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Holy Cross Wilderness

by Martin Beebee

The late afternoon rain had been pattering on our tent for several hours and the book I'd been reading had grown stale, so I was just lying back, staring at the tent ceiling, mind drifting. And I started to notice it was getting really bright outside. But it was still raining. Sunshine? Rain? RAINBOW? I let out a small cry and crashed over wife and dog, snatching camera and tripod as I dove out of the tent, and there it was: a big, fat, beautiful rainbow rising over the alpine wilderness of the Colorado mountains. Perfect.

I didn't get any fantastic shots out of that rainbow (through no fault of the scenery), but the moment sticks with me all the same as one of the highlights of the trip. And that's one of the delights of exploring Colorado -- you simply can't go wrong, even if you don't come away with many "keepers". Holy Cross Wilderness, part of the White River and San Isabel National Forests, exemplifies much of "classic" Colorado, with rolling alpine tundra, towering peaks (25 over 13,000'), and clear emerald lakes. Time your visit for the wildflowers, and you might have trouble deciding how to partition your film (or its digital equivalent).

Of the more than 160 miles of hiking trails in the wilderness, one of the more popular routes is a ten mile loop passing through the Missouri Lakes Basin. My wife, golden retriever, and I made a four-day backpacking trip out of it in late summer, although the motivated visitor can hike the trail in a day. But why speed through this wonderland? Pack your tripod, plenty of film or memory cards, and plan to spend a few days wandering amidst classic Colorado high country.

The trailhead sits at 10,200', so you're thrust into the alpine wilderness straight off. Moving counterclockwise, the trail climbs through groves of pungently-sweet smelling spruce and fir along Fancy Creek, across small streams and meadows, and up to Fancy Lake, nestled right at tree line (11,540'). From here, the trail climbs quickly and steeply to Fancy Pass (12,380'), which gives breathtaking views of rolling alpine tundra, Treasure Vault and Blodgett Lakes, and a jagged spine of mountains that no one has gotten around to naming. The trail drops down onto the tundra, passing by Treasure Vault Lake, and then climbs Missouri Pass (11,986') before descending into Missouri Lakes Basin.

If you're one of those who can't get enough alpine lakes, this spot is for you. There are at least 13 lakes of various size scattered amid rolling alpine tundra and groves of stunted fir, all surrounded, of course, by towering, jagged, unnamed peaks. When I visited in early August, wildflowers dotted the broad meadows, although I had missed the peak bloom by a week or so. But there was still plenty of good stuff around: paintbrush, buttercups, columbine, elephant ears, and many others kept me on my hands and knees on a couple of overcast afternoons. (Who but a photographer would rejoice at an overcast afternoon?) Exact timing of the wildflower peak depends, of course, on year and location, but a good starting point is the last week of July and first week of August. We spent a couple days exploring the area, and left only because we ran out of time.

The photographic opportunities in Holy Cross Wilderness are in some ways predictable: mountain reflections in alpine lakes, wildflowers and tumbling streams, alpenglow. But in the Colorado Rockies everything is a variation on a theme, and to see one alpine lake is not to see them all. I've spent plenty of time in the mountains, but here there was always a surprise around the next bend in the trail. And frankly, I'm one of those who can't seem to get enough of the high country and its classic scenes anyway, so look for me next to the lake at sunrise.

How to get there:
From Hwy 24 (north from Leadville or south from Vail), turn west on Forest Road (FR) 703/Homestake Rd., a bone-jarring washboard dirt road, but easily passable with low-clearance. Go about eight miles and turn right on FR 704, which winds up the mountainside to the trailhead, roughly two miles after the turnoff. Both ends of the trail can be accessed here, so you can easily make the loop in either direction. (NOTE: this is contrary to the Trails
Illustrated map of the area (#126: Holy Cross/Ruedi Reservoir, revised 1998), which shows the trailhead to Fancy Lake starting about a half-mile further up the road -- it does not.) To avoid the crowds (and there can be crowds), avoid the weekends.

See photos of more Colorado spots at www.martinbeebee.com

All images and text copyright Martin Beebee