Gorge Lakes – Day 3

Sunday, August 5

Rain started again at about a quarter to six. We had breakfast in the rain, taking shelter under the trees. The sky was a uniform gray, giving no indication that the rain would break any time soon. We had a short discussion as to how long we were willing to wait before packing up in the rain. We came to no conclusion but fortunately before long the rain stopped and the sun poked through the clouds. We were packed up by shortly after eight.

The route back to the trailhead was up the high ridge. We’d turn north at Love Lake, climb up to the unnamed lake above it (‘Lake Amore’ in the Foster guide) and refill our water. From there, circle to the west then south to head up the ridge. Somewhere between 12,400’ and 12,600’ we’d gain the Mt. Ida trail and be home free.

When we got to where I said we should find Lake Amore we instead found just a puddle of water. The guys were confident that their filtration systems would handle this, so we filled up as this would be our last opportunity. I still had nearly a liter of good lake water but filled my other bottle anyway. In the end this was unnecessary and proved to be dead weight as I drank none of it. But better to carry water you don’t need than need water you didn’t carry.

Love Lake (near) and Arrowhead Lake

I suspect we were on a rise slightly above and south of Lake Amore as my phone told me we were about forty feet higher than the map indicated for the lake. But I didn’t waste the steps to verify my suspicion. Once we filled up, Brad asked me if there was any reason we couldn’t just climb straight up the steep slope above us to gain the top of the ridge. It looked to be about two hundred fifty feet and quite steep. I’d have rather gone my route: longer but not so steep. I was outvoted, so up we went.

Yours truly, atop the ridge

We took our time working up the ridge and back to the trail. At altitude none of us was moving very swiftly and we took a number of short breaks. The wind was blowing fairly stiffly and the clouds to the west were building up threateningly. At one of our pauses, James asked “Did you hear that?” I didn’t hear anything until there was a break in the wind. It wasn’t the bugling of elk, but the yipping of coyotes. Not the howl I used to hear regularly during the night when I lived in Estes, but a definite yipping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard coyotes except at night.

View to the northwest. We crossed this valley (toward the right of the picture) Friday.

When we got to the trail we could see a rain squall to the south. Tim said he thought we’d miss it. We may have missed that one, but almost immediately after his remark we found ourselves getting rained on again. Back on the trail, and heading mostly downhill, our progress was a bit faster. Which was good, because we soon saw the flash of lightning. We had about three miles to cover before we gained treeline. For a short while, we got hailed on. The wind was stiff and blew the hail nearly horizontally.

The rain ended before we got back to treeline and we made it back to the car by 1:00pm without getting hit by lightning. On the drive back over Trail Ridge Road we stopped at the Rock Cut to review our trip. The general consensus (joking, I think) was that it was good we couldn’t see anything on Friday morning: “We’re going where?”

In the picture below, taken from Trail Ridge Road a bit west of the Rock Cut, we could see most of the terrain we crossed. The Mount Ida trail is on the other side of the ridge that climbs from right to left ending in about the center of the shot. We went off trail starting to the right of the snow field moving east (right to left) a bit below treeline. Gorge Lakes lie in the left third of the shot, under the pointy peak (Mount Julian).

View from Trail Ridge Road.

Conclusion

From the maps, it looked to me like I could reach all those lakes given enough time. I could have started my assault on the lakes an hour or more earlier than I did. And the weather worked against me. But it’s the terrain that stopped me, not bad weather or a lack of time. I just don’t have the skills or temperament to reach all these lakes. I certainly can’t get them on a day hike, and there are enough other remote places in the park that I’d like to visit that I’m unlikely to do another backpacking trip here.

I was quite happy with the borrowed backpack. It is borrowed no more: Paul has kindly given it to me. Thanks, Paul.

On the clothing front, I’ll have to look at getting some rain pants. I’m pretty sure my boots would have kept my feet dry had I not had water running down my legs. For around camp, I had my sweat pants and hoodie. I was comfortable with these, and used the hoodie as a pillow, but they’re on the bulky side and space in the pack is at a premium. So I’ll start investigating on that front. And I leaned that I need to have enough socks.

I was pretty happy with my food selection, with the exception of the jerky bars. They left an odd aftertaste and the texture wasn’t at all like jerky. They were not what I was expecting. Next time I’ll go with your basic jerky.

All in all I enjoyed the trip. I won’t lie: I am disappointed that I only managed to get to one of the four lakes I was after, and that one only marginally. And the weather was, shall we say, less than ideal. I was tempted several times to say that I was cold, wet, and miserable. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent time in the park that I felt truly miserable. It’s an incredible place, and I’m happy to be there to experience it in all its variety.

Gorge Lakes – Day 2

Saturday, August 4

We broke camp by 8:15 and headed east around the buttress of the ridge in search of our next campsite. We needed to be a mile away from last night’s location, and I wanted to be as close as possible to where we’d be spending most of the day. We also needed to be in reasonable proximity to a water source.

When I got up this morning, I had the choice of wearing yesterday’s wet socks or the one pair of dry socks I carried. As my boots were still thoroughly wet, I went with the wet socks. I figured if I used the dry ones, they’d be wet pretty quickly and then all my socks would be wet. I wanted to keep a pair dry for the night. It made for cold feet for the start of the day but once we got going it wasn’t so bad.

In our passage through the forest we came upon the occasional bone. Yesterday I found a scapula, deer or elk I’m not sure which. Today we saw two more. I’m not sure why I see so many scapulae. I see more of them than anything else, with vertebrae next most common. I rarely see skulls. But we found an elk skull today.

Elk skull.

We bushwhacked more or less due east and came upon a small unnamed lake that lies at 11,000’. We needed to go a bit farther. The map shows a sort of plateau between 11,000’ and 11,200’ about two tenths of a mile ENE of Love Lake. I’m not sure that this area is within our zone, but I figured it was close, and it met all the other requirements of a legal campsite. We dropped our packs here and Brad and I went off in search of Love Lake.

