9/5 - 9/7/15: Holy Cross Wilderness, CO

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Map of our Labor Day weekend route: http://caltopo.com/m/5P0A

One of the many appealing features of backpacking in Colorado is it's scores of trailheads above 10,000 feet that one can access quite easily. Nothing like starting out right around treeline. Our Labor Day loop would begin at the 10,300' Half Moon Trailhead, about 8 miles southwest of the charming hamlet of Minturn, CO. Our immediate 1300' scamper up to Half Moon Pass was a nice little warm up introduction to Holy Cross Wilderness. As we approached the pass, morning clouds were settling in. A sign of things to come:



On the other side of the pass, we got our first view of alpine scenery in the shape of Mt. Jackson:



Though we never saw the namesake "Holy Cross" feature itself on this loop, we did steal a brief glance of the 14er's north face:



The easiest route to the summit follows the ridgeline on the right side of the following image. We would trace that route up to around treeline before dropping down to the next valley where we'd pick up another trail. We passed several groups on their way down from their early morning summit bids. Most left the trailhead around 4am:



After that 1,000' cross-country descent through thick mixed conifer forest and boulder fields, we connected with Cross Creek valley, and an older, less used trail that would take us south and then east over Fancy Pass. Clear skies at this point betrayed our rainy future:



Looking south at Middle Mountain, as things began to cloud up in earnest. Our route would take the left (east) fork up towards the upper part of Cross Creek and eventually Fancy Pass:



As we climbed, things continued to open up. Here's a view looking back down the valley from whence we came:



After getting dumped on by a cold rain for some time, we were spent, and fairly chilled. We hoped to get a little further up the valley on day one, but we needed to warm up our bones and (at least attempt to) dry out our clothes. We settled on a nice little site close to Cross Creek, with a solid view south of unnamed Sawatch peaks. Things cleared up just in time for a colorful sunset. Fancy Pass is just to the left of the smallest peak:



After a quiet night of sleep, we woke up to low clouds and a few sprinkles. This wasn't feeling like the 0% chance of precipitation day that NOAA predicted for Sunday. Thankfully, there was no rush, as we were only going to walk about 8 miles up and over Fancy Pass and then over to Hunky Dory Lake to settle in for our second night. And even more thankfully, the clouds began to dissipate while we we're leaving camp. Back on the trail:



Some relics of Colorado's rich mining history in upper Cross Creek valley. We didn't spot any mines, but a few miners cabins still haunted the place:



At this point, the climb up to Fancy Pass began to get serious. We were sucking in thin air, but it was that delicious Colorado thin air. Better yet, it was mostly sunny; one of the few times all weekend we'd have the pleasure of seeing our own shadows. Here's a glance back down at the sublime Cross Creek valley and the west face of Mount Holy Cross (the distant, more rounded peak). Half Moon trailhead is on the other side of it, basically making this the halfway point of our loop:



The trail was actually an old mining road at this point, so it had a decent grade. Other Sawatch Peaks came into view as we rose towards the pass:







Mandy waltzing past the turquoise colored Treasure Vault Lake:



Fancy Pass, finally within view:



Nearing the top:



The final push:



We bumped into a friendly group up on the pass and got to pose for the rare family portrait:



Looking north and east from the 12,400' pass and the beginning of the Holy Cross Ridge:



Coming down the west side of Fancy Pass, spirits were much higher today with the improved weather:



Passing by the lush and colorful Fancy Lake:



Still a few miles to walk to our destination for the night and with plenty of time on our hands, we took a slight detour to stroll through "Holy Cross City", an old mining community that existed during a 4 year boom in the 1880's. Plenty of mines and tailings piles were still visible from the meadow, along with several cabins:



After a short walk on a gnarly looking jeep road, we re-entered the Wilderness Area and quickly came upon Hunky Dory Lake. Our camp would be on the opposite side of this gem, and surprisingly for a holiday weekend, we'd have it all to ourselves:



We spent the afternoon drying our gear out and watching brook trout pop out of the water. Just before sunset, I snapped this image of Whitney Peak. The route for our final day would head up and to the left (south) of this giant.



