21 July 2014

Capitol-Snowmass: Capitol Creek

White River National Forest

Locate the trailhead.


DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4

I wanted a backpacking trip for while I was in Colorado, so I asked the internet and came up with this page of "backpacking" hikes. With one loop not quite 8 miles long, it does run a bit short, but the longest loop (second down) looked interesting and would be convent to my location, so I bought the map. Since the last "40 mile, 5 day" loop was so far off, I had to measure it out for myself. My estimate was 43 miles and I expect that to be an underestimate, but it is still well within a 5 day trip. I packed as if for the Sierras, since they are big mountains at the same latitude. Also, being in Breckenridge for nearly a week beforehand should give me a good feel for the likely weather. It could be arrogant, but it seemed reasonable. Rain gear a must since big mountains will make their own weather and are prone to throwing down the drops. With that, planning complete.

I camped out the night before at the Hay Park Trailhead on BLM land, just two miles from the capitol Creek Trailhead. The road is pretty good to this point. One mile up the road, I find that my determination not to walk those two miles of road is vastly outweighed by the foolishness that would be displayed by attempting to drive a vehicle with 6" of clearance and a touch of a nose over the huge holes and large rocks of the single lane road up ahead. It takes a few minutes to figure out how to get turned around in front of the cattle guard at the edge of the forest. A chat with the horsemen saddling up a dozen horses with equipment out of the derelict trailer in the lot at Hay Park tells me I did not miss the trail and I will not be getting there in that. It is a dreary hike up the road to the parking lot and kiosk and wilderness permits (required, but enforcement is rumored to be education) that mark the trailhead. I miss all this because I am so determined to get off the road that I grab the first trail down, the old track that bypasses all that. This dumps me over the side of the ridge and out into a stunning view that is nothing like the road up.

deep red ridge line above green trees
Deep red layered rocks greet me as I come out of the trees and contrast with the forests below. It is not dreary.

baby bird head poking out of a tree
Loud demands for food draw my attention to the baby bird in a hole in a tree.

Capitol Creek
Capitol Creek from above. The creek runs from near Capitol Peak in the upper left and continues to the left from here.


There is quickly a sign pointing at another track up as the trail, but it is much less used than the one I am on. Meandering down the hill on the trail includes a hop over an irrigation ditch on a little bridge. Down in the valley, there is another sign pointing down a faint track as the trail. Follow the well used right side to a ford or the narrow left side into a forested section and onto a bridge that looks suitable for all comers. Briefly, the trail is under pines.

lower Capitol Creek
It is all very green downstream along Capitol Creek.

tall alder trees reach up from the valley floor
The lower trees seem to be alders, some of them extremely tall.

heavily used stock trail vs signed trail
A small sign points down the much fainter route and assures the hiker that this is actually the trail. Stock ford the creek using the trail on the right.

The Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness starts on the far side of the creek. Just after that, and missed by the stock route, is one end of the Nickelson Creek Trail. A lesser used, but easily followed, track leads up from the sign. This is a longer option to complete the loop at the end. The trail drops out of the pines onto a meadow on the far side of the ford, then climbs up in a forest of alder. Pines are trying to get a foothold, but are largely absent. There are many cow pies on the trail and numerous cow prints and then I see them, laying about under the trees: cows.

widening in the creek
Capitol Creek from the trail.

black and brown cows under the white alder trees
It is sunny today, so the cows are clustering under the trees where it is cooler.

The cows are clustered in the shade under the trees. They are laying about everywhere, including on the trail. They are not very wary of humans, but they do go ahead and get up and move off the trail and into the trees with the rest of their kin when a human gets within a few feet of them. I see the complaints about cows in the wilderness coming from the northern parts of Los Padres National Forest, but have never actually experienced the overlapping wilderness and grazing allotment. It is almost tolerable on the dry trail for passing through. The stench of some areas is awful and the extra trails can be confusing. They also kill more people each year than bears do. They may look docile now, but if something comes by that scares them more than I do, they could be trouble. They most definitely are not keeping with the character of wilderness.

a couple peaks over a meadow with a cow in it
Capitol Peak rising in the distance over Capitol Creek and Mount Daly on the left. Oh, and a cow.

orange adn black butterfly on long petaled yellow composite flowers
The butterflies can find a flower in the grazing allotment.

