February 7, 2015
Herman Gulch Trail
Location: 52 miles west of Denver on I-70
Round-Trip: 6.5 miles
It was a glorious, winter day in Denver…sunny, 70 degrees and record-breaking! I thought what better time to go for a snowshoe as I won’t freeze.
Jim and I met in the Wooly Mammoth parking lot at 9:30. The late start was specifically chosen to let the ski traffic die down and to enjoy the warm weather. We hopped on I-70 West, sat in intermittent traffic, and in a little over an hour exited #218 and made a hard U-turn into the parking lot for the trailhead to Herman Gulch Trailhead (and lake).
The snow seemed packed at the trailhead, so we stepped into our micro-spikes, strapped our snowshoes to our pack, and pulled on our hat and gloves in preparation for our hike. Armed with the trail description, we expected a flat start with a steep climb only to level off again in a valley and then a final climb.
Without my sunglasses (Ugh) and one eye squinted closed, I led us up the snow packed trail than began at 10,000 feet. At first we walked through evergreens, and then along a flat, open area, and then up again through the trees. I kept thinking to myself that the trail didn’t seem as steep as I expected a 2,000 foot gain over 3 miles to be, but I decided to give myself credit for all my recent trips to the gym.
Soon, after about a mile, the forged trail abruptly stopped. No snowshoe or cross country ski tracks could be found. After post-holing for the last thirty feet and then reaching the end of the trail, I turned to Jim and said, “I don’t think this is right. Do you think we missed a trail junction?”
He replied, “I didn’t see another trail junction. Let’s keep going.”
Based on the cars in the parking lot, I knew others went out on the trail ahead of us, therefore, I had some hesitation with breaking the trail. In addition, in the back of my mind I felt like I saw a trail go off to the left from the corner of my eye, but it seemed less traveled so I followed the trail straight ahead.
I asked, “Will you pull the trail description out of the back of my pack?”
After studying the description and Jim adding a few waypoints to his GPS, Jim decisively determined we went the wrong way. I suppose he won’t follow me anymore! Normally, he has all the coordinates in his GPS before we go, but after a long week in California, he just relied on me printing the trail directions which were relatively simple.
As we backtracked the mile, we met a group of five.
Jim nonchalantly inquired, “Where are you guys headed?”
The leader of the pack looked at him inquisitively and replied, “The lake”.
Jim informed them that we think they are headed the wrong way, so they turned around.
Sure enough, near the beginning of the trail, we needed to do a hairpin left turn instead of following the trail to the right. Our print out didn’t mention a switch back, but it did mention at trail junction at 0.17 miles. Unfortunately, there wasn’t even a sign deciphering the two trails. It must have been covered in the snow?!?
Now that we were on what we felt like was the right track, we climbed up the incline through the aspen grove. The next couple we found, who were lucky enough to notice the trail junction, waited for someone to come along but when no one did they guessed left. At this point, I wasn’t feeling too bad about my misdirection, and we had plenty of time to make it to the lake.
As we continued up the tacky, soft snow, each group we met hadn’t made it to the lake. Having wanted to do this hike for over a year, I was feeling a bit discouraged, but determined to make it.
Once we exited the shade of trees and hit the level meadow of rippled snow in the blazing sun, we started post-holing regularly. Each time we fell thigh deep into the snow, we’d lean on our pole to push out only for our pole to sink or our other leg to sink. Finally, we succumbed and strapped on our snow shoes, something we were trying to avoid because they are clumsy and slow going. Not to mention, we could see the next section of packed snow just ahead where snow shoes wouldn’t be needed.
I must admit, in this instance, snowshoeing was much easier. We should have switched over sooner, especially me since I was falling through the snow three times more often than Jim. We’d probably only hiked a little over three miles by now, and I was exhausted from all the squats and lunges I was doing to get out of the snow!
We kept going intermittently through open areas, with views of towering snow-capped mountains, and the trees. Soon we were less than a mile from the lake, yet not one snowshoer had made it. One girl, who was a regular on the trail suggested that we not break our own trail to the lake since we didn’t know where we were going. Silently, I agreed with her. In addition, another couple mentioned they had never made it to the lake in the winter time. With those two comments, I told Jim, “We are turning around!”
Not one to quit, I’m kind of glad we turned around when we did. A dark cloud rolled in, and it began lightly snowing on us! Oh the joys of mountain weather. Not to mention, I rubbed one heck of a blister on the back of my heal, so I wasn’t extraordinarily faster going down hill than up!
We still got the 6.5 miles in that we planned, though at a much slower pace. We probably got in four hours of exercise and were on the trail for almost five.
Not making the lake only fuels the fire for me to go this summer. It is supposed to be home to fantastic wildflowers, moose, big horn sheep and mountain goats!! Overall, we had a blast laughing at ourselves and enjoying a lovely day! ETB
PS…Should you forget you sunglasses on a sunny day in the mountain snow, remember to put sunblock on your eyelids!