Native Lake / Highline Trail
June 7, 2020 · Mount Massive Wilderness
The hike to Native Lake along the Highline Trail in the Mount Massive Wilderness starts at the Leadville National Fish Hatchery. The hatchery was closed due to COVID-19 but the grounds and buildings look very nice and are very well kept. This was my first time back on the trail since mid-March. And in some ways kind of felt like my first time on the trail. Since I had started snowshoeing, I had been able to be on the trail year-round, which allowed me to gauge when it was time to switch to hiking and how far an early Summer hike should be.
However, with the three-month gap, I may have taken on a longer trek than I should have given the amount of time off the trail - even with regular exercise at home. The weather on the trek was fantastic, big blue skies when big white clouds racing by. It was not very windy, though there were a couple of places where the wind blew so hard that it changed sounds from strong winds to the sound of freight train. But those huge gusts of wind were infrequent and only lasted a minute or two.
Due to the say at home orders for the past three months, there was virtually nobody on the trail. I saw two runners on their way in and one guy with his dog on the way out. Those where all the people I saw on the way in and for most of the way out. It was a great day to have the trail all to yourself.
Highline trail starts out as a nature trail around the Hatchery, then eventually crosses into the Mount Massive Wilderness. The trail is not very steep, though there are a few places in the trail that will wake you up. Up until about 11,000 feet the most striking thing I noticed was the Beetle Kill. It is pervasive and with the tall canopy gives off an eerie sense as you can see a great distance through the trees, and it is incredibly quiet.
At one point I saw a flash of something moving in the trees about twenty yards away. I chalked it up to sunlight on a boulder, however, within a minute the flash in the trees turned out to be a large Cow Elk slowly moving through the trees and across the trail. I stopped and she stopped and looked towards me, she moved on before I could get to my camera.
The trail does not undulate very much and is pretty much a straight line, a feature that seems to be common with trails around Leadville. A constant gentle incline in more or less a straight line to the destination. As a result, the trail moves fairly fast, and since most of it is in a high conifer canopy, there isn't much in the way of big wide-open views.
Once the trees begin to thing out, the face of Mount Massive is in constant view. It's interesting, from this trail, Mount Massive doesn't look as big as it does from the city of Leadville, but it is still very impressive. There are several small ponds along the trail, making for nice detours. They are all shallow and seemed like good Moose country, though I did not see any Moose. The most common footprints along the trail where that of Elk.
The groundcover has not bloomed yet, I would say it be in full bloom in about two weeks. As such another feature starts to show up with regularity on the trail - snow. The snow along the trail is in patches and has the consistency of snow-cone slush. The trail turns to the North and the snow along the trail and in the trees becomes ever more present, ranging in dept from a few inches to waist deep.
I tried to skirt around the larger patches of snow on the trail and ended up doing a lot of bushwhacking in dense undergrowth and snow - effectively defeating the purpose of skirting the snow patches along the trial.
By this time, my boots where filled with snow and I finally put the gaiters on and pushed through the snow on the trail. Snowshoes would not have made sense since the distance between the patches of snow was big enough to destroy the metal runners on the snowshoes and since the snow was like slush, the gaiters helped.
I did have to do three river crossings. The first river crossing was a piece of cake. The second river crossing looked questionable, and the log I tested by stepping on came loose and floated downstream. It took some time to find a relatively dry crossing, but I found one. The third river crossing, which is less than a mile from Native Lake was the most complicated. The log to walk across the river was somewhat loose and tilted at an angle that made for a very quick crossing. I thought about turning back before this last river crossing but looking at the map and how close Native Lake was, I went for it.
Native Lake is impressive in size and there was a snowfield long the edge of the lake. I could not make it around the lake as there was a lot of snow in the trees, so I decided to declare victory and head back.
I could not make sense of a safe crossing over the immediate river crossing to go back, the tree I used to cross just did not make sense on the way back out. So, I looked for a slower moving part of the river with a sand bed. I found a slow-moving portion of an oxbow about ten feet wide, clear, and not moving too fast. I decided to make the crossing here. It looked like the water was about just over knee deep. It turned out to be waist deep and ice cold.
The crossing took less than two seconds, but it was cold. I also learned a hard lesson. When leg muscles are heated up and have been exercised all day then put in ice cold water you will get leg cramps. My left calf and left hamstring cramped almost immediately, and before I knew it, I was curled up on the ground with my left leg in my chest.
The trek back involved a lot of stopping and stretching my calf and hamstring. Even with the soaking wet boots and cramps in my left leg, it really did feel great to be back out on the trail. I am happy I did it when I did it. All in all, this fist back out on the trail came in at 13.3 miles round trip.