LOST CREEK WILDERNESS • Less than 50 miles from Colorado Springs is a hidden paradise, a landscape of lush forests, high-mountain tundra, flowery meadows, boulder-strewn box canyons and rocky spires and domes transformed by eons of wind and rain into caricatures of life.
The Lost Creek Wilderness is close enough to the Front Range that Denver's night-time glow is visible from high points and planes descending into Denver International Airport break the silence. It's the closest wilderness area to Colorado Springs, with numerous trail heads and campgrounds accessible with any vehicle. But for most people it is simply the green spot seen from U.S. Highway 24 between Woodland Park and Wilkerson Pass, unvisited as they head to higher mountains farther west.
Step off the beaten track and visit Lost Creek, and you may feel like you have it all to yourself.
"It's such wild country, really rugged country, that although it's got a really good trail system, there are places where if you don't want to see anyone, you can get away," said Ralph Bradt, who spent 16 years as the lead wilderness ranger for Pike National Forest.
The 120,000-acre wilderness in Park and Jefferson counties, named for the creek that disappears and re-appears numerous times as it meanders through the Kenosha and Tarryall mountain ranges, was designated in 1980. It ranges in elevation from 8,000 to 12,400 feet, though, unlike other Colorado wilderness areas, only a small portion is above timberline.
Too wild and rugged for mining, logging or building reservoirs, it looks today as it always has. And the rocks, arches, towers and domes that hide in the area's canyons and valleys are some of the most spectacular this side of Yosemite.
"It's a wonderful place to discover again and again," said Jennifer Roach, who wrote "Colorado's Lost Creek Wilderness: Classic Summit Hikes," with her husband, mountain-climbing legend Gerry Roach. "It's really got a lot of appeal for all different levels. The hikes can be anywhere from half-day to multi-day."
They decided to write the book because the area is close to the Front Range, yet so many people bypass it in favor of higher mountains and fourteeners, peaks above 14,000 feet. Hike deep into the wilderness, even on a summer weekend, and you may see only a couple of people a day.
"Every journey into this lovely wilderness has brought me an incredible feeling of isolation and peace. I find it in the scenery and the solitude," she wrote in the 2001 guide book. She counts Lost Creek among her favorite places in Colorado and still goes there often, despite having climbed every peak in the wilderness.
The area generally has milder temperatures than much of the high country, and the snow melts sooner, making late spring and early summer ideal times to visit. Much of it is accessible in winter, when higher areas are socked in by snow.
There are lots of ways to enjoy Lost Creek. But as a federal wilderness area, where vehicles, including bicycles, are banned, most require a little work.
Day hikes: Surgical incursions into the wilderness are possible from 11 trail heads. For Colorado Springs residents, one of the best is Goose Creek, on Forest Road 211 from Deckers. It may seem crowded - by Lost Creek standards - but thins out as it climbs high into a spectacular valley of the area's finest rocks. Most hikers turn around at the historic shaft house, a remnant of a long-ago failed effort to dam Lost Creek, a couple of miles in.
Other good day hikes are possible from the Twin Eagles and Spruce Grove trail heads, along Colorado Highway 77 north of Lake George.
Hikers who want to hit the wilderness high point on Bison Peak can do it in a long day hike from Ute Creek trail head, also along Highway 77. This bizarre summit of rock heaps and tundra is unlike any other, with long views of distant snowy peaks.
Many trail heads are $3 fee areas, so bring some cash.
Backpack: Lost Creek does not surrender its secrets easily, and long approaches, four or five miles, and steep ascents are often needed to access its greatest spots. That's why multi-day trips are the best way to penetrate the wilderness.
The area is a backpacker's paradise, with several loops that are ideal for two, three and four-day trips. From Goose Creek, a popular loop involves taking the McCurdy Park Trail into a deep canyon, then over Hankins Pass and through the burn scar of the 2002 Hayman fire back to the trail head.
Another excellent loop uses the Wigwam Trail, from either the east or west side of the wilderness, to hook up with the Goose Creek Trail, through McCurdy Park and then the Brookside-McCurdy Trail, which rises to 11,880 feet on the shoulder of Bison Peak. Save 1,500 feet of climbing - but drive an extra 50 miles - by starting at the Lost Park trail head, on the west side.
Hikers willing to drop off a shuttle car can hike all or part of the Brookside-McCurdy Trail, a 32-mile north-south route. Even longer trips are possible by using the Colorado Trail, which runs through the wilderness.
Back-country camping is free, and established campsites are abundant throughout the wilderness. While it is technically illegal to camp within 100 feet of a trail, lake or creek, many established sites violate this. Fires are allowed, unless restrictions are in place. Be sure to get a free permit at the wilderness entrance stations.
Car camp: If a pack sounds a little heavy, there are Forest Service campgrounds at trail heads at Spruce Grove, Twin Eagles, Lost Park and Goose Creek. These are primitive campgrounds, with camping fees from $9 to $15 a night, and are first-come, first-serve. They have restrooms but all may not have water available.
The campgrounds are on the edge of the wilderness, and staying overnight is a good way to get an early start for the long hikes Lost Creek affords.
Go horseback: Many people like to use horses to help conquer the long, steep trails, and wilderness regulations permit groups with up to 10 saddle or pack animals - it is not uncommon to see overnight hikers using llamas to lighten the load. Regulations prohibit tethering animals within 100 feet of a trail, lake or stream.
Technical climbing: Many of the high spires on Lost Creek look unclimbable, but technical climbers enjoy the solid rock and challenging routes.
The Castle, on the east side near Wellington Lake, is rated 5.4. The McCurdy Park Tower, a six-mile hike from the Twin Eagles trail head, is said to offer some of the best crack climbing in Colorado.
These endeavors are not for novices.
Explore lost creek on-line
The U.S. Forest Service has a great Web site on Lost Creek Wilderness, with wilderness regulations, interactive maps, trail descriptions and elevation profiles. Visit www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/recreation/wilderness/lost_creek_wild.shtml.