I decided to take Friday off from work so that maybe I could do two relatively short hikes this weekend, before giving my hernia repair and fitness level a real test with a "normal" hike next week. It happened to be the one-month anniversary of my hernia surgery. My plan was to drive up the Mount Evans toll road to Summit Lake and bag Spalding and Gray Wolf. The sign near the beginning of the road in Idaho Springs did indicate that the road was closed. I wasn't sure if I should believe that or not, but sure enough the road was gated shut when I arrived at Echo Lake. It's bad enough that it costs $10 to drive up the damn road, but my information says that they have (or had) an automated fee collection system in place for when there isn't a person there, so why not have the damn road open!! Even CDOT insists that this road is open 24/7 "conditions permitting" and there was no apparent reason for the road to be closed on this sunny morning. On top of that, there was no signage at the road closure indicating when the road would actually be open! I guess if they don't want my money, f'em, but it's pretty damn stupid to charge more and more money for something that was once free (and belongs to the public) and continue to provide less service and more erratic service. I'm betting the road was open in the afternoon when wave after wave of thunderstorms was sweeping over the mountain.
Anyway...now I had to drive back to the interstate, completing the waste of 45 minutes for this detour. My options were either to do Gray Wolf by itself from Guanella Pass (the other side of the Evans massif) or maybe drive up to Leadville and do Gemini Peak. I was leaning toward the latter, but just as I was approaching Exit 228, I suddenly decided to drive up to Guanella Pass and do Square Top Mountain. This is a high 13er on the other side of Guanella Pass from Bierstadt and Evans, and reputed to be a fairly easy hike. It would be an appropriate length hike so that I could do something similar on Sunday, too.
I arrived at the Pass to find that the main parking area was closed, so one has to park a few hundred yards back toward Georgetown. I started hiking at 0643, and quickly reached the obvious start of the South Park Trail right at the pass. One can hike down this trail a bit before turning right and heading up the ridge toward Square Top. If you are smart, stay on the trail until you have a clear line that misses most of the ground willows. If you are an idiot like me, do this very soon and bash your way through some very wet willows like on the other side of the pass below Bierstadt. That wasted a good 10 minutes or so, and left me soaked from the knees down. Of course, I was wearing my non-waterproof high-top hiking shoes. I had also chosen to wear shorts over long underwear because I thought it would be too cold for just shorts and too warm for Polartec pants. Even wet, that worked out okay.
Once past all that, I made very good time up the ridge. It starts out grassy, but gets rockier. The ridge is sort of lumpy with what look like furrows plowed into it. In the 12700-12900 range there are two small high points that can be nicely skirted if you are psychic and know ahead of time that such is the best way to go. Otherwise, you will probably do a bit of extra gain here.
Past the second point, there is an obvious saddle, from which you can look down upon the Square Top Lakes and I was already considering what looked like a reasonable descent down to the lakes for an alternate route back to Guanella Pass. Shortly above this saddle at around 13000ft or so, the ridge gets quite steep. Still just Class 2, but you really feel like you are climbing a mountain here. This must be the crux area for the relatively frequent winter ascents of the peak. After a few hundred feet, the terrain levels out quite a bit to reveal the long summit ridge.
By this point, I was feeling the westerly wind in my face and it was clouding up. The temperature was barely above freezing and with the moderate breeze, I needed to put on my shell jacket over my Polartec jacket. I didn't need to put on gloves or my balaclava to replace my floppy crusher hat.
I reached the summit at 0832. I was getting a little concerned about the increasing clouds and the nature of the cloudiness, so I didn't stick around very long on the large summit plateau. I shot some video and had a bite to eat and that was about it.
I retraced my steps back down the ridge. With the weather looking a bit iffy, I definitely wanted to descend down to the Square Top Lakes to get off the ridge sooner. That descent wasn't quite as carefree as I had hoped, but not bad. I'm not sure I'd want to climb back up that way unless there was snowcover, but it would be managable.
The upper and lower lakes are both nice and I found a reasonable route through this area. Just below the outlet of the lower lake, I hit the South Park Trail again. That would lead me back to Guanella Pass, although the route is not exactly as depicted on the Trails Illustrated map and seems to be longer and more convoluted than one would expect. [I took a look at the 1976 USGS 7.5-minute quad on-line, which actually has what seems to be the correct routing.] But, it is in pretty good shape with some good views. I encountered a fisherman heading up to the lakes after some cut-throat trout.
I managed to reach Guanella Pass before any precipitation hit, but sure enough, it started sprinkling at 1015 just as I was getting about ready to leave and it kept sprinkling off and on most of the way down to Georgetown. I don't think anything of consequence happened until around noon or later.
To the chronological trip index
To the Square Top Mountain page
File last modified: 02 January 2005