I saw something on social media a while back about the cycle of summiting mountains, which could very easily be applied to many hikes/climbs/other challenging adventures. It was something along the lines of “Summit mountain → Arrive back home exhausted and swear you’ll never put yourself through that kind of torture again → Recover from soreness and exhaustion → Start planning next summit.”
That wasn’t the exact words, but you get the gist.
It’s a cycle every adventurer has probably found themselves trapped in at one time or another. I know I certainly have. There are a couple hikes I’ve sworn I’ll never ever do again, but the reality is that if someone invites me along with them I’d probably say yes.
This isn’t actually one of those hikes – this is one I will absolutely be doing again because it’s gorgeous – but it does bring to mind this cycle, because a mere week and a half after arriving back to the car utterly exhausted from our 15 mile (24 km) hike up Hyalite Peak, I committed myself to another 15+ mile hike.
Upon arrival in Colorado, I joined the local Women Who Hike group in hopes of meeting some like-minded individuals. Conveniently, a few days before Pat’s on-call weekend, a woman posted an open invitation to join her on a hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness on the upcoming Sunday. I indicated my interest and a few days later found myself heading up to the Monarch Lake trailhead with the woman and her friend – who are both now my friends as well!
The Cascade Creek Trail to Mirror and Crater Lakes is a well-known albeit somewhat less popular trail in Colorado, due to its distance. I’m sure it would have been more crowded on a Saturday – and we did see a good number of backpackers hiking out – but it certainly attracts fewer out-of-towners and casual adventurers in favor of more serious hikers. It was a refreshing change of pace that everyone we saw was wearing appropriate footwear and carrying backpacks and water and seemingly following the rules and Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.
From the Monarch Lake parking area, we headed up the Cascade Creek Trail, paralleling the north shore of Monarch Lake for a fairly flat and easy first mile and a half. On the way down, we saw a moose here, so be on the lookout!
(We also saw a snake on the trail here, so be on the lookout for those too…)
After entering the Indian Peaks Wilderness, the trail began a gradual climb up through the forest. This hike is rated as difficult, but more for the distance than anything else. Though there were some steep sections along the way, the trail would then moderate, allowing us a chance to catch our breath. The trail more or less follows Cascade Creek all the way up to the lakes, crossing it numerous times (on bridges, no wading required) as it meanders through the forest.
One thing we found very unique about this trail is the changing landscape as we hiked. I expect changes in the flora when rising in elevation, but in this case it didn’t seem to be related to elevation. Instead, we would come around a large curve and find ourselves in a completely different type of forest. The trail begins in predominately pine, opens up into an expansive area of small aspens and many low bushes, and eventually crosses back into pine forest before reaching the lakes.
The wide-open aspen area in particular was incredibly beautiful!
Of course, I can’t forget to mention the numerous waterfalls along the trail, which provide a nice destination for those looking for a shorter day hike back into the wilderness.
After one final set of steep switchbacks, we arrived at Mirror Lake, 7.2 miles (11.6 km) from the trailhead. The trail wraps around the west shore of Mirror Lake, leading 0.2 miles (0.1 km) up to Crater Lake.
Both lakes lie at the base of Lone Eagle Peak, so named for obvious reasons. But it’s not just this dramatic mountain that makes this area so stunning. The entire ridgeline surrounding the lakes is rocky and rugged, rising haphazardly against the bright blue skies. Snowfields and waterfalls tumbling down the steep slopes added yet another layer of beauty to the area.
We ate lunch on the shore of Crater Lake and spent no shortage of time taking photos of both lakes from every possible angle. As pretty as these photos are, I’m not sure a camera could ever truly do this area justice. It’s difficult to capture the true immensity of the mountains, the deep green waters, and the beautiful solitude that can only be found by venturing many miles into the wilderness.
I will absolutely be repeating this hike, next time with Pat in tow. We’ve even discussed backpacking in, because I would love to capture some photos of these lakes at sunrise. One way or another, this is definitely a hike that – despite my exhaustion and sore muscles at the end – I will be doing again.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Monarch Lake Trailhead is located in the Arapaho National Recreation Area, 10 miles (16 km) up CO Route 6 outside the town of Granby
- Fees and passes: There is a $6 day-use fee to enter the Arapaho National Rec Area; if you have an interagency annual pass you can just put it on your dashboard, but if you don’t, stop and pay as soon as you turn onto CO Route 6 because there are no pay stations further up the road!
- Hiking: Signage and most websites put this hike at 15 miles (24 km) RT but with our walks around the lakes and short detours to waterfalls along the way, we figure we hiked closer to 16 miles (25.5 km). Elevation gain is 2400 feet (730 m) with some steep sections but mostly moderate climbs. Rated difficult due to distance.
- Where to stay: Arapaho Bay Campground is located a couple miles from Monarch Lake Trailhead, and backcountry camping (with permits) is allowed in various locations along the Cascade Creek Trail. The town of Grand Lake is also nearby and offer various lodging options
- Other: I wouldn’t recommend this as a hike for beginners or lowlanders… it was a 9-hour day for us and we were well acclimated and in reasonable shape