July 9, 2015
For the first time in 4 days, we woke to sun. Immediately, we spread out our dank clothes on trees, tables, and the fire pit in an attempt to dry our most paramount gear. Today, we head towards East Spanish Peak, which burned in 2013. Tomorrow, we sample its sister mountain, West Spanish Peak at 13,600 feet. The two peaks loom over the region, spewing the thunderheads that have soaked us to the bone.
Despite the precipitation, Colorado has been good to us and extremely enchanting. We spent the first few days outside of Pagosa Springs, a quant resort town with amazing Forest Service access. The highlight was the Rainbow Trail, which meandered along the West Fork of the San Juan River through a deep canyon. Saxifraga hung like moss from the steep weeping basalt cliff faces, misted with the roar of the river. The dark clouds above yielded a deluge, and soon soaked us to the bone. Fortunately, we neared the Wolf Creek Pass Hot Springs and warmed ourselves in the natural pools.
The next day we sampled in the morning and then headed to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument for some recreation. Now, with a few hundred miles on our boots, hiking to the tallest sand dune in North America sounded relaxing. On top, the sand ripped at our clothes and dark clouds continued to wet us. The view was astounding; to the east the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with several 14,000ft peaks shadowed the massive dunes. The following day, for the first time since New Mexico, I reentered the Sangres in search of Saxifraga near lower Willow Lake.
The ranger at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument proclaimed, “The trail to Willow Lake is the most beautiful hike in all of Colorado!” Even with those high expectations, Willow Lake did not disappoint. The 10-mile round-trip hike with 2800 feet of elevation gain crossed 3 raging creeks, passed a half dozen large cascades, and lifted us into the heart of the Sangre De Cristos.
Nestled under two 14,000+ foot peaks: Challenger Point and Kit Carson Mountain, Willow is truly a gem among alpine lakes. The lake is fed by two one-hundred foot waterfalls at the Eastern edge; freefalling from vertical granite cliffs. For brief periods, the clouds parted, the wind ceased, and the waterfalls reflected perfectly in the still lake. I took the opportunity to undress and jump in; it was as cold as it looked. Saxifraga grew on the western shore of the lake, and there seemed to be no way to reach it without crossing Willow Creek or the lake. Until, we found an old Canoe, likely left by the Forest Service. How it was brought to the lake, so high in the mountains, remains a marvelous mystery. We loaded the boat and crossed the lake, soon finding a robust population of our flower on the other shore. After sampling, we paddled under the waterfalls, circumnavigating the lake, and rejuvenating our souls. So far, we agree with the Ranger at Great Sand Dunes! We caught the entire adventure on video and we will share it soon.
As I write this, my faithful companion Matt drives us towards East Spanish peak. We just crossed a sign warning: Entering Burn Area. Conifers are blackened to either side of county road 312, and the NW flank of East Spanish Peak is scorched. Time to boot up!