Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 7.7 miles (round trip)
Elevations: 2,700 ft. gain/loss
Willow Creek Trailhead (start): 8,880 ft.
Willow Lake: 11,564 ft.
Upper Willow Lake: 12,325 ft.
Trail: Well used, well maintained trail.
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. There is generally snow at Willow Lake from mid-November through early July.
Vicinity: Near Crestone
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This is one of the most popular hikes on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area. For me, the thing that makes it so special is a magnificently situated waterfall that plunges 150 feet into the eastern side of Willow Lake. The best time to photograph this picture-perfect scene is in the late afternoon when the sun is low in the west. If you are fortunate enough to be there at that magical late afternoon moment when the lake is in shade but the fall is still in full sunlight, and when the water is calm, you will be treated to a prize-winning view of the fallís reflection off the lake. It is rare, however, for the water to be calm at that time of day.
Another reason people are drawn to Willow Lake is that it is a popular staging area for the assent of Kit Carson Peak (14,165 ft.) and Challenger Point (14,081 ft.). Both of these fourteeners, along with Columbia Point (13,980 ft.) are located on the ridge directly above the south side of the Willow Creek drainage. The 3,600-foot assent to the summits of Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point begins just above the east side of Willow Lake.
From the parking area the trail goes east for 100 yards before coming to a well-marked junction between the Willow Creek Trail and the South Crestone Trail. Turn right here onto the Willow Creek Trail. Immediately upon leaving the junction the path dips down into a shallow depression, crosses Crestone Creek and the Wilcox Gulch drainage in quick succession, then climbs out to a meadow on the south side of the drainages. Upon reaching the higher ground of the meadow the trail proceeds eastward along the south side of Wilcox Gulch.
The route follows Wilcox Gulch for 0.3 mile, then turns to begin a series of long, gentle switchbacks upward to the top of the ridge that separates the Wilcox Gulch drainage from Willow Creek. After 40 minutes of climbing through an open forest of Douglas fir and white fir the trail reaches the top of the ridge, then it drops slightly down the south side of the ridge toward Willow Creek.
Willow Creek, at this point, flows through a large treeless meadow called Willow Creek Park. The 500-yard-long meadow is very picturesque, but it seems oddly out of place in this rugged terrain. Though it is completely surrounded by dense timber it is completely treeless and almost perfectly flat. It appears to be the remnant of an ancient lakebed that eventually filled with silt and was transformed into a grassy park. The trail stays well above the north side of the meadow, but along the way you will pass several spur trails that drop down to its northern side. During the summer you can usually see the tents of at least one or two backpacking parties camping on the perimeter of the park.
As you walk above Willow Creek Park notice the cleavage in the mountains on the east side of the meadow. This is the gorge through which Willow Creek flows and it is the route you will follow to the lake. The trail continues to descend until it reaches the eastern end of the park, loosing about 100 feet in all, then starts uphill again. Shortly after leaving the meadow you will pass a Forest Service sign marking the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area boundary. Beyond the sign the trail becomes significantly rockier as it enters the Willow Creek Gorge, but the grade continues to be relatively gentle.
As you ascend through the canyon that surrounds Willow Creek the terrain becomes more and more rugged and the trail does a great deal of meandering as it searches for the easiest way forward. Initially it stays high above the north side of the creek, but about 1.0 mile after crossing the wilderness boundary the trail comes back to Willow Creek once again. As it nears the creek the path passes an impressive waterfall, then just above the fall it crosses to the south side of the creek.
After winding up a series of short, rocky switchbacks through a steep boulderfield the trail finally crosses again to the gentler north side of the creek and remains there for the last 0.6 mile to the lake. This part of the hike is extremely scenic. Just before reaching the lake you will pass one more waterfall, then after a few more minutes you will be at the lake.
Willow Lake could not be prettier. It is located just below timber line, and although it is surrounded by 13,500-foot peaks its shores are adorned with towering conifers that grow right to the waterís edge. But the major attraction of Willow Lake is its magnificent waterfall. The eastern side of the lake is bordered by a 150-foot cliff that lies directly across the Willow Creek drainage, and the resulting waterfall gives Willow Lake a unique element of beauty.
Upper Willow Lake
Upper Willow Lake is an easy 1.0 mile walk beyond the lower lake with 760 feet of additional elevation gain. Don't expect the upper lake to be as visually attractive as the lower lake. Nevertheless the walk through the alpine tundra of upper Willow Creek Basin, with Kit Carson Mountain on the right and the Sangre de Cristo summit ridge on the left, makes for an interesting extension to this hike.
There is a primitive trail around the north end of Willow Lake to the bench above the waterfall. The trail follows the lakeshore for 300 yards, then ascends through a heavy undergrowth of willows to the more open terrain above the fall. From there the faint trail continues east along the south side of the creek for a short distance before it disappears. You may see a few cairns above the fall marking another route that ascends the northern flank of Kit Carson Mountain. As mentioned before, this is a popular route for peak baggers wishing to climb Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak. The route from Willow Lake to Challenger Point is a relatively easy 1.4 mile climb with 2,520 feet of elevation gain, and from Challenger climbers can make a slightly more difficult traverse along the summit ridge to Kit Carson Peak.
The easiest route to Upper Willow Lake follows along the south side of the creek. You will see bits and pieces of a trail along the way, but nothing that lasts very long. There are several large groves of willows in the bottom of the basin, but you can usually find an easy way through them. Most of the route is across a grassy tundra and the walk is not difficult.
The upper lake lies at the bottom of a deep pocket with steep scree fields on three sides and towering mountains above. Past rockslides have deposited huge boulders in and around the lake. Look up at the sides of the valley northeast of the lake and you can see abundant scratch marks, polished surfaces and other evidence of the glaciers that once filled the basin. Fifty thousand years ago the ice above the upper lake must have been at least a thousand feet thick. The glaciers are gone now, but looking at the stark landscape of Upper Willow Basin it is not difficult to imagine the forces that once carved the Willow Lakes.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Willow Lake Trail
Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Trails Illustrated, map #138)
Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS