Monday, October 6, 2008

Not Winter Yet

A friend asked me for advice about hiking Vermont’s Long Trail. Sure, I had a great time out there and would be happy to help – except that I can’t remember what shelters I stayed at, where exactly I resupplied, and too much about the trail itself (but I had an absolute blast both on the trail and hitchhiking back the length of Vermont). So I decided that after 15 years or so that I’d start recording trip reports. We’ll start with last weekend:

Name: It’s Not Winter Yet #1

Description: A short loop from Fourth of July Trailhead, near Nederland.

Route: Up the Arapahoe Pass Trail, over Arapahoe Pass and Caribou Pass to the Caribou
Trail, then down to the High Lonesome Trail/CDT, South to the West Devil’s Thumb Trail, across Devil’s Thumb Pass to the Devil’s Thumb Trail, then North to the trailhead on the Diamond Lake Trail.

Distance: Not sure – 20 miles?

Access: All roads in the East Slope high country seem to converge in Nederland. Once there, first ponder whether it’s worth it to get a tasty but expensive coffee from Cool Beans (the railroad car). Then head towards Eldora and then branch right on the Fourth of July Road. It’s a fairly bumpy road, but seems to be fine for any car (Prius and old Honda Civic observed in parking lot).

Play by Play: I was moved to go backpacking in the Indian Peaks by forecasts of snow in the high country – sure to be ample campsites and a good chance to get everything wet.

The Fourth of July area is usually impossibly crowded – not a good place to be on the Fourth of July – but sure enough the incoming weather limited the trailhead to only about 35 cars. The Hessie Trailhead was absolutely jammed, however, and it took some time to get past this area.

The Arapahoe Pass trail is fairly rocky, but well graded, and has great views to the South.

No less than four day-hiking parties paused to point out the sheer folly of my trip into the very teeth of winter. Sure enough, it started snowing at the Pass. There is an interesting catwalk section of trail to Caribou Pass that looks like it would be difficult in early season.

Once over the passes, the Caribou Pass trail drops gently into the huge Fraser Valley area (Colorado – not to be confused with substantially larger and wetter valley in British Columbia). After a few miles, I turned South on the High Lonesome Trail/CDT.

The High Lonesome trail is somewhat flat, well graded, and nearly devoid of roots, rocks, and stumps – an utter anomaly for Colorado – I greatly enjoyed striding along through some park areas during the sunset and observing the big peaks to the East.

Although the sign at the Junco Lake trailhead indicated 5 miles to Devils Thumb Park, it went quickly. I passed a guy carrying a small pack making serious time to the North – a late-season CDT-er?

After joining the West Devils Thumb Trail, I found a camp maybe a mile up where the trail crosses Cabin Creek. There is a good site up on a bench immediately south of the trail.

Although it was starry at 9 P.M., it rained solidly through the night and I emerged to a slushy morning. The trail heads very steeply up towards Devils Thumb Pass. I pondered having to do this section on a long CDT hike – the grade exceeds anything I saw on the PCT.

The weather got progressively worse until I hit the pass in a whiteout. The CDT also took an inopportune time to turn into a faint game trail marked by intermittent small cairns.

After a few minutes, however, I had traversed around to the trail down towards Devils Thumb Lake (so much Devils Thumb business for a fairly mundane rock outcrop).

The trail down from the Divide is (again) quite steep, with a few angular switchbacks. The weather immediately began to improve, and I got a few shots of frosted mountains before my old point and shoot finally died.

The display screen had been showing the landscape upside down for a few days, and I knew it was only a matter of time. We'll miss you, old H.P, but we will not miss your five second delay before taking a photo (or innacurate date-stamps). I had an early lunch at the lake, which looks like a nice place for an overnight (especially compared with Jasper Lake below).

The trail bumps its way down to Jasper Lake, which is operated as a reservoir and was drawn down quite a bit. There are numerous signs regarding where you can and cannot camp, and on the whole it wasn’t the best place.

The Diamond Lake trail leaves the Devil’s Thumb Trail and climbs straight up for over 1,000 feet – no messing around – until it enters a wonderful park-like area. The trail up there is somewhat overgrown and suggests it does not see too much use. A fun traverse – big white clouds whipping past, exotic Krummholtz tree shapes, and rolling tundra. The trail then aimlessly descends to Diamond Lake through some granite outcrops and through some marshy areas. Diamond Lake looked like a fun camp, and is close enough to the trailhead for a trip with Will-Jr. (once we can get him to sleep in a sleeping bag). The trail after Diamond Lake is better developed/defined, and after a mile or so joins the Arapahoe Pass trail.

The timing was working just right – dark clouds quickly moved in and a heavy rain started just as I started the old Jeep. I made the mistake of heading back through Blackhawk/Central City, which meant some extra time dodging flocks of large late-model American sedans heading for some high-stakes gambling. I was amazed to see a huge hotel tower rising out of the valley – maybe 30 stories tall.

Campsites: Camping in the Indian Peaks Wilderness is regulated tighter than a drum from June 1 to September 15, but after that, it more closely resembles a wilderness not located within an hour of a major city. Camping at both Devils Thumb Lake and Diamond Lake looks great. The best sites I saw, however, were on the West side of the divide along the High Lonesome Trail. There is a nice one where it crosses Hamilton Creek. Also try the campsite where the West Devils Thumb Trail crosses Cabin Creek.

More photos:

Thoughts: It was great to get out, if even just for a night!

After my trip in August to Montana with Nick Brown, I have been thinking about doing some section hikes on the CDT. My impression then is that the CDT is incredibly rugged – an impression reinforced by this last overnight. The stretch of CDT along the divide near Devils Thumb Pass is highly exposed to summer storms – and the grade from Devil’s Thumb Park is intense.

I also took some photos of the rules/regs posted at the wilderness boundary. It is unusual in our everyday lives to find ourselves presented with a two page list of regulations – for example, when you get to the airport, they just make you go though the security process rather than present you with a long list of regulatory guidance before entering into that process.