Neva Lakes

Saturday, October 6

Two lakes sit due south of Mount Neva, a few yards east of the Continental Divide, at nearly 12,000′ above sea level. I’ve been wanting to hike there for a few weeks but couldn’t fit it into the schedule. It’s getting late enough in the season that if I don’t do it now, I won’t do it this year.

I talked Chad into going with me. The last time I took him off trail, we traversed a steep forested hillside that made him quite uncomfortable. And early in that hike, he tweaked his ankle a bit. He didn’t have a great time.

So I was pleasantly surprised he agreed to go on a hike I described as sunny but cold, with winds that might drive us from the lakes within minutes, and to get there, we’d have two hours off the trail over a route that ProTrails describes as marshy with a steep wall at the end.

We left my place at seven. I figured the trailhead wouldn’t be as busy as it is in August. It was a calculated risk, and I had no Plan B. Generally I reach the high school before the rangers are staffing their station. Today we arrived just as the ranger put out the “FULL” sign for the Fourth of July trailhead.

He told us that there may still be parking available there. The ranger up at the trailhead was now on her way down with a count of available parking. We were directed to park next to an orange cone in the school parking lot, first in line for any empty spots. We waited maybe fifteen minutes before being told to head on up. Next in line behind us was a big Audi sedan. It’s a rough road with lots of holes and exposed rocks. Three or four cars later was a BMW sedan. That those guys got those cars up there indicates you can drive damn near anything up there if you’re so inclined.

Before shutting off the car, I checked the temperature: 28 degrees F.

To reach the lakes, we headed up the Arapaho Pass trail to the derelict mine and the junction with the trail that climbs the flank of South Arapaho Peak. It’s a two-mile hike from the trailhead, rising about 1100′ at a fairly constant grade. It took us an hour. From the trail junction, we’d descend a couple hundred feet to the floor of the valley. Chad was glad to be done with the relentless trail.

We’re pretty much right at treeline when we leave the trail. The trees are in clumps, fairly easy to skirt. Any flat spaces between the trees and along the stream are normally boggy and marshy, but this late in the season, everything is dry. Well, almost everything. We do come across a few bogs, but it’ll never be any drier than it is today. We followed a number of game trails that appeared and faded out at the edge of a dry marsh or a small talus field. Regardless, navigation is as easy as it gets with these expansive views.

For about a mile above our stream crossing, we gain only about three hundred feet. It’s a pleasant, leisurely stroll. The sun is shining brightly in a deep cobalt sky with a gentle breeze. It has snowed here, lightly, a couple of times over the last several days. A thin dusting of snow clings to the high, steep, shady, northern mountainside. Where we’re walking, there are occasional spots of snow in the shade of a bush or rock. One pool we passed had a very thin sheet of ice on it. It was nearly invisible. I gently pushed on it. Not hard enough to crack it, but I did make some water rise through a few silver dollar-sized holes at the other end of the ice. Pretty cool.

Being off-trail, I expected not to see any other hikers. Just before we came to ProTrails’ “steep wall” below the lakes, we spotted three hikers with a dog working their way up the valley, still on the other side of the stream. They passed us pretty quickly, they were moving at a pretty good clip. We had a brief chat as to the best route. This was their first trip to these lakes, too. I said we were going to try to make use of any grassy ramps a bit to the left of the lakes to avoid the steep talus. This would take us to the upper lake first, putting us on its southeastern shore.

We arrived at the upper lake pretty much on schedule. We found a nice spot for our picnic not too close to the other hikers, whose dog ran over to greet us when we appeared. We had a nice view of Mount Neva. There was still not a cloud in the sky, and the winds were about as calm as one can expect beneath the Divide. I brought beers. I had a blood orange blonde, Chad had the lager.

After the other group left, Chad spotted a couple of hikers descending a ravine from the ridgeline between Mount Neva and Mount Jasper. There’s a route from Arapaho Pass that summits Neva and comes down here. Not long after those two guys, wearing shorts and lightweight shoes, disappeared down the outlet of the lake we saw two more hikers mid-descent. Too steep for me, I think.

The upper lake looks to already have drained two feet below its high-water mark, judging from the bathtub ring. The outlet is high and dry. A few yards below the lake, following the dry outlet we came to running water: the upper lake is draining from here. It’s a pretty strong flow. I’d guess it’s eight or ten feet of elevation below the surface of the lake. This drain is surrounded by tufts of grass. The water flows gently to a small pond that then drains into the lower lake. The lower lake is still full.

Leaving the lower lake at its outlet, we were at the top of a large, steep talus field. The grassy ramps we came up on are quite a ways to our right. We worked our way down diagonally, crossing more talus than is to my liking.

Navigation back across the valley and up to the trail is, again, dead simple. The trail we’re heading toward is a plainly visible slash across the mountain ahead of us. Again, we gained and lost social trails. A few times, I saw the footprints of the hikers with the lightweight footwear.

After crossing the stream, we needed to climb about two hundred feet to gain the trail. Getting near the end, I found a faint game trail. We followed it for a short while, but I decided I wanted to climb faster and took a more direct route. We stopped for a short break when we got to the trail. I figured we were between the mine and the junction. We discussed whether we wanted to head up to the mine or not. We decided not.

This was a good choice. It turns out we were above the mine and didn’t need to make a side trip to get there. Had we made the side trip, we’d have gone the wrong way.

