Nearly a marathon of hiking, including outrunning a thunderstorm, brought us to Grand Lake, the penultimate trail town in Colorado.
With a very long day planned, CareFree and I managed to get up early, and started hiking at 6:30. With the sun still quite low in the sky, the rain overnight left the forest damp and humid. Fortunately, though, we had much easier trail to hike than yesterday, and we started off making good progress.
The trail started off with a bit of a climb, up to a relatively gentle plateau. We were under tree cover most of the way, though the trail cut through a few meadows — wetlands, really — with boardwalks. A month or two ago, the whole area would probably have been quite waterlogged from snowmelt.
The trail took us past the Junco Lake Trailhead, about halfway along the plateau, which had a rare trail register that (even more rarely) actually had room for signing in. Several more miles of bouncing along the plateau brought us to a creek near a meadow, where we stopped for a break.
A moderately steep but easy downhill dropped us off the plateau. Crossing a bridge over Mill Creek, we descended steeply on switchbacks alongside a deep gorge — well over 100 feed deep — cut by the creek as it flowed off the plateau and into the valley below. Joining with several other creeks, it emptied into the man-made Monarch Lake, which, thanks to a dam, filled the entire valley floor.
The trail followed a little above the southern and western shores of the lake, crossing the lake’s outlet over a dam, and bringing us to a trailhead, where there was another trail register at a small ranger station, manned with volunteers who were quite keen on chatting with everyone who went by (and getting them to sign the trail register). It seemed a pretty popular area; there were several people in the lake on kayaks, and a few picnic tables filled with visitors. The parking lot, which we passed through on our way out, was almost overflowing.
The volunteers told us that there were storms forecast for the afternoon; this wouldn’t be great for us getting to Grand Lake today, but at least right then, it was still sunny and nice out, and the next couple of miles were going to be a roadwalk, so at least we’d make a bit of fast progress.
Leaving Monarch Lake, we followed a dirt road to a campground on Lake Granby, one of the largest bodies of water in Colorado. A little past the campground, which was full of campers, we stopped for a break on a sandy beach, about halfway to Grand Lake.
Lake Granby is also not a natural lake. It, along with Shadow Mountain Lake to the north, are formed from dams on the Colorado River, and were created as part of a water diversion project to transport water from the headwaters of the Colorado River, on western slopes of the Front Range, to the plains to the east.
While we were resting, a cool breeze began to blow and clouds began to form, blocking the sun. I hoped the clouds would stay that way for the remainder of the day. Alas, they didn’t. Leaving the beach, we began the only significant (and steep) uphill of the day, climbing up from Lake Granby, over a plateau, and back down to an arm of the lake leading towards Shadow Mountain Lake. The clouds mostly disappeared, and it got surprisingly warm out; it felt like the hottest day since New Mexico.
After dropping back down to lake level, we passed a forest service cabin and a small creek, and took another break under a tree near a small bay on the lake (or the Colorado River, depending on perspective). After we were there for about half an hour, dark clouds started to roll in from the south, ominously cresting over the ridge we’d just hiked down from. Some distant thunder and a very light drizzle starting prompted us to start packing up. A bright flash of lightning and a thunderclap immediately overhead got us moving.
We considered going back to the cabin we passed, taking shelter underneath its overhangs, and waiting out the storm. But we had a little more than eight miles to go to Grand Lake, and it was already 3:30; waiting an unknown time for the storm to pass would get us to town awfully late, if we even made it to town at all. I didn’t really want to sit around, though, and since the trail looked like it was going to be forested the rest of the way to town, I was willing to gamble that there’d be enough cover that we’d be fine (or else be able to find somewhere to shelter, if it became necessary).
Fortunately, it was pretty flat, and the trail easy, so we were able to keep a very good pace as we raced away from the storm clouds. We got lightly rained on for a bit, but we managed to outrun the storm, and the dark clouds behind us eventually moved off in another direction. As expected, we were mostly under tree cover, though the trail did pass through a few swampy areas. Not far from our break, we left the Arapaho National Forest, which I’d been in for the last week or so, and entered the Rocky Mountain National Park.
The trail followed just above the east shore of the Colorado River for a couple of miles, before jogging inland a bit near Shadow Mountain Lake. After another brief break, we reached a trailhead, and began a paved roadwalk, crossing over the channel between Shadow Mountain Lake and (the natural) Grand Lake, entering the town of Grand Lake. The trail directed us down Grand Lake’s main street, where there were quite a few busy restaurants. We opted for the One Love Rum Kitchen, a Caribbean-themed restaurant. Being in a tourist town, prices were high, but at least the food was good. Or, at least, good enough, because we were quite hungry after hiking twenty-six miles.
After leaving the restaurant, we continued down the road to the Shadowcliff Mountain Lodge, where we’ll be staying the next couple of days. On the way there, we passed Stumblebee, Sprouts, and Bass, who were heading into town to go to a Bingo night in the town’s park. They are also staying at Shadowcliff, though in the hostel in the main building. (We got a private room in one of the side buildings.)
My original plan was to do the next stretch of trail — a loop through the Rocky Mountain National Park — tomorrow, and then zero on Sunday. But both CareFree and I were exhausted after the last three days, and the altitude was today very much causing issues for CareFree, so instead, we’re considering zeroing tomorrow, and doing the loop on Sunday. We’ll decide tomorrow morning based on how we’re feeling.
Shadowcliff, situated just off-trail on a cliff overlooking Grand Lake (both the town, and the lake) towards Shadow Mountain, gave us a great view of the area, and a nice, quiet place to rest and relax after a tough section from Berthoud Pass. And now, with only one more trail town remaining in Colorado,