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.


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AREAS HIKED

Collegiate Peaks Wilderness9
Eagles Nest Wilderness10
Fossil Ridge Wilderness1
Fraser Experimental Forest1
Gunnison National Forest1
Holy Cross Wilderness12
Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness3
Indian Peaks Wilderness17
James Peak Wilderness1
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness2
Mount Evans Wilderness2
Mount Massive Wilderness2
Pike National Forest1
Raggeds Wilderness1
Rocky Mountain National Park41
San Isabel National Forest6
Sangre de Cristo Wilderness1
White River National Forest10
Zirkel Wilderness1

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SEASONS ON THE TRAIL

2021

The 2021 Season has started. Though the pandemic created a challenging 2020 season, I am looking forward to building on the 2020 season to create an incredible 2021 season. The pandemic has taught me a few things about when and where to go hiking. As such planning for the 2021 se...

2020

The 2020 hiking season has been incredible, even in the face of adversity. The pandemic has made for a logistically challenging season. Somehow, I was still able to piece together an incredible 230+ miles on the trail this season and able to see some truly spectacular places. Enj...

2019

The 2019 hiking season was an interesting season, this was the first season that I started and ended the season snowshoeing and a full summer of hiking for a total of just under 225 miles on the trail. What this season has taught me is that it's winter in the mountains for a long...

2018

The 2018 Summer Hiking Season has come to an end. What a season, incredible views and just over 230 miles on the trail. Even with 230 miles, this season seems short to me, perhaps I'll add something to it during the winter season - snowshoeing perhaps. In the meantime, I hope you...

2017

The 2017 hiking season was interesting, I was able to explorer more of Colorado's National Forests and get in some camping, not as much camping as I would have liked, but hopefully next year I'll able to get in more multi-day hikes. This season came in just under 129 miles roundt...

2016

The 2016 hiking season was about spreading out and exploring more of Eagles Nest Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness and touching on White River National Forest - and of course a few trips into Rocky Mountain National Park. These are amazing National treasures. This season came i...

2015

The 2015 hiking season was a big hiking season, I decided to do a fundraiser for The Red Cross (I learned a lot about fundraising - it was very interesting) with my pledge to hike over 200 miles for this season, I came in at 217 miles for the season; what a great time out on the ...

2014

The 2014 hiking season was almost all about exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, it really is a beautiful park. What I learned during the course of this hiking season is, although people may roll their eyes when you say you're going on a hike in RMNP, it really is spectacular ...

2013

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