Eagles Nest Wilderness, Colorado
Distance: 14.6 miles / 3 Days
Traveled: Eaglesmere Trailhead to Eaglesmere Lake and Upper Cataract Lake
“Mountains, according to the angle of view, the season, the time of day, the beholder’s frame of mind, or any one thing, can effectively change their appearance. Thus, it is essential to recognize that we can never know more than one side, one small aspect of a mountain.”
– Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
I was a little disheartened watching the weather forecast as this hike neared closer. It was now August, the monsoon season was starting to calm down, we had enjoyed a few days straight of sun and no afternoon thunderstorms. Yet, as it can be with my luck, the chance of rain for the day we were supposed to hit the trail kept inching higher and higher, which meant hiking in the rain would not be avoided.
Normally a day of rain wouldn’t be a huge issue, but this backpacking trip was different, and I desperately wanted everything to be awesome. Two old dear friends, Ryan and Heidi, were flying out from California for 3 days of Rocky Mountain backpacking with me, and this was going to be the first backpacking trip for Heidi – which meant I was hoping that the whole experience would end up amazing so as not to scare off a new backpacker (which I believe can be easily done!).
Being still totally new to Colorado, and overwhelmed with the possibilities, I reached out for some advice. I ended up finding an easy loop in the Gore Range that was short on miles, gentle with the elevation, and full of beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery. Looking more into the Gore Range, I quickly learned that it is truly a hidden gem of the Rockies. The Gore’s don’t have any infamous 14ers, and their highest 13er doesn’t even make it into the top 100 (the highest being Mt Powell at 13,580 ft, ranked #145) which means that they often get overlooked. In doing some research online before the trip, I found this great tidbit on a forum:
“The first rule of the Gore Range is you do not talk about the Gore Range.
The second rule of the Gore Range is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE GORE RANGE”
Sounds like my type of place.
And I apologize for talking about the Gore Range.
I wanted to keep the mileage below 6 miles a day, and this loop allowed for a short first day of 3.5 miles and two 5 mile days. Easy. In fact, the only thing I was particularly concerned about, outside of the rain, was boredom. I typically hike about 13-15 mile days when backpacking so I wasn’t entirely sure what we would do with all of that extra time….but, it proved to be perfect. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
After sitting in some traffic through Idaho Springs, we finally made it to the Eaglesmere Lakes Trailhead at about 10:30am. There was a light drizzle, but overall just a grey gloomy sky overhead.
We started out immediately launching into a beautiful aspen forest. Towering mature aspens, with lush wildflowers and bright green undergrowth. The grey sky didn’t even matter.
We broke out of the trees after a mile or so and views opened up to Eagles Nest Peak, Lower Cataract Lake, and Cataract Falls pouring down from above. It was also just about this time that the rain started – our rain jackets and pack covers went on and we kept on moving. I was so nervous that Heidi’s first day backpacking would turn into a soggy, cold, journey – but thankfully the rain didn’t last long, and even with the rain, the forest around us was so beautiful that we still were having an incredible time. The trail kept climbing through the aspens, and carving through hillside meadows of purple, yellow, pink and white wildflowers. And just as we hit the intersection with the Gore Trail, the sun came out!
With my friends coming from essentially sea level, we were definitely taking our time. I was beyond impressed though with how well they were doing. I kept thinking of when we were living in Santa Barbara and I would head to the Sierras I would start sucking serious wind around 6,000 ft…and at about 8,500 ft I would get heart palpitations. For hiking above 9,000 ft they were doing incredible.
At about 1:30 we made it to Eaglesmere Lakes. I had never gotten into camp so early when backpacking before, and admittedly it felt pretty great to have the whole evening ahead of us to relax.
The sky was blue and the temperature was perfect. We wandered around the edges of the lakes to try and find an ideal spot, and settled on a site on the thin strip of land that separated the two lakes. Lakefront property. We set up our tents, but as Ryan went to get water from the lakes he was a little underwhelmed by the ‘floaties’ in his water and the reddish-tinge, so we decided to seek out a better source.
