published: June 2019
Hiking to South Crestone Lake
by Emmy Savage
I did my first lake hike of the season on Saturday. I chose South Crestone Lake because at a bend in the trail, right next to a lovely waterfall, I have seen fairy slippers. I hoped, since I had just seen them on Rito Alto, that I would see them again at this same spot on the trail. But they were nowhere to be seen. It may be too early at this elevation. Despite aspen leaves being full sized lower down, here they are no bigger than a pack rat’s ear—time to plant corn, they would say in the east.
It is a gorgeous day for a hike—skies clear blue, birds singing, fog in the lake cirque that burns off by the time we reach the lake. It takes me five hours—an alarming performance given that this is our shortest trail, albeit the steepest. Taking a page from my friend Phil, I move slowly and my chest pain never kicks in. I feel so purified by fatigue that, after lunch, I lie down on the rocks next to the lake shore and take a nap in the sun. My dog Sarah has had a snack too and naps with me.
I have been walking the South Crestone Trail for six years and over that time, much of the Engelmann spruce have died, especially across the last headwall as you approach the lake and throughout the forest that runs up a long flat valley lower on the trail. But the trail never ceases to astonish me with its beauty, with the fact that it is never the same from year to year or even month to month. This is the first time I have ever been here early enough to see ice flows in the lake. The peaks with their scrimshaw of unmelted snow and the lake water both have a grey, wintery look despite the cloudless sky and warm sun. Often, I see cutthroat trout gliding along the lake shore but today, I do not. Instead, as I arrive, I hear a hermit thrush singing and as I prepare to leave, I see movement in a nearby evergreen. Someone is flicking his tail like a flycatcher. I bring up my glasses to the spot, and there, churning about, is a beautiful Wilson’s warbler, with his black beret and bright yellow face. “Common in extensive brushy woods with dense understory near water; often in willows and alders,” says the Sibley guide. Well, this Wilson’s warbler has plenty of water and willows here but I wonder how this small four-and-three-quarter-inch bird has found his way to this remote high-elevation spot, just emerging from winter. Coming up the trail I also saw a MacGillivray’s warbler where the path switches up a steep side-hill meadow. I’ve been trying to increase my speed between seeing movement and bringing my binoculars up to my eyes and focusing. It pays off when a blur of movement or a flicking tail turns into one of these lovely, golden little beings. On my way back, I see a pair of very busy brown creepers, whirring up a spruce like windup toys, searching for insects and spiders. They hardly pay any attention to my presence. Bon appetite, mes amis!
Despite the fact I’ve not seen fairy slippers, the South Crestone Lake trail is ready to amaze me with other lovelies: globe flowers, marsh marigolds, alpine pussytoes, tufted evening primrose, white geranium, wild strawberry, scarlet gilia, Parry primrose with its smoldering magenta flames lighting up the creek side, Jacob’s ladder, heartleaf arnica, and wild candytuft. But these are just a tease for what is to come in July: corn lilies in the meadow just below the lake, alpine bluebells, chiming bells, harebell, sky pilot, monk’s hood, larkspur, blue gentian, alpine forget-me-nots, and the queen of all flowers: the blue columbine. This time, as I take one last look at the lake, I have a thought I’ve never had before. “Will I see the lake again?” “Will this be the last time?” Certainly, as I age, there will be a last time. But as Sarah and I turn to retrace our steps, I think surely, I will be back.
Excerpted from Emmy’s book, Walking the Stations in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.