Destination: Phase One: Collegiate Peak Wilderness; Phase Two: Holy Cross Wilderness
Total Hiking Distance: Collegiate Peak Wilderness/Colorado Trail (35+ miles); Holy Cross Wilderness (26+ miles)
Dates of hiking: July 9th – July 17th, 2020
Time on the Trail: Phase One: 4 days, 3 nights; Second Phase: 5 days, 4 nights
HikeCampHikers: Bettina, Kelly, Maria
July 7 – Left Austin driving, spent night in Trinidad, CO (elev. 6,000) to start acclimatizing.
July 8 – Spent night in Leadville (elev. 10,000+ feet) at the Inn in the Clouds Hiker hostel to further acclimatize and prepare. Amazing dinner at Treeline Café.
Phase One: Colorado Trail through the White River National Forest and Collegiate Park Wilderness
July 9 – Pre-adventure fueling at City on a Hill Coffee and Espresso on Main (Harrison) Street of Leadville. Delicious apple strudel was enjoyed! Parked car at Avalanche Trailhead west of Buena Vista and had our friend Lisa drop us off at Interlaken Trailhead near Twin Lakes. (Elev. 9,200 feet). Hiked 9.6 miles (last part of Segment 11 of Colorado Trail). Set up camp at Clear Creek Reservoir (elev. 8,940 feet) right along the creek. Took a dip in the water to cool off. Great first day and nice to sleep at lower elevation for first night out.
July 10 – Hiked 6.4 miles including a hard climb to 11,650 feet in elevation and then descended to Pine Creek at 10,430 feet and camped in Pine Creek Valley. Hard day rewarded by beautiful campsite overlooking meadow and ponds. We waited for elk to arrive but they didn’t show. The night sky was stunning.
July 11 – Broke camp around 9 am and headed further south along the Colorado Trail. Hiked 12.1 miles, climbing to 11,845 feet and then descended to 9,430 feet at Silver Creek Trailhead, the end of Segment 12 of the Colorado Trail. Found a good campsite that was private and spacious. A thru hiker with the trail name of “Pika” stayed at our site as well. It was interesting to hear about her experiences as a thru hiker.
July 12 – Left Silver Creek trailhead and climbed to 11,890 feet by lunchtime. Hiked up short spur to the east of the main trail, offering an amazing 360-degree view of region and a close up of Yale Peak. Then descended to 9,395 feet arriving at the Avalanche Trailhead in the early afternoon where Kelly’s car was parked. Total hiking was 6.6 miles. Short miles this day but lots of elevation gain and loss. We were tired!
This was our resupply day for food and much needed showers and regroup. Not much vacancy in Leadville but found lodging at Rodeway Inn. We ate dinner at Tennessee Pass Restaurant in Leadville. We were not impressed with food but the local beer (Elevation) hit the spot!
Phase Two: Holy Cross Wilderness (almost) Loop
July 13 – We had a beautiful drive from Leadville up Hwy 24 to Cross Creek Trailhead near Minturn. There was a six-mile gap (on a dirt road) between our starting point (Half Moon Trailhead) and finish point (Cross Creek Trailhead) so we had to decide where to leave the car – at the start or finish. We were hiking clockwise on the loop. Factoring in the uphill trek from Cross Creek to Half Moon, we decided that would not be something to look forward to at the end of our hiking adventure. We dropped off Maria with the packs at Half Moon Trailhead and Bettina and Kelly returned to Cross Creek to leave the car. The hope was that they would find a ride to Half Moon and they did! Kelly flagged down a friendly young woman (trail angel) who offered to take them to the Half Moon Trailhead. BTW, there is a nice pit toilet with hand sanitizer at the Half Moon Trailhead – a good feature considering the popularity of the trailhead as the gateway to climb the Mount of the Holy Cross 14er.
We started our hike south on the Fall Creek Trail around 1 pm. Our destination was Lake Constantine. The Holy Cross mosquitoes were quick to greet us as we hiked. Our Sawyer Insect Repellent and rain gear came in handy throughout the coming days to fend off our new friends. There was a scramble across some scree and a few spots where the trail was quite narrow on a steep slope but not too bad. We hiked four miles, starting at an elevation of 10,340 and ending at 11,370 feet at Lake Constantine around 3:30 pm.
There were lots of campsite options at the lake. We picked one near the water with a view of the lake. In hindsight we realized we should have selected a spot that was more sheltered from wind and rain given the unpredictable weather. We had a quick but powerful storm come through overnight. Fortunately our tents held strong.
July 14 – From beautiful Lake Constantine we hiked up and over Fall Creek Pass at 12,277 feet elevation. We had a nice reception by many curious marmots, chipmunks and pikas. We enjoyed a snack at the top and soaked in the view before descending the pass via the Seven Sisters Lakes. The lakes are bordered by dramatic granite walls that looked like a climber’s paradise. Weather started to roll in so we hurried to get below tree line and had lunch and filtered water at a stream surrounded by wildflowers and water lilies. From there we kept hiking down, passing various small lakes (one of which – the extension of Hunky Dory lake – looked very inviting for a quick swim but we decided to move on), arriving to the Holy Cross Historical City around 3 pm. After doing some way finding, we headed up a jeep road (a mining road from the late 1800s), explored the ruins of the old mining town and then continued on. Our destination was Fancy Lake (11,540 feet). Throughout the day, we did not encounter any other hikers on the trail. Our total mileage this day was about 6.5 miles and we arrived at the lake around 5 pm and set up camp. Overnight we awoke to some thunder followed by a steady rain shower that fortunately didn’t last too long.
