Haynach Lakes

I had a business trip last week, so this report from last week’s hike is a bit delayed. Sometimes I can crank these things out pretty quickly, sometimes it takes forever. I thought this one was particularly interesting, so it has taken a bit longer.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

This hike has is the longest (most miles) I’ve hiked in a day, but in the end it turned out fairly easy. I knocked it off in less than nine hours, including nearly an hour at the lake and a couple short breaks on the way back to the car. I wanted to put boots on the trail by 7:30 and to be at Haynach by noon. And I wanted to see a moose.

As it’s been on my list for a while; I spent quite a bit of time looking at the maps. I broke it down into four parts. From the trailhead to the junction with the Tonahutu trail. Something like 1.8 miles and a 600′ climb. This puts you over the “divide” between Tonahutu Creek and the Kawuneeche Valley, the source of the Colorado river. Then 3.5 miles to Granite Falls, edging around Big Meadows for quite a ways and only gaining about 400′. Section three is Granite Falls to the junction with the Haynach Spur trail: 2 miles and 600′. Finally, the last mile and a half and another 600′ gain. The Foster guide has the total distance 8.7 miles and 2,260′ of elevation gain. It’s long, but not much of a climb.

I didn’t quite put boots on the trail on my target time, but did reach the Green Mountain trailhead parking lot at almost exactly 7:30. There were a handful of cars in the parking lot, all covered with dew. I backed into the end spot closest to the trail. It’s a two hour drive from home, up I-70 then over Berthoud pass. Very little traffic, as usual. Around Fraser there was ground fog but cloudless skies. By Grand Lake it was soup – I never saw the lake even though it’s within yards of the road in many places. But it was clear again by the park entrance and at the trailhead.

Based on the weather forecast, I thought there was a real chance it might be cool enough to wear jeans but I stuck with the shorts. It was pretty chilly; I had turned the heater on in the car in Winter Park. When I got out of the car I was thinking maybe I should have worn jeans after all. But the trail starts off fairly steep and I was warmed up before long. This part of the trail was very wet, both in the morning and afternoon.

After a steep start you reach the first meadow. There are three or four meadows near the trail with short climbs in between. Then the trail descends slightly to Big Meadows and meets the lower Tonahutu trail. At just after eight, all these meadows were misty. Near the trail junction, two people were out in Big Meadows talking loudly enough, I’m guessing, to be heard a mile away. Big Meadows is something like a half mile wide and three miles long, wider at the north end than the south.

Then I met a couple on their way back to the trailhead. They had intended to camp at Haynach Lake but had difficulty with the altitude so they stayed at the Sunset camp site instead. They were from Kissimmee, FL. He said he bought a new tent for the trip, but neglected to open the package before reaching the camp site. No stakes. I asked if they’d seen any wildlife. Just squirrels.

Big Meadows

The trail goes north here. At first the trail is adjacent to the meadow, providing a nice view of Big Meadows. Somewhere in here I was hoping to see moose. I stopped and looked whenever there was a nice view but no luck. Soon you pass two derelict log structures; I’m sure that even when they were new they were not much more than basic structure. Next the trail climbs a bit to a junction with the Onahu Creek trail. On the first tree past the sign was stapled a notice.

Trail Condition Warning:

Due to a recent wildfire in the upper Tonahutu drainage various travel hazards exist in the next several miles. Use caution and good judgment when crossing the affected area.



I had forgotten all about the Big Meadows fire. The fire started in early June. By the 20th it was declared 95% contained. This meant they had established secure fire lines around it. They expected that the fire might still occasionally be seen throughout the summer, until a significant weather event put it out. In the mean time, the upper Tonahutu Trail would remain closed. I later heard from a hiker that this was the first weekend the trail was open.

Big Meadows fire

At the end of Big Meadows the trail takes a right turn. The valley narrows and you can finally hear Tonahutu Creek. Here is where the fire damage starts. It’s a lot different than the kind of damage the Fern Lake trail passes through. On that trail, it’s the opposite side of the valley that’s burned. Here, the trail passes right through the most devastated areas. Only a few blades of grass are growing. Everything is black – the still standing tree trunks, ground roots, the ground, the rocks. Some of the rocks got so hot a burned layer has broken off.

Granite Falls was not burned. It is an aptly named falls, tumbling down large slabs of granite. Easy access to both the top and bottom of the falls. Above the falls is another meadow. After that is the largest and most devastated burn area on the hike. Pretty much the entire forest below Tonahutu Meadow campsite. Today, not a blade of grass grows there. All the burn areas still smell strongly of smoke, but it is strongest here. This is probably the last spot to go out, just a week or two ago.

