Mushrooms, Moss and Berries: Mount Evans State Wildlife Area

Location: Clear Creek County, west of Evergreen, near the Mt. Evans Wilderness

Directions: From Denver, take I-70 west to Evergreen Pkwy. exit; go 6 miles south on HWY 74 to Evergreen Lake; turn right on Upper Bear Creek Rd. Go 6.5 miles to CR480 go right on CR480 for 3 miles.  Look for the signs for the Colorado State Wildlife Area. To access both the Lost Creek and Captain Mountain trailhead, drive past the gate on the narrow, unimproved dirt road another couple of miles.

Route: Take either the Lost Creek Trail No. 42 or the Captain Mountain Trail.

Access Notes: The road to the trailheads for Lost Creek and Captain Mountain trails is closed to vehicles September 1-June 14 and the State Wildlife Area is closed entirely to the public January 1-June 14. Four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles are strongly recommended on the summer-access road past the first State Wildlife parking area. Dogs are allowed, but must be on a leash. There are pit toilets in the first parking lot, but none at the Lost Creek or Captain Mountain trailhead.

It’s a challenge to find a trail that is scenic, uncrowded and quiet on summer weekends, especially one that avoids the brunt of I-70 eastbound traffic from Silverton to Idaho Springs on a mid-afternoon return. My favorite summer alpine trails are Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, and almost anything west of the Continental Divide. While these trails are pleasant on weekdays, particularly early in the morning or late in the afternoon, they’re hard to access on weekends. Lack of adequate parking spoils Brainard Lake, and having to deal with tourist and I-70 traffic spoil the others.

The trails accessible from the Mt. Evans State Wildlife area, about 10 miles west of Evergreen Lake, seem to have a lot going for them: They’re about an hour and a half drive from Denver (about as far as Brainard and RMNP), they’re uncrowded, there aren’t any fees, they’re quiet, scenic and, at well above 9,000 feet, a cool respite from the heat of the city. There’s only one drawback, which is that unless you don’t care about your car’s suspension, or don’t care about adding another hour each way to your hike, you’ll need a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle to navigate the last two miles of road past the first parking lot to the Lost Creek/Captain Mountain trailhead.

We hiked a little of both the Lost Creek trail and Captain Mountain on August 28th. Access to these trails ends after Labor Day, so it’s a short and sweet season for human activity in this beautiful and protected area.

The Lost Creek trail descends rapidly down from the trailhead and then follows Lost Creek for many miles. This time of year it’s a study in abundance. Because this area has gotten regular precipitation, the trail is dark, cakey mud and the vegetation often wraps and clings to your legs on the narrow path. Often the canopy from spruce and aspen is so thick that it creates a Handsel and Gretel ambiance where ripe, red berries of unknown toxicity beckon to be sampled and mushrooms of varying shapes and colors pop their tender heads out from the forest floor.

There were long sections of trail that were bordered by low-growing raspberry bushes, so it was a treat to have a few sweet ripe ones as we enjoyed the sound of the creek nearby. I didn’t eat too many, so that others on the trail could enjoy them as well, not to mention any animals that might be busy foraging in preparation for autumn. In fact, there were so many berries ripening on the trail I couldn’t help but wonder when I’d round the bend and encounter a black bear feasting on the delightful snacks.

One berry didn’t resemble a berry as much as it looked like a bright red grape, and grew from a single stem, like cherry. I found out later, after failing to find the specimen in my field guide, that it could be a clasping-leaved twisted-stalk, or streptopus amplexifolius, which is apparently from the cucumber family and is edible, but has laxative-like properties.

 

Directly to the west of both trails is a majestic view of Mt. Evans and Bierstadt, shrouded on the day I went in half-serious rain clouds and giving the area a boost in scenery. So far from any major freeways and roads, the area is serene and lovely, and perfect for contemplation.