When I was here before, I wanted to get a picture of the vertical mine shaft. There was no barrier around it. I’m smart enough to go nowhere near the slippery-looking edge, but I could imagine coming across it in the dark or in bad weather. Today I have my GoPro on a stick. Perhaps I could get a video looking down into the black hole.

It was not to be. They have somehow managed to fill the hole with dirt and rocks. I imagine they must have had to somehow put a plug in it and cover the plug with dirt. This was a pretty deep shaft and filling it up is out of the question. This trail gets quite a bit of traffic. I’m surprised they didn’t plug the shaft before now.

It was a great hike. We couldn’t have had better weather. The views were fantastic

Upper Diamond Lake

This is my second trip up this valley. Back in early July, I came up here thinking I’d be able to get to the upper lake, but there was too much snow. Yes, it was silly of me to think I’d be able to hike above 11,000′ that early in the season. One nice thing about not getting to where I wanted to go is that it’s a built-in excuse to make another trip.

Friday, September 1

Rather than repeat myself, I’ll begin at Diamond Lake. (There is no shuttle to the trailhead, so I’ll note that on a Friday before a holiday weekend, there were still a few parking spots available at 7:30 am.)

There are more like four Diamond Lakes than two. In addition to Diamond Lake (10,960′) and Upper Diamond Lake (11,732′), there are two more. One is at 11,359′ and a much shallower one lies at 11,518′. I’m reasonably certain this second one never dries out, but it’s a close call.

When I’m hiking on a well-maintained trail, I generally don’t use trek poles. I carry them with me, strapped to my daypack. When I got to Diamond Lake, I broke out the poles only to get hit with glitch number one of the day. One of the nuts on the cams had come off. I couldn’t extend the pole to anything like a usable length. Oh well. No poles today. I hope that’s not going to be a problem.

To get to Upper Diamond Lake from Diamond Lake, continue to follow the trail that skirts the lake on its northern shore. I followed it all the way to the inlet stream. The trail climbs steeply for a while beside the burbling stream on a grassy slope. After a bit, I reached a T intersection. This surprised me a bit. On the hike back down, I didn’t even see this intersection and ended up at Diamond Lake a fair distance farther east than where I left the lake.

At one point, the trail seems to terminate right up against a giant rock. I saw that some hikers had gone around the rock to the right, so that’s what I did. Circling above the rock, I found the trail again. At the foot of the rock, there’s a “crack” there that is easily climbed. I just didn’t look closely enough.

Not long after this, we get to the southernmost of the lakes. The trail goes right down to the water. This is ideal if you’re ending your hike here, but not so ideal if you are continuing to the upper lake. This is more or less the end of the trail.

We’re above treeline by now, so the lack of a trail isn’t that big of a deal. From here on out, it’s fairly easy to see where you need to go, and there is enough hiking traffic that occasionally you come across some grass that’s clearly been walked through. I also spotted a cairn here and there, but these cairns are more of a confirmation that I’m going in the right direction than they signal a clear route.

The final approach to the upper lake is across a mix of narrow grassy slopes and boulders/talus. The lake is stark – a drop of water at the head of a narrow, rocky canyon. I didn’t stay there long. The wind, while not fierce, was steady.

It was only 10:30 (so, a bit less than a three-hour hike from the trailhead) and I wasn’t yet ready for lunch. I had a quick snack and headed back down, thinking I could find a scenic spot for lunch back at the lake where the trail ends. This was a much shorter stay at my destination than usual. It wasn’t that I was rushed for time, or that I didn’t find the lake very scenic. I just didn’t feel like sitting in the wind for very long, and, frankly, I enjoyed the hike between the lakes as much as I did the lake itself.

I took another break at the lower lake to slurp down a tasty Palisade peach.

I hadn’t seen another hiker since I first arrived at the lower lake. On the hike out, there was quite a bit of traffic on the trail. A short distance before reaching the junction with the Arapaho Pass trail, hikers told me to be on the lookout for a moose. I can’t tell you how often hikers tell me to be on the lookout for moose that I never see. This time, though, I spotted her. She was sitting comfortably in the shade only about twenty feet off the trail, chewing her cud.

My second glitch of the day happened about ten minutes from the trailhead. I’m the first to admit I’m a bit of a clumsy oaf. Last week, I mentioned that I fell down four times. When I’m bushwhacking through dense forest, this doesn’t bother me much. It seems like tree limbs make a sport of grabbing my boots and pulling me off-balance. It goes with the territory.

On the trail, however, I expect to be able to keep on my feet. I don’t know what happened, but I took a mighty fall. I managed to break my fall with my hands, then sort of half-roll. I got a little bit of road rash on my left hand, which is annoying. But I landed on that hand pretty hard and it’s quite swollen and a bit discolored. I popped a couple of ibuprofen and continued back to the car. I have a couple of other bruises – my left upper arm just below the shoulder and my left leg, just above the knee.

This is the second time I’ve fallen on the trail. The first was about ten years ago. I scraped my arm pretty well and was covered in blood. I still carry about a six-inch scar from that one. Very little blood today. In addition to the sore, bruised, swollen left hand, I did a bit of damage to the GoPro. I carry it in the left front pocket of my pants. The selfie-stick/tripod it’s mounted on is a bit too long to fit in the pocket, so the camera sticks out. I landed right on top of the camera before my half-roll. No damage to the camera, but I did break the clear lens cap.

