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Crestone, Colorado, United States

Willow Lake Trail

Spectacular Beauty in the Heart of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains

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Difficulty: Moderate
Length: 9.0 miles / 14.5 km
Duration: Full day
Family Friendly • Dog Friendly
 
Overview: Deep in the heart of the Sangre De Cristo mountains in southern Colorado, Willow Lake provides a respite for the waters draining the Obstruction Peak glacial trough, as they rush north and west toward the central Colorado basin. If you tee off from the top of Obstruction Peak, Willow Lake is in the center of the dog-leg left, with 500 yard long meadow of Willow Creek Park as the green. The trailhead east of Crestone launches you on a 9-11 mile journey that will take you through forests of fir, arbors of aspen, and skirts of skree. Depending on the time of year you make this trek — I went in late September — the streams you encounter along the way will be trickles or torrents. In about 2.5 hours you can climb to the west end of Willow Lake. Add another half hour and tack on a mile to your shoe treads, you can reach the falls at the east end of the lake, which will allow you to see Challenger Pt, Kit Carson Mtn, and Obstruction Peak — just remember to account for the additional time and mileage for the return trip.

From Colorado Springs, drive south on Hwy 115. Turn west on US Hwy 50 toward Canon City. Follow Hwy 50 through the Arkansas River valley to Poncha Springs. Turn south on US Hwy 285 for 25 miles. Bear left on CO Hwy 17. At the south end of the “town” of Moffat, head east on County Road T into the town of Crestone. At the stop sign in town you’ll see a sign on the right directing you toward the Willow Creek trailhead. Turn right on Galena Ave. and follow it to the end. This road begins paved, however it soon turns to dirt. The road becomes a little rough; there’s even a sign indicating the need for 4-wheel drive; however most vehicles could make it to the parking lot. If your vehicle cannot, simply pull to the side of the road and walk, it will not add much to your hike. From COS, this trip is 175 miles, lasting about 3.5 hours.


Tips: 1. Start early: if you’re driving from Colorado Springs, you’ll need to leave by 0700, so you can be on the trail by 1100. Otherwise, stay overnight in Crestone or at a campsite at the trailhead. There are photographic advantages to early morning and late afternoon light on this hike.

2. If you take a dog, beware of the rocks on the upper sections of the trail. They can be tough on the pads of its feet. Also take some food for it; it will expend more energy along the trail than you will — mine goes out and comes back, making his trek about twice the length of mine.

3. Snow and ice remain on the trail and at the lake well into June. Forewarned is forearmed.

4. There are fish in the lake; so take your pole and license if you're so inclined.

Points of Interest

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Trailhead

The trailhead has room for many hikers and campers. Several campsites surround the parking lot — this trailhead leads both to Willow Lake and to Crestone Lake, as well as providing the launch site for climbing Challenger Pt and Kit Carson Mtn. About 50 yards along the trail is a sign where the South Crestone Trail and the Willow Lake Trail separate. Take the trail to the right into the fir trees, crossing Crestone Creek, and begin your climb up the south side of Wilcox Gulch. The switch backs make the climb relatively painless. In about 1.5 miles you’ll round the corner into the Willow Creek valley.
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One Mile

At the one mile mark, you’ve almost reached to top of the ridge. You are now high enough to see across the Crestone Creek valley to the 12,200 ft mountain that dominates this terrain. In the fall, the peak is covered with the fiery gold of the aspen that blankets the mountain side.
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Valley Entrance

This is where you’ll experience the first “AHA!” moment as you turn the corner into the Willow Creek valley. Below you to the east is the Willow Creek Park meadow, once a shallow lake. For the next mile and a quarter you’ll climb about 800 feet along the north wall of the valley. Occasionally, you’ll encounter side trails that lead down to the creek. Along the way, the view of the south side peaks will capture your attention. The western most point is 10,400 ft high; from there the ridge ascends to a craggy point 13,000 ft above sea level.
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Streams & Rocks

The first vertical water you’ll encounter is barely a trickle, but it’s enough to create some interesting shapes in the wall and to support some beautiful flowers that have an affinity for being wet all of the time. The water effects grow in size as you continue to ascend to the west end of the lake. The trail crosses Willow Creek a couple of times (no bridges, so be careful). About 2/3 of the way along this section of the trail, you rise above tree-line. The trail becomes quite rocky. From one point near the stream you can see back down the valley, all the way to Moffat, where you turned off of Hwy 17. … It’s not difficult to see the mountainous rock formations along the trail. But occasionally look down at your feet and admire the detail of the conglomerate over which you’re walking.
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Willow Lake

The surface of Willow Lake is at 11,660 ft elevation, just below tree-line; so the fir and aspen grow right down to the water’s edge. The most spectacular feature of the lake is the 150 ft tall waterfall that feeds the lake at its eastern end. You can walk to this falls along the northern shore of the lake. The trail is about a mile in length. From this vantage point you will be able to see four peaks that form the southwestern wall of the ridge: Challenger Point, Kit Carson Peak, Columbia Point, and Obstructionist Peak. [I have no pictures from this location: It was too late in the day and the dog’s feet were sore. Next time, we’ll begin earlier in the day, and he’ll wear better shoes.] From the west end of the lake, you’ll see the northern end of the Kit Carson massif towering another 2000 ft above you.
Pictures in this guide taken by: dougknighton

Willow Lake Trail Trail Map


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About the Author

dougknighton
dougknighton
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Retired Air Force Chaplain who began military life as an Airborne Ranger. Evidently I didn't get enough...

Willow Lake Trail 3 Day Forecast

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