Medicine Bow Trail

Aspen Alley in the Sierra Madres

A loop from the Lake Marie West trailhead (10,500 feet) includes the signature Medicine Bow Trail. Like nearby Mirror Lake and several others, lovely Lake Marie nestled in a hollow at the mountain's base might tempt you to hang there and not bother hiking at all, but you'll miss a lot if you succumb. Brilliant wildflowers abound – water-loving species near the lakes and in lower meadows, and tenacious heat-tolerant species in dry areas.

The steep, switchback-laden trail gains more than 1,000 feet of elevation in the first mile. The higher you ascend on the west ridge, the closer the bends are to each other and the more challenging the route becomes. The trees are more widely spaced and sturdier, eventually petering out altogether at treeline.

A Civilian Conservation Corps-built viewpoint along the way proffers a splendid panorama of the Snowy, Sierra Madre and Park Ranges. For many hikers, or for anyone starting too late to reach the summit safely, this lookout is a worthy goal.

The trail gentles as it approaches and crosses a two-mile-long boulder-strewn plateau, where it narrows into an undulating track composed of mostly smaller rocks. Occasional stone piles called cairns stand as wordless signposts marking the way. You might see marmots perching on rocks or hear the high-pitched call that has earned them the nickname, "whistlepigs." The hike at 11,500 feet is beautiful – and breath-sapping.

Several little protrusions en route may look like summits, but the real summit is still many steps away. The last 100 or so vertical feet are relentlessly steep, but when you reach the top, you will be rewarded by a fabulous 360-degree panorama. In the early 20th century, a stalwart firewatcher named Fred Miller climbed Medicine Bow Peak every day during the fire season. Remnants of his lookout are still visible at the summit.

Miller didn't walk up the long way, from the west. He took a shorter, steeper route that serves well for a quick descent. Stay on the Medicine Bow Trail over the top and continue to a three-way intersection. Bear right on the Lakes Trail that drops sharply to the valley and then continues for two miles past Lookout Lake, Mirror Lake and eventually Lake Marie to your starting point. Pat yourself on the back if you accomplish this loop. You will have hiked 5.7 miles with an elevation gain of more than 1,500 feet, so very far above sea level.

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