We met up in Leadville shortly after 10:30 on Saturday beneath atrocious, smoky skies. Cool temps and a slight breeze provided some hope of relief from the smoke, but the immediate conditions were uninspiring. Although not specifically planned, the rule of the group appeared to be "bring your best female companion" - Mark brought his wife, Ty his dog, and I brought my daughter.
We began by taking US 24 south to Clear Creek Rd (390). Along 390 we encountered a ton of traffic and parked vehicles. Many campers, mostly in tents, were near the road towards the Missouri Gulch trailhead and Vicksburg historic site (museum). It may be difficult to convey how busy this road was. I think we passed between 75 and 100 vehicles parked along the road near the trailhead and and a completely full parking lot to boot. Fortunately this was not our destination and we were able to continue slowly past the crowds to Cloyses Lake Rd. The turnoff for this road is a few hundred feet after an historic mining village that has a CLOSED gate at it. The trail itself is open, but you must be aware to proceed past the mining village to the next turn. This was a minor point of confusion on the CoTrex maps for us.
Very soon after turning onto the trail you encounter the first water crossing and the subsequent gate keeper. This trail is very mild except for the gatekeeper, a collection of rocks and a steep climb out of the second water crossing.
After clearing the gatekeeper, the trail is fairly steep uphill for several miles with some rocky sections and a few very small whoops. The trail is generally surrounded by pines and aspens and would likely make for good viewing in early fall as the aspen leaves turn golden. We encountered several side by sides and quads coming down the trail as we ascended shortly after noon. The lower section of the trail has few turnouts or clearings and no camping.
Within a couple hundred yards of the trail end are a few dispersed camp sites just off the road. Luckily a large campsite along the creek was available and we staked our claim.
After a short lunch we hiked the remaining section of the trail to the lake. It appears the legal 4WD route used to end about 0.4 miles from the lake, but currently the end of the trail is closer to 1 mile back near where we camped. Recent tire tread in the mud indicates some vehicles have recently traveled up the closed section of road, but this section is securely gated and locked with at least two different locks. The hike is along a well established dual-track route and is steeply uphill nearly the entire length. We found ourselves often stopping to regroup and allow ourselves to recover from the surprisingly strenuous hike at over 11,000 ft. The lake is majestic and worth the hike. We saw several people fishing, so I assume the lake is stocked.
The hike back from the lake was slow due to the steep downhill grade, but less taxing than the climb up to the lake. After 3pm we arrived back at camp where we agreed to remain for the night and not pursue other trails or camping further away. Mark had hoped to also explore Half Moon Creek, but his research indicated it is not open.
We enjoyed a leisurely afternoon making dinner and sitting around the fire ring (though we had no fire). All was well until Ty asked why my sway bar link (JKS quicker disconnect) was hanging below my tie rod. I had no answer, as I had not bothered to disconnect my sway bar for this trail and it should not have been in that location. Upon inspection I discovered that my rig had taken some nasty trail damage though I have no idea how or when it occurred. The upper bracket for the disconnect was mangled and the bolt completely missing.
Reviewing my photos of the day, I do not see the sway bar link hanging low in photos from just before we reached camp, so I can only assume the damage happened on the ~ 0.5 miles we drove to find our campsite and situate the vehicles for the night. Nothing we encountered here should have caused the damage I have. I removed the remaining passenger-side sway bar link and stored it on the retaining post so I could drive home today with the sway bar safely disconnected. I've ordered a new set of disconnects, though I may really just need a new bracket for the driver's side. The link that flopped has some damage to the main body (superficial scratches) and slight damage to the spherical bushing where it seems to have been scraped by the bracket or bolt as the entire mess came apart. Now I feel a bit of a fool for lazily choosing not to disconnect my sway bar for an "easy" trail, but I wonder when this failure would have occurred in the future if I had disconnected and avoided the situation today.
Aside from the annoying, minor trail damage, this was an excellent trip and night camping. Our daytime temps were pleasantly warm. Overnight we were all chilled as temps likely dropped below 40F. Late afternoon brought a clearing of the skies which held through breakfast - a welcome relief from the smoky start to the day.