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Leavitt Meadows to Virginia Lakes

Day 7 of 8

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Saturday, August 23rd
Matterhorn Canyon to Summit Lake
12.8 miles
3215 vertical feet (ascent)
1518 vertical feet (descent)
9:42


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We had another long day today (it would end up being the longest), so we tried to get up at 6:15am. I could tell right away that it was going to be hard getting ready. It was freezing cold - not literally, but it was the kind of cold you definitely noticed and made it hard to move around. It didn't help that the rising sun didn't shine on our camp area. It lit up the mountains on the west side of the canyon, but it wasn't until past 8:30am that the sun started to shine around our camp site.

Meadow in Matterhorn Canyon

Finally starting to warm up a bit, we finally left at 9:20am. We continued north up Matterhorn Canyon, then after about 15 minutes of level walking, we passed a couple of campers just before crossing Matterhorn Creek. Almost immediately after crossing the creek, we reached the trail intersection. To the left was the trail continuing up Matterhorn Canyon and eventually to Twin Lakes. We took the sharp right fork, leading up out of the canyon toward Virginia Canyon.

Crossing Matterhorn Creek

Matterhorn Creek

We took a brief break to take off our jackets before the climb, which was about 1200 feet. We trudged up steadily, passing a group of about 8 college kids who were descending. The trail here was completely in shade at this time of day. We took a break after climbing about 600 vertical feet.

View from the climb

View from the climb

After our snack break, we continued up the trail, passing another couple of backpackers. After another 600 feet of climbing, we crested the climb and descended briefly to Miller Lake. Miller Lake is a pretty little lake with a small beach. If we had stayed at Smedberg Lake instead of Benson Lake, perhaps we would have hiked all the way to Miller Lake to camp instead of camping in Matterhorn Canyon. Smedberg to Miller would require about 2100 feet of climbing over about 9 miles.

Heading into Miller Lake

Heading into Miller Lake

We had a snack break at the lake. I filtered some water and made some Gatorade. Just as we were getting ready to leave, a solo backpacker reached the lake from the opposite direction. He was still there as we left the lake around 12:45pm, ready for some downhill. Unfortunately it wasn't all downhill from Miller Lake. It was mostly downhill, but there was some up and down thrown in.

Miller Lake

Miller Lake

Miller Lake

I had noticed a problem with my Achilles tendon at the start of the day, I had been managing it, favoring my other foot on the uphill, but it became more of an issue on the downhill. It was especially troublesome when the trail leveled off. This, along with the heat combined to make this section of the trail excruciating. I was determined to keep going until we reached the next intersection (at Virginia Canyon), but it was taking frustratingly long.

Finally, we reached the intersection just before 3pm, over 2 hours after having left Miller Lake. We stopped here to rest. We discussed our options. We still had nearly 4 miles to hike up Virginia Canyon (with a gradual 800 foot climb), and then a steep 800 foot climb in a mile up to Summit Lake. I gave us the option of camping at the end of Virginia Canyon tonight instead of heading up to Summit Lake. That did have the problem of requiring a tougher day tomorrow, and we would basically be out of lunch food tomorrow. We were down to our last few nuts and bars. Nathan said he wanted to go to Summit Lake no matter what, but I made a mental note that we should probably start the final one mile climb by 6 - 6:15pm.

I took some ibuprofen for my Achilles tendon, and off we went, agreeing that we would not stop for at least 90 minutes (it was 3:20pm now). Thankfully, this part of the trail was pretty easy. The climb is so gradual that it's barely noticeable, and the trail surface is good - solid and not very rocky.

We passed some people who had ridden in on horses and were taking a break by the river. We then hiked through an area filled with downed trees, apparently the victims of winter avalanches. The people on horses caught up to us and passed us; they apparently were heading all the way back to Virginia Lakes tonight, as they didn't have any camping equipment and were just out for the day.

Downed trees in Virginia Canyon

Meadow in Virginia Canyon

Mountains above Virginia Canyon

We made really good time, reaching the base of the last climb at 5:32pm. That had gone better than I had hoped. We crossed Return Creek and came to rest at the intersection. A family of deer watched us and then walked away. We ate almost our last lunch food and had some more Gatorade. Then at 5:50pm we started the final steep 800 foot climb to Summit Lake. We took it slow but steady, eventually climbing high enough to have great views looking back down at the canyon in the late afternoon sun.

Mountains above Virginia Canyon

Mountains above Virginia Canyon

View of Virginia Canyon from the climb to Summit Lake

We arrived at Summit Lake (elevation 10,183) at 6:47pm, just in time to see it basking in the late afternoon light, a beautiful sight. Next we went about looking for a campsite. This was no easy task. The right (southern) side of the lake was bordered by steep rocky slopes - so steep and rocky that there were audible rock falls there every 30 minutes. On the left (northern) side, the side with the trail, the terrain still sloped upward. We found a couple of pre-existing sites, but they were too small to fit our tent.

Summit Lake

We ended up walking half the length of the lake, seeing 3 tents to our left, then backing up and making do on a small relatively flat area. Our tent ground would be slanted, but by this time it was 7pm so we'd just have to live with it. We quickly got our camp up and had dinner. This was the only time we had camp neighbors fairly close, but we were far enough away that we didn't really see each other. After dinner we enjoyed the sight of the Milky Way, then went to bed on this cold night.

The tent was so slanted that we'd wake up every hour and have to push ourselves back up toward the top, but we managed to get some sleep anyway.


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