Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mountain Biking Twin Lakes

In early June I injured my hand.  Because of the constant vibration and pressure, I couldn't grip my bike's handlebar with my left hand.  This was disappointing just getting into the mountain bike season, but luckily I enjoy hiking as well to keep me busy and active outdoors.  My hand healed quickly, and just over a month later, I was back on my bike. 

I started out with a couple rides close to home on BLM roads.  Although there is a lot of ups and downs, the riding isn't too technical or rocky.  With its constant climbing and moderate distance, this ride is good for working off the month long rust.  Even though I hiked a fair amount the past month, hiking and biking use different leg movement and I noticed a slight strength loss after my break from riding.

Although it has been a while since I posted about mountain biking on my blog, I have been still riding quite a bit before my injury.  Most of the rides were places that I have blogged about before however, so I didn't want to write about the same ride twice.  Now with midsummer trail conditions everywhere, I was ready to explore some new areas.

Originally I set my sights on the Crested Butte area.  Last year I rode there and was eager to explore more of the endless trails in that region.  The weather looked risky there however and I didn't want to drive so far to be washed out by thunderstorms early on my ride.

At the last minute, something came up requiring me to travel to Buena Vista, about an hour from home.  This led me to Twin Lakes.  Twin Lakes is less than a half hour from Buena Vista.  There was a ride I had on my radar there. 

Twin Lakes is a small village named for a pair of lakes that make up the heart of the area.  The town sits at elevation of 9200' just south of Leadville on the eastern side of Independence Pass.  Beautiful mountains seemingly rise from the lake making for dramatic scenery.  Mt Elbert, the highest summit in the Rockies, rises just a few miles northeast from the area and is visible from most points in the area.

Last summer, I attempted this ride.  I had a cue sheet for the ride and the local topo map for the region.  Unfortunately, the cue sheet was vague at places and routes that were named on my map weren't signed.  There is also a maze of dirt roads in the area that make route finding confusing.  I missed a key turn and ended up backtracking and taking several wrong turns.  I ended up giving up on my cue sheet and stuck to some singletrack around the lakes.  At the same time it was frequently showering to add to frustrating experience.

I found this route on a website called MTB Project.  The route followed a mix of Forest Service roads, BLM trail, a few miles on paved road, and a good chunk of the ride on the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails.  This time I referenced an online map at the website with my map to try to avoid route finding confusion.  I planned on following the listed route, I just started at a different point.

The view from the trailhead
Because of a high probability of thunderstorms in the early afternoon, I was riding before 800am.  I parked by the Twin Lakes Dam.  A couple miles on paved County Road 10 brought me to my first section of singletrack.  This singletrack is where I missed my turn last time.  The singletrack, is called "North Face Bypass"  on my cue sheet.  The next several miles are part of the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike course.

Near the beginning of North Face Bypass
Mt Elbert
Mt Hope, Twin Peaks,  Rinker, La Plata, and Elbert
Near the height of the land on North Face Bypass
After a couple miles of singletrack on "North Face Bypass", I started to follow a series of Forest Service roads.  Unfortunately, most of the roads aren't marked and have several intersections.  I stopped frequently to confirm my route with my map.  I still had some uncertainty on my route after conferring with my map, but I knew I could at least get to the Colorado Trail this time.  Much of this area passed through open fields and offered stunning views of the mountains, especially Mt Elbert, just a few miles away.

A close up of the peaks above Twin Lakes
Threatening clouds moving in over Elbert
As recently as a week before my ride, much of this area was closed.  A small wildfire called the Lodgepole Fire was burning and  was just contained about a week earlier.  The fire was considered officially "out" and roads reopened in the past week.  I skirted the burn area and passed along the edge of the main burn scar.  Much of the area had a charred smell in the air.  Fortunately, fire crews kept the burn area down to 35 acres.

Lodgepole Fire burn scar
Despite minimal signage, I seemed to be on the right track.  I eventually reached a signed junction and realized I was slightly off course.  The sign indicated that I just came off the end of FSR 160.  This was actually the road I was hoping to start.  I backtracked on FSR 160 and saw the sign for my next road and was back on track.  If anything this route seemed to be a little shorter that the cue sheet route.

I think this is the "wrong" road I took
After a few miles I reached a gate that confirmed I was on track and back on singletrack trail.  I soon reached the Colorado Trail (CT).  The Colorado Trail in this section travels just a few miles below Mt Elbert.  The singletrack in this section is in pretty good shape.  Just below Elbert, my route reached its high point at 10,600'.  Despite reaching the high point, the climbing is relatively easy.  Majority of the CT in this area travels though forest, so views were minimal.

