Round Pond

Round Pond is a small round pond that lies on the saddle between Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh. According to the map, it has neither inlet nor outlet streams. I happened across it when thinking of going to the two small, unnamed ponds 350′ above and about four tenths of a mile southwest of Lake Helene.

Not far away from Round Pond is another small body of water called Marigold Lake. (This should not be confused with Marigold Pond, also in the vicinity, a few yards down the outlet stream of Two Rivers Lake.) After studying the map for a while, it seemed to me that it should be possible to visit both these lakes on the same hike.

The Foster guide has the distance to Round Pond at 2.4 miles. The distance from Round Pond to Marigold Lake looks to be about a kilometer. Assuming I make it to Marigold Lake, I’d return to Bear Lake on Foster’s route which she has at 3.9 miles. So the whole thing is about 6.9 miles and less than 900 vertical feet. Should be relatively easy, yes?

Well, perhaps not. Both lakes are quite small and in the middle of the forest. With unobstructed views of Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh it would be easy to locate Round Pond, but I fully expect the forest to be dense enough to provide no views of either of those mountains. And it may be challenging to get from Round Pond to Marigold Lake by my route, having to traverse some fairly steep terrain between them.

And, who knows? If I get back to Lake Helene early enough, maybe I can get to those two unnamed ponds that caught my eye in the first place.

Saturday, July 20

I arrived at the Park & Ride at about ten minutes after eight. I’ve never seen that parking lot so full. There were only a few spots left, and the line for the shuttle wound back and forth several times. I didn’t make it to the Bear Lake parking lot until a few minutes before nine. No big deal, this hike shouldn’t take too long.

The only snow on the trail was the large drift where the trees thin out on the east side of Flattop. In the winter, when I go to either Helene or Two Rivers Lakes, this is where I always lose the trail. The wind blows all the time here in the winter, quickly erasing hikers’ tracks. But in mid-July it’s just a hundred yards or so of snow and not any sort of navigational impediment. The trail both before and after this snow is filled with the overflow of the rivulets that cross it.

Farther up the trail is another spot that gives me grief in winter. The trail crosses a talus field and in winter I’ve often resorted to going to the bottom of the hill to avoid the traverse. It’s steep enough here to give me pause, and better safe than sorry. Again, in mid-July this is not a problem, but this talus field is where I leave the trail in my quest for Round Pond.

Round Pond lies on the saddle somewhere in the center of this photo.

Immediately after stepping across Mill Creek I’m in fairly dense forest. A few minutes later an elk crashed across my path just a few yards in front of me. This was fortuitous, as it led me to a game trail. It’s not too difficult to cover ground but as I suspected, navigation is a challenge. It’s quite flat and level and no landmarks of any kind are visible. My game trail started to veer to the right when I thought I should be veering to the left, so I abandoned it and started making my own way.

On my cell phone I have a speedometer app that I use in the car. The car’s speedometer is not at all accurate, and in addition to the correct speed, it also displays (among other things) your elevation and direction of travel. It’s not a compass: to get a direction you have to be moving. This app works even when the phone is in airplane mode, so I often use it when I’m off-trail and need to make my way to a particular elevation.

Before long I figured I was in the right place and should be coming across Round Pond any minute now. But it’s really hard to judge, so I started doing a bit of a random walk across this saddle. It had been about an hour since leaving the trail and I hadn’t found it yet. I was just about to give up when I spotted a gap in the trees: there’s my lake. The trees are well back from the water, separated by, essentially, a giant sponge. Walking across it, my boots weren’t getting wet, but each footstep sank a few inches.

Round Pond

There were no rocks or fallen tree trunks to sit on, so I didn’t stay long. Not much to look at, either. Just a few Elephant Head flowers here and there. My options were to try to retrace my route and return the way I came, or to head for Marigold Lake. I knew I might have a hard time finding that lake, but given all my changes in direction to this point, I figured turning back wouldn’t be an easy proposition either. So onward it was.

