Wondering and wandering through winter on the Wheeler-Gore Trail
Wheeler Lakes Trail winter hike
Mileage: 6 miles out and back
Time: 4-5 hours, depending on athletic ability
Elevation gain: Roughly 1,408 feet
Gear: Snowshoes, cross-country skis, splitboard
Getting there: From I-70 WB turn into the scenic overlook at mile 196. From I-70 EB, take exit 198 for Officer’s Gulch and turn left at the stop sign. Travel underneath I-70 and take the westbound ramp for I-70 to the scenic overlook at mile 196. Park in the spaces provided. There is a small creek behind the snow bank. Take the wooden bridge over the creek, and you’ve found the trail.
Editor’s note: This is a bi-monthly winter hiking guide. Until the trails thaw, stay tuned for more winter hiking reports from now until April.
The Wheeler Lakes Trail has a roadside trailhead in the most literal sense. Just paces from Interstate 70, Wheeler Lakes is accessible from the Gore Range Trail, a roughly 45-mile trail that stretches from the Copper Mountain area to Green Mountain Reservoir at the northern end of Summit County.
On this trail I quickly learned that having a map is never a bad idea. At first the trail was self-explanatory. It was well beaten and clearly marked — or so it seemed to be as it paralleled I-70 without straying.
PLAIN AS DAY
Hidden behind a wall of plowed snow on the interstate shoulder, Wheeler Lakes was very flat at first, taking quite a bit of time to get off the ground. Less than a mile into the trek, the trail began to curve just slightly to the right. Still, it was very easy to follow.
Having gone exactly a mile from the scenic overlook at mile 196, the trail saddles up beside Exit 195 at Copper Mountain and the Highway 91 off-ramp. I laughed when I could feel the spray from cars flying off the interstate at Exit 195.
In retrospect, I would recommend parking at Copper Mountain’s Alpine Parking Lot and walking about a 1/4 mile over the pedestrian bridge to the left-hand side at the Gore Range Trailhead. By starting here, you shave a mile off your hike and don’t straddle I-70 for the first stretch.
About a 1/4 mile past the Highway 91 off-ramp I came to a wooden sign indicating I was indeed on the Wheeler-Gore Range Trail.
It was at this point that I apparently made a wrong turn.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
At the signpost I recall seeing a small social trail that broke off sharply to the right, switchbacking its way up the steep hillside. The beaten trail I’d been following, however, continued on straight ahead. As a solo hiker I found it more practical to continue following the beaten, more traveled trail.
In looking back at a map later, bearing right would have led me to the actual trail. Instead, I continued along I-70 for some time, and then began a steep uphill push. With recent warm, sunny conditions the snowpack on the trail came in many forms and fashions. Exposed pieces along the trail had a very slushy, snow cone-like consistency.
The trail moved through thick aspen groves and into the hill’s shadow, so the snow here was a bit slick and icy. I was very grateful I’d brought poles. There were also patches of grass, the melting snow leaving these sections completely exposed. The trail began to throw more surprises my way, and at one point — about a mile-and-a-half in — it traversed a very steep hillside.
The trail was no longer flat. For about a 1/4 mile I hiked at a 45-degree angle, using my poles heavily to stay planted firmly to the ground. The snow here consisted of thick, transparent, Dip-N-Dots sized balls of ice, and my snowshoes’ metal cleating clinked and crunched through it. I was a loud abstraction in an otherwise silent forest.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
I was about 2 miles into my trek and nearly parallel with the top of Copper Mountain’s West Village slopes. I had climbed high in two hours and the cars below on I-70 were almost inaudible at this point. Still, I had no real sense that I had gone the wrong way.
That is, not until another 1/4 mile into the forest, which began to change from aspen and sage to towering spruce. Copper Mountain was no longer visible now and the ski slopes were behind me. Snowpack here had a winter texture — not the ice and slush I had experienced earlier. In the shade of the hillside’s spruce forest, temperatures were cooler, the sun wasn’t as direct and the snow was a powder consistency.
I was just starting to really enjoy my movement through this portion of the trail when it came to a complete dead-end: The trail halted right up against a downed log. I climbed atop the log, scanning the open field beyond it, and found no signs of the trail.
A BUMP IN THE ROAD
I stood for a couple minutes in contemplation, running over questions of preparedness. I hadn’t packed much food or water; I was alone with spotty cell service.
With a bit of frustration, I decided I’d hang it up and see what tomorrow would bring. On the hike down I began brainstorming possible hikes I could try the next day.
About 15 minutes down the trail I found a fellow solo-hiker. Tony was a Colorado native and an avid hiker, with all 53 Colorado 14ers and dozens of the Colorado centennial 13ers under his belt. Like I, he was out for a day hike. He took his iPhone and, using Google maps, was able to find how far off we were from the trail. We continued on as a team, both agreeing that breaking trail was much less risky with two people.
We were a little under a mile east of the trail and began to traverse westward through thick spruce forest. Every couple hundred yards or so, we’d check Google maps again — amazingly there was some service here. In just over an hour, we came to a break in the trees and the map said we were just a hundred feet off the trail now. Stopping at this ridge, we had absolutely stunning views of Copper Mountain and could see a couple 13ers: Atlantic, Pacific and Crystal peaks, to name a few.
BREAK AND MAKE YOUR TRAIL
We had gone roughly 3-1/2 miles at this point, surpassing the mileage of the actual trail. After cresting the ridge, we hiked along the ridge’s flat surface for about 10 minutes and began to descend slightly.
This entire time we broke trail and remarked to one another that we must be the first people to set foot on the ridge in weeks. There were absolutely no other footprints, or signs of trail, aside from the small footprints of animals.
Both Wheeler Lakes were completely frozen over. The first lake was an open, snow-covered expanse surrounded by 30-to-40-foot rock walls. This first lake was large and took about 10 minutes to walk around.
Up and over a small hillside, we came to the second Wheeler lake. The landscape enclosing the Wheeler Lakes was untouched and seemed to remain unscathed by the recent warm weather. Snow still hung to branches and the lakes were solid ice. All things were still.
TRAIL RIDGE RIDING
Although it was nearing 4 p.m., I felt unrushed. It was hard to pull myself away from this hidden, untraveled landscape. We trekked through a sliver of forest another 100 yards or so to higher ground so we could look toward Uneva Pass, and then back down the mountain we went, moving noticeably faster than we had coming up. It took us only an hour and a half to hike roughly 4 miles to our cars.
We made sure to stop and speculate at the national forest signpost where the trail had split so early on in the hike. Had we gone right at this split, we could have shaved off so much time and exertion; although, the real reward was making our own trail and working hard for the views.
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