The Rockies: Shelf Lake Trail, Colorado – SUCCESS!

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Shelf Lake Trail, Colorado

Two days ago I planned on hiking Shelf Lake Trail, but I was slightly challenged in finding the trailhead, so by the time I came upon it, I scrapped the idea of making the 6.4 mile roundtrip.  This morning, 6.4 miles sounded appealing as that was one of the shortest options of the trails in the area and the difficulty level in my hiking book was described as easy despite beginning at an elevation of 9,900 feet and gaining 2,100 feet in 3.2 miles.

The excitement began as soon as I reached the Burning Bear Campground on Guanella Pass Road.  I was only a mile from the turn off to the three-mile stretch of dirt road when I caught a glimpse of a mountain lion!  I had my eyes peeled for big horn sheep and mountain goats, so I was surprised to see the large tan animal turn from the edge up the road and leap up the hill two beats at a time like a cat versus the three beat canter of a coyote or a dog.

This movement is what made me think it was a mountain lion as I never got a good look at its face.  It took about five leaps before it vanished in front of my eyes.  It’s amazing how animals slink behind a tree and seem to disappear into a mountainside.  I know it was sitting there watching my car…so eerie…but I was glad to be in a vehicle!

I continued on to the turn off for the trail and this time drove directly to the trailhead.  The 0.75 miles or so of the trail steadily follows switchbacks up the mountain through the pines, firs and spruce until it reaches the first of five creek crossings.  Shortly thereafter, its helpful to have goat-like abilities to traverse a very steep portion of the trail on the edge of the mountain that offers a magnificent view of the valley below.

After scrambling up this area, the trail levels out and wends its way through forest and a rock quarry covered in fluorescent green lichen.  Sometimes I wonder how the rocks end up in certain locations.  Mountains protruded all around and trails seemed to skirt out in all directions.  My guide book advised to maintain elevation if in doubt of which trail to follow, so I did.  I wandered through the maze and followed the most traveled trail until I came into an open meadow of tundra and willows.

I felt like I should be a sheep herder in Iceland.  I was out in the open wilderness….nothing around but beaver ponds, tundra, and craggy cliffs that a mountain goat had to be climbing on somewhere.  I just couldn’t see them in the expansiveness.  I felt so alone and free at the same time.  The description of the easy hike kept rolling around in my head as I was leaning at a 45 degree angle against the constant twenty-five miles per hour wind that gusted up to forty miles per hour.  I wondered, is this hike easy when it isn’t windy because it doesn’t feel easy now!

After about a mile of walking through the open space against the wind, the final 3/4 mile stretch was a series of steep switchbacks that continued above the treeline and ended at Shelf Lake tucked in a high mountain cirque.  The lake, which is usually frozen until mid-June, is rated good for cutthroat trout.  I clambered around the rocky terrain looking for a protected area where I could eat a quick lunch when I saw something reflecting by the shore.  I walked a little further and found someone’s backpack.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was in the middle of nowhere….didn’t see a soul on the trail…felt like I was a pioneer…or an icelandic sheep herder…and then there were two of us at the lake!

He was fishing.  I bounced from rock to rock all the while looking for mountain goats until I reached the angler.  They had to be here.  Rocks and a water source…where were they!?!  Perhaps they were hiding from all the wind.  Personally I don’t know why goats and bighorn sheep would want to live in areas like this, except for the view and perhaps to stay away from predators.

The fisherman hadn’t had too much luck.  Only a few trout had shown, but I don’t know how he could fly fish in this wind which was virtually circular at the lake.  It was his first time on the hike, and he thought it was magnificent as well.  The lake, a deep sapphire blue, was gorgeous and tranquil despite the white caps on its shoreline today.

Mr. Angler took one look at my camera and said pointing behind him, “There are some mountain goats up on that ridge.”

“Really”, I responded, “I’ve been looking all over for them and haven’t seen them.”

“I wouldn’t have seen them”, he said, “but they caused a huge rock slide.  I counted six.”

So I left the fisherman at his task of catching cutthroat while I scoured the ridge for mountain goats.  I finally caught sight of three sunning themselves.  They looked like specs in my 270 zoom lens which then really made me feel small in the world’s surroundings.  Nature is just so grand!  After a short lunch, with the wind at my back, I got blown down the mountain…Another amazing hike.  I look forward to taking the Shelf Lake Trail in the summer because my guide-book claims there are several cascading waterfalls and spectacular wildflowers, both of which were gone for the fall.



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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

7 thoughts on “The Rockies: Shelf Lake Trail, Colorado – SUCCESS!

  1. Awesome! You are much braver than I. If I’d seen a mountain lion, there is no way I would have exited my car until I got home 🙂

  2. Beth, appreciate your hiking stories which take me away from my daily grind of the office world…..No pics of the trout?

  3. Wonderful descriptions, Beth!! So glad you are back at it. I felt as if I was climbing with you.

  4. Beth sounds like a great hike, do you bring something with you for protection? Love the photos….hope Petey is doing well. Aunt Diane

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