After leaving Round Pond, the terrain remained flat and level, but the amount of deadfall was much increased. It was like navigating a maze. A short distance later the slope started to fall in front of me. Now the deadfall wasn’t so much a maze as a series of hurdles: almost all the trunks were lying perpendicular to the path of somebody attempting to traverse the slope. Between the steepness of the slope and all the deadfall, my progress had slowed considerably. I had to consider each foot step.

If I could keep my current elevation and contour around the mountain, I’d be a bit above the lake and it would be fairly easy to spot. The slope kept getting steeper and steeper until I was a bit out of my comfort zone. I’m okay traversing this sort of slope in the forest, but I really didn’t want to ascend or descend. And I figured there was a good chance I’d come across some large rock outcropping that would prevent me from traversing.

Sure enough, that’s what happened. I only came across one of these outcroppings, but it was enough. I couldn’t find a way over the top so I had to descend forty or fifty feet. By now I was getting a bit disheartened. This was taking much longer than I had anticipated. I still hadn’t had lunch as I hadn’t found a suitable place: a rock or log to sit on, with some sort of view and a bit of a level area to set my things. And I see I have neglected to mention the rich insect life of the forest covering Joe Mills Mountain.

Just as the steepness of the slope began to diminish, I came across a talus field. It had a number of flat rocks, sitting in the sun, with a view to the north and west. I rested here for about half an hour and had my lunch. It was now about 12:30, an hour and a half since leaving Round Pond. And I guessed that I hadn’t covered a kilometer yet, meaning I was covering less than four tenths of a mile per hour. That’s pretty slow.

Between Round Pond and my lunch spot, I caught only a few glimpses of the surrounding area. Once or twice I had partial views of Fern Lake and Odessa Lake below me, and the Fern Lake Fire scar on the slopes of Tombstone Ridge to the north. Only upon entering this little talus field did I begin to see Gabletop, Little Matterhorn, and Notchtop.

Having had my little picnic lunch, I resumed my traverse. My elevation was still a bit lower than Marigold Lake but there had been no sign of any sort of bench above me where a small lake could reside. But just a few yards after my talus field, I could spot some blue sky between the trees above me. Perhaps I was right below the lake!

I climbed a few yards but was stymied three or four times by dense vegetation. I couldn’t get through so I continued along the slope. After a short distance I could finally get onto the bench above me. But no lake was here. Dang.

To my south stretched an open expanse, mostly talus with some grassy/rocky ramps giving nice views of upper Fern Creek canyon. Heading mostly south, I soon saw the trail to Odessa Lake. It was now time for my final decision of the day. Should I go up the trail towards Lake Helene and back to Bear Lake, or down to the Fern Lake trailhead? It took me so long to get here that I didn’t have time to make my side trip up to those ponds above Helene but I headed back to Bear Lake anyway.

Upper Fern Creek Canyon

I passed the nearest point to Lake Helene at 2:30, stopped to refill my water when I crossed Mill Creek below Two Rivers Lake, and enjoyed the easy downhill slope all the way back to Bear Lake. There was no line for the bus and I was back to the Park & Ride at 4:20. This little excursion took quite a bit longer than I anticipated. The section between Round Pond and my picnic spot on the slopes of Joe Mills Mountain put me a bit outside my comfort zone but on the whole, the day wasn’t particularly strenuous.

Squirrel noshing on a mushroom cap

I can’t particularly recommend a visit to Round Pond, unless you’re looking for a navigational challenge. It would have been nice to visit Marigold Lake, but now that I’ve been in the neighborhood I think I can make it another time easily enough. Looking at aerial photos of the area, my little picnic spot was within 20 or 30 meters of it! If I’d have climbed slightly north from my spot instead of slightly south, I’m certain I’d have found it. So Marigold Lake is on the “to-do” list, but directly from the Odessa Lake trail across the open terrain of talus and grassy ramps.

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