One of the things I miss about the Blue Ridge and Smokies is mountain lakes. The Rocky Mountains are adorned with memorable alpine lakes, usually surrounded by majestic peaks and bountiful evergreen forest. All you need is an input and output source, like Fall Creek in the case of Lake Constantine, and a bowl between mountains to collect the water. Fall Creek Trail climbs 1,700 feet through spruce and pine forest to Lake Constantine at 11,370 feet. Fall Creek spills into the alpine lake not far below its headwaters. Include fabulous views of the Gore Range and the Vail ski mountain, and you have a very nice 9-mile round trip. This hike occurred on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 from 8:00am to about 3:30pm. Our plan was a simple up and back hike from the Fall Creek Trailhead to Lake Constantine.
Hike Length: 9.3 miles Hike Duration: 7.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Up and back Start Elevation: 10,320 feet
Elevation Gain: 1,740 feet Elevation Change: 1,050 feet
Hike Rating: Difficult, steady uphill Blaze: Marked by cairns
Trail Condition: Mostly good, some ridge edges and rock scrambling.
Starting Point: Half Moon Traihead parking on Tigiwon Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered two other hikers near the end of our hike.
How to Get There: Take Tigiwon Road from the south end of Minturn, Colorado. It is 8.2 miles to the trailhead on this rough dirt and gravel forest service road.
My brother has lived in Vail, Colorado for the past 35 years. Every couple years I make a visit for some great Rocky Mountain hiking and general sight-seeing. This year I went in late September hoping to catch the bright golden hue of the aspen forests in fall. In the coming days and weeks I will be detailing a myriad of hikes enjoyed by the Internet Brothers on this most recent foray into the high mountain air.
The Fall Creek Trail to Lake Constantine was to be our first hike after my arrival the day before. Although the lake is above 11,000 feet, by Rocky Mountain standards that is still 3,000 feet lower than the highest peaks. The thought was it would be a good starter hike to help me acclimate to the altitude gradually. It is, after all, still 9,000 feet higher than my home in Western North Carolina. I had hiked some of the 6,000 footers in WNC in recent weeks to help with the elevation adjustment, but it’s still not the same as being there. Altitude sickness is no fun.
On the drive up Tigiwon Road from Minturn, some of the aspen were just beginning a slow change from green to yellow. The transformation was underway. Yay! By the end of the week, the mountainsides should be displaying their most resplendent regalia. Tigiwon Road climbs more than 2,000 feet in its 8-mile meander through White River National Forest. The higher we got, the brighter the golden glistening. It’s an awesome sight when the breeze hits the aspen leaves. They literally shimmer as they flutter and dance.
Tigiwon Road doesn’t require an all-wheel drive vehicle, but it is very rough from pot holes and washboarding. If you have a low clearance vehicle, take it really slow and easy. Six miles up you’ll pass a mountain cabin that is quite popular as a wedding location. Just a couple miles beyond you’ll reach the dead end of Tigiwon Road and the parking area at Half Moon Trail and Campground.
There are two trails here. Don’t be fooled by the Half Moon Trailhead, unless you want to go over Half Moon Pass toward the base of Mount of the Holy Cross. The Fall Creek Trailhead is located left of the parking area, in the direction toward the campground.
There had been a pretty hefty early-season snow in Eagle County just a few days before my arrival, so we were met immediately with snow on the side of the trail. Not much on the trail tread, but enough to enhance the scene in the evergreen forest.
A half mile up, there is an opening on the right into a lovely mountain meadow, nourished by a babbling mountain stream, and overlooked by the craggy Notch Mountain. Soon after, the trail passes through a boulder field left by a long-ago glacier that created this valley.
Climbing in earnest now, the best views are behind you, so be sure to turn around. As you continue to gain elevation, the back bowls of the nearby Vail Ski Resort come into view, then with a few hundred more feet, the rugged peaks of the Gore Range dot the horizon. My brother gave me a topology and geography lesson pointing to the named peaks, as each would be visible from any number of different angles from trails we planned to hike later in the week. Even my addled brain remembered a few.
At 2.5 miles the Fall Creek Trail reaches a junction. Turn right and head to Notch Mountain, or turn left to Lake Constantine. We were after the alpine lake this go ’round.
After the junction, the trail gets a lot more difficult, even treacherous. The terrain is considerably more rugged and hugs the side of a very steep precipice. Believe me, you don’t want to slip and go over the side, you wouldn’t stop tumbling for quite some time. There were two spots that were especially dicey. One that was covered with ice (you should have seen me tippy-toe across), and another that is quite a steep rock scramble over wet shale. It’s even harder on the way down (I had to scooch on my butt). It wouldn’t be the Rocky Mountains if there wasn’t at least some trail excitement.
When you reach an area with a large rock wall on your left that runs for about 100 yards, know that you are getting reasonably close to the lake. The trail begins roller-coastering, going up, then down, then up again. Remember that on the way back when your legs and lungs are tired and you wish it was all downhill.
Finally the lake comes into view from a few hundred yards away. It is surrounded by marshy grassland, so be careful to stay on trail. There are plenty of rocky outcroppings to climb atop for photo ops or simply to sit, rest, and enjoy lunch like we did. It was an especially windy day when we were there, and not particularly warm, so we were looking for a wind break just to avoid the chill while re-nourishing.
This hike runs north to south, so after lunch we decided to see what was at the south end of the lake. We found where Fall Creek enters the lake, as well as a small waterfall on the creek just a short way above the lake. I took the opportunity to pull out my filter and refill the water bladder in my pack from a cold Rocky Mountain stream. There’s no better water anywhere. We frankly hated to leave, but it was already afternoon and we still had a 4.5 mile return.
About the time we started back up the trail from the lake (remember the roller-coaster?), the altitude hit me. My body simply wasn’t used to 11,400′, and my breathing became quite labored whenever going uphill. Fortunately it never got worse than that. I didn’t get ill. I took lots of breaks and breathers for the next hour until we finally reached the point where it really was all downhill from here.
On the way down, the sun had moved to the other side of the ridge, so the lighting perspective was entirely different. It was a beautiful cloudless day that made for lots of pictures, including that shot of Vail’s back bowls with the Gore Range in the background. The time just zipped by and we were back at the trailhead before we knew it.
To summarize, this is a truly scenic hike to a beautiful alpine lake. It is somewhat difficult, with more than 1,700 feet of elevation gain, most of it over 10,700 feet. If you’re a flat-lander, you might not want to make this your first hike upon arriving in the Rocky Mountains. Try something a little easier first, then work into this one after you’ve had a few days to acclimatize. Take a lunch and feel the ambiance at the lake, and take your time. Enjoy the sights and sounds. There’s not much better than simply being there.