Mastodon Peak Loop Trail (Joshua Tree National Park, CA)

Mastodon Peak Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, October 2020

Mastodon Peak is a rocky knob in the Cottonwood Mountains of southern Joshua Tree National Park, situated in the Colorado Desert of southern California. From the modest summit, hikers gain 360-panoramic views, with the Eagle Mountains unfolding to the east, Cottonwood Mountains to the west, and Salton Sea to the south—miles of classic southwestern desert, replete with the iconic Mohave yucca, ocotillo, red barrel cactus, and other desert plants. The moderately-difficult Mastodon Peak Loop Trail forms a 2.5-mile circuit, passing through the wild oasis of Cottonwood Spring before climbing to the summit, then descending to a maze of sandy drainages, surrounded by Joshua Tree’s iconic chunky boulders. This is worthy stop for travelers driving on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix and, located near the southern boundary of the park, is considerably less-crowded than the desert Disneyland that is Joshua Tree’s Park Boulevard area.

Map of Mastodon Peak Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Cottonwood Spring, which serves as the trailhead for this hike, is located in the Colorado Desert, one of the two deserts that meet in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. While the namesake Joshua trees are absent in the Colorado Desert, beautiful desert oases are more abundant, and the Cottonwood Spring Oasis is one of the most easily-accessible. From Interstate 10, take Exit 168 and follow Cottonwood Springs Road northward for nearly seven miles, passing through Cottonwood Canyon. Bear right at Cottonwood Visitor Center, then follow Cottonwood Oasis Road to its end, parking at the trailhead at Cottonwood Spring. From here, a clearly marked trail heads eastward toward Mastodon Peak and Lost Palms Oasis. Take this route as it descends quickly into Cottonwood Spring Oasis.

Approaching Cottonwood Spring Oasis

Nestled in an otherwise dry drainage in the Cottonwood Mountains, Cottonwood Spring Oasis is a lush paradise dotted with California Washingtonia (a.k.a. “fan palms”) towering dozens of feet high. Interspersed among the palms are namesake cottonwood trees, also fed by Cottonwood Spring, a rare source of water in the arid Colorado Desert. Cottonwood leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in fall. The spring itself came to life via earthquake activity, which allowed water to seep out from the earth’s surface, creating the shady oasis seen today.

Beyond Cottonwood Spring Oasis, continue southeast on the Lost Palms Oasis Trail, which doubles as part of the Mastodon Peak Loop. The wide, easy-to-follow trail climbs gradually out of the sandy ravine, ascending a set of stairs at about 2/10 mile. (Note: A brief spur on the right leads to an example of bedrock mortars developed by the native Cahuilla people who used to dwell here.)

The Lost Palms Oasis Trail passes between two ocotillos

Slight variants on sagebrush, saltbush, and creosote predominate in the Colorado Desert, but more prominent plants—including Mohave yucca, California barrel cactus, buckhorn and pencil cholla, and ocotillo—become increasingly visible as the trail proceeds. After passing through a pair of ocotillos, the trail descends a set of stairs to clear another wash before ascending again to a basin with lots of spiky yucca plants. By now, hikers also start to get more open views of the surrounding Cottonwood Mountains.

Lost Palms Oasis Trail

The trail continues to climb to a junction at 7/10 mile, where the Mastodon Peak Trail bears off to the left. Take this turn and ascend through a rock garden and stony notch, with the summit of Mastodon Peak (3,285’)—one high outcrop among many—visible ahead. The rock formations of the area are the result of faulting and weathering, while the orangish hue is a product of chemical changes that have occurred when the mineral components of the metamorphic rock combine with water.

Climbing through the rock garden toward Mastodon Peak

There are a couple points in this section where the trail is harder to follow: keep your eyes peeled for trail cairns and rock dividers that keep hikers on the right track. After ascending a set of crumbly slopes, a spur trail leads off to the right: this unmaintained track leads to the summit of Mastodon Peak.

The final ascent requires some modest rock scrambling along the backside of the peak but is not particularly strenuous. Those reaching the summit are rewarded with wide-reaching vistas: north and west across Pinto Basin to the Hexie Mountains, east to the high Eagle Mountains, south across the Cottonwoods toward Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea, and west to Cottonwood Basin, with the Mojave Desert beyond. A mere mile from the trailhead, this summit panorama packs quite the punch for relatively little effort.

Views northwest toward Pinto Basin and the Hexie Mountains

Retrace your steps back down the spur trail to the main track, this time turning right to continue on with the loop. (Note: Follow signs for the campground.) After hugging the mountain on the right, the Mastodon Peak Loop Trail descends to the long-abandoned Mastodon Mine, a gold mine which—like nearly all mines in the area—provided brief but ephemeral hopes of profit.

Remains of Mastodon Mine

From the mine, the trail drops to a sandy wash at 1.45 miles. Follow the arroyo for around ¼ mile, then leave the wash on the right, descending again—amid gargantuan boulder—to a larger wash at 1.9 miles.

The trail leaves this drainage again on the right at 2.05 miles, after which the trail follows a narrow track into a side ravine with more palms, cottonwoods, and—curiously—non-native eucalyptus trees. Emptying into yet another wash, follow the sandy basin to a trail fork. Stay left, following the wash into a wider drainage with lots of creosote bush. Just before reaching Cottonwood Oasis Road, look for a marked path heading off to the left, which leads back to the road just short of the parking area. This is the end of the 2.5-mile hike.

Skirting around toward the end of the hike, with Cottonwood Campground and Visitor Center visible ahead

The Mastodon Peak Loop Trail is a moderately-difficult trek that should take between 1 ½ and 2 ½ hours. Of course, it’s best to avoid summer—but if you are in the area during the brutal hot months, plan to hike early in the morning.

Posted in California, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Top 10 Hikes in 2020

Crown Lake, Hoover Wilderness, July 2020

Well, what a strange year it has been. In the early days of 2020, it was hard to imagine that, by March, much of the world would be dealing with a global pandemic that would take the lives of millions and usher in lockdowns, mask mandates, and economic recessions. Yet through the course of it all, a curious thing occurred: as travel restrictions eased in the United States over the summer, hiking trails from coast-to-coast saw record numbers of visitors. After the initial burrowing of March and April, the number of people exploring the great outdoors—for better or for worse—seemed to take off like never before.

The visitation statistics at Live and Let Hike seem to reflect this dynamic. After taking a hit in March and April, the number of visitors to the site rose to record levels through the rest of the year. In 2018, my previous personal best, Live and Let Hike had 84,370 unique visitors and 172,517 page views. This past year smashed that record by wide margins, reaching 140,364 visitors and 227,354 page views in 2020.

While spending much of 2020—like others—at home, I was fortunate enough to get away for several brief hiking/backpacking adventures. In January and February, before Covid-19 devastated the United States, I spent several days in southern California at Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve and completed an arduous, 3-day backpacking trip on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail in the East Bay. As the pandemic swept across the country in the spring, March through May were spent primarily hiking close to home, exploring some of the many wonderful local parks of the Bay Area. By late spring and summer, loosening restrictions allowed me to branch out a bit, with brief overnight trips to California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Hoover Wilderness, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Snow Mountain Wilderness, and Trinity Alps area. Tragically, many of the places I visited early in the year—such as Big Basin, Mojave National Preserve, and Ohlone Wilderness—went up in flames in California’s devastating late-summer wildfires.

