Gore Range #5: Mesa Cortina to Willow and Salmon Lakes

The three amigos with the highest Willow Lake and the amazing Zodiac Ridge

The three amigos with the highest Willow Lake and the amazing Zodiac Ridge

Once again, the summer is flying past and my moderate (compared to previous years) recreation goals are looming.  But big stupid runs in the mountains require some training time and it’s already mid-July!  Instead of getting out for some moderate, tried-and-true training runs in the 15-mile range, I might as well try something new.

When it comes to new, I always think of the Gore Range.  The Gores never disappoint even if my own performance or navigation abilities are less than awesome.  The mountains are pointy, the trails steep (where they exist at all), the wildflowers rampant, and the scenery top-notch.  I’d been eying a pair of lakes in the southern Gores for some time as a likely “mellow” destination and it was now time to play that card.

Thus, Brian, Yasuyo, and I started out from the Mesa Cortina trailhead bound for the Gore Range Trail and then the climb up to Salmon Lake and the Willow Lakes.  As expected, the flowers were abundant and the weather promising as we zipped downhill (huh?) through the first mile or two of meadows and forest.  After 3 miles, we joined the Gore Range Trail not far from the Terra Cognita of the South Willow Creek drainage that leads up to Red Buffalo Pass.  However, today was about exploration, so we eschewed these known beauties for another three miles on the Gore Range Trail, crossing Middle Willow Creek finally turning and heading uphill at North Willow Creek.

Fields of flowers and sunshine and unicorns at Mesa Cortina.

Fields of flowers and sunshine and unicorns at Mesa Cortina.

As the Gores go, the climb was extremely mellow.  We gained a couple thousand feet in a couple miles with scattered, partial views of East Thorn, Red Peak, and the astonishing Zodiac Ridge which connects the two and defines the high cirque holding the numerous Willow Lakes.  The climb ceased and we did a marvelous traverse into the cirque.  Building clouds gave us weather worries, so we skipped the side trail to Salmon Lake heading straight for the good stuff up at Willow Lakes instead.

Flowers!  Mud!  Small patches of snow and many marshy areas greeted us as the clouds built rather ominously above.  On the map, there are at least four Willow Lakes and we pushed on past several of these (missing a couple others, apparently) bound for the highest and largest nestled right at tree line smack under the ridge.  Oh my, was it worth it!  Like many spots in the Gores, it was too beautiful to simply tag the lake and continue.  We paid proper respect to the setting for nearly an hour.  Up close, the Zodiac Ridge is quite astonishing and looks like a significant undertaking.  I shot the same panoramic photo of the lake and ridge at least seven times as the lighting changed and clouds came and went.  Still, that fails to do the place justice by a long way.


Salmon Lake

Salmon Lake

The weather never really crossed the line from vaguely ominous to actively threatening, but we decided it was time to push on anyway.  Back down we went through the flowery marshes and across the traverse.  Yas and I took in the two-mile side trip to Salmon Lake finding it a good deal less picturesque than the Willow Lakes had been, but still a nice destination on top of what we’d already seen.  Then it was a pell-mell descent to the lower, hotter trails.  The short climbs on the way out were definitely walking terrain and it was getting hotter as we went.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 9.17.31 PMWe reached the car again in early afternoon after 20.7 miles, 3900’ of vertical, and about six hours.  Once again, the Gores were worth the trip and even, arguably, worth the horrendous weekend afternoon traffic on I-70.  Good time-on-feet training, good scenery, good company, and a righteous chunk taken out of my already-too-short summer.

Maps and GPS goodness.

There is plenty more to explore in the Gores, most of which has easy access, few visitors, and is not generally on the public radar despite being only an hour or two from the majority of Coloradans’ homes.  I could spend the next decade exploring the area one peak and cirque at a time working my way north along this long, dramatic range.

In fact, that’s a really good idea!

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