The Mount Evans Scenic Byway and a Hike Up Mount Spaulding
As lovely as the other hikes and outdoor explorations we did during our visit, the drive up the Mount Evans Scenic Byway and subsequent hike up Mount Spaulding were hands-down the most beautiful. Because it was after Labor Day the byway was only open to Summit Lake at 12,830ft but the drive from ponderosas and grassy meadows at just over 7,000ft to sub-alpine tundra was incredible. We of course wished we could have continued up the road to the top of Mount Evans at over 14,000 but the last thousand feet or so of ascent to the lake provided us with some awe-inspiring sweeping vistas across the range as we motored above the treeline. The entire drive actually was stunning, particularly the transition from aspen to fir and spruce as we gained vantage points across the valleys to nearby peaks, speckled in light and shadow. The higher we went the further we could see, and both Nancy and I gawked as sight distances became even longer above the treeline.
We stopped as the highest point – Summit Lake – a deep-blue alpine cirque lake ringed by the gravel talus slopes of Mount Spaulding and Mount Evans, and had begun strolling around the shore and to an overlook of the gorgeous Chicago Lakes when we realized there was a hiking trail up the smaller of the peaks. We immediately agreed to hike it despite not having much with us which, as a disclaimer, is never a smart idea when hiking at high elevation (or hiking at any elevation), but I get a little excited when I’m around mountains… and the peak looked so tantalizingly close.
Actually, I’d like to take an aside and expand on that statement: I get not just excited, but literally giddy whenever I’m in large mountain ranges, and thus the rare prospect of getting to hike above the treeline and across the tundra to almost 14,000 feet is just not an opportunity to pass up if you so happen to find yourself on a trail that will allow you to do just that in less than an hour. I think it’s the surreal feeling that comes with being in extreme landscapes such as alpine mountains and northern coastal highlands, but whatever it is, I am totally fascinated with these places; there is something so grand and majestic about both high peaks and the vast, open spaces of craggy headlands it just captivates me.
Okay so anyway, on we went, hiking up the steep terrain and picking our way up boulders until we crested the rim of the cirque. Without tree cover we had incredible views the entire way up, and they became more and more impressive the higher we went; it was humbling as the massive forms of the landscape spread out below us. It really felt like we were on top of the world.
We did end our hike when we reached the peak at 13,842 feet, but just for a minute we contemplated continuing up along the lip of the cirque to Mount Evans. However we had neither the proper equipment nor did we have the daylight. So we sat and indulged our senses, letting the feeling of being enthralled wash over us and soak in while Abby picked her way across the rocks at the very edge of the cirque.
The descent from peak was equally marvelous as the Chicago Lakes Valley unfolded below us. Once we had soaked in the walk along the lake again we started our drive back, winding around the bare peaks below diving below the treeline. Knowing now that we’d return before our expected time we stopped for a short walk through a bristlecone forest, the resilient trees clutching to the mountain side for the last 1,500 years. These ancient conifers would be my spirit tree if such a thing existed – their ability to conserve, resist, adapt, and live in the face of drought, non-existent-nutrients in the soil, harsh wind, and freezing temperatures continue to inspire me. They grow where no other trees do, and their lifespan of thousands of years is the definition of perseverance. Walking among them again was an added treat.