Happy Trails – Hessie – Lost Lake – Woodland Lake


By Suzanne Webel

Poor Hessie. In all the research I’ve done I haven’t been able to learn if there once was a maiden named Hessie for whom this tiny gold-mining community west of Nederland was named, or what. In any case, she’s famous now, because the Hessie townsite is one of the most popular jumping-off points to many beautiful trails in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

As a result of Hessie’s newfound popularity, there is no longer anywhere to park a horse trailer near the trailhead (P-2). While we used to be able to park in the small, bumpy meadow near the townsite, beavers have built dams that flood the access road and the Forest Service likes it that way. There is no place to park anywhere along the narrow, steep shelf road up to Buckingham Park, either. Therefore, consider parking in the town of Eldora, where you may be lucky if you don’t have the NIMBY neighbors call out the posse against you. The main road will bear left but you should go straight onto Klondyke Road, a dirt road with adequate room to park somewhere along it (P-1). Ride through town and up the unpaved road a mile and a half to the Hessie junction. Instead, turn left (down the hill) and ride through the flood created by all those zealous beavers, to the actual Hessie trailhead.

In its infinite wisdom, Boulder County purchased a large piece of land (called the “David Property”) behind the townsite, specifically for a trailhead to connect people to the Indian Peaks. It contains nothing but some scattered ponderosa pine trees and an old road. However, someone decided that no, actually, this property was pristine wilderness and should therefore become more closed space, and certainly not (gasp!) a trailhead. Since now there is insufficient parking for anyone, they widened the main road slightly and decided to implement a free shuttle from the Nederland High School to Hessie. So you can go there for free, and you can even take your dog on the shuttle, but once again, equestrians are shut out of the picture because there’s no way to put your horse on the shuttle. And if you’re a taxpayer in Boulder County, this boondoggle is costing YOU more than $25 for each person who actually does take the free shuttle.

The railroad finally reached Eldora (which was once called Happy Valley) via the Switzerland Trail in 1904, but the mining boom faded not long thereafter and Eldora has been a quiet backwater since then, with old mines and cabins scattered everywhere. In wildflower season the whole area is ablaze with shooting stars, Indian paintbrush and columbine; in leaf season the golden aspen steal the show. Proceed up the old mining road, crossing the rushing creek several times. There are many cascades in the gorge — and sometimes in the trails and roads themselves. After about a mile you’ll see a rocky trail going left up to Lost Lake (how many Lost Lakes are there in the world? hundreds? I’ve lost track), which had filled into a bog when I was there last (you might even find the shoe my horse lost when we were up there). People might have created a trail all the way around the lake by now, and there are some really scenic old mines up there. We also just about lost a horse up there when we stopped for lunch; he decided hobbles were only a trivial inconvenience and booked it halfway back to the trailhead before we could catch up with him….

Return to the main trail and proceed straight to a high meadow, with several trail junctions and a beautiful view of the Continental Divide. The King Lake trail goes left, up the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek: a good ride for another day. Follow the pretty valley toward Devil’s Thumb until the next trail junction. The Devil’s Thumb Lake / Jasper Lake Trail continues right, to the lakes of those names. Some of those trails are closed to horses. Unless you’re quite adventuresome, or quite committed, this might be a good place to turn around.

We, of course, proceeded straight on up the middle trail to Woodland Lake, negotiating an obstacle course of fallen logs, steep rocky sections, snowfields, and boggy areas where the Forest Service years ago built “washboards” of closely-spaced logs perpendicular to the trail and which now resemble half-buried wooden cattle guards. We were rewarded for our efforts with lunch at Woodland Lake, nestled in a glacial cirque just below treeline, with an array of alpine wildflowers, globe flowers and marsh marigolds.

The thunderstorm only started after we had turned around for home, but it was very close and quite violent, with lots of rain and even a little hail. Be prepared for anything when riding in the mountains, and keep a sense of humor.

And our “cool dude?” I only found out after we had started that one of our illustrious number was a grandmother who hadn’t ridden since she was fourteen (and that was just for one summer), and she was riding a borrowed horse. Well, the borrowed horse was a trooper and the grandma turned out to be the liveliest of us all at the end of a long day!

Back to the miserable public access situation for this part of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The Eldora Mountain Resort (EMR) recently applied for a controversial permit to expand its winter ski runs. Again, the NIMBY neighbors in Eldora rose up in arms, claiming new people would ruin their quiet mountain idyll. Silly me, I tried some out-of-the-box thinking by suggesting that a summer trailhead be established at the enormous, empty, EMR parking lot, with summer trail access to Lost Lake and beyond. That would even relieve the Eldora folks of the hassle of the great unwashed hordes passing through their backyards on their unsuccessful attempts to get to Hessie all summer long. But nope, once again, creativity and reason didn’t prevail, and we just lost the best hope for access to Lost Lake ever. “Lost” really has several connotations here, doesn’t it?

Total distance: Approximately 14 miles
Total time:     Approximately 6 hours
Difficulty:       Moderate to Lost Lake/Devil’s Thumb/Woodland Lake Junction
Difficult above junction to Woodland Lake
Dogs:             Leash only
Jurisdiction:  Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest: Indian Peaks Wilderness
County: Boulder
USGS Topo:     Nederland, East Portal

Hessie Woodland Map