Willow Lakes and Salmon Lake

I’m a little bit ashamed to admit how much of my life is spent on autopilot. We all have a tendency to let ourselves get stuck in ruts: “I’m doing this because I’ve done this before and I’m used to it.” That sort of thing. I think a good portion of my choices of where to hike has been out of laziness. I continue to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park because I’m comfortable there. It’s close, I know my way around the Park, I have a first-rate guide, and so on. It only takes me an hour and a half or so to get to any east-side trailhead and about two hours for a west-side hike.

I started getting away from the Park when they instituted their timed entry pass system. I climbed out of my rut and looked around. The Indian Peaks Wilderness is close – just south of RMNP. And James Peak is adjacent to IPW. Again, trailheads for IPW and JPW are close and can be reached in about an hour and a half.

Climbing further from my rut, I finally realized just how many hiking trails I can reach in no more time than it takes to reach a west side trailhead in RMNP.

One of those trailheads is the Willowbrook trailhead in a residential area of Silverthorne. This trailhead can be used to reach Salmon Lake and Willow Lakes, in southeastern Eagles Nest Wilderness. These lakes are surrounded by the dramatic cliffs of a number of 13ers: Rain Peak, East Thorn, and Red Peak.

I don’t have a good guidebook for this area, so I’m doing my research online. I’ve been around the internet long enough to know that not everything I read there is true. I don’t generally think this is much of an issue when it comes to researching hikes, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind. For example, two resources I commonly use are AllTrails and ProTrails (those links go to their respective Salmon Lake route descriptions). AllTrails says it’s a 9.8-mile round trip to Salmon Lake but ProTrails says it’s 15.3. ProTrails would have us start at a different trailhead. I use CalTopo maps and the distances given there match AllTrails.

A couple of notes before we start. First, the parking lot here holds only about a dozen cars but there is a shuttle available. Arrive early or find the shuttle. Second, there is a large network of trails in the area and there is a series of trail junctions. For hikes where I’m not going off-trail, I don’t always carry a map. Bring a map for this one.

Thursday, August 17

I arrived at the trailhead a bit before 7:30. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and I’m guessing those belong to backpackers who spent the night at one of the lakes. CalTopo shows trails starting at two points near the parking lot, perhaps a hundred feet apart. This is incorrect. There is only one trail from here. There’s a place to register for overnight stays in the Wilderness. There is no fee, and no registration is required for day hikes.

The trail starts in a residential area and passes through Summit County open space before reaching the Eagles Nest boundary about three-quarters of a mile. CalTopo shows four trail junctions before the boundary, but there are only two. The forest is sparse enough to allow views of Silverthorne and Dillon Reservoir and dam. Alongside the lower sections of trail, beetle-kill trees are stacked in pyramids ready for burning when there’s snow on the ground.

Shortly after entering the Wilderness, the trail meets the Gore Range Trail. For the next mile and a half, the trail passes through an interesting section of forest. At first, it reminded me of the area around Ouzel Falls about ten or fifteen years after the fire. All the big trees were dead, the living trees are no more than ten or twelve feet tall. With no big trees, the views open up.

Here, there are no signs of fire in the last century. Hiking up the trail I didn’t notice it, but on the way down you can see that all the dead trees are lined up in the same direction. Why are all the dead trees lined up so nicely?

This area was greatly affected by beetle kill quite a while ago. It was one of the first places I recall seeing beetle-kill forest. The beetles burrow into mature trees, all with trunks at least ten inches in diameter. So all the big trees die, but beetle-kill trees take a while to fall over. They go from reddish-brown to gray and finally get knocked over randomly by wind or snow over the years. And they’d fall over in all sorts of directions.

I think this area was hit by a microburst. Two or three or four minutes of very high winds. Even live trees can’t stand up to the force; this dead forest never had a chance. Any creature unfortunate to be in the area was unlikely to survive. The dead trees are so densely packed, that getting through this area without a trail would be impossible. You just can’t bushwhack through it, you’d have to detour. Truly impassable without a trail.

