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Midway Lake 1

As my quest to hike in every wilderness area in Colorado continues my sights were set on an overnighter in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness.  It is one of the few remaining wilderness areas within a three-hour drive from home that I had yet to visit, and a fairly significant one at that.  It is 82,729 acres (slightly larger than the Indian Peaks Wilderness).  It’s eastern boundary is the Continental Divide and then there is another 30,540 acres designated as the Mount Massive Wilderness.  The Mount Massive Wilderness, apparently, was never intended to be designated as a separate wilderness from the Hunter Fryingpan.  According to The Complete Guide to Colorado’s Wilderness Areas by John Fielder and Mark Pearson, the Mount Massive designation was intended to be added on to the Hunter Fryingpan in 1980, but a technical error resulted in the designation of a separately named wilderness unit.  Nevertheless, only the high and wild Continental Divide separates the two, so the combined area is really one contiguous wilderness of over 112,000 acres.

A little creative map reading can go a long way in finding opportunities for solitude even in well used areas.  With snow flying outside my window in the middle of winter I had my topo map of the Hunter Fryingpan sprawled across a table.  I tapped a finger on a small lake with an uninteresting name – Midway Lake.  What caught my attention is that it was about a mile or so off of a designated trail and the contour lines of my map indicated a possible gentle cross-country traverse from Midway Pass to the lake.  I had my hike.

Many months later I roll into the Lost Man Trailhead parking area at 10,500 feet on the west side of Independence Pass.  It’s a popular trailhead but most hikers take the short walk to Lost Man Reservoir.  I head the other way up a couple dozen steep switchbacks towards Midway Pass and soon reach the high point of the trail at nearly 12,200 feet for a 1,700 foot climb in about two miles.  As the highway noise from the pass recedes, views of the rugged Elk Mountains come into view to the west – the Maroon Bells, Castle Peak, Snowmass Mountain.  It looks pretty wild and I’ll be headed to that area in a few weeks, but for now I’m on my way to Midway Lake.

Nearing the pass I merge with a pack of day hikers:  A young couple from France, an older foursome, and a couple of ladies hiking with an older woman who I’m impressed made it up the 1,700 foot climb.  Suddenly I realize that I don’t think I locked my car!  I rationalize that it’s probably perfectly fine. But, since I happen to be near some hikers who will be headed back tonight, I ask the two ladies ahead of me if they wouldn’t mind checking my car when they get back.  Of course they are happy to do so, and my mind is at ease again.

All the day hikers stop at a beautiful little tarn just above timberline with views of the Elks in one direction and the Collegiate Peaks in the other.  Ah, Colorado!  I continue, alone.  The trail traverses above timberline, then descends gently to Midway Pass before dropping gradually into the head of a valley.  Here I get that wonderful sense of transitioning from the edge of the wilderness into the heart of it.  I look around and everything is so clear–the bright green grass, the dark green forest, the gray boulders.  All of it is so vivid and fantastic.

There’s a rainbow cloud in the sky!  Scientifically known as an iridescent cloud, it is a wisp of purple, green, yellow and orange.  It complements the landscape nicely.

Rainbow Cloud in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

Rainbow Cloud in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

My view of the distant Elk Range is now blocked by a pointy peak across the valley.  This peak is about 13,000 feet and appears to be unnamed.  Looking at my map there seems to be quite a few unnamed peaks in this wilderness area.  I like that.  Not every significant landmark needs a label in the wilderness.

Unnamed 13,000 foot peak in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

Unnamed 13,000 foot peak in the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness

The trail disappears, but I find the usual cairns and a wooden post to mark the way as I head into the head of a valley.  I’m nearing the point where I need to break from the trail to traverse to Midway Lake, which I cannot see, but know it is a mile to the northwest over a slight rise and then down a slope.

