I woke up on Sunday morning in late July and finally decided it was time to hit the high country for altitude training. With most of my training partners getting ready for the Leadville Trail 100, I knew it would be easy to drag a few of them along with me. But, with all of our busy schedules, I knew I had to find something close. I chose Herman’s Gulch.
Just a short drive up Interstate 70, this high altitude paradise is an easy 60 minute drive from Denver, but a world away. We pulled into the trailhead parking lot at 7:00 a.m. and found only two other cars. Soon we were off.
Starting out at 10,200 feet, my lungs began to sizzle as soon as my feet started moving. The first two miles were an uphill grind. Luckily for me, we were going for a three hour run, so we did a lot of walking in the beginning.
As we climbed up the forested trail, the howl of the freeway was slowly replaced by the gushing water coming down from the mountain runoff. In some places, we had to hop a creek and in others we high stepped through the tree roots. Amazingly, the trail was wet in some places, as if the snow had just melted.
After about a mile of climbing, we rose above the tree line and into a wide, grassy meadow, displaying our first views of the towering mountains around us. The kaleidoscope of wildflowers made this view even more inspiring, and I accidentally picked up the pace. Luckily, I was running with two ultrarunners who were having no problems with either the altitude or the climbing.
As we made our way through the meadow, I marveled at the yellow, purple, white and red wildflowers, with a few baby blue Columbines thrown in for good measure. The flowers were all over the place and it was hard to look at both them and the mountains.
After two miles of climbing, we came to a sign that told us the Continental Divide Trail veered to the right towards Jones Pass, while Herman’s Lake was straight ahead. I looked at my watch and found we were at 11,800 feet. We had climbed 1,600′ in two miles. That explains why my quads were on fire!
We decided to continue on the CDT towards Jones Pass. As soon as we made the turn, the trail became a true high mountain single track, not nearly as heavily traveled as the Herman’s Gulch Trail. I was surprised to find that this trail actually leveled out and went down a bit before cresting a saddle and dropping down the other side. At this point I had to stop and just soak in the view. Standing on this saddle at 12,000′ we could see Torreys Peak to our south and Long’s Peak to our north. We also took in the breathtaking views of the valley below before continuing down the trail, over a creek and back up the other side.
At this point, the climbing started again. Once we got to the second saddle of the day, the trail turned right and began to travel across the ridge line towards Jones Pass. Up on the ridge I was glad I had brought a jacket because the wind was really howling. We stopped at a huge rock pile on the top of one of the peaks to sign in. The book inside the glass jar said we were on Hassell Peak at 13,215 feet. It had taken us one hour and 40 minutes to get to here. Standing on top of this beast, we could see Torreys Peak, Mt. Evans, Mt. Bierstadt, and Long’s Peak – four of Colorado’s famed “14ers.”
At this point we decided to head back towards the car, taking a side trip up to Herman’s Lake on the way back. As we traveled down the Herman’s Gulch trail, we must have passed 40 hikers coming up to the lake. Many gave us weird looks as we went flying by them on the steep trail. Back at the parking lot, every single space was full.
As we drove back to Denver, all I could think about were the wildflowers, the lake and the wonderful mountain vistas we had just left. It is hard to believe that this paradise is so close the city.
Editors Note: The trail distance from the trailhead to Herman’s Lake is two and a half miles one way, with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet, with a maximum of 12,400 feet. To get to Herman’s Gulch, exit I-70 at exit 218. The parking lot is on the north side of the freeway.