Because the deadfall was so dense, I couldn’t see too many stumps. But I don’t think there were as many stumps as trees. Most of the trunks looked to be snapped off at the roots.

The next trail junction is the Willow Lake trail. Here the trail starts climbing steadily and relentlessly. It’s not terribly steep, but it goes on and on at a constant rate. On the way down, even knowing how long it went on, I was surprised at how long it went on. Above the top of this grade, though, the trail mellows considerably, climbing no more than two hundred feet a mile (with one exception).

After the big climb, the trail traverses a steep valley wall and reaches the final trail junction of the hike: the Salmon Lake trail. My plan is to visit both Salmon Lake and Upper Willow Lake (and lay eyes on the other various Willow Lakes). By my reckoning, it’s 5.8 miles to Upper Willow Lake with a one-mile round-trip side trip to Salmon for a total of 12.6 miles and maybe 2,800 vertical feet.

I would do Upper Willow Lake first, and if I didn’t feel like doing Salmon it would be a good excuse to come back. Alternatively, it would make a good single-night backpacking trip.

Continuing toward Upper Willow Lake after the Salmon junction, the forest thins again, revealing the dramatic faces of the mountains and ridges containing the valley: the flank of Red Peak to the south, Capricorn, Gemini Twins, and Sagittarius to the west, and East Thorn to the north. The trail meanders along a stream and among and along four or five lakes and ponds before reaching its final destination.

I stayed at the upper lake for forty-five minutes. I had my picnic lunch first. Instead, I should have taken a bunch of pictures first. By the time I was done eating, the few puffy clouds of earlier had grown big and gray. So it goes. After lunch, I explored for a few minutes before heading back down.

Back at the junction, still feeling fresh, I headed up to Salmon Lake. This is the exception to the generally mellow nature of the trail above the big climb. Here we are on a section reminiscent of the big climb. It is mercifully shorter, but at first seems almost malicious: we have climbed a hundred feet or more above Salmon Lake.

  • hiking trail with pyramids of beetle-kill
  • view of East Thorn mountain
  • two 14ers in the distance
  • one of the several Willow Lakes
  • one of the several Willow Lakes
  • Upper Willow Lake
  • Upper Willow Lake and Zodiac Ridge
  • Dillon Lake and dam in teh distance
  • first glimpse of Salmon Lake
  • Salmon Lake

Salmon Lake, I think, is not as scenic as Upper Willow Lake. True, that’s not a low bar. The trail skirts north of the lake, avoiding a giant boulder field, dumping the hiker at the willow-choked western end. Half, or more, of the shore is talus.

By counting the number of hikers I encountered all day, I doubt the parking lot ever filled up. There were only two cars there in addition to mine when I got back to the trailhead. I didn’t meet more than a dozen hikers and backpackers.

On the hike out, I got sprinkled on a bit, just enough for me to put the raincoat on. There was a thunderstorm across the valley to the east, the thunder distinct but not nearby. I got a big dose of the solitude I enjoy. Not a bad way to spend the day.

Due to the generally sparse forest for much of the hike, the views are above average. There’s only one section of trail I found difficult. It’s certainly worthy of a return visit.


Not an out-and-back, this hike was a Y. The stem is the base of the Y.

Hike InHike Out
Trailhead7:32 am4:54 pm
North Willow Creek jct7:50 am4:36 pm
Three Peaks jct8:06 am4:18 pm
ENW Boundary8:09 am4:15 pm
Gore Range jct8:16 am4:06 pm
Maryland Creek jct9:08 am3:03 pm
Salmon Lake jct10:13 am2:02 pm
Upper Willow Lake
Salmon Lake jct10:13 am12:55 pm
Upper Willow Lake11:13 am11:59 am
Salmon Lake
Salmon Lake jct12:55 pm2:02 pm
Salmon Lake1:15 pm1:45 pm

A few more photos are available here and here.

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.