McCullough Gulch

May 28, 2021 · White River National Forest

The trek along McCullough Gulch in the White River National Forest was a true Shoulder Season hike, complete with snow-free trails, snow-covered trails meandering off the documented trail, postholing in knee-deep and waist-deep snow as well as some snowshoeing. I did this trek on the Friday before the Memorial Day Weekend, with the hopes of beating the crowds to this trail, and for the most part that was the case on this trail. Because I did this trek on the Friday before the start of the holiday weekend, the gate to the trailhead was still closed. As such, a fair amount of the trek was walking a long a dirt road to the actual trailhead.

I started from the Quandary trailhead parking lot, which was already half full by 7 o'clock in the morning, which makes sense since Quandary is a 14er and an early start to a 14er is necessary to get up and down the summit by noon. There was a large group of people with skis that stepped onto the trail before me, and I never saw them again. I assume they went to do some backcountry skiing at Quandary Peak. There was a group of two couples that started after me but caught up to me while walking the dirt road to the McCullough Gulch trailhead. I stopped and fidgeted with my pack long enough for them to pass me and put some distance between us. However, I would end up spending a lot of time with this group later along the trail.

McCullough Gulch sits in a very wide glacial valley, with a gentle rise throughout the trek and one steep push to Lower McCullough Lake. The views along the dirt road of this glacial valley are spectacular. At this hour there was not a cloud in the picture-perfect blue sky. The headwall of Fletcher Mountain is always in view and is blanketed in snow. I knew I would use both traction spikes and snowshoes along this trek.

When I reached the McCullough Gulch trailhead, the two couples where there, milling around debating on whether to continue along the McCullough Gulch trail or head back. Once I got to the trailhead, I could see why they were hesitating, the McCullough Gulch trail was covered in snow and its consistency was uneven. In some places it would support your weight, though in most places you would punch through the surface up to your knees.

We talked for a little while before I started up the trail. They were on vacation for the Memorial Day Weekend, they were teachers from North Carolina and clearly were not expecting this much snow on the trail. They decided to continue, slipping, sliding and postholing their way up the trail. I lost sight of them, but this was not the last time I would see them.

The first pitch of the trail is steep and the snow on the trail varies from no snow to deep solid snow, to deep soft snow that you will posthole up to your knees in. Given the trails proximity to Breckenridge, it is a popular trail int the Summer as well as in the Winter. I deviated from the documented trail a few times but was always able to find the trail again, thanks to my GPS. In one of my off-the-trail excursions I came across an abandoned and apparently lost mineshaft. It had a sign on it with its rediscovery date of 1930.

I started to make my way back to the trail in snow that varied in depth from knee-deep to waist-deep snow. I had not put my snowshoes on yet but was using traction spikes. The forest and canopy are thick in this area, and you have the sense that you are all alone in the woods, and miles from the trail. And that is how it felt until I heard someone else slogging around in the trees. It was one of the people from the group of four from North Carolina. I slowly shadowed him for about five minutes because something did not look right about his movements.

I could tell he did not know where he was in relation to the trail, and the others in his party, and from what I could tell, he did not have a GPS with him. Then suddenly, he stopped, looked around in desperation and yelled out twice to someone in his party, there was no answer. My suspicions where confirmed, he was lost in deep snow at the bottom of a steep slope below the trail.

I started to make my way towards him, making as much noise as I could to get his attention. When he turned to me, I called out to him, asking if he had gotten separated from his group. He replied, a little exhausted and perhaps a little embarrassed that, yes, he got separated from his group and that he was lost.

For about an hour we worked our way together through deep soft snow and he would periodically call out to his group, but there was no answer. I asked him if we should continue back to the trail or double back, incase his group was looking for him. He said we should continue moving forward to the trail. About ten minutes before reaching the trail, he called out to his group again. This time he got a response, they kept yelling out to each other as we moved closer to the trail.

We finally met up at the base of the last pitch to Lower McCullough Lake. The guy whom I had spent the past hour with had thanked me again. I asked if anyone in their group had GPS. One of them said they did, they were using a trails app on their phone. In the back of my mind, I told myself they were lucky to have made it this far in this much snow using a phone.

I carry two GPS with me, a Garmin eTrex 20 that I use for myself to orient myself with - which is great and does not require a subscription. And a subscription-based Garmin inReach which has an SOS feature and that I use to allow people to follow my tracks real-time as the trek is happening. That is the map you see above on this page. I would like to think that I helped prevent someone from becoming a lost hiker statistic.

I asked them what their plans were from here, thinking they probably had enough adventure and excitement for one day. They responded, unphased, that they were going to continue onto McCullough Lake, saying their phone trail app showed a red line zigzagging up the moraine to the lake. I was a little surprised by their answer. I would have thought they would have realized they may have pushed their limit and luck too far. Given the amount of snow we were in now and how steep that option is to the lake as well as their lack of snow gear; there was no way they would be able to make it to the lake in one day.

I watched them posthole through the snow to the much harder option to the lake. That was the last I saw of them, though by the time I got back to the trailhead, their car was gone. I would like to think common sense prevailed and they turned back shortly after that.

Now, back to the task at hand - reaching Lower McCullough Lake. Heavy rain was forecasted for later in the day, and by now a few thick white clouds had begun to fill the glacial valley. The valley is spectacular, to the North there is a steep range that separates McCullough Gulch and Spruce Gulch. On the South side of McCullough Gulch is the range that makes up Quandary Peak. The North face of Quandary Peak is covered with signs of the Spring Thaw with dark Talus tailings peeking through the snow. In the distance to the West is Fletcher Mountain, making up the headwall of this wide valley.

There are large cornices along the range that make up Fletcher Mountain, and at this time of the year, it is easy to imagine what this glacial valley looked like in the waning years of the Pleistocene era, with perhaps a heard of Wooly Mammoth meandering in the valley, and a Giant Saber Tooth Tiger stalking a yearling in a heard of Giant Pleistocene Elk. Though there were no such creatures on this trek. The largest animal I came across was a Chipmunk more interested in my backpack than anything else.

The final push to McCullough Lake requires going across a steep snowfield. Thoughts of triggering an avalanche did cross my mind. By now the surface of this snow field was slippery, but firm enough to withstand my weight without me punching through the surface.

When I reached Lower McCullough Lake, the views were spectacular. The lake is mostly covered in snow, and the South face of the valley is snow free, but the headwall and the backside of Quandary Peak are covered in snow. It is noticeably cooler here, and from time to time there is a strong wind.

Lower McCullough Lake is right at treeline and there are many places to seek shelter from the winds. I spent a lot of time here taking in the views. Based on the large amount of snow from here to Upper McCullough Lake, nobody had been to that lake yet. It was very peaceful here, there was nobody here, it was just me and the Chipmunk trying to make off with my backpack. Unsurprisingly, the group of four from North Carolina never showed up at the lake. I would have really like to have stayed the night here, but I did not bring enough gear to do that.

On the way back out I encountered a lot of people in street shoes postholing in the snow. Clearly, they too were not expecting this much snow on the trail. Postholing in snow that deep for hours-on-end is hard on the knees. I had planned on a longer weekend of hiking, but decided to rest up my knee, rather than push it and damage my right knee and deal with the side effects of it for the rest of the season.

This was one of the more eventful hikes I have done, though I am glad I got this hike in. The area is beautiful, and the rain held off until I stepped off the trail. A strange but gratifying 8.6 miles on a Shoulder Season trail.


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