Sunday, September 5, 2010

Wheeler Lake Hike

Distance: 6.8 miles round trip
Elevation: 10,980 ft - 12,162 ft
Elevation Gain: 1,182 ft
Dogs: Off Leash
Critters: Bubbas in Jeeps

Wheeler Lake

The trail to Wheeler Lake near Breckenridge, not to be confused with Wheeler Lakes (plural) near Copper Mountain, is a narley trail that travels up a gulch at the base of Mt. Lincoln (14,286 ft) (north side). It is narley because it is also a jeep trail and is mostly loose rock. It is also narley because much of the road contains deep ponds that never seem to dry out. The hiker can either slog through these ponds or bushwhack through the willows on the side of the road. So many people have chosen the bushwhack option, that social trails have developed through the shrubbery. Many of these short trails are easy to follow, others require true shrub stomping skills. Save the skin on your legs and wear pants.

Parking area. The trailhead is around the bend and up to the left.

Looking up the creek while standing on the metal bridge over the diversion.

Montgomery Reservoir from the parking area

The trailhead for Wheeler Lake is located on the western side of Montgomery Reservoir, a popular fishing spot. The access road starts around 0.5 miles on the southern side of Hoosier Pass. If you are coming from Breckenridge, you will see the dirt road coming back towards you before you have to make the very sharp right turn onto it. Stay straight on this dirt road down to the reservoir and then take the road that travels around it. This junction is rather obvious. You can park where a water diversion tunnel enters the lake or continue on the rough, single-lane road around to the back of lake. Here, near a pumping station is an area for about 15 vehicles. The hike begins up the road toward the large aluminum-sided mining ruin.

Heading up the trail. First stop a large mining ruin.

Another antique. North Star Mountain (13,614 ft) in the background.

A typical trail/road segment. Those rocks are trying after a while.

Since you are on a road, the route is easy to follow. It rises steadily through trees and occasional vistas until you reach the broad open valley to the south of Mt. Lincoln. From this point on the views only get better. Mt. Democrat (14,148 ft) is located at the end of the valley and North Star Mountain guards the northern side. All three of these peaks are bare, tallus covered monstrosities. Willows creep up their sides and they quickly diminish as they approach treeline. The entire valley is filled with willows that will look stunning in the fall.

Heading deeper into the valley. The lake is up and to the right.

Looking up at Mt. Lincoln. It is much more imposing that this picture gives it credit for.

Further up the valley

Wheeler Lake is an obvious glacial remnant. It sits atop a broad shelf on the north side of the valley that is obvious from a distance. The road splits on the western side of this shelf with a small two-tire road heading off towards Democrat and a steep, very rocky road heading up the shelf. The portion of the route is like walking on a stream bed. The rocks are large, round, and filled in with dirt, pebbles, and small streams. For every step upwards, the hikers slides backwards an inch or two. As soon as I could, I left the trail to tundra walk across the shelf, which continues to angle upwards. I kept expecting to run right into the lake with each false rise in the ground. The reality is that the shelf is rather large and the lake is nestled at the very back of it, so it took quite a bit of stomping to get there. We stayed on the road on the way back down.

A typical road pond. Note the small trail through the willows on the right.

Turning around and looking back down the valley

A really large pond. Mt. Democrat in the distance

I was quite disappointed to finally see the lake and the 8 or so jeeps parked beside it. We had passed one 4x4 on the way up and figured we might see another, but the road is extreme with huge gullies and boulders. Only jeeps with independent suspensions, extra large clearance and experienced drivers should have been able to make the trip.

Near the turn off to the lake (to the right). It looks like a short walk to the base of Mt. Democrat and then a simple scramble up to the saddle. I suspect it is much harder or there were have been 2,000 people on the trail.

A small waterfall coming down from the lake near the turn off

The road heading up the shelf to the lake. And I thought the rocks below were bad....

