24: November at Sandbeach Lake
November is a great time to visit Wild Basin, tucked into the southeast corner of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. There is no entrance fee, no administrative fee for a camping permit, no requirement to use a bear canister and best of all, no crowds.
Inspired by Ryan Jordan’s excellent 24 article, I decided to see how much of a wilderness experience I could pack into a short overnighter, in my case, 30 hours, including a 90 minute drive each way between my home in Denver and the Sandbeach Lake trailhead in Wild Basin.
It’s unseasonably warm as I climb from the trailhead up a slope with a southern exposure. There’s very little snow in sight, but I’m wearing knee-length gaiters and a warm hat and toting snowshoes on the back of my pack. It’s possible that I’ve brought the wrong gear.
I reach a crossroads in the trail and small patches of snow appear in spots. Sandbeach Lake is only 4.5 miles from the trailhead and a couple thousand feet up, but I’m confident that I won’t see too many other hikers, since this is mid-week in November. The forest is dappled with patches of shadow and light, snow and bare ground. The west wind blowing down Wild Basin becomes more intense.
It gets colder as I walk the mountain path and I begin to feel the wind’s bite. Before long, I reach Hunter’s Creek. The trail has turned very icy and I have to watch every step. The bridge is no exception.
About the gear: This time of year, it’s sometimes tough to figure out exactly what gear to bring. I went back and forth between my Northern Lites snowshoes and my Kahtoola microspikes. Since I really hate postholing in deep snow, I eventually chose the snowshoes. The microspikes would have been a better choice. The snow was never very deep but the trail was icy most of the way up.
The trail turns steeper and I slip once, twice, then fall. I put on my snowshoes and have a much easier time. Soon I reach the top of the trail and look out toward the lake. The wind has swept all the snow away revealing a sandy beach.
Now that I’m out of the trees, I’m really feeling the fierceness of the wind. Still, I’m delighted to be here. It’s a beautiful place and I know I’m going to enjoy exploring.
About the gear: Three of the workhorses of my kit are on display in this photo: Pacerpoles, Northern Lites Quicksilvers, and Granite Gear Vapor Trail. The Quicksilvers are tougher than they look. After over a decade of use, including lots of early and late season rock bashing, they are still in great shape. My footwear for this trip consists of Smartwool Light Hikers, Rocky GTX Socks, and New Balance trail runners. The gaiters are OR Rocky Mountain Highs. My total pack weight for this trip is 19 lbs. and the base weight is 15.5 lbs., including 2.5 lbs. for the snowshoes.
I walk along the shore for a while, then turn back toward the trees to look for the designated campsites. Though I’m prepared to sleep on snow, I’m happy to find that one of the four sites has a tent pad that is mostly snow-free. The site is just a few steps into the forest and offers little wind protection, and the ground is frozen solid, so I figure that setting up my shelter will be a chore. Luckily, setting up camp goes more easily than I expected.
About the gear: Once I carried an example of every stake in my collection out to the wilderness to test them in frozen ground. Vargo titanium nail stakes were the only ones that were able to penetrate the ground. They are the ones I’m using this afternoon.
This is my first night out with the Golite Shangri-La 2. In my backyard, it set up quickly and easily handled 14″ of snow. Tonight will be it’s first test in wind. The National Weather Service is predicting gusts up to 40 mph for this area. We’ll see how it goes.
Looking out from my campsite, I notice a man standing on the sandbar that juts out into the lake. Since I like to know who I’ll be sharing the lake with tonight, I amble over to the sandbar. It turns out that he is just out for the day, and is waiting for his wife who he is communicating with over a two-way radio. We talk a bit and scan the skyline. He’s curious about the mountain that dominates the view on the northern side of the lake. I identify it as Mount Meeker. He, in turn, identifies the flat summit behind Meeker as belonging to Longs Peak.
Saying goodbye, I continue exploring the lake. Off in the distance, I see the man and his wife hike off, and I realize that I have Sandbeach Lake to myself tonight.
Late afternoon light illuminates the rocky shore of Sandbeach Lake.
Mount Meeker stands watch over the lake.
When I notice the sun getting close to the horizon, I walk back up to the forest to get dinner ready. Given the wind, cooking in my tent would be a lot more comfortable tonight. But mindful that Wild Basin is home to habituated bears, I find a boulder to cook and eat behind that is a good distance from my camp. After I hang my bear bag, I see that it’s gotten pretty dark. I walk back down the beach at the edge of the forest until my headlamp catches the shine of the reflective loops of the tent. By this time, I’m pretty cold, so I do step aerobics on a log nearby, then jump into my sleeping bag. Instantly, I begin to recover my warmth.
As I lie in the tent listening to the sound of the wind moving down the mountains, across the lake, and through the trees, I realize that this is going to be a good night. Occasionally, I wake up when a strong gust of wind hits my tent. But most of the night is spent in relative comfort.
When the sky begins to turn light, I walk back to the lake to do more exploring.
Ice on Sandbeach Lake
Early morning cloud
Rocks in Sandbeach Lake
Eventually, I get hungry for breakfast and head back to camp.
Shangri-La 2 at the edge of the forest
About the gear: It’s still too early to tell, but I think I’m really going to like this shelter. I can even see it becoming a workhorse in my kit. After years of using tiny shelters, I appreciate the fact that the Shangri-La 2 has plenty of room for two people and is a palace for one. I like the way it handled snow. It also does pretty well in the wind, although the long side of the shelter closest to the wind did flap a few times during the night. Golite lists the weight without the stakes at 26 oz. but my sample is considerably lighter at 21.6 oz. Throw in six stakes and you’re around a pound an a half total.
The bivy is an older Ptarmigan without the netting. In this setting, it helped with wind resistance, kept the sand out of my sleeping bag and kept my pad and bag together. I’m 5’9″ and 150 lbs. and had no problem fitting my bag and a full-length inflatable pad in the bivy without compromising the loft of my sleeping bag. The weight is 5.8 oz.
After breakfast, I pack quickly and take a few steps toward the lake. I take in the sandy beach, the ice on the lake, the snowy mountains beyond and the November sky. Then I shoulder my pack and head back down the icy trail.