At least nobody witnessed my oafishness.

But for my clumsiness, it was an ideal day.

Spruce Canyon Addendum

In my write-up of last week’s backpacking trip, I somehow completely forgot to mention the toad.

As long as I’ve been hiking to Spruce Lake, they’ve had notices prominently posted that the wetlands on the east side of the lake are closed. That includes the shallow part of the lake where I saw the male and female moose sniffing each other and the marshy area from there to the trail. This area is closed to protect the breeding habitat for the boreal toad, which is classified as endangered by the state of Colorado.

I’ve never once seen nor heard any toads around here. I had no idea any toads or frogs lived in this part of the world, it being a few hundred feet short of 10,000′ above sea level and pretty much frozen solid a few months every year.

Well, this trip I finally spotted one. It wasn’t anywhere near the closure, but on one of the few stretches of bushwhacking we did on our way up to Loomis Lake when we lost the trail. The little guy (or gal) hopped right in front of me. I snapped a couple of photos, but he didn’t stand still for his portrait and none of them turned out. Still, it’s not every day one gets to see an endangered species in the wild.

Return to Spruce Canyon

Back in August of 2019, I made an attempt to reach the four lakes at the head of Spruce Canyon: Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, Lake Irene, and Sprague Tarn. I made it to only the first of those. It was a fairly miserable hike.

Last year, I visited Spruce Lake (which, curiously, is not in Spruce Canyon). The idea on that hike was to see more of the East Troublesome burn scar. Much of the trail passes through forest that was thoroughly burned. It seemed to me that a motivated hiker might be able to bushwhack up Spruce Canyon a lot easier now. I know the trees and deadfall don’t burn to ashes, but judging by much of what I saw, the underbrush should be pretty much gone, and with nothing but burned trunks standing, visibility for route-finding should be much improved.

So I decided to make a return trip.

Tuesday, August 22

Reckoning that it’s only a three-hour hike to the campsite at Spruce Lake, we decided on a relatively late start and lunch in Estes before setting out. We decided on Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ. There’s nothing like over-eating a bunch of barbecue before setting off on a hot day, carrying a 34 lb backpack. Probably not the best lunch choice.

It seems I’m always playing a mental game of “what did I forget” or “what will go wrong”. I don’t think I’m particularly pessimistic about things in general. I often forget things (in spite of constantly making checklists) and nothing ever goes perfectly. I always hope that if I forget something, it’ll be something that’s not mission-critical. And that if anything goes wrong, it’s something minor.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. My checklists served their purpose and nothing was forgotten. But a couple of minor things did go wrong. When backpacking, I carry two water bottles and a Steri-Pen to purify more water. I only need two bottles in camp and on the hike in or out, only one of them is full. Getting out of Gordon’s truck, I managed to drop my full bottle, which pretty much shattered when it hit the ground. The second mishap is that the batteries in my Steri-Pen died after two uses. So, for pretty much the whole trip I was hounding Gordon to filter some more water for me.

The hike to Spruce Lake was uneventful. It took us just a few minutes less than the three hours I anticipated. There are two campsites at Spruce Lake. Neither was occupied when we arrived, and we took the one closer to the lake (and further from the privy). I’ve always been under the impression that the backcountry campsites get sold out for the year in the first few days of March. I was a bit surprised, then, that nobody ever camped at the other site. On our previous trip a few weeks ago, the second campsite went empty one night. That’s a 37% vacancy rate. Do that many people make reservations but never show up?

When I picked up the permit last month, I was warned that there was a curious moose in the area. And when we entered the park, the ranger said to watch out for the large moose at Spruce Lake. I couldn’t help but wonder, then, if we were to be on the lookout for a large curious moose, or a large moose and a curious one.

After setting up camp, we sat on the shore of the lake to relax. We immediately spotted a bull moose on the far shore. We heard a loud splash a few minutes later and saw a cow moose wading or swimming out into the lake. My first thought was that it was swimming, but it could be that where she crossed it wasn’t all that deep. She was making good progress. Gordon wondered aloud if we should be concerned that she was heading straight for us.

She got out of the water 20 or 30 feet from us, then circled around us to get back into the water more toward the outlet. Meanwhile, the bull was working his way toward the outlet area as well. In 2019, we saw a cow here with a calf. This might be the same cow, and the bull might be the calf. On the other hand, these could be different moose entirely. He was a bit smaller than she. I’m not up on my moose behavior: they’re solitary beasts, and not territorial, but do they tolerate one another?

  • cow moose and bull moose
  • moonset over Gabletop Mountain
  • greenback cutthroat trout
  • Loomis Lake
  • Spruce Lake
  • doe deer

I went back to the camp to have dinner. Before long, the cow traipsed into camp. Not so much into camp as around it. She kept an eye on me as she made her orbit. Was she the curious moose we were warned about?

Wednesday, August 23

To get to the head of Spruce Canyon from Spruce Lake, the idea is to contour around Castle Rock, converging with Spruce Creek without losing any elevation. As I said earlier, I hoped the fire would allow for better route-finding and somewhat easier passage.

We were on the fringes of the burn scar, sometimes in badly burned areas, sometimes in a living forest. Visibility was somewhat better, but the bushwhacking was still grueling. Last time, we only managed half a mile an hour. I don’t think we were moving any faster today. We contoured around a fairly steep section. Where it was burned and steep, the footing was a bit treacherous. By the end of the morning, I’d fallen on my ass four times. Check that – it was three times on my ass, once on my face.

