Amazing views of the Continental Divide and several 14ers? Check. Old mining cabins filled with interesting junk? Check. Alpine lakes and camping at over 12,000 feet? Check. Crossing the Colorado Trail? Check. Bedrock waterfalls? Check. Creek that parallels the trail most of the way filled with trout that send your dogs into a tizzy? Check. Didn’t you pack the footprint, I didn’t. Oops!
On our previous trip (Crown Point B17 Loop) we had a “grip” of people and had a great time. For this trip we were scaled back to our main group from last year. It was just me, Lydia, Nick, and our dogs, Frisco & Charger, and Torrey (yes although she isn’t our dog she was with us quite a bit last year because her owners were in France for grad school). So this was a group that has done many a trip together and are a bit too comfortable on the trail. This time we were tackling a 14er esque hike. The trail starts at the Pine Creek Trailhead (8800 feet) and goes up to Silver King Lake (12,634) passing through all those milestones mentioned in the opening paragraph for an up and back distance of 24 miles, pretty epic for a weekend!
Being the awesome wife that she is, Lydia opted to pick up an extra half shift working the first part of the day on Friday, to make a little extra money. Nick is also working a bit later hours this year, although he seems to be really enjoying the new gig and people with whom he works. Google maps says that the drive up to the trailhead takes almost 3 hours. So we picked up Nick after work with enough time for him to settle his workweek nerves. We stopped by Bombay Bowl to pick up some Indian food to go. We hit the road about 6pm and landed at the trailhead 18 miles south of Leadville (highest incorporated city in the US whatever it means to be an incorporated city) in time to start hiking a little before 9pm.
The trail starts on private land so we knew we’d have to pony up a few bucks ($2 per dog and $1 per person) and hike in about a half mile to set up camp. As soon as we passed the private fence we started scanning for campsites. As it was getting dark we got less picky…although after the tree falling debacle on the last trip we tried to make sure there were no suspect trees.
We circled around a bit and settled on a spot not too far from Pine Creek. Given that it was already dark and throwing a bear line in broad daylight is a task better reserved for professional pitchers, we decided Lydia and Nick would set up the shelters and I’d get started with the bear line. Before I could even get away, Lydia asked where the footprint for our shelter was packed. I said I assumed it was in one of the dog’s packs from the previous week. WHOOPS! You know what happens when you assume something and this time it was making an @$$ out of of me.
So after the initial fireworks we had a calm, constructive discussion about what to do about the situation. When most people hear footprint, they would assume (couldn’t resist that bit of lingual judo) that we got suckered into some marketing scam about buying an $80 piece of fabric to protect our expensive tent when some Tyvek or polycro would do just fine. Wrong! We take our footprint because it allows us to use the fast fly setup (footprint, rainfly, poles, and 4 stakes on our Big Agnes Copper Spur) and leave the tent at home saving even more weight on a UL tent. The problem without the footprint (or tent) is that we have no grommets to attach the poles to and thus no shelter! Given that the weather was nice we decided we’d just cowboy camp that night and then see if we could rig something up with the rainfly as a tarp the next night when we’d hopefully have more daylight. So we slept under the stars. It was a gorgeous clear night, the moon came out and lit up everything like a light bulb, and we would have probably slept great if the dogs (really just Frisco) hadn’t scared the living crap out of us a few times by growling and barking at who knows what. One time out of a dead sleep Frisco let out his super scary mountain dog bark which freaked me out and I jumped up in my mummy bag like I was a psych patient fighting medical restraints which freaked Lydia out and she screamed. The rest of the night was peaceful.
I woke up first. Lost in all the commotion the previous night was a picture perfect bear hang which happened on one throw…and we didn’t even get a picture of it as I didn’t know where the camera was (starting to notice a theme?). I got our food down, fed the dogs, took them to the creek to get some water, boiled water for tea, and handed Lydia breakfast
in bed on the ground (probably the least I could do to try to make peace).
So this was the day that we were going to do all of the elevation (almost 4000 feet) and maybe a little back down to camp. We knew that we weren’t doing a 14er (good thing because Nick always gets a case of the 14er tourettes) but it would be a long day. So we got off to a nice start. The first few miles were great, shaded forest, much better camp sites than what we settled on, and the creek was rushing off to our right. The water on the trail was always nearby, but you do go for long stretches where you’d have to go out of your way to refill. I was really excited for our first marker which was the Colorado Trail junction. I couldn’t picture from our CT ’09 thru hike where we would intersect the trail. I knew it was south of Half Moon Creek TH (access for other 14ers like Elbert and Massive). Right before we reached it I remembered exactly where we were and it was definitely a highlight on the trip and a point I made a mental note that I’d like to come back to. We had camped at a spot just past the intersection of Pine Creek and I remember how easy it was to sleep with the sound of the roaring creek below. This time we let the dogs run around in the water and we stopped to get some water and have a snack. This was probably the point when something flipped in Charger’s brain and he was obsessed with trout the rest of the trip.
The next highlight on the trip was Little John’s Cabin. The cabin although not open for investigating had a lot to see and explore. There were a lot of old tin cans and things nailed to the walls to cover cracks. A trail veered south and we could see another structure in the distance, but we decided to save that excursion for the return trip.
