shelf lake trail

RoadTrip to the Rockies: Shelf Lake and Rolling Creek

If you like this article, please share. Thanks!

Another month at home in Colorado during COVID equals another weekend at Estabrook, our family ranch near Bailey, Colorado.  This time, a friend of mine, Tina, came up from New Mexico.  She is a nuclear scientist, and I really enjoy our intellectually stimulating conversations. Such chats have sometimes been lacking during my retirement years.

Anyway, she is also a hard core hiker and definitely ran me through the ringer during the early hiking season in Colorado.  While she is already in better shape than me, she had additional advantages. She lives at a higher altitude in Albuquerque, and has already been enjoying hiking weather.

Aside from the usual hike we do on our property, we set out on two more hikes for the weekend.  The first was Shelf Lake and the second was Rolling Creek.

Shelf Lake Trail

I hiked Shelf Lake many years ago when it was far less known as it wasn’t on All Trails.  Certain areas of the trail on that fall day were faint and by the end of the summer season, there weren’t any cascading waterfalls which I had read about in the Pike National Forest Recreation Guide.

While I’m not generally fond of hiking the same trail twice, I’m a huge waterfall fan, so with the spring runoff I thought I’d try again.  Additionally, the trail is only 6.4 miles, so it is a good distance for the early season.  The only drawback is that it begins at nearly 10,000 feet and climbs to 12,000.  I feared there might be too much snow, and in the end, I was right.

I really don’t like turning around on trails in the summer-time, but ultimately that is what we did.  There was just too much snow at the end of May off Guanella Pass Road.  My gut feeling was definitely confirmed when we saw the upper portion of Guanella Pass Road was still closed.

shelf lake trail

Regardless, we gave Shelf Lake Trail a shot.  Its new and improved trailhead with a small dirt parking lot is a few miles down a rough but manageable dirt road which passes through Geneva Park Campground. 

We strapped on our packs complete with food, layers, a CamelBak, and even MicroSpikes, leashed up Annie with her pack, and headed out. With all the campers, it seemed like the trail would be very crowded, but we only crossed paths with two other groups along the way.

The start of the hike goes about 100 yards along Trail 600 before it reaches an intersection where hikers go left to reach Shelf Lake.  The trail climbs steadily up Smelter Gulch Drainage through the shaded forest with intermittent views and a few early wildflowers. 

Along the way, the trail criss-crosses the creek.  The first few crossings were uneventful, but just before reaching the meadow, we stripped off our shoes and waded through an ice-cold flowing stream.

The snow-covered meadow ended our progress.  While we post-holed a little over some patches of snow on the way up, once we reached the meadow, it was just a giant snowfield.  With dark clouds forming, we called it a day.  After refueling on a rock patch with nice views, we headed back down, and arrived at the car just before the droplets of rain tapped our windshield. 

Despite turning around, we enjoyed the amazing views and wildlife of the Colorado Rockies.  We were blessed to see two moose and a fox, though they were too elusive for the camera.  To see the lake, we’ll just have to try again later in the summer.

Rolling Creek Trail

Since 12,000 feet proved too high for early summer hiking without post-holing through snow, we selected a trail with a lower elevation, Rolling Creek, the following day.  Beginning at 8,200 feet and only gaining 1,400 feet over four miles one way, sounded like a walk in the park.  Unfortunately, the description of the Rolling Creek Trail in the Pike National Forest Colorado Recreational Guide was far from accurate!

I had hiked this trail previously as well, but thought I had made a mistake as compared to guidebook description.  I recalled climbing for miles along a faint trail and never reaching the intersection with Wigwam Trail described by the guidebook.

Just as last time, we strolled along the undulating path while admiring some rock formations, views, and a few wildflowers before entering a dense forest.  We appreciated the shade of the lodge pole pines and stands of aspen on this warm morning, as we passed several campers packing out.

tina in the aspen on rolling creek trail

Soon, however, the easy to moderate trail according to the guidebook turns HARD.  I suppose I should have checked All Trails!  It appropriately describes the hike as hard, gaining almost 4,000 feet during a 12.9 out-and-back trek.

Ultimately the first three miles of Rolling Creek Trail are relatively flat and even descend.  The next 2.25 miles, however, gain 3,300 feet as the path follows the creek through the canyon.  This is SUPER steep at nearly 1,500 feet per mile!  So much for our walk in the park.  We got our butts kicked.  Or at least I did.  Tina is a beast and cruised to the summit while I huffed and puffed and didn’t even pull out my camera!

The summit, at around 10,800 feet is reached in 5.25 miles.  Disappointingly, the summit provides no views!  The trail continues down 1,000 feet where it intersects with Wigwam Trail.  Unless you are backpacking a popular loop in Lost Creek Wilderness or are simply a masochist, there is no reason to complete the additional mileage to the trail intersection, just to climb back up upon the return!

the summit on rolling creek trail
The viewless summit

With darkening clouds, we turned around at the summit for a 10.5 mile day with significant elevation gain.  I wish I could say we were as lucky as the day before and reached the car before the rain.  Not this time.  We spent the last hour hiking through intermittent sprinkles, deluges, and small hail pellets. You might ask what was the positive in our adventure?

tina and annie on rolling creek trail
Tina took over dog training duty…Annie’s 5th outing!

Of course, just being outdoors with a friend is awesome, but I had planned to work up to long mileage as the summer progressed.  No longer!  My legs and lungs are broken in.  Bring on another summer of alpine lakes, waterfalls, and wildflowers.  I’m ready!  ETB

Other Trails Nearby


For notecards and key chains, visit My Shop

Best Travel Blog

If you like this article, please share. Thanks!

Published by

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.

Leave a Reply