“A solid ascent along the ridge northwest of the upper reservoir and descending the old Winding Staircase-beautiful views”
— Scott Todd
River/Creek · Views · Wildflowers
Looking to take a less traveled path? Cut right just after you pass Lower Reservoir and the boulder field (on right). The Ice Cave Creek Trail
singletrack is easy to overlook but can link you to a fabulous hike! After navigating a steep and bouldery slope, connect to Swank Trail
and go left (west) up a beautiful valley. Then follow the ridge on Winding Stairs Trail
all the way around the Upper Reservoir catchment. Some segments are a bit of work, but the ridge offers beautiful views. There are two other connector options to drop back to the reservoir without doing the full loop. The loop also offers two amazing boulder outcroppings that are worth exploring.
Need to Know
There is a boulder outcropping on the northwest of the loop that can confuse people. There is a way through that is not dangerous. Do not go to the right (north) of the ridge, stay on top (through the boulders) or bypass left (south).
The descent on Winding Stairs Connector
is eroded with a lot of loose small gravel; expect some sliding. If hiking in reverse (up Winding Stairs Connector
) then read the note in the main description - two junctions are easy to miss.
After climbing Balanced Rock Rd.
to the lower reservoir, about mile 0.6 from parking lot, there is a boulder field to the right (north). Just as the trail passes that point and leaves the lower reservoir, cut right up the slope and follow the trail as it does switchbacks up toward the ridge. The climb is moderate and around mile 1 (from parking lot) you'll be at an open view that overlooks the lower reservoir and Palmer Lake. Ice Cave Creek Trail
weaves north through boulders and has a few places where you need to watch your feet to avoid a fall. After crossing the creek at mile 1.4, the trail opens up and rolls through a valley parallel to the creek until you reach the T-junction with Swank Trail
Head left (west) on Swank Trail
and it will curl back southward and cross Ice Cave Creek again before ascending through groves of aspen up to a ridge at mile 2.2. At the ridge is a 4-way intersection. Straight continues on an eroded segment of Swank Trail
to descend to the valley north of Upper Reservoir. Left also returns to Balanced Rock Rd.
at the Upper Reservoir, but is a much nicer way down. This hike turns right on the "new" Winding Stairs Trail
and follows the ridge.
The ridge will curve gradually westward, with great views of Devil's Thumb to the north. At mile 2.6, Inlet Trail
offers another way back to the valley (marked by notches in the trees, but easy to miss), just before it begins to climb again. About 0.5 miles of a steady climb will take you to a boulder outcropping, and it is not obvious how to go through that area. Some people bypass the boulders by dropping off the ridge to the left - don't! It is easier and way cooler (but not dangerous) to sneak through the boulders. That outcropping may have a name but I don't know it. About 1/4 mile more climbing will reach the top at 8,760 ft, mile 3.25, with expansive views of the area and several campsites.
Continue about 1/10 of a mile to where the "new" segment of Winding Stairs Trail
merges with the original 4WD track. At that junction, take a left down Winding Stairs Connector
to return to the valley, merge with Inlet Trail
and connect to Balanced Rock Rd.
at mile 4.5. The descent on Winding Stairs Connector
stinks - eroded, poor traction but it is a quick return and once in the valley it is a beautiful hike again with aspen groves, following a stream.
If you are hiking the reverse direction then it is very easy to miss the connection to Winding Stairs Connector
from Inlet Trail
- there is about 30 feet of grass with no obvious trail but if you look you'll definitely see it. Also, if hiking in reverse then at the top of Winding Stairs Connector
it is super easy to miss the "new" eastbound segment of Winding Stairs Trail
. As soon as you reach the top, pay close attention for a singletrack on the right that cuts back eastward.
Enjoy this amazing hike!