Arapaho Lakes

Saturday, July 24

For my second visit to James Peak Wilderness, I chose Arapaho Lakes.

Sometime not long ago, the trail to Arapaho Lakes was maintained. From what I understand, there used to be a sign at the trail junction, and a bridge across Arapaho Creek. Neither the sign nor the bridge exists, and I could see no evidence that a bridge was ever there. But judging by the amount and age of deadfall, I’d guess maintenance stopped six to ten years ago. Perhaps the bridge was taken out in the flood of 2013 and that contributed to the decision to stop maintaining the trail?

I arrived at the parking lot a few minutes before 8 am. This was about half an hour later than I’d planned. For the last mile or two on the road, I was followed by three other vehicles. When I arrived at the parking lot, there were only two spots left, and I’m not really sure they were spots. If I’d have been at the end of the line rather than the front, I’d have had nowhere to park. That’ll teach me to be late out the gate for hikes here.

The first two miles or so of trail is also the way to Forest Lakes. The route splits not far after the bridge over Arapaho Creek. Last time, I reported that the railing was pretty sketchy and I’m happy to say they’ve repaired it nicely. From this bridge, I kept an eye out for anything that looks like a blocked-off trail. Generally, it’s a few limbs on the ground, a visual fence. After about five minutes, I found the place.

The trail was quite clear the first few yards, but it quickly led down to a sizeable marsh. I spotted a faint trail a bit to the right, staying on higher, drier, ground. It’s not too hard to follow but requires some attention. This seems to be a detour. It clearly was never a maintained trail. I’m sure that by September, there’d be no marsh, rendering this detour unnecessary.

Back on the trail that used to be maintained, the walking is easy except for an occasional tree trunk across the trail. Less than half a mile off the Forest Lakes trail, we arrive (again) at Arapaho Creek. I spotted a trail on the opposite bank. (I now think this is the site of the former bridge.) I didn’t want to cross here, so I kept going on the trail. According to the CalTopo map, if you stayed on this side of the creek the trail would take you to the outlet of lower Forest Lake. But this trail dumped me into another marsh.

I plowed through to the next clump of trees upstream. By this time, I was above the confluence of Arapaho Creek and the outlet of Forest Lakes. I searched for a crossing here. It didn’t take long, but once I was across, I knew I’d have a short bushwhack. There was another small stream between the two outlet streams, so I ended up with three crossings total rather than the one where I’m guessing the bridge formerly stood.

A few yards after my third crossing, Arapaho Creek, I was back on the trail. I regained the trail at the base of a fairly steep climb: 500 feet up in 1500 feet to the west. None of this was treacherous. The footing was generally good; there were lots of roots that made for nice steps. In places, it’s a lot like climbing stairs. The good thing is, you’re climbing pretty much adjacent to the creek. You don’t always see the creek, but when you do, it’s a falls or a cascade. I enjoyed several short pauses to take in a few breaths and the spectacle of the falling water.

As soon as we’re out of the forest, the trail nearly levels off. The expansive view appears as if a curtain had opened. We’re above 10,800′ elevation here. I was taking my time when a hiker and his dog passed me. He was the first hiker I saw in quite a while. I was a bit surprised to see somebody; I was beginning to think I had the place to myself (other than the mosquitoes).

I did see a few fresh-looking boot prints. I’m guessing it rained yesterday afternoon or last night. The prints didn’t look to me like they’d been rained on. I saw at least one print heading in each direction, so I’m guessing somebody has already made the round-trip this morning.

The lakes lie at about 11,150′ above sea level. The smaller, western one is four feet higher than the larger, eastern one. The southern bank is grassy, and the grass is heavily sprinkled with wildflowers. The north shore is a mix of rocks and willow and krummholz. The trail skirts the south side, petering out before reaching the western end of the lake. Any route generally to the west from here will get you to the eastern shore of the upper lake.

