Holy Cross Wilderness Loop
This month’s hike traverses the glacial valleys of Fall Creek and Cross Creek in the northern end of the Sawatch Range. In the process, it visits a number of lakes and crosses two passes over 12,000′ high.
It’s a cool, still morning, the Tuesday after Labor Day, as I shoulder my pack in the small Cross Creek trailhead parking lot on Tigiwon Road. I’ve just carefully driven my Civic two miles up from Hwy. 24 on the narrow, pot-holed, two-wheel-drive road. It’s six miles up Tigiwon to Halfmoon trailhead, the real start of my journey. Though I’m prepared to walk, I would much prefer to spend my time on trails winding through the wilderness. A boxy-looking Mercedes SUV drives slowly up the road. Good, I think, at least there’s traffic. I step out to the road and start walking. Normally, I wear a Sunday Afternoons Hat to hike in, but, for the occasion, have chosen a nondescript baseball cap, so as to appear less bizarre to potential drivers. Five minutes later, a white extended-cab pickup pulls up slowly behind me. Sizing up the occupants, I see that it’s a family, and, too bad, the truck is full, so I say good morning and step aside to let it pass.
Fall has come to the mountains. The understory is already changing color.
A red-tailed hawk is circling slowly overhead.
Half-an-hour later, I’m still walking. Behind me I hear the faint, but unmistakable sound of a helicopter. Turning around, I view a scene from “Apocalypse Now.” Three Hueys are flying low along the ridge to my left. The sound gets louder as they come alongside and fades as they disappear into the distance. Then, I remember hearing that Hueys are being decommissioned in favor of Blackhawks. Eagle County Airport, a center for high-altitude helicopter training, is nearby. Someone must be taking the Hueys for a final spin.
Another hour passes. A couple of trucks have come by, but headed in the wrong direction. A vehicle comes up behind me. It’s a red Land Rover with a thirtyish couple in the front seats. They stop and apologize that they have no room for me. Looking into the back seat, I see that it’s true. Their gear fills the back seat and everything behind it. The couple is going to scout out the Halfmoon campground. When I tell the man what I’m doing, he looks skeptically at my small pack and wishes me good luck. I keep walking. An hour or so later, the Land Rover comes back down the road. The man laughs and says, “Now, you’re hurting my feelings.” I also laugh and walk on. Eventually, I arrive at the Halfmoon trailhead on my own power.
A couple of guys are finishing their lunch at the trailhead and say that they will be backpacking to Lake Constantine. We agree that we’ll probably meet farther down the trail. Hiking along the Fall Creek trail, I suddenly get into a very good mood. This, after all, is what I came for. Soon, I stop for lunch near a rock slide.
Now we’re having fun.
About the gear: My base weight for this four-day trip is about 11 lbs. and the total weight about 19 . The pack is a Granite Gear Vapor Trail. Strapped to the back is a cut-down 1/4″ Gossamer Gear thinlite pad. I’m wearing my favorite warm to hot weather shirt, the Railriders Adventure Top, and REI Sahara pants.
The rocky forest path continues upward toward Lake Constantine.
Occasionally, the trees part to open up a view of the surrounding landscape.
It gets cooler and starts to rain, then sleet, then hail, then back to rain. I slip on my rain jacket and rain mitts.
About the gear: The rain jacket is an eight ounce Golite Virga. The mitts are Headsweats Glove Covers. There are few companies that sell rain mitts, considering how useful they are to backpackers. MLD rain mitts are a favorite.
Walking on in the rain, my head bowed, I listen to the rhythm of my footsteps and trekking poles, the sound of raindrops on the hood of my rain jacket. The reds, oranges, greens, and yellows of the understory float through my peripheral vision. Then it happens. An awareness comes over me that this is it. Right here. Right now. This is all I need or will ever need. It’s a deep joy and contentment. Just as soon, the awareness vanishes. But it’s OK. It’s moments like these that I know will stay with me when I am again a sojourner in everyday life.