Each time I fell, I’d end up with my hands in the dirt. Each time, ash and soot and soil stuck to my sweating hands. The soil came off easily enough, but the soot and ash clung tenaciously to my fingernails.

Two hours into our expedition I could see ahead to where we were going and back to where we’d come from. I made the executive decision to abort the mission. I do these hikes to have fun. I was wrong that it would be easier this time. Soot stained my hands and pants and dealing with the deadfall was exhausting. I hauled out Plan B: hike to Loomis Lake after a lunch break back at Spruce Lake. Gordon didn’t seem too disappointed to turn around.

After lunch and a bit of moose-watching, we headed to Loomis Lake. I’ve been there twice before and I don’t recall it being particularly challenging. So I was surprised and disappointed that it was much more difficult than I recalled. As it turned out, on the way up to Loomis Lake, we lost the trail four times. starting right at Spruce Lake. Two other times we lost the trail going around deadfall that blocked the way. For a short while, I felt like I was back in Spruce Canyon.

About two-thirds of the way from Spruce Lake to Loomis Lake, you pass by a pond. There’s a big boulder that in the wettest time of the year is an island but is usually a peninsula. On that rock, clings a fairly good-sized tree. There is no soil, just a few cracks in the granite. That a tree of that size has managed to grow there for decades amazes me. The tenacity of life.

If you manage to follow the trail, it really isn’t a difficult hike. Unfortunately for me, every time I’ve been to Loomis, it’s been overcast. I still don’t have a decent picture of the place. It’s one of those “stark beauty” sorts of places, surrounded by imposing rock walls. The gray clouds and diffused light make it a bit gloomy. I’d like to see it in bright sunlight.

On the way down, we easily followed the trail. It started to sprinkle a bit, threatening rain. Usually, I have to put the raincoat on to make the rain stop; today all I had to do was tell Gordon I might need to stop to put on the coat. Once I said it, it pretty much stopped right away.

We were back to Spruce Lake and camp for dinner and more moose-watching. This evening, it was two bulls. They stayed on the opposite side of the lake, so I didn’t get a great look at them.

I climbed into the sack not long after dark. I’m generally up until well after 11, but I nodded off pretty quickly. At 9:30 it started raining. It really came down for a while, but moderated before long. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it was more than an hour. A good soaking. The tent’s rain cover did its job, keeping everything inside the tent and the little atrium dry.

Thursday, August 24

We awoke to mostly sunny skies – a pleasant morning.

The hike out was just under three hours. We came across a doe that insisted on grazing right next to the trail, not at all concerned about our presence.

My dad always used to say, “I was wrong once. I thought I made a mistake!”

That’s my story with Spruce Canyon. I thought I made a mistake saying I’d never make it to Rainbow Lake, Irene Lake, and Sprague Glacier, but I was wrong!

The other route to those destinations would be from Flattop. It’s not in my day-hike range from there, at well over 8 miles each way and a big climb. And I’ll not make the attempt via Spruce Canyon again, as I said after my first attempt.

So I’ve been twice unsuccessful in reaching three of the four points of interest in Spruce Canyon. I am not disappointed. Both times it was a bit miserable, but a miserable day in the forest is still a good day. I failed to reach my goal, but I’m okay with that. If you always reach your goals, you’re doing it wrong.

Willow Lakes and Salmon Lake

I’m a little bit ashamed to admit how much of my life is spent on autopilot. We all have a tendency to let ourselves get stuck in ruts: “I’m doing this because I’ve done this before and I’m used to it.” That sort of thing. I think a good portion of my choices of where to hike has been out of laziness. I continue to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park because I’m comfortable there. It’s close, I know my way around the Park, I have a first-rate guide, and so on. It only takes me an hour and a half or so to get to any east-side trailhead and about two hours for a west-side hike.

I started getting away from the Park when they instituted their timed entry pass system. I climbed out of my rut and looked around. The Indian Peaks Wilderness is close – just south of RMNP. And James Peak is adjacent to IPW. Again, trailheads for IPW and JPW are close and can be reached in about an hour and a half.

Climbing further from my rut, I finally realized just how many hiking trails I can reach in no more time than it takes to reach a west side trailhead in RMNP.

One of those trailheads is the Willowbrook trailhead in a residential area of Silverthorne. This trailhead can be used to reach Salmon Lake and Willow Lakes, in southeastern Eagles Nest Wilderness. These lakes are surrounded by the dramatic cliffs of a number of 13ers: Rain Peak, East Thorn, and Red Peak.

I don’t have a good guidebook for this area, so I’m doing my research online. I’ve been around the internet long enough to know that not everything I read there is true. I don’t generally think this is much of an issue when it comes to researching hikes, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind. For example, two resources I commonly use are AllTrails and ProTrails (those links go to their respective Salmon Lake route descriptions). AllTrails says it’s a 9.8-mile round trip to Salmon Lake but ProTrails says it’s 15.3. ProTrails would have us start at a different trailhead. I use CalTopo maps and the distances given there match AllTrails.

A couple of notes before we start. First, the parking lot here holds only about a dozen cars but there is a shuttle available. Arrive early or find the shuttle. Second, there is a large network of trails in the area and there is a series of trail junctions. For hikes where I’m not going off-trail, I don’t always carry a map. Bring a map for this one.