I step off trail.  Cross country route finding, when deliberate, is exhilarating, especially when solo.  Senses heightened, my course is carefully considered with every step.  Extra caution is taken to avoid a trip or a slip or a fall into a hole.  I skirt a rock outcropping and crest the slight rise onto a broad bench.  A new world opens up as the surface of the bench holds a series of tarns and marshes unseen from the trail.  I pick my way between reflective pools of water and begin to drop down a forested slope on the other side.  Negotiating some deadfall and some rocky ledges, I drop a couple hundred feet and emerge into an expansive rock-studded green meadow.  Finally, the lake is revealed across the meadow, shimmering in the sunshine.

And, what a beautiful lake it is!  The unnamed peak, from a new vantage point, is now accompanied by a companion nameless peak, gracing this little basin and lake with perfect, pleasant guardianship.

Midway Lake 3

I brought a light fishing rod not knowing if there were any trout in Midway Lake.  I quickly realized that this lake does not hold any trout, the outlet being a marsh, providing too little oxygenation for high country trout.  But, I don’t care one bit.  There’s a nice flat rock at water’s edge and I intend to lounge on that rock and enjoy a rare blue sky afternoon in the Rockies in late July.  What a treat!

While Midway Lake holds no fish, it does hold what I assume to be leeches!  I watch several of these jet black two or three-inch long creatures flutter around in the water.  They seem to feed off some algae so I figure if I put my feet in the cool clear water, they will ignore them.  So I recline on my rock with my feet blissfully dipped in the water.  Moments later something tickles the bottom of my foot and I shoot up like a rocket and see one of those leeches fluttering in the water where my feet were.  I pull up a thick stalk of grass and use it to flip the creature out of the water onto my rock.  It coils up like a pill bug, but I force it to uncoil and see the tiny suction mouth as it flaps helplessly before I flick it back in the water.  The things kind of creep me out.  Right now I see only a handful of them, but later at dusk I will look down in the water and see hundreds of them.

My campsite is glorious near the shores of Midway Lake and the weather is perfect.  This is what solitude in the Rocky Mountain Wilderness looks like when I dream of it during the winter.

Midway Lake Campsite

At night, a blue moon rises into the sky and it’s incredibly bright.  I keep the door of my tent open and look out across the meadow, washed in the grey light of the moon.  I could hike through the night with this moon without any need for my own light.  That moon!  I look over towards the Williams Mountains to the east.  dissipating cumulus clouds, white and fluffy and bright, hang over the next valley.  It’s like a fairy tale land.

In the morning I’m in no hurry to leave.  It’s only a four mile hike out, the way I came.  Finally, maybe ten o’clock, I reluctantly leave this paradise and dive back into the forest across the meadow.  Climbing through the trees I see the largest pile of bear poop ever.  It looks like someone dumped a five gallon bucket of poop there in the forest.  It was either a very large bear or it found a food jackpot and ate too much.  It was fairly recent, too–perhaps a day or two old.  A little farther up the hill there is a clear bear track in some semi-soft dirt (front paw), also fairly recent.

So long big bear.  I’m headed back home.

 

 

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Soaring dramatically from the plains of Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain rises from 7,600 to 12,347 feet…  Its summit is the highest point in the Wilderness, and nowhere else in the state provides such a vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains…Unusual for Colorado, Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness has no lakes and no towering alpine peaks–and, consequently, few human visitors.

Source:  Wilderness.net

A vivid and dramatic change from plains to mountains.  That is the unique characteristic of the 23,087 acres of Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.  There are hundreds of higher peaks in Colorado, but few as prominent in their surroundings as Greenhorn, the apex of Southern Colorado’s Wet Mountains.  The summit is only about six linear miles from the edge of the Great Plains.

The East Bartlet Trailhead, just up the hill from the pretty down of Rye, borders private property to the east and national forest to the west.  A sign at the property reads “NO TRESPASSING.  SURVIVORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” I decide not to take a picture of that sign as I pull into the dirt parking area to find only two other vehicles, one of them occupied by a woman reading a book.  It’s 3:00 pm on a Friday.