Driving through persistent wildfire smoke much of the way, an out-and-back road trip from California to Colorado in August and September allowed me to visit family and stop at a few parks I had not visited in years, including Colorado National Monument and Great Basin, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks. The return to Capitol Reef was particularly rewarding, as it had been more than five years since I had served there as a seasonal volunteer in 2014-2015 (and produced a comprehensive hiking guide to all the park’s hikes). I also spent time with my family hiking in the Collegiate Peaks area, near Salida, Colorado.

In the fall, alas, studying and working interfered more and more with hiking, although I managed a couple of short hikes in southern California and Arizona on a trip to Phoenix around election day. As with past years, the backlog of posts from 2020 hikers will bleed into 2021, as my timing from hike-to-blog-post seems to stretch longer and longer every year.

The top five most visited posts on Live and Let Hike in 2020 were, as usual, holdovers from previous years: (1) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Frontcountry”; (2) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Backcountry”; (3) Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 1: Pen Mar to Raven Rock Hollow (South Mountain State Park, MD); (4) Rock Circuit Trail (Middlesex Fells Reservation, MA); and (5) Cliff Trail – Lower Trail Loop (Cunningham Falls State Park, MD).

The top-viewed new posts in 2020, however, were: (1) White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, AZ); (2) Steep Ravine – Matt Davis Trail Loop (Mount Tamalpais State Park, CA); (3) Mount Diablo via Eagle Peak and Mitchell Canyon (Mount Diablo State Park, CA); (4) Falls Trail Loop (Mount Diablo State Park, CA); and (5) Chalone Peak Trail (Pinnacles National Park, CA).

As is tradition with past years, I have compiled a list of my top ten favorite hikes from 2020. This was a very difficult choice as always, but the below captures some of my high points in an otherwise trying year.

10. Lost Lake Trail (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

While alpine lakes are ubiquitous in the Colorado Rockies, it is hard to match the splendid, peculiar qualities of Lost Lake, which boasts a rock island and stunning turquoise-green colors. The 2.5-mile out-and-back to the lake is a relatively easy jaunt from Colorado Highway 306 near Cottonwood Pass in the Collegiate Peaks. In addition to the spectacular lake, the Lost Lake Trail offers excellent views of the Continental Divide, Mount Yale, and the Cottonwood Creek drainage. This show-stopper is a must-see in the Buena Vista/Salida area of Colorado.

See my post on December 18, 2020 for a full trail description.

Lost Lake, San Isabel National Forest, August 2020

9. Buckhorn – Golden Wall Trail Loop (Dixie National Forest, UT)

While receiving a fraction of the visitors of nearby Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah’s Red Canyon area boasts similarly colorful hoodoos and multi-hued canyons begging to be explored. The Buckhorn and Golden Wall Trails combine to form an excellent loop starting and ending at the Red Canyon Campground, meandering among the red-orange knobs and lofty hillsides for four scenic miles.

See my post on September 14, 2020 for a full trail description.

Golden Wall Trail, Dixie National Forest, August 2020

8. Alpine Lakes Loop and Bristlecone-Glacier Trails (Great Basin National Park, NV)

Great Basin in remote eastern Nevada is one of the country’s least-visited national parks but harbors several prominent sights, including the tallest mountain entirely located in Nevada (Wheeler Peak), the only glacier in the state, and a large concentration of bristlecone pines, which can live longer than any other tree species on the planet. The Bristlecone-Glacier Trail leads to a spectacular bristlecone grove and ends at the base of Wheeler Peak (13,063’), which harbors Rock Glacier. The hike is easily combined with a trip to Stella and Teresa Lakes on the Alpine Lakes Loop.

See my post on August 27, 2020 for a full trail description.

Glacier Trail, Great Basin National Park, August 2020

7. Sidewinder Canyon (Death Valley National Park, CA)

The first of two hikes from Death Valley in the top 10, Sidewinder Canyon features three excellent slots, each with narrow bends, dark passages, and hidden nooks and arches. The speckled conglomerate produces some modest obstacles—but also some decent handholds—as hikers weave their way through the narrows to their end. This is certainly a top hike in Death Valley and a nice complement to #2 below.

See my post on March 14, 2020 for a full trail description.

Sidewinder Canyon, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

6. White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, AZ)

Speaking of slots, this splendid loop hike—just over the Arizona border from Las Vegas and the Lake Mead area—traverses sinuous sandstone narrows and a hidden hot spring near the banks of the Colorado River. Arizona Hot Springs features 85- to 120-degree temperatures year-round, and the full color palate (especially reds, oranges, purples, greens, and blues) are on display on this circuit, which includes multiple layers of sandstone, lush vegetation, and clear river waters.

See my post on April 15, 2020 for a full trail description.

White Rock Canyon, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, January 2020

5. Lassen Peak Trail (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

At 10,457 feet, Lassen Peak is one of the highest mountains in the Cascade Range, the centerpiece of Lassen Volcanic National Park, and one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous United States to have erupted since 1900. The Lassen Peak Trail—which gains 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles—climbs to the top of the caldera, revealing incredible views that stretch from the Trinity Alps, Mount Shasta, and the Coast Range to the north/west and Lake Almanor, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin Desert to the south/east.

See my post on July 29, 2020 for a full trail description.

Lassen Peak Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

4. Ohlone Wilderness Trail (Ohlone Regional Wilderness, CA)

Traversing terrain as rugged and beautiful as parts of the Sierras, the 28-mile Ohlone Wilderness Trail connects Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore with Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont in California’s East Bay region. The multi-day hike passes hidden valleys, rolling ridges, and scrubby peaks—including Rose Peak (3,817’) and Mission Peak (2,517’)—making this one of the most scenic hikes in the Bay Area. (Note: As of January 2021, Ohlone Wilderness is currently closed due to Covid-19 and the summer wildfires that affected the area.)

See my post on May 21, 2020 for a full trail description.

Ohlone Wilderness Trail, Ohlone Regional Wilderness, February 2020

3. Peekaboo Loop Trail (Bryce Canyon National Park, UT)

The Peekaboo Loop Trail descends below the rim of the Pink Cliffs in Utah’s Bryce Canyon and traverses a maze of multi-colored hoodoos, spires, and knobs in a strenuous, 4.9-mile stem-and-loop. While Bryce Canyon may be smaller than Utah’s four other national parks, the picturesque, other-worldly nature of the hoodoo landscape is virtually unparalleled.

See my post on September 14, 2020 for a full trail description.

Peekaboo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

2. Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop, and Gower Gulch Trail Loop, including Red Cathedral & Zabriskie Point (Death Valley National Park, CA)

The sun-soaked badlands of the Furnace Creek area are one of the most iconic features of California’s Death Valley National Park and can be explored by way of a full-day loop hike that includes Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Red Cathedral, and Zabriskie Point. The colorful geology goes wild on this hike—with patches of bright yellow, deep red, chalky white, and even magenta and purple adorned the desert landscape.

See my post on March 7, 2020 for a full trail description.

Badlands Loop, Death Valley National Park, January 2020

1. Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Hoover Wilderness/Yosemite National Park, CA)

Even in a year with several excellent hikes, there was simply no match for the striking beauty and blissful solitude of this 3-day backpack in the Twin Lakes area of California’s Sierra Nevada. The strenuous hike climbs through the Hoover Wilderness to the Sierra Crest, dropping briefly into Yosemite National Park and skirting five spectacular alpine lakes. This was undoubtedly the hiking highlight of 2020!

