|NATIONAL PARKS QUICKLINKS|
From the Cowles campground, take the Winsor Ridge Trail (#271) as it winds back and forth through aspen groves and meadows. Isn't it just stunning how fast the ecosystem changes? After about 5 easy miles of gaining elevation, you run into the sign for Stewart Lake. Take the small downward switchback to your left that seems to be going back the way you came. After a few minutes, you hit the small pond that appears to be your destination. Don't believe the fools that we saw when we went, continue on for half a mile to the far superior Stewart Lake. The best campsite, if no one else is there, is halfway down the south shore next to the small car sized boulder sitting in the water. There is a fire ring, plenty of good trees for hanging things and sitting on, and it offers the best basecamp for exploring around the lake. Camp there and fish the day away off of the rock or try to find the best views. Just after sunset, lay down on the big rock and look at the stars. Just like any other wilderness, there are alot of stars!
After you break down camp, go back the beginning of the lake and find the trail the goes to the right (south). Follow this easy trail for about a mile until the intersection right next to the creek. Take a right turn (it's okay, the trail widens in about 50 feet) and start the steep climb up to Katherine. After you follow this trail for a while, you hit a "T" intersection (it's easy to miss, pay attention!). You get a choice. If you go right, it's easier, faster, but with much less scenery. If you stay straight, it's harder, slower (because of fallen trees), but it's a much more scenic route. We took the slower one going up and the faster one coming down. After you grit your teeth and just push through this section, you get to the base of the final stretch. These switchbacks are really, really tough, so pace yourself. As you finally crest over the top of the basin, you get a first glimpse of the lake. Find a campsite quickly (they're all awesome), but remember, you have to camp at least 200 feet from the lake. Drop your pack, grab a snack, and get down to the water to bask in the alpine sun. This is the place to spend hours and hours taking pictures. Once you've regained some of your energy and had some lunch, you can set your sights on the Baldy. If you are like us, then you don't want to use to trail to top. That trail is for wimps. Real men (and women) don't need trails; they just walk up the side of the mountain! That's mainly because we're impatient, but who cares? The best place to do that is on the north side of the lake, on the grassy and misleadingly steep slope. Get to it by scrambling around the side of the basin (Quick Tip: If you brought a walking stick that you don't want to break, just get a piece of wood. We learned that the hard way). If you look hard, you can see the little remnants of goat trails that you can use as really steep stairs. Once you get to the top, you're about 700 horizontal feet and 50 vertical feet away from the summit (the lump that's higher than everything else). Aren't the views just spectacular? They change every 100 feet you go! At the very top, you can see just how strange the shape of the mountain is; it's a big bowl that's missing a side! Once you get to the summit, go back to the mini-summit near where you climbed up to the ridge. Descend there (It's steeper, but there are hand holds and firmer ground). After 30 minutes of cautious downclimbing, you're back at the bottom. Now rest, fish and enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery in the U.S.
On day three, back track and come back the way you came. After 3-6 hours of knee-busting descending, you make it back to the parking lot! You just gained and lost about 5,250 feet in 20 miles!