Kelly and I had decided about a month ago to plan a bit of an atypical (at least for us) backpacking trip. An email blast got sent out to a large contingent of friends – some pretty seasoned backpackers, others not. Once we obtained a committed group, eleven of us total, we settled on a route. I had a few goals in mind. First was to obtain a base camp big enough for the group, preferably at a scenic alpine lake. The second goal would aim to keep our options open for some pretty awesome day hiking in the immediate area – perhaps both some familiar and unfamiliar places. My third and final subconscious, but selfish goal was to pick a place I, myself had never set foot before.

The Sopris, Brady, Lake Esther region is tightly confined and nearby. A relatively remote trailhead, with approximately 1.2 miles of hiking from the start, to any of the aforementioned three alpine lakes. I had never been to any of them.

There was at least one solid lesson I had learned that first day out – Don’t pick an off-trail trip, no matter how short, with a group of people relying on you to guide, without first visiting the destination yourself.

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Spirits were high despite a constant state of drizzle on our way up to Esther Lake the first night. We had made decent time to the trailhead, but still probably not decent enough.

Three from our group had already gone up to the lake earlier that morning to scout Esther for a solid group camp. The plan for the three would be to move on past Esther if it deemed not suitable for the group, and continue on to Paradise Lakes (where I knew for certain the good camping and lack of people) if that was indeed the case; the remaining eight of us would meet up later that evening, either way.

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Esther, er, I mean Brady Lake

The rest of the crew was nowhere to be found. Upon arrival to the lake, we were surprised that they had moved on to Paradise with suitable camping in abundance and no other people around.

I led the group around the lake, getting physiologically ready for a crappy climb up the pass to Paradise Lakes in the rain. I looked up to the pass. It didn’t seem right.

With Kelly following directly behind me I said gently, “Oh man, I hope they didn’t go to the wrong lake”.

Map in my hand … “Wait”.

” I don’t think this is Esther”.

I poured over the map and saw where I had been deceived. I had not been giving the land much attention and made wrong assumptions. After painfully breaking the news to the group, we began retracing our route down to find the split of the primitive and hidden trail to Esther. We eventually found our correct direction, but the rain was picking up. We all began to get very wet and coldness followed soon after. Eye on the watch as darkness would soon be closing in.

At last a clearing ahead. Alex and Jack came into view from the banks of Esther Lake. They were packed up and ready to leave after nearly eight hours of waiting in the pouring rain. Relief from both parties, hugs and high fives. Two from my crew went straight to their tents for the remainder of the evening in order to bring their body temperatures up to the appropriate level. I felt pretty foolish. Thankfully the drama that I provided would conclude by the end of that first day. Lessons learned.

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Lake Esther

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The following morning and the subsequent day was perfect for weather. All of the rain the day prior became an afterthought and the morning started out chill before hitting the pass above Paradise Lakes.

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Lake Esther below

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An easy saddle breaks the barrier between the two drainages

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Ptarmigan chick

Someone or almost everyone nearly stepped on the little fella before actually noticing him. A nest close, but no mother nearby … until someone nearly stepped on her too.

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First glimpses of the valley of Paradise

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Sky Pilot

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Eating lunch at the top of the Pass gave us a good opportunity to look around and scout the map. A peak directly to our east at 12,430′ looked easily obtainable with minimal effort. It was completely worth it.

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Homestake Reservoir … damming a greater amount of water than last year.

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Unnamed Lake in the southwest pocket of the drainage (far right), lower and upper Paradise Lakes below

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Perhaps one of the greatest highlights of the trip for me personally came on top of that peak. We named all we could see. The likes of Mt. Massive, Mt. Elbert, the southern Sawatch, Homestake Peak, Minturn, the entire backside of Vail, the Gore range, the Elk Mountains and the Maroon Bells to name a few.

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One of the many small creeks running down and into Paradise

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Why not?

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Felser digging the Tenkara

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We fit a variety of activity late into that afternoon; not wanting to get up and leave Paradise Lake before we really had to. Eventually we were forced to come to reality with time, and return to base camp at Esther.

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No rush

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Back at Esther to relax and enjoy the beauty of the evening

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Fish on?

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The following morning we party hiked out the rugged hillside down to the designated trails of Brady and Sopris.

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A memorable trip, not one soon to forget.

Enough time for an overnight trip near home, I looked to my list and Lost Lakes stood out. Rain had been forecasted for much of my time to escape, so I settled on a trip with somewhat unattractive travel qualities, but less than two miles from parked car, to destination.

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I left my vehicle past the turnoff for Missouri Lakes near the end of a long inholding. Immediately I crossed the swift Homestake creek to gain access to the southern bank. From there I would bushwhack northeast to greet the creek spilling down from Lost Lakes. Steep, rocky, cliffed out country was mine to wander; not even a game trail in sight.

An opening in the timber brought views to the road heading up to distant trails near Missouri Creek. Traffic motored on up the hill. I continued on upward and away.

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There was never a doubt coming in that people had used a similar route to gain access to Lost Lakes, but a former trail? Most people I had talked to had previously either come in from Homestake Peak or the reservoir.

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Fragile flagging ribbon, a stack of rock from time to time, and cuts on old (very old) deadfall gave way to a route, long ago established as “the way”. It was odd and unexpected.

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Homestake peak above one of the lower Lost lakes of the drainage.

As I came to the largest lake of the chain, I spotted two people on the opposite shore casting lines near a more than ideal spot to pitch a shelter. Not to disturb the couple, I continued my ascent to the last pond near the foot of Homestake Peak.

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Rosy paintbrush near the highest of Lost Lakes

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Whitney Peak off in the distance

As I rounded the lake and settled into a camp, steady rain began to fall. The brief and loud thunder that followed made impressive echoes against the small valley walls. I sat in my tarptent, flipping through pages of Black Sun, then closed my eyes and drifted into a deep sleep for hours. I awoke to a peaceful and overcast setting as I took photos and fished for hungry cutthroat into the evening.

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Alpine daisy

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An evening alone with the warmth of fire, my thoughts and a satisfactory reward of catching the biggest native of the season thus far.

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The air felt humid the following morning and I made a hasty exit from camp. As I hiked back down the drainage, I took a moment to stop at the camp of the two anglers that I spotted the day prior; no one home. I stared into the distant mountains, which were now white-capped with low hanging, puffy clouds. Another simple escape to a simple world, away from the often – not so simple realities of a peopled civilization.

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