Two Lions, a Snowbank, and a Castle

Saturday, August 8

Based on how quickly the Bear Lake parking lot filled up the last time I went hiking (on a weekday), I figured we’d need to arrive at the Wild Basin parking lot very early if we wanted to get a parking spot on a Saturday. I told Chad to pick me up at about a quarter to six. He arrived a bit early and we were easily on the road by our appointed time.

With the timed entry passes in effect, I was assuming the entrance station at Wild Basin would be manned starting at six, but there appears to be no change here. In the past, whenever I arrived before eight there was nobody to show my pass to. And, today, there was nobody here to present my timed entry pass to. So it looks like if you want to hike in Wild Basin you won’t need a timed entry reservation if you arrive before eight. I could be wrong on that, as we arrived a bit before seven. Still, the parking lot for Sandbeach Lake right there at the entrance station was already full. Not a good sign.

I was now worried that we’d arrived too late. My Plan B was to hike to Keplinger Lake, and that hike starts at the Sandbeach Lake trailhead. With that lot already full, Plan B was a no-go. I really wasn’t that interested in visiting Finch Lake and Pear Lake, but there were a few empty spots at the parking area for that trailhead, so at least we had a fallback position.

Arriving at the end of the road and the Wild Basin parking lot, it didn’t look good. I think all the parking places were full, but there was room for two cars to parallel park on the road at the far western end, where it turns around. We parked there and got ready for our little walk. We put boots on the trail at 7:05.

It was going to be a hot day, but at seven it was still cool. The skies were clear, a brilliant blue overhead, but looking toward the horizon it was quite hazy. And we could smell smoke. The haze and smell dissipated before long, though. Neither of us had paid much attention to the local news, so we didn’t know the wildfire situation. I’m reasonably sure that this smoke was the product of the Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction.

Wild Basin holds many beautiful scenes but it takes a bit more effort to find them than, say, in the Bear Lake area. Our route today starts with about 1.4 miles of trail along North Saint Vrain Creek. We take the Campsite Cutoff, making a right turn. If you are so disposed, you can stay on the main trail, which crosses the creek before heading steeply uphill to visit Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. The main trail eventually meets up with the other end of the Campsite Cutoff. You just need to decide whether a visit to these two water features is worth the extra half mile or so.

We had plenty of miles in front of us, so we took the shortcut. The trail is a bit steeper and has more rocks and roots to step over. The shortcut doesn’t stray too far from the banks of the creek; we can hear it much of the time, but can only see it once or twice. About 1.3 miles later and something like a 600′ climb, we arrive back on the trail to Thunder Lake. Another 1.3 miles or so and five or six hundred vertical feet brings you to the spur trail to Lion Lake #1.

The trail to Thunder Lake is a pack trail, but no stock are allowed on the trail to Lion Lake #1, not even llamas. It’s about two miles from this junction to the lake, and almost exactly a thousand feet of elevation gain. Overall, not very steep, but it does have a couple of short sections that are steep enough to be breathtaking. The forest is not very dense through here, which allows for the occasional views of the surrounding peaks. At one point, Pagoda Mountain makes an appearance over the ridge that runs between Chiefs Head Peak and Mount Orton.

Lion Lake #1, Mt. Alice (right), Tanima Peak (left)

We found ourselves taking in the view of Lion Lake #1 and Mt. Alice a few minutes short of three hours after hitting the trail. Depending on how you look at it, these lakes sit in one or two high valleys, sparsely forested, with nice open views over wide, grassy meadows dotted with wildflowers.

Trio Falls

It’s a relatively simple matter to reach Lion Lake #2 and Snowbank Lake from here. The trail is indistinct at times, either crossing rock slabs or just fading into the grass, but there are numerous small cairns to aid you. Even now, in August, there are still a couple of snowfields but these are easily skirted. Along the way is Trio Falls. It’s much more impressive in July than in August; it’s better with more water. After a short half-mile that climbs about four hundred feet, you arrive at Lion Lake #2.

Lion Lake #2, from above

The inlet to Lion Lake #2 passes under a nearly permanent snow field. Today, the stream has nearly eaten its way through and just a small, fragile looking snow bridge connects the snow on either side of it.

Snowbank Lake lies just a couple hundred yards farther, about a hundred feet uphill. The lake is surrounded by rock and snow and krummholz. Even on a mild day like today the wind can be a bit discouraging. We made it here in good time, just four hours from the car. This meant it was a little early to break for lunch. That was a good thing: there really wasn’t any convenient place to relax that overlooked the lake and was out of the breeze. Had we decided to spend much time there, I’d have had to don my jacket.

Snowbank Lake

We worked our way back down to a nice spot between the two Lion Lakes and found a place to sit on a rock in the sun and with a nice view. This was not difficult to do: we had plenty of places to choose from.

Picnic view – Lion Lake #1 and Copeland Mtn.

When I first proposed this hike to Chad, I said we could get these three lakes plus Castle Lake, which is a short distance off-trail. Chad thought that a four lake hike sounded like “a serious challenge” that he was interested in taking on. It later occurred to me that we could bag Thunder Falls quite easily as well, as those falls are not very far off the trail in the opposite direction from Castle Lake. It would involve a bit of backtracking, but it shouldn’t be out of the question.

So, fortified with lunch, we renewed our hike. The idea is, you go just a few hundred yards off the trail eastward from the southern end of Lion Lake #1 and you’ll run into Castle Lake. I found it easily enough seven or eight years ago. I recall it as not requiring much of a bushwhack. This time I took us off the trail a bit farther south and we had a little deadfall to deal with instead of the grassy ramp I remembered from last time. After a few minutes, we checked our elevation and decided we needed to climb about forty feet. So we headed uphill and to the north and we came to the southern shore of the lake.

Castle Lake, looking east

The money view at this lake is found on the east side of the lake, where you have a straight-on view of the sheer face of Mt. Alice. We were on the other side, where it’s not so interesting. We took another quick break here but didn’t put in the effort to find the view. This hike is my third visit to Lion Lake #1. The first time, I went to Lion Lake #2 and Snowbank Lake. The second time was to come here, to Castle Lake. Both those times I didn’t see another hiker after leaving the Thunder Lake trail. Today, we encountered ten other hikers at and above Lion Lake #1. Castle Lake provides much the same view as Lion Lake #1, but I suspect very few people visit it in spite of it being so close to the trail. Even on a busy day, solitude can be had here.

We left Castle Lake, descending a small gully. The last time I was here was later in the season, and no water flowed out of the lake. Today there was a little trickle of water. This flowed into the little meadows below the lake. I picked a route around these, thinking they might still be a bit marshy. We regained the trail a short while later.

I had completely forgotten about our possible side trip to Thunder Falls until a while later when Chad brought it up: “Is it okay if we just head back now?” He told me he was happy that I decided to skip the falls. I didn’t tell him I’d forgotten all about going there. By now we were well on our way back to the junction with the Thunder Lake trail.

While our hike in along this part of the trail this morning was pleasantly cool, in mid-afternoon it was on the warm side. And we started to see a lot more traffic. And Chad was no longer having much fun – his feet were getting quite sore. In retrospect, I should have told him how far we were going. I did say we’d be hiking for more than eight hours, but I should have been more specific. I guess he got his challenge.

We were back to the car about four-thirty, so nine and a half hours total. It was a beautiful day for a hike, even if it was a bit toasty at the end. The area around Lion Lake #1 is gorgeous and well worth the visit. Perhaps I’ll make a return trip soon, at least to Castle Lake, and make that side trip to Thunder Falls.

Two Rivers Lake, the Long Way

As I’ve demonstrated many, many times, not all my hiking plans come to fruition. But I’m okay with that, as the only important part of my hiking plans is the hiking itself: I’m fortunate that I’m in reasonable proximity to the Park and I’m healthy enough to take advantage of it.

The original plan for this hike was to arrive at the Bear Lake parking lot early enough to get a spot there and head off toward the western flank of Joe Mills Mountain in search of Marigold Lake. Marigold Lake is a small puddle on a forested bench pretty much due east of and upslope from Odessa Lake. It is not to be confused with Marigold Pond, which is pretty much the same size but lies a few yards east of Two Rivers Lake.

I think it’s some sort of joke that the folks who assigned names to bodies of water in the Park have given names to such insignificant puddles such as Marigold Lake but much larger “lakes” are not worthy of being named. I mean, I’m guessing no more people make the trip to Marigold Lake than to either of the ponds on Hunters Creek on the way to Keplinger Lake. Both those unnamed ponds are much bigger than Marigold Lake (or Embryo Lake, and a few others).

I tried to find Marigold Lake last year, along with Round Pond. Round Pond I found, Marigold Lake I didn’t. Near the end of that hike, I decided it would be much easier to locate Marigold by coming off the Odessa Lake trail rather than coming from Round Pond. Time to put that theory to the test.

Wednesday, July 29

I had the alarm set for 5:30, but work up on my own at 5:15. I was out the door promptly at 6:00 and at the Bear Lake parking lot at close to 7:30. So was everybody else. The signs all told me that the lot was full but I had to check it out for myself. It was, indeed, full. I lacked a plan B, and I won’t be riding the shuttle bus until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. My solution in this case was to make the hike directly from the Park and Ride.