July 15 – Blue skies greeted us in the morning which was a big relief as we were headed over Fancy Pass. We climbed up and over the pass at 12,380 feet elevation, crossing multiple snowfields slow and steady with no issue. There was lots of laughing as we made our way up. We spent about 20 minutes at the top, taking lots of pics and soaking in the view. As we started to descend toward Treasure Vault Lake we ran into other hikers doing the smaller loop (8.9 miles) that begins at Missouri Lake. We gradually entered a beautiful wide valley and came upon the headwaters of Cross Creek that we followed for the rest of our adventure. We lunched at Mill Pond and Kelly went for a quick swim. Our destination was Harvey Lake (11,025 feet elevation) where we found our favorite campsite of the trip, complete with a mountain lake, meadow, wildflowers and big granite rocks to scramble on with bird eye views of the valley. Our hiking mileage for the day was 4.8 miles. A curious mule deer visited us while we ate dinner by the lake. Did we mention mosquitoes? They were with us consistently, but nothing our repellent and rain gear couldn’t handle. No storms this night!
July 16 – Leaving Harvey Lake, our objective was to find a campsite along Cross Creek in the afternoon estimating about 8 miles of hiking to put us within a few miles of the Cross Creek Trailhead where our car was parked. We thought this would be an easy day, a steady downhill through the valley, that didn’t look too difficult on the map. Our legs were tired given all the hiking we had done in the previous days. It turned out that the terrain was rocky and challenging. There was avalanche debris to navigate and our hunt for a campsite went later than expected. Fortunately, we found a perfect (hidden) spot right next to the river that was just 2 miles from the Trailhead at 8,514 feet elev. We were relieved and happy to end our adventure at a good site after hiking 9 miles.
July 18 – Our last day – we woke up, had some coffee but decided to forgo one more day of oatmeal and granola breakfast. Instead we opted for brunch in Minturn. We leisurely broke camp and began our final hike (2 miles) of the trip to the Trailhead. It was an easy downhill, past various groups of day hikers and fresh backpacking groups just starting their adventures. We arrived at the Trailhead around 11 am, found our car intact and waiting for us and went straight to the Sunrise Café in Minturn where we had a memorable meal that hit the spot.
From there we headed to Salida, CO, to spend the afternoon and evening before our drive home to Texas the next day. We stayed at the Salida Inn and Monarch Suites which was clean and comfortable. The town of Salida is really charming. We walked around downtown, had drinks and truffle fries at Fritz Restaurant, followed by dinner at Amica’s Wood Fired Pizza Restaurant. We sat outside, relished the cool temperatures that we would miss in Texas and reviewed our trip, thinking about when we would return to Colorado and what is on the horizon for HikeCampHike.
COVID complicated our plans to go to the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon (our original plan) so we researched an adventure in Colorado. It was a good option because Colorado is within decent driving distance for us from Austin (~14 hours). Bettina researched the Colorado Trail and what segments we could tackle and Maria researched loop options, talking to rangers with the White River National Forest. We targeted the Leadville area for our trip because we had a good friend who offered to shuttle us to the Trailhead and the mountain ranges in that area are spectacular. We were interested in testing our endurance for a longer hiking adventure, extending our normal schedule of 4-6 days to about 9 days.
Takeaways from adventure:
When carrying a pack that weighs about 25 pounds, it is important to seriously consider factors such as elevation, technicality of trail and distance to hike in planning the mileage for each day. For us we realized that if you are in elevation between 9,000-12,000 feet and carrying a pack, it’s best to shoot for not more than 8 miles per day total distance. If the hiking is flatter and/or less technical then 10-12 miles is a fine goal per day. For Maria, the climbs were the challenge and for Kelly and Bettina the descents were the stressor given their sometime testy knees.
During our hike we experienced occasional, light afternoon rain. It is important to get an early start, especially if going over high passes above tree line.
The Colorado Trail was a nice option because there was lots of information on the web about the trail segments. Bettina found the Women of the Colorado Trail Facebook page especially informative. We had some tough days on the trail from an exertion perspective and met lots of thru hikers. However, hands down, the Holy Cross Wilderness (Phase Two) was our favorite – dramatic scenery, high passes, snow fields, running streams and clear water lakes in abundance. And there were less people on the trail which made it easy to pick primo campsites each night. The one drawback to Holy Cross was the persistent mosquitoes that we were able to control with repellent and our rain gear.
Given the uncertainties of COVID and our plans, it was super helpful to not have to worry about permits. For the Colorado Trail no permit was needed and for the Holy Cross Wilderness, we just had to register at the Trailhead.
The wildflowers in the Holy Cross Wilderness were stunning in their color and variety. We never tired from walking past the purple, yellow, pink, blue, maroon, red and lavender that carpeted the valley and mountainsides.