Stunning fall colors and fine mountain lake along the Great Western Trail
Distance: 6.0 miles round trip
Type: out and back
Difficulty: moderate with 800’ elevation gain
Best season: summer and early fall
I’m a type A personality, Jason is not. This combination works exceptionally well for us–so well that as of the writing of this post we’re just a week shy of our 25th wedding anniversary. I plan everything. For our adventures, my planning elevates to an obsessive level. I know people worse than myself, but in fair self-assessment I give myself a rating of 8 or 9 on a scale of 10 (Jason would likely tell you I’m a 10). I try to go with the flow when plans change, but I admit it is hard.
After four days of perfect weather in Utah, we awoke to storm clouds over Escalante. As we emerged from our hotel room at Circle D, it was clear that it had rained much of the night and the odds of more precipitation looked much greater than the 20% Mr. Weatherman was predicting.
We aren’t generally the type to let weather stop us, so we decided to stick with our original plan of hiking the Boulder Mail Trail east of Escalante; however, by a mile in it was raining hard enough I had to stow my camera and our views were limited. I asked Jason if he was willing to turn around and save this hike for another time when we could enjoy the views. I suggested nearby Calf Creek Falls might be a more interesting rainy day hike. In typical Jason fashion, he was game for anything as long as we were outside and exploring.
We retraced our drive along highway 12 and turned into the Calf Creek trailhead where we found a packed parking lot. Ugh. Cars were squeezed into every inch of space. Clearly a lot of people had the same idea—safe trail off a paved road on a rainy day in canyon country. With the Jeep I could have figured a parking spot somewhere, but we agreed we didn’t want to hike with that many people. We decided to head for Capitol Reef which was our destination for the following day. There would be hikes along the pavement there (for those who have never been to Utah, their clay back roads are often impassable on rainy days, even for a Jeep like ours).
We hit highway 12 and drove east through the charming little town of Boulder, Utah. Boulder is home to Anasazi State Park, a stop I highly recommend if you are ever in the area. From Boulder we continued east and entered Dixie National Forest. Within a few minutes we went from desert canyon country to high mountains with flaming yellow aspen. The fall colors were stunning and there were tons of them. Even Jason seemed impressed. I told him, “I think we should pull over and hike here if we find a trailhead”. Within a mile we approached a sign pointing down a dirt road to the left for Deer Creek Lake Trailhead. I hit the brakes and we turned up the road.
After about a half mile access road, we pulled into Deer Creek Lake Trailhead. Lucky for us, there was a nice information sign here with a map of the trail. At three miles each direction, the lake was well within our range and the time we had left in the day. I glanced up the trail, yellow aspens dominated the hillside. We agreed we didn’t care if it rained, hiking around all the beautiful fall foliage would be nice.
At 9,265’ elevation, it was clear we’d need to gear up. We had fog, low clouds, breeze, and threatening rain. Temperatures were in the upper 40s, much cooler than the mid-70s we had hiked in the previous day. We added a few layers and stocking caps and we were off. The trail was very easy to follow with the lower stretches passing through a mix of sage brush hillside with large groves of aspen trees. There were quite a few cattle grazing along the lower half mile of trail, but we soon left them behind.
By a mile in, the trail became much more scenic as we entered a mixed aspen/evergreen forest. At 1.25 miles we came to a well-signed junction with the Great Western Trail #001. We took the fork to the left and continued along.
At 2.5 miles we came to another junction. We turned off the Great Western Trail and took the trail to the right toward Deer Creek Lake. This area was especially brilliant with fall colors and I even got a couple seconds of blue sky and sunshine to help light up the colors.
From this last junction it was a short and easy quarter mile to the lake.
At first glance, Deer Creek Lake (elevation 9,922’) appeared to be very small. As we got closer, we realized we were seeing just the western end at either the inlet or outlet. We continued to the right and worked our way along the southern shore. Conditions were cold and breezy on the lake, so we climbed a small hill and took a break along the tree line where we were a little more sheltered.
Our return hike was just as pleasant as the hike up. The rain held off, but conditions remained cold and breezy. I’d love to do this hike again about the same time of year only on a clear day. I could tell the views down into Capitol Reef would be amazing if the clouds burned off. Despite the poor weather, we had taken a potential flop of a day and turned it into a success with an unexpected find.
The day ended with one more unexpected find. As we continued our drive toward Torrey, I noticed a Forest Service information sign. I pulled off the highway and we found ourselves at the Dixie National Forest Wildcat Visitor Center. This charming little cabin was built by the CCC and was now staffed by volunteers. We met the cutest and nicest little retiree couple from the mid-west. It was their last day for the season and it was just fifteen minutes before closing. We really lucked out getting to meet them, they were a lot of fun to talk with.
Directions to the trailhead: from Boulder, Utah, drive east on highway 12 for 9 miles to a sign for Deer Creek Lake. Turn left and drive a short distance up this dirt road to the well-marked trailhead. There is a nice information board with trail map, but no pit toilet.