Monday, September 6
Back at the beginning of summer, I postulated that I could visit all the lakes in James Peak Wilderness in five hikes, which could easily be done in one hiking season. I also said I didn’t really plan on doing it. And, here we are, at my fifth hike in JPW. But, because it took me two hikes to get both Forest Lakes, I’m still (at least) one hike away from bagging all the lakes.
I picked Crater Lakes this time. I should be able to get to the highest Crater Lake without too much difficulty. The two lower lakes are only a 5.8-mile round trip, and adding the upper lake only extends the hike another eight tenths and about five hundred feet of elevation gain. Yeah, so the last section of trail is a bit steep…
On my Heart Lake hike, I chatted with a volunteer about getting to Clayton Lake. I asked about the no-longer-maintained trail up the outlet. He said he preferred to go via Crater Lakes. So I wanted to get a good look at any likely places to leave the Crater Lake trail in search of his route.
I got to the parking lot at 7:30 and there was still plenty of parking available. Being a holiday, I expected more people to be here. I entered my info into the logbook and put boots on the trail at 7:44. It’s about a mile and a half to the Crater Lakes trail junction, and I was there at 8:34. It was cool; I wore my hoodie. There was a young guy with an SLR who started only a couple of minutes ahead of me. Overall our pace was almost identical – he was walking faster but stopped often to take pictures. In the end, he arrived at upper Crater Lake only a few minutes before me.
It’s about a mile from the trail junction to the lower Crater Lakes, climbing about 550 feet. But about 450 of those 550 is in the first half-mile from the trail junction up the side of the canyon. That is to say, that half-mile is a bit of a bitch.
That 450-foot climb puts you on a shelf. There are three shelves here. This lower one holds a pond, fed by the lakes above. The middle one has two lakes, a rounder northern one and a thinner southern one. The lakes are separated by a lightly forested isthmus. The small, high shelf is inundated by the upper Crater Lake. The two lower shelves are separated by only a hundred feet of elevation, but reaching the upper lake requires climbing another four hundred feet.
I get ahead of myself. When the climb up from the trail along S. Boulder Creek started leveling off, gaining the shelf, I kept an eye out for anything that looked like an easy way around the ridge to Clayton. I stopped and studied the map a couple of times but drew no conclusions.
Before I knew it, the smaller lake was off to my left. Here the trail started to split. The whole area is laced with a network of social trails, many of which lead you directly into someone’s campsite. Here I encountered two young women, early twenties. They were going to the upper lake as well. In navigating around someone’s tent, I managed to veer more toward the northern lake rather than heading up the obvious trail to my west, where I spotted SLR guy. The young ladies and I bushwacked in his direction.
Here we find ourselves at the base of our last four-hundred-foot ascent. This one starts with a quite steep climb up a loose, sandy surface. I find this stuff treacherous. I slip a lot. I made it up without too much difficulty. I was concerned about the descent, though. I really detest this stuff. Just a few yards away is a stream. It is snow-fed. There is no snow on any of the surrounding mountains, so this stream was just a trickle. It looked like it might be easier for me to go down the dry streambed with much less trepidation than this sandy shit.
At the top of this treacherous bit, the slope of the trail moderates somewhat, and the footing is much improved. The trail, hopping rocks now and then, leads to a saddle above us. This is the apex of our climb. On the saddle, we’re maybe a hundred higher than the lake. Most of the descent down to the lake is rock-hopping.
There’s a prominent rock outcropping that commands a view of the upper lake, the continental divide above it, and the small pond below it. The women took that spot. It was quite windy, they could have it. I put my hoodie back on and tried to find a large rock to sit in the lee of. SLR guy went to the outlet. On a trail on the opposite bank, I spotted a guy walking west.
I sat there for about an hour, had my lunch, enjoyed my can of beer. I had the lake to myself. Well, almost. SLR guy and the young ladies left within twenty minutes or so. Nobody new had arrived. I kept looking for the guy I spotted on the other side of the lake. Never did spot him until he popped up on my left. It probably took him an hour to circumambulate the lake.
A few minutes into the hike down, we come to the crux: descending the treacherous steep slippery shit. I elected to go down the way I came up, thinking if I didn’t like it, I could always change my mind and go down the dry streambed. I took my time. There were quite a few people working their way up, so I had many excuses to pause. A few of them were more bothered by it than I was.
Each pause allowed me to take in the view. I found it particularly rewarding. It’s too bad we continue to suffer the extreme haze from the west coast wildfires. Looking straight up, the sky was almost its normal deep, deep blue. But looking toward the horizon, all is obscured by a brownish-yellow haze.
When I crossed the isthmus between the lakes on the way up, I didn’t appreciate how many trails there were. On the way down, I explored a little. There really are a lot of trails there. When I went to find the trail down, at least twice I thought I’d gotten onto the trail only to come across a bigger trail.
Finally back on the trail below the twin lakes, I resumed my search for likely routes to Clayton. I think there are a couple of possibilities. One of them caught my eye both times I passed it: I took a photo of it both on my way up and back down.
I’m glad I started as early as I did. It’s a relatively short hike. I made it to the upper lake a minute before 10. If parking wasn’t a consideration, I could arrive two hours later and be at the upper lake for a noon picnic. But it would have been a different experience. Instead of half an hour of solitude, I’d have been in a crowd of dozens.
I keep wondering how so many people are on the trails given the size of the parking lot. There was a lot of traffic on the Crater Lakes trail. I took a quick break at the trail junction and watched a parade of hikers go by. Below the junction with the Forest Lakes trail, it was very nearly a “conga-line hike”. And, back at the parking lot, there are plenty of empty spaces.
Almost forgot to mention: I pulled into my parking spot this morning just as a train emerged from the tunnel. First time I’ve seen one. I hear the exhaust fans on every hike, sometimes twice, and I sometimes hear a train whistle, but it was kind of cool to see one come out of the tunnel.
All in all, another glorious day along the Continental Divide.