Winter Hiking Guide: Boulder Lake lost and never found in the Gore Range shadow
Editor’s note: This is a bi-monthly winter hiking guide. Until the trails thaw, stay tuned for more winter hiking reports through April.
With all the warm weather we’ve had over the last two weeks, it was a surprise to find stashes of deep snow along Rock Creek Trail. We weren’t sure we were on the right trail to begin with — at least from the point we hopped on the Gore trail.
The four-wheel-drive road from the winter parking lot ran all the way to the intersection with the Gore Range Trail. It was straightforward and wide, and was being enjoyed by snowshoe hikers, runners and skiers alike.
The first 1.7-mile stretch of trail was simply blissful. On one side of the road was a thawed-out creek that bubbled and brought peace to our ears. On our right was an aspen-covered hillside.
LINE BETWEEN SEASONS
I could see how the sun had interacted differently with both sides of the trail. The aspen groves were beginning to thaw, leaving sagebrush, roots and stumps visible. Even the seeds on the springy hillside were silent, yet to burst into bloom.
The left side was an untouched winter wonderland — the only sign of spring here was the juxtaposition of thick snow pillows along the creek bed and the thawed, free-flowing water in the stream.
These slow yet visible transitions between spring and winter brought playfulness to the landscape. Although the trail at first offered no real elevation gain or technicalities, it seemed to exude the essence of Colorado: spruce and aspen groves, tarns full of life. jagged mountain peaks surging into view.
“Now this is getting close to the Gore,” I thought.
What the trail lacked in elevation gain it made up for in captivating views. At about a mile in, the majestic Gore Range began to tease me with glimpses of peaks just over nearby hilltops.
The Gore is CALLING
Almost unconsciously — fueled by rugged desire — my pace quickened with only the Gore in sight and mind. The next half-mile blew by in shear exhilaration.
Standing still, I asked my friend Oliver if we could just pause and look. At the very least I had to acknowledge these mountains the way they really should be, in raw, untamed beauty.
Nature gives us beauty without asking anything in return; it is instinctual for us to find Earth’s landscapes beautiful. So, for a moment, I basked in this most basic and innate exchange.
That was nearly the end of easy strolling on this hike. At just under two miles in, the road presented options to follow the Rock Creek Trail. The Rock Creek trailhead is hard to miss, with plenty of signage and information boards. For roughly a quarter mile I followed it until the intersection with the Gore Range Trail.
From this portion of the hike on, Oliver and I were unsure of our movements. It occurred to us: perhaps we aren’t truly the “mountain man and woman” we thought ourselves to be.
DESTINATION SEEN UNCLEARLY
We didn’t have a map — aside from the rudimentary map of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness area pulled up on a phone — and we didn’t own or bring a compass.
Yes, we appreciated the beauty of this landscape, but could we navigate it properly? This most rhetorical question was a necessary one. On shopping escapades for gear, it seems that clothing, boots, water purifiers, tents, fuel and other essentials come to mind easier than small items like maps or compasses.
If there is one take away from the Boulder Lake hike — and, really, all of my winter hikes this season — it’s that trails are buried in the winter. Despite what one finds online about trail specs, the winter season completely masks any definable trails.
I think getting lost and being forced to make decisions is the nature of winter treks. Maybe it isn’t the destination one seeks, but a feeling: Winter hiking for me has been more about silence and peace of nature during the snowy, darker months.
So, from the intersection with the Gore trail, we were already “lost” en route to Boulder Lake. We followed weeks-old skin tracks through the forest with a general sense of which way to turn, and we could just barely make out the increases and decreases on the topo map saved to the phone. The trail seemed to curve around a small body of water, maybe a pond, so we looked up and down — screen to landscape, screen to landscape. We talked to one another, making comparisons and guesses and then acting with movement. We had the pattern down to an art.
For the next two hours we meandered with aim and intention towards Lower Boulder Lake. We’d seen pictures of the lake and its surroundings. We knew what it would have looked like.
In our two hours of route finding, though, we weren’t able to stumble across the lake. Instead we found ourselves on a high, densely forested ridgeline. It seemed never-ending. Just as we thought we saw a break in the trees — a sign that we would top out — we’d turn and more forest would unfold. And, as the afternoon rolled in around us, we decided to turn back.
The hike wasn’t a total loss, though. We were winded — we’d climbed an alpine ridge. We’d seen moose and marmot tracks in fresh snow. We had broken trail. And, most importantly, we’d gotten lost. We had sought nature, not only for a destination, but also for the feelings it brought us. We didn’t have photographs or the pride of finding Boulder Lake, but we still had bright smiles to show for the afternoon.
Once back in town, Oliver took out his Moleskine notebook. He opened to a blank page and wrote a description of the trek, finishing with, “A pact that we will finish Boulder Lake this summer,” with two lines underneath for us to sign.
With our names scribbled on the lines, the hike officially moved from the winter to summer bucket list. In Summit County, it’s easy to let your treks roll over from season to season. And that’s the way I like it.
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