Saturday, September 18, 2010

Devils Thumb Run

This is about I run I did in August in the Indian Peaks, up the Devils Thumb trail and around and over past Rollins Pass. The Devils Thumb trail has a nice variety of terrain, you can see over to Winter Park from the Continental Divide (upper left in the GPS track image), and I had never been down the other valley and wanted to see what it was like.

Total time was 4:44:40, distance 16.46 miles, gain/loss 3,329 ft.

This run starts from the Hessie Trailhead which is a bit of a liability in the summer on the weekend, because it's incredibly popular. This was the scene in the late morning by the time I got there:

Imagine SUVs and full-size trucks driving in two directions on the remaining dirt road, trying to pass each other. Needless to say I folded my side-view mirror in, and even then only made it by a couple of inches. It was nuts. I parked on a shady curve a little ways back down the road, on a wide shoulder, away from other vehicles!

If you have a really high-clearance vehicle, you can risk the murky, boulder-laden creek and park at the real trailhead in the meadow. However, there was a boulder that I guessed was at least 12" off the creek bed sticking out of the water, so didn't consider it.

The initial part of this trail passes through some really nice flat meadows as it follows Hessie Creek. This makes for great running and pleasant hiking with open views. I've seen people camping in the meadow; a great place to stop:

The trail follows several miles of jeep road as it gets higher and higher. You start to see the cliffs along the side, steep alpine meadows, and there's a mysterious spot where it looks like oil is leaking out of the ground naturally. There's a sheen to the water and it's stained the rocks brown. This view is from below Jasper Lake:

Jasper Lake itself is the destination for many hikers and campers. There are numbered campsites off the hiking trail, and there are always plenty of people here:

Some ingenious person created a chair on the lakeside out of a tree trunk and some rocks:

Above Jasper Lake, the terrain is a series of short rolling hills with hidden alpine meadows and ponds. It's hard not to get a good photo up here in nice weather, there's just so much material. The Devils Thumb rock formation is on the back of this unnamed ridge:

This is the view at the end of the valley. The trail goes up over the ridge off-screen on the far right, and the Corona Trail follows the ridge behind the peaks in the back. The return trip is to the left, two valleys over.

This is the view in the other direction. Note how nice the weather is at the moment, because that is about to change.

Below is another view of the ridge on the right, with the Devils Thumb sticking out on the left. If there's one truth that holds about place names, it's that every wild area in the U.S. has to have geographical features named after the Devil, preferably his body parts.

After getting about halfway up the ridge, I took this photo looking back down the valley:

Next is a view looking to the left from higher up on the ridge, almost at the top. I really like the rugged terrain up here. The trail meanders along some very steep slopes, and some stretches have drops right next to the trail, perhaps at a 70-degree slope; rugged, rocky terrain falling away to the valley below. If you are afraid of heights, it may not be the best trail for you. It's not death-defying, but it's enough for me to feel the tingle of adrenaline as I look down.

The view behind me, back towards the valley:

On the other side is the Fraser Valley, with the Winter Park ski area on the far left. This ridge is part of the Continental Divide. When I ran this trail the first time, due to my geographical unfamiliarity I had no idea this view was on the other side! It's 180 degrees worth of valley view like this:

At this point you can begin to see the weather deteriorating. It wasn't as apparent from the other side, but rain was brewing to the west and south. I sat down on the grass and had something to eat and drink, and then started out on the ill-defined trail. The only thing that marked the trail was a few widely-spaced cairns and the fact that the grass was trampled. I had also seen another runner head down this way:

I ended up catching up with him (he was taking it easy and I was running steadily), and it turns out he was a guy named Bruce who lives in nearby Nederland. He was planning on doing some fishing at King Lake, and had a collapsible rod in his pack. So, that's a 10-mile trail run over the Divide to fish. Man, you gotta love that; that's what I call a good day in the mountains!

This is the view towards Rollins Pass, which are the roads in the very back. It's always a surprise to hike or run and long way in the mountains, then find someone in a Jeep sitting there in a parking lot, having driven up a road in relative comfort.

The next photo is of King Lake. I was going to run to the end of the wooded valley in the back, which is about 2/3 of the total return trip to Hessie.

Bruce ended up bailing on the fishing due to the incoming weather, and we ran the King Lakes trail together. We were close in speed although he led most of the way; maybe he didn't want to be dropped on his home trails by a plains-dweller like me. Not that I could have; I was pretty beat by then anyway, and my legs were pounded. I probably could have used a bit more water. I stopped several times to stretch and that kept my legs from getting too tight and pulling my knee cap out of alignment. I find this usually gets me to the end of the run with little in the way of side effects such as tendon or knee pain. Tightness causes Devils Knee ;)

The terrain around the lake is very uneven and interesting, with lots of willows and alpine vegetation, and small lakes. Too bad I didn't have the blue sky in the background any more, it would have been even more beautiful. Some day.

Here's a close-up of some of the flowers:

After 10 rugged miles, the King Lakes trail seemed long. I was glad to have a fellow runner to keep my mind occupied and off my tired legs. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice wooded singledtrack trail, and it would be perfect on a hot sunny day, or during light rain showers, but it's also less varied than Devils Thumb.

I don't have any pictures of the return trip because I was trying to keep up with Bruce. I found that I tended to run rough terrain more slowly, and flatter terrain more quickly, than he did. So he didn't pile up behind me on the muddy and technical stretches, I was content to follow behind him by about 15 yards. For me it was a bit more than easy conversational pace anyway! At the end of the trail we parted ways, he to his bike and me to my motorized vehicle.

Yeah, a bike. Addendum: Bruce biked from Ned to Hessie, then trail ran 10 miles up and across the Continental Divide so he could go fishing. Nice! I'm no slouch, but I think he was in better shape than I was.

This was a satisfying run on great terrain. Next time I'll take fewer breaks and see if I can improve on the time a bit. Garmin Connect had me at 45 minutes of just standing around, although as I've said before, Garmin and I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on what constitutes "running". I don't think the web site is really geared towards trail running, with its vertical, twists, turns and hiking, which probably seem like stasis to its speed computations when compared to road running. Whatever. Speed is just icing on the cake. In the end, it's the fun that matters.


  1. Your photos are amazing!

    Garmin Connect - eh, whatever. You can only measure so much about being out there.

  2. Thanks!

    Garmin - It's mostly mock indignation. Still a great tool.

  3. Hi there! This looks like a great route. My friend and I are planning on taking the same path in a week. I was wondering if you still have the KML or GPS route file that you'd be willing to share? Thanks!

  4. GPS track:

    It's standard hiking trails that are on maps: Devils Thumb Trail up, Corona Trail left, King Lake Trail left/down