Pettingell Lake fail

Sunday, September 4

Last year, crossing back over the ridge that separates Lake Nokoni from Lake Nanita, I saw what looked to be a fairly well-defined trail crossing the ridge between Lake Nokoni and Pettingell Lake. Having successfully done the 22.2 mile round trip to Nanita and knowing that Pettingell is the same distance, it seemed like I should be able to bag Pettingell.

The weather forecast for Denver predicted a high of 91 with mostly sunny skies and only a slight chance of rain. I probably should have checked the forecast for Grand Lake. Between Granby and Grand Lake the road was wet. I might have thought it had rained in the pre-dawn hours but there was so much standing water it would probably be more accurate to say the rain had just stopped falling. But the rain had stopped, and that’s what counts.

I planned for a 7:30 start, which means leaving the house at 5:30. I was pretty much on schedule, putting boots on the trail at 7:37. Two guys started hiking while I was changing my shoes and I caught them shortly before the first campsite at Summerland. They looked to be traveling oddly light, carrying only a plastic bag containing a couple of rolls of toilet paper. I chatted briefly with them. They spent the night in camp there but managed to forget one important item, thus their early morning trip. They were visiting from Mississippi and had just spent the first of several nights in the park. I expected to see them later in the day as they said they’d be heading to Nanita.

Not long after leaving them at their camp I saw some moose tracks on the trail. I always expect to see moose in these parts but tracks are all I saw. There were these fresh tracks on the trail, still very distinct so I guessed they were put down after the rain stopped. Just moments after seeing these tracks it started raining. Just sprinkles at first, but before long I had to don my rain jacket.

It rained for two hours. It wasn’t a hard rain but enough to cause rivulets of water to run down the trail. Rain drops would hang on the brim of my hat, dance back and forth with my gait for a few steps, then fall to my feet. The rain pattered softly on my hoodie while occasional larger drops falling from the trees made louder plops.

As the morning wore on, I passed several groups of backpackers making their way out. The weather wasn’t exactly conducive to stopping and talking, so we just exchanged greetings. I did ask most of them where they were hiking from; all were in camps along the North Inlet.

It stopped raining after I passed Ptarmigan Creek. About here the trail finally starts gaining some elevation. The first six or seven miles are pretty flat, passing through some wider sections of U-shaped valley where the river meanders in big loops and the occasional pond lies near the trail. After Ptarmigan Creek the trail starts working its way up the side of the valley.

I arrived at the trail junction as quickly as I made it last year. I make a right turn to head to Nokoni whereas most traffic goes on the trail to the left, towards Flattop and Bear Lake. One of these days I’ll have to arrange logistics such that I can hike from Bear Lake to Grand Lake. It’s well over twenty miles, but I no longer have any doubt I’m capable of it.

The roughly two and a half miles of trail from North Inlet Falls to Lake Nokoni is quite the feat of trail making. Last year I didn’t pay particular attention to the trail itself. I took in the views and was always concerned with my progress. More relaxed this time, I couldn’t help but notice how the trail facilitates quick travel.

This is a pack trail, so it is constructed according to whatever codes apply – minimum width, maximum grade, and so on. But the thing that stands out on this section is the absolute absence roots, rocks, and stairs that interfere with your gait. And although I’ve seen many pack trails that have sections that climb four hundred feet in a kilometer, this trail has no steep parts.

But what amazes me about this trail is that it does all this while traversing some incredibly steep terrain. In the mile below Lake Nokoni there are several sections where the trail is literally carved out of the rock. Words and pictures don’t do it justice. These two and a half miles are perhaps the easiest two and a half miles of hiking in the entire park. That, in conjunction with the relative lack of incline on the first six or seven miles make this ten miles of trail easier than many trails half the distance.

I had no sooner stood on the rock shelf along the east side of Lake Nokoni than I heard somebody coming up the trail behind me. It was a solo hiker, a trail runner, and the only person I encountered all day who was older than me. He started where I did, at about eight. His pace was only a couple of minutes per mile faster than mine which was quite the ego boost for me: I’d covered the ten miles in 3:47, or about 2.6 miles per hour.

Now I confess that I forgot to bring a map. I wasn’t concerned, though, because as I said, I saw the trail last year. All I needed to do was find the trail and I’d be on my way. I figured I couldn’t miss it if I just started working my way up the slope. So that’s what I did. The slop turned out to be a bit steeper than I anticipated. I did eventually find a trail of sorts. But it’s loose gravel and I wasn’t happy using it. My footing was much better without the trail. And it’s not really a trail – it fades into nothingness on both ends.

Without a map I was expecting to be able to see the lake when I topped the ridge. So I was a bit disappointed that my target wasn’t in sight. I decided that it must be farther to my left and that I’d need to cross a talus slope. By now it was noon, which is my “bingo” time. I want to be at my destination, or in sight of my destination, by noon. No lake in sight, so I pondered my options.

I could continue, expecting to arrive at the lake within another half hour. That’s not so bad, but it puts my return to the car an hour behind schedule. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still threatening. The only blue sky I could see was a thin ribbon along the divide. The “mostly sunny” forecast looked to be true, if you were east of the divide. Here, it looked like it might rain again. Finally, I’d managed to keep my feet mostly dry until I headed off trail. Once I was walking through grass my pants were wet below the knee and my feet were thoroughly wet. And today I wore my hiking shoes, not the boots. With the boots my feet probably would have stayed dry. And I’d certainly be happier in boots when crossing this talus field. (New rule: wear the boots if the hike goes off trail.)

So I decided to turn around.

No big deal. I can get to Pettingell if I decide I like camping. Or, if I hit the trail at 7:00 instead of 7:40. And wearing boots and carrying a map. (It looks like I didn’t need to cross the talus field after all. That would have been the hard way.)

I cautiously worked my way down the slope back to Nokoni, where I selected a large flat boulder to sit on and eat my lunch. By now the clouds had broken up a little bit, providing alternating sunshine and shadow. I took off my shoes and socks, wrung out the socks, and set them on the rock to dry. But the sunshine was fleeting and a breeze kicked up and my socks never had a chance to dry out. I wasn’t looking forward to hiking ten miles with wet feet.

The weather did clear up quite a bit. Back in the valley, once I got below the lake, I was in sunshine again. The clouds were just hanging around the peaks. About half way back to North Inlet Falls I was finally able to take off my rain jacket for the first time in five hours.

Upper North Inlet valley

Upper North Inlet valley

On the way out I took a couple of short breaks. The Upper North Inlet valley is one of the remotest areas in the park and the steep terrain below Nokoni means the view is often unobstructed by trees. I paused several times to take in this view. I also took a short break at Big Pool to eat some fruit. I was back to the car shortly after five. I was happy to put on dry shoes and socks and surprised that the wet-footed hike out wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable.


Up Down
Trailhead 07:37 AM 05:11 PM
Cascade Falls 08:40 AM 04:02 PM
Big Pool 09:09 AM 02:41 PM
Ptarmigan Creek 09:51 AM 02:20 PM
Lake Nokoni 11:24 AM 01:01 PM