Horn Creek Lakes
September 4, 2021 · Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
The trek to Horn Creek Lakes in the Southern Central Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is a beautiful hike. It is not a very difficult hike, but it is long. The steepest part of the trail is at the beginning of the trail, after that it is a nice long gentle glide up to Horn Creek Lakes. The trail is on the East side of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, and part of the San Isabel National Forest. Trails on the East side of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness tend to be wet and lush when compared to the trails on the West side of the Wilderness.
I was able to get and early start to this trail. I started at about seven-thirty in the morning and would not step off the trail until about 5pm. The weather was fantastic, it was sunny with big white clouds racing by all day. There were periods of intense blue sky and refreshing cloud cover on the trail throughout the day. The trailhead is very close to a retreat center, as such I expected a lot of people on the trail. Quite the opposite was true. On the way in I only saw one other person, who passed me on the way to the lakes. Other than that, I had the trail to myself on the way in. I did encounter several people hiking in on my way out though.
The first part of the trail is primarily groves of aspen. At this time of the year, early September, the aspens are still green, though when you look closely at the aspen leaves you can see some of the veins in the leaves are starting to turn gold. This first stretch of the trail through the aspen groves would be spectacular once the leaves started to turn their Fall colors.
There is a long transition zone from aspen to mixed aspens and conifers, to just conifers. And in this transition zone it is dead quiet. It is so quiet in this transition zone, that when you stop on the trail the only sounds you hear are your breath and heartbeat, and nothing else, not even a breeze in the treetops.
Most of the trail is above 10,000 feet, which makes for a comfortable hike in thin air with a persistent gentle breeze. After the transition zone the trees become sparse and shorter, but very healthy looking. The shrubs and willow bushes are beautiful and plentiful. There are hints of yellows in the bushes, but still very green.
The geology of the area is very interesting. In some ways it reminds be of the layers of the Snowmass Wilderness by Aspen. There is no metamorphic rock in the area that I could see. However, there is a lot of very interesting rocks with rocks in them. The rocks and boulders have rounded and smooth river rocks in them. And where the larger rocks containing these smaller rounded rocks have split, it looks as of someone took a knife and split the larger rock; in the process splitting the smaller rounded embedded rocks in half.
In some cases, the larger rocks containing the smaller river rocks have split in a way that have kept the shape of the smaller rocks intact. When this happens the intact smaller river rocks look like fossilized dinosaur eggs. After doing some research on these types of rock formations, the smaller rocks embedded in the larger rocks are called composite rocks, or what would be aggregate when talking about man-made concrete. These composite rocks were created as a result of massive mudslides millions of years ago. It is interesting to think about how big of a mudslide that would have to be, as these composite rocks are everywhere along this trail.
Continuing along the creek to Horn Creek Lake, along the northern wall of the valley is Little Horn Peak, and the layering of the rock in this peak is very similar to the layer of rocks by Aspen, far to the north. This makes sense as the Sangre de Cristo range was created as a single geological uplift event that pushed the range up through the shallow inland sea that covered most of Colorado. Fun fact, there are several geological fault lines on either side of the Sangre de Cristo range that are still active. As a result, the Sangre de Cristo range is still rising. However, due to erosion over time, the range has been worn down from its estimated peak height of over 20,000 feet. Can you imagine peaks in Colorado that where 6,000 feet higher that the 14,000 feet peaks throughout Colorado?
There is one small quick jump in elevation before reaching a meadow that gently slopes up to the Horn Creek Lake basin. This is the threshold of the cirque. There is an optical illusion that occurs here. The threshold before the lake slopes up and in the background is the headwall, but it appears to be lower than it really is, the depression of Horn Creek Lake in the cirque causes this incredible view.
The headwall just beyond the lake is layered sediment as well and changes colors as the clouds race by. From time to time it is easy to see shades of red in the layers of the headwall. By now, the wind had picked up a little, but it was very refreshing. When I got to the lake, I did see the one person who had passed me earlier, and he was on is way out. I had the lake to myself.
I explored the shoreline of the lake, and all the while, very surprised there was nobody here. It was so peaceful here. I found a large flat rock overlooking the lake and took a twenty-minute power nap. In that half-asleep, half-awake nap, the only sounds I heard were the wind, Marmot and Pika. The complete absence of people for so long made this a very special trek.
I was reluctant to head back but wanted to be able to step off the trail before dusk as this is bear country and there has been a lot of bear activity lately, as they are in the walking stomach - hyperphagia stage getting ready for their winter hibernation.
This was an incredible day on the trail, coming in at about nine-and-half hours for just over eleven miles on a very quiet trail with fantastic weather.