Foster lists the distance from Bear Lake to Marigold Lake as 3.9 miles, with a net elevation gain of 770′. Doing it from the Park and Ride adds about 3 miles and something like 800′ of climbing. It also adds a visit to Bierstadt Lake, so that’s a bonus, I guess.

The skies were clear, but it was fairly windy. Most of the hike would be in the forest, so the wind wouldn’t be terribly annoying.

I’ve never hiked from the Park and Ride before. The hike from here to Bierstadt Lake is a bit longer and a bit more of a climb than from the Bierstadt trailhead, so I don’t know that I’d recommend it over either of the other routes. In the morning, I went around the south side of Bierstadt. It’s only about a tenth of a mile difference, and I figured I’d take the slightly shorter route in the afternoon.

I met a couple who were visiting from California. They asked me if I’d ever seen a bear while hiking and if there were grizzlies in the Park. I’ve seen a bear (and I’ve seen lots of bear poop), but there are no grizzlies here. That answer elicited a further question from them: what does bear poop look like?

Standing on the eastern shore of Bierstadt, I could (sort of) see where I was going. Joe Mills Mountain is the low, tree-covered mountain to the right of Flattop, in the middle right of the photo. Marigold Lake is on the other side of Joe Mills, a bit north of the summit.

I arrived at the trail junction to Bear Lake in less than an hour and a half, a bit after nine. A few minutes later I passed the trail to Flattop. I felt I was making pretty good time and now could expect to see fewer other hikers. Fewer, but not none. I didn’t run into anybody hiking back; all the traffic was going my way. Between the Flattop junction and starting the descent towards Odessa lake, I passed three groups of hikers and nobody passed me.

In this photo, the Fern Lake fire scar is visible in the distance. A giant talus field (bigger than the nearer one) starts at about the center of the picture and goes up and to the right, bordered by lines of trees. It tops out about where the upper line of trees ends. My plan was to leave the trail when I got to the giant talus field. Traverse that, gaining a bit of elevation as I go, and approach Marigold Lake from above. I was reasonably certain that I passed below the lake when I tried to get there from Round Pond. I didn’t want to end up below it again.

No longer in the forest, I got a better sense of just how windy it was. It wasn’t extreme, but it was unrelenting. It was borderline as to whether I wanted to put on my jacket. At the top of the talus I paused to search for my destination. I couldn’t see it. By now I was toying with the idea that Marigold Lake is a myth; a conspiracy between map makers and trail guide writers to get me out in the middle of the forest searching for a non-existent puddle of water.

I worked my way to the next pile of talus. Finally, I could see the lake. Or part of it, at least. It’s not much more than a water stain. It’s barely visible in this photo, just below center, above the rocks. It was a little lower than I expected, or I was a little higher. The route finding looked fairly straightforward. But it looked to be choked with a combination of krummholz and willow. I decided I didn’t want to deal with that. Given that there’d be no view while at the lake, and with the wind, I decided my best bet for a place to eat lunch would be Two Rivers Lake. So I turned around and headed back to the trail. Knowing now its exact location, I’m happy to make a return trip starting at Bear Lake rather than three miles farther away.

Given that Two Rivers Lake is less than a hundred yards from the trail, I’m always somewhat surprised that it can’t be seen from the trail. And, given its close proximity to the trail, I’m always a bit surprised that it’s such a pain in the ass to get to from the trail. There is a little trail that goes to the north shore of the lake, and I followed it. But there wasn’t a suitable place for lunch there, so I worked my way to the east.

I couldn’t stay very close to the shore, and as I worked east, the separation got larger. I finally had to force my way through some krummholz to get back to the shore. At the eastern end of the lake, there are a few rocks that would make suitable seats. I was looking for a rock in the sun but out of the wind. There was no such thing anywhere I could see. So I gave up and started back to the trail.

Returning to the trail along a different route, I almost immediately found myself on the edge of a small pond, almost attached to the lake. I was out of the wind here. The view was not as dramatic as Notchtop, but it was worth it to get out of the wind. I sat there long enough to eat and no longer.

On the way back, I didn’t go fifteen minutes without running into other hikers. Often, they were resting. None of them bothered to get off the trail to do this, and some of them picked the narrowest parts of the trail to do it on. I thought this showed a lack of situational awareness in this time of pandemic. It would be really easy to stay far enough apart that nobody would need to put on a mask, but so many people don’t give it any thought.

I took a short break where I had a view to the east. Probably every time I hike this trail, in either direction, I pause here for a sip of water or just to take in the view. This time, I sat for a few minutes and munched on some trail mix. Bierstadt moraine stretches before me, with the lake clearly visible, the reverse view of my picture taken from the shores of Bierstadt Lake this morning. I’d be hiking along there soon, just to the left of the lake and then dropping off the eastern end of it to return to my car.

I fully realize that my desire to visit to Marigold Lake is simply to tick a box: been there, done that. It has no particularly interesting attributes. It’s for the completist. I didn’t tick that box today, but I’ll be back, fully understanding that the pleasure in the achievement is much smaller than is warranted by the expenditure of the effort to get there. Particularly if it takes three tries!

Julian Lake

Having just tried this a month ago, it seemed to me that I might be able to start this blog entry where I dropped out last time. Yeah, right.

Thursday, July 23

The alarm woke me at 5:15. I was out the door by a quarter til. I went over Trail Ridge with the idea I could run both cameras and if traffic was light maybe make a nice video. I stopped at Deer Mountain and mounted the cameras. Traffic was light but what there was, was really slow. Often just fifteen miles an hour. I passed some of them over a double yellow line.

At about Iceberg Lake (or Lava Cliffs, if you prefer), the car was making a funny noise. Not an engine noise, not a transmission noise. I decided it was probably one of the wheelwell inserts and didn’t worry about it. When I parked at the trailhead, I took a quick look. It wasn’t an insert, it was the diffuser. I will need to take it off. I lack the proper wrench. This is not good.

I put boots on trail a few minutes before eight, pretty much the same time as last month. About fifteen minutes in, I met a group of three hikers coming the other way. We exchanged greetings. They said they saw two moose just a few yards up the trail. I kept an eye peeled, but saw no moose.

They’re doing a big construction project just before you reach the first bridge over Onahu Creek. Last month I thought they were nearly done. It looks like it’s going to be a much larger structure than I thought. It’s not a bridge; more of a boardwalk, but on a slope. Maybe a hundred feet long, with a bend. And it needs to be stout enough to handle horses.

I got to the second bridge in just over an hour. I easily found the walking stick from last month and set off up the unimproved trail. Which I lost at the same place as last time. Very quickly, though, my stick broke, getting a foot shorter. I found a replacement, almost identical to the first one. Not long after that, I crossed the creek. None of it looked familiar to me, other than the general chaos of this forest. It was never my intention to cross here; I was thinking I was crossing a tributary. In fact, I had crossed the tributary already but didn’t recognize it because it carried so much less water.

As to carrying water, my boots got that honor in the second grassy meadow of the day. It had rained last night, and everything was wet. The pine needles weren’t too bad, I could avoid them for the most part. But the wet thigh-deep grass I had to cross in that meadow did the trick. The ground was sometimes spongy, sometimes slowly flowing water. My feet got pretty wet. I had three days of that a couple of years ago, just on the other side of Mt. Ida from here.

It was somewhere about now that I started to get a bit discouraged. When I started out this morning, I had no doubt that I’d reach the lake. I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into, but my doubt as to exactly where I was and everything looking different than last time was bothering me. On this hike, when you can follow a game trail it’s a relatively easy walk. But when you lose the trail, the deadfall puts you into “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” I was finding it to be a most challenging hike, both physically and mentally.

Having crossed the river early, I came across unique terrain for this hike: a talus field. No giant boulders, not too steep. I decided this was the path of least resistance and a welcome change of pace. Halfway up I realized it was the talus field where I ate my lunch last time. My doubts evaporated.

I reached this point fifteen minutes earlier than last month. It’s always easier the second time, even if only a little. I followed a game trail through the next set of trees, about a hundred yards, without significant deadfall, and arrived at the edge of a large meadow, perhaps a third of a mile long and five hundred feet wide in spots. By skirting the edge of it, I was able to avoid getting any wetter.

A partial view of the largest meadow. Taken from near the north end, facing east.

From a distance, it didn’t look like a good plan to just go up the lake’s outlet stream; obviously too wet. I came across a well-traveled game trail that kept to higher, firmer ground. No maze of deadfall here. The trees were sparser, the gound rockier. The trail skirts three or four more smaller meadows, each thick with elephant’s heads.

Elephant’s heads

When I say I “dropped out” on my last hike here, I mean I paid the tuition but didn’t get the diploma. The misery of the deadfall is, by far, the worst part of this hike. That’s the tuition. The marshy meadows in that last mile and Julian Lake itself are the payoff, the diploma.

The final approach

Foster’s description of the lake says it’s above treeline, but there are trees above it. She also warns of some nasty willow on the way. Following the game trail, I encountered no willow. The trail deposited me onto the shore of the lake, right next to the outlet. The better view looked to be from the east, so I crossed the outlet and looked for a nice rock to sit on. I couldn’t help but notice all the moose prints in the mud near the outlet. I didn’t spot any moose today, but obviously they’re in the neighborhood.

