High-elevation Hiking in Colorado

For the annual Malley family backcountry expedition, we gathered a group of 6 people from 2 generations and 4 states to take on the Eaglesmere Wilderness Area in the Colorado Rockies, about 25 miles north of Silverthorne. 

We hit the trailhead around 11:00AM on Friday to some very suspicious-looking dark skies. About an hour into our hike the rain started leaking from the sky, in an unobtrusive but annoying steady drizzle. We started in dense Aspen groves, and as gusts of wind came down the hillside the thousands of coin-like Aspen leaves shook and flashed, their white trunks ghostly bright under the grey cloudy sky. We were immediately breathless, lungs unaccustomed to the 10,000ft elevation and heavy packs.

Eventually we made it to our first night's campsite at Eaglesmere Lakes. We arrived before many other holiday camping groups so we were able to secure the best site around: a broad, flat, and somewhat protected area in the isthmus separating the two lakes. My Dad and his brother Dennis got to work setting up a multi-tarp structure to protect our cooking/eating area from any additional rain, while the rest of us set up our tents. Although we weren't allowed to have a campfire while at Eaglesmere Lakes, we ended up with a pretty comfortable site, including an dry and effective kitchen spot! 

Camp cooks making noodles for dinner!

A very impressive (and magical) group panorama shot

The next day was planned as a rest day at the same spot, so we leisurely woke up and emerged from our tents to a tentative-looking mostly blue sky. The Colorado wilderness was cooler than we expected, so we donned our layers and drank hot chocolate and tea while we filtered water from the lake. Everyone spent the remainder of the morning in and out of their tents, reading and hiding from the bursts of rain. Declan taught us all a new card game called "13," the rules of which nobody could seem to remember. Dennis was convinced that Declan would change them for each round to rig the game and secure a win. I tried a new backpacking recipe for lunch — Orzo al Pesto with parmesan and toasted pine nuts — which was a huge hit with the group. In the afternoon we decided to venture beyond our corner of the woods and take a day hike on the Gore Trail. We passed bright green marshy meadows and expected a bear to lumber into view at any moment, but the only wildlife we encountered were chipmunks. We returned to Eaglesmere and around dusk we circumnavigated the smaller of the two lakes to see the area from a different perspective. On the opposite side we watched as an Osprey plucked a trout out of the water and circled the lake three times before flying off down the creek. Our resident bird nerd (Patrick Malley) could not have been more thrilled at the encounter. 

As the sun started to sink below the hill to the west, the skies retained a beautiful deep blue hue punctuated by white cotton-ball clouds. The lakes were perfectly still — almost a mirror surface reflecting the bright colors above — and the treeline opposite us appeared double in the shape of a lie-detector line. We took countless photos, trying to immortalize the purity and stillness of the scene before us. 

The Malley ladies drying out some wet boots on the shore of Eaglesmere

We awoke to blazing blue skies and finally some warmth. After packing up all our gear, we started our 4-mile trek to the next campsite at Surprise Lake. We passed lots of families out for a holiday camping trip, including (to Declan's delight) multiple dogs carrying adorable miniature saddle bags. The only dodgy section of the trail was a set of two subsequent river crossings, one of which consisted of hurrying across a very unstable progression of half-submerged logs. We arrived (with mostly dry feet) just after noon, and encountered a pair of park rangers who gave us directions to a secluded site 0.25 miles away from the shore where we could legally have a campfire that night. 

Surprise Lake!

I made hot, salty Polenta Tirolese for lunch (another new recipe to test out), Dennis and Briana went on a longer than expected journey to filter water for our Nalgenes, and then the weary group retreated to separate tents for an afternoon nap. That elevation really takes it out of you! We passed the rest of the day gathering firewood and playing rounds of "13" until the sun started sinking low in the sky. Declan did an excellent job of starting and maintaining a roaring campfire, which was so comfortably warm and mesmerizing that we sat around it for hours. We heard stories of the older Malley brothers' first jobs growing up, the pranks they would play on one another, and other funny childhood tales. What a joy it was to spend time sitting around a glowing fire telling stories with family. 

Our campsite — complete with roaring fire — on the last night of the trip

Our final leg of the loop trail was the easiest by far. Of the 4 miles back to the trailhead, only about 10% was uphill. The weather was glorious, and we passed through fairytale clearings full of vibrant wildflowers in shades of periwinkle, coral, and goldenrod. Orange and black butterflies floated past us, landing two or three times on Sam's hand for a visit. The Aspen trees were just as enchanting as they'd been on the hike in, and without the staggering elevation gain we were able to enjoy them more thoroughly. 

We crossed a final river and arrived back at the car, looking forward to our traditional post-hike burger and beer. It was the 4th of July, so we were greeted with boat shows, concerts, and parades upon our return to civilization. That night in Boulder we walked up to the University's Folsom football field for the fireworks show. We all agreed it was the most spectacular we'd ever seen.

The entire group emerging victorious from the Rocky Mountains