On the Colorado Trail
Nice singletrack along the CT
Wildflower along the CT
Traveling along the CT in what appears to be an old burn
After the high point near, the turnoff to Mt Elbert, the travel was generally downhill all the way to Twin Lakes.  Just before the South Elbert Trailhead, there was a decent descent to a bridged creek.  A few feet before the creek, hidden in the tall grass, were some railroad tie sized planks.  Since they were hidden in the grass, I never saw them.  I hit one directly with my front tire and went part of the way over the handlebars.  Because it happened so quickly, I was unable to disconnect from my one pedal.  I had a hard time getting up with one foot in the pedal and my bike laying on me partially.  I was okay with a minor scuff on my ankle.  I checked my bike over and there was no damage.  I continued on my way.

Trail sign near South Elbert trailhead
Aspens along the CT
After a half mile or so from my mishap, I turned off the CT and descended a trail to Twin Lakes Village.  This trail dropped at times on very narrow singletrack on a steep sidehill.  At the steepest places, the tread was quite loose.  Near the beginning of the trail there was one spot in particular that required a stretch of threading the needle to avoid a slide down the slope.  The hairy stretch was short lived however.  The trail eventually turned into an old, loose road as it descended quickly to the village.

Nice view of the Twin Lakes from above
Loose, nasty sidehill
Along the trail to Twin Lakes Village
Mellow singletrack
Views through the trees
A short 1.5 miles on paved CO 82 brought me to the Willis Gulch Trailhead my next segment of the ride.  I crossed Lake Creek on the bridge and began my ride along the south side of the lakes.  The first mile after crossing the bridge is probably the most technical of the entire route.  The trail climbs fairly steeply and features several rocky stretches.  Although short lived, this stretch may test the intermediate rider.  It seemed like there were endless water crossings in the first couple miles from the bridge.

Lake Creek
Bridge crossing Lake Creek 
A more technical section of trail
One of the many water crossings
After a mile from the bridge, the trail joins the CDT/CT Collegiate West.  The riding is relatively flat and smooth interjected with short elevation changes and brief areas of rock.  I had to dismount for a few fallen trees as well.  The riding was quite enjoyable south of the lakes.  Much of the trail passed through the forest, including nice groves of Aspens.  When the trail passed through open areas, I was able to enjoy the mountains.  The further east you travel, the more frequently you get lake views, often riding just a few feet above the water.

A brief open section on the south side
of the lakes
One of the lakes coming into view

Looking back at Mt Elbert
Open area near Interlaken
About half way along the southern side of the lakes, there is an interesting historic site worth checking out.  The old resort of Interlaken is accessible by a short spur from the main trail.  Interlaken was a relatively short lived resort during the last 20 years of the 1800s.  During its peak, it was a luxury, destination resort.  Sometime around the turn of the century the lakes were dammed.  When the lakes were dammed, they expanded, creating large pockets of stagnant water.  People at the time feared malaria from the stagnant water and the resort quickly faded.  Many of the original buildings still stand however and were restored.  The main hotel, the owners cabin, and numerous other buildings stand on the grounds with several interpretive signs.  The site is just a couple hundred yards at most from the main trail, and I highly recommend taking a few minutes to explore the grounds.

The main hotel
Building at Interlaken


Old stable?

The owner's private residence (Dexter House)
From Interlaken, the trail continues along the southern shore of the lower lake.  The terrain seems somewhat more rocky and rolling along the lower lake.  The trail regularly travels close to the shore, offering constant lake views.  Since Interlaken is a somewhat happening destination only two miles or so from the road, I began to see a fair amount of people hiking on this stretch

A nice stand of aspens
Riding along the lake
Another lakeside stretch
After 7-8 miles of singletrack since crossing Lake Creek, I reached the Twin Lakes Dam .  I was parked at the other end of the dam.  I still had some energy left however.  There was another 4 miles of singletrack on the CT leading to CO 82.  I rode this section last year and knew it was a relatively fast trail.  Since I was feeling good, I rode this stretch of the CT as an out and back.

Riding along the north side of the lower lake
View across the lake
Closeup view over the lake
I wrapped up my ride at just over 36 miles, my longest ride of the year.  I spent just over 4:20 on my bike, although I was actually out longer with stops to take photos and check my map.  I also took some time to explore Interlaken.  I climbed around 3000' over the duration of the ride.  Despite the elevation gain, this ride never had any long sustained climbs.  Over half of my riding was on singletrack.  Most of the singletrack had decent flow.  I would consider this technically an intermediate ride.  I would consider only a few brief stretches advanced.  If you're up for a shorter ride, ride the 14 miles or so around the lakes.

