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|June 25- July 1, 2009
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Thrown for a loop
Find Yourself in Lost Creek
Story and photos by Rich Blitz
Some years ago when I was taking a long walk in the woods on the Appalachian Trail, one of the quirky characters I met said, “It’s all downhill. It’s just that sometimes you’re walking in the wrong direction.” He was offering up a cheery sentiment in response to all the bellyaching that thru-hikers would do about having to go up and down the seemingly endless number of hills. And I remember stopping in my tracks — trudging uphill, I needed a rest anyway — to roll his locution around in my head.
Now, as a backpacker, if you embrace his statement, then perhaps you are also content to accept the one predictable benefit of out-and-back backpacking trips (besides cutting in half your chances of getting lost): Simply put, as you reverse your direction and head back to the trailhead on a non-loop hiking route, every uphill section you have walked magically becomes a downhill. It’s guaranteed.
However, repetition has its price, as you revisit the same trees, flowers and scenery.
Which beckons the question, why repeat terrain when a core reason to set out on a multi-day backpacking trip is to break from your routine and make each day a new experience? The solution is, of course, the loop hike. And discovering alluring backpacking loops away from the crowds and with numerous options for number of desired days and distance is only as far away as the Lost Creek Wilderness Area (LCWA) — located less than 100 miles from Boulder.
During the first U.S. Forest Service process to establish wilderness areas (stemming from the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964), Lost Creek received more comments recommending wilderness designation than any other Colorado area. Established in 1980, the 120,000-acre LCWA is located southwest of Denver within the Pike and San Isabel National Forests.
From a recreational standpoint, the LCWA offers moderate to strenuous hiking, unusual scenery, challenging rock climbing and good fishing. Altitudes within the LCWA range from approximately 8,000 up to 12,000 feet. What makes the area special is the dramatic and unusual granite formations that fill the skyline, including domes, half domes, sheer walls, pinnacles, spires and minarets. Lost Creek’s name stems from the phenomenon of the creek disappearing and reappearing many times as it flows through rock piles, having carved out numerous caves.
Determine the number of days and distance to cover, and it’s easy to throw yourself for a loop in the LCWA. I dubbed it the “Loop Creek Wilderness” soon after examining a map of it, as at least six different multi-day loop possibilities stand out using its 100 miles of trails. And with 11 trailheads, it’s not hard to find a convenient starting point. Just don’t expect to pitch your tent by a lake every night. Unlike other nearby and popular wilderness areas, such as the Indian Peaks Wilderness or James Peak Wilderness, the LCWA is a camp-by-the-creek kind of place.
As my wife and I finished up a gratifying three-day, 26-mile loop encompassing five different trails in the LCWA, we savored the ever-changing tempo and eye-popping scenery that our route — the most popular loop — had served-up. Starting at the Goose Creek Trailhead, we had hiked clockwise connecting five different trails. The section between McCurdy Park and Refrigerator Gulch is the highlight; save some time for exploring west of the gulch where you can creek-walk into caves. We’d encountered other backpackers who were also throwing themselves for a loop on this route, some going counter-clockwise, some on a more leisurely four-day pace. You can also go light and fast and knock it out in two days if that’s your style.
The Lost Creek area typically thaws early in the season, making it a great early summer destination when snow is still a barrier in higher altitude wilderness areas (hint: go in June, and if you’re lucky you can sneak in a trip before the mosquitoes hatch). The LCWA also makes a tremendous destination when the aspen are turning golden in the fall.
Speaking of trees, in addition to seeing aspen, pine and Douglas fir, if you venture to the Goose Creek Trailhead, you’ll also have the experience of driving and walking through a section of the forest that was burned out by the Hayman Fire of 2002, the largest in Colorado’s history. That fire encroached on the southeast corner of the LCWA, although overall less than 5 percent of the LCWA was within the Hayman conflagration. On foot, we spent less than two hours in the affected areas, but that was more than enough time to get a profound sense of the damage done, as well as the delicate process of post-burnout forest regeneration.
But what really got burned into our heads from backpacking in the LCWA is this: While there may be trade-offs in going clockwise versus counter-clockwise depending on the particular loop, compared to spending half your time repeating terrain on an out-and-back hike, there’s really no such thing as walking in the wrong direction on a loop hike.
Map: Trails Illustrated #105 — Tarryall Mts./Kenosha Pass
The LCWA falls within two U.S. Forest Service Ranger Districts: South Platte R.D. 303-275-5610 and South Park R.D. 719-836-2031.
Loop 1: (described in article)
Approx miles: 26
Trailhead: Goose Creek TH
Trails used: Hankins Pass Trail — Lake Park Trail — Brookside McCurdy Trail — McCurdy Park Trail — Goose Creek Trail
Directions to Trailhead: US 285 west to Pine Junction, go south on Rd. #126 for 22 miles, turn south onto Rd. #211, go 2 miles, bear west for Goose Creek, go 1 mile, bear left at the fork, stay on #211 for 5 miles to an intersection just south of the (currently closed) Molly Gulch Campground, turn right go 4.7 miles to Goose Creek Trailhead access road, turn right go 1.3 miles and park.
Approx miles: 36
Trails used: Wigwam Trail — Goose Creek Trail — McCurdy Park Trail — Brookside McCurdy Trail — Wigwam Trail
Approx. miles: 34
Trailhead: Payne Creek
Trails used: Payne Creek Trail — Colorado Trail — Brookside McCurdy Trail
Approx. miles: 27
Trailhead: Rolling Creek
Trails used: Rolling Creek Trail — Wigwam Trail — Brookside McCurdy Trail — Colorado Trail
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