text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
Have Map Will Travel
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved maps. Globes, atlases, origami-nightmares (a.k.a. gas station maps). An unwavering attachment to our 3D world, re-imagined onto a 2D piece of paper.
With modern technology it seems almost impossible to get lost. I can open my phone and tell it where I want to go, or punch in an address on my car’s onboard navigation.
Before cell phones were in everyone's pockets, or what my daughter calls “the dark ages”, a map was your best friend. Printed out directions for getting from this place or that. Portable, organized, and perfect for weekend trip, or cross-country expedition. I still keep a Colorado Gazetteer in my truck...in case my GPS signal disappears, which never, ever happens.
When I was a kid, my parents had a small desk globe. It wasn't a meticulous, detailed, photo-realistic navigation tool. I'm sure if I looked at it now, I would find a "for decorations purposes only" sticker on it somewhere. Six year old me didn't care, I still loved it.
I would spend hours and hours of spinning it around, imagining where I wanted to live someday. I would get the ball whirling as fast as I could. I would hover my pudgy little finger over the rotating surface and say, “I’m moving to...HERE!” and drop my fingertip to a spot. If it wasn't a place I was happy with, then I would make some minor adjustments. Good times.
So, in an attempt to relive my childhood, I did something similar for latest trip. How would this work in the real world? I guess you'll need to keep reading.
Just The Facts
Trail: Lonesome Lake Trail #2126
Elevation Gain: 1550 ft
Distance: 9.8 mi. (out-and-back)
Trail Use: Hiking, Backpacking
Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked for the most part
Bring Your Dog: Yes (but must be on a leash)
Access: Best from June-November
Trail Map: https://www.fs.usda.gov
Entrance fee: Free
I’ve been trying to get a camping trip in since the end of June. On average, camping in higher elevations isn’t usually a good idea before July. Each year is different, but this summer has been cooler than normal.
I had high hopes for this summer too. I wanted to camp every other weekend. Hike up for an overnight, enjoy the views, and return before the start of the work week. But, lingering snow, family vacations out-of-state, rain, work-trips, more rain...my trips kept getting pushed back further and further. I scrapped one trip due to a forest fire. Come on Mother Nature! What gives? Would I even get to go camping this summer?
Pick a Lake, any Lake
I wanted to put my adventurous spirit to the test. So, like my whirl-a-globe playtime as a kid, I pulled out a map of Holy Cross Wilderness Area, and picked a lake.
"How about this one?"
Under my finder was Lonesome Lake. Since I’m picky I thought it would take forever to find a perfect match, but this lake looked promising. I opened up Google Earth and started my digital hike up to the lake. A modern day reconnoissance mission.
I was already ticking boxes on my checklist: a flowing creek, potential for wildflowers, an alpine lake...perfect.
It’s not an absolute rule, but I usually try to camp near water. Not only is it scenic, but water is heavy. It’s much easier to filter water from a creek than carrying it up a mountain.
I also like isolation. Reservoirs are too busy, and not my ideal spot for camping. Plus, I’m not a fisherman. I’m more of an alpine lake guy.
It takes effort to get to most alpine lakes, and effort usually means fewer people. But, because I live in Colorado, being alone the entire time is uncommon. Especially during wildflower season.
After several false starts and rained-out weekends, I was going to go camping...no matter what.
It’s Around Here Somewhere
The trailhead for Lonesome Lake starts below Homestake Reservoir. It’s one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” trailheads. It isn't actually hidden, marked only by a crooked tree branch and a decades old mitten, but I drove right past it and ended up at the reservoir instead. Well, it’s a good thing I had my map, right?
I finally got myself to the right spot, strapped on my backpack, and ambled up the first switchback. The trail starts at about 10,000 feet and gains 300 feet in elevation over the next half mile. The trail sticks close to East Fork Homestake Creek, while weaving between the tall spruce and fir, and around massive boulders.
The gravel-like path morphs into bare earth, littered with football-sized stones and gnarled roots. While most of the trail is stone-and-root, it does transition to nice pine straw, usually while you’re in the heavily forested sections.
Be sure to wear sturdy boots. If you’re used to wide, clutter free trails this one might be a little more challenging. I would also recommend a boot which supports your ankles. For some reason, I’m prone to rolling my ankle, and if I didn’t wear good boots, I would be in trouble on a trail like this.
After a few more switchbacks, I descended out of the tall timbers, and into my first views of the meadow.
Meadows, wildflowers and water
As I already mentioned, this summer has been rain-soaked. While not typical for a Colorado summer, July and August are the go-to hot month, this year has been nothing but lush green and cooler temperatures. A true showstopper summer of wildflowers. Each week luring day hikers and nature-lovers deep into the mountains. Indian paintbrush, monk's hood, fireweed, Colorado columbine, pink elephants cover the meadows and hillside with splashes of bright color. And mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many mushrooms. Some grew as big as fresh-baked loaves of bread.
Break Out the Poncho
The trail continues to alternate between dense forest and open meadow. Deep shade for awhile, followed by open, bright-sun drenched meadows. The gradual elevation change makes it even more enjoyable. Even though I was carrying a heavy pack, I didn't need to stop every mile for a break.
An hour or two into the hike, the afternoon clouds started to collect around the lofty peaks. Sunlight filtered through and warmed the thick grass in the meadows, giving it a healthy glow. When I wasn’t basking in the glow, and sweet-scents of the meadows, I would oh-and-ahh over all the variety in the forest. Ancient, car-sized boulders, and long-ago fallen trees, heavy with fuzzy, green moss added a long-forgotten feel to the hike.
