Collegiate West Part 4 - Hiking Like a Boss: Boss Lake that is!

July 9, 2020

Destination: Boss Lake Today's Miles: 16.60

Start Location: N Fork Chalk Creek Trip Miles: 241.20



Today’s continuation of crossing high peaks was not as long as yesterday. Thank goodness. We slept a little later than usual allowing the daylight to beat us to the trail. Other than being a little stiff getting going we were eager to tackle another day.


Climbing up from Tincup Pass/N. Chalk Creek was an easy grade with switchbacks guiding us through lively mixed timber. Quite pleasant actually. Leaving the trees behind we rolled through open high tundra, nothing too strenuous compared to yesterday.


We talked briefly to a thru hiker northbound on the CDT who mentioned Boss Lake as a nice place to camp for the evening. It gave us something to consider depending how the day goes, his description made it sound quite appealing and the distance was about right.


The dog people caught and passed us before the day’s first big descent. Funny how you gather bits and pieces on the trail. Matthew shared that he is a med student wanting to specialize in ER medicine. Michelle promised to tell us her story the next time we met up.


Happy not to scale anything too demanding we were briefly distracted from the big views by the historical details of the area. An overlook to our right allowed us to see remnants of what was once the highest railroad tunnel in the world. An innovator of its time, the Denver South Park and Pacific Railroad completed the first tunnel to cross the Continental Divide in 1882 after two years of excavation.


Looking below we could make out pieces of Alpine Station, the old engine house, telegraph office and even a railroad roundtable. If it weren’t so far below we would love to have explored the old station. The tunnel is now collapsed on both ends.


Making our way off the ridge we descended to the far side of the tunnel, landing on the old railroad bed amidst lots of hikers and bikers.


Hiking down the railroad grade was excellent, slightly downhill with good tread only occasionally interrupted by decomposing railroad ties. Alongside the trail was loaded with wildflowers.


We were enjoying the history and interpretive signs, one mentioning Sawmill Curve - ‘sometimes they got away’:

“...one of the most dangerous sections of the track, engineers and brakemen had to test their skills and wits to keep an engine with loaded rail cars on the tracks. The steep grade from the east portal of the Alpine Tunnel down to Hancock was a dangerous ride. As the trains rounded Sawmill Curve, many failed to make the curve resulting in a mangled mass of metal as cars uncoupled and crashed off the curve”.

Harsh conditions and destructive natural events caused the railway’s closure in 1910. All this we pondered while quickly covering the roughly 3 miles to the Hancock Trailhead where there were lots of parked cars.


From here we walked the road a little over 1.5 miles to Hancock Lake. Several UTV’s passed by and a couple 4 wheel drive vehicles. Strange to have to share the road with vehicles and I remember thinking that it’s funny how pedestrians are supposed to have the right-of-way yet every time a vehicle approached it was us who stepped to the shoulder of the road - sometimes with no acknowledgement of thanks from the driver. We walked as fast as we could despite the rocky climb, anxious to get away from those types of people.


There were quite a few people fishing at Hancock Lake, Upper Hancock Lake was unoccupied and the wind was severe so we ducked down best we could and had a snack before the ascent up Chalk Creek Pass. We could see the saddle on the ridgeline above, it didn’t look too intimidating and I guessed we could make the climb in 30-45 minutes.

This was our final big ascent of the day putting us at just over 12,000 feet which took exactly 30 minutes.


Fortunately the wind diminished a little (but not completely) dropping down the other side. This was a long and scenic 5 mile trek down the Middle Fork of the South Arkansas River. When we reached the Boss Lake Trailhead we were elated - and tired. The cumulative daily exertion was taking its toll.


With pictures of a perfect lake-view camp spot dancing in our heads we were not prepared for the nasty climb ahead. Boss Lake was less than a mile with roughly 500 foot of elevation gain and as Aaron so eloquently put it: ‘they mustn’t believe in switchbacks west of the Arkansas River”.


The trail forced us straight up the mountain, my legs agonizing over every steep step. It was a ridiculously steep trail - small consolation was noticing the marking and flagging for a new trail to be cut in with switchbacks. Thank goodness. No one should have to climb straight up such a steep hill at the end of a long day I decided while making the slow ascent.


We made it to the lake after making our legs do more work than they wanted to do but found a beautiful spot overlooking the lake as our reward. It was a lot better than the ‘hole in the trees’ camp last night. We had a great view of Boss Lake and a bit of privacy - the only other campers were clustered below and a ways away, over by the inlet.

Somehow we had a bit of cell service so I reached out to brother Mike to let him know we would be arriving at Monarch Pass the next day about noon if all goes well. Also had my dad extend our reservation for Friday night since we were a day early.


We are happy to be here. We are also happy that tomorrow we get a bed and a shower and to relax because our legs are FRIED.