“But he who dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.”
There were other wildflowers on this hike, but the roses were so prolific they seemed … thematic. A keynote. A thread. A motif. They were everywhere along the trail and in full bloom, their pink to red blossoms brightening almost every step of the five-ish miles to Willow Lake. But, like yin and yang, or zig and zag, roses come with thorns. On the Willow Lake Trail the “thorn” came four-plus miles in and left me with a painful, but thankfully minor, cut on my hand. A small price to pay for the splendor of this hike. Every stride (save one) taken on this trail was an absolute delight. Let’s start at the beginning.
We got to the trailhead early; it was 7:20am and the temperature was hovering around 50ºF. There were quite a few cars in the lot and we suspected they mostly belonged to overnighters – there was no one around. With over six hours of hiking in front of us, we availed ourselves of a nearby pit toilet. It was clean, but just going in one of those things was still stressful in these times of COVID-19. As we shouldered our packs we noticed two white pick-up trucks marked with “Southwest Conservation Corps”. We started off.
Two trails depart from this trailhead and head into the Rio Grande National Forest, but our path, the Willow Lake Trail, immediately diverged from the South Crestone Creek Trail, another hike to another lake. That trail features less mileage but more elevation. Also, that lake is not fed by a 100′ waterfall. So there’s that. We crossed South Crestone Creek and headed south toward Wilcox Gulch, which we also crossed. Here, the trail turned east toward our destination.
Note: The Willow Lake Trail is often misrepresented as the Willow Creek Trail, an easy mistake to make since its neighbor, the South Crestone Creek Trail, is named after the creek it follows, not the lake to which it goes. The Willow Lake Trail does follow Willow Creek but takes its name from its destination. However, enter the misnomer “Willow Creek Trailhead” into Google Maps to navigate to the parking area.
The trail meandered upward through grassy fields dotted with pine, juniper and aspen. Behind us, we could see out over the San Luis Valley to the hazy La Garita Mountains beyond. In front of us, Indian paintbrush and harebell poked up out of the brown grass, and the sun shone brightly from a cloudless sky. Soon, we entered the woods and our path began to switchback, carrying us upward through the tall pines. Through breaks in the foliage, we could see the lesser peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains into which we ranged. Later, a singularly impressive pinnacle came into view to the southeast. This was Challenger Point, a 14,087-foot summit that loomed over the Willow Creek Valley. Challenger, named in memorial to the astronauts of the ill-fated space shuttle, would accompany us for the rest of our journey.
We had hiked two miles when, to our right and eighty feet below, a magnificent green meadow appeared. A quarter mile long and over 500-feet wide, it appeared to be perfectly flat, like a great sports field nestled in the Colorado mountains. To the east, and far up the valley, was a saddle; to the west, and not visible from the meadow due to a stand of pines, was that magnificent view over the San Luis Valley. This is Willow Creek Park and it is only accessible by trail. A spur connected the Willow Lake Trail and the grassy expanse. Camping is allowed on that delightful paddock, but we saw no tents. Eventually, we pressed on toward the saddle between Challenger Point and an unnamed peak to the north.
Beyond the meadow, the trail snaked through the Crestones, a subrange of the Sangre de Cristos. The grade was shallow and offered us an opportunity to catch our breath. We had climbed about 1,200 feet to reach the meadow and were happy for the respite. It was during this stretch that we discovered a beautiful blossom reaching up from the rocks beside the trail: a fragrant evening primrose. This primrose’s bloom was large – around four inches in diameter, and smelled, as its name suggests, wonderful. We spent the next mile or so scanning for more of these impressive flowers but saw only that one. We were, however, delighted by many other wildflowers, among them geranium, forget-me-nots, Indian paintbrush, and, of course, columbine.
Eventually, we began climbing in earnest again. As we navigated the switchbacks and rocky sections of trail, we heard a commotion behind us. A horse and mule train, which we suspected must have something to do with the Southwest Conservation Corps, was coming up the mountain. We stepped aside, and allowed the convoy to pass. Two mounted rangers and six mules loaded with gear plodded up the trail, the rangers tipping their hats as they passed. They stopped a few hundred yards up the trail and made camp. When we passed them again, we took a moment to chat up a ranger who confirmed our speculation; the SCC were there to do trail maintenance. Through October. Sweet gig.
As we continued our zig-zag path toward the lake, we began to hear the faint sound of bubbling water. We had been following Willow Creek up the draw, but so far had not been able to see or hear it. At the end of a switchback, we climbed off-trail onto an exposed face of granite where we glimpsed the creek tumbling down, a cascading falls on its way to the San Luis Valley.
