James Peak Wilderness Loop
The cold rain intensifies, breaking through the canopy of trees by the side of the trail where I’ve sought shelter to cook dinner. It’s been raining steadily with few breaks since early afternoon and by now I’ve become damp and chilled. The day hikers have all gone home and I’m aware of being quite alone out here.
Unexpectedly, a bedraggled-looking stranger appears on the trail wearing boots, gaiters, a red poncho and seemingly little else.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I call out.
The man steps into my pine grove and admits in an accent I recognize as Texan that he’s having a hard time. He started in Austin this morning as is having trouble adjusting to the altitude.
“I’ve gotten used to 20,000′ before, but I think I’m out of shape for this.”
“Ah, so you’re a climber.”
“Used to be. Now I’m not much of anything.”
He tells me he got his start in the mountains in 1975 with a trip up Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness. Later on, he climbed some peaks in the Canadian Rockies and Denali. The usual responsibilities of job and family have kept him away from the mountains in recent years and this is his trip to get back to it. We agree that a passion to keep coming back to the mountains, when many of our contemporaries have quit, is ninety percent of the game.
I’m enjoying our conversation but aware that I’m on the edge of hypothermia, I tell him about a good camping spot a few minutes up the trail. After packing my cooking gear, I walk back to my tent tucked away off the trail.
Ducking into my floorless shelter, I hang my rain gear on the clothesline, zip into my sleeping bag, and soon become warm again while listening to the sound of raindrops bouncing off the shelter. Thinking back on the day, I realize that, despite the rain, or maybe because of it, this really has been a great day.
This morning, I arrived at the James Peak Wilderness trailhead at the east portal to the Moffat tunnel. The ski train to Winter Park went through here until 2009, and an endless string of coal trains coming in from Wyoming still does. The day is cool and overcast, a welcome relief from the heat I’ve experienced in the city. The wilderness feels well-watered and lush with the rushing sound of South Boulder Creek through the trees to my left.
Wildflowers start to appear as I climb upward through the forest.
Early in the afternoon, the rain begins. I slip on my rain suit and hike upward, enjoying the green lushness and the cascades of water dropping off the mountain.
Several day hikers come down the trail, retreating from the weather. In the few breaks from the rain, I attempt to photograph wildflowers.
Near Rogers Lake, I set up camp in a thick stand of trees and wait for the rain to stop. It never does, so I walk to some sheltering trees by the side of the trail to have dinner. Back at my tent, I fall asleep to the steady rhythm of raindrops dripping through the forest canopy.
I wake up just before dawn. The rain has stopped. Excited, I grab my camera and tripod and head out into the darkness.
After breakfast, I pack and hike up the trail. My immediate destination is Rogers Pass, a mile away and about 750′ higher. In a few minutes, I see a small orange tent on the hillside overlooking Rogers Lake and various pieces of gear and clothing hung out to dry. I meet the man from Austin who tells me he had a rough night. His tent collapsed during the night, wetting his down bag and putting him on the verge of hypothermia. Still, he seems in good spirits. We chat a bit and he introduces himself as Gary Doyle. His plan is to hang around the lake today to get acclimated to the altitude and to climb James Peak tomorrow. My plan is to hike north along the Continental Divide Trail and hop back to the eastern side of the divide to camp near Forest Lakes. We wish each other good luck and I climb toward Rogers Pass and the CDT.
Last time I was on this section of the CDT, there was really no trail. Now, at least, someone has put up six-foot four-by-fours to let you know where to walk. From the looks of things, few people use this section of trail. There is no path and little sign of disturbance among the plant life. Still, it’s pleasant up here. There’s a cool, steady breeze blowing from the west. To my left, Mary Jane and Winter Park ski resorts are visible far below in the Fraser valley. The bark-beetle epidemic has really taken its toll here with rust-colored mountainsides all the way up and down the valley. On my right are the heavily glaciated cirques of the Front Range. I frequently peek over the edge to the vertigo-inducing drop-offs below.
With no path, I’m finding the walking to be tough. The trail cuts across steep talus still wet from last night’s rain. When walking through the vegetation, I can’t really see which way my foot is going to land. The altitude is also starting to get to me.
Keeping an eye toward the western sky, I notice that clouds are building up again. As I approach Rollins Pass, I see a lone figure in the distance hiking toward me across the tundra. When he gets a bit closer, I notice that he’s a backpacker and is travelling at a pretty good clip. “Through-hiker,” I’m thinking.
My guess is pretty close. The man is wearing a CDT cap and is section-hiking the trail two weeks at a time. Today is day nine of this section which started at Willow Creek Pass in Wyoming. I wish him a good trip and hike on toward Rollins Pass.
Looking over the edge one more time, I see Upper Forest Lake far below. If I were a bird, I’d hop off the cliff and swoop directly to the lake. But I’m not, so I trudge on, knowing that several miles of road walking await me.
Approaching the pass, I hear the roar of motors and notice a couple of ATVs on the Rollins Pass Road to the west. Dark clouds are gathering ito the north and east as I turn east onto Boulder Wagon Road. Off to my left are the ruggedly beautiful mountains of Indian Peaks. I recognize King Lake clinging to the mountainside.
Two ATV riders come up behind me so I step to the side of the road to let them pass. One of them is wearing a T-shirt that says “Out to earn respect” and indeed both riders seem to be pretty good at what they are doing. A helmeted dirt-bike rider soon follows. Though I don’t begrudge anyone their way of having fun, I’m reminded that I’m happy that places like official wilderness areas exist “…as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Dark clouds hang in the sky and lightning appears to the east as I turn onto Rollins Pass Road. The Needle’s Eye Tunnel was closed after it partially collapsed and seriously injured a Denver man. To bypass the tunnel, I climb steeply up a social trail through the rocks into the ominous sky and down the other side to get back to the road.
The sky is still rumbling but I find relief when I finally find the trailhead for Forest Lakes and hike back into the wilderness. It’s been wet here and the landscape is a hallucinogenic riot of wildflowers. Yellows, reds, oranges, purples, blues, and whites compete in the understory. I find a flat spot on the far side of the lake and set up my shelter. No one is here tonight; I have the whole beautiful area all to myself.
It’s getting too dark to see as I finish dinner and crawl into my shelter. Rain drops fall. The wind picks up and a storm is soon upon me. It’s almost comic in it’s intensity, blowing fiercely from the north and driving rain horizontally against my shelter. The tent shakes and some raindrops blow in through the covered peak vent. Despite all this, the stakes hold, the shelter stands, and I drift off to sleep in the raging tempest.
The next morning is calm. I awaken before dawn and head out to explore the area around the lake.
This day’s hike back to the trailhead will only be a few miles, so I spend time around camp, soaking it all in. Walking down the Forest Lakes trail, I take the time to stop, observe, listen, and smell, hoping to hold it all fast in my memory.