Next up were the bedrock falls. These are like flat sheets of exposed bedrock that the creek flows down upon. It was kind of hard to figure out the best vantage points to see the falls, but it was scenic nonetheless.
After this it was a matter of continuing uphill.We came across an interesting sign. It said Elkhead Pass that way and someone had scratched in “Doom” this way. We were headed to certain doom, not a good omen. We ran into some hikers earlier in the day and asked them about the trail. We didn’t get a good sense if they made it to Twin Lakes or Silver King Lake, but they said that snow wasn’t a problem until right before the lakes. We finally got to this point where we were pretty sure the Twin Lakes were off to our left over a crest we couldn’t see, but they were kind of blocked. Nick was starting to think about not going any further and we were having difficulty finding any kind of trail.
I decided to hike through one more snow field to determine if it was worth going the extra mile or so left to Silver King Lake. I was able to pick up the trail and so the rest of our group trudged through the snowfield. At this point we kind of split up. I hiked ahead towards the lake. I could finally see Twin Lakes and it looked like it would be possible to camp there which seemed like a better option than hiking back down through snow fields and marsh. From above Twin Lakes we could see the trail continue towards Silver King and it was actually marked with cairns unlike the path below which was anyone’s guess. We decided to leave our packs at this point and we hiked up to Silver King, unencumbered, yet pretty beat from a long day of hiking uphill.
The lake and the views were awesome, as well as the sense of accomplishment and knowing that all curiosity for this trail was satisfied, no need to come back again just to finish off the last half mile. After resting a bit we headed back to our packs and then down towards Twin Lakes to find a place to camp.
The Twin Lakes were very scenic as well and maybe slightly more protected by virtue of the 400 feet lower elevation. Nick picked a spot and then we ducked a little lower since we didn’t have a shelter behind some bushes.
We borrowed a few extra stakes and started the task of configuring some type of tarp-type shelter with our rain fly. We managed to use the 4 borrowed stakes, our 4 trekking poles, and some sticks as stakes to get something that resembled a shelter up. We set up a kitchen on some rocks to cook sheltered from the wind, enjoy the lake, and to try to warm up with a few sips of whiskey (Stranahan’s for me). Lydia had assembled a delicious potato corn chowder for dinner which hit the spot after a tough hike and sitting in strong winds. The winds started to pick up even more as night fell. The dogs snuggled up under the shelter with us, but the shelter blew apart about 2:15 in the morning. We also heard a really loud noise in the middle of the night. It sounded almost like crackling thunder and then we heard a big crash into the lake.
It was really cool seeing the lakes shimmering and silhouette of the mountains caused by the moon. I woke up early (5am ish) and not particular well rested from all the commotion and wind blowing through the night. I watched the sunrise and decided to get up. It was kind of difficult to do anything with the wind still whipping around and no shelter. I went ahead and fed the dogs and started on boiling water, but was very careful to put a rock on top of my pot/stove and watch it to avoid it blowing over. The last thing we need is another fire. After breakfast we started the descent, hoping to find a better route around the snow and staying out of the marsh. We crossed the creek over some rocks and headed higher up and basically followed game trails along the valley until we descended to the trail again.
The hike back was fairly pleasant, just an opposite view and lots of mellow downhill. We stopped to check out the mining cabin across the creek from Little John’s Cabin, the one thing we saved for the return trip. I’m glad we decided to check it out! It was a sketchy creek crossing (that I did 3-4 times). The cabin had a shelf made from an old explosives box and all the cracks were covered in old tin cans. There was plenty of proof that miners used to live on pancakes, syrup, and coffee.
And we found an old Tivoli beer can, which is pretty awesome as our church in Denver meets in the old Tivoli brewery at the Auraria Campus.
The mine itself was filled with a block of ice.
Nick and I took turns in the mining cart and then headed back across the creek.
When we reached the Colorado Trail junction we stopped for lunch and decided to let Charger try his hand at catching trout again. Big mistake! He lost all off leash privileges for awhile with this escapade. He would not leave the creek even when treats are offered and that was the first time he’s ever turned down guaranteed food. After tying him up, resting our feet in the creek, and having lunch, we headed back towards the car. The rest of the hike was pretty warm and we couldn’t get done fast enough with thoughts of High Mountain Pie’s and Dale’s Pale Ale dancing in our heads. One by one we checked off markers we remembered from the way in. Finally at 3pm we reached the car and stash of Dale’s, awesome feeling to finish the hike. We loaded up in the car and drove to Leadville. We pulled in at High Mountain Pie’s. Nick got sausage and jalapeno and we got the Crocodile (bbq sauce, bacon, shrimp, and cream cheese) which was delicious. We hung out in the back yard there and watched the kids throw the frisbee at the disc golf cage. Life was good.
We stopped one more time on the way back to fill up on gas and get Lydia (and us) some ice cream from Good Times. Definitely could use a bit more time to rest up, but can’t wait to get out on the trail again!
I stuck to my (revised) normal gear list (full length sleeping bag and a short sleeve shirt were the only change) except for failing to bring the footprint as mentioned a few times previously. I think we did a much better job of estimating food on this trip as we were hungry and rationing a bit, but came out with just a little emergency food left.