There is no shortage of stunning scenery in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d even say that that sentence is a bit of an understatement.
My loquacious nature shows up regularly on the trail when I have brief encounters with other hikers. In the back-and-forth of “where are you headed”, “where are you from”, and so on, it often comes up that I’ve traveled extensively through the Park. And, so, it’s only natural that I often get asked what’s my favorite place to visit.
It’s a surprisingly easy question to answer: Black Lake. Specifically, climb up the inlet stream two or three hundred feet of elevation. The views there are tough to beat.
There are eight named lakes in Glacier Gorge. In my misspent youth, when I thought you could only visit places that had official trails, I repeatedly visited Mills Lake, Jewell Lake, and Black Lake. On one visit to Black Lake, we saw the trail that climbs alongside the inlet stream. We explored a bit, with the payoff being the fabulous views of Black Lake, McHenry’s Peak, and all the rest.
I’ve now visited all eight of the named lakes, plus the unnamed lake commonly called ‘Italy Lake’. Actually, I’ve been to all of them at least twice. Except for Frozen Lake, which I’ve only been to once before.
My first visit to Frozen Lake was back in July 2012, with Ed. This was just a few months after a microburst devastated a section of Glacier Gorge, knocking down thousands of trees. We had to crawl over, under, and around downed trees. I’m pretty sure they had the trail back in shape by the end of that summer. It was a very interesting hike at the time. Tree roots tend not to go very deep in these parts, and when a tree is knocked down like they were, the trunks don’t break at ground level: instead, the tree is knocked over with a large disk of roots, rocks, and soil still attached to the base. I think some of those knocked-down trees are still alive, living off their root disk.
Anywho, it’s time to make another trip to Frozen Lake.
Thursday, July 21
For this visit, I obtained a timed-entry pass good between 5 am and 7 am. Gordon joined me, saying that he wanted to be back by 6 pm. I told him that was doable, but might be tight. I said that if we left my place by 5:30 we’d enter before 7 and, parking at the park-and-ride, we’d put boots on the trail by 7:30. I reckoned that if we stayed at the lake for only half an hour, we could make it back to my house by 6 pm. So that was the plan.
We were off to a rocky start when Gordon showed up at my place with a flat tire. We might make it back here by 6, but it’d probably take him a while to get going. Oh well.
Arriving at the Park, we queued up in the line of cars headed up the Bear Lake corridor. The line this week was longer than last time I was here, a couple of weeks ago, for my Sky Pond hike. That time, there were two rangers checking passes. This time there was only one, and the line we found ourselves in was roughly twice as long as last time. Also, last time I wasn’t asked if I had a day pass. I didn’t, and my annual pass had expired. This time I did get asked. I said I have a Senior Pass, but she didn’t demand I produce it.
I know it takes me almost exactly an hour to get to Mills Lake from the Glacier Gorge parking lot/trailhead. I’m not as sure how long it takes to get to Black Lake from there, or how long it may have taken me to get to any of the lakes above Black Lake. I estimated that it would take an hour and a half to get from Mills to Black and another hour and a half to get to Frozen. So I was quite pleased to see that we reached Mills in a few minutes less than an hour, and Black in about an hour and a quarter. So we were already a bit ahead of schedule.
This summer, I’ve taken to using my trek poles. I bought them when I bought my snowshoes. I used them once or twice but wasn’t very happy with them. I’m not sure why I decided to give them another try, but here we are. My thinking is, I’d find them useful when I’m off trail, or for crossing streams or navigating talus fields. But I don’t want to use them all the time. I figured out how to carry them on my lumbar pack. Reduced to their minimum length they’re still a bit long: with them on my pack, I’m now as wide as if I were standing with hands on hips, elbows out. I have to be careful passing other hikers on the trail, and if I get into a willow patch I have to take them off the pack.
So, at the base of the climb above Black Lake, I started using the poles. I didn’t really need them until we reached a place where the stream goes alongside a tilted granite slab. These ten feet or so always give me a little heartburn. Not so with the poles.
The trail above Black Lake is pretty easy to follow until you gain the large bench that holds Frozen, Green, and Blue Lakes. At some point, however, you find yourself in a place where you can more or less go whichever way you want, subject to stream crossings and fields of willow. On our way down, we spent more time on what passes for the trail in this area than we did on the way up. I think our route up was a bit easier than the well-traveled trail.
The gist of the hike from the top of the climb from Black up and over to Frozen is a series of large inclined slabs separated by grass or willow. There are cairns throughout the area, generally indicating paths through the willow or leading to the stream crossings. So navigation is pretty simple: just bear to the west of the Spearhead.
The weather was beautiful if perhaps a bit warm at lower elevations. At 11,600′ above sea level, it was about as pleasant as it gets: sunny, warm, not terribly breezy, with mostly clear skies. I was thinking we’d only sit at the lake for half an hour, but before I knew it an hour had passed. (Today’s beer: Avery Brewing’s Electric Sunshine, a tart ale brewed with papaya, pineapple, kiwi, and huckleberry.)
Again, I usually had a fair amount of heartburn descending the steeper bits of the inclined slabs. What can I say? I’m a bit of a weenie. I was much happier having poles, but I was still a bit slow in places. But they did wonders for my confidence.
We could hear voices but didn’t see where they were coming from. I figured they were climbers working up the Spearhead. I stopped a few times trying to spot them but never did see anybody. I also tried inspecting the area around the Keyhole on Longs. The lens I normally use isn’t much of a telephoto, and I didn’t bring a longer lens. I thought I saw some people up there but couldn’t be sure.
One thing I will say: If I had seen this view before climbing Longs Peak, I never would have climbed Longs Peak. From here, it looks to me like one would have to be insane to climb it. It’s not straight up-and-down, but it’s pretty dang steep. And large sections are giant slabs that look to have no footholds or handholds. I have climbed it, though. Let’s just say I was highly adrenalized by the time I got back to the Keyhole. Let’s also say I see no reason to do it again.
The hike back to the trailhead was uneventful. We got sprinkled on twice, very briefly, not enough to even wet the rocks. I was quite surprised at how few other hikers we ran into. Part of that, no doubt, is because we used the Fire Trail. But I expected quite a few people at both Mills and Black. I don’t think we came across more than two dozen people all day.
We did enjoy a close encounter with a cow elk. She was crossing the trail just a few feet in front of me. She was quite habituated to people and didn’t really give us a second thought. She worked across the trail munching on grass and flowers and came within twelve or fifteen feet of us. After we passed, we could hear her whistle. That was Gordon’s description of the noise. It’s not a bugle or trumpet. More like a … bass flute? She was whistling up a storm; we could hear her for quite a distance down the trail.
Even with our extended stay at Frozen Lake, we were back to the car ahead of my original schedule. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected and we were back to my place by 5:30. Gordon still had to deal with his flat tire. This was a bit more difficult than we anticipated. His tire iron wasn’t the correct size for his lug nuts, and his jack didn’t lift his truck high enough to get the flat tire off, let alone to get a fully inflated tire back on. Luckily for Gordon, his nephew wasn’t too far away and had a jack he used to lift his lifted Jeep. We got him back on the road not much after 6:30. Typing this, I haven’t heard from him. So I’m hoping he actually made it home without any additional drama.
Except for Gordon’s flat tire, I’d say the day was a success!
|Trailhead||7:24 am||3:33 pm|
|Mills Lake||8:18 am||2:38 pm|
|Black Lake||9:32 am||1:15 pm|
|Frozen Lake||11:11 am||12:07 pm|
And, finally, the time-lapse: