Backpacking to Willow Lake {AKA: When Wildlife Goes Crazy}

The Fourth of July is always one of my favorite holidays to head to the hills. Sure, you have to know where to go to avoid the crowds {since everyone in the state wants to go to the mountains!), but playing outside is my favorite way to celebrate the independence of our country.

And Tals loves it too!


All Photos By Will Rochfort

This year was no different, so Will and I planned a return trip to one of our favorites: Willow Lake. If you’ve read my site for a few years, you may remember our first trip to this exact spot back in October, 2013. Of course, it was freaking freezing then and the trail was covered with snow and the lake was frozen. We were hoping this time would be a tad warmer and more comfortable!

We enlisted a few friends to join us, packed up the our necessary gear and food, and hit the road early Thursday afternoon. We were on our way!

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We arrived at the trailhead around 10pm and immediately realized it was more crowded than it had been during our chilly October venture; the parking lot was full of people! Calling an audible, we automatically bailed on our plans of sleeping in the parking lot. Instead, we drove back down the dirt road until we found an available dispersed campsite on the side. We climbed out of our cars and started unloading our gear for the evening. It only took a few minutes, but I started noticing this weird burn in my arm. And then my leg. And my shin. And my ankle. What the heck?!


Y’all, Colorado is not an incredibly buggy state and we very rarely see mosquitoes at higher elevations. But, we managed to time the hatch perfectly and it coincided with all of this rain we’ve recently received. The results was an absurd amount of mosquitoes that I swear were the size of pterodactyls! I have this innate ability to act as mosquito bait, so my exposed limbs were swelling up like whoa. I looked at poor Tals and realized she had no less than a dozen flying critters sitting on her nose while another dozens feasted on her legs. Blech!


We hurriedly set up our tent for the night, *literally* throwing our gear through the mesh doors before dive bombing inside ourselves. We gasped a sigh of relief once the zippers sealed tight; at least the wretched mosquitoes couldn’t get us in the tent! Will and I knew we would be parking lot-camping on Thursday, so we’d brought two sets of gear: one ultralight backpacking setup and another heavier-yet-comfy car camping quiver. Truthfully, the big difference is in what I bring for Tals. Since we were camping next to our Subaru, she was living in the lap of luxury: she had her OWN sleeping bag with her OWN sleeping pad! Once she saw her nest assembled, she happily turned in a few circles before laying down and snoozing the night away. This girl loves sleeping in tents!

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Friday morning dawned….late. We all slept in and grew lazier as we dawdled inside the tents, wanting to avoid the mosquitoes for as long as possible. We finally accepted the inevitable and tore down out tents and geared up for the day. Thankfully, a few in our posse had brought bug spray. Neither Will nor I own any because we both hate the stuff, but I couldn’t handle the bites anymore. Will stayed strong, and continued to do so throughout the trip; he never applied any spray!


The Willow Lake Trail sounds innocent on paper: it’s a four mile trek into a beautiful alpine lake that is nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A few 14ers are in the area, and the formidable peaks tower above the lake. Our plan was simple: we’d spend all day hiking in on Friday, taking our time to enjoy the day. Then, on Saturday, everyone else would get up early to conquer a 14er while I hung back with Tals. As she gets up in years, 14ers are too much climbing and descending on her early-arthritic joints. I knew Challenger Point would be too much for her body, so I planned to do an easy day hike with my girl at my side. Then, we would all hike out together on Sunday.

What do they say about only remembering the good stuff? Apparently Will and I blacked out for part of our previous Willow Lake trip. We had remembered the trail as relatively easy and great for beginners. In reality, it wasn’t terrible but I’m not sure it was great for beginners….of which we had a few in our group! Two of our friends were backpacking for the first time ever and I dare say this trail was a bit rougher than they expected.


As it turns out, there is a fair bit of elevation gain on this trail; 2,700 feet to be exact! The parking lots starts at a mellow 8,800 feet but hikers don’t hit the lake until 11,700 feet….with a whole lot of up-and-down in between. And oh! The switchbacks! There are switchbacks for DAYS on this trail and while they do help minimize the steepness, they are daunting. They seem to go on forever!


Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful hike and the scenery is stunning. The first portion runs alongside a stream, which was perfect for Tally. The trail then climbs up to the top of a gentle ridge before gradually dropping down into Willow Creek. From there, hikers incessantly climb from the firs to the aspen; from the aspen to the boulder fields. The trail switches from soft dirt to packed rock, but switches back to a greener environment for the last half mile before reaching the lake.

Regardless of the difficulty, our team made it to the lake, battling gigantic mosquitoes the entire time! Will and I made the decision to set our tent up on some boulders, high above the common camping area. Anything to avoid the bugs! This meant we took a beating during the weekend’s hailstorms, but it was worth it; I could sit outside and enjoy my coffee while suffering through minimal bites.

The weekend was perfect. Hail rolled in our Friday but stopped after an hour; this was the pattern for the weekend. The crew awoke early on Saturday to hike Challenger Point while Tals and I snoozed in the tent. We eventually rolled out once the sun warmed our nylon walls, and we both enjoyed a leisurely morning drinking coffee on the rocks overlooking the valley. It was perfection…until the goats arrived!