Our navigation was spot-on and we arrived there after about fifteen minutes hiking. It sure was easier without our packs, but we should have at least carried a filter and a couple of empty bottles. So, other than the simple fact that we verified where we were, it was a wasted trip.

We headed back to our packs and selected our campsite on this plateau. I think it was a better spot than last night. The vegetation wasn’t as thick and we had some nice rocks to sit on. A couple of the rocks were in sunshine and would be handy for putting our wet items on in an attempt to dry them.

Once we set up camp, we decided on our day’s action plan. The guys all wanted to fish. The park’s website said there were fish in Rock Lake and the outlet from Arrowhead. I wanted to bag the four lakes I missed last time. So we went as a group up to Love Lake and from there down to the outlet of Arrowhead. I left them there and headed across the large rock outcroppings along the eastern side of Arrowhead toward Doughnut Lake.

Tim takes in the view

From the map, it looked like I could go from Doughnut up a gully to the southwest, over a ridge and then descend to Inkwell. From there, I should be able to follow the inlet stream up to Azure Lake. If things were still going well and I had enough time, I could follow that inlet stream to Highest Lake. From the slope above the northern end of Arrowhead, very little of this was visible. The terrain looked rugged, but passable.

So off I went to Doughnut. The ridge I traversed had a couple of large gullies leading up to saddles and so had three distinct summits. I made it to the first saddle easily enough. And from there to the second. The saddle between the second and third summits is shown on the map with two contour lines, or on the order of sixty to eighty feet. What I was faced with was a thirty foot cliff. I worked around the east side, but it’s quite steep here, too, essentially a fifty or sixty foot cliff. I was stymied.

I took a few pictures but never made it to the shore of the lake. I’m going to add it to my list, though. I’m saying I made it there, or close enough. I went west through the saddle looking for a way to get to the top of the next little summit, but no dice. So I found a place to sit down, eat my lunch, and run the GoPro for a while for a time lapse video.

Doughnut Lake

When we were up at Love Lake, we heard voices but didn’t see anybody. Now, down below me at the far southern end of Arrowhead I saw the other hikers. At first I only saw two, but there were four. They made their way to the base of a nice waterfall – the stream that flowed from Inkwell. It looked like they had found quite a nice place and they were there the whole time I was sitting there. They were a noisy bunch. They were about three hundred yards away and a hundred fifty feet below me. Once I thought perhaps they had spotted me and were yelling at me. I waved my arms but couldn’t see them responding.

I ran the camera for about thirty five minutes and watched the clouds roll by. I had a nice view of Trail Ridge in the distance. Had it been calm, I probably would have been able to hear the louder motorcycles and trucks. But it was quite windy. I tried to keep an eye out for incoming weather, but the high ridge to my west obscured my view. Before long, dark threatening clouds came over the gorge. I packed up the camera and started heading back to camp.

When I got to the top of the gully I took to get to the first saddle it started to rain. I popped into a small grove of trees just as it began to hail. I pondered how long I was willing to wait there. This squall could be over in a few minutes, or it could rain for hours. When the hail stopped the rain increased. Visibility across the lake was noticeably reduced. I waited a bit longer and the hail returned. After hail abated the second time, I set out again.

Arrowhead Lake panorama, above the eastern shore

Much of the way back to Love Lake was across open rock. The rock has quite a bit of lichen on it, and when that stuff is wet it can be quite slippery. I more or less was able to retrace my steps but did end up going through a nasty bit of krummholz that I didn’t encounter on the way up. Going through that, I got my pants soaked, which led to my damp socks getting pretty wet again.

Forest Canyon rain squall. Rock Lake visible 700′ below.

I made it back to the outlet of Arrowhead, crossed the stream without incident, and climbed the talus slope up to Love Lake. I went pretty slow, taking great care on the slippery rocks. Up on the shore of Love Lake I let my guard down and nearly slipped on rocks there.

On our way out for the day, we refilled water bottles at Love Lake. Everybody took what water they needed for the afternoon and we left some full bottles and our filter gear there. When I got there, everything was gone, so the guys had already returned to camp. If they quit fishing when the rain started, they had about an hours head start on me.

By the time I returned to camp, the rain had stopped and shortly thereafter the sun was shining brightly. I took the opportunity to take off my boots and socks and lay them out on a rock. Sadly, the sunshine didn’t last long and nothing quite got dry.

The guys told me they didn’t venture far from Arrowhead’s outlet. The park’s website said fish could be caught there, and down below in Rock Lake. The terrain is pretty rugged at there the outlet, and Rock Lake is something like 700’ below. They didn’t catch anything, but all had hits on their lines.

The evening was uneventful. The rain didn’t return before we turned in. Even so, it was an early night with everybody retiring before dark. I slept about as well as the night before; one excursion before midnight and otherwise sleeping in fits and spurts. It rained for about an hour starting at three. No dreams tonight, at least that I recall.

Gorge Lakes – Day 1

Friday, August 3

When we made the reservations back on the first of March we had no way of knowing what the weather would be like five months hence. We were reasonably expecting warm, sunny days with a chance of afternoon thunder showers. That’s not at all how it turned out.

Tim picked me up a few minutes after eight and we met Brad and James in Estes Park. They left their car at the visitors center. Parking there for the two nights was free, but they did have to fill out some paperwork. We were soon on our way up Trail Ridge Road. My plan was that we’d stop at the Rock Cut and get a good view of our destination and the interesting bits of our routes in and out. Instead, we drove into the clouds at about Many Parks Curve and visibility was on the order of a couple hundred yards.

We got to the Milner Pass parking lot shortly after eleven and were on the trail by 11:15. We’d been getting rained on since Lyons, lightly at first, but by now it was moderately heavy with no sign of letting up. We had the trail to ourselves, as nobody else was willing to venture more than a few hundred yards from their cars at Poudre Lake.