As much as you can't trust a mountain forecast three days out (which mentioned only a 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms), we were still a bit surprised to wake up to the sound of some unscheduled, heavy rain pounding the tent on Monday morning. This was particularly an issue for us as we still had a 12,500' pass to get over, and an 8 hour drive after that. So we sat things out impatiently in the tent for a few hours, watching our hopes get dashed each time it started raining again after a stoppage. On one of those breaks, I managed to catch some nice light above Hunky Dory Lake:



Around 10am, things began to split up just enough that we just decided to go for it. At that point we didn't have much choice, really. The weather never stopped harassing us that day, especially the wind. But it was generous enough to give us a two hour window to get up and over the pass before the deluge returned. Most importantly, there was no lightning. Here's a few shots of Mandy heading up towards Fall Creek Pass in between the squalls:











Mandy rising above the largest of the Seven Sisters Lakes:



Almost there:



Fall Creek Pass panorama, looking northeast:



The descent into the Fall Creek drainage weaved through awesome rock slabs. As soon as we got back to treeline, the rain and thunder started back up. Perfect timing:



Continuing our way down the Fall Creek trail:



The forest offered a delightful respite from the wind and rain exposure that we experienced up on the tundra:



And then fittingly, the fog arrived. It made for an enchanting final two miles back to the trailhead:







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TannerT

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#3
Awesome TR and photos!!! I can't believe I still haven't backpacked in the rockies yet....aarrgghh!! :cry: Thanks for letting me live vicariously through you!
Salud!
 
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#4
I always enjoy your trip reports! Looks like an awesome area.
 

slc_dan

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#5
Looking good Timmy! As much as rain sucks to walk through, the light you got here is great. Really great shots. What lens you using with the a600 here?
 
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#9
Nice! My favorite Colorado wilderness area. Lots of off trail lakes full of trout.
 

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Vegan.Hiker

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#13
What an awesome report. Loved it. The first sunset picture is a really great shot and so is the one of Honky Dory Lake. Quick question... Dan asked if that was the a600, did he mean a6000?
 
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#15
We are very interested in doing the same hike. Love your fabulous photos - I would love to see that incredible sunset!

I know it's been awhile since you did this, but if you remember, I have a question about your route:

From your description ("After that 1,000' cross-country descent through thick mixed conifer forest and boulder fields,") and the caltopo map, it appears that you bushwhacked down to the Cross Creek trail rather than using an established trail. Is that correct? If so, how hard was it with full packs? Do you recommend that, or is there another way to get from one trail to the other?
 
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Vegan.Hiker

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#16
I don't even know where to start. I think I need to add this area to my wish list. Your reflections shots and that sunset shot are mind blowing. Great report.!
 
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#17
I have the same question as Janice above... I'm interested in doing the Cross Creek loop, but don't necessarily want to do the road walk portion or the lower section of Cross Creek (which I assume isn't as scenic?); Hence, your route looks intriguing. I don't mind going off-trail, but would only want to do it if the terrain isn't too gnarly and if it's fairly easy to navigate. Any info on that section would be greatly appreciated!
 
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#18
I have the same question as Janice above... I'm interested in doing the Cross Creek loop, but don't necessarily want to do the road walk portion or the lower section of Cross Creek (which I assume isn't as scenic?); Hence, your route looks intriguing. I don't mind going off-trail, but would only want to do it if the terrain isn't too gnarly and if it's fairly easy to navigate. Any info on that section would be greatly appreciated!
Bob, we just finished a fabulous trip here. We decided not to go off-trail and started at Cross Creek trailhead and ended at Half Moon/Fall Creek trailhead where our friends' car was parked. FYI we learned after starting that most people do this in the opposite direction, because it's much more uphill than down the way we went. (Our 55-year-old knees thanked us for doing it the way we did, though.) The beginning of Cross Creek wasn't as scenic as the other parts, but overall the route we did was gorgeous. Before going over Fancy Pass, we dropped our packs and went up to Missouri Pass and down to Missouri Lakes (then back up) and really enjoyed that. The jeep road through Holy Cross City was much more scenic than we expected and wasn't very long, so I wouldn't be bothered by that. We also dropped our packs and went as far as we could go up to Tuhare Lakes (snow pack stopped us close to the top). If you want more info, let me know - we thought this was terrific!
 
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Miya

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#19
Amazing everything! Thanks for sharing. I have yet to see views like those.
 
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#20
Thanks Janice. This is currently my plan B for my end-of-summer backpacking trip, so I may end up bugging you more about it if I end up doing this one.
 

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