Proof that winter is approaching at Chicago Lakes!
Mileage: Approximately 9 miles round trip to the upper lake
Altitude: 11, 740 feet at upper lake
Elevation Gain: 1,750 feet
To Get There: Take I-70 to exit 240 at Idaho Springs. Head south on Highway 103 toward Mt. Evans and park at the Echo Lake Lodge.
It is an unbelievable October day in Colorado: short sleeves weather and not a single cloud threatening an afternoon storm. The Echo Lake trail is fairly crowded and even once we branch off onto the Chicago Lakes trail there are intermittent greetings from people like us who are clinging onto these last pre-snow days.
Starting out with a friend that I haven’t seen in months means there are seemingly endless things to discuss, and we fall into a rhythm of habitual hiking. The trail passes roadside Echo Lake and then begins to climb gradually. It then levels out briefly and then begins to drop steeply down the hillside. At the bottom- after a simple creek crossing- we reach an unrelentingly steep, straight road that goes to the Idaho Springs Reservoir. Once past the reservoir, the trail is to the right and continues to climb and then level out and then climb some more. I mention that it feels like a long three miles to the lower lake and my friend replies that distance is debatable according to all the different trail descriptions she read. Finally we see the lower lake from above: big and green below gray granite. We continue on and the trail reaches its steepest point on the way to the upper lake. The distance is short and it doesn’t feel like long before we are at the top, a little breathless in the tundra wind. The upper lake is at the bottom of a steep ridge that the wind seems to come sweeping off of. Here we can remember that it’s no longer summer. It’s about 3 o’ clock and the sun is starting to slide behind the ridge. The rocks around the edge of the lake are crusted in rippling ice patterns. We put our jackets back on as we take pictures and sit briefly in the wind to eat chocolate.
Sources: http://www.thecohiker.com/colorado-hiking-trails/colorado-mountains-central/chicago-lakes, http://www.trails.com/tcatalog_trail.aspx?trailid=HGR320-051, http://www.utahtrails.com/Colorado%20pages/ChicagoLakes.html
Mileage: 7.8 miles roundtrip
Altitude: 9,609 feet at trailhead, 12,236 feet at Devil’s Thumb
Elevation gain: 2,627 feet
To get there: On Hwy 40 out of Fraser, turn right onto County Road 8 and follow this for 6.4 miles. CR 8 turns into FSR 128 (Water Board Road). Turn left and continue for 1.1 miles. Turn right and continue for 0.3 miles where the road ends at a spillway. Park on the side of the road.
“I’ve never wanted to switch places with someone so badly,” a woman says to us as we come down the Devil’s Thumb trail. The trail is rocky and rooty, and without an abundance of switchbacks. She is huffing and puffing, just as we were on our way up.
We hiked uphill in the damp, cold shade for most of the fall morning; the dichotomy of cold air and a rise in body temperature always makes me uneasy, and I have to stop to adjust my layers multiple times. My appendages are stiff and lethargic once the sun is high enough to break up the monogamous shadow on the forest floor. Soon after, we leave the trees behind and our climb continues in the short grasses and squat willow bushes of the familiar tundra. The willow branches brush my bare calves as they threaten to take over the narrow trail. Cottony seed parachutes cling to the naked branches, something I’ve never seen before and had to ask for an explanation of.
Close to the Continental Divide the trail peters out. We can see the top of Devil’s Thumb to the left and we head towards it. The base of it, we realize, is on the other side of the Divide ridge we are alone on. From atop this ridge we yell just to hear our own echoes off the thumb and its inferior neighboring crags. We find a nook out of the wind and linger in the sun. I stare for so long at the lake below us that it begins to shimmer, as if the water is not water but a blanket of twinkling holiday lights instead.
Instead of leaving the tundra on the same path we came up on, Alex pulls me on an off-trail adventure across the ridge, over boulders, and down a steep slope back to the tree line trail. However begrudgingly I begin off-trail travel, I always enjoy having done it. Another windy day on the tundra. Another place that only our feet can take us too. Another rolling conversation. Another Saturday in Grand County!
Hiking details from ‘Hiking Grand County, Colorado: A Backcountry Guide to Winter Park, James Peak Area, Fraser Valley, Indian Peaks, Never Summer Range, Troublesome Valley, Williams Fork Mountains, Vasquez Mountains, and Beyond’ by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.