Of the five hikes I figured it would take to reach all the named lakes in James Peak Wilderness, the hike to Heart Lake is the southernmost and the longest. It may also be the most crowded. Searching online sources for information about this hike yields a variety of conflicting information. One site says it’s 8.7 miles (round trip) to Heart Lake, another says 9.7 miles. Each gives a different number for elevation gain. I’m going with 8.8 miles and 2,061′ (net).
Saturday, August 7
This may not be the best day for a hike. In one way, it may be the worst. We’re getting the full effect of the smoke from the wildfires on the west coast. Today, according to the local news, Denver had the worst air quality of anywhere in the world. Normally, the sun is far too bright to look directly at even a few minutes after it rises. But the last few days, it was an orange disk, easily looked at. And the last few days were clear compared to today.
Gordon and Eric went with me. I picked them up at the little park and ride at the intersection of highways 72 and 93. When we passed through one of the last meadows before reaching the parking lot at the trailhead, several cars were stopped on the road. The occupants were watching a moose that was ambling eastward near the edge of the meadow. A few yards farther up the road, we spotted two deer, antlers in velvet, crossing the road. As it turns out, these three were the only large animals we spotted all day.
Arriving at the trailhead, even though we were nearly an hour earlier than I was two weeks ago, again the parking lot was nearly full. It was a bit breezy, and a bit on the chilly side. I carry a light rain jacket in my pack, but there’s not enough room for me to carry anything heavier, so I almost decided to take my hoodie off and leave it in the car. But I made a sound choice, and kept it on, figuring I’d take it off before long and end up spending the day with it tied around my waist.
Visibility was very bad. I couldn’t even tell how cloudy it was. Certainly, there were clouds. The very tops of a few peaks were shrouded, but aside from that, the sky was filled with a haze somewhere between orange and brown. I don’t think we could see anything more than about three miles away. At least it didn’t smell of smoke.
I’d say that the trail to Heart Lake is the main trail through the Wilderness. The trails to all the other lakes here are spurs off this trail. In turn, we arrive at the junctions with trails to Forest Lakes, Crater Lakes, and Clayton Lake. (Arapaho Lakes are reached via a spur trail off the Forest Lakes trail.) I chatted with a volunteer later in the day who told me that the Arapaho Lakes trail was “closed” in 2008, and the Clayton Lake trail quite some time before that. I asked him specifically about Clayton Lake. He said the route of the former trail is pretty rough and that a better way is to go to Crater Lakes and contour around a ridge to Clayton Lake. So I guess I’ll visit Crater Lakes before I make any attempt on Clayton (and the Iceberg Lakes above it).
From the junction with the Forest Lakes trail to Rogers Pass Lake, the hike is a pleasant walk through forest. It runs alongside (or, at least, never far from) South Boulder Creek and never gets very steep. There are a number of passages where we had a bit of difficulty getting through mud bogs, particularly as a backpacker told me it had rained for three hours last night.
Just before I met that backpacker, I passed a group of campers. Their tents were several yards off the trail on one side and they were grouped together on the other side. At first, I thought they had a radio on. (Okay, these days probably not a radio. But some music replay device.) But it was no radio: they were in a circle, holding songbooks and singing. Two of them had small drums. That was an interesting place for a recital. As a some-times backpacker, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the drums weighed.
We arrived at James Pass Lake (on some maps, I see it called James Peak Lake) at 9:30. There were dozens of people there, some who had passed us on the trail, most who had camped there.
From James Pass Lake, the trail crosses a short ridge to reach Heart Lake. Both lakes feature grassy shores and little to no talus and only sparse willow, so they could be fairly easily circumnavigated. This also means that there is precious little shelter from the wind.
I was glad I didn’t leave my hoodie in the car. Not only had I not taken it off yet, but by the time we arrived at Heart Lake, I was considering digging my light rain jacket out of the pack so I could add another layer.
The trail deposits us on the windswept south side of the lake. We agreed that it wasn’t a very pleasant place for a picnic given the current conditions, so we decided to work our way around the east shore, past the outlet, and into a small copse of krummholz. Even here, it was a bit on the blustery side. We chowed down and when finished, didn’t dilly-dally. We hit the trail for the hike out.
Normally, Gordon is a much faster hiker than I am and no matter how much I try to keep up a good pace, he’s right behind me. By now, though, my legs were feeling a bit sore so I didn’t try very hard to keep up a good pace. Gordon, though, wasn’t close behind. I didn’t see him again until we were back at the trailhead. He showed up at the car with a phone full of mushroom pictures. On my hike to Arapaho Lakes, I took about a dozen fungus photos, thinking I’d spotted a nice variety. Gordon had at least a hundred pictures, and not too many were duplicates. Clearly, he was paying much more attention to the fungus among us than I was.
When I encounter a small number of hikers on the trail, it’s easy to keep track. On the hike to Arapaho Lakes, I met four other hikers when I was off the main trail. Today, I certainly would have lost track. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I saw on the order of 300 other hikers. This is about a nine-mile hike, so it’s not quite a “conga line hike”, but it’s close.
I asked some hikers I met at the Crater Lakes junction how crowded that trail was. “It’s pretty crowded.” I’m not sure I’ll do another James Peak Wilderness hike this season, but if I do, I’ll find out just how crowded the Crater Lakes trail is.
So, on a day where the air quality had the weather service telling people to stay indoors and not to exert themselves, where the haze made for some of the worst visibility I’ve ever encountered (except when raining or snowing) and resulting in some really poor photos, hiking crowded trails, and dealing with a cold wind, you might think it wasn’t any fun. But it was a good day.