Mills Lake

Friday, November 29

My last hike was a few days before the big floods in September, nearly three months ago. That’s the longest time between hikes for me in nearly three years. All the roads to Estes Park are open now, so I figured it was past time to head up to the Park.

On the drive up I stopped in Lyons to mount the camera on the car. The repairs to US 36 are temporary and I was expecting a fair amount of flood damage in Apple Valley and just before Big Elk Meadows. The video does not do a great job of showing the extent of the damage, but I’ll see if I can put together a few minutes of interesting footage. I’m guessing it will be of little interest to anybody who is unfamiliar with the road.

Jerry and I were in Lyons last week for some pinball and a beer at Oskar Blue’s so I had already seen the debris lining the road from the light at the junction of CO 66 and US 36 into town. The water clearly was deep enough through here to deposit trees on the north side of the road. In some places, the river is about 500′ from the road in this stretch.

The next stretch of serious damage is in Apple Valley. The riverbed here has been scrubbed clean, no plants or structures standing in a rocky, sandy riverbed that is now much wider than the stream it accommodates. Where the road bends west the water ate away enough earth to cause the temporary road to be placed fifteen or twenty yards from its former “permanent” location. Yet only a few yards upstream the bridge at Apple Valley Road stands with no apparent sign of stress.

The worst stretch of damage starts here, where the canyon narrows. The road was washed away in several places. Most structures here were on the opposite side of the river from the road, and all the bridges were washed away. Somebody spray painted “We R OK” on a garage door. The occasional car is on the shoulder of the road at the bottom of a pile of other debris.

From where the road opens up and provides a passing lane to the top of the hill at Pinewood Springs there are only one or two spots that had minor damage. On the other side of Pinewood, the road goes through a short stretch of canyon alongside the Little Thompson River. The road is damaged from here to the turn for Big Elk Meadows, except where it was washed away entirely. I think there’s only one house in there, but I didn’t get a good look to see its fate. From there to Estes there is only one short stretch of additional damage, just past the trailhead near mile eight.

Being headed out for a short hike, I was on the road a few hours later than I’d normally make the drive. Traffic didn’t disappoint. For the most part, people were going ten to fifteen miles per hour less than the speed limit. It took me a hour to get from Lyons to the Glacier Gorge trailhead.

I brought spikes but not snowshoes. Based on my rather limited winter hiking, I figured the “beaten path” would be packed well enough that spikes would be sufficient. It wasn’t long before I was at the “Fire Trail” shortcut. I left the main trail here. It was a bit “thready” at first, with skiers going one way, snowshoers going another. The stream that flows here also tends to be a bit braided, and in winter the trail crosses the stream several times. These crossings were interesting at times. Without snowshoes, I postholed a few times and nearly got my feet wet. In several places, the trails of skiers and hikers coalesced, only to split again.

Sometimes it was easy to see which way I should go, sometimes I went up an unsuitable path and started postholing again. At other times, the path seemed to meander in an almost random fashion. By the time I got to the trail junction at the other end, I was fairly tired. What has always been a shortcut for me in the past probably took me longer than the route past Alberta Falls. So it goes.

The plan was to go to the Loch. In winter, I’ve always followed the Mills Lake trail to the bridge over Icy Brook, then follow the drainage up. This experience is based on hiking more in March than November. Right now there isn’t enough snow to go that way. It looks like nobody has even set foot off the trail here. So rather than backtrack to the trail to the Loch, I forged ahead to Mills Lake. Again, in winter I’m used to just going up the drainage but for now at least, I had to stick to the summer route.

Slogging up the “Fire Trail” I was overheating a bit. I just kept telling myself I’d be happy to be so warmly dressed when I got to the lake, and this turned out quite true. As expected, the wind was quite fierce here. I might even say “breathtaking” as that’s about what happened when a gust hit me when I got to the top of the large granite slabs just before reaching Mills.

A mound of ice forming on the west side of Mills Lake, near the outlet.

The challenge on these winter hikes is to find a nice spot to eat lunch in comfort. Ideally, I’d find a rock sitting in the sun but out of the wind. But this is winter at an alpine lake and such ideal spots are in short supply. I found a good enough spot to set up the cameras and managed to keep somewhat out of the wind, but after half an hour I was ready to head back down. I had to take my gloves off to deal with the SLR and in just those few moments my hands were quite cold. But just a few minutes down the trail, once back in the forest and out of the wind, I was comfortable again.

The Longs Peak massif from just below Mills Lake

Rather than slog down the way I came up, I headed down the trail past Alberta Falls. Again, my usual path in winter is to leave the trail just east of East Glacier Knob and head down Glacier Creek, but more snow is required. I’ll just have to come up again in a few weeks and see if there’s enough snow then.

View of the interesting north face of Flattop Mtn from near Mills Lake.

Here’s the video. I used both the GoPro and the SLR. The small tripod I take on hikes was insufficient against the wind at the lake and thus the SLR footage is too shaky to use. Meanwhile, the GoPro was shooting into the sun until it went behind Thatchtop. Tough conditions, but not a bad result.