Spirit Lake Backpacking Journey

Journey to Spirit Lake

Friday, July 20, 2012: We leave from the Santa Fe Ski Basin at noon and begin the 6 ½ mile hike with 1400 elevation gain, arriving at Spirit Lake a little after 5:00pm. It is uphill from the get-go all the way to the Wilderness boundary and the trail to Raven’s Ridge.

Uphill from the Get-G02
Uphill from the Get-Go

Then a little reprieve from the uphill, but not for long. We hike through aspen forests,

Aspen Forests

spruce forests, little meadows,

Mountain Meadows

down to creek drainages

Tumbling Along

and up again several times.  At the 2nd drainage, we stop for lunch in a spruce forest with huge boulders all around.  We eat our snack of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, granola bars, and trail mix. Clifford takes a 10 minute nap covered with his jacket to keep the mosquitoes off. My left foot had started hurting early in the hike, so I massage it as he naps. The pain in the foot eases up as we continued on, but pain in the hip joints and inner thighs increases as we ascend. Stepping over and around rocks and exposed roots is part of the trail plan here; thank goodness for hiking sticks.

Rocky Road

Eventually we arrive at a very large beautiful meadow sprinkled and bordered with healthy blue spruce.

Blue Spruce Meadow

Most of the spruce on this hike are Englemann spruce, very scraggly looking for the most part, but here the spruce look like perfect Christmas trees – full branches all the way to the ground and every branch tipped with the bluish color of new growth. The vegetation underneath is short and even like a vast lawn. This would be a lovely place to stay, but no water here, we are not prepared for a dry camp, and besides, our destination is Spirit Lake, at least a couple of miles further on. We enjoy this especially beautiful and level section of the trail. The blue spruce give way to the Englemann spruce and the trail begins to hug the mountainside – very steep slopes both above and below us. Fortunately, there is not a lot of elevation gain or loss, as we are feeling the effects of the journey. We are delighted to catch our first glimpse of Spirit Lake, a very green mountain lake backed by a very steep mountain slope.

Spirit Lake

We are beat (but not exhausted), our feet are hurting and we are ever so happy to put our packs down where there is some level ground. We scout around for a spot to set up camp. The spot where we set up our packs is where Clifford camped when he came up here years ago by himself while I was in Montana. It would be an okay spot, but there is a large group of backpackers nearby. We would prefer to give them and ourselves a bit more privacy. Another spot is quite nice, but we can’t see the lake. I decide to explore the slope to the west of the trail. It looks like it is too steep to offer a camping spot, but I feel drawn to check it out, anyway. I am quite happy to discover a bench not discernable from the trail or from the lake below. There is a stout fire ring, a couple of spots level enough for the tent, and a great view of the lake.

View from the Camp

This is where we decide to set up camp. I take a couple shots of the lake, but am too tired to do a walk-about. We get the tent set up, build a cheery campfire (the fire ban has been lifted), and get dinner started.

Rocky Road

After burritos, mac/cheese for Clifford, and hot tea we are feeling our strength returning somewhat, but we go to bed soon after cleaning up after dinner. Even though I’m tired, I don’t fall asleep right away – maybe too tired, legs and feet still hurting, and little noises. I crawl out of the tent to look around – pitch black out here, not even any starlight or moonlight. Once I have reassured myself that everything is okay, I get back into the sleeping bag and sleep a restless sleep, thinking about needing better nutrition to support the body doing this backpacking.

Saturday morning I wake up after the sunlight is on the slope; due to the denseness and height of the trees, it is only little slivers of light coming through which move with the rising of the sun. I get up and with camera in hand I go exploring, first down to the lake with the lovely reflections of the early morning on the water.

Reflections on the Lake
Morning Reflections

and then up the boulder and spruce covered slope behind the camp. The trees here are tall, but the downfall rate is significant, I notice.

Boulder Strewn Slopes

Clifford joins me as I head back down toward the lake. He is already dressed; no hanging out in pj’s this morning. We have tea before getting water going for oatmeal. While he goes down to the lake to get more water, I get breakfast ready. After cleaning up, we go for a walk around the lake. I want to take photos from different angles and he wants to explore the possibility of other campsites, although it doesn’t look like Spirit Lake is overly crowded.

Around the Lake
The Far Side of the Lake

Back at camp we have a mid-morning snack while I begin writing in my backpacking journal and Clifford studies a book on equations that he brought with him. Clifford has a problem – a map problem – for us to solve: if we are given just the coordinates of our starting position and our current position, (which we took with our GPSs units), how far and what direction is it back to the car? Straight-line, not the actually trail. He has a grid paper and we use that to map our positions using a UTM system, which is easy to use and good to know. Before we have our problem figured out, the clouds, which have been building up over the course of the morning, begin to shed raindrops.

Clouds Rising Up

We take this opportunity to try out our emergency shelter – even though it is not currently an emergency. We just want to see how it is going to work: a light-weight rope, a drop cloth, light-weight tent stakes, and several small clips. In just moments we can set up a shelter big enough to stay dry in a downpour (like we had backpacking to Pecos Falls), either temporary with enough room to sit comfortably on camp stools or if need be to keep the tent dry while setting it up. Then pack to the map problem until we get it figured out.

Green Reflections
Cloud in the Lake

Clifford decides to go for a swim in the lake. I watch, take photos,but no way am I going into a green lake with mossy bottom. He was, however, delighted and refreshed by his swim. Next he decides to try out the wire saw he added to the tool kit. It is a 20 inch wire with rings on the end and it cuts through the 2” diameter log Clifford has chosen. Very handy.

