Pitkin Lake

This is my first hike in Eagles Nest Wilderness and the Gore range. The Gore range towers above the western side of Colorado Highway 9 between Dillon Reservoir and Green Mountain Reservoir. Vail is nearly due west from Dillon, but I-70 travels nearly twice the distance to get there, heading southwest to Copper Mountain before turning northwest towards Vail to go around the southern end of the Gore range. Pitkin Lake is reached from the western boundary of Eagles Nest Wilderness near East Vail.

Pitkin Lake is situated at 11,351′ above sea level immediately south of the ridge that connects East Partner Peak and West Partner Peak (both above 13,000′) and immediately east of the ridge that connects West Partner Peak and Outpost Peak. To the east of the lake are the rugged peaks of Mount Solitude and Climbers Point.

To reach Pitkin Lake, take exit 180 from I-70 and head east on Fall Line Drive to the parking lot at the end of the road. It holds only about a dozen cars. An alternative to parking there is to take the shuttle bus from Vail which serves both the Pitkin Lake trailhead and the Booth Lake trailhead.

Pitkin Lake and Pitkin Creek are presumably both named for Frederick Pitkin, who was the second governor of Colorado. When searching for places named for Frederick Pitkin, I find a town, a county, and several streets in various Colorado cities and towns but this lake and creek are not mentioned. It seems a six-block-long street in Saguache is more notable than this lake and creek. I disagree.

When researching this hike, I found that ProTrails lists the distance as 8.9 miles round trip and AllTrails has it at 9.6 miles. I find that a non-trivial distance. After hiking it, I can’t help but wonder if it might even clock in at 10 miles. In any case, the trailhead is at about 8,425′ and the lake is at 11,351′ for a net elevation gain of about 2,925′.

Saturday, August 12

When I planned this hike, I didn’t know there was a shuttle bus that served this trailhead, so, of course, my parking paranoia was in high gear. I was happy to learn, then, that my son wanted to ride his downhill bike at Vail so I asked if I could get him to drop me off at the trailhead and pick me up when he was done biking. He agreed. He deposited me at the trailhead at 9:20 and said he’d be able to pick me up at 5:30 or 5:45. This seemed like an ideal plan. It should only take me about six hours to make the hike, giving me two or two and a half hours of free time. I would have a leisurely day!

Given that the trail climbs about three thousand feet in four and a half or five miles, I’d say this trail is, overall, a fairly steep trail. It’s not uniformly steep, of course. There are three or four stretches I’d call “steep”, connected by mellower sections of trail. The steepest of the steep sections is the first half mile of the trail, climbing six hundred feet above I-70 to where the roar of the highway can no longer be heard.

The trail passes through mixed forests of pine and spruce, wide grassy meadows, and groves of aspen. The meadows are filled with a rainbow of wildflowers and the buzzing of bees. The meadows provide open views of the surrounding terrain. The forest sections are seldom very dense, with forest floors carpeted with lush greenery. The trail is generally quite narrow and in some places passes through foliage that is shoulder-high.

I started my hike at almost the same time as a couple with a black dog. We passed each other three or four times over the first half of the hike. Each time we’d pass, the dog would bark and growl at me. We exchanged a few words each time we passed. Once, they said they weren’t liking the looks of the sky. On the drive up, Michael and I mentioned it too: it was mostly overcast. We hoped it would clear up as the day progressed.

On my last passing the couple and dog, it had just started raining. I said, “Time to put the raincoat on!” Their response was, “We’re turning around!” I continued up the trail, the rain increasing in intensity. It wasn’t long before the crack of thunder shook creation. I didn’t see the lightning, but it was clearly in my immediate vicinity.

Given the extent of the cloud cover, I had no sense that this squall would be short-lived. It could rain all day for all I knew. I’d been hiking a bit over two hours, so it would take me two hours or so to get back to the trailhead. If Michael was getting rained on, I didn’t know if he’d be wanting to call it quits or not. After a few more thunderbolts I decided to turn back.

This seemed like the correct choice. It was raining so hard, the trail was often a river. My hiking pants aren’t waterproof and although my raincoat kept my torso, arms, and head dry, I was soaked below the waist. Under the partial cover of a tree, I checked the phone. I had service! I texted Michael and gave him a situation report. He told me it wasn’t raining where he was. Trying to send a couple of text messages, I discovered how poorly phones work in the rain: I couldn’t unlock the phone with my fingerprint, and the touchscreen doesn’t handle water very well. The phone also helpfully informed me that “water or debris is in the USB port”.

