Exploring Buchanan Pass

Paiute and upper Coney Lake.

Paiute and Upper Coney Lake.

I’m working on a theory involving Coney Lakes.  At this point, I have visited a statistically significant* number of Coney Lakes and they have all shared the following properties:
1) beautiful setting
2) little-used, hard to follow trail
3) no other people (see item 2)
4) heinous talus climbs on unstable slopes to escape from
5) no evidence of actual conies

Okay, actually it’s only two sets of Coney Lakes and both within 10 miles of each other in the Front Range, but they were both great, adventurous days.  The first was a great, strenuous expedition into the southernmost valley in Wild Basin.  This was a similarly great expedition to about the third-most-northerly drainage in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
After a five-mile warm-up from Camp Dick on the 4×4 road from the Beaver Reservoir, I felt energized and peppy.  This was a nice change from my rather disappointing performance two weeks ago when I was here last.  A quarter mile past the wilderness boundary, I turned left from the main Buchanan Pass trail at the one and only sign of the Coney Lakes trail.  It petered out almost immediately, but I knew that it received at least a modest amount of foot traffic.  (Major shout-out to the folks at Strava for their Global Heatmap, by the way.  This lets you see where people have actually been in recent years, not just where USGS topo maps say there was a trail 50+ years ago.)

The trail was generally suggested, if not actually made obvious, by the ground truth.  I gave up trying to keep my feet dry almost at once as it wandered indistinctly through a marsh, then became blazingly obvious as a wide, double-track road through dense forest.  Then back to a marsh again where the trail really did completely vanish.  Moving by dead-reckoning, I came across the trail again half-way up a small knoll, then shortly came to the lower of the two Coney Lakes.  Beautiful!

Lower Coney Lake.  Scientifically proven to be awesome.

Lower Coney Lake. Scientifically proven to be awesome.

Onward and upward!  Next on the exploration agenda was Algonquin Peak, a rarely-visited peak along the Divide looming above the upper lake (rare enough that the heat map shows no visitors at all, at least among Strava users at least).  I bashed through some strenuous willows aimed for a talus slope and a gap in the cliff band that surrounded much of the valley.  After the willows, the talus was a relative relief, but still was 300’ or more of steep, loose blocks the size of encyclopedias.  It was worse than similar climbs I’ve made at Icefield Pass and Boulder Grand Pass, but not quite as heinous as the climb up to Coney Pass at the other lakes.  From there it was a mile or two of tundra hiking to the unassuming highpoint of Algonquin.


What Algonquin lacks in aesthetic charm from a distance (unlike Sawtooth Mountain it’s immediate neighbor south), it more than makes up for in position and view.  The summit is a long tongue of tundra sticking south along the Divide with precipitous cliffs in the other three directions.  Views of Fox Park, Lone Eagle Cirque, the upper Coney Lake, and the impressive north face and ridge of Paiute Peak dominate the view while to the north, the southern flank of the Longs Peak massif rises over the rolling tundra of a host of the northernmost unnamed Indian Peaks.  It was a pretty impressive position and great weather for lounging.

After Algonquin, I turned north and managed to run quite a bit of tundra over the very narrow saddle to Sawtooth and then the short climb to the summit.  I’d been here before, and again, the relatively small Sawtooth impresses with it’s larger-than-life vibe.

The impressive south face of Sawtooth.

The impressive south face of Sawtooth.

I was still feeling good and the original planned to continue north along the Divide bagging Pt 12391 (aka “Red Deer Peak”) and Pt.12277 before dropping down a dubious-looking talus slope to Lake Envy and running out the long trail from the Gibraltar Lakes.  However, time was getting on and I was eager to do some actual running, so I turned east at Buchanan Pass and headed down at great speed.  Taking the first available left, I got back into terra incognita on the rough, often-overgrown trail 910.  A half-mile of spur trail took me to Red Deer Lake (nice enough, though not nearly as aesthetic as the Coney Lakes), then another mile of trail down to a large meadow along the Middle St. Vrain.

View east from Sawtooth Mountain

View east from Sawtooth Mountain

Purple Fringe

Purple Fringe

Where’s the bonk?  At this point in a run I’m usually pretty whipped and whatever miles separate me from my car are painful and slow.  I wouldn’t say I was totally fresh, but with 4000’ of vertical and 16 miles down already, I was still feeling remarkably good.  The mostly flat Gibraltar Lakes trail proved quite runnable and I made pretty quick progress on the hiker trail for the last four miles along the north side of the creek out to the trailhead.

So, I can now cross off a great deal of exploration in a region of the local mountains both rewarding and vast.  I felt good the entire time and am feeling more confident in my upcoming Big Stupid Mountain Run.

Also, anything named Coney Lake is guaranteed to be awesome.  It’s scientifically proven!

The whole route

The whole route

GPS track and map geekery.

*Not remotely statistical, even by astronomy standards.

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