Sunday, October 16, 2011

Add This to Your Must-Run Loops List

The Goose Creek Loop in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area should be on every Colorado trail runner's to-do list, especially in the fall. Spectacular scenery, great trails and a decent amount of elevation gain.

Distance: 24.27 miles
Time: 6:16
Effort: Easy
Body: Poor
Weather: Perfect - sunny and cool

I've been eyeing the Lost Creek Wilderness Area for a long run for a couple of years now. It's a rare low-elevation wilderness area (8,000 - 12,400 feet), standing in stark contrast to many Colorado wilderness areas dominated by alpine habitat types. Plus, the LCWA is just a hop, skip and a jump from the Denver metro area.  The LCWA was created by Congress in 1980 and is comprised of 120,000 acres (187.5 square miles).

On Friday I did a little online research, typing "Lost Creek Wilderness Area, loop" into Google. Out spit the Goose Creek Loop, which begins and ends at the Goose Creek Trailhead near Deckers.  I saw a few pics from several backpacking reports and I was sold.

I was up and out of the house by about 5:20 a.m. on Sunday, bound for Goose Creek. By sunrise, I was driving up a washboarded dirt road through the Hayman fire burn area above Cheeseman Reservoir.  (The 2002 Hayman Fire burned 138,000 acres.) The trailhead is about 12 miles from pavement on a very windy, but good (washboarded sections notwithstanding) Forest Service road.
Sunrise over the Hayman burn area en route to Goose Creek Trailhead.
There were a half-dozen cars in the large parking lot when I arrived, but no one was stirring. I figured the cars belonged to backpackers.  With the rising sun casting a red glow on the Tarryall Mountains ahead, I set off down a buff, crushed granite-covered trail.  The initial quarter mile winds through a burned section of forest.

Let the fun begin!
After that quarter mile, the loop begins with a choice. Go left up the forested Hankins Pass Trail, or right up the Goose Creek Trail. I figured any trail with "pass" in it's name would indicate climbing, so I figured I'd do that section first. Turns out, it was a good choice. I definitely recommend running this loop clockwise.

Typical Hankins Pass Trail scene - aspen, meadows and coniferous forests.
 The Hankins Pass Trail heads up Hankins Gulch, repeatedly (at least in the opening couple of miles) crosses a small (unnamed on my map - Hankins Creek?) creek. At 4.5 miles is the first trail junction of the day.

At the junction, I hung a right on the Lake Park Trail, which climbed steadily up and over a few humps offering great views to the northwest into South Park.

South Park in the far distance.
 After a couple miles, one enters the trail's namesake, Lake Park, an open meadow surrounded by mountains and granite outcroppings.

Lake Park. The sign reads "Lake Park.  Elevation 10,880 feet."
 After a bit of downhill through Lake Park, the trail climbs again to a saddle filled with amazing slabs of granite - a mere hint of the scenery to come.  I think this saddle was the day's high-point at something like 11K feet and change.

I'd be running down the distant valley above in another hour or so.
 From the saddle, the trail dropped down a north-facing, snow-covered slope. This was the only real snow I encountered all day.

Lake Fork Trail down a north-facing slope.
After the snow-covered descent, one hits another trail junction.

My NatGeo/Trails Illustrated map says I should have hit the McCurdy Trail, rather than Brookside.  The map shows Brookside ending at an intersection further south with the "McCurdy Trail." Still, it was easy to figure out that I needed to turn right, regardless of the trail's name.  (UPDATE: Map shows the trail as "Brookside-McCurdy Trail.")

From the junction, the trail winds through some heavily treed area and then emerges in McCurdy Park, another open meadow with a creek ambling through. This meadow was gorgeous, with big rock outcroppings out in its middle. Off to the right were other amazing rock formations, including an ominous looking granite sawtooth, the McCurdy Park Tower, which the maps marks as a climbing location.

McCurdy Park Tower
McCurdy Park.
McCurdy Park. Log cabin ruins at base of granite rock outcropping.
After McCurdy Park, the trail switchbacks down the eastern side of a long valley. The sounds of falling water are all around as the creek that flows through McCurdy Park tumbles down to meet up with Lost Creek at the valley's bottom.  Lost Creek, the wilderness area's namesake, gets its name because it "disappears" a couple dozen times beneath the ubiquitous granite and reappears again downstream. Once Lost Creek emerges from the valley and all the granite, it becomes Goose Creek.