Julian Lake, presided over by Mt. Ida (with the weather) and Chief Cheley Peak

Foster says an alternate route would be to climb the saddle between Julian and Timber Lake. She says to “descend southeast over steep scree.” From my seat, it was clearly too steep for this kid. So if I want to return here, it’s back to the “demanding bushwhack.”

Timber Lake is on the other side of the saddle near the right

I was hoping to sit in the sun, take off my boots, and dry my feet and socks. As it was, there was only a small patch of clear blue sky to the west and overhead only the bottoms of gray clouds. I took off the boots and did manage to get the socks almost dry. But the boots never stood a chance, so feet and socks were wet again as soon as I put the boots back on.

I stayed only a short while. It started sprinkling, and the breeze picked up. I decided the only way to stay warm would be to put on the raincoat or to start hiking. I started hiking. The clear blue spot in the west was getting bigger; any rain would be light and short-lived. Or so I told myself. Fifteen minutes later, after a solitary drum-roll of thunder, I donned the raincoat and put up the hood. It wasn’t a hard rain; it didn’t totally obstruct the vision of the surrounding mountains, but I was happy to put on the jacket.

It rained for not quite an hour. I can’t help but wonder if the weather is always bad around Mt. Ida. That’s been the case for me. My day hike attempt at Gorge Lakes featured a thunderstorm that was the start of the 2013 floods. On my Gorge Lakes backpacking trip it rained every day and my feet were always wet.

Passing back through the largest meadow, I saw two deer about halfway across. They had spotted me first, and from this distance they might as well have been statues. They stared at me the whole time they were in my sight, rooted to their places.

I went down from my dropout spot the same way as last time. Or so I intended. I lost the trail in the dead zone and struggled. I found short, faint game trails, littered with a bit of poo, so I was sort of on the right track, but these all petered out. I’d like to see how elk make it through here. Maybe the place is such a mess that there are no game trails through this bit.

I kept losing the trail (or, more correctly, not finding the trail) at each meadow crossing. More demanding bushwhack. I found the trail for the last time, returned to the main trail (where I dropped my stick), and crossed the bridge a good twenty minutes before I expected to. I refilled my water, ate a plum, and resumed the hike.

A few minutes before reaching the trailhead, I encountered only the second hikers I’d seen all day, this time a couple. They asked if it was my Lotus in the lot and said “at least you’ll have a fun drive home!” I replied, “Maybe not” and asked if they had any pliers. They couldn’t help. She liked seeing my car. She drives a Fiat Abarth. She says with what folks say about Fiats, she’s afraid to drive it in the mountains. I told her she should enjoy her car.

I will say that the demanding bushwhack kept my mind off my diffuser problem. But now it was the immediate problem and It was now very much on my mind.

The diffuser was being held on by six small screws, all along the back edge. The large screws that do the heavy lifting were gone, and so the diffuser hung down in front with the rear panel acting as a hinge. It’s now not so much a diffuser as a scoop that opens when you’re driving. On the road, I quickly learned that the scoop will deploy all the way to the pavement at about 18 miles per hour.

I limped into Grand Lake to search for somebody with some tools. I stopped at the ATV rental place. All she had was a pair of channel-lock pliers. I gave them a shot. After some wrestling and a bit of cursing, I had half the screws out and all but one of the other half loosened. But I was beginning to round off the head of that last bugger. When the ATV rental lady closed up, she suggested I try a Polaris place down the road a couple of miles. So that’s what I did.

Just after getting back on US 34 (at 18 mph, with 4-way flashers on), a couple in a Geo Tracker pulled over to help me. They’d seen me on the ground in front of the ATV place when they were on their way to the Conoco station. When I passed that station, they hurried to come after me. He asked if there was anything he could do to help. I said what I really needed was an 8mm socket. He said, “I have one!”

We got the thing off, and it fits in the passenger seat (on a towel) and the top even fits. Which is a good thing, as I would surely be encountering rain. I was very happy for their help. They told me they couldn’t bear to see me crawling along the shoulder. She has a Corvette and was curious about the car. I said she could sit in the driver’s seat if she wanted; she declined. But she did take a couple of pictures.

The drive home was uneventful. The diffuser didn’t obscure my right side mirror, but there was very little visibility out that window. It rained a little. There wasn’t much traffic and I was home before eight.

Renegade 2

Monday, July 13

I was awakened at about five by the patter of rain falling on my tent. It stopped after twenty minutes or so but returned for shorter showers at six and six-thirty. The rain was light enough that by seven, nothing was wet except my tent’s rain cover, not the rocks, not the stumps, not the logs.

The plan for the day was to first visit Murphy Lake. After that, we figured we could head north across the tundra to get a look at Spruce Canyon from above, to see Rainbow Lake and Irene Lake, which I failed to reach last year. Finally, given enough time, we could perhaps even summit Sprague Mountain and take a gander at Lonesome Lake. It’s good to have goals, even if sometimes one’s reach exceeds one’s grasp.

We had a short (very short) discussion as to whether the best way to Murphy Lake was to bushwhack along a straight line down one side of the valley and up the other or to take the trail to a point a bit above treeline and contour around to it. In my map study, I never considered the first option; Gordon brought it up. It’s good to have options. But in this case, I felt it would be much simpler (and perhaps easier) to go with Plan A.

So we left camp at eight, putting Plan A into motion. The Tonahutu Creek trail here is surprisingly busy. It’s not the sandals and no-water people and it’s not day-trippers: everybody we saw on the trail was backpacking. And I’m pretty sure the smallest group we met was four people. We didn’t meet all the people we saw on the trail; we spotted quite a few hikers when we were a fair distance off-trail.

We followed the trail until we were at about 11,600′ elevation then headed more or less southwest. The map shows a couple of streams we’d need to cross, which is never a problem here above the trees. We would also pass by two unnamed ponds. Looking at the map, it seemed the best way to go would be to cross this second stream below the lower pond and follow the contour.

Somewhere in here, I lost Gordon. One minute he was right behind me, the next he was gone. I made a brief search before continuing on my own. He has a map and he knows where we’re going, so I didn’t worry about him.

The upper unnamed pond

I reached one of the ponds and decided that I was exactly where I wanted to be. Then, a few minutes later, I saw that I had crossed the outlet stream of the upper pond rather than the lower one, so I was forty feet higher than I planned. I adjusted my route a bit, then found myself at the top of a large talus field. “Talus” probably isn’t the right word. The rocks at the top of the field, beneath a rock outcropping, were giant boulders and thus much more difficult to navigate.

The lower unnamed pond

That’s when Gordon reappeared. He suggested we work down some more and pass below the boulders. He found an easy route, and we were back in business. We crossed a series of alternating fields of talus and grass. The grassy bits were probably flowing with water a week ago. Now they were mostly dry. The grassy bits aren’t like your lawn. The grass grows in tiny hillocks; tufts of grass standing eight to twelve inches proud of the ground, almost like grassy toadstools. When wet, there’d be flowing water between them. Best to step on them rather than between them.

From the map, I was expecting the whole route to be above the trees. This was not the case. There were trees, but not many of them. They stood in small groups that were widely separated. They served as navigation aids and allowed us to more easily judge distances. There was no krummholz, and what little willow we encountered wasn’t more than a foot tall and had many passages. The whole way, the only difficult bit was the short section of boulders we had to go around.

First glimpse of Murphy Lake

We arrived at Murphy Lake at 10:30. It is nestled beneath the five hundred foot tall cliffs of the northern arm of Snowdrift Peak and a permanent snowfield. Just as we arrived, we heard the crashing of rockfall – rumble, crash, rumble. It took a few seconds to stop. We’d have had to be looking in exactly the right spot to see it, and localizing a noise in this echoey place is very difficult.

Murphy Lake

We only relaxed here for half an hour, as the next leg of our tour would be above treeline. And it’s generally a good idea to get back into the trees early in case the weather gods decide to throw a thunderstorm in honor of your presence.

Wanting to avoid the one difficult spot we passed through on our way here, we took a slightly different route. We found a nice grassy ramp down with a grassy looking gully up the other side. I’m not generally a big fan of giving up elevation only to regain it, but it looked like a pretty good route. It turned out to be the outlet of the lower pond, so we were now on the route I was hoping to take on our way in.

We refilled our water bottles from one of the many rivulets, about the purest snowmelt water one will ever find, just meters below the source. From here we spotted a bull moose in a grassy/marshy area below us. Could this be the same bull I spotted when getting water last night? I wonder just how big the moose population is around here, and how far each moose might range.

We could also see hikers on the trail in the distance. With his binoculars, Gordon counted nine people in the group. We weren’t so much interested in locating the trail as crossing it, and our only real concern there was picking the easiest way to the saddle that overlooks Rainbow Lake. We identified this fairly easily and set off.

The walking wasn’t difficult. Route finding is fairly trivial here at the top of the world; there are no hidden terrain features. But we were somewhere near 11,600′ above sea level, and headed to a point 700′ higher. I’m not a swift hiker in this environment. One might be tempted to make a joke about the air being thin enough to provide less wind resistance. That joke won’t fly, particularly today, when the wind is blowing steadily at thirty or forty miles per hour.

