August 30, 2020 · San Isabel National Forest
The trek along the Tunnel Lake trail in the San Isabel National Forest runs along a portion of the Continental Divide Trail. The trailhead is West of Saint Elmo and along a fun 4WD trail that can be taken up to Tincup Pass. I had never been to Saint Elmo, and from what I read about the hotel there, it seemed like a forgotten mining town. Turns out it is an extremely popular destination for off-roading adventures and the small old town is busy.
I was lucky on my drive along the 4WD road to the trailhead, I did not encounter anyone on the way down, so I had the road to practice 4WD, it is a fun drive. What was even better, when I arrived at the trailhead, there was nobody there, this would be a great day on the trail.
The trail starts out flat and runs through a meadow of Beaver ponds, then the trail snakes its way up a steep ridge. However, because this trail is outside of any Wilderness Area, and looks like it has had a good amount of bike traffic, it is a series of smooth switchbacks up to treeline. Once above treeline the views in every direction are incredible. The thin line that is the road to Tincup Pass is visible in the distance to the North and to the West there is an interesting range with a peak called Fitzpatrick Peak. The peak is well above treeline and is naturally terraced.
From here on out the trail is above treeline and on this trek, there was a reprieve in the forest fire smoke, and the sky was a beautiful, bright clear blue with an occasional cloud; though the clouds would eventually move in and produce thunder and a heavy downpour over Tincup Pass. It never rained where I was, but thunder rolled in every now and then.
The trail slowly undulates over two saddles. I did encounter a couple of groups on their way North and based on their gear and their questions to me, they were doing a through hike along the Continental Divide Trail. The day before there was heavy rain, and one of the groups asked me what the weather forecast was. I told them there would be heavy rain again that night and eventually clearing up by mid-week. They seemed to take the weather forecast in stride, I guess you have to, when you sign up for a week-long through trek.
This was the last weekend of August and the colors are turning, there are tinges of yellow in the shrubs and groundcover. The weather was so nice for so long, I took my time along the trail. It was here that the idea of doing a portion of the Continental Divide Trail as a through-hike came to mind, though I feel I need to do more planning to do that solo without worries.
Tunnel Lake comes up after cresting the second saddle along this trek and is a beautiful, above treeline, hanging lake. I stopped here for lunch and only saw a couple of people pass by. I am sure one couple did not see me as I was kind of tucked behind the leeward side of a tree. It wasn't windy, but from time to time the wind did kick up, and since this trail is mostly above treeline, shade for lunch was a nice thing just above Tunnel Lake.
There was a humorous thing that happened to me on this trek. I use a Garmin to make a map with my current position and send short messages. However, I noticed that the Garmin was not sending my short messages. It had sent a message to me to log into their website and agree to the updated terms and conditions so that I could send messages. This was a little funny, where exactly would I go to log on to their website, where the only connection I have with the outside world is via satellite. I looked around and did not see an Internet access kiosk, why would I here? Thankfully, there wasn't anything urgent that I needed to communicate back to the world.
Pushing on past Tunnel Lake you come up to the Western Portal of the narrow-gauge Alpine Tunnel. At one point it was the highest train tunnel in the U.S. It took over a year to complete, more than twice as long as planned. The tunnel was completed in 1881 and the last train to run through it was in 1910. From the ridge over the tunnel it is hard to discern the Western Portal, it looks more like a classic mine entrance blasted closed when abandoned. The Eastern Portal is visible below, there are a number of buildings there and is a popular destination for off-roading. Thankfully, I did not hear or smell any off-road vehicles on this trek.
On the way back out, the views down Tunnel Gulch and Wildcat Gulch are impressive, and you can easily make out the U-shaped valleys carved out glaciers. By this time the weather had started to turn, and the clouds were getting dark and heavy over Tincup Pass. Then the clouds turned nearly black and let loose over Tincup Pass, and from time to time I could hear thunder. Thunder and being above treeline and always a concern. It was at this time that I thought, maybe a through-hike along the Continental Divide Trail may not be good idea, but it probably still is a good idea.
Documentation about the trail rates this trail as difficult. I personally did not think it was a difficult 10.4 miles roundtrip. Most of it is above treeline, so it can get hot with the direct sunlight. But for the most part the weather was perfect and a very enjoyable trek along the Continental Divide Trail.