North Fork Lake Creek Trail
July 14, 2019 · Mount Massive Wilderness
The hike to the Pass along the North Fork Lake Creek Trail is absolutely beautiful, the views along this hike in a steep V-shaped valley are simply breathtaking. The trail starts at the curve along Highway 82 just before it turns sharply up to the crazy twisty-turn road known as Independence Pass. Most of the trail is inside the Mount Massive Wilderness. From the trailhead to the Wilderness boundary, the trail is very gentle, and the views of the valley are incredible. This section of the trail can be done by anyone who can stand a gentle trail for about two miles.
Immediately after the Wilderness boundary things get more complicated. At this time of the year the rivers are still running very fast, deep and wide from the late Spring runoff. There is a river crossing right after the Wilderness boundary and is a bit tricky in the morning and was more complicated later in the day on the way out as more snow was melting and the river had risen even more.
The day started out mostly sunny with a little haze in the sky, then fluctuated between big beautiful blue skies and dense clouds, but the clouds would move out quickly. It was not windy where I was, just a mild breeze. I never came across anyone on the trail. Though I did see two different groups of people at two different locations along the trail, but they were very far away. Over the course of this ten-hour hike I had the entire trail to myself, it was great.
Avalanches were massive in side and number this past winter and hiking though this steep-walled valley there is evidence of numerous avalanches. This is a north-south running trail, and in many cases the avalanches that came down from either the east or west sides of the valley had so much energy in them that they pushed the downed trees up the other side of the valley.
Around 11,300 feet the snow started to show up as a barrier along the trail. It's interesting in the difference in the snow of a snow field that is melting, and an avalanche debris field filled with snow. The snow of regular snow fields is soft and like walking on mash potatoes and you often posthole up to your knee or hip in the snow. The snow in an avalanche field, even at this time of year is very hard and dense; it's like concrete and you don't posthole in this type of snow.
Everything in the valley that is not covered with snow is very green and lush. I cannot remember a Summer hiking season being so green, it's beautiful. It was an odd mixture of normal Summer hiking, trekking across snow fields and yes, eventually I had to use my snowshoes to get across a very large snowfield in a basin just below the North Fork Lake Creek Pass. By this time of the day the clouds had cleared out and it was very sunny. As a result of it being so sunny and spending a good five hours on snow, I am very sunburned.
There was a second river crossing to do before making my way up the side of a steep valley wall to the Pass. This river crossing took some time to find suitable crossing point. Even though there is no lake in the back-bowl of this valley, there are several rivers, not streams, rivers at this location. Because the river was running too fast, deep and wide at the designated location to cross the river I spent a good amount of time bushwhacking through chest-high scrub and crossing several smaller rivers, only to have turn back and re-cross them again as they all led to a river crossing I could not make.
I eventually made my way further up into the bowl of the valley, where I finally found a snow bridge that was deep enough to cross the river without worrying about punching through the snow and down into a fast-moving river below the snow bridge. This detour took me way off the trail and it took some time to make my way back down onto the trail.
The official trail shows the trail terminating on the side of a steep valley wall just below the North Fork Lake at the Pass. It's obvious when you get there that the map is out of date, there is a clear switch-back trail that makes its way up the valley wall up to the lake at the Pass.
The Pass is covered in snow and the North Fork Lake is frozen solid - in mid-July. Looking north from the highpoint of the Pass you can see Fryingpan Lakes, which was the original destination of this hike. However, the steep north-facing decent from the Pass to Fryingpan Lakes was socked in with snow. It was here that I decided it would be a good place to stop and have lunch overlooking the North Fork Creek and its frozen lake. There was a strong breeze at the Pass, but nothing unbearable. The attempt to get to Fryingpan Lakes will have to be done from the north side, coming in from Glenwood Springs.
On my way back down, I ended up bushwhacking too far to the west and ended up in a semi-open shrub area where I thought it might be a good place for some kind of large wild animal to call home. Right about that time I looked down and saw a sun-bleached animal leg bone with the ends chewed off. I quickly made my way back down onto the trail. The views of the valley on the way out are as impressive as the views of the valley on the way in.
This turned out to be a 10-mile hike in 10 hours, which is a little slow for me. However, I took a lot of pictures, just shy of 500 pictures, and the camera battery was almost dead. Even though the Hunter-Fryingpan and Mount Massive Wilderness' are proving to be a challenge this Summer with so much snow still present, I'm calling this trek a success. A beautiful day, nobody on the trail, safe river crossings, and snowshoeing in mid-July. What a great experience on the trail.