Wilderness Wanderings: Alpine lakes reveal camping secrets
August 24, 2015
A conversation among nearby high alpine lakes might go something like this:
"Whew! Another weekend and my shores are just aching," said Gold Lake from the Zirkel Wilderness.
"And how," responded nearby Gilpin Lake. "It never ceases to amaze me how many campers settle on you and me. You would think they would find some of the other lakes."
Three Island Lake joined the conversation from just a few miles to the south. "I'm a bit worn out, too, but not like you pretty gals. But you would think campers would pay a little more attention to Beaver Lake. She's the real jewel around here."
"You're sweet to say that," responded Beaver Lake. "I haven't had campers yet this month, and I'm just a mile and a half further on the trail than you. Plus, people can set up camp just 100 feet from my shore, unlike the three of you."
Gold, Gilpin and Three Island each grimaced.
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"Yes, that's the price for being so popular," said Gold. "There's no camping allowed within one-quarter mile of each of us. But even a fine doesn't deter some campers."
Lake Diana joined the conversation from up above Encampment Meadows.
"I hardly ever see anyone, and I even have cutthroat trout,” Diana said. “If word ever got out how beautiful it is up here, the path from Diamond Park would be double wide. There's also the reward of spectacular views of the Sawtooth Range from down in the Meadows. And Gem Lake is another diamond up here."
"Hey, what about us back here off Buffalo Pass?" asked Luna Lake. "I'm the largest of any in the Zirkel Wilderness. There's plenty of room around me for everyone. Plus, Lakes Elbert and Margaret are right nearby. And a side hike up to 11,924-foot Mt. Ethel is an easy one with views to die for."
A much shorter alternative is the trail from Summit Campground to Jonah Whale and Martha lakes while looping back to the parking area.
"We see a lot of people fishing and hiking over here," Martha said. "But it's not often that someone spends the night with us. Hiking around here is easy, even for children."
"Wolverine Lake and I hardly even see anyone," said Dome Lake, "because maps don't show trails in our direction. We're more of a challenge but there is indeed a less-beaten path for those who don't mind going around or over some fallen trees. And the payoff is still there. Wolverine is still an all-time favorite destination for the hardy few who like an extra challenge."
Know before you go:
Distances: Beaver Lake is 5 miles from the Three Island Trailhead. Lake Diana is 6 miles from Main Fork Trailhead, Gem Lake is 1 mile farther. Lake Elbert is 8 miles from Summit Lake, Luna Lake is 1 mile farther and Margaret Lake is 2 miles from Luna. Dome Lake is 5 miles from North Lake Trailhead. To reach Wolverine Lake travel 3.75 miles on North Lake Trail and then 1.25 miles on the non-maintained trail.
Map and compass skills are essential for trips to Wolverine and Dome lakes where there are no maintained trails, just the semblance of a foot path with numerous fallen trees along the route. Don't rely on GPS alone.
If you prefer to camp within view of a lake, note that camping and campfires are banned within one-quarter mile of Gold, Gilpin and Three Island. The no-camping zone is just 100 feet around other lakes in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness in addition to streams and trails.
Please practice "Leave No Trace" backcountry ethics. If you pack it in, please pack it out. Burying garbage is futile; wildlife will still find its scent and dig it up. If there is not an established campfire ring where you plan to camp, dig a pit for the campfire and then fill it back in before breaking camp.
Bob Korch is a vice president and trail volunteer with Friends of Wilderness which assists the US Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public in the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops wilderness areas. http://www.FriendsofWilderness.com