Robinson Lakes, Hoover Wilderness, July 2020

Honorable Mention:

Browns Creek Falls (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

Diablo Foothills Loop (Diablo Foothills Regional Park, CA)

Fall Canyon (Death Valley National Park, CA)

Kelso Dunes Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

Ptarmigan Lake Trail (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

Rings Loop Trail (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

Snow Mountain Loop via Deafy Glade Trail (Snow Mountain Wilderness, CA)

South Fork Lakes (Trinity Alps Wilderness, CA)

Teutonia Peak (Mojave National Preserve, CA)

Trail Gulch Lake (Trinity Alps Wilderness, CA)

Posted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Death Valley National Park, East Bay, Lassen National Park, Moderate Hikes, Nevada, San Isabel National Forest, Strenuous Hikes, Utah, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Hoover Wilderness/Yosemite National Park, CA)

Crown Lake, Hoover Wilderness, July 2020

Nestled in the mountains above the Twin Lakes area in California’s Sierra Nevada lies a wonderland of craggy granite, pristine lakes, and sun-soaked meadows, best explored as part of a multi-day backpacking trip. Here the High Sierra alpine zone separates Yosemite National Park from the much-less travelled Hoover Wilderness in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, combining the pleasures of a well-developed trail system with feelings of relative solitude and wonder. The route featured on Live and Let Hike runs through the best of it, covering a 3-day stem-and-loop with plenty of options for variation. The show-stoppers are the five named lakes along the hike—Barney, Robinson, Crown, Snow, and Peeler—as well as a brief dip into a remote section of Yosemite at Kerrick Meadow. Campsites are abundant, and epic views are interrupted only by peaceful conifer groves or thickets of quaking aspens.

The below description assumes three full days of hiking, with two nights at Crown Lake (the second day is a day-hike loop). (Note: Components of the hike may also be completed as a day hike from the Robinson Creek Trailhead: Barney Lake is a popular destination, while adventurous hikers could make it to Crown Lake or Peeler Lake and back in a long, strenuous day. This area also provides access for the much longer, 50-mile Benson Lake Loop through northern Yosemite.)

Preparation and logistics

As with any backpacking trip, preparation is critical. The first decision to make is when to hike. The Crown/Peeler Lake area is virtually inaccessible to all but the heartiest hikers in wintertime, and dense snowpack generally does not dissipate until at least June. Temperatures drop again in late September, with winter arriving again soon after. So this leaves the June-September window as the best time to hike, although also the most crowded. It is hard to predict when the Sierra’s notorious mosquitoes will be present, so hikers may want to keep an eye on recent trip reports to determine how to avoid this misery-inducing nuisance.

Permits are required for overnight trips in the backcountry of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where this hike starts and ends. In peak season (June-September), trailhead quotas are in effect, requiring an advance reservation. Fortunately, the Forest Service makes reserving a spot relatively quick and painless online at Book an entry date for the Robinson Creek Trailhead, the primary gateway into the Crown/Peeler Lake area. (Note: This is one of more popular trailheads in the area, so booking several weeks ahead—or for a mid-week start date—is recommended.) Permits can also be obtained in person at the Bridgeport Ranger District Office in Bridgeport, California (Google map here).

Once permits are in hand, some more detailed trip planning is required. How long will you spend? Where will you camp? For the best experience, at least three days are suggested—one day in, one day out, with one day of day hiking/rest. I also highly recommend spending the night before the hike somewhere at high elevation in order to acclimate to the altitude. (Note: For travelers coming from Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay Area, I suggest dispersed camping along State Route 108 in the vicinity of Sonora Pass—which is on the way to the Twin Lakes area.) Be prepared to pack in everything you need, as there are no services of any sort beyond the trailhead. In summer, definitely pack a rain jacket and plenty of warm/dry clothes, as afternoon thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence.

The hike

On the day of your hiking permit, head to the trailhead by following Twin Lakes Road for 13.5 miles from the small tourist town of Bridgeport, California. The namesake pair of lakes is stunning in its own right and is a favorite destination for fishing enthusiasts. As the paved entry road skirts the north flank of Twin Lakes, the towering peaks close in, with Sawmill Ridge and Robinson Peak (10,793’) to the north and the Sierra Crest and Sawtooth Ridge visible to the south. The Twin Lakes area is classic Sierras, with craggy peaks and massive granite formations, inviting backpackers to explore.

The low point of the otherwise fantastic hike is undoubtedly the logistical hurdle of arranging multi-day parking and finding the trailhead. The hike begins and ends at the Mono Village Resort, situated at the western end of Twin Lakes, which is a sprawling RV camping and vacation destination. The number of summer travelers at the resort is preposterously large, with densely-packed RVs, blaring music, a bevy of campfires, and endless car traffic marring an otherwise beautiful destination. Some people like this—a Disneyland complete with a café, general store, dozens of motels/cabins, and evening entertainment—but it is a far cry from the backpacker’s ideal that awaits. The result is a curious mélange of flag-toting, beer-swilling mobile-home dwellers with the minimalist, Patagonia-toting overnight backpackers on a quest for solitude in the High Sierras.

Entry meadow near Mono Village Resort

To park at the site, hikers need to pay ($10/day) at the entrance to the resort, a steep price that almost certainly exceeds the cost of the backpacking permit. Backpackers’ parking is in the open, dusty lot along the banks of the lake, near the boating docks. Finding the Robinson Creek Trailhead and start of the Barney Lake Trail, the entry route for the Crown/Peeler Lake Loop, is challenging. To do so, follow the entry road into Mono Village Resort, passing the entrance station, then head straight—through the noisy campground—on the road that passes between trees with yellow blazes. Follow this track to its end, by which time a break in the trees—a pretty green meadow—appears ahead; stay to the right of this meadow, eventually finding another dirt track, roped off for “authorized vehicles only,” that continues beyond the campground. This route leads to overflow parking for the resort. After hugging the edge of the meadow for perhaps ¼ mile, a small wooden sign on the right indicates the start of the Barney Lake Trail. This is the Robinson Creek Trailhead.

DAY 1: Robinson Creek Trailhead to Crown Lake (7.6 mi. one-way)

Map of Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Day 1) – Robinson Creek Trailhead to Crown Lake; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

Day 1 of the three-day hike gets hikers up and out of the Robinson Creek drainage—passing terrific meadows and rock outcrops that are only a mere teaser for the beauty to come—and ends at stunning Crown Lake, arguably the most spectacular of the many alpine lakes encountered on the three-day trip. Along the way, hikers cover the entire length of what many visitors do as a day hike: an out-and-back to Barney Lake, a spectacular sight in its own right but that is often crowded. Beyond Barney, the crowds thin and the trail climbs steadily up to a trail junction and high-elevation shelf where Robinson Lakes and Crown Lake reside. All told, this day requires about 7 ½ miles of hiking and nearly 2,500 feet in elevation gain—the hardest day of the hike.

From the start, the Barney Lake Trail begins mildly, bearing north and then west through a dense and shaded conifer forest. The first granite outcrop comes into view on the right after about 250 yards, and a large information board minutes later offers a map and details about the area. After a half-mile—still with relatively little elevation gain—the Barney Lake Trail officially enters the Hoover Wilderness, which spans 128,000 acres and two national forest jurisdictions (Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo National Forests).

Entering Hoover Wilderness

A few minutes later, the trail crosses a minor tributary of Robinson Creek, offering hikers a choice: a shortcut across the wet stream or a longer but drier workaround that bends off to the right. Both routes meet up again quickly, and the Barney Lake Trail continues onward. At 9/10 mile, the trail passes through a grove of lovely aspens, and then the landscape opens up for the first time as hikers enter the first of several scrubby meadows. However, a better show-stopper lies just ahead (at about 1.1 miles), when the trees give way to epic, unobstructed views of the glacial valley and granite-studded peaks of the Sierra Crest to the west.