We trudged around the first Eaglesmere Lake to find the creek that fed it, and try and get some water from there. It ended up being a mosquito-filled and boggy trek. We found the small stream, and Ryan decided to brave the scramble down to get us some clear water. (I ended up getting water from the lake for the rest of the time, and it was totally fine – I used a trick to get rid of the floaties by filtering through my bandana into my Nalgene).
We made some lunch when we got back to camp, and as we were muching, the rumble of thunder started to rise up from somewhere beyond us. This is one of the tricky things about backpacking in the mountains – a storm can be building on the other side of the mountains , and you will have no idea until it’s on top of you. The clouds rolled in pretty quickly and the rain came back with it, so we all got in our tents for a little siesta while we waited it out. Thankfully, the storm itself never passed directly over us, and the light rain only lasted for a couple hours.
By 7:30 the rain stopped, but unfortunately the mosquitos got busy. We slathered ourselves with bug repellant and tried to sit around and start dinner. I was using this trip to test some of the homemade dehydrated food I was going to be using on the John Muir Trail to make sure it rehydrated well, and figure out what the hydration time would be. Dinner was Curried Chickpeas. I also realized then that I had forgotten my titanium fork at home in the kitchen sink. Bummer. Thankfully, I was not solo on this trip and I could borrow one of their forks…otherwise I would be sucking my curry out of a Ziploc bag.
While eating dinner and swatting at mosquitos, we noticed a big group of backpackers had set up camp on the other side of the lake from us and had a raging campfire going…despite the multitude of “No Campfire” signs everywhere. Blatant disregard for things like this usually really gets under my skin…but in this case I was annoyed because it looked SO NICE to sit by a roaring campfire. There was also a giant (and very well-used) fire pit right in the center of our campsite that was beckoning us. Obviously, ignoring these rules was not uncommon. Though I shouldn’t admit it, we decided to try and start a fire. It obviously was not meant to be though, because all of the gatherable wood was too wet from the rain.. It’s for the better. I always try to follow the regulations of the wilderness (because I believe they exist for good reason), and with my luck I would have accidently started some raging forest fire. Not worth it.
Once we abandoned the idea of a fire, we decided to just retire to our tents, as the mosquitos were becoming relentless with the setting sun. At sunset I did sneak out of my tent for a bit though to catch the beautiful sunset. I then retired to my tent for good for the night. It was nice to have such a rare and relaxing day in the wilderness, and to have so much time in camp. Usually I’m just rolling into camp around sunset with little time to really spend there just basking in my surroundings, so it was a nice change of pace to have more of a camping vs. hiking experience.
The next morning I was up before sunrise….lying in my tent watching mosquitos bounce around on the screen of my tent knowing they were wishing they could devour me. When the sun creeped up, I finally ventured out of my tent to catch the sunrise and hopefully see some sort of early morning wildlife (to which I saw none). Steam was rising high off the glassy lakes, and as lakeside mornings typically are – it was incredibly peaceful.
After coming back from this trip and going through my photos, I realized something really special about this experience. As I rarely spend much time in one spot in the backcountry, I rarely get to see the different ‘faces’ of a place. Seasons, time of day, weather – the wilderness is constantly shifting and is never stagnant. It never looks the same for long. I realized that in the time we spent at Eaglesmere Lakes I managed to capture so many different faces of it. I felt privileged in some way. These are the different sides of her that we saw:
Ryan and Heidi slept in long past sunrise, and as we had only 5 miles to do that day, I was in no rush to wake them up. The previous trips I had been on I was usually rushing out of camp before sunrise to make my miles (or get in miles before the heat of the day) – so I took advantage of the leisurely morning and made my morning oatmeal and boiled water for tea. As the water boiled, I plotted out a perfect breakfast moment – in a mere few minutes I would be sitting on a boulder on the shore of the steamy morning lake…quietly savoring warm oatmeal and a hot tea. Then I remembered I had no fork. And I was not going to wake up my friends over a fork (or the lack of a fork). My romantic-breakfast-moment then quickly went out the window as I sat on the shore of the lake and tried to figure out how to suck my oatmeal out of a Ziploc bag without getting it all over my face. I ended up wearing more breakfast than eating it. Right about that time the mosquitos came back. Bastards.
