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Happy Trails: Willow Lake in Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

November 13, 2017 Updated: November 13, 2017 at 4:10 am
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Sara Scherschligt, 22, a student of the University of Kansas takes a swim in Willow Lake after a day helping the local nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute with trail building on Saturday July 29, 2017. The organization invites college-aged students from around the country to a 30-day program that starts in the classroom and ends in the field. The students work on the realignment of the Kit Carson-Challenger Ridge Summit Trail in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

Willow Lake in Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

The trail to this high-alpine lake is friendly in that it is well-marked; it gets lots of love from nearby Crestone residents and from backpackers far beyond the San Luis Valley, including hand crews with the Colorado Springs-based advocacy group Rocky Mountain Field Institute. But the trail is not so inviting when it comes to its difficulty. Hikers huff and puff on the relentless climb through the thin air well near 11,000 feet. We visited those RMFI crew members in summer, when conditions are best, and many said they wanted to quit on the way to their 30-day camp by the Willow Lake basin. Once there, though, they didn't want to leave.

You, too, can pitch a tent in paradise, where a 100-foot waterfall tumbles into an emerald pool surrounded by soaring gray cliffs. Or you can day-hike to the basin below 14,165-foot Kit Carson Peak. But be forewarned: The adventure is not for the inexperienced.

Start into the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness by crossing the log bridge over a creek, soon arriving at a fork. Continue left on the sandy path, which becomes rocky. The ascent is harsh as one switchback follows another. Eventually the forest of fir, pine and aspen clears at a ridge, from which the valley views are spectacular and Challenger Point, the fourteener linked to Kit Carson, looms.

The landscape shifts beautifully: Marshy meadows where wildflowers pop turn to switchback-laden scree fields where waterfalls at stream crossings demand admiration. After 6 miles, look for the campsites in the open area preceding the lake. It's worth continuing for about a half-mile to the tundra roof over the waterfall; observe the surrounding slopes for bighorn sheep. From here, Kit Carson's summit is a steep 2½ miles away.

Trip log: 6.2 miles round trip to basin (out and back), 2,732-foot total elevation gain, 11,556

Difficulty: Difficult

Getting there: Off Colorado 115 south, merge onto U.S. 50 west and continue for 71 miles. Take U.S. 285 south for 26 miles before turning left onto Colorado 17, following to Crestone. At the second stop sign on Crestone Road, turn right onto Galena, which becomes a rough road (two-wheel drive OK) that rises to the trailhead parking lot.

FYI: Start early, wear proper clothing (rain jacket, boots, etc.), bring plenty of water and snacks. Dogs allowed. If camping, leave no trace.

SETH BOSTER, THE GAZETTE

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