July 25, 2020 · Indian Peaks Wilderness
The hike to Crater Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness starts at the Monarch trailhead near Grand Lake. This was my second attempt at this lake. The first time, I got to the trailhead a bit late and I have never seen that many cars at this trailhead. Given the guidance on social distancing, what I saw was exactly the opposite of that, so I went off-roading in Fraiser that day.
Over the next few days, I decided to make another run at this hidden gem. This time I was able to step onto the trail about two hours earlier; that helped. However, what really thinned out the crowds was the weather forecast. The Monsoon's have rolled into Colorado and the forecast aptly called for a cloudy, rainy day. The early start and the weather made this trek great.
When I stepped onto the trail it was partly sunny, with a few patches of clouds, but I knew that would not last. The trail moves quickly up to the spur to Gourd Lake, and the clouds had moved in by the time I got to the Gourd Lake spur. The clouds were not dark, but they were low and made the trek very humid. Everything was covered in morning dew and the groundcover is very green, which is common at this time of the year, but the Monsoon's helped green everything up.
There are several waterfalls along this trail, and the rains did a great job of recharging the rivers. The added water in the rivers and the low clouds darkened up the rocks on the river's edges, making the tumbling water in the falls appear bright white.
The trail picks up in elevation just before the next spur to Pawnee Lake and Pawnee Pass. You cross over 10,000 feet here and the vegetation changes, broad-leaf plants and tall-lanky conifers are replaced with alpine shrubs and stalky, thick conifers. From time to time the trail crosses Cascade Creek. Cascade Creek crossings are wide and with the extra rain keeps you alert as you cross the quick moving river.
Just before reaching Mirror Lake there are a series of small meadows where the river slows down, the water is so clear, you can see the river bottom and the moss-covered boulders in the river. Because the river moves so slow here and the water being so clear, there are sections that looks like large Koi ponds. Of course, there are no Koi here and oddly I did not see any Trout in these sections of the river either.
Up until now, there was only a light sprinkle of rain here and there, but nothing consistent. Shortly after the spur to Pawnee Lake, the weather finally committed to rain, and it rained for the next five hours. Five hours of rain may sound bad. However, this was a light rain, without any wind, thunder, or lightning; the best kind of alpine rain you could have while out on the trail.
It is around here that the Indian Peaks range begins to come into focus, though the clouds obscure the outline of the peaks. However, the range is distinct and powerful. There are sheer vertical granite faces leading into the cirque where Crater Lake sits in. There is a prominent peak that looks like a sharp cone, it is Lone Eagle Peak and it towers over the range. It is so big that it seems to dwarf the Indian Peaks range.
The names and connections to Colorado history and all its warts is interesting. The peaks in the range are named after Native American tribes, they include Apache Peak, Arikaree Peak, Kiowa Peak, Navajo Peak, Ogalalla Peak, Pawnee Peak, Paiute Peak, Shoshoni Peak, Hiamovi Mountain, Satanta Peak, Watanga Mountain, Iroquois Peak, Hopi Peak and Mount Achonee. Mount Achonee is not named after a tribe, but rather Cheyenne Peace Chief Ochinee or Chief Lone Bear, who negotiated peace for his tribe and was later killed in the Sand Creek Massacre.
With that in mind and coming up the shoreline of Mirror Lake with the low cloud cover draped over the gagged range and the stillness the low clouds creates in conjunction with the bold granite faces with water seeping out of the cracks - it's a spiritual experience. Lone Eagle Peak towers over Mirror Lake. There was a light rain here and I would have loved to say here, however Indian Peaks Wilderness is one of the Wilderness areas where you do need a reservation.
Crater Lake is a short trek from Mirror Lake and is worth the extra effort to get to. By the time I got to Crater Lake, the rain had stopped for a short time, causing the surface of Crater Lake to go completely flat and look like glass reflecting the head wall of the cirque. The head wall of the cirque that Crater Lake sits in is breathtaking.
There are pines growing out of the rock and a lush green carpet of alpine tundra interspersed in the scree. Off to the left, Lone Eagle Peak towers over Crater Lake and the range. From here you can see Mount Achonee, Hopi Peak, Iroquois Peak and what is left of Peck Glacier, which now looks more like a semi-permanent snowfield tucked behind Lone Eagle Lake.
I had lunch along the shore of Crater Lake, it was so peaceful here. As I was getting ready to head back, the rain started up and the clouds came down off the peaks and rested just above the surface of the lake. A picture-perfect day - even with the clouds and rain. It would continue to rain for most of the way back to the trailhead. The rain and clouds not only kept the crowds away but made this a very memorable 15.9-mile roundtrip trek. A great hike to a hidden gem in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, not in spite of the clouds and rain, but rather because of the clouds and rain.