Highlights: A lovely, long trail following the creeks of a deep, shady canyon. It’s a popular place to stretch out because it’s so easy to get to, so well constructed and the surroundings are so peaceful and expansive. The trail was given National Recreation Trails certification back in 1979 and along with the recognition received funding for lots of neat little bridges. (Since this was written in 2009 the trail has suffered considerable erosion. In places it is quite narrow with steep drop offs toward the creek. Dead-fall is cleared from time to time but there will be some to cross.) The recent Forest Service plan recommends the area be designated Wilderness. An optional spur leads to Crater Lake, a spring-fed gem embraced by towering granite walls.
Location: The northern reach of the Medicine Bow Mountains, near the town of Arlington, 40 miles west of Laramie.
Elevations: Arlington trailhead, 7,920’; Deep Creek campground trailhead, 10,066’.
Distance: 12 to 13 miles from end to end, one way.
Maps: Medicine Bow National Forest; USGS Arlington, White Rock Canyon, Morgan and Sand Lake quads; Forest Service pamphlet “The Snowy Range Hiker.”
Guide: Marc Smith’s Hiking Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest – Third Edition, Bill Hunger’s The Hiker’s Guide to Wyoming.
Trailhead: To reach Arlington from Cheyenne, WY, take I-80 90 miles west to the Arlington exit (#272). After exiting go under the interstate then turn right, following the sign for “Medicine Bow National Forest.” You will then turn left at the sign for “Rock Creek Trail (FS-127) continuing 1-1/2 miles to the trailhead and parking, no toilet or drinking water.
The Deep Creek campground is on FS-101, which can be reached from WY-130 about four miles west of Centennial or from the Arlington exit by going 1-1/2 miles west on the south service road to FS-111, taking it 13 miles to FS-101, where you turn left and go 1-1/2 miles to the campground.
The Hike: I’ll begin at the bottom, at the northern trailhead near Arlington. Rock Creek spreads out broadly here, a sheen of shallow, silver water. The canyon stretches for miles ahead, a deep, broad “V” cut 1,000 feet into the rock. The hillsides are open sage, pierced by rock outcrops; the trail floor soon leads into the shade of a mature aspen grove. Wild flowers and grasses grow thick, rubbing your legs as they seek to hide the trail. A moldering cabin and tailings pile mark the site a of miner’s failed dream. But yours has just begun.
Before long the aspen give way to lodge pole pine, pines which thickly carpet the canyon’s walls for miles. The creek narrows into a long run of rapids, sparkling and laughing below. This is the way it continues, mile upon mile giving hikers a Zen-like tranquility. The trail alternates between forest shade and rocky openings, crossing scree falls of sharply broken rock, amber, gold and rust. Streams rushing toward Rock Creek burst into view with splashing trail-side waterfalls. Hidden in the shade is a rare orchid, the clustered lady’s slipper with its drooping green to brown flower and mottled purple pouch.
The high point to the east is Rock Mountain where a Canada lynx was sighted long ago. Deer, elk, mountain lions, and bear are more common. Boreal owls haunt the forest. The creek hosts rainbow and brook trout.
After 4-1/2 miles the canyon forks and the trail stays to the west, now following Deep Creek. A short way further an unmarked snowmobile trail cuts off to the right, no longer maintained, heading up onto the ridge top through groves of aspen and open, dry meadows.
About 2/10 of a mile further on is small creek and a trail leading up the hillside to Crater Lake. The junction is marked by two signs but one is misleading. It reads “Crater Lake 2 miles.” The lake itself is 1/3 of a mile. It is 2 miles to the trailhead beyond it. Here’s a tough choice. You can continue along Deep Creek as it begins to widen and open through wet meadows frequented by moose to the trail’s end at Deep Creek camp ground and FS-101, or take the steeper trail as it wiggles upward in tight switchbacks 425 vertical feet up to Crater Lake. Or you could do both.
Crater Lake was not formed by a crater, although it looks like it. It’s a “hanging lake,” left by a receding glacier long ago. Fed by springs, the lake is deep and clear and is held in a tight embrace by curving walls more than 200 feet high. There is a lovely campsite near the lake shore. The trail continues along the shoreline to the north and ascends the walls to FS-113 high above. Many visitors come down to fish for pan sized brookies and to enjoy the scene.
Pointers: This hike makes a nice overnight with a stay at Crater Lake or at one of the many campsites by Rock Creek. With friends, and a car at each trailhead, you can enjoy a long descent or an uphill challenge. Many will just trek as far as they like and turn back. Or this could be the first leg of a longer backpacking trip, crossing the road near Sand Lake and continuing on Sheep Lake trail 8.2 miles through the Snowy Range roadless area to Brooklyn Lake, then following the road to the North Fork trail and 4.4 miles more to North Fork Campground.