Hike Distance: ~3.4 Miles
Location: Guanella Pass, Georgetown, Naylor Lake
When life gives you Snow, go Snowshoeing.
For the last couple of years all of the brother and sisters in law in my family have done a gift exchange in one form or another. We did secret santa for a couple years, and this year decided to do a White Elephant Exchange. It was supposed to be actually good things and the theme was "Colorado" so everything was supposed to be Colorado based. I put a pub pass that got free beers at twenty breweries and my present that I got came from my Brother in law and was a snowshoeing or X-country skiing adventure.
As luck would have it, my Dungeons and Dragons group couldn't play this weekend and ended up being the ideal time to schedule my excursion. Because I've been hiking a bunch and I felt that X-country skiing would have a lot larger learning curve, I decided that snowshoeing would be the activity to choose. I left the location and logistics up to the BIL and readied myself for a day in the mountains.
So, now for some background. My BIL is an Ex-Marine who has done century bike rides, marathons, and half Iron Mans. If you're sensing a trend in my family, you're right. I'm definitely the fat guy that constantly is trying to play with the athletic kids on the playground. The whole family on my wife's side are mountain bikers that have competed at the national level, Gymnasts, Water Skiiers, and grew up with the outdoors being their playground. I grew up constantly trying to find a sport I was decent at, and with a dad that considered an afternoon watching the Browns playing football as good exercise. So for the last 13 years of my life I've constantly tried to participate with the family, usually to the tune of embarrassment. The first time I ever met my future in laws I crashed a Wal-Mart bike I borrowed from a friend on a real mountain biking trail and had to carry the bike back to the parking lot with blood dripping from my arm and leg. Let's just say it wasn't the first impression I was looking for.
Okay, back to the hike. BIL sends me the trail listing for the hike. I had anticipated it to be a little up in the mountains in an area that is a good easy jaunt, and what was sent to me was a 4 Mile hike at a lake with altitudes over 11000 to 12000 feet. Okay........I'm game, but a little terrified. I looked up the Silver Dollar Lake trail on AllTrails and indeed found that it resided literally at the end of the road before they close Guanella pass for the winter. As high as you can legally go. I looked at some pictures, and some trail reviews and it looked doable, but my lungs were already aspirating at the thought of my first high altitude hike.
I'm an overplanner so I spent some time reading about snowshoe technique and really took the time to research what kind of clothing I should wear to make the experience as best possible. I ended up making the right choice. Besides a small blister on the back of one heel, I was warm, toasty, and good to go all day.
The day of the hike: I met at the BIL's house at 6:30AM I appreciated another person that wanted to get an early start. I had also read about a storm hitting the high country in the evening and I wanted to do everything to avoid the interstate ski traffic, so I was right on time. After a quick coffee stop we hit the road. Traffic was clear and the roads were in good condition. We met our first wild animal along the road in the form of a goat. He didn't really pay us too much attention and we continued up the Guanella pass road out of Georgetown. There were switchbacks and some snow but nothing to worry about. We passed a hydroelectric plant that kind of came out of nowhere and made our way to the top.
The trail information assumed that we'd be starting at the trailhead, but when we got to the Naylor lake road we immediately knew we'd be extending our distance a little. The road was completely impassable so we'd have to hike .6 miles up to the trail head to begin our adventure proper.
We saw two other cars in the lot, and evidence of trekkers in front of us. These anonymous and only seen in the distance comrades would prove to be invaluable as we made up our own trails down the line. More about that later. The hike up where the road went was stable and easy, except that my lungs were not understanding why I'd torture them the way I did. I tried to not be a bummer to the BIL's day and request too many breaks, and I think overall did pretty well. I'd like to think that I gave him the excuse to take a break he needed anyways.
We found the trailhead and started walking through a beautiful and serene forestscape. It was punctuated with nice ups and downs and the previous people had packed the snow pretty well so I didn't sink too much.
Here's where we'll talk about snow shoe equipment. Apparently, the bindings to hold your shoes in are universal, but the size of the actual shoes is made to accommodate peoples' weight so you don't sink up to your waist. I had thought that the BIL had taken this into account, but through no fault of his own (I found out halfway to the trail head he'd never done this either), he didn't know about the weight aspect of picking gear. He had borrowed the snow shoes from my other BIL and SIL, both of which weigh maybe 140 if I'm being generous. So here's a guy who's most definitely 100 pounds over the recommended weight for the snowshoes. No problem I thought. This trail is probably packed down really well......
