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.