After backtracking for about half an hour, and losing significant elevation, the rain lightened and finally stopped. I was in a large meadow that had a nice view to the south. I decided to have my picnic lunch here, sitting on a wet rock in a wet meadow. While I was there, I was passed by a number of hikers making their way down the trail. Some turned around before reaching the lake, others said they’d turned around within minutes of getting there.

While I ate, I pondered my situation. It had stopped raining but was still overcast. Would the rain return? Two hikers I chatted with told me about the shuttle. If I went back to the trailhead, I could take the shuttle into town and Michael’s day would be unaffected by mine. On the other hand, I was already halfway to the lake. Should I turn around again in an attempt to reach it?

I decided to try for the lake. I reckoned it would take me three hours to get from the lake back to the trailhead. If Michael was going to be there at 5:30, that meant I could leave the lake as late as 2:30. It was about 12:45. By 1:15 I was back to where I originally gave up. Surely I would be able to reach the lake in another hour.

By a bit after 1:30, I was catching up to a couple who had passed me when I was having my lunch. He was leading the way; she was slower. He’d stop and wait until she caught up to him, then start again, not giving her any breaks. I was just marginally faster than she was and it took me quite a while before I passed them. Along the way, I’d hear her asking him variations of “Are we there yet?” His answer was always a variation of “It won’t be long now.”

When I finally did pass them, at about 2:10, I asked him if he thought we’d reach the lake by 2:30, as that was when I figured I’d have to turn around. “Oh, yeah. It’s not more than 10 minutes away.” I think he had no real idea how much longer it would take and the “10 more minutes” was to reassure her. I’m not sure it worked.

I arrived at the lake at 2:29. Aargh! Time to go already. It had begun sprinkling again in the last few minutes before getting to the lake. I didn’t have time to take even a short break. I was heading back down the trail after staying there only nine minutes. The couple arrived just as I was leaving. It took them half an hour to hike the stretch he said it’d only take ten minutes to do.

A few minutes below the lake, I was passed by two hikers I’d briefly chatted with when I was eating my lunch. When I first met them, I told them that I’d given up due to the thunderstorm. Passing me leaving the lake, they recognized me. “Glad you decided to make it to the lake after all!” I didn’t tell them how short a time I was actually there.

On the hike out, the sprinkling turned into full-on rain. It rained for a bit more than the first hour of my hike down. It wasn’t raining hard enough to turn the trail into a river, but it did make many of the water crossings more entertaining. The rain came and went, sometimes going away long enough for my pants to dry again. Then, I’d get to one of those narrow spots where the trail passed through shoulder-high vegetation and I’d get soaked again from all the water on the leaves.

When I returned to my earlier picnic location, I’d been hiking non-stop for about four hours. Okay, technically I stood still for about 30 seconds to take pictures. I stopped here for a short break and ate my peach. I don’t know what it is about eating a peach on a hike, but they always seem to taste so much better on the trail than in my house.

Michael texted me about this time asking for my ETA to the trailhead. I made a guess, but I wasn’t very confident about it. By now, the lifts had ceased operating and he had a little time to kill. I tried to pick up my pace.

Then I came across the nude guy. At first, I thought I was imagining. Did I really see a nude guy cross the trail ahead of me? A few yards later, there he was. Standing on the side of the trail, clutching his undershorts in both hands in front of him, covering his privates. Out of self-defense, I kept eye contact with him until I passed him. In spite of his nudity, he attempted conversation: “Did you get caught by the rain?” Normally, I’d stop and chat; tell him my story of the thunderstorm and my turning around, then being rained on for an hour on the hike out. Now, though? I answered him, “Sure did,” without slowing down.

A few minutes later, I-70 came into sight. I stopped to text Michael that I’d be at the trailhead in 15 minutes or so. Before I could get the phone out of my pocket, nude guy was right behind me. He wasn’t nude anymore, but I thought it was a bit creepy that he followed me so closely. I’d love to know what nude guy’s story was, but there was no way I was going to ask him.

I ended up back at the trailhead on the original schedule – between 5:30 and 5:45. Along the way, I managed to convert a hike with plenty of spare time into one where I had to hustle to be on schedule and changed a 9 or 10-mile hike into more like 12 or 13 miles. Oh well.

I really like this trail. I bet it’s beautiful when the aspen are turning. Heck, I’m sure it’s beautiful anytime it’s not raining! I wouldn’t rule out a return to this lake.