Last Tuesday through Saturday, August 23-27, 2011, I finally completed a long loop backback in the Gore Range that I had been eye-balling since I moved to Frisco four years ago.
Here’s a recap of this unforgettable experience.
Day 1: North Tenmile to Eccles Pass
This was an easy head-start day. I hiked in about 3pm from my home in Frisco. Max (my border collie / aussie pup) and I started up the North Tenmile Trail like we have a hundred times before. I had loaded my heavy 45-pound pack two days before and after hiking up the trail for about 15 minutes, I stopped cold realizing that the lighters I had bought earlier that morning were still sitting on my kitchen counter at home. I was pretty annoyed with myself, but I hid my pack in the woods and jogged back to the house, hoping this wasn’t a bad omen for the days ahead.
So finally about 4pm I was realy on my way. I hiked fast and reached Meadow Creek (roughly 7 miles in) near Eccles Pass about 6:30pm and set up camp. I didn’t sleep that great because I was so excited for my first big day on Wednesday.
Day 2: Eccles Pass to Upper Piney Lake
I was on the trail a few minutes before 8am and headed directly over Eccles and Red Buffalo passes to get into the Gore Creek drainage. To make this circumnavigation work, I would hike all the way down the Gore Creek trail and through East Vail civilization for three miles to link up with the Booth Creek trail that would take me back into the wilderness for the duration of the trip.
Even though I’ve hiked Gore Creek from Red Buffalo pass before, I still had some trouble finding the switchbacking trail down the pass. My pack was still super-heavy with 6 days of food (I thought I might not get out until Sunday) so I wasn’t feeling that great hiking down the steep trail. Not long after I reached Gore Creek itself I decided to stop and eat a large batch of trisquits, cheese, and salami. I felt better after this and hiked all the way to Vail before resting again.
It was about 12:30pm when I reached the Gore Creek trailhead. I needed to filter water and eat a decent lunch so stopped for a good while. I had hoped I might be able to hitchhike to the Booth Creek trailhead, but I didn’t see a single pickup truck at the trailhead and I didn’t think anyone would let my wet dog inside their car, so I resigned myself to hiking the boring pavement.
Started up the Booth Creek Trail about 2:15pm. I had still hiked this portion of the route before so I was really just trying to gut it out and get to Booth Lake where everything would become a new experience. I finally reached the lake about 5pm after cursing my heavy pack the entire way up that climb.
I ate another snack at Booth Lake and started looking at the map to figure out where East Booth Pass might be over to Piney Lake. Two years ago I attempted this loop and got off-track trying to find West Booth Pass before I had ever reached the lake. I saw a little green chute that looked reasonable to climb so I decided to try that to see if the tarn was up there that Jim Gabriel had told me to look for. Once into that chute I noticed a cairn so I fugured I was on the right track. Soon enough I came across the tarn and as Jim said, East Booth Pass was fairly obvious.
It was getting later than I’d hoped so I kept pushing up through the exhaustion. Towards the top I noticed three goats very close-by that were monitoring my progress. Once I reached the top I was ecstatic to see Upper Piney Lake shining in the sunlight below, just where I’d hoped she’d be. The descent was not easy, especially with my heavy pack. Max gave me a wide birth because he quickly learned that I was kicking large rocks down towards him.
I saw a patch of trees where I suspected I would find a camp, and sure-enough it was there. It was getting late so I threw my tent down, filtered some water, and ate a fine dinner of Buffalo Chicken backpacker meal and peanut M&M’s. I didn’t even have much time to explore the lake at all – that would have to wait until morning.
Day 3: I slept a lot better that night since I was so tired. I think I had hiked about 17-20 miles the day before. This would become the typical mileage from what I can tell.
After breaking camp I hiked over to the beautiful peninsula that almost divides Upper Piney Lake. I spent about 20 minutes soaking in the scenery and taking pictures, but I had learned the day before that the mileage on this hike was going to be huge. To reach my camps, this would become much more like an adventure race than a beautiful hike in the wilderness. I had to keep a move-on.
My next goal was to hike to Piney Lake for lunch. I pushed through the myriad of braided trails as best I could before one would disappear and I would have to search for the next one. I’m not at all sure that I took the proper trail down the upper part of this drainage, but eventually I did reach the “official” trail where things became easier.
My one almost serious mishap occurred on a steep sandy section about 30 feet above the bank when I slipped and started sliding down the slope to the river. I had visions of tumbling all the way down to the rocks below, but I was able to slam my hands and feet into the sand and arrest my fall. I scraped up my left hand fairly good, but it could have been much worse. Adrenaline flowing, I pushed on down the trail.
Ate lunch on the banks of the Piney River near Piney Lake. It felt wonderful to put my sandals on and sit in the lake for a bit. The sun was bright and hot, so I soacked my shirt in the lake before taking off again.
