Upper Willow Lake overnight - Eagles Nest Wilderness


Oct 30, 2016
My original plan for this past weekend was to take half a day off of work Friday, grab Milo the adventure hound and an older tent I wanted to field test before lending it to a buddy in a few weeks, and head off somewhere not too remote to see how the dog would do in a tent overnight.


My new and improved plan for this past weekend was to take all of Friday off, push the needle to the other end of the dial and pick a 'hard' (which I equate with sparsely trafficked) trail off alltrails.com and head off on yet another solo adventure. No veto issues with this plan. Draw your own conclusions about how my absence compares to the absence of the dog...

I've been itching to spend a night at an alpine lake somewhere. Monsoon season and the endless thunderstorms and predictions of thunderstorms have made this a tough order to fill, but it looked like Friday and Saturday would have fairly low chances of any storm action up around the Eagles Nest Wilderness area north of Silverthorne. The Willow Lakes/Salmon Lake trail seemed ideal. 8.5 miles one way and a cluster of lakes nestled in the Gore Range at around 11,500 feet. Off I went.



I started hiking around 10:30 Friday under mostly blue skies and 60ish degrees. It did end up thundering and raining around 2:00 or so, but it was mainly an hour of all sound and little fury (and no lightning at all) so no big deal. Saturday morning started out beautiful and again the clouds rolled in as the day went on. Note that because of the weather, none of the pictures in this TR are necessarily in chronological order. You see what was shot under the best light at that point on the trail on whichever day.

The hike is composed of a very short (less than half mile) trek up the Rock Creek trail, a 5.5ish mile hump south on the Gore Range trail, and then the remainder of the journey up to the cirque and Willow Lakes via the Willow Lakes trail.

This is the sort of trip that takes a lot from you and then gives it all back at the end. From the start the hike is like watching a forest die around you with a few pretty exceptions (ponds, creeks). Progressively worse beetle kill, endless patches of downfall across the trail and finally, around the fifth mile, an extended patch of death where there are more trees on the ground than remain standing.

Far off in the distance, my destination lies beneath the large peak to the right of center:






It was extremely slow going. I pad my hike times knowing that I'll stop a lot for pictures and walk back and forth over the same area a few times for video, but this was pretty bad. It took over 6 hours to hike the 9 miles I put in on the way to my camp site.

I met an older gent on his way out from a day hike at the intersection of the Gore Range and Willow Lake trails. He mentioned there was a trailhead a mere 1.5 miles down the Gore Range trail and why didn't I just park there? I told him the rangers said it was owned by the town and no overnight parking was allowed. He snickered and said everyone parks there anyway...


You can see from the elevation profile that the trail to this point is a series of ups and downs. Basically every time you crossed a creek (which were flowing vigorously) you could count on another set of switchbacks ahead. Then it would be a slight dip to another water crossing, and up again.

Once on the Willow Lake trail, it was a steep ascent to pick up the better part of a thousand feet of elevation before things leveled out again. I'll admit to feeling my age at this point, but once past the ascent the forest started to look a lot healthier and the trail was in much better condition. I could also see glimpses of all eye candy through the trees.

The continental divide to the east, with Torreys and Grays center stage:


A glimpse of one of the lakes in the area. It was very hard to keep track of the three Willow Lakes proper and all the various ponds so I won't bother trying to put names to them.


I believe this peak is known as the Thorn:


The trail crosses over a short talus field. You can hear water flowing beneath it, coming from Salmon Lake hiding above the trail.


Beyond the talus field is a waterfall. I stopped here to fill my bottle.


At this point the thunder was continuous and a steady rain had started so I donned my ultra-lightweight super high-performance rain coat ($10 Columbia outlet store special) and pack cover and trudged on. This was it for the bad weather on the trip, and it was come and gone quickly enough.


I believe this is the second Willow Lake. I was surprised at the amount of snow left in the area.


Getting closer. Skirting more lakes and ponds. Capricorn and Cancer (I think) peaks of the Zodiac Ridge now visible. The upper Willow Lake lies directly at their feet.


Closer still...


Made it! Upper Willow Lake and, literally, the end of the trail.


Here I am modeling aforementioned stylish rain jacket.


Set up my tent so I would have a nice view out the door.


iPhone shot from that evening


A couple shots of Red Peak while the sun was going down. Not much sunset action in this cirque. The cliff walls take it out of play too early. The long shadows are from the peaks on the opposite side of the lake.



I ate the rest of the subway sandwich I had hauled in for dinner and crashed. Very tough hike and I was wiped. I wanted to get up at 5 to see how the place would look under morning light.

I wasn't disappointed.






Next to my tent, the outflow creek from the upper lake shot through a stand of trees in to the lower area behind. This was like walking in to a magical garden at sunrise.


Looking back up towards camp


The lower area behind camp, home of countless wildflowers and chirping marmots





While I saw enough goat fur around my tent to make a herd of goats from scratch, this was the only wildlife I saw on the trip


So that was the trip. A truly beautiful area, and one of the prettiest spots I have ever camped in. The pictures don't do it justice (especially since lazy man only brought his nifty 50 and left the heavy, but certainly more appropriate, 24-70 at home).

On the hike out I took a side trail to Salmon Lake but it paled in comparison to the Willow Lakes and I didn't take any pictures. All in all I logged a bit over 22 miles and today I feel pretty wrecked physically. Surprisingly so actually. Maybe my age is catching up with me.

Here's a video of the trip:

Last edited:


Jun 18, 2015
Awesome, thanks for posting this! The Willow Lakes were high on my list of places to visit when I hiked the Gores last month, but did Gore Lake instead. Cool to see what I missed. Actually, I plotted a potential route over the crest from Gore Lake to Willow Lake but I didn't end up doing it. The Gores are rugged, few passes to string together longer hikes or loops, but what a beautiful place. Funny you mention how it kicked your butt, I was thinking the same thing.


Oct 30, 2016
Funny you mention how it kicked your butt, I was thinking the same thing.

Yeah I was surprised. Felt as bad as the aftermath of any leg day in the gym, lol. Took two days but this morning I woke up feeling 100% again. Middle age for the win.


Ready For More
Jul 23, 2013
Fantastic! Morning time is often the best time up those alpine settings. Harder than heck to wake up so early after what's often a long day of hiking, but the pay-off is often worth it! Thanks for sharing! I've added the video to my watch later list and just subscribed to your YT channel after realizing I wasn't already.
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