Rather than reaching a spot with a view of Rainbow Lake, we climbed only about another hundred feet to hit the somewhat lower saddle to the right of it. This gives a view of Spruce Canyon. I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. The four lakes we hoped to get last year in Spruce Canyon aren’t actually in Spruce Canyon; they’re on shelves to the north. From our current vantage point, no lakes were visible. I was mistakenly thinking we’d see Loomis. We didn’t take in the view for very long, as the wind was so fierce that neither of us wanted to stand too close to the edge. Our hats were nearly blown off our heads; we carried them almost back to the trail.

Random trailside flora

At this point, I’d had enough. To get a view of Rainbow and Irene, we’d have had to climb another five hundred feet into the teeth of this gale. The white puffy clouds we watched at Murphy were growing more threatening, growing dense and dark to the west. It was time to put an end to our exploring.

The Gathering Storm

I really would have liked to have seen if any of these lakes are within my grasp from here. The descent from the divide down to Rainbow Lake (and Sprague Tarn and Irene Lake) is a class 3 according to Foster’s guide, so most likely beyond me. But, having not laid eyes on it, I’m still under the impression that I might be capable of climbing down to Lonesome Lake. It is more difficult than reaching Murphy Lake. It’s about the same distance from our camp but requires an additional 1,400′ of elevation gain. Until now, I had considered Lonesome Lake as one I’d never be able to reach. I’d sure have liked to put eyes on the route, but if I think if wanted to do another two-night stay at Renegade I could give it a shot.

Gordon hiking; Big Meadow burn scar in the valley

We regained the trail and headed back towards camp. Back on the trail we encountered hikers going in both directions. Someone in every group we met asked us where we were staying. This almost never happens to me: usually I’m the one asking people where they’ve been and where they’re headed. But this whole trip I don’t think I got the question out first.

Of course, the audience matters. We were on a section of trail seven or eight miles from any trailhead, so these are other backcountry campers or long-distance hikers. I generally only quiz people when they are few and far between.

It was too early for me to eat lunch when we were on the shores of Murphy Lake. And there was no suitable spot on our trek to the overlook, unless you’re a fan of having a picnic in a wind tunnel. So we kept an eye out for a place out of the wind, in the sun, and with a view. We were nearly back to the Timberline camp before we found one.

Picnic vista

We parked our carcasses on some rocks and tucked in. We were soon joined by a curious pika. She didn’t come right up to us, but was inquisitive enough to approach within a few feet. She’d pop up on a rock, sit there for a few seconds, then retreat, all to repeat a few minutes later. There were the usual ground squirrels, too. None was bold enough to sniff my pack, but I kept an eye peeled for a four-legged food thief.

Obligatory Columbine picture

Most of the weather looked to be sliding slightly to the north. I didn’t see any lightning, but we did hear the distant rumbling of thunder a few times. When we passed the Timberline camp, I took the opportunity to use the privy. Much better to use it now than to need it in the middle of the night, particularly given my headlamp situation.

It started raining lightly just as we returned to our camp. Just like this morning’s squalls, this one was short-lived. Being back in camp at the early hour of 3:30 meant we’d have a rather long stretch of down time. Gordon would be subjected to more of my stories, likely to hear some of them for the second (or third?) time.

For most of the first day of the trip, I hadn’t seen any marmots. I’d heard them barking at us near Haynach Lakes, but hadn’t spotted one. As it turns out, we found one rummaging around the edges of our camp, too shy to approach but proud enough to stand in profile, as if posing for a picture. We were also briefly visited by a pair of deer, who bounded quickly up the hillside just a few yards from camp.

I made another early evening of it, retiring again at nine. I was not overcome by biological imperative until 3 am this time. Again, the sky was cloudless and filled with stars.

Tuesday, July 14

We were packed up and on the trail by a few minutes after eight. The hike in took us a bit over four hours. I’m not generally much faster going downhill than I am going up, at least in “day tripper” mode. But what took four hours two days ago was done three quarters of an hour quicker today.

On the hike in, passing through the burned areas, I was wondering how long these dead tree trunks stand. The obvious answer is that some fall down sooner than others. Presumably, it wouldn’t take much more than a stiff breeze to knock some over. And, of course, a stiff breeze is not an unusual event in these parts. So I wasn’t terribly surprised to see that a tree had, in fact, fallen down since we passed this way two days ago. It was hard to miss, as it fell over the trail. I certainly wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise.

I’m often amused by questions posed by people. Sometimes I’ll be on a trail that reaches a series of lakes. I’m typically going to the highest, farthest one. That’s not the most common destination, though. I’ll be asked, “How much farther to the lake?” and know they’re asking about the first one and not the last one. Once or twice today people asked us if they were “nearly there,” presumably meaning Granite Falls.

Today’s amusing question was, “How far to the end?” This was on the first section of trail, from the Green Mountain trailhead to the junction with the Tonahutu Creek Trail. I suppose, technically, that’s “the end”, but to me it’s just a navigation point, not a destination. So I asked him, “What’s the end?” To which he replied, “Exactly! Am I right?” A deeply philosophical person, I presume.

I won’t say that last 1.8 miles was agony. I was tired and my feet were a bit sore, but mostly I was just ready to be done.

Overall, I count this as a very satisfying trip. My primary goal was to visit Murphy Lake. Unlike many of my recent hikes, I managed to attain my goal. I’d like to have been able to scout routes to the handful of lakes lying just below Sprague Mountain, all out of my reach using other routes. But I’m not disappointed that I fell short. The scenery was top-notch. The weather wasn’t perfect, but close enough. The company was enjoyable (although Gordon might disagree, having had to listen to me for three days).

The only bad news from the trip: When I got home, the first thing I did was charge the camera battery. It very quickly reached a full charge, so it clearly wasn’t dead. I reinserted it and turned the camera on, but no joy. So it looks like the camera is going to have to go in for repair.

Historical Addendum

Sitting in camp for a fairly extended time, it’s only natural (for me, anyway) to wonder about the history of the place. When was the campsite was created? Who made the trail, and when? I don’t have any answers regarding the campsite, but I did manage to unearth some fascinating history of the Tonahutu Creek Trail.

Back in 1914, during efforts to create the Park, very few places had names, and an effort was made to “fill out the map”, so to speak. So Miss Harriett W. Vaille, chairwoman of the Nomenclature Committee of the Colorado Mountain Club, arranged an expedition to escort two old-timer Native Americans through the area and have them supply the old names. Expedition leader Oliver W. Toll wrote a thin (46 page) book about the trip: Arapaho names & trails: A report of a 1914 pack trip. The two Natives, Gun Griswold and Sherman Sage, said that the Arapaho name for the grassy area we call Big Meadows was “tonalhuta”. If you guessed that “tonalhuta” translates to “big meadow” you hit the nail on the head.

The trail may have been in use as long as 9,000 years ago. Euroamericans used the route in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but there’s no record of trail construction until 1924 when a crew under the supervision of Ranger Fred McLaren made significant improvements. I had guessed that perhaps the Civilian Conservation Corps worked on the trail, and there is a 1939 schematic plan for the CCC to reconstruct the first three miles of the trail, but it’s not clear that they actually performed any work.

Roger Toll (superintendent of RMNP for much of the 1920s, and not to be confused with Oliver Toll who went on to become a lawyer and who prosecuted von Ribbentrop during the Nuremberg war-crime trials) asserted that up until about 1900, the Tonahutu Creek Trail was the shortest route between Estes Park and Grand Lake and the most often used. That’s no longer true, as the North Inlet Trail now claims those feats.

McLaren employed a foreman named Parton and a crew of about ten men to construct the trail. When it was completed and opened in 1924, Superintendent Toll said, “Although several miles longer than the North Inlet Trail, [the Tonahutu Creek Trail] is the easier and more interesting trail. It is particularly well adapted to winter use.”

Oh, and about the derelict buildings. They are the remains of a cabin and barn built by Sam Stone. I’ve been unable to find any additional information.

Renegade 1

My first backpacking trip of the year is a two-night stay at the Renegade campsite, high up on the Tonahutu Creek Trail. It’s not the highest campsite on the trail; the group site Timberline is about a quarter-mile farther. I hiked most of the way there back in 2013 when I visited Haynach Lakes. The plan this time is to bag Murphy Lake.

My only concern from the start was that there’d be too much snow. Last year, about a week earlier in the season, snow at 11,000′ stopped me short. Murphy is at 11,200′ and we’d need to cross some north-facing slopes.

Sunday, July 12

Gordon agreed to drive. I arrived at his place at about 6:30 and we were on the road in good time. I was shooting for boots on trail by 9:00. Traffic was light, there was no line at the entrance station, and we were parked at the Green Mountain Trailhead by 8:30. The sky was clear; it was cool but not cold.

Renegade is about seven miles from the trailhead, but a fairly gentle slope, climbing only about 1,700′. The first section of trail connects the trailhead to the Tonahutu Creek Trail. In a bit less than two miles it ascends seven hundred feet, passing three or four small meadows.

