Lower Coney Lake, located in the Indian Peaks Wilderness of Colorado, is beautiful.
Getting there was awful.
This was partly due to weather and partly due to the fact that, all in all, this was not my best day on the trail.
My friend Savannah, her husband Blake, and I arrived at Beaver Reservoir around 7:30am on the last Saturday in February, and right away I realized my first mistake of the day: I should have worn warmer pants. It was colder and windier than we expected. Mistake number two soon followed: I had accidentally packed my right mitten and Pat’s right mitten but no left mitten. (This is a pretty solid justification for not buying identical mittens for yourself and your significant other…)
Nonetheless, we donned many layers and our snowshoes, and I shoved my left hand into a too-large right-handed mitten, and set off up Coney Creek Road, which is snow-covered and closed in the winter (and – from what I’ve heard – so rough and narrow in the summer that it barely counts as a road). The first few miles of the hike were straightforward; cross-country ski tracks were visible from the previous day making navigation simple. We did our best to avoid stepping in the ski tracks, although in places it was so narrow that we didn’t have a choice.
After about 1.5 miles (2.5 km), we reached a 1.2 mile (2 km) spur trail that branches off Coney Lake Road and takes a much straighter path to Coney Flats. The signage was very clear and easy to follow, and the ski tracks were still visible. This cutoff trail rejoins the road just shy of Coney Flats Trailhead.
As we neared the trailhead, we began to see our first views of the hike. Up to this point, we’d been simply hiking through the forest. With views, though, came wind. A lot of wind. Now more than ever, it became clear that I was underdressed. Wardrobe changes in winter weather are extremely unpleasant, but I had no choice but to stop and put on my windproof pants and stick footwarmers in my boots.
And thanks to the wind, problem number three of the day now appeared: the hose on my water bladder was frozen.
I know some of you are probably thinking well duh, this is why you shouldn’t use a water bladder in the winter. And I know that, too. You’re supposed to use water bottles and store them upside down so if they start to freeze, they freeze at the bottom instead of at the opening. But I struggle to stay hydrated when I use water bottles, so I bought a water bladder with a neoprene insulated sleeve covering the hose and I always blow the water out of the hose after drinking and keep the mouthpiece tucked into my jacket. This strategy has always worked just fine.
Until today, when we stepped out of the trees into the bitter cold wind of the Indian Peaks. Or – as we renamed them – the Windian Peaks. And no amount of wrapping the hose in other items or putting it back into my backpack would unfreeze it, leaving me to obtain water like this:
(Again… this was not my best day on the trail.)
But we pressed on. We were on Coney Lake Trail now, which was much harder to follow than the road had been. For one, there were no longer ski tracks. For the second, the trail was not at all intuitive. After attempting to follow it through the trees (which involved tripping and falling, ducking under many branches, getting our backpacks caught on said branches, and many twigs in our hair), we eventually abandoned that plan and simply walked up the frozen, snow-covered creek. In one location, the creek ran beneath a potentially avalanche-prone slope. It was a small slope. Nonetheless, we walked across one at a time and moved quickly.
Eventually, the creek led us to a small, rocky, tree-covered hill. We carefully found our way up, fighting the wind gusts, until Lower Coney Lake finally came into view.
Lower Coney Lake sits in a lovely basin surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The ice on the lake shimmered in the sun. It was beautiful. And so cold that we only managed to stay for about five minutes before turning our backs to the wind and beginning the 6 mile (9.6 km) descent to the car.
The return trip was less miserable than the ascent had been. With the wind at our backs, we were able to pull down our neck gaiters and carry on a conversation. We could follow our own tracks, and once we reached tree cover we could even take off our mittens to eat a snack. Our legs were tired, though, and the last couple miles seemed to last forever. I was very grateful when we rounded the final curve and the trailhead came into view.
One day, I will return to this trailhead. I’ll hike to Lower Coney Lake, actually get to enjoy it, and then climb to Upper Coney Lake. I’ll wear the appropriate clothing and pack the appropriate gear. But it won’t be in the winter. I love a good challenge, and frozen alpine lakes are one of my favorite things about Colorado, but the misery-to-enjoyment ratio was too high on this one.
And now I’m going to wrap up this post and go double check all my gear. It’s time to put a new pair of footwarmers in my pack, find my left mitten, and just generally make sure that my next hike goes a little more smoothly than this one.
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: our hike departed from the intersection of Coney Flats Road and Beaver Reservoir Road (Route 96) off Peak-to-Peak Highway (CO 72) north of Ward
- Fees and passes: none for day use
- Hiking: round trip distance from Beaver Reservoir was 11.9 miles (19.2 km) with 1522 feet (464 m) of elevation gain
- Where to stay: this can be completed as a day trip from Denver and the surrounding area. For overnight stays, there are cabins, rentals, and campgrounds off Peak-to-Peak Highway. Backpacking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness between June 1-Sept 15 requires a permit; information on permits can be found here. This hike is in the Coney Creek backcountry zone
- Other: after this hike, all I can say about the Indian Peaks is wind, wind, and more wind. Be prepared for lots of it, no matter what season it is
- For additional information on winter hiking safety, visit this post