Just before we hit treeline, we decided to look for a place to eat a snack. We found a copse of trees not far from the trail that provided scant shelter from the rain. We shed our packs but didn’t have anyplace to sit, so it was a bit of a miserable picnic.

My original plan was to take the same route in and out – along the top of the ridge immediately west of Gorge Lakes. Although we hadn’t seen any lightning or heard any thunder, I didn’t really want to put us above treeline for an extended time. From treeline to the summit of Mt. Ida, it’s three and a half miles. We wouldn’t be reaching the summit, but would come within a quarter or half mile of it. Along the top of the ridge and back to the forest is another two miles or so. Also, one of the main appeals of this route is the view of the gorge. Today we had no view at all.

The alternative I decided on was to take the next ridge to the west. This is where I left the trail the first time I hiked here. At that time, I thought I was on the ridge overlooking the gorge but was mistaken. This ridge is lower and shorter. At the end of the ridge we could work our way down to about 11,000’, cross open, unforested ground, and hopefully be high enough to avoid the worst of the marshy areas.

It turned out to be a pretty good choice. The hiking was easy with good footing everywhere except one place where we had to skirt a rather large snowfield. By this time of year it wasn’t so much snow as ice. We’d have preferred to contour across it and not lose the elevation but even with microspikes I think it would have been sketchy. The ground we descended was loose and without much vegetation and was not ideal, but we made it down without incident.

To this point, even in the continuing rain, my feet were still dry. But now that we were off the tundra we were crossing open meadows. We made a point to avoid the greener areas, feeling that these would be pretty marshy (which was correct), but we still crossed quite a bit of ground with taller grass or ground cover that reached our knees. I didn’t have rainproof pants. (None of us did.) Walking through this vegetation, my pants got soaked and the water wicked down my legs and into my boots. Before long my feet were thoroughly wet.

There were a couple of notable observations in this section of our hike. As we were now below the clouds the view of the valley below us had opened up. About a half a kilometer away we spied a small herd of elk making their way along the Big Thompson. To my surprise, we heard one or two of them bugling. I’m certainly no expert, but I didn’t expect to hear bugling for another few weeks. That was the good observation. On the bad side, we came across a bit of litter. I picked up a disposable water bottle. It collapsed small enough to not be a burden. But the tent poles and stakes we found were a different matter. None of us wanted to carry them out. We made some noise about collecting them if we found them on our way out, but I wasn’t expecting to return this way. So we were bad citizens and left them where we found them.

We worked our way into the forest to about where I thought our camping zone began. I wanted to be as far south and as high as possible in this zone. I neglected to bring a map showing the zone, but wasn’t too concerned. The only map I had available was at a very high scale and didn’t show terrain, so I don’t think it would have been much help.

In any event, we found a spot that fit the rules for zone camping. By this time the rain had stopped. I was hoping to go a little farther, but there was no certainty we’d find as good a place or that the rain wouldn’t return. Also, we had to move our camp at least a mile between nights and going any farther toward our goal might make that problematic. So we made camp. It was about 2:30.

Our campsite had no large rocks to use as seating, and while one large downed tree made a good platform for preparing our dinners, none were suitable to sit on. So other than a quick recce of our nearby water supply we spent our time standing around. This standing around came to an end at about 6:30 when the rain returned and drove us into our tents.

When we first scouted our water supply, a small stream a hundred yards to our east, I managed to slip and fall. It was more embarrassing than painful. Nobody saw me fall, and no harm was done. It wasn’t until after I got home that I noticed I’d bruised my right forearm.

I was in my one man tent while the others all had two man tents. This allowed them to keep all their gear inside. On my tent, there’s a gap between the tent and the fly, which the manufacturers call an “atrium”. It’s not very big, but it did allow me to keep my boots and backpack both outside the tent and out of the rain. Probably not ideal, but it worked.

I don’t know what time I finally drifted off to sleep, but it was much earlier than usual. It might have been nice to have a book or the iPad, but I was unwilling to pay the price in weight or volume for either. I slept fitfully, waking up at irregular intervals. I only had to make one excursion before daylight and managed to sleep until six, which was much better than I anticipated.

The other guys said they slept, but never got to REM sleep. I dreamt, though: odd, disjointed dreams. The only bit I recall was one where a Frenchman was living in the house behind us. He had an old tractor which he used to plow his back yard. In the process, he knocked down a portion of our shared fence. He chattered what I presume to be an apology but I can’t be sure as I don’t speak French. (So, was it French in my dream, or just nonsense?) In the end he kissed me on one cheek, then the other, then square on the mouth.

Gorge Lakes – Preparation

Gorge Lakes are the lakes visible directly across Forest Canyon from the Rock Cut parking lot on Trail Ridge Road. There are five named lakes there, or maybe seven, depending on which ones you care to include. This high gorge is surrounded by Mount Ida, Chief Cheley Peak, Mount Julian, and Terra Tomah Mountain. It is both some of the most visible and most remote terrain in the park. Visible, because millions of people have seen it from Trial Ridge Road. Remote because there are no trails there.

Background

When I was on a business trip to San Francisco back in January I had a beer with Tim. As I tend to go on a bit about my passions, I naturally brought up the subject of hiking. I told him that I wanted to do a two night backpacking trip with the object of bagging the four Gorge Lakes that I didn’t get on my day hike there back in 2013. He thought it sounded like a great idea, as long as it involved fishing. I don’t fish, but if he wanted to go with me, there wasn’t any reason he couldn’t bring his fishing gear.

By the time March first rolled around and we could apply for back country camping permits, it had grown into a four man expedition including his brother-in-law Brad and nephew James. I went up to the back country office and picked up a zone camping permit for the group and it was on. They all wanted to fish, I wanted to visit Doughnut Lake, Inkwell Lake, Azure Lake, and Highest Lake. We’d hike in on Friday, each do our things on Saturday, and hike out Sunday.