Thursday, August 17

I arrived at the trailhead a bit before 7:30. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and I’m guessing those belong to backpackers who spent the night at one of the lakes. CalTopo shows trails starting at two points near the parking lot, perhaps a hundred feet apart. This is incorrect. There is only one trail from here. There’s a place to register for overnight stays in the Wilderness. There is no fee, and no registration is required for day hikes.

The trail starts in a residential area and passes through Summit County open space before reaching the Eagles Nest boundary about three-quarters of a mile. CalTopo shows four trail junctions before the boundary, but there are only two. The forest is sparse enough to allow views of Silverthorne and Dillon Reservoir and dam. Alongside the lower sections of trail, beetle-kill trees are stacked in pyramids ready for burning when there’s snow on the ground.

Shortly after entering the Wilderness, the trail meets the Gore Range Trail. For the next mile and a half, the trail passes through an interesting section of forest. At first, it reminded me of the area around Ouzel Falls about ten or fifteen years after the fire. All the big trees were dead, the living trees are no more than ten or twelve feet tall. With no big trees, the views open up.

Here, there are no signs of fire in the last century. Hiking up the trail I didn’t notice it, but on the way down you can see that all the dead trees are lined up in the same direction. Why are all the dead trees lined up so nicely?

This area was greatly affected by beetle kill quite a while ago. It was one of the first places I recall seeing beetle-kill forest. The beetles burrow into mature trees, all with trunks at least ten inches in diameter. So all the big trees die, but beetle-kill trees take a while to fall over. They go from reddish-brown to gray and finally get knocked over randomly by wind or snow over the years. And they’d fall over in all sorts of directions.

I think this area was hit by a microburst. Two or three or four minutes of very high winds. Even live trees can’t stand up to the force; this dead forest never had a chance. Any creature unfortunate to be in the area was unlikely to survive. The dead trees are so densely packed, that getting through this area without a trail would be impossible. You just can’t bushwhack through it, you’d have to detour. Truly impassable without a trail.

Because the deadfall was so dense, I couldn’t see too many stumps. But I don’t think there were as many stumps as trees. Most of the trunks looked to be snapped off at the roots.

The next trail junction is the Willow Lake trail. Here the trail starts climbing steadily and relentlessly. It’s not terribly steep, but it goes on and on at a constant rate. On the way down, even knowing how long it went on, I was surprised at how long it went on. Above the top of this grade, though, the trail mellows considerably, climbing no more than two hundred feet a mile (with one exception).

After the big climb, the trail traverses a steep valley wall and reaches the final trail junction of the hike: the Salmon Lake trail. My plan is to visit both Salmon Lake and Upper Willow Lake (and lay eyes on the other various Willow Lakes). By my reckoning, it’s 5.8 miles to Upper Willow Lake with a one-mile round-trip side trip to Salmon for a total of 12.6 miles and maybe 2,800 vertical feet.

I would do Upper Willow Lake first, and if I didn’t feel like doing Salmon it would be a good excuse to come back. Alternatively, it would make a good single-night backpacking trip.

Continuing toward Upper Willow Lake after the Salmon junction, the forest thins again, revealing the dramatic faces of the mountains and ridges containing the valley: the flank of Red Peak to the south, Capricorn, Gemini Twins, and Sagittarius to the west, and East Thorn to the north. The trail meanders along a stream and among and along four or five lakes and ponds before reaching its final destination.

I stayed at the upper lake for forty-five minutes. I had my picnic lunch first. Instead, I should have taken a bunch of pictures first. By the time I was done eating, the few puffy clouds of earlier had grown big and gray. So it goes. After lunch, I explored for a few minutes before heading back down.

Back at the junction, still feeling fresh, I headed up to Salmon Lake. This is the exception to the generally mellow nature of the trail above the big climb. Here we are on a section reminiscent of the big climb. It is mercifully shorter, but at first seems almost malicious: we have climbed a hundred feet or more above Salmon Lake.

  • hiking trail with pyramids of beetle-kill
  • view of East Thorn mountain
  • two 14ers in the distance
  • one of the several Willow Lakes
  • one of the several Willow Lakes
  • Upper Willow Lake
  • Upper Willow Lake and Zodiac Ridge
  • Dillon Lake and dam in teh distance
  • first glimpse of Salmon Lake
  • Salmon Lake

Salmon Lake, I think, is not as scenic as Upper Willow Lake. True, that’s not a low bar. The trail skirts north of the lake, avoiding a giant boulder field, dumping the hiker at the willow-choked western end. Half, or more, of the shore is talus.

By counting the number of hikers I encountered all day, I doubt the parking lot ever filled up. There were only two cars there in addition to mine when I got back to the trailhead. I didn’t meet more than a dozen hikers and backpackers.

On the hike out, I got sprinkled on a bit, just enough for me to put the raincoat on. There was a thunderstorm across the valley to the east, the thunder distinct but not nearby. I got a big dose of the solitude I enjoy. Not a bad way to spend the day.

Due to the generally sparse forest for much of the hike, the views are above average. There’s only one section of trail I found difficult. It’s certainly worthy of a return visit.


Not an out-and-back, this hike was a Y. The stem is the base of the Y.

