Sunday, July 27, 2008

Leadville Weekend Part Two: Hagerman Tunnel and Hagerman Lake

Distance: 5.5 miles round trip
Elevation: 10,940ft - 11,530 ft
Elevation gain: 590 ft
Bathroom at Trailhead: No

Hagerman Lake

Hagerman Tunnel near Leadville is easy hike with stupendous views, intriguing Colorado history, and a glimpse into an ice-encrusted abyss. The abyss, the tunnel itself, is a 2,161 ft cut into the Continental Divide.  It was the highest tunnel in its day, and when you wander through the mass of granite debris blown out by the army of Italian workers and stand before its gaping maw, you can appreciate the technical feat involved.

The rail bed along the first mile

A bonus on this hike is the drive to the trailhead along the south side of Turquoise Lake, which has its own appeal. While you can’t rent boats on the lake, many people bring their own and cruise the blue waters in search of the scaley ones.

There were about five water crossings in the first mile.

Towards the western end of the lake, the road diverges and a gravel road splits off to the left. There is a nice brown sign that says Hagerman Pass, so this turn off is not difficult to miss. At this point you are already journeying back in time along the original rail bed. The road is a washboard but passable by non-4wd vehicles. About 3.8 miles up this road, there is a large parking lot on the right and a boarded up tunnel straight ahead. This is your milestone to head to the right up a much rougher road. On this trip, we had a Toyota 4 Runner and a Honda Civic. There were a few tense moments in the Civic but it made it one more mile up the road to another large parking lot. This is the beginning of the trail.

The scenery around Douglass City. You can see a smaller cabin in the distance.

The first mile of the trail follows the flat rail bed of the old narrow gauge railroad. Wildflowers abounded on the edges and slopes and occasional views of the Sawatch Mountains make it a pleasant if slightly monotonous diversion. Around 1.2 miles, you come to a steep decent that is the location of a long eroded train trestle. This first trestle was 1,100 ft long and 84 ft high. Take a moment to gaze down into canyon but don’t follow the trail downward. Instead, back track a few yards and you will see another trail heading up hill and back towards the way you just came. Don’t be deceived by the map that comes with your trail guide what shows this road heading off more to the left. This is the right trail and it will veer back to the left in a quarter of a mile where it crosses the rail bed again.

Opal Lake seen from the upper rail bed

This short trail is far rockier than the smooth rail bed and ascends steadily. After crossing the rail bed, it will arrive at the site of Douglass City, the camp that held the aforementioned Italians. The ruins of this city exist in a sequence of meadows strewn with granite rock and surrounded by high cliffs. We counted at least ten log cabins in this area.

Final approach to the tunnel

In the short distance between the tunnel and Douglass City, there is Opal Lake, a nice tarn to the left of the trail. It looked serene but the swarms of mosquitoes that greeted us made it significantly less so. If fact, we wanted to eat lunch at the tunnel but had to keep moving to avoid being sucked dry. The copious amount of Deet we were wearing was no deterrent to these rejects from a Japanese monster movie.

Hagerman Tunnel. The flat surface at the bottom is a thick layer of ice

So is Hagerman Tunnel a worthy destination? It is a rough-hewn hole in the mountain with a glacier for a floor. It drifts mysteriously to the right and out of view. It is horribly tempting to enter the tunnel but it is very dangerous to do so. Who knows how many crevasses exist in that glacier and how easily you could disappear into one. It is very unique and intriguing, so yes, it is a worthy destination. The views and wildflowers are added bonuses.

For the return trip, don’t go back through Douglass City but head north along the rail bed. This will pass pleasant Hagerman Lake. On this trip there were a crowd of backpackers lounging and fishing in its brown colored waters. We saw these folks when we were starting and there were more dogs than people and each dog had a pack in which he carried his own food. I need to get my dog a pack so she can carry our extra water!

Elephant Heads (Pedicularis groenlandica), which grow in moist meadows at moderate to high elevation. Also included are many-colored Paintbrush and a patchwork quilt of other species.

Close up of an Elephant Head

If you are in Leadville, put this hike on your list. It won’t help you train for Mt. Massive but it will be a pleasant diversion just bring the Deet and be emotionally prepared to keep moving.

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