Snowmass and Willow Lakes Loop
Deep in an aspen forest, I come to a T intersection in the dirt road. Left or right? I can’t remember the map. Turning the steering wheel to the left, I discover a sign warning that the road is unmaintained and to proceed at my own risk. Should have taken the right. Carefully turning around, I soon arrive at the Maroon-Snowmass trailhead. There are less than a dozen vehicles here. Good. It’s the Tuesday after the July Fourth weekend, and I’ve gambled that most hikers have already gone home.
Hiking up into the cool green aspen forest, I try to restrain my excitement. Though I’ve done a lot of day hiking lately, it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to get away for a backpacking trip. Uncertain of my fitness for this, I’ve been training by loading up my backpack and walking around a park in my Denver neighborhood. I’ll soon learn if this was enough.
The sights, sounds, and smells of the forest soon displace the mental chatter, and I feel my body relax. Though I’ve never been here before, it feels comfortable, familiar. Like coming home after a long absence.
Snowmass Creek has been rumbling softly in the distance like a drone. Now it becomes a loud roar, and drowns out the rustling of the aspen leaves and buzzing of insects.
So far I have seen no one. Then a steady trickle of day hikers and heavily-laden backpackers returning from their long weekend appears. Looks like I timed this trip just about right.
The trail emerges into an open meadow, and the views open up.
Farther up, I hike into a sun-dappled forest. The day is warm, and insects flit about in the understory.
A couple comes into view, and they tell me that I will soon come to a creek crossing, and that I should hike up the creek to a log jam to avoid wetting my feet. Though I have no problem with wet feet, I stand there listening and asking questions. Instantly, I like these two. The guy’s voice sounds just like Bill Clinton’s, and they are clearly having the time of their lives on this vacation. They tell me that there are very few people camping at Snowmass Lake, and I’m encouraged by this. Last time I was there was last August while hiking the Four Pass Loop, and the lake was overrun with backpackers.
Soon I come to the logjam, and have fun hopping and balancing on logs while crossing Snowmass Creek.
At the lake, I find that the couple was right. I can detect only two other sets of campers. Quickly, I find a spot to set up my shelter and bedding, then walk directly to the lake shore to cook dinner.
If there are spots in Colorado more beautiful than Snowmass Lake, they are few. I cook and eat while looking out over the lake, then wander about as the sun gets lower in the sky seeking out more intimate landscapes.
It’s a quiet night and I sleep well, awaken only by the sound of a gentle rain whispering across the walls of my shelter. Later, the sound of a single bird, then a chamber group alerts me to the beginning of a new day, and I know what I have to do.
Unplugging the valve of my air mattress, I sink onto the hard, stony ground. No sleeping in for you. After all, you didn’t come all this way just to miss the sunrise.
Quickly, I stuff my sleeping bag and my mattress and my shelter and other gear into my backpack, then go in search of my food bag which I had hung from a tree last night. It’s nowhere in sight, so I shrug my shoulders and walk back to Snowmass Lake. Breakfast can wait.
The sun emerges over the horizon, I find my food and have breakfast, then set out early on the trail toward Buckskin Pass.
This part of the loop shares the trail with the famous Four Pass Loop, so I’m surprised to not see any other hikers out and about. The sun climbs higher in the sky and the day turns bright and hot. I seek relief from the glare and the heat in little pockets of shadow I find along the way.
Descending to a branch of Snowmass Creek, I notice a couple and a dog standing by a tent in a clearing. Their boxer stares at me menacingly, so I call out a greeting to let them know that I’m here.
The trail now climbs steeply up through the forest, and eventually punches out above treeline. I hear a familiar clucking sound to my right, and a pair of ptarmigans moves from their camouflaged position in an alpine rock garden.
As I get closer to Buckskin Pass, hordes of backpackers emerge mysteriously from nowhere. If this were the Hillary Step, we might be in trouble.
Steep snowfields block the way down to the left, but the trail cleverly skirts them by climbing high on the ridge. At the top of the pass, I meet a couple relaxing and enjoying the view. I take “you were there” snapshots of them with their cameras, and they return the favor.
Hiking down the other side of Buckskin Pass, Maroon and North Maroon Peaks, aka the Maroon Bells, loom large before me. Climbers also know them as the Deadly Bells because loose crumbly rock has claimed the lives of a number of those attempting to climb them.
The trail bottoms out, then starts to climb again toward Willow Pass. Mosquitoes and marmots are abundant here. I catch a marmot sunning himself on a rock. Farther up, I surprise another marmot sitting in the trail munching on a willow branch that he’s pulled down with his front paws. He runs down the trail with me right behind him. Eventually, he figures out that I’m not leaving the trail and ducks down into some willows. Another marmot sees me and startles me by running straight down the trail toward me. “What the ……..? ” Killer marmots?
