Independence Day kicks off the summer tourist season here in Colorado’s high country, signaling the end of quick trips to the grocery store and the start of reduced solitude for the next 6-8 weeks. Don’t get me wrong, without tourism our economy would quickly dry up. But by mid-Sunday of the July Fourth Weekend, after the parades and the fireworks and the cookouts, finding myself with an unexpected free day I unfolded a topo map of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area to selfishly plan a day of refuge in the Natural World.

Holy Cross Wilderness Area - Colorado
Holy Cross Wilderness Area – Colorado

The next morning I woke with the sun and, while the coffee pot gurgled on the counter, anxiously shoved some fruit and cheese and mixed nuts into my pack alongside my camera, lenses, maps, emergency bivy, first aid and water filter. In ten minutes, I was passing the Holy Cross Ranger station. Another fifteen and I was on top of Battle Mountain. Ten more until I turned right off Highway 24 onto an old stagecoach road and down into the Homestake Valley.

Driving alongside the oxbows of Homestake Creek, I hit the valley’s straightaway, rattling my fillings and testing the suspension of my car, kicking up a streamer of dust a mile long. Pressing on, I passed by Fourth of July campers who just couldn’t face that first day back and decided to stay an extra day. I hear you brother, I thought, waving hello.

Homestake Creek Road - Colorado
Homestake Creek Road – Colorado

Four and a half miles after exchanging pavement for dirt, I turned off the engine at the trailhead. Clyde, my four-legged trail partner, was losing his mind by this point. No cell service out here, so I stashed my phone with my keys in my pack and we headed for our destination, Whitney Lake, under the blue dome of a Colorado sky— grateful to abandon civilization, if only for a day.

The first leg of our wilderness sojourn found us trekking through huge meadows brimming with fragrant sagebrush. Switching back through the meadows afforded sweeping vistas across the Homestake Valley that stir something deep within us all. The meadows quickly dissolved into huge stands of mature aspens with evidence of historic fires. Deep in the aspens, the contrast between the chalk-white bark and the black scars of elk graffiti made me smile knowing somewhere in these forests, huge beasts roam.

Climbing higher, the aspens suddenly gave way to the slender spires of lodgepole pine, indicating my transition into the upper elevations where this foundational species grow. Just as I heard the rush of nearby Whitney Creek, a window opened in the lodgepoles revealing the Sawatch Range still wearing a few tattered shreds of her winter vestments. A few minutes after stopping for some photographs of the peaks, we were crossing over the flotsam of downed trees, wildflowers, and rushing water of Whitney Creek via a convenient log bridge.

Forest Window toward the Sawatch Range - Colorado
Forest Window toward the Sawatch Range – Colorado

By this point, I had worked up a healthy sweat and desperately wanted to trade out the water I’d brought from home for some icy-cold Rocky Mountain refreshment to quench my thirst. Ditching my pack, I knelt down and plunged my head into a crystal pool. Heaven. Sitting with my buddy by the rushing creek, I dumped the inferior water and started filtering the good stuff. Impatient, I stopped halfway through and gulped down what I’d filtered until my bottle was dry, freezing water running down my chin and chest in soothing rivulets. Anxious to keep moving, I quickly filled my bottle to overflowing and said goodbye to the creekside oasis to visit its source— spring fed Whitney Lake.

Whitney Creek - Colorado
Whitney Creek – Colorado

Well hydrated and refreshed, we continued climbing through the canopy of mixed-age lodgepoles. Pausing at a mother-tree that towered a hundred feet above the trail, I wrapped my arms around its enormous girth, pressed my face into the scaly bark, and inhaled deep. People say lodgepoles smell like butterscotch, but not to me— more like hot asphalt after a summer rain. Although, considering these trees are some of the oldest organisms in North America, I suppose it’s more appropriate to say that hot rain-soaked asphalt smells like lodgepole pines.

Old Man's Beard
Old Man’s Beard

As the trail began to level off, we bid farewell to the lodgies and entered the home stretch through awe-filling forests of mostly Engelmann Spruce. Sections of the forest were covered in the light green hairy lichen called Old Man’s Beard. Despite looking like it’s suffocating the trees, the lichen’s presence actually indicates a healthy ecosystem and does not harm them.

