Sunlight Lake day hike then Sunlight Creek to Grizzly Creek
(14 miles +4,800/-4,700 feet).
It was calm and very warm last night in our beautiful little Vallecito camp site. Since we were just doing a day hike up to Sunlight Lake and back and then had easy miles along the river later on, we slept in a little.
But then the stove broke! Ultrashuffle futzed with the tiny jet on his stove for an hour trying to keep it from getting clogged. After several tries, he finally got it to stay clear, but not before the sun was already high in the sky (for us anyway).
By 8:30am we had thrown everything but some food and clothes into my tent and then we headed north on a use trail headed for the river. Frost still clung to the meadows and darkness still filled the valley.
The trail forked quickly to the left for a crossing that looked unhoppable. I checked the GPS track I had downloaded for the Weminuche High Route and it showed a crossing of Vallecito Creek a couple hundred meters north of the Sunlight Creek junction, so we retreated to the trail and kept following it along the river to a second crossing that was challenging but manageable. Our feet stayed dry!
We didn’t exactly cross where the main use trail had hit the river, and as a result on the other side we had to bushwhack for a bit. I was expecting some intense cross country all the way to the lake, so at the time I didn’t know any better.
Lucky for us, we found the use trail again, and like the hike to Highland Mary Lakes, we ended up on what seemed like a previously-maintained trail. That was extremely fortunate, because even with the trail it was sometimes quite difficult to force our way through the tangled willows that choked the whole watershed below 11,000 feet.
By 9:30am we were high enough that we had full sun in Sunlight canyon. And once again the aspens were extraordinary.
Around 10:30am we lost the trail at a very steep part where Sunlight Creek cascades over huge boulders and through a dense wood right next to a vertical cliff face below peak 11674.
We started out going straight up through willow thickets to the left of the creek. But that got pretty tiring so we headed back to the creek itself hoping to hike up its boulders.
After a really nice break we decided to head over to the base of the cliff which seemed manageable. It was very steep but there was enough vegetation that we never felt exposed until the very top where it got loose and gravelly.
At the top of the climb the terrain leveled out a bit and it was possible to walk upright again. Ultrashuffle found the trail again, and it was surprisingly well defined. It wound around a fantastic bowl just below 12,000 feet with beautiful flowers and two tarns that do not appear on the USGS maps.
About 11:30 we finally arrived at Sunlight Lake. It was spectacular!
We were so enthralled with the lake, we almost didn’t notice the visitors that started approaching us.
There were four babies, and when they bleated I swear to god they sounded like squeeze toys!
Ultrashuffle took a nap and I…. Well, I did what I do sometimes in snow-fed lakes.
We met one other hiker at the lake who had miraculously come from the saddle between Windom and Sunlight Peaks. That’s not very far from here as the crow flies but he said it was extremely loose class 3/4 climbing getting down so he was chilling out in a nearby campsite. He asked us about getting to Balsam Lake and I showed him the Weminuche High Route on my map, so hopefully that helped him.
All too soon we needed to head back down again, but first we explored the outlet to Sunlight Lake.
We had a lovely lunch at the top of the falls and then headed back up and around to get back on the unmaintained trail.
As we got closer to the steep part we stayed on trail this time and we discovered we had missed some abandoned but extremely-well-built switchbacks that made the descent much easier. And from there we managed to stay on trail all the way back to the Vallecito.
We made it back to camp, packed up, and headed down towards the Vallecito bridge.
We had originally planned to camp near the bridge, but we did some math and realized it would be very hard to make it all the way to the Needleton train stop by 3pm tomorrow. So we decided to press on until dark.
A mile and a half later, just as darkness was falling, we finally found a nice spot to camp. I snapped a photo of a beautiful flower right next to my tent, but it’s the only picture that I took of the site!
We were pooped. No fire tonight, just some wonderful loaded potato soup and then into our sleeping bags to sleep and perchance to dream.