Guanella Pass is a high mountain pass in the Front Range west of Denver. The pass, which has an elevation over 11,660′, hosts a scenic byway that connects I-70 in the north with US highway 285 in the south, and runs near a pumped hydroelectric power plant above Georgetown, CO.
|Transport||1.5 Hours by Car from Denver|
|Conditions||Mostly Perfect with Afternoon Storm|
|Doggo||On-Leash Requirement, Briefly Off-Leash for Safety|
|Gear||Basic Hiking Kit, Basic Car Camping Kit|
Before we ended up on this mini-adventure, I spent a couple nights in Silverthorne at a combination bar, hostel, and co-working spot called The Pad. Things have been too hectic at work for me to really take time off, but I figured I could sneak out a little early and take advantage of the two hour time difference to abuse my Epic pass for the summer scenic access. Alas, work had different, high pressure plans and I just had to push through. By sheer luck, a close personal friend happened to be in town at the same time so we spent most of my short time there at the
Snakehole Lounge Snake River Saloon. I left Silverthorne with everything and the dog packed into the Mud Wagon over 1,700 miles from home and without any plan. On my way out of town, I stopped in a gas station and picked up a prepackaged sub that was calling my name. Or possibly screaming in existential horror at what it was and what was about to happen to it.
We got as far as Georgetown, CO before I started to feel sick to my stomach. The gas station sandwich had gotten its revenge. It wasn’t long before I decided that I had to stop for the night – not wanting to pay the local highway robbery prices, I noticed a series of forest service campsites along the Guanella pass scenic road and pushed Emma up into the mountains. I tried to stop at the first campsite but had to leave pretty much immediately as I could notice the thrum of the pumped hydroelectric generation station a quarter mile down the road. I stumbled next into Guanella Pass campground but was disappointed to find every visible campsite reserved to the hilt, despite being a weekday. This campground was so popular I probably never would have planned on camping there, but since we were well out of cell reception, I figured I would ask the campground host for some advice on the other campsites down the road and see if I had to resort to one of the roadside motels down the mountain.
As unlucky as I was in gas station cuisine, I was campsite lucky. There had been a cancellation.
This is the most gorgeous campsite I have ever camped in. No notifications or buzzy power stations. At 10,900′ you have to pace yourself to enjoy yourself too, walking deliberately, not overloading yourself bringing things from the car. I cleaned myself up in the stream and started a fire to warm back up. The weather update from my satellite communicator said that it would get as low as 40 degrees that night, with a 30% chance of rain. It seems that I exhausted every firestarter I had in my kit and neglected to replace them. So I spent twenty minutes with a rock and my knife chopping off shavings and pieces of kindling to get the logs started, but it was worth the effort after a long couple of days at work. I planed on recuperating at camp, then heading out in the morning back to Georgetown to finish the workweek.
Sleep found me quickly as I tucked myself in right after my fire burned down. Also, the mud doggo mud doggoed. It did get cold overnight, but the outdoor blanket I had in the car was much warmer than I thought.
My alarm found me in the morning but my strength did not. I couldn’t even drag myself out of bed until it was almost noon at the office. I packed up quickly and shoved everything in the car for the drive back down to Georgetown. One of my site neighbors recommended a local brewery I could post up in for the Wi-Fi and what was left of my workday. It was honestly one of the better views I’ve had telecommuting.
After a half day at work, a couple fizzy drinks, and a giant plate of fish and chips, I was feeling a lot better and had to take advantage of my situation. The Mud Doggo was restless after sitting on her blue foam mat for four hours and there were plenty of beautiful hikes in the area. In our week in Colorado, so far we hadn’t been alpine hiking yet and the alpine lakes called to me. Work and food behind us, we thundered back up the pass to get above the treeline on the Silver Dollar Lake Trail.
It was achingly beautiful. The hike start deep in a spruce forest and quickly rises above. As the trees start to thin out and get a little strange looking, the view opens up to the other peaks of the range and the valley below. I admonished the trees to “get up on my level” as we were alpine hiking in earnest. The air was thin and I couldn’t get my heart rate below zone 3, but my leg muscles weren’t pressed, so we pressed on. After another mile or so, we made it to Silver Dollar lake and the Mud Doggo got a taste of the melted snowpack that was still on the mountain at the end of July. I had my filter on me so I got a taste of it myself as well. We were heading up to the third lake when I noticed that the wind direction had turned, setting off alarms in my mind. I called the trip before we made it to the third lake and turned for the safety of the tree line without realizing how urgent things would become.
This is the last photo I would take on our hike. Just before I took this photo, I unhooked Maggie and gave her the command to go at her own pace ahead of me and told her to go to the car. I took this photo and set it as my lock screen background in case a first responder came across me and I couldn’t respond. Just before that, I sent out a yellow flag on my satellite communicator to let my backup know that they should expect to hear from me in two hours or in four hours they should call for help. Just before that the wind kicked up from 7 mph to around 35 mph, the temperature dropped 20 degrees pretty much instantly, and three bolts of lightning struck the peak to our northeast. I sprinted a mile back down below the treeline, with hail the size of nickels and quarters raining down on me with nothing but my spare pair of socks stuffed under my hat for cover. I haven’t done sustained zone 5 cardio in more than 7 years. I apologized for my arrogance, especially to the trees, as I ran for their embrace.
On the way down, I caught up with the dog in the tree line where she was waiting for me and I kept up a jog/march pace through the forest. We lost the true trail as there were many game trails in the area and the main trail itself was poorly marked. I got about quarter mile off course before I realized from the terrain that we would not come off the mountain in the right place if we kept going. Visually, I checked to get the right bearing to pick up the hiking trail again, but I spotted two lost hikers that were also trying to descend the wrong slope – I called out to them and we waited under a tree while they picked their way through the forest to join us. We found the proper trail in short order and made it off the mountain without too much more drama while the weather continued to threaten to get even worse.
The trailhead is 4WD accessible and when we reached it, I was approached by another pair of hikers that asked for a ride down to the parking lot at the road. With the weather threatening to cast us off the mountain, I couldn’t refuse despite how crowded my loaded car was. I shuffled some things around and put the dog on a mound of random stuff then asked the girls to tuck in to the Mud Doggo’s hammock for a nice rocky four wheel drive back off the mountain. Fortunately, what we saw with the lightning and hail while we were above the treeline was the worst of it for the day and everyone made it home ok. I was exhausted after such an exciting day and ended up in one of those roadside motels in Georgetown anyway.