Mileage: 14.4 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 2,000 feet
Altitude: 8,300 feet at trailhead, 10,300 feet at lake
To get there: Take Highway 40 through Winter Park, Fraser, Tabernash and Granby. Turn onto Highway 34 toward Grand Lake. Turn right onto the road for Arapahoe Bay and Monarch Lake, before the town of Grand Lake. Park at Monarch Lake. **Be sure to obtain an Indian Peaks permit at the National Forest office in Granby.
Some people say there’s nothing like fear to make you move quickly. In this case, there was nothing like fear to make me move slowly. Very slowly. What was I afraid of? A dry socket. We embarked on an overnight trip to Crater Lake 5 days after I’d gotten my wisdom teeth pulled. And, according to the oral surgeon’s assistant, I’d been doing much wrong up to this point: icing too often and using the syringe too early. Not to mention breaking the ‘no heavy lifting for a week’ rule when I went to work and lifted toddlers all day 4 days after the surgery.
So, as we set out I was nervous about the strength of my blood clots and feared that the smallest bit of heart-thumping terrain would send a clot bursting out of the socket. I think this has to be on record as the slowest hike ever. Well, except for maybe descending into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison [LINK] last summer. When it was all said and done it took us about 6 hours to hike the 7.2 miles-and gain 2,000 feet elevation- up to the lake. Needless to say we really enjoyed the scenery.
The trail starts at Monarch Lake, which is a destination in itself. It is backed by craggy Indian Peaks Wilderness and is surrounded by thick forest, which is almost miraculous considering the rampant Pine Beetle kill in Grand County. Despite the popularity of the Monarch Lake Loop the trail was pretty quiet; the birds were chattering continuously, Cascade Creek was babbling in the distance, and soon we heard footsteps behind us. Hoof-steps, rather. Looking back we saw a female deer following close behind us. We’d take a few steps and she’d take a few steps. We’d stop and she’d stop. It went on like this, the deer following us like some friendly dog, until she got a little too close for comfort and Alex made just a little noise to scare her off.
On the backside of Monarch Lake we took the proper split in the trail toward Crater Lake and were soon hiking on one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever been on. The forest was green and lush, with big-leafed shade plants dominating the forest floor. Red, purple, white, and yellow wildflowers were starting to bloom. The Aspens and willows along the way had me aching already to come back here in September. And the higher up we went the better the cascade waterfalls got. The name ‘Cascade Creek’ is fitting; at points it seemed that the whole creek was just one waterfall after another.
The first three campsites in the area are below the lakes so we continued up and
soon reached Mirror Lake, where we had the choice to go left for sites 4 through 7 or right for sites 8 through 12. We went left in search of site 7 and, after a questionable stream crossing, reached this pristine site at the end of the trail. We were on the same side of the lake as the dramatically pointy Lone Eagle Peak (sites on the other side of the lake may have better views of the peak) and could crane our necks up at it or look across the lake at steep rock terraces that host countless waterfalls that flow into Crater Lake. Along this steep hill are areas of lush plant life, and at the top are more of Indian Peaks jagged and geometric rock formations.
We are in and out of the tent as the sky spits rain on and off. Our site is only a few steps from the lake, and we find a good, flat rock for sitting, reading, fishing off of, and cooking on. Without too much to do it’s easy to spend the evening and the next morning relaxing thoroughly next to the lake, enjoying the sounds of waterfalls and birds and taking in the backcountry stillness.
Hiking Info from Hiking Grand County, Colorado by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.