View from North Face Bypass
(L-R, Mt Hope Twin Peaks, Rinker, La Plate Peak)
This was quite a scenic ride with its lake views and high alpine mountains.  Although the clouds looked a little ominous over the mountains, I managed to avoid any threatening weather.  Navigation is a little tricky north of CO 82.  I believe MTB Project has an app that might make navigation a little easier, but I like to travel old school with just a map to navigate.  Nearly all of the singletrack on this ride overlaps with the CDT and CT.  Be vigilant and courteous of other trail users.  Since I hike more than I ride, I consider myself a courteous rider, but I still got a snippy reaction from a hiker. 

Nice singletrack on the CT
For a map and ride description from MTB Project click the link Pipeline to Twin Lakes Loop
Click Interlaken, for a description and a more detailed history on the resort.

If you enjoy my blog, check out my Facebook page.  I post photos and small snippets of my outings on there more frequently than I write a full blog post.  Click the link to see the FB page.  Tomcat's Outdoor Adventures on Facebook

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks

The weather has been consistently hot since my last outing and much of the higher elevation snow has melted.  This led to summer trail conditions most places.  As a result, most backcountry areas are accessible with minimal snow travel difficulties.

I had several destinations in mind for my next trip, but decided on exploring in the the Sangre de Cristos.  I live at the base of the Sangres and they have always been the constant background since I moved to Colorado.  I thoroughly enjoy exploring this rugged range.

My last trip to the Sangre de Cristo high country was last autumn on Columbus Day.  I departed the Gibson Creek Trailhead and hiked to the Lakes of the Clouds basin.  Once at the lakes I climbed three 13,000 foot peaks that surround the basin.  On that trip, like any trip to high summits, I got a good view of the surrounding mountains, while concocting future trips. To read about that trip, click on the link Climbing the Peaks of the Lakes of the Clouds Basin

On that trip, Rito Alto Peak constantly towered to the south.  Standing around 13,800', Rito Alto is an impressive peak.  There are no higher mountains to the north in the Sangre de Cristo Range.  It's lofty vantage point offers fine 360 degree views of the Sangres.

On the south side of Rito Alto, a rough jeep road leads to 13,000 foot at Hermit Pass.  Most people seem to drive high up this road and make short work of Rito Alto.  Traveling on a jeep road has no appeal to me.  From the Gibson Creek Trailhead, the North Taylor Creek trail leads to a high alpine basin at Megan Lake.  Megan Lake sits more than 2000 feet below Rito Alto's east face.  Some more ambitious hikers will use this as a launching point to climb Rito Alto with Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak.  I was hoping to climb Rito Alto from Megan Lake, then continue south and climb Hermit and Eureka Peaks, just to the south.

Because of forecasted thunderstorms I got a fairly early start.  My drive to the trailhead was a good start to the day.  I saw two very large bull elk along the road as well as a few pronghorn close to the trailhead.

Pronghorn near the trailhead

Although there is a road leading to the start of the North Taylor Creek trail.  I started at the Gibson Creek Trailhead.  Most dirt National Forest roads are rougher than I like to subject my car to.  I began hiking about 645AM.  I followed the Rainbow Trail to start before reaching a section of dirt road that led to the actual North Taylor Creek Trail.

Columbines were abundant

Wild roses along the Rainbow Trail

North Taylor Creek doesn't seem to get much traffic.  The vegetation is quite thick at places.  Evening storms the night before left this vegetation wet in the early morning.  The trail crosses its namesake creek a few times and is usually within earshot of the creek.  The creek is rushing with spring runoff and one crossing was quite tricky. I had to travel upstream to find a decent crossing.

Makeshift bridge at a wider crossing

Small waterfall on North Taylor Creek

The trail was quite faint at a few places in its upper reaches.  Although traveling through the woods most of the route,  the trail offers some nice alpine views as it gains elevation and passes through a few meadows.  After 2.5 miles on the trail, I reached Megan Lake.

Higher up on the North Taylor Creek Trail

An open meadow below treeline

Another meadow

Megan Lake sits at the edge of treeline around 11,500'.  From the lake, Rito Alto Peak towers more than 2000' above.  Peak of the Clouds is also visible from Megan Lake.   The view from the lake is pretty enough, but was further enhanced by ribbons of waterfalls cascading above the lake from heavy snow runoff.

