A credible backpacking trip involves five days, three lakes and about 30 miles. However, it is possible to cram many of the benefits of backpacking into an overnight wilderness jaunt that doesn't begin until noon Saturday.
The art of planning an overnight backpacking adventure begins with spreading maps out on the dining room table and choosing a destination. It's possible to drive to a trailhead at 3 p.m., hike two miles, and then walk 200 feet to the closest flat spot and pitch your tent. You'll be camping, and you'll have a fine old time of it.
Advanced overnight backpacking, on the other hand, implies aspirations to greater things. It implies hiking to a spectacular wilderness lake that offers above-average trout fishing and every bit as much solitude as a destination 10 miles farther into the wilderness.
Round Mountain Lake, north of Buffalo Pass, fits the bill in part because it so often is overlooked. The hike begins on the relative superhighway of the Wyoming Trail, but quickly descends to a relatively untrammeled portion of the Zirkel Wilderness. It's a long climb up the Newcomb Creek Trail from the east side of the Park Range, to Round Mountain Lake. But it's such an easy destination from Buffalo Pass that most backpackers write it off. Instead, they head for dramatic destinations such as Elbert and Luna lakes, roughly eight miles north of Buff Pass.
Round Mountain Lake isn't nearly as far, and on a weekend in late July, it's possible to have the place almost to yourself. Our party shared the lake with just one other couple on a Saturday night. They left early Sunday morning to descend to Newcomb Park, leaving the lake, and the willing trout, to us.
The hike to Round Mountain Lake begins with a moderate 2.5 mile stroll north of Buffalo Pass on Trail 1101, (the Wyoming Trail). This route travels the spine of the Continental Divide and offers views of snowfields that linger on Mount Ethel even after a sparse winter. For these reasons, you can expect to encounter a significant number of day hikers and backpackers.
Continue north until the trail descends sharply into a deep drainage and begin the climb up the other side. Backpackers who keep up a moderate pace will arrive at the trail junction in 60 minutes. The sign indicating the turnoff to the right that leads to Newcomb Creek Trail and Round Mountain Lake is unmistakable, but the trail itself is sometimes difficult to discern. In places, there is grass growing in the trail -- that's actually a good sign. And there are numerous large rock cairns to point the way across wet meadows.
The most challenging aspect of the hike to Round Mountain Lake is that once on the Newcomb Creek Trail, you can expect to give up about 700 feet in elevation, and most of that comes in the last stage of the hike.
After traversing gentle meadows, the trail begins to descend steeply through the trees. Hikers who continually glance over their right shoulders may sense a steep drainage not far off. When you can see the chasm, walk a hundred paces to the south and you will get a sneak preview of Round Mountain Lake from above. It makes a good afternoon photo opportunity.
Surprisingly, it's still a fair distance to the shore of the lake. Intermediate hikers will need 75 minutes for the descent from the Continental Divide.
Before reaching the lake, a small fork leaves the Newcomb Creek Trail for the last few hundred yards to the shore. It's easy to miss the small pile of rocks that marks the right turn, and there is no sign -- watch closely for it.
There are limited campsites at Round Mountain Lake, but on the other hand, there were a limited number of mosquitoes in late July. Water still flows into the lake from a creek that enters on the south shore, but it isn't close to the most appealing campsites. Be sure to camp at least 100 feet from the lake, the creeks and the trail. And prepared to filter or boil water from the outlet creek.
A big attraction at Round Mountain Lake is the brook trout population. The dry fly fishing at the lake is good, and often fly selection is not critical.
Backpacking can be a satisfying way to experience the wilderness, even when you don't have time for a major expedition.
-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205
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