The first part of the trail seemed to have been explored by a fair amount of people over the winter and packed down pretty well minus any new accumulation from the week so it wasn't so bad. There were trees painted blue to mark the way and everything was great. As we ventured further into the wilds, we started making up our own trail and just following a lone set of tracks we had. It was in this situation that I found myself going up to my knees and sometimes waist in snow. Nothing made me feel in danger or that I was going to hurt myself, but it's definitely a disconcerting feeling to put your foot on something that you think is stable and suddenly shift down three feet.
I started taking my foot and kicking it into the snow and tamping down the next location before I applied weight and that seemed to help a lot. It also meant that I was basically using the effort of four steps for every one forward I actually went.
Onward we ventured. About this time we got to a break in the tree line and saw the entirety of Naylor lake. This is also the fist time we got a blast of cold wind coming over the ridge and into our faces. Up to this point the trees had managed to shelter us pretty well, but now we were bearing the brunt of it's gale. We looked down to the lake and what did we see? The two hikers we assumed that were cutting trail for us up to this point WALKING ACROSS THE FROZEN LAKE! Are they insane? It's three miles to the car and 8 miles to the nearest town from there. You'd never catch me doing something so crazy.....
It was pretty easy to discern up to this point where the actual trail was, but now it seemed like it was a random direction up the side of a hill to keep somewhat near where the GPS told us the trail was supposed to be, but when you're walking 5 feet above the actual level of ground on a pillow of snow, you kind of get to make it up as you go. We were able to see the tops of trees under our feet that would've been stunning examples in our homes for Christmas, and yet here we were walking among the boughs of them. The hillside was pretty windswept and the the snow wasn't as deep in this section. The wind had made seeing where the other hikers went a little harder but we were pretty much winging it at this point. We decided to head up higher on the ridge.
I'm glad we went up here, but I earned every step. We got to a section that had a lot more rocks under the snow. The good thing was sometimes you'd get a solid base to stand on, but the downside was that the snow between the rocks was super loose. I was falling and sinking every step. After fighting to the top of the ridge we lost the trail for a minute until the BIL saw a track leading back into the trees and down towards, you guessed it, the lake.
This next section was probably my favorite. There were some small hops down and a long slope on loose snow that was a lot of fun to slide down a little. By centering my weight on the back of the shoe so the spikes on the front wouldn't engage I could glissade a little with each step. We decided at this point that this would be as far out as we went. There was no other discernible trail to get to the other lakes, and we were going to get an extra 1.2 miles than planned for the walk up the road to get to the trailhead.
The trail back went down to the lake shore, and you can guess what happened next. I was cajoled into going out on a frozen lake. I'd only ever been on a frozen lake one other time in my life, and it was just down the hill in Georgetown for races that they do with Jeeps on the lake. You could hear the ice cracking and groaning while you walked out there. I acquiesced and said I'd just prefer to skirt the side instead of going straight across the middle. I think the BIL was a little disappointed, but I'm here writing this, so I'm going to say we made some correct decisions. We'd probably have been okay, but I was the wuss and didn't want to have to receive or write a eulogy this weekend.
There was a really cool chunk of ice on the shore. It was blue and crystal clear. I think it might have been pushed up during an earlier freeze. WE took some pictures at this location and then decided to make our way back to the cabins we had seen from the ridge line. We knew this area was at the end of the road, and even if we were cutting trail from scratch, it would be tough to get lost in.
There were four little cabins all boarded up right by the lake. I apologize about hiking past them, as they looked to be private property, but we were respectful and just admired how nice these would be in the summer. I wonder if they rent them out? Mental note to look it up.
The hike back down was peaceful and nice. Once we got to the trailhead, the path had now been compressed by 8 sets of snowshoes so it was a nice stable downhill walk to the car. We saw two other pairs of people heading up the trail as we left. I hope they made it a little further than us, and had as great of a time as I did.
I cannot state how appreciative I am for my BIL planning such a memorable outing. He could've easily phoned it in and just went to a commercial snow shoe area with a ton of people, but this was truly special. We went where not too many people go, got to adventure over a frozen lake and had a great time. Maybe we won't return the snowshoes for a while. I've heard there are a couple really fun trails up in Rocky Mountain National park...
On the way back down the mountain, we went to my favorite post-mountain treat at Beaujo's pizza in Idaho Springs. It's truly a Colorado original and recharges every part of you after strenuous and gratifying activity
No yeti attacks, no avalanches, no falling through ice. I'd call this a success.
Next week will be something completely different as I go to Palm Springs, CA and do some desert hiking. I'll tell you all about it, don't worry.