After decades of backpacking, I like to think of myself as being fairly competent in the backcountry. But sometimes, I still screw up. The planned title for this post was “Eagles Nest Loop.” It didn’t work out that way.
Thursday morning, I arrive at the Surprise trailhead at 10 AM. The weather has been very hot in the city, upper 90s, and I’m hoping to escape the heat and have a little adventure as well. The plan is to hike up the Eaglesmere trail in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, catch the very northern end of the Gore Range trail, do some road walking to a broad, high, treeless ridge called Elliot Ridge, ascend Meridian Peak, and return to my car via the Upper Cataract trail. Having done this trip clockwise a couple of times, I want to experience the loop coming from the opposite direction.
It’s a short walk on a dirt road to the Eaglesmere trailhead. Already, it’s beginning to get hot here at 8,600′. I plan to camp up around 11,000′ tonight; hopefully, it will be cooler up there. As I approach the trailhead, I notice that wildflowers are in full bloom.
There’s a sign at the trailhead saying that the bridge over Cataract Creek has been washed out and the the trail is closed. Checking my map, I see that the closure won’t affect my passage since I’ll be staying east of the creek.
It’s hot here, but the shade of the aspen provides some relief. The understory is very thick and lush, sometimes reaching shoulder height. A short distance up the trail, I come across a pile of bear scat sitting right in the middle of the trail. I poke it with the tip of my trekking pole. It’s very fresh. While not steaming, it probably was five minutes ago. I start letting my Pacerpoles drag across rocks on the trail to make noise. I’ve only had a handful of bear sightings in Colorado, the closest being here in the Gore Range when I surprised a bear at ten yards. That meeting gave me a firsthand look at how fast and powerful bears can be. Bear encounters can make for a good story, but I don’t go out of my way to encourage them.
The sun beats down from a cloudless blue sky. Across the valley, Eagles Nest Peak, a high rocky thirteener, dominates the skyline. Cataract Creek is clearly visible as it tumbles steeply down the mountain. Here on this side of the valley, wildflowers are abundant in the understory of the aspen forest.
Eventually, I climb out of the aspen into a lodgepole forest. The effects of the bark beetle infestation are apparent here. At an intersection, I turn north onto the Gore Range Trail. Soon the turnoff for Eaglesmere Lakes comes into view. Not being in a big hurry, I hike over to take a look at the lakes.
The hike on the Gore Range Trail becomes tougher. Few people travel past the lakes, and it’s clear the the trail is not very well maintained. There are numerous blowdowns to climb over, under, and around. I have to pay attention to keep track of the trail. Wildflowers are plentiful.
The forest is thick with few views to the outside. From past experience here, I know that there is a vast maze of old logging roads that have been left to grow over. I’ve been lost here before trying to find my way out, stumbling across a number of old roads and trails that lead nowhere. Eventually, the trail leads to a stream where a lone sign in the middle of the forest says “Gore Range Trail.” I stop in this shady spot by the stream and have a snack. The trail goes across the stream, heading north. Something feels wrong, so I check the map. Sure enough, the map shows the Gore Range trail heading west, but I’m going north. Walking further, I keep expecting the trail to turn west but it never does. Later, I intersect a dirt road with another “Gore Range Trail” sign pointing back in the direction I came from. Checking the map, things aren’t adding up. The map shows an unsurfaced high-clearance road while this is an improved dirt road. Plus the road is heading in the wrong direction. It occurs to me that the map I’m using is an old one, and the the trail may have been rerouted since the map was made. Hoping to find something that I can orient myself with, I turn left and walk quickly down the road. Twenty minutes later, nothing is clearer. I’ve walked deeper into the forest and have encountered no landmarks or people or vehicles or signs of humans besides this road. The sun is getting closer to the horizon and I’ll need some water tonight, so I turn around and walk back toward the trail I came from. Before turning down the trail, I walk a short ways to peek down the road to the right. I’m dumbfounded. The road ends here. Clearly, my map is wrong. Well, there’s nothing I can do about it tonight. I hike back to the clearing by the stream and cook dinner while fending off mosquitoes. The sky loses it’s last light just as I’m setting up shelter and preparing my bed. Despite my confusion, I have a good night’s sleep. The night is cool and becomes colder but I’m cozy and warm in my sleeping bag and shelter.
At first light, I get busy making breakfast before the mosquitoes get active. While doing so, I ponder my options.
Checking the map in my tent last night, I discovered that the only improved road that dead ends around here would require miles of road walking to get to Elliot Ridge. That is, of course, if the map can be trusted. I’m not so sure now. I know that if I head cross country due west, I will eventually meet Elliot Ridge. But I really have no stomach for bushwhacking over all the deadfall in this dense forest. It occurs to me that one of the many abandoned and overgrown logging roads may lead west out of the forest. After breaking camp, I find one close by and follow it hopefully, scrambling over downed trees and across gullies. The road soon peters out. At this point, I decide to cut my trip short by a day and return the the trailhead the same way I came in. Elliot Ridge and the beautiful area above Mirror Lake will still be there and I vow to return another day. On the way down, I take time to savor the wilderness.
On the way down, I make another stop at Eaglesmere Lake. It is lovely here and I briefly consider spending the night. But knowing that the weekend crowds will soon be here, I continue my descent.
While hiking down the steep trail on this hot, cloudless day, I stop in the shade of an aspen grove and take a final look at Eagles Nest Peak. Goodbye for now, I think, but I know I’ll be seeing you soon.
Postscript: As I’m writing this, I’ve just returned from the trip, hot and grimy, and haven’t had time to figure out the mystery of the phantom trailhead. As soon as I figure it out, I’ll add to this post.
Edit: OK, I now think I have this figured out. The 2007 update to the Trails Illustrated #107 map actually shows two northern termini to the Gore Range Trail, the one shown on the older maps near Mahan Lake, and another one further north at the end of an improved forest service road. Where I camped was near the point where these two trails converge. Since I searched for, but could not find the original trail, I can only conclude that that Forest Service has let it go back to it’s natural state. The new terminus is at the end of the improved road further north. So connecting the end of the Gore Range trail to the Elliot Ridge trail will require more road walking than I did on my previous trips. Personally, I’m not a big fan of walking on roads, so when I revisit the area, I’ll be using the Elliot Ridge trailhead and hiking the ridge to the Upper Cataract trail which I can use to explore the glacial lakes on the flank of Eagles Nest Peak.
About the gear: Some of the gear used on this trip is the same as that used on last month’s Lost Creek Trip and some is different. I’ll be posting soon about the different gear and the clothing used on both trips as well as some items of gear I haven’t yet covered in my About the Gear post.