Preparation

I would call myself a seasoned hiker but a novice backpacker. This is only my second backpacking trip. I’m using a borrowed pack. I have an old sleeping bag that’s heavy compared to modern ones and I have no idea what sort of temperatures it’s rated for. I have a reasonably light one man tent, a bear vault for my food, and a stove I bought a couple of years ago. Of course, I somehow managed to buy the wrong size fuel canister and it doesn’t fit inside the vessel for the stove, so there’s some wasted space there. And I don’t really know what I need to bring as far as food and clothing go. Experience is the best teacher, so I’ll just have to make a few mistakes before I figure it all out.

One thing I did figure out last year was that I needed to bring my day pack with me. When I visited Lost Lake it quickly became obvious that I couldn’t venture far from camp, as I had no way to carry water, my lunch, and a rain jacket. My lumbar pack isn’t terribly heavy, but it is on the bulky side.

I know the lightweight fanatics recommend against taking fresh fruit, but on the trail my preferred breakfast is an apple and a protein bar. And I always enjoy a peach or plum at lunch time. This week the plums looked good, so plums it is. I made up my own trail mix because I’m a picky eater and don’t care much for nuts (peanuts aren’t nuts). This is peanuts, sesame sticks, raisins, dried cranberries, dried pineapple cubes, and a few peanut butter filled pretzels for good measure. I saw these jerky bars at Sprouts and thought I’d give them a try. Not pictured is the ham sandwich for Friday’s lunch. Also included is sunscreen, toothpaste, medicine, toilet paper, a couple paper towels, and an extra ziplock bag. Notably absent is mosquito repellent. This turned out to be a non-factor, as all the other guys had plenty to share.

All of that went in the bear vault. The rest of the gear is pictured below: sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, clothes, head lamp, emergency kit, rain jacket, Steri-Pen, lumbar pack, stove and fuel, and two water bottles. I normally carry only one, but I was a bit worried about the ready availability of water. Fully packed, with bottles full of water, the backpack weighed in at 35 lbs.

Not long ago I found a nice website for maps. Historically, I’ve been using screen shots of USGS 7½ minute series maps that I downloaded in PDF format. Now I use caltopo.com, where I can select any area I want and have it generate a nice PDF. The first obvious advantage is that I don’t have to worry about pasting something together from two different maps. Secondly, they include scales in both miles and kilometers. Rather than print one map covering the whole area I made three. Zooming out to the full area would result in a map with 200 foot contour lines rather than 40 foot. I felt this was just too rough to be useful.

Chaos Canyon

Sunday, July 15

Lake Haiyaha sits at the entrance to Chaos Canyon. The canyon stretches roughly a mile and a half above the lake, ending at a couple of glaciers hanging below the saddle between Hallett Peak and Otis Peak. I’ve been to the lake many times but have never ventured very far up the canyon. The lake sits in a boulder field and this setting is emblematic of the terrain in the entire canyon. The few times I’ve attempted to get anywhere in the canyon ended with a nice view of the lake, but only a few hundred yards up.

On a recent hike with Ed he talked about visiting the small unnamed pond about two-thirds of the way up the canyon. He has named it “Quaint Pond” because there aren’t any bodies of water in the park having names starting with the letter Q and because he finds the pond… quaint.

I wonder about why some features in the park get named while others don’t. Quaint Pond may technically be better called Chaos Tarn but in any event it is officially unnamed. It isn’t because of its size: in the next canyon to the north, above Emerald Lake, there’s a similarly sized pond called Pool of Jade. An even smaller one in the canyon to the south, above The Loch, is called Embryo Lake. Ed suggests that many remain unnamed so people will be less inclined to visit them.

I knew from experience that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Chaos Tarn on my own, so I asked Ed if he’d take me up there. He promptly assented. We first planned on going Saturday but due to other obligations Ed wanted to switch to Sunday. I’d picked Saturday because it had a more favorable weather forecast, but the threat of rain and cooler temperatures on Sunday didn’t particularly bother me. In any event, if I wanted Ed to take me up there, Sunday was it.

We agreed I’d meet him at his place no later than six. I had a couple minor problems doing this. First, I got a few blocks from the house before realizing I forgot my phone. Then I ran into an unexpected construction detour in Boulder. So I kept Ed waiting for a few minutes. He wanted to make sure we got a parking spot at Bear Lake. We arrived by his target time of seven and found plenty of open parking spaces.

As expected, it was fairly cool. Also as expected, the skies were overcast with some of the clouds looking a bit threatening. We had a brief chat with one of the park volunteers who told us the forecast called for a band of rain starting maybe around one. That would clear but be followed by a heavier round. We were not deterred.

I didn’t check the times when we left Bear Lake and arrived at Haiyaha, but we made pretty good time. We took the shortcut from Bear to Nymph, avoiding some traffic. We were early enough that there were very few hikers between Dream and Haiyaha.

White columbine

The hike really begins here at Haiyaha. We stuck to the south side of the canyon, the north slope of the long eastern ridge of Otis Peak. Where there is soil there’s a sort of trail. Actually, there is a choice of trails. That’s because from here all the way up to the tarn we’re mostly rock hopping. It’s about a mile from the lake to the tarn and perhaps a couple hundred yards of that isn’t on the rocks. And this stuff isn’t the usual talus where you can easily step from one rock to the next. In many cases the rocks are quite large, and there are significant holes below you.

At four or five places we came across large snow fields. It didn’t occur to me to bring the microspikes, but they’d have been handy. Crossing the snow rather than the rocks would make things easier, but the edges of the snow weren’t so much snow as solid ice. It was quite treacherous around the edges. When we did cross the snow, we pretty much stuck to the edges as a slip and fall would end in a negative outcome.

Ed has been up this way a number of times. Although the destination is well-known (“We want to go just to the right of that snow field there“), there’s still quite a challenge with route finding. Along the way he’d point out sub-optimal routes: “Went up that gully once, it’s not a good way to go!”

