Choosing between the four East Vail trailheads that provide access to the Gore Range is a bit like choosing between entrees at Sweet Basil. All are magnificent. All except Bighorn Creek deliver you to a breathtaking alpine lake. And all require you to work hard to get there. But perhaps the best value comes from Pitkin Creek, which climbs via singletrack to Pitkin Lake at 11,400 feet.
Like most high points in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, it’s not a casual lunchtime jaunt. You gain 2,900 lung-sapping vertical feet en route to the lake, which sits 4.5 miles from the trailhead and thus nine miles round trip. So the crowds remain relatively sparse all summer, thanks to the burn factor and the existence of easier-to-reach destinations nearby (primarily Booth Falls one drainage to the west).
For much of the trek, you ascend next to Pitkin Creek in the belly of the valley, where the wildflowers are surreal in season. Upon reaching the lake, you are greeted by a jagged skyline comprising East and West Partner peaks, the latter standing 13,047 feet tall. With soft, grassy tundra rimming the water, it’s a perfect place to enjoy that special sandwich you got up early to make—or if you didn’t, you’ll definitely wish you had.
If you ever get tired of the dry Colorado air that evaporates the moisture from your pores like a dehumidifier, head to the Grouse Creek trailhead just north of Minturn. I have explored my share of drainages in the Rockies, but none has ever felt as lush, humid, or healthy as Grouse. Not only is it a great place to be a plant, but it also leads to Grouse Lake, a serene if unspectacular pool surrounded by a thick pine forest just across the border of the Holy Cross Wilderness.
A friend and I ran as much as we could up the rooty trail, which climbs at a mild grade but almost never relents throughout the 4.7-mile ascent. You gain 2,840 feet and cross six creeks, some of them tricky even into July, at which point snowmelt wanes and rocks get less slippery. The lake itself is shallow, reedy, and cast beneath the summit of Grouse Mountain—overall, a nice getaway below treeline.
Missouri Lakes Loop
My wife and I were looking for an alpine adventure late last summer and decided to try a classic we had heard about but never done. Starting from the Missouri Creek trailhead off Missouri Creek Road (via Homestake Road, a bumpy spur off Highway 24 south of Minturn), we traveled four miles counterclockwise up to Missouri Pass, down past Treasure Vault Lake in a hailstorm, up over Fancy Pass—at 12,390 feet, the loop’s high point—and back to the Fancy Creek trailhead, which sits 100 yards from the Missouri Creek trailhead.
The 8.8-mile loop is popular with backpackers, for obvious reason: campsites and lakes abound along the route. Doing it in a day condensed the sightseeing time but also meant we didn’t have to sleep in a powerful storm, even if it soaked us anyway. None of the climbing or descending is precipitous, the lakes keep coming, and the view from the top of Missouri Pass evokes the wilderness ideal like few places in America.