~6.5 miles one-way
When I put the Gore Range on my list of places to visit in 2010, I knew Dora Lake had to be the top priority. When I first saw Jack Brauer’s picture from here, I was so impressed with the view; looking over Dora Lake with the impressive row of peaks in the background that is really a quintessential mountain scene. Then, my friend, Jody Grigg, visited in 2007 and showed me more pictures. I oh so badly wanted to see it, but thought it was out of my physical ability to see such a place after hearing him describe the route. Then, after two seasons’ worth of backpacking, I grew less intimidated of the places I once believed were unreachable.
Once I knew I was going to give this place a go, I believed it would be best to go early in the season before the daily thunderstorms roll over our mountains like clockwork. Being that the lake sits on a high alpine tundra shelf, it is not a place I’d enjoy being a sitting target. I originally planned to do this around the first of July, then after Tad Bowman’s schedule cleared up, we ended up setting the date for the end of June, which was two weeks earlier on the calendar than when Jody went. I was hoping the snow situation wouldn’t be that much different making travel more difficult, namely around the snowfield that immediately precedes the arrival to the lake.
We left Denver around 9 AM and planned to be on the trail around noon, and hoped to have a couple of hours of daylight to spare for sunset shooting around Dora Lake. What ensued made us look absolutely silly with that bold estimation!
We got arrived at the trailhead in rather warm temperatures (~80 degrees). We probably should’ve left earlier for this reason alone, but as with most mountain trails, the trees shade you most of the way. We started up the trail at 1:00. The trail started uphill in earnest immediately, and with one to two main exceptions all the way to Surprise Lake, is a rather substantial uphill grade. It took a long two hours just to reach the Gore Trail intersection three miles in, where we stopped to eat. Once there, it is another mile to the unnamed creek drainage between Surprise Lake and Upper Cataract Lake, where we followed it all the way up. We finally arrived at the drainage intersection at 3:52, left the maintained trail behind and started uphill. We were almost hit immediately with all the tree blowdown, but we made do, and it didn’t seem all that bad early on, at least to me. Knowing going in that this toughest stretch is only six-tenths of a mile and 500 feet, it seems like it should be short-lived. It didn’t take long for hunger to set in going up, under, over, and around (did I miss anything?) all the trees. It was really energy-zapping. The mosquitoes were pretty bad—check that, really bad— but mostly weren’t a problem if we kept moving. When we stopped, they all seemed to swarm around me and my lake of sweat that I had amassed on my head and on my back. But our hunger got to the point where we had to find a place to sit down and eat something.
We put on our rain jackets to protect ourselves from the mosquitoes. I ate my peanut butter and honey sandwich, and really should’ve ate more, but I figured it would get me through a good bit of distance further—wrong! Tad had an energy bar. While seated, I got the bright idea to turn on the GPS to see where we were and to get an idea of how much further we had to go before tree line. It seemed we were making very little progress. With all the zigzagging you have to do, knocking off that six-tenth of a mile seemed more like three miles. Who knows, maybe it was! We finally emerged from all the downed trees, which was a great relief. We figured we should be able to go at a decent rate the rest of the way—wrong again! What we saw when we came to tree line was a steady uphill wall in front of us, which had many false shelves. That sandwich I ate got burned up within twenty minutes. We were really expending a lot of energy, and now time was becoming a bit of a factor, in terms of if we’d be able to make it to the lake for sunset. We kept pressing on, but making up very little distance at our bogged-down pace. We were both extremely hungry and getting really tired, and oh so ready to be at our destination. The views looking back to Green Mountain Reservoir and beyond that were opening up were wonderful. And we kept looking back after having to rest seemingly every thirty feet.
We finally came to where the ridge leveled, where it is mostly level walk to get to the final stretch. Sunset was happening when we were here, and while I definitely wanted to keep moving (that is a relative term), the clouds were looking too good and I had to stop to get the camera out to record the show. I was really disappointed to not have been at Dora Lake at this point making better use of the wonderful sunset, but this was the situation we were faced with and had to make do. Tad wanted to keep going to get over to the snowfield before dark, so he never did stop to take any pictures.
When the colors finally faded, I continued on my way. There was actually one other snowfield to go up and cross over en route to the main one. After ascending it without much difficulty, with the exception of the constant reminder of hunger and tiredness, there was a short, level talus section to cross before reaching the base of the main snowfield. I had thought I had seen a well-worn path across it from a distance, and Tad actually started out on it and went a good ways, maybe about 60 feet, but it was extremely dicey and had slipped a bit before thinking better of it and turning around. It was dark at this point. We had both long since been extremely exhausted and hungry. I kept taking sips of water the whole way up, but by this point, having a second sip almost made me want to throw it up, though I was plenty hydrated.
