Fay Lakes

Sunday, September 6

I wanted to visit Fay Lakes last year. In October I got to the bridge over the Roaring River to find that it had been washed out in the previous year’s floods. There was a log that I could have used, but it was covered in frost. So I chickened out and went to Lawn Lake instead.

A couple weeks ago I asked the forum at ProTrails if the bridge has been replaced. It hasn’t, but one hiker said there was an easy crossing about 250 steps upstream. As it turns out, the water is low enough I was able to easily cross right where the bridge used to be. There are warning signs posted: “BRIDGE OUT – Flood Damage – River Crossing Not Recommended”. Hazards include risk of injury and drowning. Not so much in the first week of September – biggest risk is a wet foot.

Once past the Roaring River, the trail climbs to the crest of a ridge. There’s a section of forest here that fascinates me. I haven’t been anywhere else like it. The ground is covered with deadfall and dead pine needles, everything gray. I’d guess just about every place in the region has burned at least once in the last 500 years, but this one small area may have gone twice that long without.

Rewind a bit. I hit the trail a few minutes before 8. I had to park in the smaller lot at the base of the horse trail. I’m guessing I just missed the last spot in the main trailhead parking by a few minutes. Another hiker started at the same time I did. He was headed to Ypsilon Lake so we hiked together. We made good time, passing a few hikers before crossing the river and a few more just after. I neglected to get his name. He was visiting from northern Illinois. He makes a trip to RMNP every year about this time for bicycling and hiking.

We made it to Ypsilon Lake at about ten. I asked if he wanted to continue on to Fay Lakes with me, but he declined. I told him I thought we made great time; he said my pace challenged him a bit on the steeper parts. Based on how much bicycling he does, I’m not sure I challenged him all that much.

Foster says to “bushwhack northeast through dense forest” to Lower Fay Lake, but that it “is easier said than done.” Somebody has put a fair amount of effort into placing cairns along the route. Even so, it is challenging at times to follow. I lost it for a while on the way up but did manage it on the way down. The route climbs a shallow gully for a while; I regained the faint trail here and followed it to the lower lake.

Lower Fay Lake is pretty much what I expected. It’s small a small forest lake with no spectacular views. At this time of year the grass around it is dry, but is certainly quite marshy earlier in the season. The faint trail disappears entirely here; I didn’t see a single wildlife trail or cairn from here on.

Between the lower and middle lakes there is a section of dense forest that was some slow going. After that I reached the stream connecting the two lakes and followed it straight up. It got steep in one place and I had to scramble up a few rocks in one spot. I refilled my water here on the return trip.

Middle Fay Lake sits at the foot of Fairchild Mountain’s gentle southern slope. To the west, the easternmost buttress of Ypsilon Mtn thrusts itself into the sky at a jaunty angle above a grassy ramp. The summit of Fairchild is actually farther away than the summit of Ypsilon, but Ypsilon is much more dramatic.

From here, it’s a simple walk up the grassy ramp, about a quarter of a mile and two hundred feet of elevation, to reach Upper Fay Lake. I crossed the stream about half way up; the stream is so small now that it doesn’t take a long stride to do it. This puts me at the northeastern shore of the long and narrow lake. The water level in the lake is quite low, leaving a mosaic of vegetation and voids.

I found a nice picnic spot near the south eastern shore. After I ate I explored the area. There was a nice view of Fairchild and Middle Fay from the ridge behind me. To the southeast a grassy ramp rises and the map indicates that the other side is much like this one. Foster indicates a route directly back to Ypsilon this way. I considered going back that way but decided to retrace my steps.

After an hour I headed back. The walk from Upper to Middle is quite pleasant – grassy, with open views and easy walking. Most of the day is spent in the forest, with only glimpses of the peaks so I particularly enjoyed the dramatic vistas. There is no trail, but it’s easy to see where the big animals have been. Following the bent grass is like playing connect the dots with deposits of pellets.

The section between the Middle and Lower lakes is almost not so pleasant. It starts with the only part of the hike where I had to use my hands. I refilled the water bottle here, then negotiated a dense section of forest. I never had to deal with willow on this hike, but this section of forest was criss-crossed with maze of deadfall.

Approaching the Lower lake the terrain levels off and transitions to grass, and, finally, the marshy shores of the lake. This hike would be much different in July; much of my route would have been marshy or spongy. I wouldn’t call today dry, but there is little flowing or standing water and the lakes are low.

At the Lower lake I find the trail to Ypsilon. On the way out I managed to stay on the trail. There’s a stretch where the cairns are quite close together and yet sometimes challenging to follow. I both appreciate all the work that went into placing the cairns and wish they’d done more. I felt a nice little satisfaction when I got to Ypsilon Lake without losing the thread.

I took a fruit break at Ypsilon, chatted with a couple of hikers there. One saw my Fitbit; she was wearing one as well. Back at the river crossing I met a couple I had passed on the way up, not far from here. The crossing was giving her some consternation. I crossed the same way I did in the morning and he followed me. Until he couldn’t – “Your stride is just a couple inches longer than mine!”

They asked if I was the guy who hiked to Fay Lakes. They’d talked to my companion on the way up. They, David and Deborah, are from Cincinnati and spend a couple weeks in Estes Park every year. They’ve been doing it for eighteen years. They make sure to take a lot of walks in the weeks before their trip, so they’re prepared for hiking.

I was back to the car by 4:30. Traffic was horrible. Leaving Estes I wanted to get around a trailer (just because), but an SUV got in my way. If I’d have gotten around the trailer, I’d have been happier. The car holding everything up was in front of him. I’d have easily passed one slow car, but I had no chance being fourth in line. The slow guy never went the speed limit and was often twenty below it. Oblivious to the line of cars that stretched out of sight behind him, he never considered using one of the many slow-vehicle pull-outs.