The Crestone Eagle, June 2005:

Hiking to Willow Lake: Ruining a good hike, and leaving no trace
by Thomas Cleary

I was on a Mission-For-Fishin', as much as needing to do research for this article, so I grabbed the dog, the rod, and about half of the “ten essentials”, and headed out for the Willow/South Crestone Creek trailhead. The dirt road heading east from the Crestone Mart was in pretty good shape, and most 4WD/moderate clearance vehicles should make it easily.

The trailhead is at about 8800’ and my first goal was Willow Park, about one mile and 1000’ elevation up the trail. The second landmark is the crest of the steep trail about 2 miles and 1400’ feet further. The final destination was the waterfall that feeds lower Willow Lake, a mile and 500’ farther still, for a total of 4 miles and 2900’.

Our backyard range is a unique 75-mile-long and 15-mile-wide (average) mountain range with dramatic elevational and ecological changes from the valley bottoms of the San Luis and Wet Valleys to its eight 14,000’ summits. Willow is one of the more accessible lakes from the Crestone side. Several maps cover this area, including two larger scale, laminated maps from Trails Illustrated, #138 (1:75,000) www.nationalgeographic.com and Sangre de Cristos and Great Sand Dunes Trails (1:60,000) www.skyterrain .com and the higher detail US Geological Survey 7.5 minute maps (1:24,000), Crestone and Crestone Peak Quadrangles http://store.usgs .gov/. Additional 7.5 minute maps to cover the bulk of the Sangre de Cristos around Crestone should include Rito Alto Peak, Horn Peak, Beck Mountain, Liberty, and Medano Pass Quadrangles.

The trail heads out of the parking lot and quickly splits away from the South Crestone Creek trail. During the spring the log bridge can be unnerving, but the stream is generally easily forded. Up through a meadow and a series of switchbacks, the trail leads you over the crest of a ridge and then angles slightly down towards Willow Park. This is a great destination for a short day hike or even overnight with kids. There are a few established campsites at the east end of the meadow in the aspen trees. To reach them look for side trails heading down that direction.

The Willow Creek trail and campsites are highly used. Please apply the principles of Leave No Trace (www.lnt.org):

(1) Plan Ahead and Prepare: Repackage food to minimize waste, prepare for weather and emergencies, avoid times of high use, visit in small groups.

(2) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Concentrate use on established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow, camping at least 200 feet from water. Avoid shortcutting switchbacks to minimize erosion. In pristine areas disperse use; prevent creation of new campsites and trails.

(3) Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack it in, pack it out, including all trash, leftover food, litter, toilet paper, and hygiene products. Deposit and cover solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Wash yourself or your dishes 200 feet away from streams or lakes and scatter strained dishwater.

(4) Leave What You Find: Leave natural and historic objects alone. Use a tent. Do not build or dig.

(5) Minimize Campfire Impacts: Use a lightweight stove for cooking and use established fire rings for small fires using sticks from the ground. Burn everything to ash, and make sure campfires are cold and dead.

(6) Respect Wildlife: Do not approach or feed wildlife (store your rations and trash securely). Control your pets.

(7) Be Considerate of Others: Be quiet and courteous. Yield to other users and to the downhill side of the trail for pack animals.

I didn’t stop to fish at the meadows but pushed on to the high crest at 11,200’. The bulk of the trail is south-facing switchbacks and hot! Soon after crossing Willow Creek I hit the first serious snow, and kicked in a trail and wallowed my way the rest of the steeps. The views from the glacier etched rocks at the bench are stunning. Once the snows are gone, there are a few low impact campsites a short ways up (and off) the trail, but on this day they were still 6-10’ deep.

In my pack, next to my useless fishing gear, was a warm-when-wet (non-cotton) clothing layer, raingear, a ziplock of Band-Aids, butterflies, tape, lighter, a multitool, and food and water. When heading out around here this is the minimum to carry. Small sips and snacks are easier to metabolize than gulps and meals. Weather changes abruptly, and the time from the onset of cooling to hypothermia can be short. Lightning can and does kill people, particularly once we start seeing the daily afternoon cloud buildup. Studies show that lightning often strikes when the time between the last bolt to thunder clap was still 10 seconds (2 miles). If you hear or feel buzzing or humming, you’re late. Run!

I was post hole-ing and pile-driving for another hour to the top of the falls above the lower lake, a ways beyond which, in the summer, are some nice gravel campsites. From there you can hike to the upper lake (1 mile/600’), straight up the ridge to the south for a steep but non-technical ascent to Challenger Point (14080’) on the shoulder of Kit Carson Peak (1 mile/2,400’), or if overnighting, even up the trail-less pass to the north and up the moderately technical west ridge of Mount Adams or down into South Crestone creek. But alas, all I could do was wet my line in the 20x20 foot area of open water by the lakes outlet long enough to scare away any half frozen fish before heading back down the trail. Good thing you can’t ruin a good hike just by carrying a rod.