Sunday, July 5, 2009

Crystal Lake, Lower (the one near Mowhawk Lakes)

Distance: 4 miles round trip from Spruce Creek Trailhead
Elevation: 10,400ft - 11,980ft
Elevation Gain: 1,580 ft

Lower Crystal Lake as it first comes into view

The trail to lower Crystal Lake can be an exercise in drudgery, but if you have a sturdy, high-clearance, true 4WD vehicle, there are several ways to cheat. Your degree of naughtiness depends entirely upon how far up Crystal Creek Road you decide to go.

Breaking out of treeline

On this trip, we ended up driving 0.85 miles up to a small two-car sized parking area on the left. This area is a small shelf overlooking Crystal Creek. It was very obvious. We stopped here because some hikers passing by told us that cars were not allowed beyond the turn off to Francie's Cabin, another 200 yards up the road. This turned out not to be true. You can drive all the way to the Lower Crystal Lake, which is totally whimping out unless you plan to use it as a trailhead for the Upper Crystal Lake. Be advised that Crystal Creek Road is very steep, rocky, and narrow. There were a couple of shear drop offs that had us giggling with "we're all going to die" tension breakers. If your tire hits a large rock and slides, it may not stop and those drop offs all invariably had large rocks near them.

Crystal Peak on the left. Note the water pouring down the road.

Crystal Creek Road heads off to the right 0.20 miles from the center of the Spruce Creek-Mowhawk Lakes trailhead. If space is available, you can park right across from this road. We did not think of it as a trail at the time b/c two trucks went up it right before we did. It is the trail however. Most of this lower portion of the trail has enough space to allow hikers to get out of the way of vehicles but there are some spots where there is not. Fortunately, only the hardy drive up that road, so traffic is light. The first mile of this road is in the trees, very steep, and mundane despite the pleasant views of the creek. Unless you like that sort of thing, beg, borrow, or steal a 4WD and cheat.

After our soggy water crossing, wringing out our socks was required.

Since there are so many ways to get to Lower Crystal Lake via Crystal Creek Road, I am going to summarize them in a table. The elevation of the lower lake is at 11,980 ft:

Starting PointStarting ElevationElevation GainDistance to Lake
Spruce Trailhead10,400 ft1,580 ft2.18 miles
Our parking spot11,182 ft790 ft1.33 miles
Lower Lake11,980 ft246 ft to mine
870 ft to upper lake
0.48 miles
1.9 miles to upper lake

Obviously, one can extrapolate between our parking spot and the lower lake. It is possible to park at many locations between them. It is not advisable to park before our parking spot. The one advantage of just driving all the way to the lower lake is to avoid having to cross Crystal Creek itself the wet and soggy way.

Looking back down the valley towards Mt. Argentine.

There was a lot of water on the upper portion of the trail. Snowmelt was pouring down the road for about a quarter of a mile. This was not too bad because we could walk on the raised center portion of the road and only occasionally had to step into the water itself. The road crosses Crystal Creek, however, close to the lake and it was raging. Water completely covered the road for about 20 yards. There was no way around it, we had to just trudge through it and wring out our socks on the other side. The first trip across was not too bad and my socks seemed to dry very quickly. The second trip was worse because the water was deeper by the afternoon. It would be best to bring water shoes to change into if you do this hike in June or early July.

The mining road

Lower Crystal lake is a small, shallow lake, but it sits surrounded on three sides by high mountain walls. We could see the switchback trail to the upper lake, but there were at least four snowfields blocking the route. We did observe two hikers and their dogs make it past the first snowfield but turned around at the second. We found the area so appealing that coming back later in the season to do the upper lake is definately in the queue.

Crystal Lake from the shoulder of the mining road. The route to the upper lake zigzags up this face and then traverses from right to left near the top of the face.

Since we could not hike to the upper lake, we decided to head up an old mining road to the left of the lower lake. This goes up another 250 ft or so. There is a nice meadow half way up with a large snow bank that our dogs loved to race up and down. The road does continue in a dramatic turn to the left and we followed this route as well. This part of the road traverses what appears to be an ancient glacial moraine (large rock pile). It had great views of the valley we had ascended to get there. The best views of Lower Crystal Lake itself were found on the lower portion of the mining road.

Except for the first mile up Crystal Creek Rd (if you choose to park at the bottom), most of the trail is above treeline. The tundra wildflowers were popping out all over the place, particularly Alpine Forget-me-nots.

Standing near the apex of the mining road. The two large peaks in the distance are Grays and Torreys.

I really like the Crystal Lake basin. It was uncrowded and scenic. Since our hike was so short, however, we felt we needed to do more and so headed off to Hoosier Pass for a nice ridge walk, which will be the topic of another post.


Gary said...

Awesome!!! :-)

Linda said...

What a stunning vista, with all the layers of colour and then the snow-streaked mountains in the distance. How far away are those peaks?

sylvia murphy said...

Hi Linda,

I assume you mean the peaks in the last picture. The line of peaks in the distance is very deceiving. You are actually looking at waves of mountains but they appear to be all one line. The closest wave is about 8 miles. The farthest wave is about 20 miles. Both of those numbers are very rough.