Hike InHike Out
Trailhead7:32 am4:54 pm
North Willow Creek jct7:50 am4:36 pm
Three Peaks jct8:06 am4:18 pm
ENW Boundary8:09 am4:15 pm
Gore Range jct8:16 am4:06 pm
Maryland Creek jct9:08 am3:03 pm
Salmon Lake jct10:13 am2:02 pm
Upper Willow Lake
Salmon Lake jct10:13 am12:55 pm
Upper Willow Lake11:13 am11:59 am
Salmon Lake
Salmon Lake jct12:55 pm2:02 pm
Salmon Lake1:15 pm1:45 pm

A few more photos are available here and here.

Pitkin Lake

This is my first hike in Eagles Nest Wilderness and the Gore range. The Gore range towers above the western side of Colorado Highway 9 between Dillon Reservoir and Green Mountain Reservoir. Vail is nearly due west from Dillon, but I-70 travels nearly twice the distance to get there, heading southwest to Copper Mountain before turning northwest towards Vail to go around the southern end of the Gore range. Pitkin Lake is reached from the western boundary of Eagles Nest Wilderness near East Vail.

Pitkin Lake is situated at 11,351′ above sea level immediately south of the ridge that connects East Partner Peak and West Partner Peak (both above 13,000′) and immediately east of the ridge that connects West Partner Peak and Outpost Peak. To the east of the lake are the rugged peaks of Mount Solitude and Climbers Point.

To reach Pitkin Lake, take exit 180 from I-70 and head east on Fall Line Drive to the parking lot at the end of the road. It holds only about a dozen cars. An alternative to parking there is to take the shuttle bus from Vail which serves both the Pitkin Lake trailhead and the Booth Lake trailhead.

Pitkin Lake and Pitkin Creek are presumably both named for Frederick Pitkin, who was the second governor of Colorado. When searching for places named for Frederick Pitkin, I find a town, a county, and several streets in various Colorado cities and towns but this lake and creek are not mentioned. It seems a six-block-long street in Saguache is more notable than this lake and creek. I disagree.

When researching this hike, I found that ProTrails lists the distance as 8.9 miles round trip and AllTrails has it at 9.6 miles. I find that a non-trivial distance. After hiking it, I can’t help but wonder if it might even clock in at 10 miles. In any case, the trailhead is at about 8,425′ and the lake is at 11,351′ for a net elevation gain of about 2,925′.

Saturday, August 12

When I planned this hike, I didn’t know there was a shuttle bus that served this trailhead, so, of course, my parking paranoia was in high gear. I was happy to learn, then, that my son wanted to ride his downhill bike at Vail so I asked if I could get him to drop me off at the trailhead and pick me up when he was done biking. He agreed. He deposited me at the trailhead at 9:20 and said he’d be able to pick me up at 5:30 or 5:45. This seemed like an ideal plan. It should only take me about six hours to make the hike, giving me two or two and a half hours of free time. I would have a leisurely day!

Given that the trail climbs about three thousand feet in four and a half or five miles, I’d say this trail is, overall, a fairly steep trail. It’s not uniformly steep, of course. There are three or four stretches I’d call “steep”, connected by mellower sections of trail. The steepest of the steep sections is the first half mile of the trail, climbing six hundred feet above I-70 to where the roar of the highway can no longer be heard.

The trail passes through mixed forests of pine and spruce, wide grassy meadows, and groves of aspen. The meadows are filled with a rainbow of wildflowers and the buzzing of bees. The meadows provide open views of the surrounding terrain. The forest sections are seldom very dense, with forest floors carpeted with lush greenery. The trail is generally quite narrow and in some places passes through foliage that is shoulder-high.

I started my hike at almost the same time as a couple with a black dog. We passed each other three or four times over the first half of the hike. Each time we’d pass, the dog would bark and growl at me. We exchanged a few words each time we passed. Once, they said they weren’t liking the looks of the sky. On the drive up, Michael and I mentioned it too: it was mostly overcast. We hoped it would clear up as the day progressed.

On my last passing the couple and dog, it had just started raining. I said, “Time to put the raincoat on!” Their response was, “We’re turning around!” I continued up the trail, the rain increasing in intensity. It wasn’t long before the crack of thunder shook creation. I didn’t see the lightning, but it was clearly in my immediate vicinity.

Given the extent of the cloud cover, I had no sense that this squall would be short-lived. It could rain all day for all I knew. I’d been hiking a bit over two hours, so it would take me two hours or so to get back to the trailhead. If Michael was getting rained on, I didn’t know if he’d be wanting to call it quits or not. After a few more thunderbolts I decided to turn back.

This seemed like the correct choice. It was raining so hard, the trail was often a river. My hiking pants aren’t waterproof and although my raincoat kept my torso, arms, and head dry, I was soaked below the waist. Under the partial cover of a tree, I checked the phone. I had service! I texted Michael and gave him a situation report. He told me it wasn’t raining where he was. Trying to send a couple of text messages, I discovered how poorly phones work in the rain: I couldn’t unlock the phone with my fingerprint, and the touchscreen doesn’t handle water very well. The phone also helpfully informed me that “water or debris is in the USB port”.

After backtracking for about half an hour, and losing significant elevation, the rain lightened and finally stopped. I was in a large meadow that had a nice view to the south. I decided to have my picnic lunch here, sitting on a wet rock in a wet meadow. While I was there, I was passed by a number of hikers making their way down the trail. Some turned around before reaching the lake, others said they’d turned around within minutes of getting there.