By the time we caught sight of the pond, the clouds had closed in and obscured the peaks around us. Mist hung off the south flank of Hallett, and the divide – half a mile to the west and a thousand feet above – was totally obscured. Before we found a place to sit it had begun to rain. I was skeptical that I’d get any interesting footage for the time lapse video, but I set up the camera anyway.

Chaos Tarn -or- “Quaint Pond”

We didn’t dilly-dally. We tucked into our lunches and before long were ready to begin our trek out of the canyon. We were there only about twenty minutes. One of our concerns now was the rain making the rocks slippery. Bare rock wasn’t too bad, but when wet the lichen can make rock hopping treacherous. Lucky for us, the lichen isn’t as abundant at 11,000′ as it is at 9.000′.

The clouds followed us down the canyon. Occasionally we’d see brighter spots scooting down the opposite wall giving a bit of variety to the gray. About when we got back to Haiyaha, the ceiling had dropped below us: we were in fog. At one of the overlooks where we’d typically have a nice view of Long’s, we couldn’t see more than a hundred yards. But there it more or less stopped. When we descended toward Dream Lake, we emerged from the clouds.

Fog near Haiyaha

It had more or less stopped raining before we got back to Haiyaha, and from then on out to the parking lot we had only occasional sprinkles. It would be easy to complain about getting rained on, but, frankly, the weather was an interesting variation. In spite of the rain, there’s no denying it was still a beautiful day in the park.

Long’s Peak-less overlook

I include the time lapse in spite of its brevity, and the occasional raindrop on the lens. And an insect makes an appearance; the camera moved slightly, but I don’t think I can blame the bug! Although it wasn’t so obvious in real time, you can clearly see the ceiling coming down.

We stopped in Estes for a refreshing beer. By the time we left the brewery it was raining in earnest. Although the bit of rain we had didn’t bother me too much, I was happy that we missed the heavier rain that followed us all the way back to Lyons and home.

Loomis Lake

Saturday June 16

Loomis Lake sits in a cirque at the top of the southernmost tributary of Spruce Creek. It is surrounded on three sides by the steep cliffs of Gabletop Mountain. The official trail ends at Spruce Lake. Although there is an unofficial trail from Spruce to Loomis, it can be challenging to find.

There’s a large storm system entering the state and so we expected cooler temperatures and a good chance of rain in the afternoon. When I hit the trail, the sky was mostly cloudy and there was very little wind. The main parking area at the Fern Lake trailhead was full, so I parked at the first overflow that’s just a few yards away. While I was putting on my boots, two cars pulled out, and by the time I got back to the car mid-afternoon there were plenty of empty spaces. I wonder if it ever really got full.

The first section of the trail parallels the Big Thompson River for 1.7 miles to the Pool. It’s easy hiking and I made great time. At the Pool there’s a trail junction that has given me a little trouble in the past. Somehow I once managed to misread the sign and ended up on the trail to Cub Lake and had to backtrack.

From the Pool to Fern Falls the trail climbs about four hundred feet. The Fern Lake fire didn’t do much damage to this area. The fire did cross the trail in a few spots but you can hardly tell any more. Occasionally the trail affords views of the opposite slope where the fire was intense erasing that part of the forest, north of the Big Thompson and south of Trail Ridge Road.

When I arrived at Fern Falls I was a bit surprised by the quantity of water in the stream. I’ve been here quite a few times but don’t recall seeing this much water before. I’m thinking this must be the earliest in the season that I’ve hiked here. If all my trips were in July, August, or September, that would account for the difference in the flow.

Although it’s another seven hundred feet or so climb from Fern Falls to Fern Lake, this part of the trail always seemed easier to me than the part between the falls and the Pool. There aren’t any views along this section of trail so it’s a bit pedestrian. Going to Spruce Lake we don’t actually make it to Fern Lake. It’s an easy side trip, though, being about a hundred yards after the trail junction.

To this point, I’d only encountered six or eight other hikers. But just before the Spruce Lake trail junction I got passed by some trail runners. A group of three came by, talking as they ran. If they could still hold a conversation, I figure they need to run faster! Then a couple more passed me. And then even more. It was a veritable marathon.

Turning up the Spruce Lake trail, I left the sudden crowd. I really like the trail from Fern Lake to Spruce Lake. It has character. For long stretches, it hardly qualifies as a trail as it crosses a number of rocky sections. It’s not so rocky that the trail needs to be marked by cairns, but there are a couple of prominent blazes posted on the trees. Spruce Lake is only about a hundred feet higher than Fern Lake. Even with the trail crossing a bit of a ridge between the two lakes there’s very little elevation gain.

Although the trail remains in forest, approaching Spruce Lake you get glimpses of Castle Rock and the Gables. The outlet end of Spruce Lake is fairly marshy and has been closed to hikers for a number of years. This area is the habitat of the boreal toad. I don’t think the toad is endangered, but it may be threatened. So the park service has posted maps here indicating what’s off limits. Anybody entering the area may be fined.

The trail officially ends here at the campsites. However, there are social trails that thread along the northwest shore. The lake is popular for fishing and these trails provide access at least as far as the inlet stream. To get to Loomis Lake, we need to stay on the west side of this stream, so I don’t know if these trails continue farther around the lake.

Here’s where the challenge starts. The trail is faint near Spruce Lake. We’ll be climbing about 400′ in an eighth of a mile, so it’s pretty steep here. I gained and lost the trail a couple of times before finding it for good. After this steep climb the terrain levels out on the approach to Primrose Pond. The first time I was here was in late August, and the water level was about two feet lower. Navigation was easy – I could walk along the dry edges of the pond.

Primrose Pond

In mid-June, though, the pond is at its fullest. And, of course, the trail pretty much peters out. I found a series of cairns that led me on the north side of the pond but before long it became obvious that this was not the best way to go. I backtracked and crossed the outlet and bushwhacked along the southern shores, recrossed the stream, and found the trail again.