Eventually we all awoke, and took our time drying out our tents and packing up. We found our way back to the trail by 11:00, and with a short day with little elevation gain there was little pressure. It was downhill back to the Gore Trail, which we followed for about 4 miles. The trail was beautiful that day – the sun was out, the skies were deep blue, we passed lush green meadows with winding creeks, and oh the wildflowers….
By the time we hit the trail to take us up to Upper Cataract Lake, we were starting to feel the heat of the day…and that last mile up to the lake felt relentless and unending. We were all feeling it. My shoulder was killing me, and Heidi’s new hiking boots were starting to cause her some grief. The trail climbed and climbed and climbed. Finally we reached the top and views opened up dramatically to Cat Lake and Eagles Nest. It’s amazing how a view can make all pains disappear…this was one of those. The trail turned into an easily nagivated tallus field, dotted with blue and white columbines everywhere…after two days of walking through the forest, it was nice to be on a mountain-side.
The spot we ended up snagging at Upper Cataract Lake was incredible. The lake sat in a steep hanging valley, and with the steep mountainside dropping right into the water, the spots were limited – but it also meant that our spot was right on the water. Typically Leave No Trace ethics call for no camping within 100 ft of water, but obviously this lake didn’t allow for that…which meant that our tents were about 2 feet from the water….with incredible views of Eagles Nest peak looming over the lake. It was incredible.
The water was clear and fish were jumping everywhere. Ryan got the courage to actually jump in, while Heidi and I decided to just go lay on a rock in the sun and soak our feet. I had brought a deck of cards, so we played a few rounds of Rummy, ate some lunch, and when the mosquitos became unbearable we all retired to our tents for another afternoon nap. Backpacking and napping I realized is a wonderful combination.
We woke again at sunset and made some dinner. The sunset was incredible. Ryan noticed that the silhouette of the trees and the reflection of the water looked like a heartbeat or sound waves. Pretty awesome.
The next morning those bastard mosquitos were back and I lay in my tent and rolled up the awning of my Lightheart Gear Solo tent and admired the view of the sunrise on Eagles Nest from the bug-free comfort of my sleeping bag. This morning we moved a bit faster to get out of camp – showers were calling, and we had to get back home to Denver in time to meet friends for dinner. We were taking off for our last 5 miles by 9:00am, and other than the initial .5 mile climb, the rest of the trek was downhill.
Unfortunately, Heidi’s feet were not happy and I felt so bad for her because the never-ending downhill offered her poor feet no relief. We stopped briefly at Surprise Lake, and then shortly after we were back in the lush aspen and wildflower-filled forest. Unfortunately, I was some sort of magnet for mosquitos that day and that beautiful lush aspen forest was also infested with mosquitos, and they were so bad that I told Ryan and Heidi I would have to meet them at the bottom because it seemed that nearly running was the only way to avoid being eaten alive. I took off at that point essentially running the last 1.5 miles to the trailhead. By the time Ryan and Heidi caught up with me, her feet were killing her. Her boots came off the second we hit the parking lot, and I ended up being able to hitch a ride back the half-mile or so back to our van at the starting trailhead.
Despite the painful feet, and the mosquito bites, and the 2.5 hours of traffic we sat in getting back to Denver on I-70 – this trip ended up feeling perfect. The Gore Range truly proved to be a hidden gem, I got to spend time with some of my favorite people and slow down a bit, and more importantly Heidi had a blast – which means a new backpacker was successfully born! Hi-five! That alone makes every second of the trip epic and awesome.
I hope you’ll forgive me for talking about the Gore Range.