Carter Creek: A Holy Cross Wilderness Wonderland

Photography by Tim Cooney 

Photography by Tim Cooney 

Like a multi-hued landscape painting, Colorado’s Western Slope is a land of varied terrains, towns, cultures, and activities. The region is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise, with surrounding mountains defining the land. As summer brings heat to the valleys, we flock to these mountains seeking a cooling respite, high adventure, and wilderness solitude — a place to get away from it all.

    During one such summer escape, my wife and I were completely stunned by what we found on a visit to a remote location within the Holy Cross Wilderness. Less than three hours from our Redlands home, we found ourselves packing into what we have come to call our “Colorado Shangri-La.”

Holy Cross Getaway-Tim Cooney-007.jpg

    Reaching Carter Creek requires a short and moderately laborious backpack trip that begins on the trail to the Savage Lakes. Only those willing to pay the physical price of some aching feet and shoulders will be rewarded with the solitude and beauty offered here. (Fear not, though. A stop at the world-famous Glenwood Hot Springs Pool on the way home can help relieve any pain.)

    Carter Creek flows out from mountains that surround an ancient glacial valley. The high peaks capture winter snows measured in feet, which linger well into the summer months under the shadow of those rugged summits. At the head of the creek is a series of crystalline, teal-colored, trout-filled lakes, some remaining partially frozen into July. The creek originates in the highest of those lakes and winds down the valley in a series of cascades and waterfalls with intervening placid pools.

    The valley is surrounded by summits soaring to almost 13,000 feet. Wildflowers abound, while numerous snowfields lend an almost arctic presence to this seldom-visited alpine valley. Awestruck at times, we found the views bordering on resplendent. Our cameras received quite a workout!

    Because we were there to enjoy the wilderness scenery, this was a trip where freeze-dried meals made a lot of sense. Lightweight to pack and quick to prepare, they require only one pot for boiling water. Why waste precious time on cooking elaborate meals (unless it’s a trout dinner!)? As an added benefit, the meals’ resealable foil pouches can be used to store trash for packing out later. (Most other packaged food items we open beforehand and combine into a single baggie to save weight and trash.)

Holy Cross Getaway-Tim Cooney-002.jpg

    Speaking of trash ... While visiting such a spectacular area, it is essential to follow standard wilderness ethics for backcountry travel, including camping an ample distance from lakes and streams, properly disposing of human waste, and removing all garbage. Hang food to deter bears, marmots, and other rodents from chewing their way into your tent and food supply.

    Finally, especially in times of drought, be extremely careful with fires. Check current regulations, and build fires well away from any fuel source. If conditions are very dry, consider doing without. This is one of the most pristine wilderness locations in Colorado. Let’s keep it that way!