Vail HIker column: Escape to Whitney Lake
July 6, 2012
Editor’s Note: Mary Ellen Gilliland is the author of “The Vail Hiker” book. She just released a full-color, sixth edition of the guidebook, which includes six new hikes, a group of fishing lakes for anglers and special “hikes for tykes” routes for kids. The book is available for purchase at The Bookworm of Edwards and outdoor stores for $19.95. The Vail Daily will be excerpting hikes from the book each weekend this summer.The trail to spring-fed Whitney Lake begins on the Homestake Road, a historic route used by gold seekers. Today, the road provides access to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Colorado Rockies. Dappled with lakes and cascading with waterfalls, the Homestake area is an unsurpassed natural resource for Eagle County. Water diversion plans threaten this beauty.Drive to I-70 Dowd Junction exit 171 and turn south onto U.S. 24. Go 13 miles to the Homestake Road, no. 703. Turn right and drive 4.6 miles to the trailhead. Parking space is available on the road’s left side. Bring insect repellent to ward off persistent flies on the lower trail.The Homestake Road once served as an 1880s stagecoach route to the gold towns of Gold Park and Holy Cross City and a link to neighboring Missouri Camp and Camp Fancy. The stagecoaches brought travelers from the Denver & Rio Grande Railway station at bustling Red Cliff to these remote towns. Prospectors organized the Holy Cross Mining District in 1880. It expanded to an impressive 100 square miles during the 1880s boom years.The trail, rocky at first, climbs on an old closed road to a sagebrush hillside meadow thick with blossoms of the delicate mariposa lily in early July. Beyond you’ll enter mature aspen forest with fire evidence.Enter the Holy Cross Wilderness early on. A loose set of switchbacks appears as you approach 1 mile. While still in the trees (note some beetle-kill), you’ll begin to hear the creek. At this point, look for an opening in the woods that offers a view southwest to the Homestake Dam. Also look for a nice view down to Whitney Creek where white water splashes against black boulders. Now, drop down to the creek and cross on a three-log bridge with a handrail. Climb out of the narrow creek canyon into a forest of pine and spruce. The trail winds through forest, then levels off as it approaches the lake. Huckleberries abound here in September. Note where you exited the woods near the lake to assure re-locating the trail.Whitney Lake, at nearly 11,000 feet, pools beneath a rocky wall of 13,171-foot Whitney Peak. Encircled by spiky spruce, the tranquil lake reflects the ridge above and is constantly ringed with ripples made by rising fish. It thaws early, so June hikers may find the lake ice-freeJ.D. Whitney escorted a group of Harvard Mining School graduates on a Colorado mine tour in 1869. He first named the Sawatch Range’s Collegiate Peaks including Mount Harvard, 14,420 feet and Mount Yale, 14,196 feet.Hiker, historian and author Mary Ellen Gilliland lived first in Vail and then Summit County since January 1970. She has skied and hiked backcountry trails for more than 40 years. She has written 16 books. For more information, visit summitandvailhikes.com.