Colorado: Capitol Creek Circuit

The last bastion of Colorado Wilderness, Amigo

Where
White River Wilderness, Colorado
Distance
49 miles*
*including Snowmass and Haystack Mountains, 40ish otherwise
Elevation Gain/Loss
13,600ft with above peaks
Duration
5 days, 4 nights
Partners in Crime
Cody and Doug
Daily Reports
Day One
Day Two (coming soon)
Day Three (coming soon)
Day Four (coming soon)
Day Five (coming soon)

My first visit to Colorado was epic. In the words of mountain man Rob (more on him later), I'm a “spoiled brat”, and I agree. I found myself in the midst of the “last bastion of Colorado wilderness” doing what's known as the Capitol Creek Circuit. To be honest, I had no idea what this trip was going to be like, having left all the planning to Cody and Doug since Doug lived in Boulder during grad school, and Cody is an expert about all things “West”. This was illustrated by the fact that I was sure there were Grizzly Bears where we were going until the guys finally informed me this was not so just as we embarked on Day 1. Only black bears here, folks (and we actually spotted two of them)!

The following is my account of our five day, four night backpacking adventure, my first fourteener, how to deal (or not deal) with mosquito swarms, and how to spend a solid stretch of life unplugged and amazed by how freaking beautiful wilderness can be.

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Day 1

Maroon Snowmass Trailhead to Snowmass Lake

Date
July 3, 2018
Where
Maroon Snowmass Tralhead to Snomass Lake
Distance
9 miles, 2,948ft Elevation Gain
Time
Start 1:20pm, 4hrs total
Wildlife Sightings
Red fox, many Moose Deer and Marmots
Highs
Red fox sighting, views of Snowmass
Lows
The Snowmass debate — to stay or to go, closely followed by the mosquito attack

We started on the trail at the leisurely hour of 1:20pm, anticipating a pretty mild first day, and prioritizing a few last civilized meals and ice creams in towns on our drive. With deli sandwiches for our first night at camp stuffed into the tiny amount of room left in our packs, we said goodbye to the rental car and cell service and headed out south on the Maroon Snowmass Trail.

The first mile or so passes through private lands with a series of gates to test your gate-opening and closing skills. We got passed by one group on horseback heading back to the trailhead, and we tiptoed around piles of droppings for the first mile or so. Though the trail was basically a dusty red sidewalk, I felt the weight of my pack on fresh and delicate shoulders with every step. The familiar thoughts on the first day out backpacking came: “can I really carry this load 40 miles?”, and some less familiar thoughts, “with the packs I handmade for Cody and me make it? What happens if a strap falls off at mile 20?”. This wasn't the most ideal place to find out. I hoped my craftiness would hold up and made a mental note to bring an emergency needle and strong thread next time.

Aspen grove
Aspen grove

We followed rushing Snowmass Creek, in and out of Aspen forests. Despite the weight and anxieties, the first three miles passed quickly. We stopped to take the first dip into our snack pile shortly thereafter, dropping pack and hanging out briefly on some logs over the river. Mile five brought a little more climbing and our first views of the snowy-ish (not a good snow year) rocky peaks that would fill our views over the coming days.

Snowmass Creek through the valley
Snowmass Creek through the valley

We emerged from the shady forest around mile seven into a lovely valley cut through by the creek, framing red (maroon?) mountains in the background. We approached a small marshy lake held up by a log jam, which we easily crossed. On the other side, we followed a couple of switchbacks, guarded by many adorable marmots, with nice views back down toward the lake before heading back into the woods for the last mile up to Snowmass Lake.

While the guys were taking pictures of the small trickling waterfall right before the lake, I went up ahead to see the majestic views of Snowmass Mountain, set behind steely waters of lake. As they came up behind me, we had a moment of awe and anticipation about our planned hike up to the summit the next day. And then we were attacked by a mean gang of mosquitos.

Arriving at Snowmass Lake
Arriving at Snowmass Lake

Moment ruined, we decided to quickly find a suitable campsite. Though there were many people camped up here — 'twas the eve of the 4th of July after all — we easily found a spot to throw up the tents (only after throwing on whatever mosquito-resistant clothing I could manage). I was excited to see a red fox come confidently through our campsite, then a group of deer. Camp secured, we took our civilization sandwiches back down to the shore where a little breeze made us a little bit harder targets. We took the willow trail around the lake a bit and found a tucked away spot where we could get a good view of the mountain, eat our sandwiches, and filter some water.

Well, there wasn't really as much of a snowy mass as we had expected there to be based on the research we (ahem, Cody and Doug) had done about the peak. One of the characteristic parts about hiking up Snowmass Mountain is a substantial section where you don your crampons and put one sharp foot in front of the other straight up to the ridgeline. Because of the little snow this winter brought, we wouldn't be doing that, and not knowing the quality (loose/stable) of the stuff that lay beneath the snow made me nervous. Also, from our angle, the section right by the waterfall in the first third of the hike, “the gulch”, looked very loose and steep.

Sizing up Snowmass with Sandwiches
Sizing up Snowmass with Sandwiches

As we were hemming and hawing about what to do, I asked a group filtering some water nearby if they had hiked to the summit. They said no, but they had talked to a group from Kansas at camp who had just gotten back. They had hired guides, started at 2am, took 12 hours round trip, and they needed to rope up and use crampons. But good luck to us! We had figured it'd take us half that time to get up and down the purportedly 4 mile round trip hike (spoiler: it's really closer to 6.5 miles). We chalked their tale up to flatlander inexperience, and decided to take a little hike around the lake to get a closer view.

When we weren't assaulted by willow branches, we were stepping into deep mud or tussocks of wet moss, soaking our only pair of shoes. At least we were able to figure out where the best route was for the early morning in our not-so-dry run. (There is a section where you ought to go uphill a ways to avoid the wet mossy section. It's marked by a flimsy piece of wood, but we ignored that the first time). We made it about half way to the boulder field where the climb up the mountain starts and we decided enough was enough with this trail and we would see what we could see from here. Things didn't look much better at the gulch. It looked steep and loose, but some other sections ended up looking better than we thought. We decided there was no way to know unless we started up, so we would make the attempt with the agreement that we would turn back if and when things felt too sketchy.

A cloudy sunset behind Snowmass
A cloudy sunset behind Snowmass

With that decision, we went back to camp and to tent early because staying out meant being eaten alive. We set our alarms for 5:30 and fell asleep with anticipation about the exciting adventure to come.

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