Make a left turn onto the Tonahutu Creek Trail. The trail skirts alongside the northern half of Big Meadows. You come across two ruined log structures almost immediately, then come to the junction with the Onahu Creek Trail. Continue to skirt the meadow on the Tonahutu trail.

Not long after leaving the meadow the hiker reaches the Big Meadows burn scar, from the 2013 fire. When I hiked it then, immediately after the fire, these burned areas had no life at all, not an insect nor a blade of grass. Seven years later, the ground is covered with grasses and flowers and the occasional pine tree all of eighteen inches tall. Most of the dead tree trunks are still standing. I wonder how often one of them falls down?

Many of the hikers on this part of the trail are headed to Granite Falls. It’s a nice falls, but seems like a long way to go (5.1 miles). I wanted to take a break there, but didn’t quite make it. We stopped about a half hour short of it and I ate some fruit and trail mix. We took another brief break at the falls.

After Granite Falls there’s another large burn scar. At the eastern end of this burned area looks to be an avalanche debris field. The trees aren’t burned, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t there last time I hiked here. Quite a bit of work was invested in cutting trees to clear the trail.

About a quarter of a mile after the junction with the spur trail to Haynach Lakes you arrive at the Renegade campsite. It’s fairly close to the trail. Renegade doesn’t have a privy, but Timberline does, and it’s only another quarter of a mile up the trail. Water is easily accessible. Renegade has a remarkable number of downed trees around it. We decided that they’d cut down all the beetle-killed trees that might fall onto the campsite.

I was moving slower and slower and I told Gordon that he could go ahead of me. I told him we were at Renegade, and that it was the second left turn. When I arrived, he was nowhere to be seen. I started to set up my tent. Then a hiker came up to the campsite and asked if I was hiking with another fellow. “He’s up at Timberline. You might want to go get him. It’s only a quarter-mile up the trail.” I headed up that way and met Gordon, who was on his way down, having realized he wasn’t in the right place. I gave him a little grief, pointing out that the sign might be tricky to spot, being that it’s pretty much at eye level.

Renegade campsite

After setting up camp and a short break, we headed up to Haynach Lakes. Unfortunately, you give up 150′ of elevation going back to the Haynach Lake trail, where you are faced with a brisk 400′ climb before the trail mellows somewhat. The forest thins quite a bit, and there are a number of scenic meadows beneath the southern flank of Nakai Peak.

Haynach Lakes and Nakai Peak

Haynach Lakes sit in a fairly broad, grassy valley that is thinly forested. The broad flank of the Continental Divide rises twelve to sixteen hundred feet above; not jagged cliffs but a much more gentle slope. Nakai Peak is to the south. It also lacks steep cliffs and the combination of all this makes the valley perhaps appear wider than it is.

Haynach Lakes

Standing at the outlet and looking southwest, you get a nice view of Snowdrift Peak over the top of a sizeable pond. Snowdrift Peak is a bit less than three miles distant. Although it might be easy to think that Murphy Lake sits on a bench that’s visible, its location cannot be seen from here.

Snowdrift Peak

We spent about an hour here, sometimes watching the clouds, sometimes looking for interesting things a bit closer. There didn’t seem to be fish in the lake until we found a small school of them congregating at the outlet. There were some elk bones – part of the vertebrae, a scapula, a few more small bones. There were a number of tufts of fur nearby as well. I’d guess fur would get blown away fairly quickly.

Not long after we arrived at the lake, my SLR died. I found that quite disappointing. It’s not exactly a light camera, so if it wasn’t going to work, it means I put a non-trivial amount of effort to bring it for nothing. It’s been a few weeks since I charged the batteries, but the meter indicated 2/3 of a charge.

Back at camp, killing time by telling stories, we saw a doe working slowly down the hillside. She didn’t pass through our camp, but skirted it on three sides, calm as can be. It was getting dark now, so I headed down to the stream to fill up a bottle of water. It was perfect timing: when I got to the spot that Gordon filled up at on the way back from Haynach, I found a bull moose standing there. He was about twenty feet away. He slowly sauntered parallel to the trail and until he was a bit farther away, I kept some trees between us. Filling my water, I saw that he left a footprint in the mud.

Before it was even dark, I crawled into my tent. I never go to bed before eleven, but all that walking had me pretty worn out. I retired at nine, before we spotted a single star.

And now I was confronted by another battery problem: my headlamp. It illuminated, sort of. If you looked at the light, you could see it was on, but it cast so little light as to be useless. I really need to check this stuff out beforehand.

My bladder forced me up at 12:40. The sky was clear, what I could see of it through the trees. The stars shone brightly and there was no moon. I managed to take care of business in the darkness, neither tripping over rock nor root and not getting lost.

Crystal Lake

Up to now, I’ve been buying my timed entry passes well in advance. They released the vast majority of passes back in June for June and July. They also release a tranche of passes two days in advance. That is if you didn’t buy a pass in advance for, say, July 1, and you decide you want to go, they make an additional number available on 6/29 at 8 am MT. If you look at a date that has sold out, it’ll show how many they’ll release 2 days in advance. For the 6-8 am slot, it looks like 65 passes each day.

Wanting to hike on Wednesday, I signed on Monday morning to get a pass. I refreshed my page promptly at 8 and made my purchase. By the time I selected the date, time, and type of pass, it said only 40 of the 65 were still available. After completing the process, I went back to see how many were left. At 8:03, it was down to 7.

Clearly, the best way to get a pass is to buy one when the bulk of them are released. And, as it turns out, passes for August become available on July 1. Of course, I’ll be on the trail when August passes become available but I’m thinking that they won’t get snapped up much faster than they were in June. When I made my first reservations, there were hundreds available for each day/time I wanted.

Having obtained my pass, the next issue was where to hike. I’ve done a pretty thorough job of visiting lakes that are readily accessible. What’s left will either require camping or are at elevations or in locations where there’s likely still too much snow on the ground. And I’d like to avoid the crowded trails in the Bear Lake area. With this in mind, I decided on Crystal Lake, which I last visited back in 2011. It’s high enough that snow might be a problem, but the higher sections of trail are on south facing slopes.

Wednesday, July 1

I was thinking I wanted to be on the trail at about 7:30. I thought the lake is seven and a half miles up the trail, but I see that the Foster guide says it’s 7.9, with 2,960′ of elevation gain. I figured I could maintain a two mile per hour pace up to Lawn Lake, then somewhat slower for the bit above eleven thousand feet.

I left the house at 5:30 and, encountering little traffic, I was at the trailhead a few minutes before seven. There were plenty of empty parking spaces, and a couple of hikers started on their way while I was getting ready. I hit the trail spot on 7:00. Before leaving the car, I sprayed on some mosquito repellent. I don’t normally carry it with me for a day hike and hoped that a single application would do the trick.

The first section of trail gets your heart going right away, climbing about 700′ in a little over a mile. That’s about double the average rate of climb for the entire hike. The trail to Lawn Lake is a pack trail, so it’s mostly free of roots and rocks and never gets too steep.

The first navigation point is the junction with the Ypsilon Lake trail. I didn’t catch up to the hikers who left the parking lot before me, but I did encounter a group of four hiking back to the trailhead. If they were camping, they left their campsite quite early, and I can’t imagine how any day trippers were already on their way out.

The next section of trail, a bit over four miles, more or less follows Roaring River. When the river is in view, it’s quite dramatic. The Lawn Lake dam failed back in 1982, releasing something like 30 million cubic feet of water at a peak rate of 18,000 cubic feet per second. The effects are almost as visible today as they were nearly 40 years ago. The careful observer will note places where the trail was washed away. That really doesn’t explain it properly: it wasn’t so much that the trail was washed away, but that the hillside the trail passed over was washed away.

There are places where a hundred feet of hillside looks to have been scoured away. Trees on the edge of these cliffs are dead but still standing, half their roots supported only by air. Continuing erosion is obvious. Not just earth being washed away from above by rain and snow, but the stream still undercutting the banks. In wider spots, the deluge deposited large piles of tree trunks. In narrower places, everything was washed away, leaving bare bedrock. In some places, the flood scar is visible from miles away. The pace of life is slower at altitude; even in forty years, new trees and shrubs have barely started growing back.

Mummy Mountain and flood-scarred Roaring River

For the most part, this section of trail is easy walking. Fairly long stretches of nearly level trail are broken by short, steeper climbs that feature a few switchbacks. As the trail more or less follows the stream, it’s at the bottom of the forest valley, so there are no views to speak of. I also will note that my mosquito preparation was (today, anyway) unnecessary: I neither heard nor saw a single mosquito.

Not long before reaching Lawn Lake, there’s a junction with the Black Canyon Trail. You could theoretically get to the Cow Creek trailhead or Gem Lake or Twin Owls from here, but I’m not sure why anybody would want to. I haven’t hiked it, but I imagine it’s mile after mile of vista-free walking. But it exists, and appears to be both well-maintained and well-traveled. So somebody must find it useful.

Lawn Lake is the end of the pack trail. There are two hitching posts here, one for llamas, one for horses. From here to Crystal Lake, the trail is narrower and steeper. At times it goes right through small patches of willow where it resembles a game trail and will get you a wet boot if you’re not watching your step.

