by Thomas Cleary
“It’s frozen! The lake is still frozen!”
—Kailou, age 11, June 2010
Willow Lake does not allow summer to visit. At over 11,564 feet it keeps spring waiting at the door until June, but fall is welcomed as early as August or September. The trail up Willow Creek by contrast is the most inviting trail around Crestone and well worth a day’s effort to explore.
At the very end of May my wife, 11- and 8-year old kids and I spent 3 days exploring the Willow drainage. We approached the trailhead by turning east at the stop sign in Crestone and heading uphill on Galena Ave. for 2.3 miles. (About half way there is a sign stating 4WD terrain, but most 2WD cars with decent clearance can make it.) The trailhead is at 8,880 feet and our planned camp was to be a mere mile in and 1,000 feet up, just over the first ridge, at Willow Creek Park. If you only have a few hours, this ridge/park is a great destination in its own right.
The trail leaves the parking lot heading east and, after about 100 yards splits off from the South Crestone trail, then immediately crosses a creek on a big log bridge. We travelled up through a lovely meadow before beginning a series of switchbacks through a forest of Douglas and white firs and scattered pines. We crested the ridge after about an hour, then followed the trail as it angled slightly down towards the east end of the meadow. Just before the main trail starts to climb again and crosses into the wilderness area, we followed a spur trail that drops the remaining distance to the east end of Willow Creek Park to several scattered campsites. These sites are in fragile wetland and fen-like environs; if you camp there please practice Leave No Trace principles (www.lnt.org).
This meadow is a leftover of glaciation as recently as 12,000 years ago. As a huge mass of ice, snow, and imbedded rock moved down from alpine cirques above, it carved a classic ‘U’ shaped glacial valley. This ‘U’ can be observed driving towards the mountains on ‘T’ road (and from the golf course). The glacier scoured the canyon and pushed rocks in front of it and along its sides; these are known as moraines. The ridge the trail crests just before getting to Willow Creek Park, and the hillside across from it to the south, are lateral (side) moraines, as evidenced by their equal height, long and skinny form, make-up of angular and unsorted debris, and dotted with glacier erratics (boulders carried from high in the mountains). There was probably once a terminal moraine holding back a lake where the meadow now sits, but it has been eroded away.
The next morning we resumed our climb on the main trail. While I do not know its history, I call it Crestone’s most inviting trail because of the engineering that went into producing a trail with a constant, comfortable grade of railroad precision. After leaving Willow Creek Park the trail sidehills along a south-facing slope until the terrain becomes steeper and the trail resorts to switchbacks through the path of least resistance. At one point it comes close to a falls, above which, and below another beautiful waterfall, it crosses the river. Then more switchbacks take you up through a boulder field. About 2 miles and 1400 feet beyond Willow Creek Park, where my family camped, the trail gains a bench of level terrain. It is worth taking a break off the trail here. If you walk along the rim of the bench you will see smooth, grooved rocks; more evidence of past glaciation call glacial polish and glacial striations respectively. This was the scene of a great ice falls as the glacier left the upper valley, grinding the bedrock smooth with the rocks and debris contained within it, and then cracking and tumbling over the brink before continuing its way down valley. I imagine the thickness of the glacier to have been at least a hundred feet at this precipice.
The bench is a good place to do a time and weather check as the lake is still a short mile and 500 feet further up. The trail crosses back to the north side of Willow Creek (and actually heads back west for a short time), crossing some marshy areas and climbing some gullies. Just before the small waterfall formed by the lake’s outlet stream you will pass several campsites and a sign stating that there is no camping within 300’ of the lake. These are the last legal and environmentally responsible campsites until you are above the inlet waterfall (and treeline).
If you are planning on camping at Willow Lake, drop your pack and set up here. There are rogue campsites around the lake, including several with tents; I was particularly discouraged to see one set up in a designated restoration site. Willow Lake receives lots of traffic due to its accessibility, the stunning beauty of the 150’ water fall
reflecting off the lake, and its use as a staging area for climbing 14ers in the area; please protect this special place by not camping around the lake.
We spent time watching the ice drifting around the thawing lake and hiking to the top of the inlet waterfall before heading back down to our camp at Willow Creek Park. You can extend this hike and go to Upper Willow Lake by traveling along the north side of the lower lake and a mile and 750’ through wonderful alpine tundra terrain. The next morning we broke camp and dropped back down to the parking lot in less than an hour. While I spent 2 nights to hike to Willow Lake, many do it as a day hike, reaching the lower lake in 3-5 hours. Go see it for yourself! The Valley views, glacial evidence, and waterfall make for a great day’s exploration.