Lower Forest Lakes - Snowshoeing
November 13, 2021 · James Peak Wilderness
The trek to Lower Forest Lakes in the James Peaks Wilderness was the first official snowshoeing trek of the Winter season. The weather forecast jumped around a few times before the trek on Saturday, coming in with a forecast of overcast in the morning then clearing up by mid-day with gusts of wind. As it turns out the entire day was overcast, with gusts of take-your-breath away winds.
I have been to Forest Lakes before, in the summer a few years ago, and was interested to see what this area looked like in the Winter. Since it is still technically late Fall, and on the East side of the Continental Divide, I did not know how much snow to expect, if any. The amount of snow turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
This east-face of the Continental Divide is known for being an avalanche nursery in mid and late-Winter, which in-part is why I wanted to do this trek in early Winter. In Winter, the Divide develops massive wind-blown cornices, though this time of year seemed like a safer bet regarding the avalanche danger.
The trailhead starts at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel, near Rollinsville. It was overcast and very windy at the trailhead. As a result, there where very few people at the trailhead. There is some rock-climbing available from the trailhead as well. There was a group of three people starting just before me, but they where clearly going to do some rock-climbing, which is close to the trailhead. This was nice, as I knew I would have the trail mostly to myself.
The high winds and heavy overcast weather did a good job at keeping morning traffic on the trail to a minimum. It had snowed all week in this area, though it was relatively warm, making for thick heavy snow. I still did not know how much snow to expect as the first leg of the trail had at most a couple of inches of slushy snow and did not call for traction spikes or snowshoes.
The run to the junction to Forest Lakes and Crater Lakes is quick, and when I reached the junction, it was clear the most popular destination was Crater Lakes. There were many tracks in the snow leading to Crater Lakes, but not a single track in the snow leading to Forest Lakes; this was going to be a good day on the trail, regardless of how overcast or windy it would become.
I still did not need traction spikes or snowshoes up to the bridge crossing Arapaho Creek, the snow moderated from nearly nothing to just above ankle depth. Just before the bridge, another solo hiker caught up with me and we chatted a little bit, we were both headed to Forest Lakes. He moved much quicker than I, and in many ways I'm glad he was the first one to reach the lake that day. He got to do the majority of the trailblazing in the thick wet snow. However, when you are the second set of tracks in thick wet snow, it feels a lot like trailblazing through fresh snow.
Most of the trail to Forest Lakes is in thick stands of conifer, this kept the high winds at bay, and made the trek very warm. For a good portion of the trek after the Arapaho Creek crossing, I had shed the top layers down to the base layer.
Technically, there are three routes to Lower Forest Lakes, I had planned on following one of the documented summer routes. However, the guy that was ahead of me was following a different route to Lower Forest Lakes. Having now done two of the options to Lower Forest Lake, the summer route is a gentle glide up to a steep but short gully to the Lower Forest Lake. Whereas the winter route for this trek is pretty much a B-Line up the side of the valley wall to the lake.
When you look at the route on the map, it does not look very steep. However, it is a relentless climb in snowshoes in a straight line up to the lake. There were a couple of times along this route I stopped and checked my GPS, unsure of where exactly this guy was going. I thought about heading down the side of the valley to the trail I knew, but that meant trailblazing in what was now, knee deep snow. By this time, it didn't matter if I made it to the lake or not, this was an excellent first Winter snowshoeing trek, it was very hard, but worth it. However, I did check my GPS regularly, to make sure he was not trekking around in circles.
I stopped for lunch before reaching the lake, it was so peaceful and so quiet and so pretty with the fresh snow. From time to time you could hear the wind barreling down from the Divide. You could see the effect of the high winds with blowing snow in the treetops. The clouds were racing by very fast. There were two layers of clouds. The lower, cumulus clouds were moving very fast, and when there was a break in them you could see the higher cirrus clouds set against a blue sky. I only saw patches of blue skies a few times on this trek. The clouds were low, thick, and fast-moving all day.
About thirty minutes before I reached Lower Forest Lake, the guy that had been in the lead the whole day was on his way out. Perfect timing, he had his hour of solitude at the lake. I hoped I would too, and given the weather, that was probably going to be the case.
Just before reaching the lake, there is a small open meadow and a thin line of trees to the shoreline of the lake. Just before crossing the meadow, a heavy gust of wind came rushing through the trees; a welcome or warning of sorts that the weather on the other side of the trees was very different.
When you make it through the thin line of trees, the view is breathtaking. The lake is frozen and covered in a white layer of snow, there are two boulders cropping out of the ice in the lake. The headwall of the lake is the Continental Divide, with small wind-blown cornices developing. The pale granite is covered with snow and where the granite is visible it is dark, almost black, set against very low dark cumulus clouds. This view and the winds will take your breath away.
The high winds were infrequent, but gale-force when they did come barreling down off the Divide. In-between the winds, it was relatively warm and very quiet. I had the lake to myself the entire time I was there. So, as it turns out, I too got my hour of solitude at the lake.
There is an interesting phenomenon I have experienced a few times at elevations like this when the cumulus clouds are so low. They make a low and slow rumbling sound when they rub against each other. It's not like thunder, the sound is lower and drawn out longer. It's almost like what moving a very large, heavy piece of furniture over wood floors sounds like, but the sound is lower and slower.
I had another lunch here and took in the views and the epic winds. It was wonderful. I would have liked to stay longer but the days are still losing time right now, so it was time to head back. The trek back was slow going in the heavy wet snow, even in snowshoes.
I stepped off the trail with about an hour and a half of sunlight left, but with the low clouds it felt much later than it was. I really enjoyed this first of the Winter season snowshoeing trek came in at a nice but hard 6.7 miles roundtrip.