22 July 2014

Capitol-Snowmass: Avalanche Creek

White River National Forest

Locate the trailhead.


DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4

Day 2. The clear night skies stayed that way overnight even though I did not trust them to. Having breakfast and almost packed up, my neighbor comes over to make sure I have everything I need again. He was planning to follow my route for a while, then take a trail to the west and cut back over an unmaintained trail that is rumored to remain passable over Avalanche Pass before joining with the current trail again. He has had second thoughts about the unmaintained trail and will instead continue down this trail and climb back up Hell Roaring to a trailhead a little more than a mile down the road from Capitol Ditch and Creek. There are many loops possible in this area. It is probably odd to feel a sense of loss because so much of trail maintenance is the feet passing over it and now this trail will get one less set, but I do feel it.

When breakfast is done, the last of the gear packed up, and the half mile walked back to the junction, I begin the task of figuring out exactly where this trail goes. The sign says to look behind you. Yesterday, I finally found it dropping down and to the left to the creek to cross. The plants are wet and lean over the trail well to give my legs a good soaking. The creek is wide and a few of the rocks are a stretch, but it is just a rock hop to cross. On the other side, the trail is a bit more distinct through a bit of mud and a trickle of a stream. Cut trees and water bars show I managed the first 50 feet just fine. I then try to lose it in some willows beside a slightly larger stream. For the most part, the trail is clear, even as it passes by large cairns around the edge of a meadow.

rocky section of trail with background peaks
Just get up above the willows and the trail is nice and clear.

ponds in a meadow
Meadows often hide a trail, but keeping to the edge makes it better.

small weed nest in the dirt
I never would have noticed these except the parent shot out of the hole in the ground just before I got to it.


The trail climbs around to above the meadow and empties out onto a rock slope. It makes short and steep switchbacks up the slope and it looks like many people coming down miss it going off to the side and make their way to the big cairn below instead. There is more meadow, then another clamber over a rock slide, then big, long, easy switch backs up to the top of an unnamed pass (does it count as a pass?) between the main fork and east fork of Avalanche Creek. The switchbacks extend both ways, but the lower section is now quite lost.

the same mountains as backdrop that are above the lake, somewhere below
The bowl above Avalanche Lake, although the lake itself is far below.

Capitol Peak
One last look at Capitol Peak rising to over 14k feet.

big, easy switchbacks up to the ridge line
Some of them are lost, but this part of the big, easy switchbacks that gradually climb to the top still cling to the hillside.

At the top, the trail follows the ridge for a little way, then starts down the east fork side with a couple more switchbacks. The first of these makes a great second breakfast stop. Examining the rim on the far side, I can see the trail a bit lower, but still very high up. Working backward, I can see a few spots of trail along the line between there and here.

looking back along the ridge
Looking back along the ridge and the trail.

east fork Avalanche Creek
Looking out over the east fork of Avalanche Creek, I can see a line of trail high on the left in various places.

After the two switchbacks, the trail drops slowly as it traces a route around the upper edge of the valley. I am crossing grassy sections, then rocky sections. Water crosses the path at the marked blue lines and a few extra places as I go. There is some slight difficulty navigating one new rockfall over which no established trail yet passes just before I find myself in vast expanses of high meadow. It looks like a stunning place to camp if one can find a dry place to pitch a tent. The trail fades in and out along these, but the next part can be found as long as one aims at the correct side of the giant rock cairns set along the way, sometimes more than 20 feet off to the side of the trail. Sometimes I find myself tracking the previous hiker, who probably was not too long ago, by the trampled grasses. There are indications of recent passing frequently, but there is no one else on the trail today.

something like a brussel sprout, but probably entirely different
And sometimes there is a mix of rocky and meadow on a steep slope full of flowers.

rocks and grass and snow and a couple trees
A couple trees standing among the grass and rocks and snow.

giant cairns marking indistinct trail
Looking back over a section of trail marked with four giant cairns although both trail and cairns can be difficult to find.

ponds in the meadow
Looking ahead, the trail is easy to find for a moment as it passes shallow ponds. One of these had streams of fat bubbles flowing out of the bottom in a few spots.

The trail seems to descend directly along a stream bed and trying to stay out of it just means losing it and getting into some short cliffs. It does not seem like a reasonable way to go, but then there is a cairn way down the hill the way I am going. This leads me finally to the actual East Fork Avalanche Creek. From here, the trail starts climbing again. Along the way, there are the remains of an old cart or plow, and then there is another section of big, easy switchbacks climbing slowly into the valley of a little tributary.

at Avalanche Creek (east fork) and looking down it
Finally to the bottom and ready to start climbing back out of East Fork Avalanche Creek.

climbing again to get out of the drainage
Good trail again as I get onto the part of the trail I was able to pick out from when I just got into this part of the drainage.

cute ponds along the way
Idyllic ponds and rock islands make a peaceful feeling.

The fading and returning trail beside a few giant cairns continues until I cross the little tributary and find myself without any direction at all. The trail has been gone for a bit and I can see no cairns up ahead. Sometimes I see rock piles that look like collapsed cairns, but there are none that could have been cairns either. Scanning higher and higher up, I see no indication of trail. Scanning the various saddles around me, all of which look obtainable, I can see nothing like a trail. If I go over the wrong one, I could be in the West Fork Avalanche Creek instead of North Fork Lost Creek and Silver Creek. The map indicates following the creek briefly, then crossing over and continuing in roughly the same direction as it. Walking this way, there is eventually a short dirt track that buries itself into the ledge of some snow near a cairn, all of which were hidden by a hill. Following it around, I get in view of a pass that was not visible before and seems to have a small cluster of day hikers on it.

a little bit more trail desired
A little bit of trail and a cairn just before things get confusing. The trail fades out before the creek ahead, then a couple tracks cross it and almost climb the hill. After that, just follow the creek direction faithfully.

looking back over the high meadows and even to Capitol Peak
Another last view of Capitol Peak with the high meadows now below me between us.