Robinson Creek Valley with the Sierra Crest ahead

Eventually it is back into the trees again, with conifers interrupted occasionally by quaking aspens. At about 1.6 miles, hikers come level with Little Slide Canyon off to the left. This rugged offshoot boasts a towering mass dubbed the “Incredible Hulk,” a popular destination for skilled rock climbers. (Note: Above Little Slide Canyon are two remote lakes—Maltby and Ice Lakes—and it is possible to use Little Slide as an alternative route up to/down from Mule Pass and Crown Lake. The climb is rugged and brutal, however, and route finding is difficult around the two lakes, which are flanked by high walls.)

Little Slide Canyon from Robinson Creek drainage

By 2.3 miles, hikers will begin to hear the babbling waters of Robinson Creek off to the left, with a set of small cascades coming into view minutes later. From here, the trail cuts right and begins ascending the first set of switchbacks, climbing out of the woods to mount a granite shelf with fine views back east down the valley. After reentering the brushy canopy, the Barney Lake Trail levels off again, traverses a minor stream and, at about the three-mile mark, comes close to a set of cascades along Robinson Creek on the left. Another steep climb follows the base of a near-vertical granite slab on the right; from here it is a short jaunt to the northern reaches of Barney Lake.

Barney Lake, with the Juggernaut and Crown Point

Barney Lake, the first of the five main lakes on the hike, is situated at about 8,250 feet and is a popular destination for day hikers. Flanked by steep slopes to the west and east, the lake also offers the first good views of Crown Point (11,346’) and a ridgetop known to climbers as “The Juggernaut.”

There is a sandy beach at the northern end of Barney Lake, with several rocky outcrops along the western flank that offer a fine place to stop for lunch or a snack. (Note: By now, it’s perhaps late morning on Day 1.) Expect to see plenty of crowds on a nice summer day—but the weather can turn fast, with afternoon thunderstorms creeping up almost daily.

Crossing Robinson Creek

When ready, continue along the Robinson Creek Trail, leaving the day-hiker crowds behind. The next mile is relatively flat and easy, although the path traverses several rocky patches as it follows the western banks of Barney Lake. Beyond the lake, the valley is blanketed by lush green meadows and sporadic pines. At 4.6 miles (about 2/3 mile past the start of Barney Lake), the trail crosses Robinson Creek, where hikers must rock-hop or trudge through the chilly waters to reach the opposite side. Upstream is a beautiful, though small, waterfall, one of the few prominent cascades along the hike.

As the vegetation thickens again, plunging the area into day-long shade, the trail follows the east banks of Robinson Creek and then crosses back again to the west side at 4.85 miles. After more than a mile with limited elevation gain, the trail beyond the crossing makes up for lost time: seemingly endless switchbacks lead hikers up into the granite wonderland, ascending about 700 feet in the next half-mile. This brutal stretch is made better by the increasingly picturesque scenery: streaked and cracked granite walls in all directions, plunging down into thickets of conifers, with the Sierra Crest within sight to the south and west.

At about 5.4 miles, the relentless switchbacks finally ease, but the trail continues to climb, working through a granite notch at about 5.9 miles. Finally, at 6.2 miles, hikers reach the first junction of the hike—and the start of a loop section that links four magnificent lakes. While most continue right toward Peeler Lake, I recommend heading left toward Robinson Lakes and Crown Lake—the latter being your destination for the night. (Note: Follow the sign for “Rock Island Pass” and “Mule Pass.”)

Trail junction – start of the loop section

The trail after the junction begins with a dip but eventually settles into some more uphill switchbacks before traversing a graveyard for massive boulders—a conspicuous rock field that cuts through the trees. After the boulder field, hikers encounter the first of several ponds on the right. This one is small and a dark green color, but this is just a preview for a second, larger pond that is significantly more picturesque. This spectacular, nameless body of water is pure snowmelt, taking on a beautiful turquoise hue. A break in the trees reveals the craggy edifice of Crown Point high above. Despite the attraction of swimming in this awesome spot, beware: this is probably the coldest body of water on the entire hike. (Note: Trust me, we tried them all.)

Spectacular turquoise pool

Beyond the turquoise pond, the trail stays to the left of a flowing stream, a remote waterway that is leading to Robinson Lakes, the second of the five main lakes on the hike. The trail hugs the north side of the first Robinson Lake, then follows a narrow isthmus between both lakes before rising to the best viewpoint of the lakes—roughly 20-30 feet above the shores, where one gets a framed vista of the second lake with the Robinson Creek Valley beyond. This is one of the best views on the entire hike.

Yet Robinson Lakes is a mere waypoint en route to the main prize…continue eastward as the trail traverses a series of small hills and granite jumbles. By now, the trail seems like it drags on forever. But finally, after 7.6 miles of hiking on the day, it all becomes worth it: hikers arrive at the shores of spectacular Crown Lake, the jewel of the area and one of the most stunning places yours truly has ever seen.

Crown Lake

The still waters of Crown Lake sit in a bowl between Crown Point, The Juggernaut, and the western reaches of Sawtooth Ridge—all prominent granite behemoths along the Sierra Crest. Across the lake is a patch of lush green wetlands, as well as a bulging granite knoll that appears to rise right out of the waters. The best views come by crossing the stream at the base of the lake—a traverse that is tricky and may require getting wet feet—then walking a few feet such that The Juggernaut is framed by the spectacular lake. At certain times of day, the reflections in the water are absolutely terrific.

Yours truly at Crown Lake

This is your home for the next two nights, so keep an eye out for a camping spot. While camping within 50 yards of the shore is prohibited, there are some decent, previously-disturbed sites on the east side of the creek. Others can travel onward a bit to camp in the verdant meadow—although this offers perhaps not as terrific views of the lake with the cliffs behind. While Hoover Wilderness remains relatively off-the-beaten-path, expect there to be a handful groups at the lake on summer weekends. While remote, it will not feel entirely isolated from humanity.

DAY 2: Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (8.8 mi. loop)

Map of Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Day 2); created using (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The sun rises over chilly Crown Lake, the start of a pleasant, easier day than the day prior. Today’s goal is to complete, as a day hike, a roughly nine-mile circuit that dips into an isolated section of Yosemite National Park before returning via Peeler Lake back into the Hoover Wilderness. Along the way, hikers are greeted with stunning vistas, pleasant woodland strolls, and open, flowery meadows.

Morning at Crown Lake

The circuit begins by returning to the main trail at Crown Lake and continuing southward, hugging the lake’s western banks for a moment before skirting a muddy floodplain on the left. After ¼ mile, the trail begins to switchback again, rising to clear a rock outcrop with fine views looking back at Crown Lake and the Robinson Creek drainage, with Kettle Peak dominating the opposite ridgeline.

Hiking alongside Crown Lake
Crown Lake from above, with Kettle Peak and the Robinson Creek Valley beyond

After the vista point, the single-track bounds up another set of switches, then traverses a grassy shelf and cuts through a granite notch. Two ponds on the left also offer additional campsites. Amid the brushy scrub, fed by a tributary that gradually tumbles into Crown Lake, hikers reach a trail junction at 2/3 mile. Here the Mule Pass Trail bears off to the left—leading to a spectacular pass that is worthy of visit if you have an additional day at Crown Lake. (Note: The Mule Pass Trail also provides access to the brutal Little Slide Canyon alternative route, mentioned above.) But the main loop bears right, ascending toward Rock Island Pass and Yosemite.

