Stella and I raced up to the mountains the weekend of the Great Blizzard of 2021 to get in some snowshoeing and/or nordic skiing. On our way to Grand Lake, we had made a pitstop in Winter Park to see Stella’s cousin who has been working at the Winter Park Resort for the season. We had not seen her since we moved out to Colorado from Wisconsin more than five years ago. It was great to catch up over dinner.
Saturday morning, we headed off to Monarch Lake to snowshoe the loop. The last time we had ventured to Monarch Lake was last fall when the area had had a microburst of wind, which knocked down many trees along the trail. We had hiked as far as we could on the trail that day, but eventually had to turn around – everyone did. Now, all of those fallen trees have been removed from the trail; however, there were a few new fallen trees that we were able to either navigate over or under on our snowshoe trek.
To reach the beginning of the Monarch Lake trail in the winter, you have to park by the winter gate and then trek about 3/4 mile to reach the trailhead. That initial portion is usually very packed down from snowmobiles and/or other snowshoers, so if that is all you want to do, you could probably get away just wearing some boots. Many people just walk to the trailhead, look around, and then head back to the gate.
Once at the trailhead, we started around the lake in a counter-clockwise direction (usually we start the trek going clockwise), but we decided to change it up due to the direction of the wind that day. The fallen trees that we had encountered were in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, along the southern end of the lake, one of which was massive. After crossing Buchanan Creek, you will come upon a junction where you can either continue going around the lake or venture up the Crater Lake Trail.
We were still eager to continue our outdoor adventure, so we decided to trek on the Crater Lake Trail, which was a first for both of us. The first portion of the trail loosely follows Buchanan Creek before crossing an unnamed creek at Hell Canyon. We continued up the trail for over a mile, after which we had encountered a few more fallen trees. Not wanting to navigate those with the Great Blizzard of 2021 sending pockets of snow over the continental divide, we turned back to finish the other side of the Monarch Lake loop, and then back to the winter gate.
Once we had started our journey around the other side of the lake, we were exposed to the full force of the winds from the impending storm. The blasts of wind were extreme in the open areas of the trail, and we were very glad that we were on our way back to the trailhead because they were only going to get worse. One wind gust was so fierce that it nearly blew Stella off her feet – literally. The trek back was a struggle, but we had no other choice than to keep moving. The sight of those fierce wind gusts moving across the lake was eerie, like something you’d see in a creepy movie.
The trail conditions that day were not favorable for snowshoes as the trail was so packed down, plus there were areas where the snow had melted away, exposing dirt and rocks. A pair of boots with micro spikes would have been ideal. But we had no way of knowing what the trail was going to be like, so we had our snowshoes. Additionally, the areas of the trail that did have deep snow, the snow was either slushy or icy, so our ankles rolled and twisted uncomfortably most of the day. We relied heavily upon our trekking poles to keep us as upright and steady as possible.
The Monarch Lake trail is one of our favorite hikes, and even more so in the winter because there are so few people out there. We have hiked and/or snowshoed dozens of times around Monarch Lake over the years, and it never gets old. I have fished there as well, near the dam, where you can catch rainbow and brown trout. There are several picnic spots, a nice bathroom facility and a ranger station. It is a great place to get some outdoor exercise, or just relax in the splendor of the mountains.
On Sunday, our plan had been to ski on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the Great Blizzard of 2021 had deterred us from doing so. Instead, we relaxed at our favorite winter spot in Grand Lake (Black Bear Lodge) and headed back to Denver that evening…that is a story for another time. We are just thankful that we had made it home safely, although it had not been without some battles during the Great Blizzard of 2021.
SOME OF THE GEAR USED: