Willow Lake

September 5, 2021 · Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

The trek to Willow Lake in the Southern Central Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is a beautiful hike on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo range. The weather could not have been better for this trek, it was a little brisk in the morning, but that was good as this trail jumps nearly 2,000 feet in the first two miles of the trek. This is a popular trail as this trail leads to a fourteener, Kit Carson Mountain and three thirteeners as well. The trail is an East-West running trail and once the sun crests the range in the morning, the trail heats up quickly.

This trail is just north of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The drive to the trailhead along the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is a pretty drive. It is true, you can see shades of red in the range, living up to its namesake "Blood of Christ." It is a long drive from Buena Vista, and much of it is marked by miles and miles of Sage growing in sand and sparse farmland. There is an Amish Community in the area, and in the morning, I did see an Amish girl riding her bike from who knows where, to who knows where. Then on the drive back I did see an Amish house building event.

The trailhead is packed with cars since this is a fourteener trail. The trail starts out in a mix of pine and fine sand. The trail firms up after about a half-hour into the trek. From there it is a series of switchbacks to jump up out of the valley and along the northern valley wall. The deciduous trees are just beginning to turn over into their Fall colors, though many are still vibrant green.

There are many waterfalls along the trail, as it follows Willow Creek to Willow Lake. The waterfalls sounded bigger than what you would expect for this time of year. I think that was in part due to how steep the terrain is in this area, so even an end-of-summer flow in a river can sound very big in this area. The trail crosses Willow Creek twice, and the crossing is wide at both junctions. The river was running fast and surprisingly deep. I would imagine this is a much more complicated crossing in July with the runoff still feeding the river. The second river crossing is uneventful, but wide as well.

After the second river crossing the trail begins to level out and the walls of the valley come in to clear view. Their texturing is so different than the valleys of trails along the I-70 corridor. In some ways they look like jagged mountains of dried and crumbling mud. Which is not too far from the truth as the Sangre de Cristo range was thrust up through the shallow inland sea that used to cover Colorado. So, part if what you are seeing is the remnants of an ancient seafloor.

There is another noticeable pitch up before leveling out, and the common-area campground comes into view. I have never seen so many tents so close together in the backcountry. I had to remind myself this is a trail to a fourteener, and was Labor Day Weekend, and that is why there are so many tents here. However, most of the people were somewhere between the lake and the fourteener, as there were few people in this tent city at this hour.

There is one more steep pitch before reaching Willow Lake, and once cresting that pitch, Willow Lake comes into view. It’s spectacular, and quite unique. The lake has a large cliff behind it and beyond it, a valley leading up to Kit Carson Mountain. The cliff and the waterfall into the lake are unique to Colorado, insofar as my backcountry experience, this is a rare formation. Additionally, the walls of the valley behind the lake are different as well. They have a smoother face to them than most valley walls I have seen in the backcountry.

The pale grey valley walls, and the vibrant foliage around the lake, set against a huge clear blue sky was breathtaking. This incredible view was made even more special by the lack of people at the lake. I saw one person on a distant shore of the lake, and that was it until I left the lake.

It was so peaceful here, I had lunch on a large flat rock along the lakes edge. It was perfect, so perfect that I decided to take a nap here. I believe I took a deep nap here, because I woke up with a jump, as if I forgot where I was, or how close I was to the waters-edge.

In some ways I wish I would have packed in enough gear to stay the night. However, there really were a crazy number of tents here, and would probably be loud when they all returned from the fourteener. This is also bear country, and there are several posts about being bear-aware and food storage in the area. The bears are in hyperphagia, they have less fear of humans and will eat anything. With such a large camp presence, it seemed like the perfect grocery store for roaming bears looking for that last meal before going into hibernation.

Coming back out is slow-going, due to how steep the trail is. On the way out I saw several people packing it in for what looked like a several nights stay. This was a fantastic early Fall trek in a very different area of the Colorado Rockies. This trek came in at 9.8 miles round trip.


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AREAS HIKED

Collegiate Peaks Wilderness10
Eagles Nest Wilderness10
Fossil Ridge Wilderness1
Fraser Experimental Forest1
Gunnison National Forest1
Holy Cross Wilderness12
Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness3
Indian Peaks Wilderness17
James Peak Wilderness1
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness2
Mount Evans Wilderness2
Mount Massive Wilderness2
Pike National Forest1
Raggeds Wilderness1
Rocky Mountain National Park41
San Isabel National Forest6
Sangre de Cristo Wilderness2
White River National Forest10
Zirkel Wilderness1

TRAILS BY MONTH

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SEASONS ON THE TRAIL

2021

The 2021 Season has started. Though the pandemic created a challenging 2020 season, I am looking forward to building on the 2020 season to create an incredible 2021 season. The pandemic has taught me a few things about when and where to go hiking. As such planning for the 2021 se...

2020

The 2020 hiking season has been incredible, even in the face of adversity. The pandemic has made for a logistically challenging season. Somehow, I was still able to piece together an incredible 230+ miles on the trail this season and able to see some truly spectacular places. Enj...

2019

The 2019 hiking season was an interesting season, this was the first season that I started and ended the season snowshoeing and a full summer of hiking for a total of just under 225 miles on the trail. What this season has taught me is that it's winter in the mountains for a long...

2018

The 2018 Summer Hiking Season has come to an end. What a season, incredible views and just over 230 miles on the trail. Even with 230 miles, this season seems short to me, perhaps I'll add something to it during the winter season - snowshoeing perhaps. In the meantime, I hope you...

2017

The 2017 hiking season was interesting, I was able to explorer more of Colorado's National Forests and get in some camping, not as much camping as I would have liked, but hopefully next year I'll able to get in more multi-day hikes. This season came in just under 129 miles roundt...

2016

The 2016 hiking season was about spreading out and exploring more of Eagles Nest Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness and touching on White River National Forest - and of course a few trips into Rocky Mountain National Park. These are amazing National treasures. This season came i...

2015

The 2015 hiking season was a big hiking season, I decided to do a fundraiser for The Red Cross (I learned a lot about fundraising - it was very interesting) with my pledge to hike over 200 miles for this season, I came in at 217 miles for the season; what a great time out on the ...

2014

The 2014 hiking season was almost all about exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, it really is a beautiful park. What I learned during the course of this hiking season is, although people may roll their eyes when you say you're going on a hike in RMNP, it really is spectacular ...

2013

2013 is the year this all started. The hike to Pitkin Lake started it all. Although it was a difficult trail, I was hooked immediately. However, I didn't have the right gear and the seasons were changing quickly. So, even though this season only brought two hikes, I new this was ...