Rounding a corner, 13,171 foot Whitney Peak and I played hide-and-seek through openings in the forest canopy. Like re-reading a favorite book, I retraced my steps from the last time I visited this part of the Holy Cross Wilderness, relieved that it hadn’t changed much.

Picking up the pace we finally saw it, our day’s destination, shimmering like a gemstone in the noonday sun. The lake sits at almost 11,000 feet above sea level. Both lake and peak were named for J.D. Whitney, who gave graduates from the Harvard Mining School of Colorado mine tours in 1869 and also happened to name the Collegiate Peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Mountain Range, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Whitney Peak and Whitney Lake - Colorado
Whitney Peak and Whitney Lake – Colorado

I love that the spruce forests grow right up to the edge of this lake, reinforcing the sense of isolation and quiet solitude. I hadn’t laid eyes on this magnificent high mountain landscape in almost eight years and, after such a long break, she welcomed me back with gentle breezes rich with the spicy fragrance of the evergreens.

Composing a few images, I noticed that the lodgepoles interspersed throughout the spruce were all dead, victims of a historic infestation of native mountain pine beetles that has decimated the populations of this ancient tree throughout North America. Determined not to get down thinking about the infestation, we circumnavigated the shore until settling on a shady spot to enjoy our lunch.

Sitting on the mossy banks of the lake, bare feet submerged, I broke into the fruit and Irish cheddar. Sharing some of the cheese with Clyde, we sat together, totally alone, the only witnesses to this incredible display of the Natural World.

As is common at this time of year, cloud cities began to build above the peaks. After several more minutes, munching on mixed nuts and dried cranberries, a symphony of forest wind and plashing rain suddenly began. Curtains of fat summer raindrops broke the opposite side of the lake’s surface and started moving toward our picnic, but only made it halfway before abruptly retreating into dappled sunshine.

The mosquitos did their best to ruin our time, but fortunately I had packed an orange. Clyde thought I was crazy, rubbing the peel and juice over any exposed skin, but soon appreciated that he was next. With lunch over and insects at bay, I lay back into the mattress of moss and liverworts, letting my mind wander until I lost sense of time.

My thoughts drifted to the journey the water I was half submerged in would take after we’d parted ways. The fountains of this lake bubble somewhere nearby in the mountains above my head. Then, after some time as Whitney Lake, they’ll move on to become Whitney Creek, making music and refreshing adventurers all the way down to its confluence with Homestake Creek on the valley floor. Homestake exits the valley of its namesake west to eventually join forces with the Eagle River just outside the historic mining town of Red Cliff. From there, the Eagle keeps on trucking past ski resorts and ranches where it finally meets its destiny in Dotsero, the Colorado River. Maybe one day soon, if enough people care, these magic waters will again reach the sea.

Wilderness Solitude. Whitney Lake - Colorado
Wilderness Solitude. Whitney Lake – Colorado

There was one last thing to do before checking that we’d left behind only footprints and heading back. Stripping down to my capilene shorts, I jumped head first into the lake. Rising like a trout, I did the backstroke out to the middle for a float.

There’s something so uniquely special about swimming in high mountain lakes like this one. Floating on my back, looking upside down at Whitney Peak, a wave of peace swept down from the ramparts enveloping me and this amazing wilderness. “Tis heaven alone that is given away.”

I climbed out of the lake on all fours, much to Clyde’s delight, and pulled on my clothes, body and soul utterly refreshed. Lingering, we eventually made our way back to the start of the trail that brought us to this magical wilderness scene, stopping to absorb the beauty, admire wildflowers and revel in the tranquility of deep wilderness. Reluctantly, I took one final look at Whitney Peak and her reflection in the rippled surface of the lake before turning toward the trail, leaving us both wondering when we’d see each other again.

Grateful for the time and good health to experience this day, I offered up my most sincere wish on the descent— that they would never make it easier to get here, for, as one of my favorite California artists says, you need to earn that view.

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