A little beyond the trail fork, the path mounts another set of switchbacks and then cuts across a large rock slide. At about one mile, the path approaches the base of a longer set of winding switchbacks, a steady uphill section that ascends through a cleft along the east-facing hillside. As usual, the views of Robinson Creek drainage improve as one gets higher and higher, but they disappear temporarily as hikers reach the top of the switchbacks at 1.4 miles, after which the trail traverses a flat plain and descends. Just beyond, hikers get their first view of Snow Lake—the fourth main lake of the 3-day hike and, at just over 10,000 feet, the highest of the five. This serene lake is perhaps not as spectacular as the others, but it is likely to be all-but-deserted.

Snow Lake, near Rock Island Pass

After staying high for almost the length of the lake, the trail finally drops down to the banks, where the chilly waters lap up against the scrubby shores, inviting hikers to dip their toes—if even for a second before the alpine chill settles in. One can now see the continuation of the stony mountains beyond—into Yosemite.

Looking back at Snow Lake and Hoover Wilderness

Once past Snow Lake, it is a mild climb to Rock Island Pass, which marks the boundary between the Hoover Wilderness and Yosemite National Park, about two miles from Crown Lake. The Yosemite landscape unfolds beyond, and—despite entering one of the country’s most popular national parks—the subsequent section is the most wild and least-travelled part of the whole hike.

Entering Yosemite National Park at Rock Island Pass

After a gradual decline at a low tilt, the trail drops more steadily as it reenters a forest of dense conifers. The trail descends an unnamed offshoot of the Rancheria Creek drainage and Kerrick Canyon, with the main valley eventually coming into view at about 3.5 miles. After crossing a dry wash, the path climbs briefly to a stony crest with partly obscured views of Kerrick Meadow and the broader valley. Beyond, the trail continues its descent, now heading steadily northward, finally reaching a flat meadow area and creek crossing at about 3.9 miles. The area is scattered with lovely, still ponds—making for nice lunch spots in this remote section of Yosemite.

At mile four on the day, the trail reaches another junction. Bear right toward Kerrick Meadow and Peeler Lake, beginning a mild and pleasant jaunt along the length of the meadows. Interrupted occasionally by wooded thickets and stony outcrops, most of the next mile traverses open moraine and is a decent place to spot wildlife—deer, marmots, and perhaps elk or bears. Off to the east, the wooded slopes rise to the granite peak of Crown Point, while to the west, the mountains rise to an unnamed point at 10,339 feet, with Acker Peak (10,988’) beyond.

A small pond at Kerrick Meadow

At 5.4 miles, in a particularly open section, the trail forks again. The left turn leads north to Buckeye Pass, while the right turn continues the loop by heading toward Peeler Lake and Hoover Wilderness. Bear right, continuing to hug the edge of the meadow before crossing the tributary creek three times en route to Peeler Lake. At about 5.75 miles, a 10- to 12-foot waterfall careens off an orange-tinted cliff on the left, with the tumbling cascades continuing upstream.

Small waterfall along the Peeler Lake Trail, still in Yosemite

At about the six-mile mark, the ascending trail officially leaves Yosemite and returns to the Hoover Wilderness, and beautiful Peeler Lake—the last and largest of the five—comes into view. This massive glacial spectacle is deep and chilly and flanked on either side by towering peaks—Cirque Mountain (10,714’) to the north and Crown Point to the south.

Peeler Lake and Crown Point (11,346′)

Second only to Barney in popularity, Peeler Lake is often crawling with visitors on the east side, but the quiet western shores offer continued solitude and arguably better views. After stopping for a break at the lake, continue along the Peeler Lake Trail, which skirts the northern banks for the next half-mile. After passing a popular camping area at 6.3 miles, the path traverses a rocky section to clear a granite slope coming in from the left, and then exits the lake by way of a turquoise-colored cove at the northern end of the waters.

Cross a boulder-choked ravine beyond the end of the lake, then climb steeply to another, unmarked junction at about 6.7 miles. The onward path continues to follow the right-hand side of a rock-lined canyon, dropping to briefly cross a minor creek before ambling back to the right bank again minutes later. From here it is a short jaunt back to the initial junction—encountered yesterday—that marks the start of the Peeler Lake Loop and provides access to the exit route back down the Robinson Creek Valley toward Twin Lakes.

Return to the terrific turquoise pool

To return to camp, head right at the fork, retracing your steps from yesterday—dropping down initially before climbing through woods and boulder fields to Robinson Lakes and, finally, Crown Lake. All told, this day hike loop covers about 8.8 miles. Take in the rest of the afternoon and evening at the shores of Crown Lake, resting for the hike out the subsequent day.

DAY 3: Crown Lake to Robinson Creek Trailhead (7.6 mi. one-way)

Unless planning to take the absurdly strenuous alternative route—up Mule Pass, past Maltby and Ice Lakes, and down Little Slide Canyon (really not recommended; trust me, we did it)—your final day will consist of retracing your steps from two days prior, a mostly downhill 7.6 miles back to Mono Village Resort and Twin Lakes. As you descend, enjoy the clear morning skies and wonderful vistas from the shelf above the Robinson Creek Valley, as well as the numerous stream crossings and meadow traverses. The crowds return again at Barney Lake—and the final two miles of easy but monotonous walking through dense woods can feel like an eternity—but soon enough, hikers are back at the start of the Barney Lake Trail.

Robinson Lakes again

Return to your car at the banks of Twin Lakes full of satisfaction after completing a three-day, roughly 24-mile excursion into one of the most beautiful stretches of the Sierra Nevada.

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Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail (Grimes Point Archaeological Area, NV)

Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail, Grimes Point Archaeological Area, September 2020

For travelers driving Nevada’s Highway 50—the “Loneliest Road in America”—Grimes Point is an excellent spot to get out and stretch your legs, taking advantage of a short trail to a fantastic set of ancient petroglyphs. Undoubtedly more vivid and more interesting than Hickison Petroglyphs, which is roughly 125 miles to the east, these etchings in the basalt rock date to around 6,000-7,000 years old. When they were carved, this area was a lush marshland, replete with freshwater lakes, a stark contrast with the landscape today—sagebrush-laden desert flats, typical of much of Nevada’s Great Basin.

A short interpretive trail at Grimes Point Archaeological Area circumnavigates a cluster of basalt boulders and offers several informative waysides that detail the natural and human history of the area. The brief stem-and-loop is best done—perhaps like all hikes—when it is not too hot, as the entire hike is exposed with no shade to protect against the scorching summer sun.

The hike

Grimes Point Archaeological Area is situated just off Highway 50, about 10 miles southeast of Fallon, Nevada. The same turnoff from Highway 50 also leads to nearby Hidden Cave, another archaeological site. There is a well-developed parking area at Grimes Point, complete with restrooms and plenty of information kiosks.

Start of Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail

The gravel trail begins at a cut in the short, stony wall to the left of the restrooms, and then gradually climbs amid sagebrush and creosote bushes, which are ubiquitous in the Great Basin Desert. In about 50 yards, the trail forks, with the intersecting Overlook Trail heading off to the right. (Note: This steep spur trail climbs to the summit of a nearby hill, offering views of Lahontan Valley. It is excluded from this description but probably a worthwhile detour if it is not blazing hot.) Continue left on the Grimes Point Petroglyph Trail.

After a gentle climb, the first petroglyphs begin to appear amid the rock field of basalt boulders. The first of several interpretive signs—titled “Lasting Impressions”—helps visitors point out and interpret the carvings. The pockmarked holes in the nearby boulder are potentially up to 7,000 years old and typify what archaeologists have dubbed the “Pit and Groove” technique. There are also etched lines—much more common—that date to around 1,000-1,500 B.C. and take on the “Great Basin Pecked” style.

