White River National Forest
DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6
(Day 1 of 6) For a third year in a row, I have an excuse to go out to Colorado with the opportunity to backpack. I decided to check out the Flat Tops Wilderness this time and found this Boy Scout oriented route suggestion. They can get a patch for doing a 50 mile trip and this one is designed to fit the bill. Of course, I cannot just let someone else plan my whole trip for me. Looking over my Trails Illustrated map, Flat Tops seems to have four main entries with good roads to them, one each for north, south, east, and west. There are quite a number more with rougher entries, but one for each cardinal direction seems quite convenient enough. The western entry (Trapper Lake) even has an opportunity to be the first to find a geocache, but was part of a large burn in 2002 and requires a long, slow approach. The eastern entry (Stillwater Reservoir), which is the suggestion, is 70 miles from the interstate. The southern approach (Sweetwater Lake) is only 20 miles from the interstate and has at least three different and distinctive trails to choose from to connect to the loop. That sounds inviting. The last quarter mile is a 4WD road, but there is a second parking area for cars and trailers before that. Researching either the trailhead or the nearby campground found that they are having a little bit of bear problem in the area and ask that food be stored in a hard sided vehicle or 10 feet up a tree. Maybe it is the bear that is little. That is not sufficient height for a bear bag. I added in the Bear Vault as heavy marmot protection. Marmots are real, as well as evil militant ultralight enthusiasts, after all.
After playing the afternoon away on other trails, I needed a place to stay. There is private property lining the road and no camping at the trailhead. I was going to pay my $8 at the campground even though all I wanted was a quiet place to sleep. I opened the door to find some trailer running something, maybe air conditioning, just 10 feet up a hill. Really, I just wanted one thing. Instead, I went to the trail parking and hiked in a little way under the bright stars, just past more private property the trail passes through before really getting started, to get a jump on the morning hike. It would have worked, to, except in the morning I decided I had forgotten a couple small items and wanted an extra supper and breakfast. I was planning five full days and have a deadline for getting out again, but will still need a place to sleep the night after and really do not have to be out until noon on the sixth day. Easiest just to hang out a little longer in the backcountry. After walking the road, I knew I could drive it. The car parking was a half mile before the end and the rougher quarter mile is a steep hill that could get quite tough for a little car in inclement weather.
Hilltop Trailhead has plenty of parking at the top and almost as much below, especially considering there is only my small car in any of it. It has a lovely kiosk to explain Leave No Trace principals and the wilderness regulations beside a map. Beside that is a gate across the old road and a sign advising all to stay to the road through the next mile of private property. The gate is to keep the rancher's horses in so must be kept closed. This section of road is unused now, but a new road quickly joins it from the ranch below and it clearly does get used. The 1 mile measurement must be an average, because the route quickly splits at a sign with the road continuing through the property for longer than that while a trail pops over a hill and out another gate after only half a mile and splitting again. These two trails are my planned entry and egress. The left trail follows a ridge while the right follows a creek giving maximum distinction for the paths in and out of the trailhead. My original plan was to start with the ridge, but is is long and dry and the creek looks much more attractive with a freshly loaded pack.
|The trail following Turret Creek, still shrouded in deep morning shadows.|
It is some nice, well established trail. Roses do reach for me in spots, but they are easy to push away with my poles when they get too enthusiastic. It is nice not to have to be route finding right out. Turret Creek roars below, well out of easy access, but a wide stream crossing the trail has quite enough in it for anyone in need. Rocks and a stick mark some thin trail as I make my way along it to the creek below. Maybe a campsite someone thinks is quite nice. It seems a little early.
|Turret Creek is big and swift white water through here.|
And then the route finding begins. People have pushed up the side of the creek, but it is soon clear that is not the way. Looping back, it looks like there is a little bit of trail just slightly downstream of where I hit the creek and as I follow it, it becomes more clear. That is the trail. Across the cold, swift, white water with not even the slightest thought of stepping stones or a bridge across it. The morning is still cold and I have no desire to cross it. Not only that, I do not think I should have to. Pulling out the map, it shows a route that stays a little higher and keeps my feet dry. This is a connector to Nellie's Nipple, although the map seems to have used the length of the trail as an excuse to shyly omit the second word. There is another connector back across the swift cold water, but it seems much safer and much more comfortable to climb back up and look for the trail I missed rather than plunge in at least knee deep to the water roaring past. It should have been just past the wide stream crossing, so that should make it easier to locate.
|Not marking some camping spot. Keep left here.|
|Follow the trail through the flowers.|
The stick I passed up before is just short of crossing the stream again. That was the trail I wanted. It is a bit more overgrown than the other trail, but starts off easy to follow. There are some views before the aspens close in and with them, the shade dwellers below. They hug me as I pass. Little bridges from a different era cross tiny streams. Aspens have fallen across the trail and been left. This gets worse as I go, but I may have picked a creek paralleling the trail at some point. The possible trail is only a few feet away on my left still as I spot a well worn path coming up on my right. I am suspicious they have decided to let the forest reclaim this trail. There is nothing to mark it on this side. The map at the trailhead actually omits the second connector trail implying they are trying to get rid of a trail, just not the one that is vanishing.
|A slanting wooden walkway before the green starts hugging me again.|
|Clear enough trail while passing through part of the aspen grove.|
|Well worn trail again while what I suspect is the other trail passes just to the right of the cut log.|
With good trail, I can once again confidently stride up the canyon. It is all aspens and wide open meadows and far cliff walls, although the aspens get replaced here and there with pines. The wilderness sign comes a fair bit after it is expected.