So, after Tad found that we weren’t going to be able to cut across the snowfield, that left us with one option—go up and around. Wonderful! In case I haven’t been able to convey just how hungry and dead-tired we were at this point, I’ll just say that this task was the most brutal thing either of us has had to endure; it was downright horrible. Somehow, we both managed to press on. The talus on the mound’s slope we were navigating were very large. We both put our trekking poles away and we had to scramble through it as we needed our hands. We both thought briefly if we should spend the night on the rocks. We both felt like we could sit down right there with packs on and go to sleep. We kept going, and now the moon was coming up. We could see Dora Lake shimmering below us, but it still seemed like a long way off. Not necessarily in distance, but in the time it would take to reach it. Naturally, the perimeter of the snowfield rose to a point, so we had to go a couple hundred feet up and around before we could head down. We were now on the downhill side and Tad started making his way down the snowfield to try to save time. It was a much safer proposition at this point, in terms of human life. I wasn’t sure at first because I didn’t even want to risk post-holing, for this would mean I might be stuck until September given the amount of energy it would require extracting myself. Eventually, I, too, started carefully down. The snowfield came within around a hundred feet of Dora’s shore, so assuming we could make it, it would certainly save a lot of time and energy versus navigating the rocky slope. I took a few steps before I said, "Forget this, I’m going to sit down and slide.” Oh yes! Perfect! I rode in a very slow and controlled manner all the way down, which was around 250 feet worth.
We were now at the shore and on level ground. All we had to do was walk around the lake just a couple hundred feet further to make camp. We finally arrived at 10:30—9.5 hours after we started! Brutally whipped, I have no idea how we garnered the energy to get our tents out and set them up, but we did, even if it took us just short of an hour to do so. As hungry as I was, there was no way I would be able to down anything, and sleep and getting off my feet were much more of a valued resource. We turned in.
Morning came, and the moon was low and over the lake. It was shining beautifully though the purplish twilight and the reflection was staggering on the water. Unfortunately, my head was just popping out of my tent to see this, and by the time either of us got up and cameras together, the breeze started and took the reflection away. The earth’s shadow came and we were thankful to be in this glorious place. Man, we did it! Then the strong orange alpenglow came. It was stunning. After the sweet light was gone, we walked around the southern end of the lake to see the view over and into the Black Creek drainage. “Whoa!” Now the mountains really take on their prominence from here. Utterly impressive, and a scene which compares to very few in Colorado that I’ve been able to see. They looked similar to what I thought Washington’s Cascades look like. A bit shorter than them to be sure, but in terms of the chiseled look, very much so. Mount Powell is crazy big and impressive from this vantage point, but I loved all the other pointy peaks just as much. It is unbelievable.
We rested and didn’t do much of anything during the day, then we headed back over to the edge in late afternoon. I eventually hiked up the additional 300 feet to get atop the shelf to see Eagles Nest, which is the fine mountain capping off the north end of the range. The trip wouldn’t have been complete without at least taking a snapshot of it to record for later viewing. The clouds during the late afternoon and sunset were tremendous, which made for a number of really good pictures.
Our second morning saw clear skies one again, but the rich contrast between the brilliant orange alpenglow on the peaks and the deep blue of the sky and its reflection in the water were still great. Clouds would have been welcome, but you can’t win them all.
After the saturated colors of sunrise gave way to the less pleasing light, we packed up our gear and started back out. We scrambled over the talus slope again over the snowfield encountering many large spiders and their webs between the rocks. We made it through this section, then over the second snowfield, and eventually the steep drainage we came up. We got back down in the blowdown maze section, where once again, this really stole our energy and hunger quickly ensued. In one marshy section, Tad’s left foot got stuck and didn’t want to come out of the bog and ended up falling backwards really tweaking his knee. The situation was not good, and I feared ligament damage when it first happened, which would really put us in a pickle. Thankfully, though the pain was extensive for him, he made it down the rest of the trail without too much of a problem. It was a long walk back, and it was almost no less tiring going down than up. Believe me, we were so happy to make it back to the vehicles and enjoy the air conditioning. After seeing the interior of the Gore Range for the first time on this trip, then a few weeks later on the southern end of the range at Eccles Pass, to me, these are the finest mountains in Colorado. Overall, the hard work we put in was rewarded with views that matched intensity. It ranks right at the top with the best I've seen anywhere. Was it worth it? Yeah, I guess it was. Would I do it again? I believe I would, then I would no doubt curse myself once I start up the trail-less section!