Saturday, August 6, 2011

Chicago Lakes

Distance: 8.5 miles round trip
Elevation: 10,620 ft - 11,550 ft (lower lake)
Elevation Gain: 930 ft (net), 1,957 ft (cumulative)
Date Hiked: 10 July, 2011
Dogs: On leash, Mt. Evans Wilderness
Bathroom at trailhead: yes

Gazing down on glacier carved lower Chicago Lake

I have fallen in love with Chicago Lakes in the Mt. Evans Wilderness near Idaho Springs. The destination is stunning in that glacial-carved, majestic sort of way, and the route travels through a mixed Fir/Spruce forest, my favorite biome. Add the 14,000 foot Mt. Evans as a backdrop and you have the perfect alpine tableau.

Starting out on the Echo Lake Trail
The official trailhead on the far side of Echo Lake
The trailhead for this hike starts at Echo Lake, a small lake and picnic ground that is popular in summer for family gatherings. We parted on the northern end of the area but did not start marking the distance until we were standing on the Echo Lake Trail itself. From there is it is a short 0.22 miles around the lake to the official trailhead.

View of the Continental Divide from the trail down to the Chicago Creek Basin

The trail down to the basin

From this point it is another two tenths of a mile (at 0.4 miles) to the descent into the Chicago Creek basin. I loved this part of the trail. It is rugged, rocky, and faced on the left by towering gray granite walls. I did this hike on a cool, cloudy day and the towering trees were damp and primeval.

Crossing Chicago Creek

The road to the Idaho Springs Reservoir

After a descent of approximately 286 ft, the basin is reach (at 1.2 miles). The elevation here is 10,334 ft. At 1.3 miles is a sturdy bridge crossing Chicago Creek followed by a dirt road leading to the Idaho Springs Reservoir. The route stays on this road for 1 mile until it reaches the reservoir itself at 2 miles. It is then a short quarter of a mile to the wilderness boundary and kiosk and another 2 miles to the lower lake.

The reservoir and its spillway

One of the two cabins at the upper end of the reservoir
Once inside the wilderness boundary, the route undulates upwards on a rocky trail with views of the sheer cliffs to the east, which is a ridge line between two 13ers, Mt. Warren and Mt. Rogers. This part of the route also contains many skeletal and downed trees, the remains of a late 70's forest fire. The fallen logs and piles of rocks cover the ground creating a thousand nooks and crannies for wildflowers to occupy, and there were tons, adding a vivid splash of color to the otherwise gray terrain.

Signage at the boundary to the Mt. Evans wilderness area
Trail segment through an open meadow
The lower lake sits in a pristine glacial cirque surrounded by Willows. This would be a lovely fall destination. We found it more appealing to sit high up on an open hillside to the right and look down on lake. This hillside was crammed with Indian Paintbrush, Purple Fringe, and the occasional Alpine Sunflower. I called this spot "the log with a view". It was 4.4 miles in from the trailhead.

A rockier trail segment

Looking up at the east wall to the valley

The remains of the 1978 Idaho Springs fire, which burned 400 acres
Sitting there surrounded by beauty my hiking companion and I quietly turned contemplative. She asked why I was I ever drawn to abuse my body in order to seek out alpine settings. She wondered if such places made me feel less significant. I gazed at the gray cliffs for a while and realized it was in fact the opposite. For the brief moment that I sat there, I became part of the scenery. I was expanded exponentially. I became as solid as the rocks, as serene as the lake, as enduring as the processes that produce such places. Sitting by Chicago Lakes makes one feel part of something much larger than insignificant human existence. I became the living embodiment of the cliche, totally connected to the Earth and all such places wherever they exist. Either that or I was smoking mushrooms at high altitude. Both probably produce similar insights.

The final approach to the lower lake

A view of the lake and the end of the valley beyond
Another eight tenths of a mile will bring you to the upper lake. On this trip I did not make that journey. Folks coming down said it was a swampy, muddy mess. 2011 has been a record year for snow and many places are still melting.

The open hillside were we stopped to eat
Flowers in the meadow
Mystical experiences aside, Chicago Lakes is a lovely destination that takes the hiker into the very arms of the Mt. Evans Wilderness. When you are done, drive up to Summit Lake. From there you can look down on Chicago Lakes and feel proud about your accomplishment.

Closeup of some Indian Paintbrush

Purple fringe and company. The wildflowers this year have been stunning

1 comment:

Linda said...

I always wondered what Indian Paintbrush looks like, having encountered it in Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Loved your high altitude contemplations!