As one gets near the bottom of the valley, the views open up and the most sublime scenery of the trip unfold below. This area feel unworldly, or at least un-Colorado. It sorta feels like Utah, with granite instead of sandstone. Big rocks. Canyons. Incredible.  It was here that I saw my first people of the run, two backpackers who were shocked (!) to learn I was running their multi-day loop in far less than a day.

There were a lot of yellow left on the aspens, but the leaves were falling fast.

A spot on Lost Creek where the creek emerges from granite near Refrigerator Gulch
There are lots of places where small tunnels or arches are created by the haphazardly placed rocks and boulders. 

From the head of the valley down which Lost Creek flows, the trail initially hugs close to the creek. Soon, though, the trail climbs the north side of the valley to get around major rock outcroppings.  It drops and rises multiple times, quickly padding the elevation gain totals.

After several miles, the Goose Creek Trail enters from the north and the McCurdy Trail ends.  After several more miles of ups and downs now on the Goose Creek Trail, one passes a trail spur that leads down towards the creek to some historic buildings, the remnants of a failed attempt to dam the creek (the area dodged a bullet there!).  I by-passed the buildings due to time and flagging energy.

Once past the spur, the trail opens up and follows an old (wagon?) road bed, the grade and surface of which reminded me of the Bob's Road section of the Barr Trail.

Soon, the trail dropped back down to the creek, flattened out and suggested the homestretch was near.

Sure enough, after crossing a solid footbridge over Goose Creek, I re-entered a Hayman fire burned section and soon was standing at the Goose Creek/Hankins Pass trail sign. Another quarter mile climb and I was exiting the wilderness area.

Looking back down toward the Goose Creek/Hankins Pass junction.
This has got to be one of the best long trail loop runs I've done in Colorado. Sure, it doesn't have the grandeur and high altitude of the Four Pass Loop in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness, but it has such unique scenery that it should be on the list of any Colorado trail runner.  And, fall has got to be the absolute best time to run here. When I was there, the aspens were a week or so past peak, but still spectacularly ablaze with color. I strongly recommend running this one!

My legs today had no pep and I walked a LOT more than I normally would, plus I had an hour of picture-taking/scenery gazing/bathroom breaks.  So, a more reasonable run time would easily be in the five-hour range.

Pikes Peak was visible at several places on the run. This pic from the road on the drive back to pavement.
There's still time to hit this one before the snow flies. 

5,840 feet o' elevation gain.


  1. Thanks for the beta, Jim. Looks like a beauty. 22-25 miles with 5-6k of vertical gain, plus beautiful scenery = outanding training grounds. It's on the list!

  2. Yes, thanks for the detailed report. I knew about that loop, but have not been there. Looks outstanding!

  3. Bookmarked this page for the spring!

  4. I have been out there a few times to hike peaks/climb towers, an awesome area indeed. Would love to make a run out of it sometime.

  5. There's a big difference between the dirt and the snow in the East and the West and the word powder pretty much sums it up. The dirt in the photos looks like powder and I miss it! Great run Jim!

  6. Good stuff, thanks for sharing, been wanting to get out on that loop.
    I enjoyed Bison Pk earlier this year and very much agree on LCW -- runnable and underappreciated, and the shoulder seasons seem to be a good time to hit it up.

    Great pic of the creek, pretty unique and gnarly area, especially off-trail.
    I'm guessing you followed the sad story of the lost hiker this summer, where SAR wouldn't risk a recovery (understandable) after it became too risky, although the body was recovered privately. Looking into the history some more, there was a caver/spelunker lost in those caves in the 1980s.

  7. Added.

    Great photos and thorough description of the route - thanks!

  8. Now THAT is my kind of a run! Just like all the others have said, this page is now bookmarked! I love the shot of the water coming out of the rocks. Glad you had a great adventure.

  9. Thanks Jim,
    I "ran" this loop a couple of years back myself. That pic at the top of Hankins Pass actually made it into my annual photo calendar I give to my family members. I was surprised at the size of the trees up there at 11000+ feet.
    I was suffering big time in the second half of my trip through so I wasn't as touristy and it's great to see some of what I missed.

  10. Mike - I hadn't heard the story of the lost hiker. Scary stuff. Still, such a great place. Was looking at pics of Harmonica Arch, which is in that same valley. Cool granite arch. Not marked on maps, nor are there signs to it, apparently. Check it out.

    Jay - there were a couple places where I was impressed by the size of the trees.

    Thanks everyone for stopping by and commenting!

  11. Lost Creek Wilderness holds some true gems. Another great loop starts/finishes at Lost Park campground. I do a couple runs there late May, early June every year.


  12. Thanks, Tim. I've been wanting to get over to that side of the wilderness area. I'll check it out.