Steps later, hikers arrive at a second sign—“Marks of Time”—and there are distant petroglyphs on the boulders off to the left. Archaeologists believe that, rather than writing, petroglyphs at Grimes Point are instead a form of drawings, or rock art. By now, hikers can also see northwest across the vast basin of Lahontan Valley and the Carson Sink: this area was once part of the vast Lake Lahontan, which once blanketed around 8,500 squares miles but was mostly dried up by 9,000 years ago.

Basalt boulders at Grimes Point

Petroglyphs—and occasional pictographs—become increasingly visible as the trail continues past a junction at 1/10 mile. This is the start of the loop section; head left first to complete the circuit in a clockwise direction. Several more informative markers tell the story of Lake Lahontan and the rock drawings at Grimes Point. Yet archaeologists remain puzzled by the meaning of many of the etchings: some clearly resemble snakes and potentially human figures, but others are considerably vaguer and open to interpretation.

As the trail edges northward, then southeast, it reaches the trail’s high point at about ¼ mile. From here the path descends gradually, passing the start of the Overlook Connector Trail on the right and then returning to the start of the loop. Bear left and continue down the original stem section to return to the parking area.

More petroglyphs at Grimes Point

The entire hike takes around 20-30 minutes, although curious hikers and budding archaeologists—seeking to spot as many petroglyphs as possible—could spend hours at the site. Grimes Point is well-worth the stop for travelers transiting Highway 50 across central Nevada.

Smoke-filled Lahontan Valley

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Hickison Petroglyphs Interpretive Trail (Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area)

Hickison Petroglyphs Interpretive Trail, Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area, September 2020

Highway 50, which stretches for more than 400 miles across central Nevada, is called the “Loneliest Road in America” for a reason. Services and cell service are in limited supply as travelers skirt the desolate mountain ranges and sagebrush-studded valleys of the Great Basin region. While a pretty-enough drive on its own, the trip is made better with the occasional opportunity to get out and stretch one’s legs along the way. Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area, which boasts ancient rock carvings potentially up to 10,000 years old, offers such an occasion. The site is located between Austin and Eureka—two modest towns along Route 50—and between the Toquima Range and Simpson Park Mountains, two scarcely-visited ranges in this remote part of Nevada. A short, ADA-accessible trail circuits the petroglyph area, and a brief spur leads to a decent vista overlooking Big Smoky Valley.

Map of Hickison Petroglyphs Interpretive Trail, Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area is situated roughly 25 miles east of Austin—and 46 miles west of Eureka—along Highway 50 in central Nevada. The small park is nestled in a cleft near Hickison Summit, a low pass between the Toquima Range and Simpson Park Mountains. Turn at the large sign indicating the entrance to the park, then bear left at the first junction, following signs for the campground. (Note: This can be confusing, as the right fork indicates “trailhead”—but this much rougher, rocky track leads instead to some obscure horse and biking trails to the north.)

The improved dirt road ends at a cul-de-sac, where there is a restroom and parking for the short hiking trail. (Note: The campground is off to the right.) A large sign marks the start of the Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area Interpretive Trail, an entirely wheelchair-accessible hike. If you’re lucky, there will be some self-guided hike brochures at the kiosk, but don’t count on it.

The short loop hike, heading in a clockwise direction, begins just to the right of the sign. The route is well-packed dirt and gravel, and neatly-arranged stones line the boundaries of the path. The trail climbs at a slight uphill through a sparse pinyon-juniper forest, then edges to the base of a sandstone wall with elaborate notches, knobs, and desert varnish. Gradually the first of the petroglyphs come into view: most are merely etched lines, but the most prominent remains of this Great Basin curvilinear style are a pair of horseshoe-shaped etchings and separate scrawling of several rainbow-looking figures, situated high up on a shady wall. Unfortunately, as time has passed, the indentations have faded—and more modern-day graffiti vandals have marred much of the wall.

Beyond this initial set of petroglyphs, the trail zig-zags up a modest hill, reaching a fork at about 1/10 mile. Head left on a short spur, which leads to a scenic overlook. Here one can see down Big Smoky Valley toward the Toquima Mountains and Toiyabe Range. Climbing the rock outcrop on the right offers the best vantage point, while the trail continues briefly to a wooden fence at the park boundary to the left.

Scenic overlook

Returning back to the main trail, head left to continue the loop. At about 4/10 mile (at sign 7), another spur bears left. This one is much harder and climbs steeply to the summit of a hill at elevation 6,873’. Explore this challenging climb or stay right on the ADA-accessible trail, which continues as a much thinner path and skirts another pockmarked sandstone wall on the left. This wall also has a handful of etchings, although it is unclear whether they are true petroglyphs or modern graffiti.

The trail eventually splits again, but stay left and descend to a chunky boulder, the last waypoint on the hike. Here one can see the etched lines in the desert varnish up close, although it is unclear again what they depict.

From the boulder, the trail turns east, descending steadily back to the parking area. All told, this short, ½-hour hike makes for a decent rest stop along the Loneliest Road, but it is otherwise not worth going out of your way to visit.

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Dinosaur Hill Trail (McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, CO)

Dinosaur Hill Trail, McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, September 2020

In western Colorado’s Grand Valley, between the modest town of Fruita and splendid Colorado National Monument, lies one of the most famous dinosaur dig sites in the United States. It was here in 1901, on a multi-hued hill composed of rock of the Morrison formation, that paleontologist and museum curator Elmer Riggs, discovered the fossilized skeleton of a 72-foot Apatosaurus (closely related to a Brontosaurus). While the bones have been removed (they are displayed at the Field Museum in Colorado), the dig site remains a lesser-known tourist attraction in the Grand Junction area of Colorado. The brief but scenic Dinosaur Hill Trail, located in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, circumnavigates the site where the discovery was made. In addition to paleontological history, this short hike offers panoramic views of Grand Valley, the Colorado River, the Book Cliffs, and the McInnis Canyons area.

Map of Dinosaur Hill Trail, McInnis Canyon National Conservation Area

The hike

Dinosaur Hill is located about 1.5 miles south of Interstate 70 in the town of Fruita, Colorado. After crossing the Colorado River, State Highway 340 enters a dry area of opal- and chalk-white-colored hills, a clear marker of the Morrison Formation, a layer of sedimentary rock which dates to the Jurassic period and the boasts the most number of dinosaur fossil discoveries in North America. Bear left at the sign for Dinosaur Hill, parking in the large parking lot at the trailhead. The site is part of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, primarily known for its red-rock cliffs, sinuous canyons, and hidden natural arches.

The Dinosaur Hill Trail forms a roughly one-mile circuit around the area, gaining about 100 feet in elevation en route to several vistas and paleontological sites. The hike begins just to the left of the restroom, where hikers will also find a trailhead kiosk with information on the area. Two paths head off from the parking lot; head left first—the right fork will be your return route.

Trail’s start

Ahead, one can make out the two most prominent parts of the Morrison formation: (1) the Salt Wash member, which forms the chalky white rocks that line the base of the hill; and (2) the Brushy Basin member, which forms clay-like hillsides, which take on a magenta- and pale purple-colored hue. After hiking 50 yards up the wide, well-trodden path, the trail splits again. Head left—on a short spur—first, edging around to the west-facing side of the hill. Here the trail ends at the site where the femur bone of a Diplocodus dinosaur (also a sauropod like the Brontosaurus) was discovered by Elmer Riggs’ search party in 1901. While the leg bone is no more, paleontologists left behind the mold, leaving visible where the femur was uncovered.

