reflections on the lake and ice

Roadtrip to the Rockies: Three Hikes in Breckenridge

What a nice few days in Breckenridge!  I got out of 100° heat in Denver, hung out with my friend Cat, and hiked three trails.  With the frigid winter, many of the trails above 12,500 feet still have a lot of snow, thus I had to be selective with my trail choices.

Burro Trail

My first day I chose Burro Trail for something easy to adjust to the altitude.  Burro Trail is short (6.1 miles) with a gradual incline, only 918 feet in elevation gain over 3 miles.  In addition, topping out at 10,680 feet, it is a relatively low altitude trail compared to others near Breckenridge.

Getting There from Breckenridge

Currently, the AllTrails directions take drivers through a lot that is “closed.”  I wasn’t sure if I could drive through it or not, so I took a short detour on Village Road instead.  The trailhead is located near the base of Peak 9 ski lift, just outside Beaver Run Resort.  As such, any visitors staying in town, could likely walk to the trail and avoid the parking fees at the resort.

That being said, had I driven through the public parking lot at the resort, there was a small pullout area across the dirt road from the trailhead.  I missed this and paid $3.75 for 4 hours instead.  There are two signs for the Burro Trail.  The first is blue and points hikers across the ski slope to the creek where the trail begins.  Despite excellent signage, it might be easy to just start climbing the mountain beneath the lift by mistake.

The Trail

The trail crosses the creek and then travels through an evergreen forest.  It is wide enough so that if starting at 12pm, despite walking through the forest, there is little shade from the direct sun overhead, so beginning in the morning would be cooler. With limited views of surrounding peaks, this trail is best for its wildflowers, in particular the Indian Paint Brush.

the creek on Burro Trail

The Burro Trail ends at the intersection of several trails where hikers turn around for a 6.1 out-and-back.  I was surprised to see several off-shoot trails along the way that did not show up on the map.  They were less trodden, so it was easy to find the way which I shared with a few other hikers and mountain bikers on Thursday afternoon.

Wheeler Lake Trail

The second trail I decided to tackle near Breckenridge was Wheeler Lake Trail in Pike National Forest not to be confused with Wheeler Lakes Trail in the Eagles Nest Wilderness near Frisco.  I tried hiking Wheeler Lake Trail in May a few years ago, and there was too much snow for me to find my way.  Today, there was almost too much water! 

Getting There From Breckenridge

For me, I got a late start, drove south on Highway 9, and arrived at the parking area near Montgomery Reservoir around 9 am.  From the parking area, a single-track trail travels northwest through the trees along the river to a jeep road that goes underneath Magnolia Mill.

Wheeler Lake Trail near Breckenridge

Magnolia Mill

Magnolia Mill was constructed in the 1930s to replace a mill that burnt during the gold rushes of the 1800’s.  It was used to process both silver and gold brought down on trams from mines in the above peaks. 

During the prosperous mining days, the nearby Town of Montgomery whose remnants are now covered by Montgomery Reservoir, was home to 1,000 residents, hotels, saloons, dry good stores, a drugstore and 100 cabins.  It’s hard to believe there was such a busy town in this now picturesque setting.

The Trail

After exploring the mill, I climbed the rough jeep road through the willows.  I regularly came upon stagnant ponds and even streams which took over the road that no regular 4×4 vehicle could maneuver in one piece.  For OHV enthusiasts out there, a high clearance jeep or Razor would be the best option.

To avoid soaking my feet in the water, I found myself continuously trouncing through the willows, and wishing I had worn pants rather than shorts as I scraped my legs on the willow branches despite the worn trail.  While this was a heavy snow year, and there was likely more water than normal, it was clear to me with the trail detours that water frequently runs along the road.

Despite the wildflowers, I can’t say I truly loved deciphering the wet and rocky trail until I reached treeline where I was rewarded with stunning views.  Even then, however, making friends with the willows didn’t really float my boat, but I was not about to turn around a second time, and especially not in the summer.