While I ate, I pondered my situation. It had stopped raining but was still overcast. Would the rain return? Two hikers I chatted with told me about the shuttle. If I went back to the trailhead, I could take the shuttle into town and Michael’s day would be unaffected by mine. On the other hand, I was already halfway to the lake. Should I turn around again in an attempt to reach it?

I decided to try for the lake. I reckoned it would take me three hours to get from the lake back to the trailhead. If Michael was going to be there at 5:30, that meant I could leave the lake as late as 2:30. It was about 12:45. By 1:15 I was back to where I originally gave up. Surely I would be able to reach the lake in another hour.

By a bit after 1:30, I was catching up to a couple who had passed me when I was having my lunch. He was leading the way; she was slower. He’d stop and wait until she caught up to him, then start again, not giving her any breaks. I was just marginally faster than she was and it took me quite a while before I passed them. Along the way, I’d hear her asking him variations of “Are we there yet?” His answer was always a variation of “It won’t be long now.”

When I finally did pass them, at about 2:10, I asked him if he thought we’d reach the lake by 2:30, as that was when I figured I’d have to turn around. “Oh, yeah. It’s not more than 10 minutes away.” I think he had no real idea how much longer it would take and the “10 more minutes” was to reassure her. I’m not sure it worked.

I arrived at the lake at 2:29. Aargh! Time to go already. It had begun sprinkling again in the last few minutes before getting to the lake. I didn’t have time to take even a short break. I was heading back down the trail after staying there only nine minutes. The couple arrived just as I was leaving. It took them half an hour to hike the stretch he said it’d only take ten minutes to do.

A few minutes below the lake, I was passed by two hikers I’d briefly chatted with when I was eating my lunch. When I first met them, I told them that I’d given up due to the thunderstorm. Passing me leaving the lake, they recognized me. “Glad you decided to make it to the lake after all!” I didn’t tell them how short a time I was actually there.

On the hike out, the sprinkling turned into full-on rain. It rained for a bit more than the first hour of my hike down. It wasn’t raining hard enough to turn the trail into a river, but it did make many of the water crossings more entertaining. The rain came and went, sometimes going away long enough for my pants to dry again. Then, I’d get to one of those narrow spots where the trail passed through shoulder-high vegetation and I’d get soaked again from all the water on the leaves.

When I returned to my earlier picnic location, I’d been hiking non-stop for about four hours. Okay, technically I stood still for about 30 seconds to take pictures. I stopped here for a short break and ate my peach. I don’t know what it is about eating a peach on a hike, but they always seem to taste so much better on the trail than in my house.

Michael texted me about this time asking for my ETA to the trailhead. I made a guess, but I wasn’t very confident about it. By now, the lifts had ceased operating and he had a little time to kill. I tried to pick up my pace.

Then I came across the nude guy. At first, I thought I was imagining. Did I really see a nude guy cross the trail ahead of me? A few yards later, there he was. Standing on the side of the trail, clutching his undershorts in both hands in front of him, covering his privates. Out of self-defense, I kept eye contact with him until I passed him. In spite of his nudity, he attempted conversation: “Did you get caught by the rain?” Normally, I’d stop and chat; tell him my story of the thunderstorm and my turning around, then being rained on for an hour on the hike out. Now, though? I answered him, “Sure did,” without slowing down.

A few minutes later, I-70 came into sight. I stopped to text Michael that I’d be at the trailhead in 15 minutes or so. Before I could get the phone out of my pocket, nude guy was right behind me. He wasn’t nude anymore, but I thought it was a bit creepy that he followed me so closely. I’d love to know what nude guy’s story was, but there was no way I was going to ask him.

I ended up back at the trailhead on the original schedule – between 5:30 and 5:45. Along the way, I managed to convert a hike with plenty of spare time into one where I had to hustle to be on schedule and changed a 9 or 10-mile hike into more like 12 or 13 miles. Oh well.

I really like this trail. I bet it’s beautiful when the aspen are turning. Heck, I’m sure it’s beautiful anytime it’s not raining! I wouldn’t rule out a return to this lake.

Helms Lake

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

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

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

Friday, August 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porcupine 2

Saturday, July 29

We had a leisurely morning, putting boots on the trail shortly after 8.

As I said, I’ve hiked to Bench Lake before, solo. I remember easily finding the beginning of the “trail”. I recall seeing a few cairns, and that the trail was not great, disappearing and reappearing, but I don’t remember it being particularly challenging. I have a quite distinct memory of the final few yards before reaching the lake where I lost my full water bottle.

For most of my professional life, when doing software support, I had a saying: “The user is not a reliable witness.” They either don’t really remember what they did, or they have some motive for not telling the whole story. When it comes to getting from the trail to Bench Lake, I was not a reliable witness.

We found no obvious trail near Ptarmigan Creek. Route finding was challenging. We did come across a few small cairns, but very few. And the last few yards involved a five or six-foot climb up solid rock, not the steep, loose stuff I distinctly recall. How is it my memory has tricked me so?

When we arrived at this final six-foot climb we met two hikers on their way down. They had zone camped up here. They said they’d wanted to “get to the lake”, but didn’t say which one. I think they meant Ptarmigan Lake. In any event, Bench Lake was the only one they reached. I give them lots of credit, climbing up here with backpacks.

I don’t know how many hikers make it up here, but I don’t imagine it’s many. Even so, they found somebody’s water bottle. It wasn’t mine from the last time I was here, but a disposable one. They reported seeing a nice herd of elk and that they found an elk skeleton. We exchanged farewells and headed our separate ways.