The trail dumps you out onto large granite slabs that have no access to the shores of Lake Loomis. The first time I visited, I was content to sit here to watch the world go by while I had my picnic. This time I wanted to get down to the water’s edge, so I crossed the outlet steam and scrambled across a section of boulders spilling from Gabletop Mountain and forming the southern shore of the lake.

I relaxed here for about an hour. This was not only a break from walking, but a break from the constant attack of mosquitoes. I’m not generally bothered by the critters and so I don’t carry mosquito repellent. Sometimes I regret that habit for a few minutes when I pause for a sip of water in dense forest. Today was different. For most of the hike I was besieged by them. I swatted at them constantly. Generally I’d smack them before they had a chance to feed on me; even so, I still managed to have bloody spots all over my arms and hands.

Loomis Lake

Sitting on my rock by the lake I couldn’t help but notice the gathering clouds. That’s not exactly correct: the clouds were ever present. But now their nature appeared to be changing; getting darker, pregnant with rain. Clearly it was getting time to hit the trail for the hike out.

I’ve said before that I often hear voices when I’m alone at these lakes. I’ve decided that they’re generally delusions. Today, though, I didn’t hear voices but breaking branches. A few moments after crossing the outlet I caught a glimpse of other hikers. It was just a glimpse, though. They weren’t close to the trail and I never saw them again.

Nearing Spruce Lake on the way down I managed to lose the trail. Usually I can manage to follow these faint trails once I find them. Today I think I lost the trail on the return farther from Spruce Lake than when I managed to find it on the way up. This time I found myself atop rock outcroppings a couple of times and had to work my way more side to side than downhill to find an easy way.

Satre famously said, “Hell is other people.” When I got back to Spruce Lake I found it inhabited by about eight people. I could hear them well before I gained the lake. They were a noisy bunch, yelling and laughing, splashing in the water. One had even brought a small boombox which could be heard clearly from quite a distance. It’s easy for me to get spoiled on my hikes. Aside from the brief non-encounter with the hikers at Loomis, I had had about three and a half hours of solitude.

It started sprinkling about when I lost the trail above Spruce Lake. It never really rained. From Spruce Lake back to about Fern Falls it alternated between no rain, a light sprinkle, and a thin drizzle. It was never heavy enough for me to bother with my rain jacket.

There are a few lakes nearby that I haven’t visited yet. Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, and Irene Lake all feed Spruce Creek. A fair amount of bushwhacking looks to be involved in reaching these three from Spruce Lake, but I think if I get an early enough start they may be reachable for me on a day hike. I won’t know until I try.

Timetable

There Back
Trailhead 07:40 AM 02:37 PM
The Pool 08:11 AM 02:00 PM
Fern Falls 08:35 AM 01:30 PM
Spruce Lake trail jct 09:07 AM 12:53 PM
Spruce Lake 09:35 AM 12:27 PM
Loomis Lake 10:34 AM 11:54 AM

Black Lake

Saturday May 26

Black Lake sits at the top of Glacier Gorge. I think it is one of the most beautiful lakes in the park. Going to lakes that are farther from the trailheads has spoiled me when it comes to getting some solitude at these lakes. I figure I’ll never be at Black Lake alone, as it’s a popular destination. Even in March there were quite a few people there. I was hoping that in late May it wouldn’t be too crowded.

The drive up was uneventful. I believe US 34 is now open to traffic, but it seems US 36 is still more crowded than usual. I could be mistaken, though. Perhaps what I’m seeing is the new normal. And I think more people are taking my shortcut through Estes because of the construction there. This morning, I was actually in a short line of traffic going by the hospital.

A minor tragic note here: my car is a killer. Since I’ve owned it, I’ve hit five birds. And this morning, going by the hospital, a rabbit attempted to cross the road, darting out after the car in front of me. It didn’t make it. I hit it with a sickening little thump and in the mirror saw it tumbling, inert.

I probably should have gotten an earlier start. As it was, I didn’t arrive at the Bear Lake parking lot until about 8:00 and it was already nearly full. Alternatively, I could have parked in the park and ride as that would have saved me a little effort. The trailhead proper for Black Lake is Glacier Gorge Junction. When parking at Bear Lake, I have an extra half mile each way. It’s not the distance so much, as that it makes the last half mile of the hike uphill.

I knew I’d be hiking across quite a bit of snow before I got to the lake. The snow gets steep enough just below the lake that I won’t go there in spring without microspikes. I started seeing snow on the fire trail, in the shady spots on the north facing slopes. Snow here will probably be gone in a few days, given the high temperatures we’ve been seeing.

The snow hiking didn’t start in earnest until I reached the Glacier Gorge campsite. I stopped at the bridge there and mounted the spikes. There were still quite a few bare spots on the trail for the next third of a mile or so, but after that it was snow all the way. I ran into two groups of three hikers who were making their way down. I asked each if they made it to the lake. The both said they fell short and complained about postholing badly. This did not discourage me, and I never saw where they might have been having trouble.

It was when I got to within a couple hundred yards of the lake that I first encountered a hiker who made it. We chatted for a little bit, and as we talked two guys passed us on their way up, going at a pretty good clip. When I got up there, they were the only other people. I was thinking I’d go up above the lake a bit for my picnic, but instead I parked myself right at water’s edge. Or, I should say, at ices edge. Other than the area right around the outlet, there are only a few square yards of lake that are open water. This, too, should change rapidly in the coming days.

I brought the GoPro with me. I generally don’t bother using the app on the phone but I wanted to make sure I was framing the shot correctly. I couldn’t get the phone to talk to the camera, and as I was struggling with it a young woman came by. She was walking a lot closer to the edge of the water than I did, and a few steps from the rock I was planted on, she postholed knee deep right into the water.

“I was planning to take a swim, but not with my shoe on!”