The gathering, puffy clouds soon dropped an gentle rain. While it didn’t last, it was heavy enough for me to put on my poncho. The oversized hood and odd hump on my back (because I’m still wearing my backpack) gave me a Quasimodo-on-a-hike look. It’s a true fashion statement.
Narrowing Down Options
Most of the trails I hike are well used and easy to find. I never lost the trail, or thought it was disappearing, but it does fade out in a few spots. There are areas where the grass in the meadows has grown over the trail, and a true path isn’t immediately obvious.
The most hiking effort comes within the last three-quarters of a mile. The path narrows down to about the width of my boots. With all the rocks and roots I did get tripped up a few times. Another reason I love my trekking poles. The last push makes you work for your reward, almost like being on a backcountry stair-master. Adding to the scenery are several unnamed peaks, which become more visible as the treeline fades away.
At last, I reach the shimmering prize. Lonesome Lake is bigger than I thought it would be. The clouds had opened up and the sun was shining once again, dancing on the surface of the clear alpine water.
Home Away From Home
It’s always good to set up camp as soon as possible. I know it’s tough, especially when you only want to relax, but the last thing you want is to set up camp in the dark. Worse yet...when it’s raining. So, take a little break. Explore around a bit, but get your campsite in order as soon as you can.
Picking a good camping spot isn’t always easy. A flat, level clearing, shealtered by some trees, and not too far from clean water. It's important to follow the rules of backcountry camping. Not all locations have identical rules and regulations, but they’re going to be very similar. Stay at least one hundred feet away from any lake or stream. Camp in designated areas, if possible. Much Colorado doesn’t allow campfires in the backcountry, no matter what, so be sure you know what you can or cannot do. And, always practice Leave No Trace.
After camp was ready, a tour around the lake was all I wanted. Lonesome Lake is chock-full of interesting places to explore. Boulders and rocks decorate the entire area and beg for you to climb around on them. Between the rocks are carpets of green grass, accented by vivacious Indian paintbrush and luminous fireweed. Pockets of krummholz cling to the rocks, and soak in the sun's rays. The growing season is short up here, so take a cue from the plants, and soak it all in while you can.
Rainy nights, Sunrise delights
I knew it would rain. The weather forecasts called for mixed weather most of the first night, and mixed is exactly what I got. It wasn’t a torrential downpour, but enough to keep me my tent for a few hours. I was looking for clear skies by sunset, but ended up with a blanket of gray clouds.
I had mixed feelings about the rain. On one hand, a calm rain adds to the mood. The sound of rain bouncing off my tent can be very soothing. If it’s pouring, hard-driving rain, not so much. But, I also want the skies to be clear enough for a good sunset or sunrise. I wasn't going to get a radiant sunset, but I would settle for a good sunrise.
Well, my wishes came true. The storm clouds passed and the sunrise filled the sky with warm orange and pink clouds. The early light caught the wildflowers and intensified their already stunning colors. High country sunrises provide some of the best experiences, and set the mood for the rest of the day.
Exploratorium (Colorado style)
After breakfast I decided to do a little exploring. The surrounding hillsides provide spectacular viewpoints of the glacial valley, and lake. Elk and deer must like the views too. There were tracks all over the place. Even though I didn’t see them from the campsite, it was obvious they had been there during the night.
Walking the hillside, you couldn’t take a step without finding a cluster of colorful flowers under your feet. The remaining snow clung to shadowy pockets, but continued to melt, creating little waterfalls, and streams. They trickled over and under rocks, and collected in small pools.
Billowing clouds marched across the sky, shading the sun, before the rays burst through again. The beams of sunlight washed over me, and then faded away, reappearing on the opposite hillside.
After a few hours of hiking around and exploring, I headed back to camp. Like clockwork, the iron-gray clouds crowded the sky, and traded puffy, happy for dark, threatening clouds.
A steady breeze kept it a little cool, but also kept the more annoying bugs away. Afternoon became evening, and another rain shower moved in. Classic summertime weather. Another evening sunset lost to an impenetrable sky. Clouds 2 - Sunset 0.
Up And At ‘em
Wait, how could it already be time to go?
The sun must have know this was my last day, because I got a magnificent sunrise. So, I guess the score should be Clouds 2 - Sunrise 2.
The morning I leave camp is always sad. Sure, I know I can’t stay up here forever, but I wish I could. The joy of sitting next to a motionless lake. Total silence from everyday sounds, and nothing but natural beauty surrounding me. It’s not easy to leave it behind. I don’t get to have “total wilderness” daily. And, I don’t think I would ever get tired of it, but it does makes me appreciate it even more while I’m there.
After my simple breakfast of instant oatmeal (Maple & Brown Sugar, of course), I packed up, and took one last walk around the lake. I drank up the views, and breathed in the clean air. I even saw two marmots barking at each other, running around, and tussling over something. I’m sure they were fighting over who gets to have their picture taken. Marmot are selfish when it comes to the spotlight.
Some of the best camping memories I have come from trips I’ve planned out, every detail thought over and blueprinted. But Lonesome Lake showed me how to let loose and go for it. Grabbing a map, picking a spot, and then seeing what's there, can work out. I guess all my training from spinning a decorative-globe around paid off.