Mold of femur bone at Dinosaur Hill

After this short detour, return back to the main trail and turn left. From here the Dinosaur Hill Trail climbs steadily, snaking through a ravine before ascending to the spine of the main hillock, reaching a bench and shade structure after about ¼ mile. In addition to views back toward Colorado National Monument and McInnis Canyons to the south and west, hikers get their first look at the Colorado River to the north.

The wide trail continues to climb beyond the shaded vista point, reaching the summit of Dinosaur Hill at 0.45 miles. A short spur to the right leads to another bench and shady spot at the top of the hillock. Now the panoramas are truly 360 degrees. Off to the east, one can now see as far as Grand Junction, with the Book Cliffs and Grand Mesa beyond.

View south from the ridgeline

Also at the summit is an interpretive wayside on the transportation of the Apatosaurus skeleton, an operation that required building a wagon road down to the river before using a boat to transfer the bones down to the railroad line in Fruita.

Colorado River, Grand Valley, and Grand Junction from Dinosaur Hill

The descent down the east slope of Dinosaur Hill is surprisingly steep and rocky, passing neatly arranged, chalky white rocks on the left that form a large “F” (for Fruita). After dropping down through the crumbly Brushy Basin member, the route traverses a dry ravine at 2/3 mile. From here the trail heads up to the main quarry site, adorned with a plaque dedicated for the discovery of the Apatosaurus at this site in 1901. The tunnel itself is fenced off and locked, but hikers can peer into the hole and imagine excited paleontologists pulling out the skeleton, piece by piece, of a 72-foot Apatosaurus, more than 100 years ago.

Dinosaur quarry, where the Apatosaurus was discovered in 1901

From the quarry site, the trail bears south, then west, skirting the hillside and making its way back toward the trailhead. After a series of dips and climbs, the loop hike ends back where it began, completing a roughly one-mile circuit. All told, the entire hike takes about 30 minutes to an hour, plus time for exploration and admiration of the historical sites and nifty views.

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Otto’s Trail (Colorado National Monument, CO)

Otto’s Trail, Colorado National Monument, September 2020

Otto’s Trail is a short and easy hike ending at a scenic viewpoint overlooking Wedding Canyon and Monument Canyon in Colorado National Monument, an excellent park on the edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau overlooking Grand Junction, Colorado. The fine stroll descends gradually from Rim Rock Drive, working out to the tip of a narrow finger on the canyon rim, where hikers get excellent views of Window Rock, Sentinel Spire, Pipe Organ, and the famous Independence Monument, perhaps the park’s most iconic free-standing sandstone monolith. Visiting at sunrise or sunset is sure to be spectacular, and multiple trail waysides offer historical detail on early exploration efforts of the area.

Map of Otto’s Trail, Colorado National Monument

The hike

Otto’s Trail begins at a small but marked turnoff along Rim Rock Drive, about one mile south of the Saddlehorn Visitor Center in Colorado National Monument’s northern reaches. Parking is relatively sparse—fitting perhaps no more than 8-10 cars—so arriving on a quieter day may be wise. The wide, dirt track leaving from the pull-off is named for John Otto, who was instrumental in the park’s creation in 1911 and later served as the park’s official custodian. Many of the sandstone formations in the park bear the names given by Mr. Otto, including Independence Monument and Liberty Cap, and Otto was responsible for building many of the park’s hiking trails.

Otto’s Trail

With Grand Junction and the Book Cliffs off on the horizon, Otto’s Trail bears north and east, gradually shedding elevation as it passes amid pinyon pines, junipers, and sagebrush. The finger traversed by the trail juts abruptly into Wedding Canyon, situated at the bottom of steep, near-vertical drops to the left and right. As the trail proceeds, the rim steadily narrows, revealing drop-offs to the canyon below. After 3/10 mile, the route ends at an overlook, surrounded by a protective fence, which reveals excellent, near-360 panoramic views.

Off to the right (south), hikers get one of the park’s best views of Independence Monument, a formation that rises more than 450 feet from the valley floor and was first summited by none other than John Otto himself in 1911. Using a ladder created out of pipes, Otto conquered the monument with nary a rope, leaving behind a route that remains popular with climbers today. Otto himself was married down at the base of the monolith—hence the name Wedding Canyon—although the marriage last only a few weeks, as his wife Beatrice “found the reality of John’s life to be far from her romantic ideal.”

Independence Monument and Monument Canyon from Otto’s Trail

Beyond Independence Monument to the south is the rest of Monument Canyon, flanked by the high rim on the right, with several prominent spires—including the so-called “Kissing Couple” formation—visible in the distance. Monument Mesa, which stretches for miles south to Liberty Cap and Ute Canyon, forms the rim off to the left of Monument Canyon.

Looking east, hikers get an up-close view of the Pipe Organ, a towering spire composed of Wingate sandstone and capped with harder rock of the Kayenta formation (which also forms much of the canyon rim). Beyond, Wedding Canyon empties out into Grand Valley, a patchwork of green farms and small towns, with the large town of Grand Junction just out of view to the southeast.

Pipe Organ from Otto’s Trail overlook

Finally, looking north, hikers can see the stubby Sentinel Spire, with the small opening of Window Rock visible just beyond. The rest of Wedding Canyon sprawls out to the west before ending abruptly at the Wingate cliffs below the Saddlehorn Visitor Center. Wayside signs at the overlook offer more detail about the geological and human history of the park.

Once complete, head back the way you came to return to Rim Rock Drive. The entire hike takes around 20-30 minutes to finish.

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Colorado National Monument, CO

Colorado National Monument, September 2020

Colorado National Monument—named for the river, not the state—is a marvel of winding canyons, prominent spires, and multi-hued cliffs, Colorado’s closest rival to the canyon parks of Utah, such as Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. Here the power of erosion has carved deep gorges in the eastern flank of the Uncompahgre Plateau, revealing Jurassic-era sandstones and shales and Precambrian basement rocks, including gneiss, granite, and schist. The monument sits high above the bustling city of Grand Junction, Colorado, which can be viewed in its entirety from the sweeping vistas along Rim Rock Drive, the main, winding track through the park. Four main canyons cut through the park—Monument, No Thoroughfare, Red, and Ute—while a flurry of others can be explored by car or by foot. Hiking trails range from short jaunts to overlooks (such as Otto’s Trail and Window Rock) to lengthy, rugged traverses (like No Thoroughfare Canyon, Ute Canyon, and Liberty Cap). All told, the park makes for an excellent destination for at least 2-3 days of hiking and sightseeing.

Ute Canyon
Monument Canyon from Artist’s Point
Coke Ovens from Artist’s Point
Bighorn sheep along Rim Rock Drive
Fruita Canyon from Saddlehorn Campground
Monument Canyon from Window Rock Trail
Sunrise over the Book Cliffs and Grand Junction from Window Rock
Sunrise illuminating the Wingate Sandstone cliffs
Monument Canyon from Otto’s Trail
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Browns Creek Falls (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

Browns Creek Falls, San Isabel National Forest, August 2020

Large waterfalls are surprisingly few in number in the Collegiate Peaks area of central Colorado, but Browns Creek Falls is a prominent exception and popular destination between Buena Vista and Salida. The nearly three-mile walk to the falls is mild and pleasant, featuring sporadic views of the Arkansas River Valley and a couple of nice sub-alpine meadows. But the destination is the clear highlight: a high-volume cascade that tumbles in two stages through a narrow, rocky chute. Situated largely in the east-facing foothills of the Sawatch Range, this hike is likely to be clear of snow earlier in the season than nearby hikes at higher elevations closer to the Continental Divide. It is also relatively popular, a favorite among families with children and Boy Scout expeditions.

