Lake of the Clouds, Nearly

Sunday, July 20

I never paid much attention to how the continental divide meanders through Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve always known that it runs generally north and south through the center of the park, from Ouzel Peak to Mt. Alice in Wild Basin, to Chief’s Head Peak and McHenry’s Peak (bypassing Long’s), along the dramatic ridges and peaks in the Bear Lake region, then north to Trail Ridge Road. Then it makes a loop, turns back to the south and makes the western boundary of the park along the ‘Cloud Mountains’ of the Never Summer range. Thus it is possible to be east of the divide and west of the Colorado River at the same time.

I discover this studying the map after my attempt to reach Lake of the Clouds. Attempt, because I didn’t study the map sufficiently prior to putting boots on the trail. I made a navigational error that cost me forty five minutes and left me just short of the lake by 12:30. I probably could have made the final few hundred yards, but I try not to dally above treeline after noon, particularly when clouds are gathering. So this goes in the books as another “failed” hike. I’m getting used to this, as I seem to have one or two each year. But I can live with such failures – it was another glorious day in the park and I very much enjoyed the hike.

Lake of the Clouds is situated in a cirque cradled in the arms of Mount Cirrus and Howard Mtn. Mount Cumulus, Mount Nimbus, and Mount Stratus are lined up to the south of Howard Mtn. Lake of the Clouds is drained by Big Dutch Creek, which drops four hundred vertical feet and disappears in a tumble of boulders on the valley wall. But I begin in the wrong place.

I arrived at the Colorado River trailhead at about 8:30 and was on the trail by 8:40. The trailhead is on the west side of the park, about a half mile south of the lowest hairpin on Trail Ridge Road. The forecast was for nice weather, with the usual chance of afternoon showers. The morning was calm and nearly cloudless, as usual. The trail starts to the north and we quickly arrive at the Red Mtn Trail junction where we turn to the west and cross the Colorado River. Here it is not very wide, nor flowing swiftly, and could be easily waded. Hard to believe this trickle of water carved the Grand Canyon.

After crossing the valley, the trail turns to the south and soon crosses Opposition Creek for the first time. Here the trail gets steep, quickly climbing six hundred feet through mixed forest interrupted by the occasional spill of rocks. These treeless intervals give nice views of Kawuneeche Valley. You also see Trail Ridge Road across the valley, as far up as Fairview Curve. This means you also hear the traffic – the rumble of motorcycles and the hum of knobby tires on lifted pickup trucks.

The more or less level stretch of trail was welcome after the first steep section but is quickly done. Turning north again, we are below the Grand Ditch for about a mile and a half, gaining three hundred more feet to meet it. Along the way, we’ve crossed Opposition Creek again, along with Mosquito Creek, its major tributary. The forest here is fairly pleasant, with sunlight shining brightly on the green ground cover. Part of the reason so much sun hits the ground is that a significant number of the trees have been killed by beetles. Some places very few trees are dead, but in others perhaps eighty percent have succumbed. Looking across the valley we see much the same situation.

Upon reaching the Grand Ditch, the savvy hiker will turn right and continue north. I chose to disengage the brain and make a left turn after stopping to eat some fruit and slather on the SPF. Water in the ditch flows to the north, so I went ever so slightly uphill. This is my third time to the ditch and the first it’s had water in it. My diversion lasted about forty five minutes, but I did see nice views of Red Mountain so I can’t say it was a total loss.

The Grand Ditch can be seen from Trail Ridge Road. Before I knew what it was, I often wondered what road it was. A dirt service road runs alongside the ditch where an excavator can often be seen clearing slides or doing other maintenance. It was built starting in 1890, using hand labor, burros, and wheelbarrows. By 1936 it ran fourteen miles, diverting the water from several creeks in the Never Summer Range across the continental divide at La Poudre pass and into Long Draw Reservoir for use by Fort Collins farmers.

A bit less than two miles north along the ditch we encounter Big Dutch Creek. There’s a bridge here that I was tempted to call “substantial”. It’s wide and not made of logs like most park bridges. But it’s in a state of decay. Crossing the bridge begins another climb. There are a couple of campsites along the creek, which is in earshot and drowns out the noise from Trail Ridge. Reaching spongy meadows the trail attenuates, sometimes nothing more than trampled grass. These meadows are rich with flowers this time of year – yellows and reds, blues and purples.

Although here we’re still well below treeline, we come to the end of the forest. The trail makes another steep climb and deposits the hiker at the base of a boulder field. A giant boulder field. To our right, about a mile away is Lead Mountain’s flank. From here to there, nothing but boulders. Hart Ridge is ahead, to the west about a mile and nothing but boulders. Mount Cirrus and Howard Mtn are to the left, somewhat less than a mile, boulders all the way, this time with a waterfall which disappears into the boulders.

I stopped here. Had I not made a wrong turn, I’d have been here before noon and about three miles fresher. I’m guessing a quarter mile short of the lake but still over four hundred feet below it. There’s no trail from here on out, just rock hopping. The route up to the lake is to the right of the falls. Even though it looks to be only a quarter mile, it might take me an hour. But there’s only one way to find out, so this one gets put on the to-do list for next year.

I had my picnic lunch – ham and turkey sandwich on a bagel – and drank in the view for forty minutes. On my way back to the trail I encountered another hiker. We discussed the likely best route to the lake, but he decided not to go any further. Together we found the trail and started our descent. He stopped for his lunch at the first campsite we got to; I didn’t stop until I got back to the ditch, where I refreshed my water supply from Big Dutch Creek. I took a final break and ate more fruit somewhere in Hells Hip Pocket. Two hikers on their way up passed me; the second said hello, which surprised the first who walked two feet from me but didn’t see me. Good thing I wasn’t a bear. He needs to work on his awareness.

In the first five hours of my hike I only saw six other hikers. I can’t count how many I met in the last two. These were walkers, not hikers. Few carried water, some asked me where the trail went. Near the trailhead I saw a ranger a few yards off the trail, taking pictures of flowers and making notes on a clipboard.

I returned home over Trail Ridge Road. I had the choice of Berthoud Pass and I-70 or TRR. I figured either would involve a traffic jam. In addition to the usual Sunday afternoon volume on I-70 there’s also the tunnel construction below Idaho Springs. I decided getting stuck on TRR is the way to go; at least the view is nice.


Up Down
Trailhead 08:40 AM 04:20 PM
Red Mtn trail jct 08:50 AM 04:10 PM
Grand Ditch 10:15 AM 02:50 PM
Big Dutch Creek 11:35 AM 02:15 PM
Not quite there (10,950′) 12:35 PM 01:15 PM