Rito Alto Peak above Megan Lake

Peak of the Clouds in the distance above Megan Lake

My original plan was to climb a couple hundred feet higher to a smaller lake called Jeanne Lake.  From Jeanne Lake I would climb to the saddle of Peak of the Clouds and Rito Alto before climbing Rito Alto's north ridge.  Now off trail, I made my way toward the still hidden Jeanne Lake.  Making my way to the lake was much harder than I anticipated.  The entire area was covered in head high, nearly unpenetrable willows.  I would stumble but catch myself by grabbing at branches.  My bare shins took a beating.  I lost a lot of time but finally made it to the lake.

Looking back down the valley

Waterfall above Megan Lake

Meadow above Megan Lake

Peak of the Clouds above the meadow

I chose to travel up this small waterfall rather than the soft snow
or willow-whacking

From Lake Jeanne, I looked the terrain ahead.  I didn't want to wallow through more willows.  I assessed the terrain and although quite steep, the northeast slope of Rito Alto looked like a  passable route without getting into too much difficulty.

Jeanne Lake was small and very shallow

I began climbing directly up the northeast face.  The steep terrain was a mixture of grass and solid rock.  I made fairly quick time up the initial climb.  In this section, a fairly relaxed ptarmigan seemed curious to have a person in its rugged territory.  After a quick 1000 feet or so of climbing, I reached a  grassy meadow before the main bulk of the climbing.


Ptarmigan trying to figure out what the odd creature
was staring at it

Looking back down at Megan Lake

On the flat section of tundra before climbing
the rest of Rito Alto Peak

The last 1000 feet or so of climbing went quickly.  Majority of my route maintained a mix of grass and solid rock.  Although steep, the terrain remained class 2, possibly a brief section of 2+.  Within the last few hundred vertical feet of the summit, the terrain steepened and required a little more route finding.  I was now getting to the point where I needed to scramble and use my hands.  At this point I was getting into some short class 3 pitches that were unavoidable.  I finally crested the face about 50 feet from the summit proper.

I traveled just to the right of the lingering snow

The slope became rockier as I climbed

Wildflowers clinging around 13,000' on Rito Alto

Getting into the scrambly terrain

Looking southeast

Looking north

Getting into class 3 terrain just below the summit

As I summited, I took notice to the sky.  The morning had been cloudless.  As I climbed, a solitary but benign cumulus cloud lingered above.  From the summit, I had a good look at the sky and noticed a few more clouds lingering just above,  starting to build.  With a couple more summits in my sights, I didn't linger and headed down Rito Alto's south ridge.  The sky was clear to the west and the breeze seemed like it should push the potentially threatening clouds away from my position.  As I traveled down the ridge I lost my view of the clouds.  I passed a pair of hikers on the ridge making there way toward the summit from a campsite near Hermit Lake, the only others I would see until I was on the Rainbow Trail near the trailhead.

Silver Peak, Peak of the Clouds, and just barely in frame
is Spread Eagle.  I think Gibbs Peak is the point distant
peak in the middle.

Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak

Unnamed 13,000 Peaks to the west

East toward ridge above Megan Lake

Megan Lake and North Taylor Creek drainage

Hermit Peak, Eureka Peak, and distant Crestone Group

Crestones and Kit Carson Group

Crop circles in the San Luis Valley

Remains of the old cornice heading south along
Rito Alto's ridge

I think this is looking toward Rito Alto Lake
Southwest view

I soon reached Hermit Pass.  I had a better view of the sky and noticed a bigger buildup of the clouds with some darkening.  At this point they seemed to have drifted a little further to the east.  The west still looked safe.  Hermit Peak was about a 1/4 mile away and a mere 300 vertical feet ahead.  I quickly hiked up to its summit and examined the sky.

Hermit Peak from Hermit Pass

Hermit Peak's south ridge toward Eureka Peak

Crestone Group

Rito Alto from Hermit Peak

Cotton Creek valley

Hermit's west ridge toward a group of unnamed 13ers

Traversing to Eureka Peak would require spending more than two miles above treeline.  A quick escape from weather would put me quite a bit further from my trailhead.  At this point, the darkening clouds above weren't moving much, and more clouds were building nearby.  It was only 1030 or so but I decided to descend back to the valley and play it safe.
Rito Alto, Peak of the Clouds, and Spread Eagle Peak

I descended back to Hermit Pass.  Rather than reclimb Rito Alto, I descended directly toward Megan Lake.  I couldn't find any information a route from Hermit Pass to Megan Lake, so I had to pick my own route.  As I was climbing and on the summit of Rito Alto, I made an effort to study this option.  Although there are some cliff bands to contend with, it appeared that I could pick my way through the cliff bands without getting cliffed out.