Soon, I come across the two men I met at the trailhead. They are waiting out the rain in a little rock cave. We exchange greetings and I walk on. Eventually, Lake Constantine comes into view. After stopping for a few minutes, I hike to the inlet above the lake to look for a campsite.
Stopping here to gather water, I cross to the opposite bank to check out what appears to be a nice flat spot up above.
Tuesday night’s camp
About the gear: Yes, I’m still using my Integral Designs Silshelter, which I ordered from Canada back in December of 1999. A couple of years ago, I started using my trekking poles as an A-frame, which greatly increases the usable interior room over having a pole on the inside under the apex. A word on silnylon: It does stretch when wet, so care must be taken that you don’t end up sleeping in a saggy shelter. In the A-frame setup, it’s easy to reach out from your sleeping bag, grab the ends of your trekking poles, and bring them toward you so that the shelter is immediately brought taut again. In the days before I used poles, I attached shock-cord loops to some of the tie-outs of the Silshelter and stretched them tightly as I was erecting the shelter. Either method works well. In the photo above, both doors are closed to protect my gear from the rain. Most of the time, I leave one, or preferably two doors open for greater views and ventilation. Ten year ago, the Silshelter was one of the few, if not the only, shaped silnylon tarps around. Now there are quite a few more. The MLD DuoMid is one that looks especially good to me.
When the sky starts to turn light, I awaken and get my food bag out of a tree. While I’m having breakfast, there’s the sound of an elk bugling An elk bugles once. I listen, but hear nothing more. Before hiking to Fall Creek Pass, I take a quick detour up the Tuhare Lakes trail.
The waning gibbous moon remains in the morning sky.
The trail climbs steeply, sometimes requiring use of hands.
Waterfalls pour down from Lower Tuhare Lake.
Clouds passing overhead cast a shadow and I check the time. Promising myself that I’ll come back to visit Tuhare Lakes on another trip, I head back down and pick up the Fall Creek Trail.
Clouds gather down the valley.
Looking back at Lake Constantine
On the way to 12,590′ Fall Creek Pass
The grade evens out as I approach the top of the pass.
Looking west from the top of Fall Creek Pass
Marmots begin to scatter at my approach, then peek out from behind rocks.
The first of the Seven Sisters Lakes that I encounter
While exploring in this area, I lose track of the trail. While trying to re-find it, I see people down below. Spotting the trail again, I arrive at the place where the hikers are resting and taking in the view. It’s a quartet, two men and two women. I speak mostly to one of the men and learn that they have hiked up a few miles from the jeep road down below. We agree that this is a most beautiful spot and that it’s really a great time of year to be here. When they learn what I am up to, one of the women urges me to be careful. It’s clear that she is worried about bears. To be honest, bears are way down the list of my worries. But I say I’ll be careful and hike on.
Farther down the valley
The peak of wildflower season is well past, but some live on, even in the most unlikely places.
The bee is still plying her trade.
The trail eventually leaves the Holy Cross Wilderness and becomes a very rough four-wheel- drive road. Turning southwest, the road reaches an area where mining once took place.
Relics from Colorado’s mining history
Cabin at Holy Cross City, formerly a gold mining camp
It starts to rain as I’m exploring the ghost town. The temperature drops and the rain turns to sleet. I put away my camera and hike back into the wilderness on the trail to Fancy Pass. The sleet changes back to rain as I hike up through the forest to Fancy Lake.
The rain tapers off a bit as I arrive at Fancy Lake early in the evening. No one is here tonight. But, like most drop-dead-gorgeous lakes with easy access, Fancy Lake is showing signs of being loved to death. Social trails lead everywhere. Bits of toilet paper peek out from under rocks. A bandana hangs from the branch of a tree. Nonetheless, I’m happy to be here. I pick a flat spot on a rise above the lake with views of Fancy Pass in one direction and the mountains to the east on the other. For dinner, I find a clump of trees close to the lake to huddle under. Several gray jays, also known as camp robbers, immediately appear. They are a bold bunch, swooping from branch to branch and hopping to within a few yards of me. When they see that they’re not getting anywhere, they leave, but immediately return when I start scraping my pot and again as I’m packing up my food.
