Colorado's Willow Creek Trail

Hike like a conquistador through Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
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Hike like a conquistador through Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Conquistadors aren't much in style these days -- mayhem and atrociously bad manners went out a while back -- but they did have a way with words. On seeing the jagged peaks of this Colorado range, most likely ablaze in a crimson sunset, the conquerors tagged them "Sangre de Cristo" for their resemblance to a crown of thorns drenched in the "Blood of Christ."

One of the most beautiful pathways into this storied range is the Willow Creek Trail, first traveled in the seventeenth century by Spaniards maintaining a fort at the base of Crestone Peak. Seven miles of uphill hiking will carry you to a glorious alpine lake, fed by a 100-foot waterfall. Within striking distance are 14,000-footers like Kit Carson and Crestone peaks, plus a seemingly limitless number of 13ers. Camp away from the lake.

Adventuresome hikers will want to hop the ridge (snowpack willing) east of the lake to access 14 miles of trail along both North and South Colony creeks, or explore the alpine zone at will.

TRAIL PLANNER

LENGTH: 7 miles, one-way.

WHERE: About 200 miles (3 1/2 hours) southwest of Denver. Follow US 285 south out of Denver or Colorado Springs, to CO 17 south. Turn east onto Saguache County Road 7, and follow it throughCrestone, past the post office, then about 1 more mile to the trailhead.

RATING: Moderate to the lake (elevation gain is 3,500 feet), but strenuous beyond.

MAPS: Your only choice is USGS 7.5-minute topos Crestone, Crestone Peak, Horn Peak, and Beck Mountain.

CONTACT: San Juan-Rio Grande National Forest, 1803 West Hwy. 160, Monte Vista, CO 81144; (719) 852-5941.