We spoke about the final leg of our route around Homestake reservoir and our chances of successfully skirting above the cliffs that plunged into frigid waters below. When we shuttled Dans car to the reservoir, I was floored to see it so full. Crews had drained all water and began working in 2011 on a scheduled maintenance and repair project which would eliminate access to the giant reservoir and the area surrounding it.

The last I had heard this past spring was that access was still barred and an unexpected problem had forced the draining of the reservoir once again. Fast forward to September with construction crews gone, I decided this to be a good time to go for it; I made a bad assumption regarding where the water line would be.

The following clip was taken in 2011 when I decided to hike to the wall of the dam to snap photos. I was not supposed to be there and I was asked promptly to leave, but I figured it a rare (if not once in a lifetime) opportunity to see it completely empty.

Meanwhile in the year 2014, I had anticipated walking on rocky shore the entire way back to our shuttle car. Instead we arrived to see the last leg of bank near the dam wall submerged with water, then cliff. Upon our arrival that evening we immediately got out of the cars and began questioning our route. About 20 minutes of talking it over with binoculars in hand, we decided the worst that would happen is that we would need to ascend the high slope to scramble around the cliffs, then descend to the dam wall, where we would walk with ease the last steps of the trip to our awaiting vehicle.

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Enjoying the evening view on the banks of Timberline Lake and scouting our route over the pass.

Myself and a few good friends took to the backcountry for a trip that I’ve anticipated completing for the past few years. The mileage was short, but around ninety percent of the hiking would be off-trail and the climbs would at times become very steep and taxing.

Paradise Lakes … I was once told by an older local that this area was perhaps the most beautiful place in Holy Cross. This is certainly saying something, in my opinion, as I have seen many of them.

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Taken from the shore of Timberline Lake near our camp the following morning (The color I did not turn black and white).

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We woke late that morning, but still managed to see the dense fog lift as the sun finally burned a hole right through. The fog and mist disappeared to deep blue and cloudless skies.

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We began our mid-morning workout by ascending to the top of the continental divide from Timberline Lake.

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My photo of Dan taking a photo of the fresh snow that sits on top of Mount Massive. Four days earlier I was backpacking on the other side of the range.

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The ripping skier she is, Kelly is always happy to see snow.

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Our view looking northwest after dropping off of the pass. Below sits Upper Homestake Lake. Above is the shelf that we will gain in order to see Bench Lakes.

From here we could see that we would need to drop somewhat directly down into the valley. Large boulder fields and steep terrain hindered our ability to traverse the crown of the valley and stay up high. We followed numerous elk trails and sign. I couldn’t help but wonder how envious the bow hunters, whose trucks dotted Homestake road would have felt about hunting this hillside. Perhaps not envious at all without a pack mule.

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Looking at the opposite hillside from where I took the previous photo. Upper Homestake Lake still sits below.

Ideas tossed around in my head and out loud about paddling across the reservoir and coming back to lounge and fish this Lake at a later date.

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Walking the shoreline of one of the higher Bench Lakes.

I think we were all a little more than relieved to make it here. The 700′ approach from the valley had a wicked pitch and straight-lining was not an option.

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One of the lower (and way deeper) Bench Lakes.

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For quite some time that afternoon a small plane had begun to circle the Homestake drainage. The plane continued diving lower. I knew for certain that it had to have been breaking law for low fly space  in a wilderness area (research shows that planes must maintain at least 2000 feet above surface).

While it was impressive as it buzzed us more than once and made for a good photo, we noted the wing number for reference. I later googled the number and immediately found the aircraft registered to the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Out of curiosity I emailed the division to find purpose. Herd counts and fish stocking via aircraft are indeed completed by the division, but it isn’t exactly clear where or how often this happens.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA One last Bench Lake before moving further down the shelf.

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After we crested the hill overlooking this small pond, a bull elk bugle belted throughout the high valley. It was beautiful and somewhat haunting, perhaps an establishment of dominance that rules the terrain. I made a futile scan of the timbered slope with Kelly’s monocular, then we soon advanced across the valley.

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Homestake Reservoir and our vegetative traverse on the way to Paradise Lakes.

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One of two Paradise Lakes.

We found a perfectly placed campsite with great views of the peaks which surrounded. Small streams braid the basin and trout scramble to find cover as we stepped directly over them.

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Kelly and I decided to hike farther up the drainage to find a few of the higher lakes while Dan tended to beat up feet back at camp.

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Kelly rock hoping the unnamed lake shore below the crown of the valley.

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Catching dinner

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Watching the moon rise as the sun sets. Paradise indeed.

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The lower of the two Paradise Lakes.

We all “slept in” for the second straight morning and were not eager to leave; at least not me.

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I had picked a route down to Homestake on the map, but naturally deviated based on the huge rock outcroppings and short cliffs. We did spot a few cairns near the stream down to Homestake, but they eventually rendered pointless.

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Steeper than it looks

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A partially fully Homestake reservoir, but with water to the point where it ain’t no easy walk. If I ever come back through this country, it’ll be by kayak, packraft or canoe.

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Hundreds if not thousands of old tree stumps line the shore here. The cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora obliterated this area and many others to complete their part in developing the front range of Colorado. Despite my moral objections to transmountain diversions, (especially 21st century ones) and my disgust for “growth for the sake of growth” this project was an engineering marvel. I thoroughly enjoyed this short video series:

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Just as we arrived near the cliffs that we scouted just two days prior, a quick moving burst of rain drenched us and everything that surrounded. The scramble was slow for safety, slick, thick, steep … and I wouldn’t really care to do it again. High fives and shouts were very appropriate once we reached the south portal outlet of the Missouri water tunnel pictured below.

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The year 1966 inscribed at the top of the Missouri Tunnel.

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Bliss