“You’re going to run into 40 girls pretty soon, just to let you know,” says the woman in the car. “They are hiking over from the other side of the range.”  When she says “girls” I’m not sure what that means–actual girls, like kids, or “girls” as in a bunch of grown women?  Either way I thank her for the “warning” and step onto the Bartlett Trail and into the San Isabel National Forest towards the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness.

Sure enough, 100 yards up the trail, I hear and then see a long train of teenage girls.  As I step to the side the first few girls just look at me with some surprise and then one finally blurts out with hopeful anticipation: “Are we almost there?” I respond, “Yeah, you’re basically there, it’s just around that curve.” This immediately sets off a commotion of jubilation: “Yesssssss!  Woohooo!  Oh my God I have to pee sooooo bad!”  After the army of teenage girls pass I see no one else in this wilderness on the edge of the plains for the rest of the day.

As far as I can tell there are really only two distinct “destinations” for hikers in the Greenhorn Mountain wilderness.  The first is the summit of Greenhorn Mountain.  I’m not headed there.  I’m on my way to the other destination, Apache Falls, which is a little known waterfall at the end of a little used trail.

I ascend the lower east flank of Greenhorn Mountain on a rocky and sometimes steep trail, first through thickets of Gambel Oak, then into a beautiful mixed forest of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen, and eventually into Spruce and Fir.  I climb about 1,300 feet in a couple miles and every so often a view of the plains opens up to the east through the trees, each time a little higher than the last.

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls

Vie of the Plains from the trail junction to Apache Falls

 

Big beautiful Aspen tree

Big beautiful Aspen tree

I cross several swollen branches of North Apache Creek and then come to a sign marking a trail to the left.  This trail takes me back down all of the vertical feet I just climbed and then some, steeply down into the South Apache Creek drainage, briefly exiting the wilderness area and taking me to within a couple miles of private lands on the edge of the plains.  I hear strange music down valley.  At the small stream, running clear and beautiful and graced by surprisingly lush greenery, the trail turns to follow the creek upstream, back into the hinterland of the wilderness.  The trail is faint and overgrown, but well marked with cairns where needed.  I suspect these cairns have been here for many decades, but guiding only a few lucky people each year.

The trail soon turns up a tributary stream and I know that I’m not far from the falls.  I come to a pair of great big Ponderosa Pines with a good tent site nearby and drop my pack.  Camp for the night.  Without my pack I continue up the trail in search of the waterfall.  I have no idea what to expect:  A ten foot tumbler?  A thirty foot plunge?  I see it before I hear it, a beautiful 100-foot classic plunge off of a cliff, framed by the bare trunks of big tall Pines.  The beauty of the sight is enhanced by its uniqueness – a hidden ribbon of falling water near the edge of the plains and yet fully in wilderness seclusion.

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

First view of Apache falls, framed by tall Ponderosa pine trees

I continue to the falls, delighted to find that I can easily walk right up to its base on either side.  I stand on a flat rock at the edge of the large pool at the bottom and reach a hand out into the falls.  The light spray cools my face as I look straight up the falls to a deep blue sky.

Apache Falls

Apache Falls

With no threat of rain I sleep peacefully in my tent without the rain fly, stars speckling the sky between the tops of the still pines.  The soft rush of the creek helps bring on sleep.

Morning is brilliant.  Fresh.  Sun slanting through the trees.  Rocky crags in view to the south beneath brilliant blue.  I down some hot coffee and oatmeal and then head back up to the falls.  I spend a couple hours there feeling completely at home and at ease.  It’s an Eden.  A Sanctuary.  It could have been made a tourist attraction with a paved road cut into the valley and a paved “viewing platform” at the falls.  Thank goodness Apache Falls is simply a beautiful waterfall in the wilderness and not a “tourist attraction.”

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