The rain stops and the beginnings of a rainbow appear over the mountains to the east.
Wednesday night’s camp
About the gear: Whenever possible, I like to sleep with both flaps of my Silshelter open. If I feel drops of rain on my face in the middle of the night, it’s an easy matter to close one or both doors.
Sunset, Wednesday evening
I awaken to the sound of some unidentified woodland creature in the tree above. Whatever it is, it has quite a repertoire. And it’s comments seem to be directed at me. Also, I realize that, for some reason, the theme from Mad Men has been playing in my head all night long.
Sunrise, Thursday morning
While watching the sunrise, I hear the sound of an elk bugling far below. Listening, I hear it again. Then, silence.
Sizing up this morning’s destination, Fancy Pass
About the gear: It’s a cold morning and I’m wearing almost everything I’ve brought– a Polartec 200 beanie, Railriders Adventure top, Outdoor Research Ion pullover, Polartec 100 sweater, Golite Virga rain jacket, REI Sahara pants, wool socks, and New Balance trail runners.
Autumn reflections in Fancy Lake
A last look at Fancy Lake
I begin the steep, rocky climb to Fancy Pass. On the way up, several pikas squeak and scold and run by with bits of grass in their mouths.
Life will find a way.
The final approach to Fancy Pass, elevation 12,380′
The view west from the top of the pass. Treasure Vault Lake is to the lower left. Blodgett Lake is visible in the upper right. The low point on the ridge to the left is Missouri Pass.
Taking it all in
Marmots try to hide as I descend from the pass. This one takes the time to give me a look.
Crossroads. Fancy Pass is the low point in the upper right. Missouri Pass will be left for another trip. This morning I’m headed down to Cross Creek.
Wide valley at the head of Cross Creek
I drop into the Cross Creek drainage. At this point, the 15.5 mile trail stays on the west side of the marshy creek, sometimes being pushed into the forest. I’m expecting an easy hike, but the roots, rocks, willows, and underbrush crowding the narrow trail keep me on my toes.
Old mining cabin
Here, I spot another solo backpacker with a wide-brimmed hat and what seems to be a light load exploring across the valley. He seems to want to be alone, so I let him be.
I’m almost out of water when I hear this trickle coming from the mountains to the west.
At one point, Cross Creek runs over a long section of granite.
It’s like a water park. I take off my shoes and socks for a refreshing cool down. The algae under the creek is extremely slippery, so I pick a flat spot and steady myself with trekking poles.
About the gear: The trekking poles are Pacerpoles. Notice the unique grip and radical angle of the handles. They work better for me than any other pole I’ve tried.
Mandala with fly
In the late afternoon, I start looking for a place to camp. It’s not easy to find a flat spot along this section of trail. Finally, I find a good one but there’s no water around. Hiking on, I reach a not-very-scenic place deep in the forest. But it’s flat and there’s water nearby, so I stop for the night.
I’m trying to put my bear-bagging line over a branch and it’s not going well. The rock bounces off the branch and lands just inches away from me. Cursing, I get ready to try again. Hearing a sound, I look over to see the man with the wide-brimmed hat hike by. While looking for the perfect branch, I had unknowingly drifted within sight of the trail. I call out a greeting and he says hi but walks on. I can’t say that I blame him. When hiking alone in the forest, it’s probably wise to avoid a cursing, wild-eyed, bandana-wearing man with a rope in his hands.
As soon as it becomes light enough, I pack up and move on. It’s cold and the sun won’t hit this deeply shady spot any time soon. I’ll have breakfast later.
The first light of day hits Cross Creek
The forest finally opens up to this clearing and I notice that the aspen leaves have already turned.
Aspen against buttermilk skies
Mount of the Holy Cross comes into view.
Asters thriving in the understory
Eventually, I start running into day hikers and know that the end of the trail is near.
Goodbye to Cross Creek, at least for now. I’m looking forward to seeing my wife and getting a hot shower.