Thunder rumbles, a few raindrops fall, and a pair of hikers flees toward me. Glancing at the sky, I’m not too concerned. Things just don’t look that bad.
Looking up to my right, I spot a family of white mountain goats grazing high on the mountainside. They don’t seem all that worried either.
As I approach Willow Pass, I stop by a group of hikers and take a good look at the climb. It looks like a pretty stiff hike up a rock wall with plenty of crumbly rock.
While I’m watching, a team of six horses and two horsemen pops up over the pass from the other side.
“Well, it can’t be too bad if horses can do it,” I say.
“Oh, it’s bad. It’s really bad,” one of the hikers tells me.
“How bad is it?”
“It’s worse than Buckskin. A lot worse. Really steep and lots of loose rock.”
As we watch, one of the horses starts to slide, knocking loose rock down the mountainside. The horsemen look very competent. One of them does something to arrest the slide, the horse falls back in line, and the pack train successfully negotiates the switchbacks all the way to the bottom.
I step to the side of the trail, and the lead horseman eyes me and says, “You’ll like it at Willow Lake. There’s no one there.”
Now it’s my turn. My natural fear of heights has somewhat fallen away over the years through repeated exposure to situations like this, but has never left completely. I focus on correct placement of my feet and trekking poles and keeping my weight directly over my feet. Before I know it, I’m cresting the top and looking over the edge to the other side.
It’s only noon, and I can tell that I don’t have very far to go before I get to tonight’s destination, Willow Lake, so I linger atop the pass, taking in the views from all directions. Making my way down into Willow basin, I start to realize how beautiful it is here. The horseman was right; there is no one here. Sitting and absorbing the beauty, I start to feel like the luckiest man in the world.
Taking the side trail to Willow Lake, I slow down, observing everything as I go. At Willow Lake, I find some shade and consider the options. I still have plenty time today to go over the next pass and cross over into East Snowmass valley, but I really like it here. Deciding not to decide, I wander back up the basin then suddenly find a spot in view of East Snowmass pass where I’d like to spend the night.
Mosquitoes also seem to like the fact that I’m spending the night here; they gather round to drink my blood as soon as I stop. “Sorry, gals, I’m not your benefactor.” I tuck my shirt into my pants, my pants into my socks, put on my headnet, and apply DEET to my wrists and the back of my hands. Then I tell them to kiss off.
Early in evening, I spot a group of backpackers with large packs in the distance. One of them, a young woman, comes over and asks if they can camp near me. After I say it’s OK, she and two other young women set up camp at a respectful distance. A little later, three young men, one of them packless and limping with a trekking pole and another one carrying two packs, walk by to join the women. An hour later, two of the women walk by with full packs heading in the direction of Willow Lake. There’s always drama, even out here.
After dinner, I walk around with my camera and tripod as the sun slowly sinks behind a ridge.
The next morning, I get going early before the sun is up.
The climb up to East Snowmass Pass turns out to be easier than it looks, though I have to exert extra caution crossing a steep snowfield that is still hard from the coolness of the night. Near the top of the pass, I turn around and look off toward Willow Lake, hoping to hold this place in my memory for as long as I can.
A few minutes after starting down the far side of the pass, I spot a lone backpacker off in the distance. Even though he’s far off, I recognize him as a kindred spirit. The long sleeve woven shirt and pants, the wide-brimmed hat, the small pack and trekking poles, and the fact that he’s older tells me that he’s a man experienced with and comfortable in the mountains. The fact that he’s travelling solo also tells me that he’s probably somewhat of a poet.
We stop for a chat. It turns out that the man is a former Christmas tree farmer from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who now lives in Salida. He considers the Sangre de Cristos and the Collegiates to be his home mountains. My wife and I had recently visited Salida while coming back from visiting friends who had moved off the grid. It’s a charming town that has attracted a number of artists and outdoors people. The man says that there are disturbing signs of money and development taking over. I don’t say so, but I’m not surprised. All the best places eventually get overrun.
Farther down the trail I see fresh bear tracks in the mud, then some scat. I poke it with the tip of my trekking pole. Yep, fresh all right. Looking around the valley, I recognize it as great bear habitat. Somewhat isolated, lots of fresh willow and other vegetation to munch on, a great stream running through….what’s not to like?
I’m not adverse to running into bears but prefer to spot them across the valley, and not surprise them at close range like I have with my last couple of meetings with bears. Dragging my trekking poles across rocks to make noise, I push into tall stands of willow that tower over my head, hoping that the bear hears me first and flees. Farther down, more bear tracks in the mud, toes still pointing in the same direction that I’m travelling. After a while the tracks run out, and I assume that I’ve passed him.
Not long after, I drop into an aspen forest with initials carved into the tree trunks, and I know that I’ve entered the moron zone and am close to the trailhead and civilization.