I was incredulous. “Really, you’re going to swim?” She was serious. She worked her way along the shore to where there was open water, but I never did see her take her swim. I sat there for about twenty minutes, ate my picnic lunch, and let the camera run. When the skies over the lake cleared completely, I shut off the camera and moved to the outlet and pointed the camera north, where the only other clouds were.

By now there were a dozen people at the lake, all congregated at the outlet with the exception of the swimmer. I relaxed here for another half hour or so before packing up and heading back down.

It was a very pleasant day, with brilliant blue skies and warm enough that I never needed a jacket. Perhaps a bit too warm for May. I enjoyed the hike; the trail wasn’t too crowded and I avoided the congestion at Alberta Falls by taking the fire trail. And I had a nice little workout – my Fitbit logged more than three hours of cardio and almost a half hour in the peak zone.

Timetable

Out In
Trailhead 08:15 AM 02:45 PM
Lower fire trail jct 08:25 AM 02:30 PM
Upper fire trail jct 08:55 AM 02:00 AM
Mills Lake 09:15 AM 01:45 AM
Black Lake 11:05 AM 12:15 AM

 

Mirror Lake

Before I started this blog I had been posting trip reports to a forum for lovers of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of those reports, with only minor edits for clarity.

Hike date: 12 August 2012 — Originally posted: 13 August 2012 – 11:25 PM

Sunday I hiked to Mirror Lake.

I don’t normally say anything about the drive to the trailhead, but I’ll make an exception this time. The Corral Creek trailhead is 8.5 miles up Long Draw Road from CO 14, which passes through Poudre canyon. The Poudre river and CO 14 were the battle lines on the north side of the recent High Park fire. I nearly wrote that this was my first time through the canyon since the fire, but that overstates it. I’ve lived in Colorado for something like 33 years and this was my first trip up this road. I’ve been on a number of other roads in the area, once with the Lotus club through Rist Canyon this spring. (I have video of that drive and intend to go there again soon. I’ll see if I can put together a before/after video of the fire damage) There are a number of “Thank You Fire Fighters!” signs still posted. Some mountains are completely burned but most places in the canyon are burned in a mosaic pattern. Burned areas are black – black tree trunks and black ground – and are surrounded by brown borders; trees that are clearly dead, baked by the fire. Undamaged forest is outside these brown borders.

Long Draw road is near mile marker 69, well west of the burn area. This is a dirt road, well maintained but a sign at the junction indicates it’s a “Level 6” road. That has something to do with how often it’s plowed in winter, but the sign is quite verbose and I didn’t bother to read it. I also missed the first sign that says the road will be closed indefinitely beginning August 14 due to logging operations. If you want to hike in this area, better find out if the road is open. For anybody in the Denver area planning to hike here, note that it’s a three hour drive from the northern suburbs. I can make it to trailheads on the west side of the park in about two hours, so this one is probably the longest drive from here. I’d hate do drive 3 hours only to find the road is closed.

The hike is about six miles from trailhead to lake, but only about a thousand feet of net elevation gain. I figured I’d be able to make pretty good time, being it’s a pretty level trail and guessed I could make the lake in three hours. Working back, that meant arriving at the trailhead by 8:30 or so, which meant a 5:30 departure from the house. Again, assuming a two mile per hour pace, I should be able to spend an hour at the lake and make it back to the car by 3:30 and home by 6:30. For once, I managed to keep pretty close to the plan.

The first mile of the trail is outside the park. From the trailhead, it descends about 300 feet to a spot near the confluence of the Poudre and Hague’s Creek. The area is comprised of wide, U-shaped valleys with large meadows with the trail running along the edge of the forest. The park boundary is right at the Cache la Poudre and the park boundary sign is nailed to the first tree on the park side of the bridge.

After a couple of miles and another bridge (crossing Hague’s Creek), the trail leaves the valley floor and climbs the side of a ridge. This middle third of the hike is where all the elevation gain is made. There are a couple of short sections which each climb about 400 feet. The final third of the hike is again more or less level. After the climb the trail meets the stream coming from Mirror Lake as it passes through its own series of meadows. Here the trail gets a little vague, I even lost it once or twice by the campgrounds. Shortly after the third Mirror Lake campground, you climb up some rocks and are deposited on the shore of the lake beside the outlet. The lake is bigger than I was anticipating. It lies beneath some unnamed mountains and if you look along the outlet stream you get a nice view of the Mummy range in the distance. The hike doesn’t really have any great views as it forested the whole way. The forest is fairly thin, with lots of green ground cover.

I encountered a park ranger and seven other hikers all day. And I ran into all of them on the short spur trail between the Mummy Pass trail and the lake; nobody at all the rest of the way. I was expecting to see moose but they were all elsewhere. The only wildlife I saw was a grouse that crossed the trail in front of me early in the morning. At least I think it was a grouse – he (she?) blew up some sacs in his throat and made a sort of bullfrog noise. Even though the forest here is fairly thin, there were still several trees that had fallen and blocked the trail. On the hike out, I was doing some calculations, trying to come up with the odds of having a tree fall on me. “If tree X is going to randomly fall over this month, what are the chances I’m walking by when it happens?” I’m figuring most dead trees fall over during storms, or when it’s windy and working through an estimation of the number of dead trees on any given mile of trail. As I’m working through this, on this nice calm day, I’m approaching a dead tree. There’s an odd noise and I look up to see a branch falling off! I easily jumped out of the way, but I have to say it was a bit freaky to have this happen given my train of thought.

All in all, a wonderful day. The weather was excellent and the hike quite pleasant.

Keplinger Lake FAIL

Before I started this blog I had been posting trip reports to a forum for lovers of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of those reports, with only minor edits for clarity.

