September 28, 2019 · Holy Cross Wilderness
Each hike I have done has something unique that makes each special and creates a special memory on the trail. However, this trek along Carter Creek in the Holy Cross Wilderness was something different. It was a spectacular surprise. While it is difficult to single out any given trail as a favorite, this trail is at the top of the list. The Holy Cross Wilderness and the Savage Range in the White River National Forest are something special and the weather for this trek made it that much more special; perfect weather and huge big blue skies all day.
The trail starts unassumingly as a small trailhead on the side of a dirt road, the trailhead is easy to miss if you are not paying close attention or have GPS looking for the trailhead. This trailhead is an access-point to several destinations, including Tellurium Lake, Josephine Lake, Carter Lake, Savage Lakes and Blodgett Lake along with a string of unnamed lakes just before Blodgett Lake.
This original plan for this trek was to start at this small trailhead, work my way past Carter Lake to the unnamed lakes just shy of Blodgett Lake then on the return go to Carter Lake then on to Savage Lakes; admittedly, a tall order for a late Fall hike. However, with so much green along this trail it would be hard to tell it was late September. This area is worth going back to again. However, it is a long drive from Denver to Glenwood Springs then down past Ruedi Reservoir. There are a couple of campgrounds in this area, if I could make it there in Late July or anywhere in August, this would be a perfect several-day trek.
The weather was perfect for this hike, not to cold and crystal-clear blue skies with the occasional cloud passing by and a light breeze. It was a perfect day for this hike. The trail starts out with a steady incline that meanders through a lot of golden Aspens. This side of the mountain must be a humid area in the Summer because the ground cover is broad leaf plants, and they too are also golden at this time of the year.
There has been a modification of the trail and it deviates soon from the documented trail and does not join up with the documented trail until just above Carter Lake which sits at the foot of Savage Peak. It's clear that there was heavy avalanche activity this past winter. A large swath of Savage Peak has been recently cleared by avalanche activity. However, before Carter Lake, the trek through the golden Aspens was wonderful. The trail levels out after about a mile and it feels more like a stroll through tall golden Aspens with brilliant clear blue skies.
The point at which the forest changes over from Aspens to Conifers is very distinct and very clear. There is a line across the trail where there are Aspens then on the other side of this line the Conifers sprout up for short time and are very thick and the canopy makes the trail very dark. However, the Conifers begin to thin out and the trail feels like a gentle stroll through the woods that are thin enough to let in light to make the ground cover a bright green.
The trees begin to thin out and an unnamed peak opposite Savage Peak begins to peak through the trees. And then in a moment the canopy breaks and one of the most incredible views of a U-Shaped, then V-Shaped green and granite colored valley opens to a breathtaking view. At this moment the hike could have easily been called a success and call it a complete hike. The Holy Cross Wilderness is something special, it does take a few hours on the trail to get to these places, but they are worth every extra hour on the trail.
This spot is just above Carter Lake which sites in a heavily wooded basin at the foot of Savage Peak. I had lunch at this spot and spent a lot of time here. The weather was perfect, the skies were clear, with an occasional cloud being pushed around by a light breeze, but strong enough to cast dramatic and fleeting shadows on the steep granite walls of this spectacular glacial valley. Realizing that I was only half way to the unnamed lakes on the other side of Blodgett Lake, I tried to pick up the pace, but it was difficult because it seemed that with each step this valley had something new to show and took on a different character with the random cloud racing by.
Shortly after Carter Lake the trail is lightly traveled and there is avalanche debris on the trail which made for some short but interesting bushwhacking, but never veers too far the trail. It was after emerging from the last of the bushwhacking was when I saw the only other people on the trail. It was a Forest Ranger and his girlfriend on a hike. They were very nice, and we chatted for a long time. He explained why the trail was so lightly traveled. Though this is a documented trail it is no longer maintained by the Forest Service, which typically means very few people on the trail.
That also helps make this trail so special. Unmaintained trails inside of Wilderness Areas are special and you begin to feel you are seeing the forest the way it looked hundreds if not thousands of years ago. They went on ahead of me, and I would see them two more times, once at the unnamed lakes and again on the last leg of the trail along the road back to the starting point.
The map of this valley is a little deceptive, based on the width of the valley it makes it seem more like a U-Shaped valley but in reality, it is a wide V-Shaped glacial valley with steep granite walls with patches of green here and there up the sides of the valley walls. The light grey granite, patches of green and the occasional cloud racing by creating dramatic shadows on the valley walls added to the spectacular views.
The final push to the first in a series of unnamed lakes was a gentle glide along an oddly fast-moving creek, Carter Creek. The first unnamed lake technically sits in a bowl but looks more like a meadow. There is a low green field that leads up to the edge of the lake and behind the lake is the range that separates these unnamed lakes from Blodgett Lake. I would have pushed on to Blodgett Lake, but I still thought I could make it back to Carter Lake and then on to Savage Lakes. But it was becoming clear that the trek to Savage Lake would have to wait for another day.
The sky was a deep blue at this lake and there were some lager clouds on the other side of the range. The wind did pick to the point of needing a jacket. I had another lunch at this spot and would have loved to stay much longer. All along this trek I was constantly looking for places to camp for another time. The lake is at that sweet-spot elevation, just over eleven-thousand feet, right at tree-line. There is plenty of green in the area, it was so peaceful.
Realizing what time it was I reluctantly packed up and started back for Carter Lake. By now it was mid-afternoon, and the granite faces of the valley walls take on a different texture and as such took a long time to get back to Carter Lake. This area is made for a multi-day trek. Upon reaching Carter Lake it's clear that this is the common destination, there are number of social trails around Carter Lake which is rimmed with a marsh and tall grass. Due to the number of social trails around Carter Lake it is easy to get on the wrong trail and realize it too late, and that is what happened.
By the time I realized the mistake, it would have been to late to backtrack to find the trail to Savage Lakes. Perhaps it was for the best, based on the pictures I have seen of Savage Lakes it is a place to see well before Nautical Twilight and maybe no later than Civil Twilight.
By the time I realized I was on a short-cut egress trail I could tell what was going on, it was following a steep river out of the valley leading to the road. Normally, many trails follow a river, but rarely do they follow the banks of a steep walled river. This route would be a terrible idea during the Spring Runoff as the trail clearly had been washed out this past Spring and required several river crossings.
Once the trail connected with the road, I breathed a deep breath of relief, it was very steep and crossed this steep fast-moving river often. The last leg of the trail was, by design, on a road since I was planning a longer trek, as such I wanted the last part of this loop to be a stroll.
This trek turned out to be just shy of 12.75 miles roundtrip. With the exception of the short-cut egress, this was one of the best hikes of the Summer season. The weather was perfect, and only two other people on the trail all day and views that make The Holy Cross Wilderness something very special.