Keplinger Lake

Sunday, July 7

Lewis W. Keplinger was a student of John Wesley Powell at Illinois State Normal University. Keplinger was a member of Powell’s expedition that first successfully climbed Long’s Peak in late August of 1868. The group first attempted the summit by starting near what is now Lake Powell. They climbed the sharp ridge that connects McHenry’s Peak with Chiefs Head and Pagoda Mtn. They found themselves cut off from their destination by “impassable chasms.” They retreated and made camp near Sandbeach Lake. The next day, Keplinger set off on his own to reconnoiter. He found a couloir winding up the south flank and managed to reach within several hundred feet of the summit before returning to camp after dark. On August 23, the group set off on Keplinger’s route at 7am. In a couple of hours they had attained his highest point where another member of the party remarked that no man could scale the point and live. By 10am, the party made the summit, led by Keplinger.

Here’s how the Foster guide describes this hike:

Bushwhacking up the length of Hunters Creek valley is a grueling exercise in backcountry slogging, but it travels through one of the most pristine and beautiful valleys in RMNP. From the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead follow the Sandbeach Lake Trail for 3.2 miles to a bridge that crosses Hunters Creek. Leave the main trail and locate a faint path that travels along the northeastern side of Hunters Creek, heading northwest into the heart of the drainage. The path dips and rises with the rolling topography, climbing steadily up the valley. The trail disintegrates, but keep hiking along the creek for 2.4 miles to a beautiful, shallow, unnamed lake at 11,180 feet. Getting to this lake involves fighting through marsh and willow-choked terrain. From the unnamed lake, bushwhack west and around the butt of a small ridge for 0.25 mile to an unnamed pond south of Keplinger Lake. Turn north and scramble through a large boulder field for 0.6 mile to Keplinger Lake.

I tried to get to Keplinger Lake last year but only achieved the unnamed lake she mentions at 11,180′. The reason I only got that far was the willow. I got to this lake about lunch time and decided the only way to proceed was to backtrack down the creek a ways, cross the creek, and avoid all the willow. I decided I didn’t have enough time or energy, so that’s as far as I went.

I put boots on the Sandbeach Lake trailhead at 6:45, forty five minutes earlier than my abortive attempt last year. This earlier departure should ensure I’m at my destination in plenty of time for lunch. The forecast for Denver was low nineties with a 40% chance for rain. The morning was clear and cool, with only a few broken clouds visible.

The hike to Hunter’s Creek is pretty basic. From the parking lot, the trail climbs quickly to the top of a ridge, then levels off somewhat. The climb to Hunters Creek is roughly 1,800′ of elevation gain in 3.2 miles. There is one vantage point that St. Vrain valley but after that no views are afforded. The trail passes mostly through mixed forest, lodgepole pine with aspen mixed in. The fun begins when leaving the main trail.

The next section of trail is about a mile and a quarter long, from the Sandbeach Lake trail to a creek that joins Hunters Creek from the north at about 10,500′ elevation. This trail is quite easy to follow, except for the occasional spot where it is interrupted by recent deadfall. I’m guessing this trail is used mostly by folks climbing Long’s using Keplinger’s route, as to continue up Hunter’s Creek you must leave it where this other stream meets the creek. From here on, there really isn’t any trail and the bushwhacking begins in earnest.

The forest thins out about this point and soon the hiker is presented with a nice view of Pagoda Mtn. The creek climbs steadily but not very steeply. I found it was often easier hiking to stay ten or twenty yards away from the creek. Before long a large snow bank becomes visible on the flank of Mt. Orton. The creek bends a bit to the right (north) and leads you into the willow Foster mentions.

Although I had been on the lookout for a suitable place to cross Hunters Creek, I crossed too late and ran into the masses of willow anyway. This was a bit demoralizing. The terrain under the willow is hard to see – a false step and you could be in a wet bog or drop a couple of feet off a rock. Finding myself in the same predicament as last year, I felt there was no real option but to power through it. I eventually made it out into clear meadow, where the creek falls down the slope in braids.

From there to the next unnamed pond (at just a shade under 11,400′) it’s an easy climb. Here, I found some cairns stacked up – the first sign of a trail for quite a way. I followed these to the west side of the pond. Turns out this was a mistake. From the west side of the pond you get dumped right back into the nasty willow. At first it wasn’t too bad, sometimes only knee deep. But it got worse, much worse. Being so close and getting stymied by the willow a second time was not an option, so I put my head down and powered through. After clearing the willow, I was deposited in a boulder field, which was easier than the willow but not by much. It took me nearly an hour to go just over a half mile. By the time I reached Keplinger I was exhausted. Time for a picnic!

I set the cameras up, the GoPro looking over the lake at the rock walls of Pagoda Mtn and the SLR the other way, with a view of Mt. Copeland to the south. It had taken me a bit longer than I’d hoped to get here, so I didn’t stay my usual hour. I ate my lunch and filled up my water bottle and headed back down at 1pm. From above, it’s clear which way to go. I crossed the outlet and walked down the east side of the valley, a fair distance above the unnamed pond below. From there, I crossed the braided stream and continued almost due south, keeping all the willow and trees to my left. After a while, I headed into the thin forest and looked for a place to cross the creek.

Anybody going up to Keplinger should take this route, as it completely avoids the willow and boulder field. Unfortunately, I didn’t make note of where I crossed. I was just so happy to have avoided all the hard parts. So, really, going this way makes the hike fairly easy. The hardest part is the section between here and the stream crossing at 10,500′. The main feature of this part is the seemingly unending maze of deadfall that needs to be navigated.

On the way up, it took me nearly four hours to get from where the Sandbeach Lake trail crosses Hunters Creek to Keplinger Lake. On the way down, the same distance cost me less than two. Obviously, a good part of this is due to the fact I was going downhill instead of uphill, but I can’t overstress the importance of avoiding the willow. I’m certain I’d have saved an hour had I made the correct navigational choices on the way up.

I took a short break when I returned to the main trail, eating another bunch of grapes and refilling my water again. Here I met two hikers coming down from Sandbeach Lake. They were the fourth and fifth people I’d seen all day. A few minutes before reaching the Meeker Park trail junction, the skies darkened somewhat and I could hear the distant rumble of thunder. Another couple ran past me, trying to get back to the trailhead before the rain. At the trail junction, graupel started to fall and I donned my poncho. The graupel quickly turned into BB sized hail. After a few minutes the hail stopped and the sun shone at my back. The storm worked its way toward Lyons, the thunder sounding closer now, even though it was past me.

I didn’t see a bear this week. Two guys I met in the morning said they had a bear in their campsite as they were cooking breakfast, which must have been a thrill. I know how thrilled I was to meet a bear thirty yards away. In fact, the only wildlife I encountered (other than squirrels and birds) was the deer I saw in Lyons. They must train their deer well – this velvet antlered buck crossed the highway using a crosswalk.

And here’s the time lapse video. I particularly like the bug walking across the camera lens.


Up Down
Trailhead 06:45 AM 04:25 PM
Meeker Park trail jct 07:20 AM 03:50 PM
Hunters Creek 08:20 AM 02:50 PM
Stream crossing 09:05 AM 02:15 PM
Unnamed lake (11,400′) 11:25 AM 01:15 PM
Keplinger Lake 12:15 PM 01:00 PM