Lake Fork Trail
July 17, 2021 · Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
The trek along the Lake Fork River in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is an interesting trail in a wide valley. The trail goes by several different names and spellings, I know it as Clohesy Lake Trail, though the spelling of the lake varies. The trail is also known as Pear Lake Trail, however since the trail runs along the Lake Fork River inside this valley, I will call it the Lake Fork Trail. As if the trail name was not confusing enough, the starting point of the trail is confusing as well. There is an off-road vehicle dirt road that starts at the Crescent Mining Camp, a small historical mining camp of about six restored cabins.
The documentation for this trail says you can start at this mining camp and cross the Clear Creek River on foot. Or take an off-road high clearance vehicle through two river crossings in quick succession then up the lightly used Jeep trail to Clohesy Lake, where the Wilderness boundary begins. I have attempted this trail before, and I have not been able to find a suitable place to cross the two rivers on foot. This time I opted to make the two river crossings in the Jeep and start the trek from Clohesy Lake.
The two river crossings can be off-putting, the first river crossing does not run directly across the river, but rather through a corridor in the river - so you are driving either up or down the river, but not directly across the river. The water in both river crossings is swift, about knee deep and both river crossings have a soft bottom, so speed is of the essence when crossing the rivers in a high clearance vehicle. The second river crossing has a steep, rocky bank so the jump out of the second river is jarring, even in the Jeep.
The first river crossing, through the river corridor is easy to follow along the way in, on the way out is a different story. On the way out, it is easy to miss the turn up-river and end up in a dead-end on a sandbar, this is what happened to me on my way out and is very nerve-racking. You need to move quickly as to not get stuck in the sand and then restart the crossing up through the corridor on the river. In a way, I am glad the weather turned bad enough that I turned back. I would not have wanted to make either river crossing in the Jeep after sunset.
The river crossings in and of themselves was enough adventure to fill a day, but that was just the beginning. Due to the confusing river crossing, the documentation about this trail is accurate, the Jeep trail to Clohesy Lake is in fact a very lightly traveled off-road trail. The road is narrow and lumpy in many places, and in a Jeep is a lot of fun to drive. I did not encounter any oncoming traffic in either direction on this Jeep trail and that made the drive all the more fun.
Once I got to the Wilderness boundary, there were two large groups of campers. Clearly, they were there for an extended visit, one group had bought a ping-pong table with them. Despite the size of these two groups, I only saw one person on the trail.
The weather for this trek started out perfect, it was not too hot, with a big blue sky and a few white clouds here and there. The initial leg from the trailhead to Clohesy Lake is steep but moves surprisingly quick. Just before Clohesy Lake there is a metal gate that marks the Wilderness boundary. Shortly after the gate is Clohesy Lake, and it was a spectacular site. The lake sits at the lower end of a wide North-South running valley with a striking granite range on the western wall of the valley. The lake was calm and there are water lilies along the edges of the lake. Looking South down the valley, the valley floor is almost flat and there is a lush green meadow just beyond the lake.
Along the western wall of the valley are dark green conifers starting at the valley floor and going up to treeline. From treeline, the western ridge of the valley is a magnificent granite range, and on a clear day like this, the granite set against the blue sky is breathtaking. Just south of the lake, there is a massive cone shaped granite peak, aptly, albeit uninspired, peak named Granite Mountain. This peak is simply breathtaking to look at head-on, but even more-so when looking down the valley to the headwall of the valley, which is a slightly darker shade of granite. The darker shade of granite is because the headwall of the valley faces north and does not get as much direct sunlight.
The trail climbs along the east wall of the valley. There is an access point to the 14er, Missouri Mountain shortly after Clohesy Lake, and if you are not careful it is easy to step off the documented trail and onto a game trail along the sheer face of the east wall; this is what happened to me. When I reached a sheer talus field, I concluded I was no longer on any part of the documented trail. Rather than backtracking back down to Clohesy Lake and effectively starting the hike all over again, I opted for bushwhacking a vertical line down the side of the mountain, down to the valley floor and back onto the documented trail.
In hindside, it would have been easier, and faster to backtrack along the trail to Clohesy Lake and start over. The b-line I took down the side of the mountain to the trail was so steep that by the time I reached the documented trail, my quads felt like I had finished doing leg press exercises for an hour non-stop. Once on more level ground I began to walk perpendicular to the trail and watching my location on the GPS. It is interesting how well-worn the game trails are, they are just on the other side of shrubs separating the game trail from the documented hiking trail. So much so, that for a while I thought I was on the documented trail, but it was a game trail that was running parallel to the documented trail, but only separated by about fifty feet.
Once firmly back on the documented trail, the trail moves very quickly up to the treeline. By this time the clouds had moved in, they were low and dark. Then, as the weather predicted, the weather began to turn south. First a little rain, then some hail, then thunder. The thunder was a concern, given that the destination was an above treeline saddle overlooking Pear Lake. I was at treeline and decided to pitch an emergency lean-to to get out of the rain and hail, hoping the weather would improve.
After the rain stopped, the clouds continued to roll over the ridge, filling in the valley with dark clouds. Knowing that this was not a long hike, and that the saddle to Pear Lake was not very far away, and that the weather was not improving, I made the difficult decision to turn back. Adding to the weight of the decision was that all the rain I sat through would be rushing down towards the two river crossings that I would have to do later in the Jeep. So, rather than do the river crossings in the dark, and through swollen rivers from the rain, I resigned myself to the fact that Pear Lake was, albeit close, out of reach.
Once I reached Clohesy Lake the weather had cleared up. I told myself it was for the best, as the return river crossings in the Jeep would be better to do in daylight. In spite of the difficulty of reaching the trailhead, the reward of the solitude on the trail, even on a short hike like this was well worth it.