Finally, I reached a waterfall that cascaded steeply down the rocks and into the road, creating a river!  At this point, I faced the following choices…walk up stream through the river, cross the steep waterfall on wet rocks with water raging over them, find a place lower in the valley that was easier to cross, turn around, or to climb up the mountainside on the east side of the waterfall.

waterfall

Since I was by myself, I almost turned around, but the climb up the mountainside wasn’t that hard.  I followed the side of the waterfall until I reached a clearing and then found a lightly trafficked trail to my right.  It turns out, I wasn’t the only one to do this, and had I looked closely I would have known the single, seemingly randomly placed cairn by the road indicated the alternative route.

After climbing a little further, I just walked through the tundra while keeping the bridges of snow over the creek to my left.  Comparing my track to the AllTrails app, I knew I was paralleling the trail and would run into the lake.

The Lake

Having Wheeler Lake all to myself on this glorious, sunny day was definitely worth the adventure.  Ice and snow still covered the northeast corner of the lake while wildflowers bloomed around the southern section.  On the west side, waterfalls tumbled down the granite peaks.  While I just sat there enjoying the scene, a curious marmot popped out of its home and chirped at me.

The ice on the lake was truly spectacular.  Parts of the ice floated on top of the lake while other parts had melted creating a cavity that stored aqua pools of liquid on top of the lake’s surface.  If it weren’t for the mosquitoes, I could have stayed for hours.  While my bug-spray for the most part kept them at bay, I still left with a few bug bites.

Trails with high alpine lakes are some of my favorites, and in the end Wheeler Lake did not disappoint.  The 6.9 mile which gained 1,246 and topped out at 12,275 feet offered ice, snow, reflections in the lake, wildflowers, wildlife, blue bird skies, granite peaks, mining sites, and waterfalls…what more could I ask for?

Crystal Lake Trail

The final hike I chose while in Breckenridge was to Crystal Lakes.  This time my friend Cat and her dog Keeley joined me.  Cat had to work late on Friday, so our Saturday morning start was much later than the rest of the Town of Breckenridge which all seemed to be at this trailhead.

Getting There From Breckenridge

Crystal Lake Trail shares parking with the popular Mohawk Lakes Trail which is spectacular.  I hiked it a few years ago, and I highly recommend it.  Anyway, upon arriving at 10am after a 15 minute drive south from town, we parked well down the dirt road, which probably added a mile of hiking onto our roundtrip!

Keeley ready to go
Keeley ready to go

The Trail

As with Wheeler Lake Trail, Crystal Lake Trail is also a jeep road though it is very steep.  It gains 1,700 feet in the first two miles before hikers are rewarded with reaching the lower lake.  Also similar to the Wheeler Lake Trail, Crystal Lake Trail required detouring through willows to avoid large sections of water in the road.  Fortunately, we only had to detour a few times rather than regularly.

One of our side-tracks took us across a log bridge which was partially under water.  Fortunately, the stream wasn’t too wide so crossing the wet logs wasn’t too hard, despite my initial fears.  Even Keeley dashed across it when she wasn’t busy resting in the water and playing in the snow.

concentrating on the logs

While we started out with ambitions of completing as much of the 8.4 mile trail that the snow permitted, the dark clouds overhead encouraged a shortened journey.  As soon as we reached the first lake, the thunder rolled.  We sat down long enough to eat a bar and tend to my blisters before reversing course and hiking most of our return to the car in a light drizzle. 

Based on the AllTrail reviews, we wouldn’t have made it to the second lake, another two miles away and perched at 13,114, anyway.  According to other hikers, too much snow blocked the path.  Regardless, we finished a 4.4 mile hike with an added mile along the road, so at least we got a little over five miles of exercise before we indulged in lunch, dinner, and tasty treats to end the day.

These three trails near Breckenridge range from easy to difficult and offer a variety for hikers of all levels.  Wheeler Lake Trail, however, was definitely the prettiest.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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