- Start: Monarch Lake Trailhead
- Round-trip Length: 16.6 miles
- Start-End Elevation: 8,345 ft – 10,795 ft
- Elevation Change: +2,450 ft net elevation gain
- Dogs Allowed: yes
- Bikes Allowed: no
- Water: no shortage of places to filter water
- Highlights: gorgeous alpine lake with views of towering mountains; great for swimming and cliff jumping if the weather is warm
This weekend we finally got to do some backpacking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. Between the business of summer travel and the desire to hike summer 14ers, weekend backpacking sometimes gets pushed toward the end of the season. This was a great fall weekend for some backpacking in a beautiful place. The aspens were starting to change, the skies were blue, and the temperature was in the 50s.
We drove approximately two hours to the Monarch Lake trailhead which is on the southeast side of Lake Granby. It’s $5 per day to park in the trailhead lot, and yes they enforce it. At the entry to Monarch Lake, there was a friendly volunteer that asked us to sign in and talked with us a bit about the trail. He said that moose frequent the marshy, eastern edge of the lake but we did not see any.
Interesting distinction between Wilderness Area and National Forest: travel in Wilderness Areas is restricted to foot or horseback. NO BIKES. We saw a mountain biker getting yelled at when we were finishing our trip.
The Hike to Gourd Lake
We hiked about a mile to the eastern edge of the lake, the boundary of the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. The trail then transitions to a more gentle incline as you travel to the Cascade Creek Trail – Arapaho Pass Trail split. At about 2 miles in begins steeper switchbacks up the valley. At 2.5 miles take the Buchanan Pass Trail split, and things level out for a bit.
I thought the description from Protrails was accurate: “the forest is aesthetically mundane”. Yes, there were only a handful of views a long the way, but the views at the top were spectacular.
Six miles into the hike we reached the Gourd Lake Trail split, and began up a 2.7 mile segment of long, sweeping switchbacks to the lake. The switchbacks were pretty moderate, but still tiring with our backpacks.
Toward the top we had some excellent views of the Continental Divide, the Cascade Creek corridor and Crater Lake cirque. According to the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, the Continental Divide trail stretches 3,100 miles from Canada to Mexico, with the highest point being in Colorado – Gray’s Peak at 14,270 ft.
After what felt like endless switchbacks we reached a very small pond, and in my fatigue I may have said aloud: “is this it?”. Dan nicely pointed out the obvious that no, this was not the lake. We walked around the eastern edge of the lake to find a campsite on the north side.
If you come in high summer this would be an amazing lake for swimming and some chose-your-own-height cliff jumping. The steep cliffs ranged up to 30 ft into deep water. If only it wasn’t 50 degrees when we got there.. I know for some that is an appropriate temperature for mountain lake swimming, but I was already shivering and my ability to thermo-regulate is not my strong suit.
Dan tried his hand at some fly fishing and I read Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb for the rest of the evening before a sumptuous freeze-dried meal of chicken and rice (it really did taste delicious) and some hot chocolate. The stars were bright and the moon glittered over the lake. It’s nights like these that make me want to throw off the shackles of suburbia and become mountain people.
The next morning Dan fished and I finished my book with some coffee and lake staring. My favorite type of morning. The hike back was, you guessed it, the same as the hike up except it was downhill and took way less time! A delicious sandwich consisting of an everything bagel + Grey Poupon + cheese + turkey + spinach was waiting for us in the cooler and enjoyed greatly because it was 2 PM by the time we got back. The drive back along Lake Granby and then through Winter Park was amazing with all of the red-topped yellow aspens. I love fall.