Mt. Richey
Mount Richey (near peak) rising just 12470 feet. It looks like an approach from the north would be best, but even the 12ers in this area can be tough.

The day hikers are helpful in more ways than indicating which is the correct pass. The trail heads down over a steep snow patch which is difficult to cross. One of the hikers has been sliding down the snow patches and decides this one will be great. Another one who has not been sliding down everything follows. After the two experiments come out safely, it seems silly not to go ahead and do it myself, so down the hill I slide saving the knees a hundred feet or so of wear and tear.

Silver Creek Pass
The view from Silver Creek Pass (as called by one sign) over Silver Creek and North Fork Lost Trail Creek.

I have been dreading the next section of the hike because it involves dropping all the way down to a road and walking it for another two miles before climbing up again. The day hikers point out that there is a route that crosses over without dropping down to the road. Coming down, there is a flat on a ridge (with trees and meadow on the left in the photo above) with a number of trails leading up to it. This is the start of the trail, which will not be distinct until I come to a giant cairn like a dead yucca plant, but should be easy to follow after that. They stress that I need to stay high if there seems to be a choice. I should not drop except at a serpentine area.

I cross to a trail I can see and follow it. It has a lot of prints, even a few horse hooves that are shod with a shoe that has a couple spikes, of sorts, like shoes for the game have. It all goes to a section of slide that is difficult to get a safe footing on, but I manage. There does not seem to be the same traffic above the slide as there was below. There are many trails at the top and I can see one larger trail below.

Silver Creek Pass
Looking back on Silver Creek Pass from the flat on the ridge.

Maroon Bells
A first look at the Maroon Bells. This peak is said to be the most photographed in Colorado, generally from the other side. It is another 14er, but unlike the others is very obviously made of a sedimentary rock rather than granite.

Trails go either back to the mountain or down, so I follow directions and keep high. These trails are numerous as game trails and as I pass into the next valley, there is a smell just as strong as the cattle grazing allotment, but definitely from a different creature. The meadow here has been mowed by teeth. I pass over a pile of snow and up again along more game trail. The smell is less and less with each little valley and gradually I lose the game trails as I contour around. As the slope gets steeper, I become aware that it is shale under my feet instead of something that might be more expected at 11400 feet. The shale under my feet keeps getting steeper and steeper until I have had enough. I have not found any cairns and the trail is getting less. The map shows this is not as steep as it gets. As I examine it, I see a spot where the contours are a little wider for a moment further down and think that is where I would put a trail. I can see the trail far below and start for it. More than 200 vertical feet below, I come to a track with boot prints. It is probably the one I saw below me from the first ridge. I decide to give it a chance, and in less than a quarter of a mile I am on the serpentine section. Not only are they switchbacks, but they are another section of the very easy grade switchbacks like I have come to twice already today. It gets lost in a flat section of willows surrounded by cliffs, but it is obvious where I need to get out of the section. There is a short down climb on a rock with excellent footholds every few feet. Oh, and there are the waterfalls. They are not exactly as I visualized from the description of appearing to come directly from the lake, but they are impressive. Then I am delivered to the main trail.

steep on the left, trail below, Maroon Bells ahead
The Geneva Lake Trail can be made out on this side of the creek far below. The landscape here is too steep for contouring without a trail safely.

large waterfall and larger cascade dropping from the lake
A big waterfall and a massive cascade that flow from Geneva Lake.

much smaller waterfall on a tributary
The willows of the flat surround a creek that has its own waterfall as it comes down the cliffs above.

Getting to the trail means finding a lot of people. This part coincides with a very famous loop around Maroon Bells that gets quite a bit of traffic. A hundred feet from joining the trail, there is a stream crossing and a fellow far up the stream gathering water for a group. Two women wait for him, one mentioning that she had not expected him to go so far for it. The lake is another area where campfires are not allowed and camping is only in designated areas. I did not see the sign since I came by an unmaintained route and initially find a nice, well used spot by the lake that I like. Asking someone, I find that there are sites and I probably ought to be in one. Heading up the trail, the first few I see are taken. Site 4 is up the hill a bit and looks uninviting, so I try for it. At the top, there is an empty site and I can hear water flowing. It is a much nicer site than I expected and it is mine. The trail continues well used past the site and past the rather good water source. Satellite images suggest this goes quite far up the drainage and may be used for the western approach of Snowmass Mountain.

turns of the creek that almost go back on each other
Between the lake and the waterfall, the creek performs a series of extreme meanders.

Geneva Lake
Arrived at Geneva Lake. Now to find an official campsite since this spot will not do.

I decide not to worry about rain in the night so much this time, but set up my little roof so it drapes like mosquito netting. The bugs are a little on the annoying side. My campsite even has a bench for watching what there is of a sunset with a southern view.

sunset glowing on ridges
The sunset touches the ridges such that it just sets off the edges from my campsite.

Continue reading: day 3




©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 4 August 2014

2 comments:

Derek (100 Peaks) said...

I need to get back to Colorado. Thanks for sharing.

Valerie Norton said...

I fully agree, and I just got back!