Sunday, August 23, 2015

Shelf Lake

Distance: 6.8 miles round trip
Elevation: 10,130 ft - 12,000 ft
Elevation Gain: 1,870 ft
CMC Rating: Difficult B
Date Hiked: 9 August 2015
Bathroom at Trailhead: No
Dogs: Off leash
Tags: #coloradooutdoors #hiking  #mountainlake #nature

Shelf Lake
The trail to Shelf Lake, off of Guanella Pass Road,  is a moderate to difficult hike to a scenic alpine tarn bordered on three sides by rocky thirteen thousand foot peaks. In Autumn the route is filled with juvenile but still colorful Aspens. In summer wildflowers dominate. While the trail is rough and rocky, the destination is worth the pain.

Pile of rocks that marks the trailhead
Trail sign, which can not be seen coming up the road, but only after you have passed it.
Getting to the trailhead is a pain of a different sort and may not be worth it for some folks. Lately the road really requires a high-clearance vehicle and angelic patience. It is filled with football-sized rocks and large dips that make it harder to travel more than 1 or 2 miles an hour. That can mean a one hour drive from the turnoff on Guanella Pass. What is amazing is the number of passenger cars that have made the journey to camp in one of the many primitive spots along the way. On this trip we were in a 4x4 truck and it was still agonizingly slow.  I wouldn't bring my passenger car on that road, but many obviously do.

Early trail segment. The route is rocky most of the way.
Early views
If you decide to go, travel north on Guanella Pass Road out of Grant Colorado for seven miles. This dirt road has been under construction since 2013 and mid-week travelers will have additional delays. At Forest Road 119, take a left. At the turn there is a small sign indicating the Cedar Break campground. It is 3.5 miles to a small and very obvious pile of black rocks. There is space on the eastern side of this pile for two cars and some space along the road as well. A nice wood sign marks the beginning of the trail. Note this sign is NOT visible from the road until you pass it and look over your right shoulder.

At 0.75 miles the trails goes very sharply uphill.
Looking back down the valley. Autumn is still several weeks away and the Aspens were startlingly green.
The first half of the route is in the trees with limited views. Sometimes Aspens crackle in the wind and at other times Lodgepole Pine provide shade. There are several stream crossings that will require acrobatic rock hopping. In late August, only one was an issue.

Boulder Field
Back bowl comes into view
At 0.75 miles the trail climbs steeply up an escarpment on a trail filled with loose sand and rock. Having a hiking pole for the descent of this segment would be handy. At 1.2 miles is a very large boulder field followed by a backcountry campground. It was easy to navigate the campground on the way up, but not so easy on the way back. We found ourselves a little to the right of our inbound route on one of the many social trails leading to camp spots. Be prepared to really note the route or wander about a bit. At 1.5 miles is a large open meadow filled with Willows and small ponds.

Heading up to the first shelf
Looking down on the first shelf
Near treeline the route gets very pretty with dwarf Sub-alpine Fir, Blue Spruce, and even Lodgepole Pine. Large swaths of wildflowers exist in every open space. At times the trail wanders through large stands of encroaching Willows. Be careful here. Large rocks loom that may send you pitching head over heels into the shrubbery.

Originally, we thought the lake was straight ahead at the back of the bowl. It is actually several shelves up and to the left.
Wildflowers were still blooming, even in mid August.
The approach to the alpine bowl is deceiving. The lake appears to loom directly ahead when in fact it is located up a series of shelves to the left. As such, last half mile is a long series of switchbacks and false summits. Once on the proper shelf, it is still a short walk to the lake itself.

Heading up the last shelf
Arriving at the lake
There are plenty of dry places to lounge around the lake but few rocks, so early in the season the area may be a soggy experience. Directly ahead is the Continental Divide. Decatur Mountain is a craggy bump on the ridge to the left. While you can't see it, the Argentine Pass Trail is just below the ridge on the other side. From there you can climb Argentine Peak, which is the next peak along the ridge to the right. Finally, Square Top Mountain looms large to the east.

This Mountain Goat family (see the kid following the lead parent), were just white moving dots with the naked eye, but can be seen with a cropped photo taken with a telephoto lens.
Square Top Mountain
While lounging at the lake, we saw a family of Mountain Goats traverse the ridge from left to right. Others have reported similar sightings. Finally, be aware that this area is a thunderstorm magnet. They can be seen building from as far away as Silverthorne when other areas along the Divide are clear.


Dorian said...

Thanks Sylvia for another great trip report. I hiked this trail on 7/4/16. The road to the trailhead was arduous. 25 minutes to make the 3.4 miles in a Forester. The trail was nice, and fairly quiet, even on a holiday. There was a good mix of forest and high alpine, with stream, waterfall, and lake action. Not many wildflowers yet, but I saw two marmots up close, which was fun!

sylvia murphy said...

HI Dorian,
Thanks for your comment. My friends don't believe me that the road in is no fun. You had good weather for it today. Last fews days the storms have been hanging over that area. Happy 4th!