We have raman with tuna fish for lunch and some of our snacks. Maybe it was as I was tossing out dish water that I noticed a very tall dead spruce leaning against its smaller neighbor on the slope above our camp. I take a closer look at the angle of the leaning and see that if it slipped from the branches of the smaller tree, it would fall directly on our tent. Not a comforting thought. I point this out to Clifford and he agrees that it could be a potential disaster. Not knowing what the winds might do during the evening or night, we consider our options. The other level spot here has a very similar thing going on – a dead tree leaning against a smaller neighbor. So rather than totally moving camp, we decide to create some barricades to block the force of a fall, just in case the wind picks up unexpectedly. Since it has been and is currently is quite calm, we don’t see an immediate threat, but one should not ignore the possibility. So, we take a good share of the afternoon coming up with some barricade strategies, which gives Clifford and me the chance to use the wire saw like a cross-cut saw to cut a bigger log, which becomes one of our barricade poles.


If it was really windy, I think we would have had to move camp, but in the current situation, the barricade poles offer a measure of reassurance just in case of an unexpected gust.  Back to reading and writing, taking photos, enjoying the day, drinking tea, hanging out until dinner time.

Hanging Out

Tonight we are having burritos and rice. The stove goes out during the cooking of the rice, so Clifford switches to a new fuel cylinder, but the stove no longer works. He tries the spare fuel and no luck with that one either. Bummer. Even though we have a good campfire going, it is not ideal for cooking. Clifford builds a little separate cooking fire – two level rocks with enough space to build a fire between them with the pot suspended across the opening over the fire. It is slower, but eventually we have our dinner, followed by hot chocolate for our bedtime snack. Before heading to bed, we go down to the lake in the dark and sit there on a rock, seeing the lake by light reflected off the clouds.

Evening Reflections

Somewhere over the horizon, the sun still shines. So very lovely and peaceful. Tonight I sleep better.

Sunday, July 22, 2012 – I am up about 7:30, the sunshine coming in stripes to the slope above and below us. I know we will have to pack up this morning, so I want to get down to the lake to take photos first. Love the reflections creating designs and patterns on the surface of the lake.

Ripple Patterns
Subtle Rock Reflection

Back at camp, Clifford is up, but still in his Dagwood pj’s. Soon he is dressed and has the cooking fire going, heating water for hot chocolate, oatmeal, and water to drink. It is slower than the stove, so it is 9:30 by time we have breakfast. One last trip to the lake for water.  I’m glad to see clouds forming, as it will be much more pleasant to be backpacking if the sky is overcast. More importantly, it would be wonderful to receive some much needed rain.

The Cook Fire
Packed Up and Ready to Roll
Good-bye Spirit Lake

And then we again traverse the trails through aspen forests

Smooth and Level – Very Rare

and spruce forests.

Spruce Forest

In a general sort of way, it is more downhill, so easier on the cardio-vascular system. I am not panting nor my heart racing. But it is still challenging to step safely over rocks and exposed tree roots, to keep a good pace, but not to misstep.

Steep Slopes

We hike through a spruce forest with massive blow-down. Huge old spruce have been uprooted; it looks like a tornado or hurricane struck this mountain.

Spruce Blow-Down Area

We have seen a lot of blow-down and know that numerous trails have been closed due to blow-down, but this is the worst that we’ve seen. I guess I didn’t notice it so much on the way to the lake because I was so tired I was just focusing on planting one foot in front of the other. I sure am noticing it now. In fact, Clifford and I stop and talk about what a tremendous wind must have come through here to uproot so many trees. Best to avoid camping in spruce forests, however, as we can see that they do not have a deep tap root to keep them anchored.

Then we arrive at the lovely blue spruce meadow, so entirely different than the Englemann spruce forest, that we passed through on our way to the lake.

Trail Through the Blue Spruce

We stop for lunch at the first drainage we came to on the way in.  Big boulders by the creek give us a lovely space to get out the lunch bag and relax for a few minutes.

Lunch Stop

Once we leave, the next mile and a half are a steady climb up, back to Raven’s Ridge and the Wilderness boundary.

Leaving the Wilderness

The downhill to the ski basin is a little over a mile, but steep enough that my toes are suffering by time we are back to the car. I will be looking into getting better hiking boots before our next major backpacking trip. At the parking lot, I feel assaulted by the noise of cars, people, pavement under my feet. Even though it is challenging getting there, the wilderness feels more like HOME to me. On the hike down, I was thinking of writing a book: Life in a Nutshell – an Unofficial Backpackers’ Guide. I could put in everything I’ve learned through experience plus excerpts from various blogs I’ve written about our trips into the forests, National Parks and wilderness areas. Well, if I don’t have enough students to keep me busy every day, I will do this. Could be a great new direction in my life!

2 thoughts on “Spirit Lake Backpacking Journey”

  1. This was wonderful to revisit a few years later. I remember well when you did that trip. Spirit Lake appears to have been well worth the tired legs and feet! Let’s hope the unofficial backpacker’s guide manifests soon. I can’t think of anyone who would have as much to offer as you. Please follow through; backpackers need your counsel.

    1. I am having a good time revisiting the old blogs. Thanks for revisiting, also. I’ve thought frequently about the book I could write, but just writing the blogs themselves takes up a lot of time, and now I am working on the new website. I should probably jot down thoughts now and then, just to get a little start on it.

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