The Willow Lake Trail

Believe it or not, this was my first time backpacking in Colorado. Despite spending the better part of my youth living there, I never went back-country until getting involved with the Dallas Sierra Club. I can blame this partially on my car-free lifestyle at the time and partially on my Colorado friends being thoroughly un-outdoorsy.

To be clear, I hike in the Rockies fairly frequently … I just don’t carry half my weight on my back while doing it. The trails here are steeper and a little more dangerous than what I’d ever done with my pack, and I didn’t want to overdo it. Last thing I needed was to get stuck if my knee started to hurt or something. So I planned my trip to be pretty easy – yet it was still a wonderfully scenic hike that I think is worth sharing.

The Willow Lake Trailhead is located in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, just outside the fascinating little town of Crestone. The trail connects with a couple of other trails that lead to famous 14ers: The Challenger, Kit Carson, and the Crestone Needle. Coloradoans are obsessed with conquering 14ers, so there were a lot of hikers out there for that specific purpose.

I arrived on a Saturday evening, with just enough time to hike a couple miles in to the first campsite on the map. As I drove up the “4WD” dirt road in my 2WD Civic, I rounded a corner to see a band of mountain goats hanging out in the road. I stopped the car and watched them from the window. The goats didn’t seem too concerned about the car at all, and continued doing whatever they were doing. My dogs were in the passenger seat, drooling over an interesting animal they’d never seen before. After a couple minutes, silent viewing became too much for them and they started barking. Finally the goats moved to the side of the road and watched us as we drove past them.

I parked the car, changed into my boots, slung my giant backpack over my shoulder, and set off. I was surprised to find that the first half a mile I was walking through sand: a reminder that the Great Sand Dunes National Park was just a short drive away.

Almost immediately I started encountering other people who were descending from the mountain.

“How was it?” I asked them.

“Brutal… but pretty.”

I passed multiple other hikers who echoed those words. I was surprised that even after 7 PM I was still running into people, and crossed my fingers that my camping spot wouldn’t be taken when I got there. Luckily, it seemed that most people ventured out here as a day trip only.

I arrived at camp much faster than expected, and had plenty of daylight left for taking photos and enjoying the scenery. The camp was a small clearing on the edge of a beautiful meadow, across which was the towering Crestone Peak. I enjoyed a silent, peaceful sunset. The site was lovely and might be my favorite campsite I’ve ever occupied.

Crestone has a Dark Sky designation, so I’d been excited to star-gaze from the mountain. It just so happened the night I was there was a full moon. While still beautiful, it was too bright to see many stars. It was actually so bright that I woke up numerous times during the night, thinking it was morning!

Come sunrise, I left the tent where it was, with all my camping gear inside. The plan was to hike the rest of the trail, then come back and get my stuff. No sense in taking it all with me!

For a couple hours I walked through the forest, over innumerable switchbacks, and gained a lot of elevation. I reached a point where my meadow campsite was visible far below us, with Crestone and the San Luis Valley extending off into the distance.

The trail follows Willow Creek, which falls over steep cliffs and rocky inclines, so there are a number of waterfalls. There were plenty of crossings for filling my water and letting the dogs drink from the river.

As I walked, the bald mountain tops loomed ever closer and I could make out more and more rugged details. The wind picked up and trail turned to skree as we crossed over boulder fields. The dogs’ ears perked up at the high-pitched squeaking of pikas in the rocks. I kept an eye out for the little critters, but never did catch sight of one.

I passed some women who decided to turn back due to high winds. I pressed onward, thinking I could always turn back if I needed to. This whole time I’d been ascending the east side of the mountain. A short while later, I reached the crux of the east side and the trail flattened out. Between Mt. Adams on the north and The Challenger & Kit Carson on the south side, was a peaceful valley down which flowed the river.

This was where the other backpackers had chosen to stay. In this nice flat section I passed many hammocks, tents, and backpacks strung up by ropes away from the critters. We also passed more mountain goats in this area. Campers relaxed on boulders while the goats snacked on the foliage around them. It was an absolute harmony of humans and nature; a flash of Utopia.

We took a break by another waterfall, and then climbed one more small hill to reach Willow Lake. Ice cold water sparkled in the sun, surrounded by mountains on all sides. On the far side, a waterfall dribbled down the side of a cliff.

I relaxed there in the shade for a while. It was barely noon so I played with the idea of continuing onward to the top of one of the 14ers… but decided it was time to head back.

We made it back to the meadow camp in no time at all. Luckily all my camping gear was right where I’d left it. I enjoyed a late lunch and said goodbye to the mountain. The backpack felt extra heavy now, and I was glad I hadn’t been lugging all that equipment with me the whole time!

By the time I made it to the car my feet were very sore and I had some hot spots that would soon develop into blisters. I’d gone about 12 miles in all: 2 the first day and 10 the second. I couldn’t wait to take a shower and a nap!

As we drove down the mountain, lo and behold – the same band of goats were chillin’ on the road again. One thing is for sure: Willow Lake is a prime spot for mountain goat viewing!

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