Foster tells us that Lake of the Clouds is the “most highly visited destination in the Never Summer Mountains”. I don’t doubt her, but if it’s true it tells me just how few people visit any destination in the Never Summer Mountains. (She certainly includes only the mountain destinations and not those in the valley, like Lulu City.)
I tried to reach Lake of the Clouds quite a while ago as a day hike. I wasted some time with a navigation error and made it only to where the trail ends on the map. Since then, I’ve suspected it was out of my day hike range, and decided to give it the two-night treatment: hike to the campsite on day one, hit the lake (or lakes) on day two, and hike out on day three.
The trail is accessed from the Colorado River trailhead. I’ve never seen that lot full, so we could pick our own departure time without worrying about getting a place to park.
Monday, August 29
We had a leisurely 7 am departure from my house, traffic wasn’t horrible, and we put boots on the trail at 9:20.
The first section of trail goes due north from the parking lot for half a mile to a trail junction. Many hikers won’t go any farther than here, or hereabouts. There’s a bridge over the Colorado river a few yards from the junction. Most of those who don’t stop here will continue on toward Lulu City. To reach Lake of the Clouds (or our campsite, Dutch Town), you make the left turn and take the route less traveled.
After crossing the valley, the trail turns south to climb the lower flank of Red Mountain. The trail traverses a fairly steep slope and by the time it has gained about four hundred feet, the hiker is presented with a view of the trailhead parking lot. It surprises me how often a trail gains four hundred feet from a valley floor up to a bench. That happens here, and although there are no lakes on this bench, there are some wetlands.
Having gone a very short distance south of our starting point, the trail turns around and heads generally north until it comes out on the service road for the Grand Ditch. The Grand Ditch is a water diversion project that is capable of taking all the water on the east side of the Never Summer Range and putting it into Long Draw Reservoir, which feeds the Cache la Poudre River.
The trail continues along the ditch for nearly two miles. I’d say that there’s more water flowing in it than in the Colorado River just below us. The ditch is flowing opposite to the river, but we’re at about the midpoint of the ditch, so it’s not a bad approximation that where we crossed the river, there should be more than twice as much water in it. It’s indicative of the abuse the Colorado River gets that, in its first 15 or 20 miles, more than half its water has been rerouted.
From the start of the hike to a fair piece northward along the Ditch, traffic noise from Trail Ridge Road has been a constant companion. As we approach the end of our flat and level stroll on the service road, we’re about a mile north of the highway and turning west. The road noise fades away. Now we can easily hear the jet airliners passing overhead. The westbound ones are a bit north of us, but the eastbound fly directly overhead.
At the Lake of the Clouds trail junction with the Grand Ditch, there’s a sign that indicates Dutch Town is 1.3 miles distant, and Hitchens Gulch is .8 miles. I never did see any sign for the Hitchens Gulch campsite, going or coming, so I suspect it’s no longer in use. I also suspect the miles are inflated a bit. I reckon it’s more like .7 to Dutch Town. It took us thirty minutes to get from the Ditch to the campsite. That’s a five-hundred-foot gain, so I think 1.4 miles per hour is much more reasonable than the 2.6 miles per hour required by the sign.
It took us three hours of hiking to make the trip. Add some time for our break at the base of the Lake of the Clouds trail. Since we crossed the Colorado River, we had encountered only three other people. They had camped at Valley View, very close to where the trail first reached the Ditch. There was nobody at our site, which surprised me. If I could have gotten a Sunday/Monday instead of our Monday/Tuesday, I would have. Either the previous occupants of Dutch Town made it to the trailhead before we left, or they hiked to another campsite. Or, possibly, they canceled. No matter.
Some previous occupant of the campsite left us a present: a somewhat chewed-up skull. I have no idea what sort of creature it belonged to. It’s just the skull; no mandible, and it’s not obvious where the mandible would attach. The brain would be a bit smaller than my fist.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit spoiled backpacking in the Park, given the generally outstanding trails and campsites. That said, I’ve only camped in about half a dozen established campsites in the Park. This one is a bit different than the others I’ve been to. First, it’s very close to the trail and my tent is clearly visible from the trail even before reaching the sign and spur trail. Second, it’s not ideal for water. Sitting at the campsite, the stream is audible. But what can be heard is water flowing under some talus. Just upstream, the stream is very wide, very shallow, and flows slowly. Here, the streambed is a soft mud that is easily disturbed. I use a SteriPen rather than a filter and it was impossible to get any water without a bit of sediment. It is necessary to go quite a way upstream to avoid the sediment.
A few yards from the level spots at the site, there’s a sign saying “Restoration Area: Stay Off”. I believe the site was located by this sign in years past. Here, tents wouldn’t be visible from the trail. The difference in location wouldn’t have made much difference as to water, though.
On my last backpacking trip, I brought the critter cam. The only critter it spotted was me. I probably should bring it every trip, but I figured I didn’t want to carry the extra weight. I should have brought it.
At about 10:30 I was awakened by something moving through the campsite. It sounded like a large quadruped. I’ve had moose go past my tent. It wasn’t exactly a quiet animal. This one was quiet, so I guessed it was either an elk or a deer. It didn’t linger and was quickly out of earshot.
Later, I heard my tent rustling. It sounded like the rain cover was being disturbed by a slight breeze. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. But things are not always what they seem.
Hike Segment Data
|Start||End||Distance (Miles)||Slope (Ft/Mile)||Elapsed Time||Miles per Hour|
|Trailhead||Red Mtn trail jct||0.5||12||:12||2.5|
|Red Mtn trail jct||Grand Ditch||2.8||425||1:33||1.8|
|Grand Ditch||Lake of the Clouds trail jct||1.9||-8||:40||2.9|
|Lake of the Clouds trail jct||Campsite||0.7||714||:30||1.4|