Just above Lawn Lake the trail rises above treeline and leaves the forest behind. I stopped here with the idea that I’d slather on some SPF. But the sun’s warmth was a bit feeble and the breeze was definitely not feeble so instead of sunscreen, I put on my jacket. Much of my hike so far had been in shade. It was well after nine before a single ray of sunlight hit my body. I was expecting things to warm up as the day progressed, but clearly that wasn’t in the cards this morning. I did put sunscreen on my face and hands, though, as the sun above 11,000′, while pleasant, is harsh.

To this point, I hadn’t seen any hikers (other than the group of four right at the start). There was a guy fishing at Lawn Lake and a hiker there sitting on a rock. While I was getting my jacket on, she passed me on her way to Crystal Lake.

Lawn Lake, with Longs Peak in the distance

There really wasn’t much snow along the way. In some shady spots around Lawn Lake there were a few drifts not much bigger than a few paces across. A bit more than half way up the slope there’s another trail junction, with a spur trail that takes you to The Saddle. I considered heading up this way, not to the top of the saddle, but far enough up to get a view of Crystal Lake from above. It was still fairly early, so I had plenty of time, but my pace had slowed considerably and the cool, stiff breeze was a deterrent. I continued to the lake.

Mummy Mountain towers over Lawn Lake

Not far after the junction I came to the only stretch of snow worth mentioning. Standing on the eastern edge and looking west, I couldn’t see the trail. Lucky for me, the gal who passed me had already crossed the snow and was working her way along the far edge. Scanning the terrain above her, I finally spotted the trail and so I made a direct line for it. I didn’t quite catch up to her, but I essentially wiped out the lead she had on me.

There are two lakes here, nearly side-by-side and differing by only three feet of elevation. The first one is Little Crystal Lake. It’s very scenic. Almost exactly as scenic, in fact, as its larger neighbor. But it is very much the “red-headed stepchild”; nobody seems to stop here to take in the view.

Little Crystal Lake and Fairchild Mountain

I caught up to the other hiker as we climbed onto the boulders that make up the shore of the lake. There we found a guy who was making an attempt at fishing. We sat on a rock about ten feet apart and chatted while we ate our lunches.

When I was last here, I had the place to myself. Today, at first it was three of us. I stayed about an hour and a half. While there, a group of four hikers arrived, then a solo hiker, then two more. On my way past Little Crystal Lake, another solo hiker arrived. Clearly, this place is more popular than I thought. Usually, if I’m going to a lake more than seven miles away there aren’t many (or any) other visitors.

Crystal Lake

Ironically, on the way up, from the Ypsilon trail junction to Lawn Lake I didn’t see anyone on the trails. And, likewise, on the way out it was the same thing. Usually, at any lake I visit where there are a dozen or so people, I’ll meet people on the trail who are headed to the same place, or have been there and are on their way back.

I didn’t see any big game, but the marmot population at Lawn Lake, Crystal Lake, and in between was impressive. They weren’t too shy, either. One perched himself on a pedestal-like rock and looked at me as if to say, “I’m ready for my portrait now!” Another made it’s home in a hole right next to the trail, only backing down out of sight when I got within a few feet.

Timetable

UpDown
Trailhead7:00 am4:08 pm
Ypsilon jct7:35 am3:33 pm
Black Canyon jct9:27 am1:50 pm
Lawn Lake9:45 am1:35 pm
Crystal Lake11:00 am12:30 pm

Onahu Creek

Monday, June 22

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. This time on “What Did I Forget?”: mosquito repellent and a map.

If I were to follow my usual naming convention, this one would be “Julian Lake FAIL” instead of “Onahu Creek”. It’s good to have goals, but just about any day in the Park is a good day, even if I don’t get to where I originally wanted to go. So for today’s hike, let’s just call it a reconnaissance instead of a fail.

The Foster guide tells us there are two routes to Julian Lake: one is via Timber Lake and the other is bushwhacking up Onahu Creek. The Timber Lake route would be a five-mile hike to Timber Lake and then basically go straight up 700′ and down 700′ in less than a mile. I’m not a big fan of descending steep slopes, so I figured the bushwhack route would be my best bet.

To get there this way, start at the Onahu Creek trailhead and hike about three miles to Onahu Bridge, which is where the trail crosses Onahu Creek for the second time. Then leave the trail to follow the creek. Near Julian Lake, there’s a confluence of the lake’s outlet stream with Onahu Creek. Follow the stream on the left and climb the last 500′ or so to reach the lake. Sounds simple, no?

I really only had two concerns. First, the lake sits above 11,000′ and it’s still June and there may be too much snow. But looking at the map/satellite/aerial photos it appears that the last few hundred feet of climbing are up a gully that has no trees and has southern exposure. I took the microspikes with me just in case. And, second, I might have to ford a stream if I can’t find a better way to cross. My bruised foot is still pretty tender. It’s not a problem at all with a shoe or boot on, but barefoot on stones in a stream might cause some real discomfort. I figured I’d “burn that bridge when I try to cross it”.

This is the second time I’ve been on this trail. The first time, I only went to the first crossing of Onahu Creek, then headed off-trail to Chickaree Lake.

The first bridge is about half way to the second, both in distance and in elevation gain. Immediately after crossing the first bridge, the trail climbs pretty steeply. It’s a pack trail. I’m pretty sure they have “building codes” for pack trails. All over the park I can find pack trails that climb as steeply as 400′ in a kilometer. I’m sure the code doesn’t mix units like that, but this is one of those 400’/kilometer climbs. After that, the trail levels off for the rest of the way to the second bridge.

My decision here was, do I go up the left side, or the right side? From my map study, I recalled that there are two streams that come in from the left and one from the right. But going up the right side, I’d have to cross Onahu Creek itself, so that’s two crossings either way. I picked the right side and dove into the forest.

Almost immediately I found myself in a maze of deadfall. No, “maze” doesn’t do it justice. There were a surprising number of downed trees, trunks in every direction, sometimes stacked three high. I soon came to a small trunk, only about ten feet long. The top half looked like it might make a nice walking stick, so I broke it in half. I broke it exactly where I intended, but the fatter (discard) half bounced up and clobbered me in the neck. As I said, sometimes I’m my own worst enemy.

After quite some time working through the deadfall forest, I found a game trail that looked promising, but it veered off in the wrong direction, so back into the thick of it, although it wasn’t nearly as bad as before. After a while, I came across a fairly well-traveled game trail. It was much easier going until it dumped me out on the border of what looked like a grassy meadow. It was a marsh. I managed to make my way across without getting wet feet, but I saw no game trail on the other side.

Back into the mess. My strategy was to keep the creek fairly near. Not necessarily always in sight, but always audible. In some of the steeper sections, the creek came down some nice cascades. The nasty deadfall wasn’t a constant thing, but was quite common. The worst of it was on the steeper slopes.

The mosquitoes were the worst I’ve ever dealt with. They weren’t big, the sort that would carry off small children. But there were millions of them. Swarms of them. I tried not to stop more often than necessary. It has been my experience that they’re worse in the woods than in the clearings, but not today. I stopped to take very few pictures and every time I stopped to take a sip of water, three or four would land on each arm while others would buzz my ears and go for the back of my neck. At one point there were three lined up on my arm, a few inches apart. I rubbed my hand up my arm, killed the mosquitoes and left three smears of my own blood.

I easily crossed the tributary that came in from the right and figured I didn’t have that far to go, perhaps another mile. The terrain became steep again, and I came across another nice cascade. At the top of this, I was once again standing on the edge of a swampy meadow. The creek flowed right through it, rather than beside it, so it meandered. The channel was narrow, deep, and swift. Narrow for the amount of water; too wide for me to vault it. In this meadow/marsh, it looked like there was a confluence here. I was expecting a steep grassy slope after the confluence, but there was a talus field over there. Perhaps I’m misremembering the map. But this looked like where I needed to cross Onahu Creek and follow the other stream to the lake.

The deceptive ox-bow

I found a crossing, then went about following the other stream. I had been faked out: it was a meander loop that was now cut off from the main stream. It made a loop to nowhere. It was now a bit after eleven. I hadn’t really stood still for two hours and I was hungry. I decided I’d find a flat rock in the talus, in the sun, and hope that the mosquitoes weren’t so bad. So that’s what I did. And the mosquitoes weren’t a problem at all.

It wasn’t as sunny as I was hoping, and it was a bit on the cool side. After sitting for a while, it was cool enough that I donned my rain jacket. It occurred to me that I could wear it on the hike back to the trail to help with the mosquitoes. I could even put the hood up to protect my neck and ears. I’d be hot and sweaty, but I figured that was a fair trade.

I relaxed for an hour. The view was not dramatic but pleasant. After I ate, I spent a few minutes looking at the terrain. My phone said I my elevation was 10,607′, and the lake is at about 11,100′. Is the lake above the gully to the left? It doesn’t look like what I was expecting from the aerial images. I thought about how disappointed I’d be to learn that I was really close but gave up.

The view up the canyon. The correct route is very near the right of the photo.

I was quite happy using the walking stick. Perhaps I need to rethink my attitude about using poles. One consideration is that I nearly walked away from my stick twice, once when I started back down, once right after my first stream crossing. I can easily see myself losing my poles.

