June 12, 2021 · Fossil Ridge Wilderness
The hike to Henry Lake in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness was for the most part a relatively easy hike. It was a long hike, but much of the trail is along the floor of a V-shaped valley. The Fossil Ridge Wilderness area is in the middle of the Gunnison National Forest and close to Taylor Park Reservoir. The rock formations in this area are darker and more porous than the granite peaks that make up a large portion of the White River National Forest and was a welcome change of scenery.
I had stayed the night in Gunnison and was able to get a somewhat early start on this trail. It was cool, almost to the point of cold at the trailhead. There was one person walking up the trail to the first river, he was outfitted for a day of flyfishing, and one trail jogger hit the trail before me. It is still a mystery to me how he crossed the first river, which is within five minutes of the trailhead. The trail is clearly marked with a new trailhead sign and points to a trail on the opposite side of a swollen river.
I walked up and down the length of this river looking for downed trees to cross the river but did not find any. I was a little disappointed at first that I may have to bail on this trail and backtrack to find the trailhead for the Summerville trail, on the other side of the valley to Henry Lake.
The river was swollen and moving fast, but not so fast that it would prevent me from wading through it. I wish I had brought my river wading shoes with me, but the thought of bringing them did not cross my mind when I was packing. So, I took off my boots and stocks and started to cross through the river barefoot at the place where the trail would be when the river would be lower later in the Summer.
The water was frigid, and I was soon up to my knees in ice-cold fast-moving water. The river was clear, so I was not too worried about losing my balance in the current. Crossing through the river took less than ten seconds. However, by the time I crossed, my toes and feet were ice-cold and stiff. I dried my feet off and put my socks and boots back on. I did not cross in my boots. I have done that before and hiking for several hours in soaking wet boots is a sure-fire way to get blisters.
The trail from here to the pitch just below Henry Lake for the most part was relatively flat and moved quickly. The sun had not crested the eastern ridge of the valley, and there were places along the trail where it was so damp and cold, it felt more like Winter than early Summer. The aspens are full and at this hour their leaves are a dark muted green. Even though this is a Wilderness Area, it appeared as if there had been a lot of forest fire mitigation done in this area. There were a few downed dead trees and very few shrubs and bushes. However, there are a lot of tightly packed lodge-pole pines in the area. The effect is a dark, and shaded trail. This would be welcomed shade on the way back out, as it was hot in the valley by the end of the day.
For as cool and dark as it was on this leg of the trail, I did not see any wildlife. However, the wind would blow through the treetops and the trees would rub against each other. When they do this, they give off an eerie creaking-moaning sound. When you are alone on the trail like this, you have time to conjure up thoughts of what those sounds might be. The southern end of the Fossil Ridge Wilderness is where it gets its namesake. There is a large dinosaur fossil field along the southern portion of this Wilderness Area. So, in a way you are walking through a several million-years old ancient graveyard, and perhaps those eerie creaking moaning sounds are of the ghosts of dinosaurs.
Shortly after entertaining myself with those thoughts, the valley narrows into a steep-walled V-shaped valley and the aspens give way to conifers. There are a lot of downed conifers along this section of the trail. They are all facing the same direction. They were downed with an avalanche. Given the number of downed trees in this area and the steep slope of the valley walls here, this is Avalanche Alley. At the top of Avalanche Alley, the trail flattens out again and from time to time the conifers give way to open meadows. The warmth of the sun at this hour is a welcome addition. The slope of the trail began to increase and just before the last pitch to Henry Lake, there was another river crossing to be done. This time the river was moving faster and a little deeper. I walked up and down the shoreline looking for the typical downed trees placed over the river to cross with.
I did not see any trees across the river in the place I expected to find them. So, I took my boots and socks off and waded through the river. The current is faster here as the terrain is steeper. Again, this crossing took less than ten seconds, but by the time I reached the other side my feet and toes had stiffened up from the frigid water. After putting my socks and boots back on it took a few minutes of walking to warm up my toes again.
The trail begins to zigzag up the side of the mountain from here to Henry Lake. I had the trail to myself all day, and about this time a group of four people came up behind me. They were moving fast, they were on a mission, get to the lake as soon as possible. Based on the gear they had with them, they were fishing and staying the night.
There is a beautiful meadow next to a large talus field, and it made for a great place to stop and take it all in. There was not a cloud in the sky, and it was very warm and peaceful. About this time a couple was on their way out and we talked for a little while. They said there was a large group, about ten people at the lake. They said they were on their way out. That was good news, hopefully it would just be the four people that passed me and myself at the lake later in the day.
Just before reaching Henry Lake, you can see the headwall of the valley and Henry Mountain. The rock in the face of the headwall is darker and typical for this area of the Gunnison National Forest. The headwall faces north and has a lot of snow on it, with streams of talus peeking through the snow, it is an incredible sight.
Just before the lake came into view, I saw the large group of people in a meadow just below the lake. It was indeed a large group, and with a group this large it was easy to see why it was taking so long for them to pack up and head back out. It was a group of students from the Western Colorado University in Gunnison; I know that because I recognized the university logo on the van at the trailhead.
The group was far enough away that you could not hear them, and that was great. Lake Henry is still half-covered in a thin layer of ice, and the ridge on the shelf just above the lake has large white cornices of snow. Who knows how much longer they would last and if they would collapse or recede and simply melt away. Either way, the views of the snow-covered headwall of the shelf above the lake, the healthy green conifers, and the half ice-covered lake set against a crystal-clear blue sky were spectacular.
There are large patches of soft knee-deep snow in the trees along the edge of the lake, so I had to find a place on a large rock along the shoreline. It was great. Sitting on the rock that is in the lake, and every now and then a stray trout would swim up and stare up at me, then slowly swim back under the thin ice. I stayed here for a long time, had lunch, and took in the absolute silence, it was wonderful.
The way back out was interesting, I passed the large group on the way out and when I got to the upper river crossing, the downed trees that I would have expected to find where exactly where I thought they should have been. I do not know how I missed these downed trees across the river on the way up. This made for a much dryer river crossing. On the way out the sun had filled the valley, and it was downright hot with the sun beating down on the trail. Aspens in the Summer, when fully lit by the sunlight are just as spectacular as they are in the Fall.
When I reached the last river crossing, I walked up and down the shoreline, but did not find any downed trees across the river, nor any trail along the riverbank, so I took my boots and socks off and waded through the river. It was just as cold as it was in the morning. Just before reaching the Jeep, I noticed a bridge off to the left that crossed the river. I could not believe it, if this were true, I could have crossed the river where the Jeep was parked. So, with two questionable river crossings under my belt thus far in the season, the takeaway for me was to spend more time looking for a man-made crossing and bring my river wading shoes, they make wading across slippery, pointy river rocks much easier.
This was a beautiful trail, and I have had this trail on my mind for some time. I am glad I was able to do this trail and thankful there were so few people along the trail. Contact with the large group was brief. This, for the most part, fast moving trail came in just over 14.5 miles roundtrip on a very sunny day.