Mountain goats are no stranger to backpackers; they are common in Colorado and it’s not unusual to see them hanging around camp, licking anything with sodium on it. But these goats were WEIRD! At first, it was just one. He appeared on the high rocks surrounding camp and creepily stared down at Tally, Gib and me. I made a little ruckus, assuming he would run away like the others do, but instead, he came closer. He eventually left, only to come back with a big brother and two other friends. There were mountain goats everywhere!

As you can imagine, Tals was NOT having these goats! She was losing her mind barking and no matter what I did, the goats would not leave our campsite alone! I kept hiking away with Tally while Gib tried clearing them out. Alas, these goats really had a thing for Tals because they just.kept.coming.back! Finally, I threw in the towel; so much for reading in the sunshine on Saturday morning. We were going for a hike!


{This was a great decision. Gib stayed behind to read, but later told me that a goat walked right up to our tent, lowered his head and started pawing his hoof in Gib’s direction!}

Tals and I explored the northern edge of the lake, all while dodging mosquitoes and keeping our eyes peeled for more sassy goats. We walked down to the lake, allowing Baby Girl to splash in the water to cool her underbelly. We then climbed up the rocky hillside to sit in the sun, enjoying the view and the lack of bugs. Thankfully, the mosquitoes diminished around 12,300 feet! We kept hiking the trail towards Challenger Peak, thinking we would see Will and our friends hiking down. All we saw were storm clouds. It was time to head back to camp!



Tals and I kept it leisurely on Saturday and I swear, she had a doggy grin the entire time. Even though her hips aren’t able to handle the mileage that she once enjoyed, she still loves to be outside more than anything on the planet. And even though I was bummed to be missing out on the 14er {one of the 12 that I have left!}, I enjoyed the day with my girl. Too often I get caught up in the hustle ‘n bustle of life, and I rarely find the time to sit down in the sunshine and just be. It took 3,000 feet of climbing and a gaggle of mountain goats, but I’m glad Tals and I were able to enjoy each other’s company amidst the lofty peaks of the Sangres.



I want to extend a huge thank you to Merrick Backcountry for funding this trip for Tals and me! They provided compensation for us to go on the adventure, and I know Tally had a great time. Of course, all shenanigans and stories are my own, but I appreciate Merrick’s willingness and enthusiasm to support our outdoor lifestyle.


  • Reply Todd at

    Looks like a great trip! I so wish I lived near the mountains.

  • Reply Art at

    Great pictures and what a great weekend. I want to go to there!!!!

  • Reply Anne at

    She must be the happiest dog ever! LOL Sassy mountain goats.

    • Reply heather at

      They were jerks 🙂 Although I’ve since learned from readers that those are actually Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep! My whole life has been a lie! 🙂

  • Reply Rachel @ Betty LIVIN at

    Awwww… looks like she had a blast! I love taking my dogs out hiking with me. 🙂

  • Reply Rund är också en form! (Round is a also a shape) at

    Wow, amazing photos!
    But “oh no” regarding the mosquitoes…?! 😮

  • Reply Heather @ FITaspire at

    Looks amazing – another one to add to my wishlist of backpacking trips to plan!

  • Reply Jessica at

    I’ll remember my bug spray when I visit Colroado in a couple of weeks. Looks like a beautiful hike.

    • Reply heather at

      Haha it shouldn’t be too bad then 🙂 I think we hit the hatch and timed it with a lot of rain. It’s usually not buggy at all!

  • Reply Christy at

    Tals has the life! Funny about the goats!! Colorado has some beautiful places to explore. What a great place!

  • Reply KovasP at

    I’m not a fan of bug spray either, but with all the crazy diseases mosquitos carry, you have to find repellent you can live with.

  • Reply Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine at

    This looks like a great trip for Tals! Everybody else too, of course…but that picture of her splashing through the water has my heart melting. I am always mosquito meat, walking away with at least 20 bug bites whenever they are noticeable. Ugh!

    • Reply heather at

      That’s how I am too- I’m total mosquito fodder. So annoying!

  • Reply Alyssa Lindsey at

    Mosquitos are the devil! Hate those things. They are rampant in the area I grew up. Other than that, sounds like a good trip!

    • Reply heather at

      I would seriously get rid of mosquitoes over any other critter. I hate them more than flies!

  • Reply Brittany Miller at

    Looks like an awesome trip! The photos look so great! What kind of Camera do you use?

    • Reply heather at

      Will is my photog and he uses a Canon…something. I have no idea 🙂

  • Reply Kate at

    Love how happy your pup looks! I respect you for staying back and not bagging your 14er for the sake of her – wish more people did that. I’m so excited to camp this weekend, for the sole purpose of hammock time with my pups, Kindle and coffee 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      She’s my girl and I know she would never leave me if I needed company. Plus, we had a good day together 🙂

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  • Reply Jeff B at

    We went to camp at willow lake and on to Challenger and a Kit Carson a month ago (mid September). Beautiful weather and not a bug in sight. Did the canoe too.

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