On the way out I was a bit more successful following the game trails. I found myself on a section that I avoided on the way up, thinking I didn’t like the direction. It was a very easy trail, nearly a straight line with almost no deadfall. Whenever the game trail looked to be forking, I tried to pick the route that looked better traveled. Or had more elk poo!

Not exactly a cairn, but serves the same purpose

In the steeper parts, I lost the game trail but I always managed to get back to it. I had less success crossing the marshes. The only time I found the trail on the opposite side was crossing the last of them. This was the “heavily-traveled” game trail from the morning. But it turns out that it isn’t a game trail, it’s an unimproved park trail. If I’d have gone another 20 yards after crossing the bridge this morning, I’d have seen it and saved myself a bit of trouble.

Now back on the main trail, I tossed my walking stick into the underbrush and headed back to the car. This trail really doesn’t go anywhere, and it has a small parking lot, so I wasn’t expecting to see any other hikers. Very quickly, two groups of hikers passed me in the other direction, one group of four, the other of seven. Then I caught up to a group of eight heading my way. I was reluctant to pass them, as I was planning on refilling my water at the first bridge. I’d just have to pass them again.

But they saw me and stopped to let me by. I hustled down to the bridge and refilled my bottle. I’m not sure how long the UV light stays on, but it seems like ages. So the big group was going even slower than I thought, as I was back on my way before they showed up. Near the parking lot, I passed one more group, who were just hitting the trail. So that’s four groups totaling more than twenty people. In the parking lot, there was my car and two others. Seems to me there should have been more cars.

My last decision of the day was which way to return home. I decided that, even though it’ll take a bit longer, I’d go over Trail Ridge Road. I’m still curious about the timed entry passes being 60% of normal, so I wanted to see how bad the traffic was.

I was pleasantly surprised. The parking lot at the Alpine Visitors Center was less than half full. All the pulloffs between there and Rainbow Curve had empty spots. I never had a clear road in front of me, but we generally went the speed limit over that stretch. We caught slower traffic at Rainbow Curve, but it wasn’t as slow as I ordinarily see at that time of day.

Postscript

I have more than a dozen mosquito bites on each arm. One bite has another bite right on top of it. But it could have been worse: I could have been wearing shorts. I’m quite confident that wearing the jacket on the way out, although not exactly comfortable, was a wise decision.

It turns out I made it to within a mile of the lake. I had not much more than another hundred yards of forest to bushwhack through, then cross another marsh and finally climb to the lake. I’m thinking that if I try again, in August perhaps, when the ground will be drier, I should be able to make it. Hit the trail a few minutes earlier, follow the game trails better, and (of course) remember the mosquito repellent!

Knobs 8, 7, and 6

Wednesday, June 17

Ed and I arranged to meet at the Beaver Meadows visitor center at 7:30. Again, somehow, I managed to get there early. And instead of driving the rather generic SUV, I drove the car nobody can miss. While changing from my driving shoes to hiking boots I spied a white Toyota enter the parking lot. “Here comes Ed. And there goes Ed.” He somehow didn’t see me.

Today, instead of checking the timed entry passes right there by the BMVC, they simply did it at the entrance station. So, now, it clearly makes sense to have the express lane blocked off. There was no line to speak of at the entrance station, and there were plenty of open parking spaces at Bear Lake (although the Glacier Gorge lot was full, no surprise).

We lacked anything like a plan. After some back and forth, we decided to head up to the top of West Glacier Knob, which is #8 in Ed’s numbering scheme. We left the crowded trail at the usual spot and made our way to Ed’s preferred stream crossing spot. The water was a good six inches lower than it was a couple of weeks ago when we came this way. I declined to use the log to cross and instead took off my boots and waded across.

“Zone” Lake

Our first waypoint on the way is a little lake Ed has named “Zone” Lake. It’s not much of a body of water, but it has a really nice view for what I’d call a “forest” lake. It’s easy to get spoiled by the alpine lakes in the park, sitting immediately beneath dramatic granite faces. Forest lakes, on the other hand, typically are on the dull side, surrounded by view-obscuring trees. This one, though, has enough swampy land around it that the views of the Longs Peak complex, Thatchtop, and Otis are expansive.

“Joyce’s Pond”

From there we headed to another unnamed lake, “Joyce’s Pond”. Our walk so far didn’t require much effort. We’d done a little up and down, but here we were roughly the same elevation as we were when we left the trail from Bear Lake to Nymph Lake. It was now time to start climbing. In the next half mile or so, we gained a bit over 600′ to gain the summit of West Glacier Knob.

Mills Lake and Glacier Gorge from West Glacier Knob

It was still a bit early for lunch, and as might be expected up here, the wind was a bit gusty. After a short look around, we descended towards the southwest and made our way past our third unnamed lake: “Beautiful Lake Marv”. We were headed to another glacier knob and we nearly bypassed it by mistake.

“Beautiful Lake Marv”

Knob 7 features a nice view up Loch Vale. We could hear the distant roaring of Icy Brook as it falls steeply from The Loch, and we could see hikers crossing a field of snow on their way to or from the lake.

Knob 6 is very close to Knob 5, both hanging off the southeastern flank of Otis Peak. Knob 5 is a bit higher. While we were sitting on Knob 6 eating our lunches and relaxing, we discussed where to go next. Ed suggested bagging 5 at first, but I kept asking him for alternatives. We finally decided that, when it was time to go, we’d descend along a ridge that extended to the northeast. Going this way, we could visit three more knobs (all minor and not featuring in Ed’s numbering scheme). I thought that was a splendid choice.

We sat on Knob 6 for quite a while, taking in the views. I had the GoPro with me, but there still wasn’t a cloud in the sky near us. Far to the east, over the plains, were some high, thin, boring clouds, and a few very small clouds that looked to be created by the turbulence of winds blowing over Longs Peak. Nothing worth setting up the camera for.

The wind is a near-constant feature up on top of these knobs. Clear evidence of this is demonstrated by the trees. I was fascinated by one that had seen so much wind that it had grown in a corkscrew shape. I’m also constantly amazed at the tenacity with which these trees grow. They’ll start in the faintest of cracks in the rock and grow to an impressive size, given that there’s no soil to speak of, no nutrients and no place for water to pool. Very harsh conditions, but life is stubborn, and finds a way.

Another thing that fascinates me when hiking in this area is the amount of wood lying about that was burned in the Bear Lake Fire of 1900. At “Zone” Lake, there’s a tree stump that was chewed up by beavers before it caught fire. The teeth marks were burned, meaning the beaver downed the tree sometime before 1900. Even on the tops of these knobs, we see burned wood. One hundred and twenty years of wind and blowing snow, cold, harsh high-altitude sun bleaching the wood, but the evidence persists.

Lichen and char

We probably sat up there for an hour. A quite pleasant hour. We had a bit of a false start when we left. Ed couldn’t find his poles. We thought he might have set them down on a big slab a bit below the summit but we couldn’t find them. We kept searching and before long decided they must be up on the top so he went back to re-search. He found them, neatly camouflaged in the shadow.

Our departure restarted, we went down the slope, circling below the outcropping we lounged on and worked to the spine of the ridge. We pretty quickly came to two small knobs, echoes of the larger one we sat on up above. No need to circle down these knobs, we could just walk down the face of them. Much of the spine of this ridge was huge slabs of solid granite stretching a couple of hundred yards. I don’t like going down these slabs if they’re too steep; we had to be cautious in places, but it was pretty easy walking.

This ridge ends with a giant cliff that is visible from the unimproved park trail from Haiyaha to Glacier Gorge Junction. We arrived at the top of it by walking down the gently sloping slabs. Ed pointed down to a little ledge and suggested we take in the view. I stayed well away from the precipice, but it got my heart going a bit.

We had to backtrack a few yards to find ramps off the ledge. It was a bit steep for a while, but it wasn’t long before we came to the trail. We wanted to be discreet about coming out of the woods, but some hikers were approaching. They got about as close to us as they could without leaving the trail and stopped for a break. We didn’t want to wait, so we elected to forego discretion and stomped out of the woods a few yards from their resting spot. A few yards up the trail we stood at the base of the big cliff and spotted the ledge we stood on.

Our last adventure was recrossing Tyndall Creek. Ed said he knew a spot that was wider and shallower and easier to ford than where we crossed this morning. So we both waded. Why not? I was looking forward to cooling my feet in the cold water. Ed’s spot was well chosen. Wide and not much more than ankle deep except for a narrow channel in the middle that was maybe a foot deep, and swift.

I was taking my time, checking my footing with each step. Just before reaching the deep channel I thought I had my left foot nicely placed, but as soon as I lifted my right foot, the rocks under my left foot shifted. I nearly lost my balance. I didn’t notice until this morning when I got out of bed, but I bruised my foot pretty good. It’s slightly swollen, a bit discolored, and quite tender.

The paved super-highway trail from Nymph was quite crowded. Maybe I’m just sensitive about being around people these days and therefore I’m thinking it’s more crowded than it actually is. But it seems to me that there is more than 60% of average traffic. The parking lot wasn’t full, but the line for the shuttle bus was as long as I’ve ever seen it. There was no line to get in at the entrance station, but it was about five, so quite late. I didn’t count, but I’d say roughly half the cars in the Bear Lake lot were out of state while all but two in the Glacier Gorge lot had Colorado plates.