Rito Alto from Hermit Pass

After a short distance on the Hermit Pass Road, I departed the road and began my descent toward Megan Lake.  The initial drop from the road followed a gradual, grassy slope.  I quickly reached a small basin above Megan Lake with a small unnamed lake.  Below the lake. the terrain became trickier.  The terrain became quite steep and was broken sections of steep talus, cliff bands, and pockets of steep vegetation.
Rito Alto from Hermit Pass Road

 Peak of the Clouds living up to its name while
descending a beautiful grassy slope toward
Megan Lake

Peak of the Clouds and Spread Eagle Peak on the descent
toward Megan Lake

Unnamed lake above Megan Lake

Waterfall draining into the lake

Despite challenges, the travel below the upper lake was enjoyable.  Much of my route traveled close to the upper lake's outlet stream.  The outlet stream's course followed the steep rocky terrain in a series of cascades that traveled hundreds of vertical feet to the lower basin at Megan Lake.  Because of heavy snowmelt, the cascades dropped dramatically.  This made for quite a scenic descent.

Megan Lake from the upper lake

Waterfall draining upper lake

One of the longer drop in the long cascade

Waterfall cascading in rocky section

Waterfall in narrower section

Eventually the steep slope entered sections of willows.  Once in the willows, travel became quite challenging.  The willows often hid rock drops.  Other places the willows were thick enough to nearly halt forward travel.  To add to the frustration of dense vegetation, much of the ground was boggy and slick from the snowmelt.

Looking at the willows above Megan Lake

I eventually made my way to the bottom of the steep slopes.  Only a few hundred feet stood between me and Megan Lake.  Unfortunately, this stretch contained some of the densest willows.  To add to the frustration, a network of small streams covered the ground under the willows.  These streams usually weren't visible until I stumbled upon them.  I had to force my way through the mess trying to find the paths of least resistance.  Usually my shins took the brunt of the willows.  My last obstacle to the lake was the inlet stream that descended from Lake Jeanne.  Quite a few cutthroat trout were visible darting in the stream.  I finally reached the lake.

The view from inside the tangle of willow, they're about 6 feet high
and shred exposed shins

Looking back at the waterfall over the willow-whack

Another look at the falls from below

Looking back at the sea of willows

Although less than a foot wide at most spots, I followed the narrow shoreline to get around the lake to avoid further willow-whacking.  Following the shoreline I reached the far side rather quickly.  At the far side, I finally got back to the trail. By this time I was in and out of light showers.

Traversing the narrow shoreline of Megan Lake

Looking back at Rito Alto and the waterfall from
the shoreline of Megan Lake

The remainder of my trip, I was back on the North Taylor Creek Trail.  Traveling downhill, I made quick time.  Despite intermittent showers, I never did hear thunder or see any lightning.  The trail was fairly slick with the fresh rain but my descent was uneventful.  I was back at my car about 130PM.

I don't have exact mileage because a chunk of the trip was off trail, but this hike was somewhere in the 13-14 mile range and gained about a mile of elevation.  As I said before, Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks are usually climbed from Hermit Pass Road.  Even though it's a rugged jeep road, following a road doesn't have much appeal to me.  I really enjoyed my route despite rough willow-whacking in a few sections.  North Taylor Creek and the lakes in the basin offer a real feel of wilderness that can't be had traveling a jeep road.  The lakes and trail are actually within the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, whereas the road is not.

Even though I have done a couple of hikes to alpine peaks in the past month, I particularly enjoyed this trip.  I couldn't find any info about ascending Rito Alto by my direct route or descending to Megan Lake from Hermit Pass.  It's satisfying picking a route on the fly. Although I could have done without the willows, I had quite a bit of fun on the rest route.  I wish I could have hit Eureka Peak as well, but I didn't want to take a chance getting caught in lighting for an extended period above treeline, especially since the past several days saw a lot of thunderstorm activity.

Although it may seem inviting driving high above treeline on Hermit Pass Road to bag a few peaks, I would recommend hitting Rito Alto and Hermit Peaks from Megan Lake, especially if you are comfortable with routefinding and off trail travel.  From the overgrown stretches of trail, and faint tread at times, I don't think this area sees too much traffic.  Solitude is much more attractive than ATVs and Jeeps passing by any day in my opinion.  The trip to Megan Lake is worthwhile by itself just to visit a secluded idyllic alpine lake.  This trip can be cut shorter by several miles by driving directly to the North Taylor Creek Trailhead.  I think any vehicle with decent clearance could drive it as it wasn't nearly as bad as most National Forest roads.  I think my Outback would have been fine.

Crestones in the distance from high on Rito Alto's
south ridge along the cornice

Another close up of the Crestone Group

The final look back over Megan Lake toward Rito Alto