Near the outlet of the lower lake

The sky was a bit hazy due to some combination of humidity and the smoke from West Coast fires. It wasn’t just hazy, it was also mostly cloudy. Here at the lake, it was windy. There’s nothing resembling shelter here. And because it’s not a nice, bright, sunny day, it’s a bit on the chilly side. Unusually, the wind was from the east. There were a couple of layers of clouds. The lower clouds were pushed on that easterly wind towards the divide. They moved so fast it was as if you’re watching a time-lapse. A few small clouds were higher. They moved slowly in nearly the opposite direction.

I sat there, eating my picnic, watching the clouds fly by, listening to the squirrels and marmots chirping and barking, for forty-five minutes. When I stood up to leave, I saw another hiker a couple of hundred yards away, hiking away from me. She couldn’t have been here long; she didn’t come to the second lake.

On the way down, I stopped at one of the many scenic spots and took a few photos. The man and his dog passed me again. This time we chatted. He’s getting married in Estes Park in a few weeks, then he and his bride will hike to the summit of Longs Peak. We chatted about hiking in RoMo and about the fire damage and trail closures. This was his first hike in James Peak. We agreed that this area is a nice Plan B when you can’t hike in the Park.

As to crossing the river on the way down, I had a bit of an internal argument. My intention was to follow the trail to its end where the former bridge was to verify whether there’s an easier crossing. “What if I can’t find a good place to cross?” That’s a stupid question: I’ve proved I can find a crossing. “What if I can’t find the same crossing point?” What’s with the stupid questions? I found that crossing, I can find another.

I went to the end of the trail. I was back at the place I didn’t cross on the way up. I spent some time judging whether I could cross. Any potential crossing involved a step or two in water deeper than my boot tops. I could take my boots off and wade, but without trek poles, I was concerned about slipping. I decided to backtrack and cross the way I did in the morning. I quickly found two of my three crossing points but for the third, I chose a place that was slightly inferior to my route in the morning.

Just before regaining the Forest Lakes trail, I ran into two more hikers. I mentioned the stream crossing. One responded, “I’m not worried, I’m wearing boots.” These were the third and fourth people I encountered in four hours, but these guys hardly count, as I was nearly back to the crowded trail anyway. Not total solitude, but damn near. Not bad for a Sunday.

Back on the Forest Lakes trail, from the bridge with the repaired handrail back to the parking lot it was pretty busy. Not “conga line hike” busy, but I never went more than a few minutes without encountering other hikers. Individuals (with dogs), pairs (with or without dogs), large groups (all with dogs).

Dogs aren’t allowed on the trails in RMNP, so I’m not accustomed to seeing them. I’m surprised by the number of dogs. All along the trail are little plastic bags of, presumably, dog poo. I’m hoping that they were left beside the trail by hikers and their dogs going up the trail and they’ll be collected by those same hikers on their way out.

On today’s episode of “What did I forget?” we have a map and mosquito spray. Last night, getting into bed, I thought “I need to print a map in the morning. And I should take the bug spray with me” Nope, didn’t happen. I wasn’t concerned about being mapless, though; I’ve been studying the map for some time. But I sorely missed the mosquito repellent.

Also on the list: sunscreen. I didn’t forget to take it, but I didn’t remember to apply it until I was nearly back to the main trail. “Better late than never” doesn’t always include sunscreen. Luckily, I emerged unburnt.

I really enjoyed the hike. It’s not too long, at 7.1 miles round trip. It does have a very strenuous section in the middle, a stream crossing (or three), and some route-finding skills come in handy. I didn’t quite have the place to myself, but that might be a different story on a weekday.

In addition to the open views above treeline, and the extended climb alongside the falling water, there was an abundance of wildflowers. Blues and yellows in the lower elevations, reds and oranges and violets up higher. I saw only a few columbines, all fairly low. One of my new favorites, Elephant’s Heads, is quite common here. There is also a profusion of mushrooms.

It was a good day.