The weather was beautiful; not too hot, not a cloud in the sky, mostly calm. We had a nice walk in the woods and took in some views that relatively few people see. We stayed off the beaten path. It was a good day.

Half Mountain Knob

Saturday, June 13

I heard on the news a day or two ago that the timed entry passes for this weekend had sold out. I bought mine about a week ago, when there were still more than a hundred available. So, in theory, the Park would be operating at 60% of capacity. Shouldn’t be too crowed then, eh?

This is my first time using the pass, so I was curious how they were going to do it. They have a couple of rangers (one of whom was armed) posted on the road right by the entrance to the Beaver Meadows visitors center. They can check two cars at a time that way, and direct those lacking passes to turn around in the parking lot. At the entrance station, the express lane is closed. I’m a bit surprised at that, as using the express lane is contactless.

We got to the Bear Lake parking lot a bit before 8:00. The Glacier Gorge lot was full, and we got one of the last half-dozen or so spots at Bear Lake. While I was changing into my boots I saw a shuttle bus with two passengers, so I’m guessing there weren’t too many cars at the park and ride. Walking from the car I tried to get an idea how many visitors were from out of state. I didn’t count, but it looked to be about a third, which surprised me.

We didn’t decide where to go until we got there. Plan A was Black Lake, Plan B was the glacier knob by Half Mountain, which is #10 in Ed’s nomenclature. I told Chad we’d need the microspikes to visit Black Lake. He suggested we skip the spikes, so we went to Half Mountain knob. That was fine by me; there was little chance of finding solitude at Black Lake but nobody would go where we were going.

I’m not sure we ran into any other hikers between Bear Lake and the Fire Trail. If we did see any, it was just a few by the junction to the Glacier Gorge lot. On the Fire Trail we did see two hikers. There were a few more people between Glacier Gorge junction and Mills Lake. It took us almost exactly an hour to get to Mills.

From there we worked our way uphill, headed more or less toward the little saddle about forty feet below the top. It was pretty easy going and we made the summit in about twenty minutes. When we got there, it was absolutely calm. Chad made the mistake of remarking on this and moments after I pointed out one of the wind-twisted trees, the calm was over with a big gust.

Andrews Glacier in the distance.

We found a spot out of the wind with a view up Glacier Gorge. We sat up there for quite a while. There weren’t any clouds at first, but some high wispy ones developed. They didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I didn’t bother setting up the camera for a time lapse. After a short while, another hiker did show up; he told us he didn’t expect to see anybody up here. We empathized.

Glacier Gorge with Mills Lake and Jewell Lake partly obscured.

After lazing about the summit for a good stretch, we headed down the hill. About two-thirds of the way down, we found ourselves on a rock outcropping with a view, so we took another break. One of the nice things about short hikes is that you never need to be in a hurry. We discussed our options for the return trip: we could go back the way we came, or take the main trail and stop at Alberta Falls. I’m not sure Chad has been to Alberta Falls, so that’s what we decided to do.

But, after reaching the trail, we fairly quickly decided to forego the main trail. We found we couldn’t hike three hundred yards without having to step off the trail to let somebody by. It wasn’t just solo hikers or pairs, but lots of groups of four or five or six. Knowing that there’d also be traffic to and from the Loch, it was a no-brainer to go back down the Fire Trail. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but these days I’d really rather not get within breathing distance of so many people. It was a good choice; we saw only one solo hiker on the Fire Trail.

From when we got back on the main trail until we got to the car, we were back on the “superhighway” and among the crowd. We got back to the car at about two. The parking lot wasn’t nearly as full this morning, perhaps two-thirds full.

It was a good thing I asked Chad this morning to remind me to stop at the backcountry office to pick up my permit for next month because I’d already forgotten. The parking lot at the backcountry office was full, but the Lotus is small enough I took a half spot on the end. There was a cone there, so I probably wasn’t supposed to park there, but so it goes.

You don’t walk into the office now, which makes sense. It’s pretty small inside and both workers and visitors would be constantly in close proximity. Instead, they blocked off the stairs and installed plexiglass on all the exterior windows. There’s literally a paper-thin gap at the bottom to pass paper through. I at first waited in a line by the first window. It was taking quite a while so I wandered around the corner and found two more windows and got served with little wait. I came for my July 12/13/14 permit, but due to COVID, they issued all three of mine so I wouldn’t need to go back.

Leaving the backcountry office, we got back on the road. There was a fair amount of traffic and I had to wait for a few cars to go by before I could get going. I’d not have been able to make a left turn here to go back to the park: the line of cars stretched from the checkpoint at the Beaver Meadows entrance down the hill to the junction with Hwy 66. This is 60% capacity?

Seeing so many cars lined up, I decided to drive through the village. I never go through downtown in the summer, but I couldn’t resist. The place was hopping. I didn’t see any empty parking spaces on the street, and I glanced only a couple of empty spots in the parking lots we passed. The sidewalks were crowded. There were enough pedestrians that they had police directing traffic. Most of the benches on the sidewalks were occupied, the shops looked crowded. Not everybody wore masks, and the usual (rather high) percentage of those with masks didn’t have them covering their noses.

Traffic on 36 was only slightly lighter than a normal summer weekend. We could go the speed limit until Pinewood Springs, where we caught a big line of cars.

My next permit is for a weekday. I’m wondering if the crowds will be any less.

Shakedown Cruises

It’s easy to think that work on the car is done, now that it’s running. But we still have a couple of things to look at.

We have a little oil leak somewhere. There’s a bleeder valve near the oil filter; we had a bit of a drip there when the engine was running, but we think we have it tightened down now.

Even so, we still had a (very small) puddle of oil underneath the car the next morning. (We have the car all put together except for the undertray. That way, any leaks won’t be hidden from us.) We mopped up the puddle and let her sit for another day and no more oil appeared.

So it was time for more than a run around the block. Last Sunday I thought I’d head up Boulder Canyon to the Peak-to-peak highway and come back down Coal Creek Canyon.

When I pulled into Boulder, I’m guessing I saw the local Nissan NSX club out for a drive. I saw three of them, along with a Ferrari and one or two others that looked to be in the group. Just before the start of Boulder canyon they have a big sign up: Critical Traffic Only. It’s not critical that I go that way, so I decided to head up Left Hand Canyon instead.

I’ve never been up that road before. I’m always up for a bit of adventure. It’s a very nice road through a pleasantly verdant valley. There were lots of bicyclists out, but the shoulders are quite wide, at least for a few miles on the eastern end. Things get a bit narrower around Johnstown, though. But my big surprise was seeing the “Pavement Ends” sign a bit past Johnstown. I figured it would only be a couple of miles, so I continued.

The road was nice and wide but it hadn’t been graded in a while. It was quite the washboard road. I’ve taken the car on dirt roads many times before, and don’t have a problem as long as I take it nice and slow. But on the washboard I lost traction when I went slow. Even on the dirt road there were bicyclists, many of whom gave me somewhat quizzical looks: What kind of maniac drives his low-slung sports car on this kind of road? I happily arrived at the highway after ten or fifteen minutes.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The weather was gorgeous. I applied my sunscreen a bit poorly and got a little burned, but not that big of a deal.

I’ll note that passing through Nederland, it seemed like everybody and his brother was out. The sidewalks and shops were packed, and not that many people were wearing facemasks. The number of COVID cases we’ve seen in the state has gotten pretty small, so I’m thinking most folks feel free to be out and about. I don’t think we’re in the clear yet, so I’ll continue to be more cautious.

Today I went hiking. Another fine opportunity to get the car out for a little run. It’s about 70 miles each way to the Bear Lake parking lot, so I’d do about double last week’s canyon run. On the way up, traffic wasn’t too bad and when I got to the three-lane portion between Lyons and Pinewood Springs I was able to open her up a bit and get on the high cam. It felt good; gave me a big smile.

When I pulled in to my parking place at Bear Lake, the check engine light was illuminated. I have an app on the phone that lets me check the code and reset it. It told me I have a P1301: cylinder 1 misfire. She sounded good, no misfire that I could notice. Michael suggested perhaps it was due to old gas, but I filled it up the other day. There were still a few gallons of gas from October, but most of it is new. I cleared the code.

On the way back home there was quite a bit more traffic and the whole way from Estes to Lyons I basically coasted. a Camaro in front of the car in front of us rode his brakes all the way down the hill from Pinewood Springs. We could smell his brakes before we got to the bottom of the hill.

I didn’t get a chance to put my foot into it until after Lyons. I ran the RPMs up in third but instead of the high cam, I got the rev limiter. This was most unexpected and very disappointing. I tried two more times, but could not find joy. She was well warmed up, having been nearly an hour on the road. Temperature gauge read 191. The check engine light never came back on. I don’t know what is wrong.

The good news is, it appears we have no more oil leak. The car has been parked for five hours, no fluids on the floor under the car and dipstick oil level looks good.

I have a box full of stuff that didn’t get put back on the car. I need to weigh it and post a picture here.