West Tennessee Lakes
August 1 - 2, 2020 · Holy Cross Wilderness
I did the trek to West Tennessee Lakes in the Holy Cross Wilderness within the San Isabel National Forest as a two-day trek, starting at Tennessee Pass and continuing along the Continental Divide Trail for a portion of the trek. The weather for this two-day trek was perfect. The West Tennessee Lakes are in the northern portion of the Sawatch Range. I have been on the portion of the trail from Tennessee Pass to Lily Lake last year to do some snowshoeing, as such the first leg of the trail moves quickly up to a place called Wurst Ditch.
The first leg of the trail is in tall stands of conifers with small open meadows. It is a great trail for snowshoeing. In the Summer, this leg of the trail is surprisingly warm for being over 10,000 feet. Lily Lake marks the boundary for motorized vehicles but is still outside of the Holy Cross Wilderness. The trees thin out shortly after the first pitch shortly after Lily Lake. After this first jump in elevation, there is a wide meadow off to the left. This meadow is very lush and filled with shrubs that are in peek colors right now, making everything a striking, and at time almost fluorescent green. This section of the trail reminds me of Bear Country. It seems like it is the perfect place for Black Bears to roam around in.
The trail is surprisingly flat, well groomed and for the most part undulates only moderately. This section of the trail would probably go fast, however the views of the Sawatch Range are spectacular and with each mile in they continue to become bigger and even more breathtaking. It is around here that the you cross into the Holy Cross Wilderness. Up until now, I had not come across anyone else on the trial. The first small group of people I saw were a group of four guys on mountain bikes - in the Wilderness Area. This was the only disappointing part of the trek as the rules for what can be brought into Wilderness Areas is clear - no motorized vehicles, hang gliders, drones, or bicycles. The reasoning is to preserve the environment and give an experience of Nature untouched and there are signs along every trail that crosses into Wilderness Area with these rules. It is unfortunate and this is the only time I have seen bicycles inside a Wilderness Area. Hopefully, I do not every see that again.
I was able to put the people on bicycles out of my mind with views of the Sawatch Range. This part of the Sawatch Range is marked by peaks of metamorphic rock which creates incredible visuals in the geology of the rock. The twisted bands in the metamorphic rock have large veins of quartz on the cliff faces. It is easy to see why gold and silver miners where attracted to these mountains. Metamorphic rock and large veins of quartz can indicate there is gold in the mountains.
Just before the last pitch to West Tennessee Lakes there is an enormous cirque. I do not think I have ever seen a cirque this large without going down south to Little Switzerland. The headwall of this cirque has large veins of quartz, and before I saw it, I thought there must be a mine nearby, sure enough there was. Thinking that was a precarious place for a mine, like so many mines, but this one seemed special. As it turns out this mine, The Homestake Mine does in fact have a history and made the news in 1885, when an avalanche came barreling down the headwall and destroyed three bunks with ten miners inside; all ten men were lost. What the prospect of the riches within the mountains held, and what it drove men to do is hard to imagine. Knowing that lives were lost here makes this place all that more special.
Moving on from the mine, the last push to West Tennessee Lakes is short but steep. The trail fades on the final ascent to the first lake and it easy to end up boxed in six-foot tall shrubs, and you find yourself with the first of the two lakes in view, but bushwhacking in what at times seemed like an impenetrable hedge dense shrubs.
Once I got to the shoreline of the first lake, there was a group of people on their way out after three days here. They said there was one more couple at the lake and other than that, I had the lake to myself. The weather was fantastic here. The breeze would kick up now and again and push thicker white clouds over the Sawatch Range.
There was no obvious trail to the highest of the two lakes and though the shrubs where shorter, they where just as thick and again with the upper lake in view I found myself bushwhacking my way to the shore of the upper lake. On the opposite shore of the upper lake I could see the couple the group mentioned. As it turns out they were packing up to leave. And from then out I did not see anyone else, though I did hear two people at dusk, but never saw or heard from anyone until I left the next day.
The highest of the two lakes is at the uppermost boundary of the treeline. Trees are short and sparse but bunched together. I found a larger patch of trees and pitched camp on the leeward side of the trees. The weather had changed, it was cloudy and a bit windy with a light rain. I climbed in the tent and promptly fell asleep mid-day for about an hour, I was only awoken by a strong wind.
I was a little concerned that I may have pitched camp a bit too high for fear of lightning. However, as it turned out, I got lucky, only a strong wind from time to time and an occasional light rain. I did not see any large animals here, though there were many Marmots and the chirps of Pika throughout the evening. For dinner I had three packets of tuna, nuts, and raisins. And for dessert, apple sauce and Gatorade.
The bug spray I had with me was amazingly effective at keeping the mosquitoes off of me, but not away from me, I did not get a single mosquito bite while I was at the lake. After dinner, I sat at along the shoreline and watched the sunset behind the opposite side of the lake. It was very peaceful and quiet. Shortly after the sun went down it started to rain and I turned in. I slept like a rock and nothing woke me in the middle of the night.
In the morning I woke up to a light breeze and a brisk morning. The Pika were busy overnight, they had turned out the soil in many places near the tent. I woke up early enough to watch the sunrise turn the valley wall from dark grey to gold the bright green. For breakfast, I had a large serving of oatmeal and raisins and more apple sauce. I still had the lake to myself as I was breaking camp.
The granite and groundcover in the morning are bright green and look like carpet along the valley walls with granite boulders cropping out here and there. Making my way down from the highest lake to the next lake was just as difficult as on the ascent, and then again the decent from the lower of the two lakes to the Homestake mine was just as complicated and I often found myself in a dead-end of six-foot tall shrubs. At times, it felt like it would take all day just to reach the mine.
Once I made it to the mines, the trail levels out and is a smooth glide to the Wilderness boundary. On the way out I did not start to encounter people until I was well past Lily Pond and on the Continental Divide trail on the way back to Tennessee Pass. The smoke from the fires on the Western slope had not reached this area, as such the skies were a picture-perfect blue with a few white clouds here and there. This incredible two-day trek turned out to be just shy of 20.5 miles roundtrip. The Sawatch Range is breathtaking. I think I got incredibly lucky with the absence of people at the lake. An incredible trek.