At the junction with Capitol Ditch, I bump into two day hikers turning down the creek trail and a collection of generally preteen backpackers pulling their shoes back on who want to know how I got across the ford with dry boots. My mystical powers are dispelled when it is pointed out that I came up the other trail and took the bridge.

small pond along the creek with long dead trees standing in it
A spot that became flooded and killed off the trees long ago.

My other option, and the suggested route, for returning to Capitol Creek is along West Snowmass Trail. There is a sign for the trail, but I cannot find the trail that goes with it. There are numerous trails around, but they all seem to be cow paths and going my way. I stop in a field to paint. Although the stench of cow is almost too strong, it is a beautiful spot. I am less sure about the watercolor. I cannot help but play at spotting what is missing in the area because of the cows. I do not know the local plants well enough, but the columbines are highly conspicuous in their absence.

rib or clavical sticking up by a log
As well as the signs of cow life, there are a few signs of death.

Suddenly, there is a gate and the end of the grazing allotment. It is only a few tens of feet from the gate to the first columbine I have seen all day. The scenery improves as well, but that might just be because it is higher up.

Colorado columbine in lavendar and white
Free of the cows, the columbines can flourish. Be it eating or too much fertilizer, it looks like cows and columbines do not mix.

brown layered and grey granite peaks as a backdrop to a meadow full of flower
The peaks come in a wide range of rocks.

the view back down the valley
Looking back down Capitol Creek.

thick meadow and a much smaller Capitol Creek
The creek is much smaller up here. There are a couple crossings, but they are simple rock hopping.

spires of rock behind a bunch of pine trees
Pinnacles in the rock are echoed by the tall pines.

Close to Capitol Lake, a sign lays out the ground rules. Camping must be in designated sites and there are no campfires. Two trails lead off to the sites in two different areas, but I do not investigate more than that. I was originally aiming at Avalanche Lake for camping and even with the extra few miles hiked, it is not yet time to stop hiking. I stop by the lake briefly, then start over Capitol Pass. There are three small snow fields, one with a direct slide into the cold lake, on the way to the top. They seem to be the perfect temperature for stomping through them.

the downhill view after the bend
The downhill view has changed drastically after a big bend in the creek.

Capitol Lake
Capitol Lake sitting beneath Capitol Peak. The pass looks very short from here but is another 1000 feet.

lupin and columbine
Thick fields of lupine and columbine on the way up Capitol Pass. One thistle also makes a showing.

no campfires sign at the top and the lake
Looking back at Capitol Lake and the striped mountains.

trail dropping down the other side with a range of peaks in the background
On the other side everything in the middle seems much lower down.

I wonder if a little more planning might have put in a day for climbing this peak, but it is a class 4. The one day hiker coming down above the ditch had successfully climbed it, presumably by the "knife edge" that is somehow non-technical and class 4. Avalanche Lake is some 2000 feet below the pass, so there is a lot of down to get through. In the upper meadows, the trail can get indistinct. Eventually, it drops into the trees and cuts numerous quick switchbacks until it drops onto Avalanche Trail. Once on this trail, it is an easy climb up to Avalanche Lake.

blue and yellow and purple blooms among the rocks
Wildflowers on the southwest side of the pass look like those found a bit lower on the other side.

high cliffs around the lake
Somewhere over there is the lake, but the only way to see it from trail is to take the spur up to it.

flat and grassy, or at least flowery
A high meadow along the way before things get steep.

Capitol Peak has some steep cliffs
Capitol Peak looks even more formidable from here. This 14er is a class 4 or better from all sides.

rocks and meadow by the creek
On the way up the trail near the junction for tomorrow's hike. The other trail is a little hard to find at first.

There is already one person camping at the lake. He also came from Capitol Creek today, but was better prepared car wise. He says if there is anything I might need, anything at all, just ask. He is very insistent on this and I am not certain what to think of it since I have been in charge of my own backpacking for 20 years now. Is there something I am obviously missing? Do I really look that young? I find a perfect spot that has not had people scooping the pine needles away until it is a bowl almost to the riparian restoration zone and set up for some supper and a snooze.

red glow of sunset on the rocks behind Avalanche Lake
Taking in the sunset at Avalanche Lake.

Continue reading: day 2




©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 3 August 2014

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