Hike date: 04 August 2012 — Originally posted: 05 August 2012 – 12:22 PM

Lewis W. Keplinger was a student of John Wesley Powell at Illinois State Normal University. Keplinger was a member of Powell’s expedition that first successfully climbed Long’s Peak in late August of 1868. The group first attempted the summit by starting near what is now Lake Powell. They climbed the sharp ridge that connects McHenry’s Peak with Chiefs Head and Pagoda Mtn. They found themselves cut off from their destination by “impassable chasms.” They retreated and made camp near Sandbeach Lake. The next day, Keplinger set off on his own to reconnoiter. He found a couloir winding up the south flank and managed to reach within several hundred feet of the summit before returning to camp after dark. On August 23, the group set off on Keplinger’s route at 7am. In a couple of hours they had attained his highest point where another member of the party remarked that no man could scale the point and live. By 10am, the party made the summit, led by Keplinger.

The hike to Keplinger Lake has been on my list for a couple of years, but I’ve been a bit afraid to attempt it. It’s something like 4 miles of hiking off-trail, and as none of my friends wants to hike with me, I’ve been thinking it’s too much off-trail for me to go solo. But I finally talked myself into it.

I hit the Sandbeach Lake trailhead at 7:30, about a half hour later than I had intended. The forecast was for cool weather, perhaps some rain, and the sky was overcast on the drive up from Denver. There was one little bit of clear, blue sky visible to the west and as I hiked the clouds evaporated leaving a pleasant sunny day with scattered fluffy clouds. The hike to Hunter’s Creek (about 3.2 miles) is pretty basic. The first section reminds me of the first part of the Lawn Lake trail – a fairly quick climb of about four hundred feet, then leveling out somewhat. I reached Hunter’s Creek at 9am.

A hiking report I found on another website said you head up the “faint” trail at Hunter’s Creek. This trail is quite easy to follow, except for the occasional spot where it is interrupted by recent deadfall. I’m guessing this trail is used mostly by folks climbing Long’s using Keplinger’s route, as to continue up Hunter’s Creek you must leave it where another stream meets the creek. From here on, there really isn’t any trail and the bushwhacking begins in earnest.

The forest thins out about this point and soon the hiker is presented with a nice view of Pagoda Mtn. The creek climbs steadily but not very steeply. I found it was often easier hiking to stay ten or twenty yards away from the creek. Before long a large snow bank becomes visible on the flank of Mt. Orton. The creek bends a bit to the right (north) and leads you into… not krummholz exactly, but the same sort of stuff – waist deep shrubbery. I found my way to an outcropping of rocks which put me on the southern shore of the unnamed lake lying about 11,200′. The view was incredible. By now it was 11:30. After a quick look around, I decided the best way to continue to Keplinger would be to back track a bit and cross Hunter’s Creek. I also decided it would take me another hour to reach my destination. Faced with another hour of hiking, or sitting here enjoying the view and eating my picnic lunch, I decided to save Keplinger Lake for another day.

Here’s a time lapse. It’s becoming clear to me that the GoPro isn’t up to the task. The automatic exposure control wreaks havoc on the results; whenever clouds shadowed the camera, it overexposed the view of Pagoda and Long’s. Oh well.

After about an hour I headed back down. I felt great all day, never particularly fatigued, and was making better time than normal at the end of the day. That ended when I got to that steep part just above the trail head. Dang big steps played havoc with my knees.

I didn’t make it to my intended destination, but I learned a few things. I know the route and know that it’s not as difficult as I had feared. The trip report I had read said it would take 8 hours at a fast pace. Clearly, it will take me a bit longer (I was on the trail 8.5 hours and fell a mile or so short) so maybe it’s more like 10 hours. If I can put boots on the trail by 7, I should be able to hit the lake by noon.

Frozen Lake

Before I started this blog I had been posting trip reports to a forum for lovers of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of those reports, with only minor edits for clarity.

Hike date: 14 July 2012 — Originally posted: 16 July 2012 – 09:40 AM

Blown down area [1]

Ed and I hiked to Frozen Lake on Saturday. The weather in the morning was quite nice but by the time we arrived at the lake storm clouds were promising a damp afternoon. We got sprinkled on a bit at the lake, then off and on until we got back down to Black Lake, where sprinkles turned into about an hour of rain.

Getting to Frozen Lake means I’ve now visited all 8 lakes in Glacier Gorge. Not a rare accomplishment, by any means, but satisfying nonetheless.

[An area between Black Lake and Mills Lake was hit by a micro-burst in late autumn of 2011. I first hiked through there in March of 2012.] The blown down area is much larger than I remember from when I

Blown down area [2]

hiked to Black Lake back on St. Patrick’s day.

I’m guessing it’s perhaps a mile long. A bit hard to tell the full extent of the damage as the dead trees are still fairly green. Many of the downed trees still have sizable chunks of earth attached to the roots. I’d say “root ball” but that overstates the amount of soil. More like “root disk” as many of these are only a few inches thick. In some cases, a six or eight foot section of the trail is now standing vertical next to bare rock.

Clearly, many hours were spent cutting trees from the trail. Also, clearly, trees are still falling over. as there are a couple of places where trees are blocking the trail. The downed trees aren’t uniformly

Blown down area [3]

pointing the same direction; many trees survived the initial winds but have been knocked over subsequently.

There was quite a bit of traffic to and from Frozen Lake. We took a short break when we arrived at Black Lake and within a few minutes there were more than a dozen people with us. Later, we chatted with several groups of climbers who summited the Spearpoint. And one couple recognized Ed. They had run into him on an earlier hike.

When we got to the top of the climb above Black Lake, we ran into a hiker coming down from Frozen. He went up closer to the Spearhead but descended

Frozen Lake panorama

Blue Lake in the distance

farther to the west and recommended this route as somewhat easier. We followed his suggestion. I have no basis for comparison, so I can’t say for sure it was an easier way, but on the way down we did get down quite a bit faster than two pairs of climbers who went the other way.

 

 

Here’s the time lapse. Cloud motion here is subtle compared to most of the others I’ve done. It starts to sprinkle half way through and you can see the raindrops hit the lens, then dry out.