When we were done creek-gazing, we turned our attention back to the trail only to find our path blocked by a rockslide. Medicine-ball sized rocks were piled up over the path and continuing meant scrambling over them.
That’s when it happened. The one bad step.
I trod on a large boulder. As the boulder took my weight, it began to roll, carrying me and my foot with it. I pitched forward, sliding off in front of the stone, my leg jamming into a crevice. In the split second that followed, I waited for what I thought it was inevitable – several hundred pounds of rock crushing my trapped leg. It never came. Somehow, amazingly, the boulder stopped short and I extracted my leg without injury. I walked away with only a minor cut on the palm of my right hand. I wrapped it in a bandana and we continued on, relieved that this incident had not been worse.
We crossed Willow Creek. Once on the south side of the draw, we began a rocky trek up and across an extensive talus field. The trail curved slowly around a massive rock formation, and to the west, the entire valley was spread out before us. The meadow we had passed was now a tiny patch of green among a sea of darker pines, and a great wedge of the San Luis Valley lay beyond in shades of sage and brown.
Having finally reached the saddle, we crossed back to the north side of the creek and continued threading our way through forest and field, now with great, jagged, grey walls closing in on us. Eventually, we reached a meadow, populated with brightly colored tents. A common cooking area had been set up in one clearing and covered with a large tarp. This was basecamp for the Southern Conservation Corps, and a more perfect place to spend the summer months could hardly have been found. Pines grew carelessly around the pasture, providing patchy shade, and Willow Creek meandered through the camp bubbling effervescently.
Throughout our hike we passed stoic young people trudging upward with massive packs and containers strapped to their backs. They were schlepping equipment and supplies from where the mule train had stopped to the basecamp near the lake. All to make the trail better for hikers. We thanked them for their efforts. #LoveTheTrailWorkers
We passed through the camp and did a little more climbing before coming to a frothy twenty-foot waterfall. This was the outlet from Willow Lake, and it made us look all the more forward to the lake and its matching inlet waterfall. The cataract tumbled between green pines against a backdrop of grey stone and azure sky. A short spur took us down to the plunge pool where the water sparkled in the early afternoon sun. Clambering back to the trail, we finished off the last few yards to our destination.
Willow Lake was nothing short of magnificent. The grey-green water reflected the cloudless sky and, with a slight breeze rippling the surface, the effect was a mottled life-scale Monet. The surrounding mountains, in shades of slate grey dry-brushed with green, split the sky. The water’s edge bristled with subalpine fir and Englemann spruce – the only trees that grow where Willow Lake lay nestled among 13,000-foot mountains. On the western shore, we stepped out onto a large boulder and gazed across at the nameless hundred-foot waterfall feeding this alpine lake. It fell in a narrow plume, splashing onto jumbled talus at the lake’s edge and trickling into the cold, clear water. We sat down on the boulder and ate lunch in reverent silence, speaking only to draw the other’s attention to points of interest in the breathtaking basin.
After lunch, we followed the shoreline to the north, admiring the terrain, the flowers, and the views back toward the west end of the lake. We might have tramped all the way around to the falls, but it was unclear whether or not there was a trail along the shore. We contented ourselves with a few hundred yards, marveling at the steep, gravely inclines rising up from Willow Lake. We found ourselves slightly closer to the waterfall, and noted how difficult it was to judge the height of the cataract from a distance. We knew it was approximately a hundred feet tall, but it just didn’t look it. It was not until we zoomed in with our cameras, and saw some of the fir trees that stood behind the falls, that we were able to appreciate the true height of the plume. After nearly an hour at the lake, it was time to head home.
Moving faster and taking fewer pictures, we watched Willow Creek Park grow larger as we descended. With the expansive view of the San Luis Valley playing on the big screen, we retraced our steps down through the valley and back to the trailhead. For both of us this was the largest mileage/elevation combination we had done in quite some time, and we were feeling it. When we reached the parking area, we were elated to be heading back to camp for a hearty dinner. Regardless, we talked about how great the hike was all evening.
The Willow Lake Trail is a red-letter trail in south-central Colorado. Rarely has a one-day hike checked so many boxes for us. Others include Ice Lakes (read here), Eagle Creek (and here), and the McKenzie River (and here!). That puts Willow Lake in some first rate company. If there’s a drawback, (and I’m not convinced this is one) it’s that it’s not close to anything. At three and a half hours from Denver, it’s a bit of a commitment, but one you should find the time and energy to make. There are plenty of other hikes in the area, plus, it’s only an hour from Great Sand Dunes National Park, another geologic wonder that should be on your bucket list. Go if you can and while you’re on the trail, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses. ♦
Date: July 1, 2020
Location: Crestone, CO
Trailhead: 37.804872, -107.851485
Distance: 10.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,717 feet