North Fork Lake Creek Trail
Rating: Moderate except for a steep section at the end
Distance: 8.1 miles round-trip
Elevation gain: 1,670 feet
Estimate hiking time: 4 to 5 hours
Dogs: Must be leashed
Trailhead: Drive Highway 82 east from Aspen to the top of Independence Pass. From the Continental Divide sign atop the pass, it’s 4.5 miles to the trailhead turnoff on the left. A dirt road leads to a small parking area.
Route: Even though this trail has roadside access, it’s easy to pass by as you travel over the pass. We recommend taking the time to stop and enjoy a beautiful, uncrowded hike up this high-altitude valley in the Mount Massive Wilderness. Most of the time, the trail is in wide-open terrain, so the views are pretty much constant.
The route begins on an old four-wheel-drive road before climbing slightly and narrowing to single track. Where the wilderness boundary begins, cross a small creek via some logs placed across it. The trail very gradually ascends the valley, tracing its path through stands of willow bushes that are beginning to change color as fall approaches.
After a couple of miles, the trail veers left up a short (but not steep) climb, then meets up with a tributary of North Fork Lake Creek. Look for the continuation of the main trail on the other side of the creek, scoping out your crossing spot via boulders. If you happen to continue without crossing, the trail will get fainter as it heads left and away from the creek; backtrack to rejoin the main trail.
The trail begins to steepen as you ascend to the head of valley. You’ll lose a bit of elevation during the traverse over to a hanging valley. At this point, the trail gets fainter as it crosses the tundra; look for a small cairn if you feel like you’ve gotten off track.
The real climb starts at the base of several switchbacks that lead up a steep hillside before popping you out on a bench that cradles a small unnamed lake beneath Deer Mountain. Take a breather and enjoy the views all around of 13,000-foot-plus peaks before continuing up for another five or so minutes to a pass atop the Continental Divide. From there, you’ll be looking down into the headwaters of the Fryingpan River and three eponymous lakes (and, perhaps, be inspired to backpack down the other side on a future outing).