I snidely described the body composition of many of the 4x4ers I observed on a recent hike to the General Teller Mine. Well, the characters I observed upon approaching the jeeps on this trip put those other specimens to shame. They were as large as the boulders surrounding the lake. One jeep had three such individuals. I am surprised they could all fit in the vehicle. We Coloradans have lived in blissful bubble of ignorance, totally unbelieving in the obesity crisis gripping the nation. Not so any longer. Not only am I seeing grossly obese individuals on the trails, but I am also seeing them in the urban areas. Whether these individuals are tourists or college students I can not say, but like sightings of Sasquatch, I am starting to believe.

Looking back down the valley from our tundra walk across the shelf

Looking back at Mt. Democrat from our tundra walk

Despite the Jeeps, my sojourn at Wheeler Lake was very pleasant. Wildflowers carpeted the meadows surrounding it, and a small picturesque stream drifted slowly through a rock garden to the right. I found myself crawling around, nose to the turf, taking pictures of the flowers with the mountains in the background. My two dogs raced two and fro, splashing in the water while less energetic creatures lounged in the sun on several of the broad flat rocks that dotted the shoreline.

The hordes of jeeps at the lake. I recently saw a TV commercial that used this setting.

Wheeler Lake, at last...

The trip back down the trail was not a difficult as I was expecting. We knew where to find the trails through the willows and the steep road up took less time coming down that I expected. The rock was still very loose however, and my hiking partner slipped and fell at least 3 times and I fell at least once. A fall on this trail won't kill you, but it did suck my breath away for a moment and make me whimper. I had a very stunning bruise on my right hand where I gracefully drove my arm into a pile of rocks. Waterproof boots, poles, ankle-high boots, and a willingness to get scratched and bruised are recommend on this trail.

To the right of the lake is a series of small ponds. Add in rocks and clouds, and you get a view that was more appealing than the lake itself.

Ginger, the hyper one, climbed onto the largest boulder around and gazed longingly up at the "ants" swarming the summit of Mt. Lincoln. Left to her own devices I have no doubt she could run up there in about a half hour.

So in summary, if you like to get down and dirty on your hikes and don't mind being one with the plants and mud, this trail is for you. If you like a trail with a little less adventure and ankle-twisting karma, then stay away or find 4x4 willing to take you up. Wheeler Lake is a worthwhile destination, but not one I will do frequently.


  1. Great pics and commentary (as usual)...thanks :-)

  2. You weren't tempted to sabotage the tyres of the 4x4s?

  3. Thanks for the great description. The lake looks great but think I will pass on this one.

  4. great write-up, great description. I am a little taken back by your comments about the 4x4ers. I for one am a "4x4er" and I take offense to the comments. There are a few of us who are probably obese or heavier than we should be but not all of us. I for example am a healthy 6'1", 205. Don't treat "us" like we are from another planet. Did you happen to notice the license plates? Probably from Colorado. Thank you for you trail report.

    1. It is interesting that so many fit Jeep owners are taking offense at my observations. This is what I saw on that day and what I have seen in other locations.

  5. This trail description reminds me of the last time I hiked Mt. Democrat (among several times)....loose rocks all the way up and down, definitely did not like the trail and prefer forested trails. Enjoyed your description of the 4x4's and occupants. I think they are in the same class of creature that rides 4 wheelers thru any and all terrain and wreck it. Lazy doesn't begin to describe their desire to ride rather than hike and enjoy the moment.
    Thank god we have wilderness areas in our state where these machines will never be allowed!

    1. Whats wrong with Jeeps? I like to hike and jeep. They are both fun. As far as the shape of us-haha I am in much better shape than any hiker Ive seen in the last few years. BTW I have saved a few hikers in distress with my 4x4. They were pretty dang happy to see me and hitch a ride. When you get injured, you may be very happy to see a helpful jeeper.

  6. We just did this hike, Sept. 26th, saw 3 other hikers the entire day and one jeep on the way down. Beautiful scenery and caught a few nice brookies at the lake. Noone in our group fell once, which makes me wonder about the coordination of the author. Oh and by the way my son is an extreme 4x4er and he is 5'8' and 140lbs, by no means obese. And many of the local 4x4 clubs maintain the trails they ride. Please don't ever stereotype. If I were to stereotype, I could say the hikers with dogs leave dog poop all over the trails.