Saddle Sore: Saddle up, and head to Snowmass Lake

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at
Tony Vagneur/Courtesy photo

There were thoughts, usually early in the morning just as I awoke, of hiking to Snowmass Lake just for the experience, and besides, I had a hankering to see that trail once again. And then, a friend wanted to take a long ride horseback, and there it was: “Let’s saddle up and head to Snowmass Lake.”

Back in my twenties, as head wrangler at the T Lazy 7, I used to make that ride with some regularity, packing people in and out of the lake, mostly families looking for an escape from the hubbub for a few days. I’d pack their gear in, they’d generally hike, and we’d meet up at the lake. “Come get our stuff in five days” or whatever. Some did it years running. Sometimes, we’d get there over Buckskin Pass. Or Willow. Or both.

My photo collection has pictures of my grandmother’s family, the elder Stapletons, either coming or going to the lake on weeklong fishing and hiking expeditions. One photo features ten folks, men and women, all on horseback, coming down the trail, packhorses loaded.

And there’s the photo album my dad put together of him, his sister Eileen, teacher Hildur Anderson, and 4 or 5 other men. They’d been there for the week and, on the way out, were photographed looking at a grave marker along the trail, no location given. Whose bones do you suppose reside there, now in an unmarked resting place? Ah, the things we don’t know.

The day of our planned expedition — with not a cloud in the sky and perfect cool weather (maybe a little too cool until we got in the sun) — I headed out with excitement in my chest, returning to a place strong in my memory, many years past. It was like visiting an old friend.

Pulling a horse trailer, expecting to park right at the trailhead, as we might in the “old” days, was maybe a little presumptuous, and on the advice of a hunter leaving the area, we parked down the road about 50 yards. No complaints about that.

The loading dock, put there for the use of stock trucks and used frequently back in the day, was still in place, although it was a bit overgrown and looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. But it was not blocked, as it sometimes was, back when we really needed it.

I’d pull in there, 5 or 6 horses in the stock truck, unload, pack them up in a preplanned fashion, string them out, one behind the other, and head for Snowmass Lake. Hardly ever saw anyone, outside of the group attached to me. Did that by myself most of the time. Such arrogance.

Other times, I’d meet one of our pack trips coming out of the mountains, which had started at the ranch or around Marble, and end up hauling a couple loads of horses out of the area. Get done long after dark. We loved it, although it was a lot of work.

Like most other valleys in the area, the beginning of the trail is enclosed on both sides by aspens, evergreens, and in the case of Snowmass, occasional huge rocks, towers of unimpeachable strength and size that seem almost otherworldly.

It’s a tight fit and a friendly climb until one hits the first switchbacks. At the top, wow, the valley opens up, and we got the first real observation of the mountains and peaks surrounding the valley. Spectacular, particularly with the brilliant gold of aspens, not yet fully turned, but on an impending, fleeting, magnificent course of once-a-year transformation. Soon, only the white bark skeletons will remain, but with practically perfect timing, we caught the change at almost the pinnacle of its splendor.

From there, a sure-footed horse is worth his weight in gold, for the trail becomes quite rocky and varies from up to down, mostly up, in a variegated fashion. Keeps one’s attention, between the trail and the view. My horse-riding partner had been up there years before, as well, and neither one of us quite remembered the sequences of the trail, so it was also a mission of discovery.

When we got to the creek crossing, it took some sleuthing to figure out where to connect with the trail on the other side. Deadfall, washed down by spring flow, had created a logjam directly where the trail crossed the creek for years. It makes one wonder how hikers manage it during high water.

Lunch at the lake was near priceless, the water is amazing, and as one would expect, we shared the shore with 6 or 7 other people, some of them doing the Four-Pass Loop. Kudos to them.

Beautiful day, beautiful scenery, beautiful memories. And we got down before dark.


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