My second backpacking trip of the year is a two-night stay at the Lake Verna campsite. This is very similar to my trip two years ago when Gordon and I stayed one night at the Upper East Inlet campsite with the goal of bagging Fifth Lake. That was the trip where I learned I need to spend two nights in camp instead of one. One day to hike in, a day to visit whatever the real goal of the trip is, and a day to hike out.
In that earlier trip report I went on a bit about the condition of the trail. Specifically, that there are an almost uncountable number of stair steps to negotiate and there are quite a few impressive retaining walls and bridge abutments. It’s what I would call a “highly engineered trail”. Rather than repeat that, I’ll go into some of the trail’s history. Much of this info comes from an application the Park made to get the trail into the National Register of Historic Places.
Unlike the North Inlet and Tonahutu Creek, the East Inlet doesn’t offer any sort of easy route from Grand Lake over the Continental Divide. Which is to say that before about a century ago there were no existing trails through the valley. According to Charles Edwin Hewes, a local who wrote about his tramp through the valley, no feasible trail existed there in 1913. That summer, the Estes Park Trail (before it was the Estes Park Trail Gazette, I guess) said that “a new trail was made from Grand Lake to a chain of lakes six miles east of Grand Lake.” It would seem that this could only be describing the East Inlet.
The Trail does not name a trail builder, but in those days trails were often made by lodge keepers, guides, or other locals. Just because Hewes didn’t find a trail doesn’t mean one didn’t exist. It could mean that the trail was a more casual, less permanent style of trail that Hewes and his hiking group could have missed. Lodge keepers weren’t professional trail builders and didn’t have the resources for developing sustainable trails.
In 1919, Roger Toll, who would later become a superintendent of RMNP, recommended that mountaineers who wanted to get up the valley should just follow the waterway rather than to find a trail. In 1922, when he was superintendent, Toll reported that the trail was blocked by a rockslide near Lone Pine Lake. One would think that he wouldn’t report a trail closure unless there was a trail there. Park records don’t mention any trail construction there between 1919 and 1922.
By 1923, the East Inlet Trail had gained some popularity with the tourists. It also gained a bit of a reputation for being dangerous among local guides. The section called “Devil’s Ladder” was notoriously tricky for horses. Fred McLaren, in his first year as ranger, watched his horse slide over Devil’s Ladder and down the hill. I’m guessing it wasn’t one of the steeper bits, as the horse was just a little spooked. McLaren went to the superintendent (Toll, I believe) and suggested that if the Park supplied the food, locals would volunteer to do the work. In 1924 and 1925 such a crew built a new trail through the Devil’s Ladder area and made a handrail out of pipe. That handrail is long gone but the careful observer will note a couple remnants of it today.
In spite of McLaren’s efforts to build a sturdy, sustainable trail all the way to Lake Verna, in 1931 the entire trail was considered “poor”. In 1931 and 1934, trail workers redeveloped the section between Lone Pine Lake and Lake Verna. I don’t know how much of the work was done in 1931 as opposed to 1934, but I suspect the bulk of the work was done in 1934. This section is remarkable today for it’s extensive dry-rock walls and intricate bridge abutments. In the summer of 1934, Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration funded two shifts a day to make these improvements.
In 1935, there was some interest in connecting the East Inlet Trail to the North Inlet Trail. This would have been accomplished by a route over the saddle between Mt. Alice and Andrews Peak. A survey was completed, but given the great distance from both trailheads, it’s not surprising that this was never done as it would get very little traffic.
Another big improvement project was completed in 1940 when the Civilian Conservation Corps worked on the section between Adams Falls and the Devil’s Ladder. Then in 1970, another $70,000 project was implemented. This was mainly for improved sustainability rather than any realignment of the trail. Many older rock walls still remain, although the pipe handrail at Devil’s Ladder was removed at this time.
The official Park trail ends at Lake Verna, but an unimproved and unmaintained “fisherman’s” trail continues on to Spirit Lake, Fourth Lake, and Fifth Lake.
Which brings us to…
Monday, August 17
I reached out to Ed a couple of weeks in advance. I talked him into meeting at his place and having him drive to the trailhead. I said that because we had all day we didn’t need to get too early of a start. So I told him I’d be there at 8 am. He said that would be okay, but pointed out we’d be hiking in the heat of the day.
The other concern had to do with smoke. Specifically, from either the Cameron Peak fire, burning just north of the Park, or the Williams Fork fire, which is a bit farther from the Park and to the southwest. The prevailing winds blow from west to east, so I didn’t expect smoke from those fires, but I did expect smoke from the larger, more distant fires at Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch. I may have been a bit cavalier about the smoke: I suggested that if it was too bad, we’d just cut our trip short.
We were on the trail just a few minutes after 10 am. The weather was sunny and warm, with isolated clouds. The smoke wasn’t too bad. It was much worse in Denver on Friday, where visibility was quite limited and I could taste the smoke when I was in my back yard. Today I couldn’t smell it, let alone taste it. But it certainly didn’t look good.
Having all day, we made a leisurely time of it. We stopped for a lunch break halfway up Devil’s Ladder. We were in a relatively wide spot. Most of that section is quite narrow, particularly in these days of COVID. But we found a spot with a view that was wide enough to not cause a problem. And we put that to the test when two horses came up the trail. They were able to pass us with no difficulty. We took another break at Lone Pine Lake and even spent a few minutes admiring the stonework on the walls and bridges above Lone Pine Lake.
It was about 6 pm when we arrived at Lake Verna. There, we met two young men lounging by the water. They asked if we were staying the night and volunteered that they were camping at the Lake Verna campsite. “That’s our camp,” I told them. Ed and I went up to the campsite where we found their hammocks and gear all set up. There is only one campsite here, and it’s ours. When they came up from the lake I asked them if I could see their permit.They were supposed to be at Upper East Inlet.
We chatted a bit while they packed up. I felt a bit bad, but not that bad. It only took them a few minutes to get their stuff together. While they were packing they told us they’d just graduated from college and were making their way across the West. After RMNP they’d visit Flaming Gorge and Yellowstone. They had no reservations, but would take whatever was available when they arrived. That’s how they got Upper East Inlet. I’m a bit surprised it was available. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t available when I made the Lake Verna reservations back on March 2nd. Somebody probably cancelled due to COVID and these gents benefited.
In spite of our relaxed pace on the hike in, we were both pretty tuckered out. I managed to remain conscious quite some time after sunset. There’s not much sunset to see from here, being obscured by mountains and trees, but through some of the trees we could see the decidedly orange tint of the sunset. Until the stars began to shine, I wasn’t sure whether we had “clear” skies or clouds. Once the stars started coming out, we could tell there were no clouds. The stars directly above us twinkled normally, but those just above the nearby mountains were tinted orange from the smoke.
Tomorrow’s goal is Ten Lake Park.
I fell asleep fairly quickly.