Map of Browns Creek Falls hike, San Isabel National Forest; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

From the Arkansas River Valley in central Colorado, visitors can reach Browns Creek Trailhead by heading west on County Road 270 for five miles, entering San Isabel National Forest, where the pavement ends and turns to well-graded gravel. After turning south, the road passes numerous turnoffs for dispersed camping, finally reaching a large parking area for Browns Creek on the left. The trail sets off to the west, where there are two large information boards, including an overview of the 567-mile Colorado Trail, which runs through this area.

The wide, well-travelled path begins with a steady ascent, climbing through a sparse forest of conifers that gradually grows thicker as hikers gain elevation. Even among the pines there are a few surprises, including occasional yuccas and barrel cacti. After passing through a cattle gate, the drop-off to Little Browns Creek on the left steepens, and the trail switchbacks up to a brief plateau at 1/3 mile. From here it is up again, ascending a ridge with views overlooking the canyon, with the Arkansas River Valley beyond. At about 4/10 mile, hikers get their first good look at imposing Mount Shavano (14,229’), one of many fourteeners in the Sawatch Range.

At this higher elevation, a larger concentration of aspens and junipers enters the mix, and the climb continues after a brief flat at around 7/10 mile. Minutes later, the trail flattens again and offers the best views yet of Shavano and Jones Peak (13,571’) to the southwest. Hikers can begin to hear the babbling creek below as the trail climbs a dry wash and takes a sharp left at 1.2 miles. This marks the last major climb of the hike—the rest is pleasantly gradual, even level, as the trail makes its way southwest toward the Browns Creek drainage.

Colorado Trail en route to Browns Creek

At 1.4 miles, the route splits. Bear left on the Colorado Trail, following the signs for Browns Lake and Browns Creek Falls. Minutes later, the path reenters dense forest, crosses over Little Browns Creek, and approaches a second junction. Here hikers should sign in at the trail register and bear right again, leaving the Colorado Trail and then traversing Browns Creek. The onward route is very mild, passing amid the conifers, with the main Browns Creek weaving in and out of view on the left.

At 2.4 miles, the trees part abruptly, revealing a lovely, sunny meadow, framing views of the Shavano complex and Jones Peak in the distance. The canyon ahead bends right, but day hikers heading for the falls will not make it that far. (Note: It is possible to reach Browns Lake, however, on a long day hike beyond the falls.)

Meadow on the Browns Creek Trail

After following the wide, sandy track across the meadow, the route reenters the forest and approaches the first of two back-to-back crossings of Browns Creek. At the first, head right along the single-track, hugging the banks before reaching a plank bridge that leads across the shallow waters. A few minutes later, hikers reach a second bridge over the creek, heading back to the north side of the stream. At 2.8 miles, there is a horse corral on the right, following soon by the spur trail to Browns Creek Falls, marked with cairns and an etching on a small wood stump indicating “ß FALLS.” (Note: This can be easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled after passing the horse corral.)

The spur is short and rocky, following an outcrop on the right flank of Browns Creek. Just ahead is the two-tiered waterfall. Set in a shady, rock-lined ravine, Browns Creek Falls is a terrific sight, holding good volume throughout much of the year. (Note: The pictures below show late August water levels.) Be careful approaching the falls, as there are several steep drops and potentially slippery steps.

Approaching Browns Creek Falls
Browns Creek Falls

After enjoying the roaring cascades, return the way you came to cap off the 5.8-mile out-and-back hike. Hikers should allot 3-5 hours for this moderately-difficult jaunt, which gains roughly 950 feet in elevation.

Views of Arkansas River Valley
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Lost Lake Trail (San Isabel National Forest, CO)

Lost Lake Trail, San Isabel National Forest, August 2020

There are many spectacular alpine lakes in the Colorado Rockies, but there are perhaps few that match the picturesque splendor of Lost Lake, a poorly-advertised but easily-accessible lake near Cottonwood Pass in central Colorado. Not only are the icy waters a stunning turquoise-to-green color, but they also boast a rocky island in the middle of the lake, making this one of the most enjoyable destinations in the area. The short hike to the lake is not half-bad either, following a meadow-laced shelf near the timberline at about 11,700 feet, with fine vistas of the Cottonwood Creek drainage and nearby Jones Mountain (13,218’), Turner Peak (13,237’), and Mount Yale (14,196’).

Map of Lost Lake Trail, San Isabel National Forest; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

To be fair, while there is no official trailhead for Lost Lake, its presence near the Continental Divide to the west of Buena Vista, Colorado is not exactly a secret. There is often a line of cars along the shoulder at the trail’s start, about 1.4 miles south of Cottonwood Pass on Colorado Highway 306 (Cottonwood Pass Scenic Drive). Coming from Buena Vista, travel about 18 miles west on Highway 306; just after a hairpin right-hand turn and a left-hand bend, and before the tree-line, pull off to the left. (Note: If you begin to make the snaking final bend up to Cottonwood Pass, you have gone too far.)

At the pull-off, look for a well-trodden path heading west into the darkness of thick conifers. There is a brief climb at the beginning, and then the trail emerges out into the open, traversing a scrubby meadow that reveals views down the Cottonwood Creek drainage to the east. Working through the thick brush, the trail crosses a mild stream at 2/10 mile before merging with a much-wider double-track at the southern flank of an unnamed lake on the right. This chilly tarn is scenic—but only a teaser for the lake to come.

Unnamed lake with Continental Divide and Cottonwood Pass beyond

The barren slopes of the Continental Divide rise high off to the west while the onward trail veers upward to clear a hillside and then descends at about ½ mile. The path briefly bottoms out before climbing again, reentering the woods. At 8/10 mile, the trail splits, with the wider path heading left while a mild shortcut trail bears right; they meet up again at the edge of another meadow about 125 yards later.

Rock slide with Turner Peak beyond

After hugging the meadow for a short period, the trail traverses a muddy bog at about the one-mile mark—the biggest obstacle of the hike. If you’re lucky, the area will be relatively dry; otherwise, one has to hop from log to log to avoid a mucky mess. Back on dry land, the onward route climbs steeply through mixed conifer woodlands, reaching the base of an impressive rock slide. From here, the final push involves a steep ascent that clips the rock slide on the right. About 1.25 miles from the trailhead, the magical lake comes into view.

Lost Lake

Lost Lake is situated in a stunning, bowl-shaped depression, with the rocky scree slopes rising steeply to the west and mild outcrops protecting the lake to the north and east. A line of peaks to the south takes on a reddish-orange hue, a remarkable contrast with the teal colors of the exceptional lake. On busy days, expect see a few paddleboarders—and perhaps swimmers. While the lakeshore is nice, the best vista involves ascending the outcrop off to the right. From atop this point, the colors from the lake really pop out, and the island gives the lake the appearance of a peculiar donut shape.

Lost Lake from atop the outcrop

Looking east from the outcrop, hikers are also rewarded with excellent views of Turner Peak, Mount Yale, Gladstone Ridge, and the Cottonwood Creek drainage, which leads down toward Buena Vista and the Arkansas River.

One can easily linger for hours enjoying this exceptionally beautiful lake at 11,900 feet above sea level. But the threat of summer thunderstorms may cut some trips short. After taking in the views of the lake, head back the way you came. All told, the route is a moderately-difficult 2.5 miles out-and-back. (Note: Remember, at the unnamed lake, to bear right, off the main double-track, to find the single-track trail back to the start. Taking the double-track also leads back to the road but is longer and hillier.)

Extra credit

This hike makes for a good half-day complement to a longer, 6.2-mile round-trip to nearby Ptarmigan Lake, which is 200 feet higher than Lost Lake.

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