|The roses still stretch across the trail.|
|Officially entering the Flat Tops Wilderness a bit later than actually.|
|Patches of aspens and conifers and grasses in a patchwork around Turret Creek, all surrounded by rock walls.|
The remains of a fence draw my attention for a moment. Once it zig-zagged through the meadow and trees, but now it is just a long pile of rotting wood. As it hits the trail, the remains of a barbed wire gate can be seen. Cows were here once, but have not been for a very long time. Even the pies they leave that seem to last far too many years are not evident. I am a bit suspicious that the mix of plants found in the meadows still tell the tale of the preferences of cattle, but that is more botany than I know.
|There is quite a lot of character in each of the unique rock formations that surround the valley. Also, there is the old fence.|
|Getting into the crumbled volcanic remains of the capping rocks that form the flats above.|
|Wide stripes are revealed high on one wall.|
Turret Creek Meadows is obvious after the many other meadows, some even quite large. This sprawls across nearly all of the valley and the creek is particularly picturesque running through it. Across the creek and just into the trees there are two tents but I cannot hear anyone. There is just the creek and the lush grasses in the wind.
|The meadow as it stretches from the trail and back around to the trail.|
|Still very quickly high above the meadow.|
The trail climbs quickly from the meadow, but that is what it has been doing the whole way. It is not a particularly steep climb, but constant. Now it is looping high on the canyon wall, but as it comes back to the creek there is a lot more noise than before. Examining the gap below, I can just make out the side of a waterfall through the trees. The water pours out powerfully from the rocks above. Further down, there seems to be another tall cascade or waterfall. One wide patch offers very little view of the spectacle, but a little careful stepping further along gains a direct view of some of it.
|Edging around the bowl along the steep canyon sides.|
|Looking far down on the upper tier of the waterfall from a little way off trail.|
I have company briefly as a couple fellows come riding down the trail, each with an unloaded mule. They inform me that I have quite a climb coming up and it is a bit rocky and ask me where I am going. I am hoping for Upper Island Lake, but seem to be moving more slowly than I hoped. They seem to approve of the choice, for all that means. As I go on, it seems that "quite a climb" means a continuation of the moderate slope I have been climbing, most of which has already been climbed. As for "rocky", it does have rocks on it. It is not something of note. The hoof prints seem to get up into the next meadow, but go no further. It is high enough to have sticks marking it although not enough if they were really needed and they tend to be poorly placed.
|The creek is so tame now that the trail does not worry about crossing it.|
|Another level full of another meadow with sticks to mark the way.|
After the meadow stroll, I am climbing again. There is one more level to get to. I am surprised to see a bit of snow remaining on the nearby peaks as I climb. There is a faint trail leading off north and the way my trail connects there must be a shortcut. I leave it although some of what I am climbing will just be lost again.
|The snow is getting close as I arrive at the signed intersection.|
The sign is easy to find, but where is the intersection? A little examination of the map and it turns out to not be quite so bad. I am just not expecting it to be at quite so much a glancing blow. A thin line does lead away from the sign almost along the route I came along. It is slightly hard to follow as it wanders back into the bowl and crosses the creek again. It is particularly hard to follow across the creek, but I am thinking I might want some water which gives me an excuse to explore a little. With a little searching, I can find the trail, but the water does not look very good. It is a string of pools with a thin flow. I have passed many beautiful bits of water, but this is desperation water. And there is the strangest looking trout swimming in the largest of the pools.
|The source of Turret Creek seems to be the shallow lake over there that is getting to be more of a meadow.|
|That is not a trout.|
Looking closer, the trout has legs. It is well over 8 inches long and casually grabbing bugs off the top with a quick push of its legs between very lazy and slow maneuvers. Checking my water, I have plenty after all. The newt can keep it all. I pack up again, cross where I found the trail, and start up the hill on the other side where the trail vanishes again. After a bit of looking, I strike off in my own direction. It is clearly not the trail, but it does run into some nice, well established trail climbing. It makes me think there might be some other trail, but the map thinks this is the only one for another mile or so. It goes where I think it should, but to an area of lakes.
|The view of Turret Peak has been getting steadily better for a while. Snowy peaks far away seen through the valley are Snowmass and others in the Aspen area.|
|About the third lake along.|
|Getting to a good position to really look down the valley Turret Creek flows through.|
|The meadow seems to be taking claim of these little lakes.|
Each little bump leads to another lake. There are pretty little lakes everywhere and nearly stacked on top of each other. Some look like they have flooded some with water over tufts of grass. Like the peaks surrounding the valley, they each have distinctive character.
|The numerous lakes come into view as I gain some ground. Shingle Peak is in the background.|
|What lies ahead.|
Once up by the lakes, the trail is a mild challenge to follow again. Cairns help, but it is often obscured by bushes. There is a particularly large cairn up ahead like it might be marking something particularly important. Sure enough, it is the junction with the W Mountain Trail. Turning north, there is another lake that looks particularly nice. The wind is picking up but three stout trees form a good windbreak. I am tired of route finding. Sitting behind it to test it, I decide this will be camp. I am not the first. There is a plate sized tin can from when that made sense. Around the side of the trees is a curious small structure of rocks with twigs at the center ready to burn from someone much more recent. The wind will keep the mosquitoes down, not that there have been many.
Continue reading: day 2
©2016 Valerie Norton
Posted 7 August 2016