Clayton Lake Trek

This was a planned backpacking weekend, but at the last minute, Alex and Lara got cold feed and decided to stay around town for a more traditional weekend. Evan decided to take the plunge and commit to a trek with dad. We had chosen the Crater Lake trail in the James Peak Wilderness as the next target before summer even started. Once we got to the trailhead at the East portal of the Moffat tunnel, we started to doubt our choice. The parking lot was already amazingly crowded on Friday morning, and clearly numerous groups had chosen Crater Lakes as their destination.

Evan and I set out anyway. Along the way, we ran across a moose cow and calf not 10 yards off the trail. Laika didn’t know what to do with herself, and while clearly agitated, held off from barking until the moose had already headed back into the woods. This was only the 3rd time I’ve run across a moose in the Colorado wilderness, so it already seemed like it was shaping up for an exciting trip.

Once we reached the Crater Lake trail intersection, I asked Evan what he wanted to do. We could follow the crowd and hope for a decent camp site, or continue on the trail to a more isolated destination that Lara and I had been to about 15 years earlier – Clayton Lake. The hike was only about another half mile longer, but the trail up was much more severe. Evan agreed to try it out, so we pressed on.

I could hardly believe the mental and physical toughness Evan demonstrated on this hike. Several pitches were close to 45 degrees, and required scrambling on hands and feet. Evan not only persevered, but when I asked if he wanted a break, he said that he’d rather press on and get to camp. I know he was trying to impress me, but the fact that a 10-year old boy kept hiking up the most difficult trail that I’ve ever been on myself was simply awe inspiring.

We were rewarded by reaching the lake with just a single other camper. The views were incredible, but, just as happened 15 years earlier on our prior trip, suddenly the clouds started rolling up the valley. We were soon socked in, and clearly headed for bad weather. We got the tent set up, and had about 15 minutes to rest before the storm started. We ducked inside just in time to miss the hail. We were holed up in the tent for nearly an hour. The temperature dropped about 30 degrees, but luckily the weather calmed down and left us with a beautiful evening. The only downside was that a strict fire ban was in effect, so Evan had to eat his marshmallows unroasted.

The morning was clear and beautiful, and we took the opportunity to explore the valley. First we scrambled up the rocks to the south to get a bird’s eye view of Clayton Lake. Then we made our way back down the rocks to walk around the lake shore. Evan waded in, and decided that a quick skinny dip was in order. How could I refuse? The water was cold, as one would expect, but Evan made the most of it.

We then headed further west toward the higher Iceberg Lakes, and the continental divide. It was another mad scramble. At times, I thought we might have to turn back because Laika wouldn’t be able to keep up, but she amazed us both with her own mountaineering skills. She was able to either pick another line through the rocks (somehow always seeming to know which direction we were headed), or make jaw-dropping leaps from boulder to boulder. We made it even past Iceberg Lakes to an un-named pond just below the divide. The view back down the valley was incredible.

We headed back to camp for a quick lunch, and then packed up for the hike back down. The trail seemed even more steep on the decline. Evan braved the whole way with even more determination than he showed the day before. We made it back to the main trail exhausted but refreshed at the same time. Along the way, we saw deer, and something Evan referred to as a “boob tree” (I’ll leave it to your imagination) that caused him to lose track of the trail enough that we had to backtrack 100 yards to find our way. We eventually made it back to the trailhead, and found that the crowd size had easily doubled since the day before. We were both glad that we pushed on to the more isolated destination, but I had to admit that I was looking forward to a long sleep in a nice soft bed.

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