Mt. Evans Wilderness, CO
Distance: 6.5 miles
Traveled: Traveled: Chicago Lakes Trail (6,234′)
“Hushed now is the life that so late was beating warmly. Most of the birds have gone down below the snow-line, the plants sleep, and all the fly-wings are folded. Yet the sun beams gloriously many a cloudless day in midwinter, casting long lance shadows athwart the dazzling expanse.”
– John Muir, Mountains of California
I had every intention of turning right at the bottom of my street, but instead, I pulled a sudden left from the right-hand lane. Change of plans.
I’m famous for maneuvers like this. I decide at the last second to turn left instead of right, to keep going, or turn around. Actually, no one (other than myself) knows how famous for this I am – because the only time I can get away with this sort of spontaneity is when I’m alone. And, often, when it comes to outdoor adventure, I am alone.
Really, this is a big reason when it comes to hiking and backpacking that I choose to venture out solo. Complete freedom.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the company of good friends on a backpacking trip or jaunting up a mountain, but I often love the freedom and flexibility of being (largely) in charge of my own fate even more. Admittedly, I don’t much relish in the making of set-in-stone plans. Usually, my ideal plans are something along the lines of: I am going to go hiking tomorrow, I plan on going to one of four places that I have been eyeing (unless, of course, when looking over the map right before walking out the door else strikes my fancy), I will get to the trailhead somewhere around the time of sunrise, or perhaps, I’ll wake up and the weather will be shitty and I’ll decide to go tomorrow instead.
That’s how I prefer to operate. It’s how most of my best stories and adventures have begun. My backpacking trip along the Tuolumne River in Yosemite was a classic example of this: I was in my car, backpacking gear in my backseat, sitting at the stoplight before the freeway onramp and I had to decide if I was going to head left and go backpacking in Yosemite, or right and head to Zion. Two very different places and directions.
I went left. Maybe that’s the golden rule. When in doubt, turn left (or if it’s between the Sierras and somewhere else…always pick the Sierras).
So, I made my abrupt left, and heeded the call of the Mt Evans Wilderness.
The weather had been beautiful at our house at 8500’, but I know well that weather nearer to the Continental Divide and the high country is usually much different. Sure enough, rounding up Squaw Pass, the wind raced with such force that my car wavered along the road. I had decided I would give the 9 mile hike to Chicago Lakes another try (I had attempted it last winter, but the weather had other plans), but if the wind was this fierce at the trailhead I’d be happier turning around.
Getting out of my car at Echo Lake, the wind was a bit calmer (meaning not bad enough to warrant me heading home). The snow pack was not looking very impressive in the area, after the warm, and relatively dry, weeks before. I doubted if my snowshoes would be warranted. Rather than regret not bringing them, I strapped them to my pack just in case.
I walked across frozen Echo Lake towards the Chicago Lakes trailhead, and was surprised to find the snow deeper than I expected and needed to stop and put on my snowshoes.
The trail rolls through some forest for a bit before opening up to a beautiful view of Mt Evans, Mt Spalding, and the Chicago Lakes basin. The path here is narrowly cut into a steep cliff face, and as I expected, the snow was scarce, and I swapped out my snowshoes for microspikes.
From here, the trail switchbacks steeply downhill to a stream crossing. This section is the only downside to this trail: starting out with such a steep downhill means you end with a steep uphill.
After crossing the bridge over the creek, you hike along a road for about a mile until you reach the Idaho Springs Reservoir. There were a bunch of people snowshoeing on this section of the trail (though snowshoes were definitely not needed, and were likely more effort than they were worth). Most people in the winter hike to the reservoir and turn around, and as I continued past the reservoir on the trail to the lakes I found that I was the only one on that section of the trail that day as it was buried under deep snow drifts and there were no other footprints to be found. I would have to locate the trail from here on.
The howling wind was back with a vengeance. Last year I experienced the same relentless winds when I hit this spot on the trail – fierce cold wind driving across the frozen lake. I’m guessing that this is quite common for this area in the winter – the Chicago Lakes Basin acting as a tunnel for the winds coming off of Mt Evans.
I trudged along where I remember the trail being, and as I headed across the Mt Evans Wilderness boundary the trail became a bit easier to find (though I was still largely going on memory).
From here, the trail steadily heads uphill, with views of dramatic rock walls looming above.
Though snow wasn’t in the forecast, clouds began to quickly move in and it began to snow a bit (not like the weather forecast up here is ever anything to rely on). The winds picked up as well and the temperature dropped dramatically. I was getting slightly chilly, and having to constantly search for the trail was beginning to grow old.
After passing though a couple beautiful clearings, the trail became very difficult to find. Last year I had to turn around because I lost the trail under very similar conditions, and I had a feeling today would likely end the same way.
Sure enough, I climbed a steep hill to a clearing with a beautiful view of Mt Spalding and the trail disappeared, the snow got very deep, and I started to get too cold to care much about fighting my way up to the lakes without the comfort of a trail. I had to be somewhat close to the lower lake, but the clouds were getting more serious-looking, so for the second time on this trail I decided to raise my white flag and head back. Perhaps I am just not meant to see Chicago Lakes in the winter (though, knowing winter in these mountains, they were probably buried under several feet of snow anyway).
Having my footprints to follow, made the hike back down quite quick. Crossing the bridge and reaching the bottom of the steep climb back up to Echo Lake, I knew I needed some fuel in my system to push myself up the last switchbacks. I stopped for a bit and ate a ProBar and drank some water and then pushed up the mountainside.
Getting back to my car the wind was brutal – flinging my car doors around, and seeping in through my “windproof” clothing. I couldn’t have jumped in my car any quicker to get out of it.
I decided on the way home that I give up on Chicago Lakes Basin as a winter hike, and I’ll save it for the warmer, greener days of summer where the trail is obvious and the wind is surely not as fierce.
Maybe I should have turned right afterall?