Next I would climb the Marugg Creek (called Soda Lakes on my map) trail up and over Elliott Ridge to camp somewhere near Cataract Creek. This steep trail was almost completely overgrown. Once it finally reached the pine forest it became easier to follow. Finally I reached a wet, grassy meadow where there was no longer any discernable trail to folow at all. I knew the Meadow Creek trail was somewhere to my left so since I had to bushwack I decided to go that way. After awhile I did find a trail and when I followed it to the junction, it turned out that I was on the Meadow Creek trail after all.
Few more minutes and I reached the junction of the trail over Elliott’s Ridge. This trail was a very old double-track that switch-backed over the far west side of the Gore Range. I was not liking the looks of the clouds, but I hadn’t seen a good camp or water source in a long time so I reluctantly kept hiking up, as fast as I could possibly go.
Finally I reached the top of Elliott’s Ridge and I stood mesmerized by the views of Eagles Nest and Mt. Powell. I wished I could have explored longer up there, but it soon started thundering and sleeting, so I began running. There was no real trail, but I could see wooden trail markers so I just ran straight for those.
It sleeted hard for about 45 minutes, but I finally got low enough to where I wasn’t too scared of the lighting. I needed to filter water badly so once I felt safe, I stopped at a small creek and reloaded.
I had planned to attempt to climb Mt. Powell from this side the next morning. The contour lines on my topo map seemed to indicate it might be possible from Cataract Creek. But after looking up at Mt. Powell and knowing how long the simple mileage of this trek was taking, I decide to nix that idea and get down the trail as far as I could. Mirror Lake became my goal.
I was hustling as fast as I could to reach Mirror Lake. After barely reaching Upper Piney Lake before dark the night before, I really wanted some time to enjoy camp and eat a more liesurely dinner. I got to Mirror Lake about 6:15pm and was happy that I would have almost 2 hours of light to play around. But it was not to be.
Boom! Thunder. Pouring Rain. I set up my tent as fast as I could and tossed everything inside. Max and I waited out a fairly intense thunderstorm before it gave me a brief reprieve right at dusk. I was starving and wanted to eat one of the heavier meals in my pack, so I jumped out and cooked a delicious meal of Tuna w/ shells and cheese before the deulge began again. That’s one thing I learned on this trip: I could eat shells and cheese for every dinner!
It rained hard until late that night and I enjoyed a constant light show through the roof of my tent before finally falling soundly asleep.
Day 4: I thought I had moved ahead of schedule, but this would be short-lived when I could not lcate the real trail leaving Upper Cataract Lake. I spent 45 minutes searching for it before finally deciding to bushwack. I knew if I kept the mountainside close on my right and didn’t descend too far then I would eventually hit the Gore Range trail as a worst-case scenario.
This bushwacking took forever. The blowdown was constant. I kept telling myself to be extra-careful because an injury in there and noone would find me for a long, long time. Kindof scary, but I also like that feeling, and its a major reason why I love exploring in the Gore Range.
I finally found the faintest hint of a trail, and was relieved to even see two cairns when I came to a very confusing rockfall / gully crossing. At least I knew some human had been there and was kind enough to direct me to the next section of “trail.”
Eventually I did come out on the Gore Range trail near Tippery Lake, but I had wasted at least two hours.
I ate fast and kept moving. The Gore Range trail is maintained much better than anything I had been on previously, so the spaces on my map were passing by much more quickly.
Surprise Lake…. Black Creek Drainage… past the Lost Lake Trail… I was moving fast with a lighter pack. It rained hard for awhile and I was soacked from head-to-toe, but I was happy to be making some distance back up.
Again running when I could, I began to zero-in on Slate Creek. I had camped there a few years before with some fishermen friends of mine and I knew of a great outfitters camp. Once I reached it the outfitters were there though! I searched around and found another good camp on the north side of Slate Creek. More shells and cheese and I slept like baby.
This was the first night that Max stayed inside the tent all night. He curled up next to me and didn’t move until first light.
Day 5: I wondered if I could get home today. I got up earlier and was on the trail just after 7am. I probably felt stronger than I had all trip, other than my acheing feet.
Before long I was past Boulder Creek, Rock Creek, South Rock Creek, and I had reached the trailhead for Willow Lakes at 1pm. My original plan was to camp at Willow Lakes and climb over Red Peak the next morning to reach Frisco via Eccles Pass. Thunderstorms were not going to allow me to try that route unless I camped, and I didn’t want to wait around all day, so I decided to continue on the Gore Range trail all the way to Mesa Cortina and to head home via the Lily Pad Lake Trail.
I was just gutting it out at this point. My feet were screaming. I think I was delerious because I hiked about 500 unneccessary verticle feet up Buffalo Mountain because I got confused trying to scoot over to the Lily Pad Lake Trailhead.
Finally I got out at Meadow Creek and had to hike a mile along the highway to reach home.
I had a blast. This trip was grueling though. The high mileage didn’t allow much time for sight-seeing. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t see Willow Lakes, but they will still be there for me. Now that I’ve gotten this loop out of my system, I plan to start heading into some of those awesome drainages and climbing some peaks.