Backpacking Willow Lakes – It was mid-July and the Colorado high country was finally thawing out from an incredibly wet and cold spring. Summer was halfway over and I had yet to get a backpacking trip under my belt.
With permits for the Teton Crest Trail coming up, I had to get some miles in.
When a few of us were planning a weekend into the Eagles Nest Wilderness, I had thrown out three different plans to choose from: Easy, moderate, and potentially brutal. For some reason, we decided ‘potentially brutal’ was a good idea, but I was stoked because I’d be able to photograph both Boulder Lake and Upper Willow Lake, along with Zodiac Ridge.
Instead of just car camping somewhere on Friday night, we decided to hoof it in 2.7 miles to Lower Boulder Lakes for the night. From the Rock Creek Trailhed, we knew it was out of the way for Willow Lakes, but it looked beautiful. Plus, this was a training trip, so some extra miles would do us good, right?
Wrong. Well, not technically wrong, but it definitely made for a long, long hike the next day. The Gore Range Trail between Boulder Lakes and the fork for Willow Lakes was incredibly hot, dusty, and just longer than we expected – simply put, it was demoralizing. And when we finally expected some reprieve after a grueling climb between the fork and Salmon Lake, we hit the snow line. Forging and sliding through the mush, we finally found a great campsite about a mile from Upper Willow Lake.
After 12.4 miles, 3700′ and moments after popping the tents, the storms hit.
But as with most misery endured while backpacking, the destination for me is almost always worth it. Upper Willow Lake and Zodiac Ridge was everything I had hoped for.