cataracts falling down steep, rocky steps below Slate Lake. The heavy growth intruding on the thin, lightly treaded trail held enough raindrops from the dissipated showers to keep my quick-drying trail slacks damp.
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After 10 miles of hiking, I saw the shore of Slate Lake, a thousand feet above the Gore Range Trail. I crossed a log jam and scrambled over the rock pads on the shoreline to enjoy the reflections of the rugged ridgeline high above the fir trees, willow tangles and cattails that surrounded the lake.
During the next hour-and-a-half, I ascended the next 2 miles up the steep trail that winds past stacked boulders and meanders through a final willow bog before a short descent into the bowl that contains Upper Slate Lake at 10,876 feet. I arrived as the last rays of sunlight provided an alpenglow across the cliffs above the stands of firs and spruce that crept through the crevices toward the summit of the 13,000-foot peaks separating the Slate Creek watershed from the Piney River Valley immediately west of this amphitheater.
In the evening light, I enjoyed the reflective pool of Upper Slate Lake, then began the 12-mile trek back to the trailhead at Rock Creek. I relied entirely on the warm glow of my headlamp during my return hike through the new-moon night. The familiar trail passed easily beneath my feet, although my muscles cramped from the simple length of the climb out of the three watersheds to reach the trailhead. An hour past midnight, I left the Gore Range Trail and began the final descent into the Blue River Valley.
Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails in Colorado. His writings include, "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," both available from Amazon Kindle books.