Helms Lake

Immediately south of the summit of Mount Evans, on either side of the ridge between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Bierstadt Southeast Peak are two high alpine valleys. The northernmost of these valleys holds Abyss Lake. There’s a trail to Abyss Lake from a parking lot about six miles from the southern end of Guanella Pass. The parking lot at the trailhead has a capacity of about two dozen cars.

The hike to Abyss Lake is about 17 miles round trip. ProTrails says it’s 17.1 miles, AllTrails has it at 16.9. Regardless of the precise distance, it’s a three-thousand-foot climb. I’ve been pondering this hike for some time, but right from the start, it seemed to me that I’d be more interested in cutting the hike short and stopping at Helms Lake (either 11.7 or 12.3 miles round trip, about 2400′ vertical).

I’ve done many day hikes in the 17-mile range, but given the average elevation on this one, I’m not sure I want to make a “maximum effort” hike without knowing more about the trail. So it was a fairly easy decision to venture forth to Helms Lake and check out the terrain.

Friday, August 4

I pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead at about 8:20, roughly half an hour after my planned arrival. I was a bit concerned about the parking situation, particularly as this lot is on the small side. When I got there, there were only six or eight cars there to my surprise.

At the trailhead, there’s a box with registration forms. One person from each party is to fill out a wilderness use permit. It’s a two-part form, one part goes in the slot and the hiker keeps the other, which has the wilderness regulations on the back. There is no fee. Permits must be filled out whether for day hikes or overnight camping.

The trail starts out climbing slowly through lodgepole pine forest. After about a mile. the trail levels off such that it’s almost level. The forest transitions from lodgepole pine to aspen. Entire mountainsides are covered with aspen, with nearly two miles of trail cutting through the grove. The trip reports I read were written in the autumn and all said it’s a great place for leaf-peeping.

About halfway through the hike, the trail has climbed only about a third of the total elevation gain. The next couple of miles are considerably steeper than the lower section of trail. What was a wide, rock- and root-free trail with almost no slope has turned into a narrow, rocky, somewhat steep climb. Even with this steeper section, the overall slope of the hike is mellow, as the last mile to Helms Lake doesn’t climb much.

On my way up to Helms Lake, I was thinking about how I should describe it. I kept wanting to call it a “pedestrian” hike but thought that might sound too clever. Rolling it around in my brain, I finally decided on “unremarkable”. It’s a forest hike with very few views.

I made it to Helms Lake at 11:45, having hiked non-stop for three and a quarter hours. Helms Lake is surrounded on three sides by high mountains, but on the spectrum from gentle slopes to dramatic vertical cliffs, the mountains around Helms are definitely more on the gentle slopes end. We’re above treeline here, and the shores of the lake are not quite beachlike, with willow set back several yards from the water. There are occasional rocks along the “beach” that make nice places for a picnic.

There is a fair amount of camping here, and campfires are allowed. Wandering around the lake it’s easy to spot the many places people have made their fires. If I were to camp in this vicinity, I’d probably backtrack down the trail a short distance and try to find a spot with a bit of shelter. I have little doubt the winds here can be fierce.

What I didn’t notice about this trail until I started back, when I was thinking it was unremarkable, is the expansive view. On my typical hike to an alpine lake, the surrounding terrain is close. Valleys tend to be narrow, and the mountains around the lakes rise steeply above the water. As the Abyss Lake trail climbs the last mile or so to Helms Lake, it navigates through sparse forest and willow, with the ratio of forest to willow decreasing as the trail rises. Hiking up to the lake, I was focused on the trail ahead of me. I want to get to my destination. If a view isn’t right in front of me, I can miss it.

On the return trip, on that mile below Helms Lake, the views are front and center. The valleys are wide, and with few trees to block the view, we can see quite a bit farther than the mile or two I’m accustomed to. I’m not sure exactly how far one can see from here, but a good chunk of South Park is visible. Boreas Mountain, near Hoosier Pass and just a tad over 13,000′, is clearly visible. That’s about 20 miles.

I saw fewer than a dozen people all day, although two of them complained that the trail was crowded. On the hike out, I went hours at a time without seeing anyone. From the map, I’d have expected to be able to hear cars on the road to the top of Mount Evans, but I could hear no road noise. Airliners did pass overhead every several minutes.

One more note: I didn’t see any game on the hike, but did see quite the menagerie on the way over Guanella Pass – goats, moose, and deer. During the hike, it was just squirrels, birds, and mosquitoes.

I can say with confidence that I’ll be back for more on this trail. It’s possible, given an early enough start, that I could day hike to Abyss Lake. But it may be more likely that I come back for a night of camping in the vicinity of Helms Lake. An overnight stay would make reaching Abyss Lake a trivial undertaking. But I’m intrigued by the possibility of making my way to Frozen Lake, which sits at 12,934′ above sea level, a bit over a mile away. I believe that makes it about 500′ higher than the highest lake in RMNP and higher than all but 19 or 20 summits in the Park.