East of Tonahutu Meadows at first looks to be undamaged. From here all the way to the creek that drains Haynach Lake, fire dripped down the mountain like wax down a burning candle. Untouched forest for twenty or thirty yards, then a narrow strip that is burned. Many trees are burned only on one side. A few may even still be alive. There are a lot of downed trees here, blocking or partially blocking the trail. I doubt any livestock could pass.

Finally I arrive at the spur trail to Haynach. It starts very steeply, climbing almost straight up the slope, now out of earshot of any flowing water. This section is the steepest part of the hike. The climb moderates, and the trail skirts a meadow giving the first real mountain view of the hike. There are some wildflowers, but nothing like last week. The meadows are stair-stepped here like on the first section of the trail, but with bigger climbs in between. And the meadows are larger and provide nice views of the southern buttress of Nakai Peak.

The trail goes through a couple of these meadows, becoming less a trail and more a faint suggestion of where to walk. Just below my destination, I hear a noise like distant thunder but not very loud. And there are no visible clouds. Then I see an elk. She sees me and is gone before I can get a picture, her hooves hitting rock. Perhaps the thunder was her sister or cousin scrambling over some rocks.

The final meadow before the lake is really a series of large puddles, almost like rice paddies. Shallow enough to grow grass, but quite large. They’re even on three levels, terraced. Long blades of grass float in the deeper sections.


At last I arrive at Haynach Lake. On the map, it looks to me like a hammer-head shark from above, head to the right and in a furious turn, tail fin nearly touching head, with a small dorsal fin between. The trail ends in the grass a few yards from the lake, where the mouth of the shark would be. There is a tumble of large rocks right there, so I set up the camera and dive into my picnic.

While passing through those open meadows I was worried I wouldn’t have many clouds to capture in time lapse, but that wasn’t a problem by the time I arrived at the lake. In fact, the clouds were looking distinctly unfriendly. By the time I took the second bite of my sandwich, graupel started to fall. I could see they were widely dispersed by watching the surface of the lake. Ripples about six feet apart. That didn’t last long, though, and the graupel turned to pea-sized hail and it was coming down fast.

I scrambled to get the SLR out of harm’s way but left the GoPro running. I found refuge among a couple scrawny trees. That, too, didn’t last long. By the time I was done eating it had quit hailing (and never did rain), and some patches of blue sky were visible. I wandered towards the tail fin to get a different view. I thought it was worth the price of admission.

Scorched earth; rebirth

On the hike back to the car, I had a fruit break at Granite Falls and studied the burned parts in a bit more detail. It looks like there hasn’t been much rain since the fire went out. In a few places, burned material has been washed down the slope like little lava flows. A couple of spots there was enough water flowing to expose unburned ground, badly eroding a few feet of trail. Any sort of moderate rain fall will certainly leave visible scars. And almost all the tree trunks are still standing. I expect 90% of them to fall in the next few years. With dead roots, a fairly stiff breeze will be all it takes. Fire is an integral element of the forest ecology. Lodgepole pine cones often need exposure to extreme heat to release their seeds. But seeing the forest like this, it’s hard to think of it as part of a process of renewal.

There were quite a few more hikers on the lower section of the trail. I didn’t meet anybody for the better part of four hours – between Granite Falls on the way up and a bit below the Haynach spur on the way down – but from Granite Falls to the car I came across dozens.

Approaching the car, I evaluated the day. I’d missed my target starting time but still made it to the lake before noon. Even spending nearly an hour at the lake, I’d be back to the car before 4:30. And I had the unexpected experience of walking through a freshly burned forest. I saw an elk but I didn’t see any moose.

Spot the Moose

Then, not more than twenty feet from my car there’s a moose. The guy hiking in front of me had stopped and was signaling me to be quiet. It took me a few seconds to spot the moose. At first I thought it was a cow but it was a young bull with small antlers. I hike 17.4 miles hoping to see a moose and when I see him, a family piles out of a minivan and takes pictures of him.

Over Trail Ridge Road, traffic not as bad as last time, but still lots of people who disregard all signage. Do not stop on roadway. Use pullouts. Ooh! There’s an elk! Stop the car right in the middle of the road and get a picture! Pullout, shmullout.

I’d have gone home the way I came, but I’m out of beer so I decided to pick up a case at the Estes Park Brewery. Six o’clock by the time I get there, so I call Genae and tell her I’ll eat here. Fish and chips. Traffic not so bad to Lyons, but they had to stop cars to clear a motorcycle from the road. The flatbed arrived just a few cars ahead of me so we got waved by while they were positioning the truck.

A long day, but well worth it.


Trailhead (8,800′)07:40 AM04:20 PM
Tonahutu trail jct08:20 AM03:45 PM
Granite Falls (9,800′)09:40 AM02:20 PM
Haynach spur trail10:45 AM01:20 PM
Haynach Lake (11,060′)11:45 AM12:35 PM

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