Standing at the outlet of Bench Lake you are at the foot of a large valley, “The Wonderland”. From here, we will head north up the valley to find the confluence of the outlet streams of the three alpine lakes. In theory, we could go to either Snowdrift or Wonderland and come down the other. No amount of map study is as good as getting eyes on the terrain.

Until about September, the choice in these valleys is whether to slog through marshy meadows or keep to higher ground and deal with deadfall mazes. I didn’t mind the wet ground so much, it was never ankle-deep. But Gordon was in lightweight shoes and was getting his feet wet. We kept switching back and forth.

We were nearly to the confluence before we got a good view of the outlet from Snowdrift. It looked really steep. I certainly didn’t want to hike down it, and I wasn’t sure I was willing to go up. It was getting on towards 11, and we still had a mile of bushwhacking and 700 vertical feet to go. There was no way I’d be able to get to both today, so it was an easy decision to head to Wonderland Lake and skip Snowdrift.

The creek in this wide, flat valley often becomes braided, running two, three, or four courses through the meadows. We crossed Ptarmigan’s outlet and then Wonderland’s, to climb up to the lake on the western side of its stream. We made at least four crossings to cross the two streams. In this area, we came across where the elk had bedded down. The grass was flattened by five or six elk. We didn’t see any elk all day, it’s a big valley, but I was stepping over their droppings constantly.

Having made our way to the head of the valley, it was time to make our second big climb: 350′ in 0.2 miles. Gordon led the way. He’s an excellent route-finder. He’s sensitive to my limitations regarding exposure, and he’s quicker than I am and gets far enough ahead of me that even if he backtracks a few yards, I never catch up. Saves me a lot of effort.

At the top of the climb, you emerge onto a broad and deep shelf of dune-like granite marbled with ponds and grassy ramps. The shelf holds both lakes, maybe half a mile apart. We still had another two hundred feet to climb, but nothing steep. There was no krummholz, and the only willow I saw was no more than a foot tall and easily avoided. Maybe it was the climb, but the view of Andrews Peak behind us was breathtaking.

The second or third time we told each other the lake was over the next rise, we finally emerged above the southern shore.

The hike from the campsite to the lake is only about three miles. Adding a mile round trip to the other lake doesn’t sound too bad, particularly given the open sight lines. We didn’t get to the lake until 12:35, so maybe had we left an hour earlier… even so, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was beat: my next step from here was to head back to camp.

I ate my picnic lunch and watched the world go by. Gordon circumnavigated the lake, pausing often to inspect something that caught his attention. We started back.

Only a few steps below the lake it started raining, soon followed by rolling thunder. After a few minutes, the rain turned to hail. But it was over before long. We didn’t exactly follow our route up. Not that we weren’t trying. “Did we come up the right side of that outcropping or the left?”

Back near the confluence of the streams, before making four or five crossings, we came across the elk skeleton the other hikers reported. I’ve seen a few now, and generally they’re not so much “skeletons” as “piles of bones”. This one, though, had an intact backbone.

Approaching Bench Lake, we came across a tree with an NPS sign posting “No Fishing”. I’m sure we walked right by it on the way up, but it’s facing north instead of south. It’s pretty weather-worn; has probably been there for several years. I wonder how often they send a ranger up there to replace it.

Just before returning to where we met the other hikers, we spotted a nice game trail. Gordon followed it. It wasn’t in the right direction; he suggested that it just bypassed the big rock we’d have to climb down. I wondered aloud how far we wanted to follow it. Gordon’s response was, “That’s the question!” We never turned back.

Next to Bench Lake’s outlet is a glacial knob about a hundred feet high. The trail took us over the saddle between the knob and the mountain flank to the east. In camp last night, I spent quite a while looking at this terrain. I was wondering if it might be easier just to head to Ptarmigan Creek in a straight line from the camp instead of taking the trail to the creek. It seemed doable. I didn’t even consider coming down from the saddle, though.

Game trails are nice until they’re not. This one was nice for quite a while before it petered out on a stretch of steep, loose aggregate. My favorite! I was too concentrated on my next step to look for my tent down below. I’m sure there were several places where it would have been visible. The steep, loose stuff turned into a deadfall maze that eventually led us to Ptarmigan Creek, only a hundred yards or so above the trail.

Back at camp, we put our cans of beer in the stream to chill. We were visited again by the lone doe, retracing her steps of yesterday evening almost exactly, and at almost the same time of day. She made an extra visit, well after eight, when all was in shadow, she in a mad dash.

It was overcast when we turned in, but on my early morning comfort break the stars were shining brightly.

Sunday, July 30

The hike out was routine. I spotted two snakes, one not longer than 18″, the other not shorter than a foot. I’ve seen snakes in the Park before, but not more than a handful. I was surprised to see two, within just a few minutes of each other. I also had a covey of dusky grouse cross the trail in front of me. I didn’t get a good count, maybe a dozen, including four young ones.

I was happy to be headed home. Yesterday was a maximum effort day; exhausting but fulfilling. I’m so fortunate that I am healthy enough and fit enough and have the means to take these trips. I try not to take it for granted.

I really enjoy navigating my way through this untracked wilderness.

Porcupine 1

Ptarmigan Creek is about six and a half miles up the North Inlet trail. The creek joins North Inlet after falling about a thousand feet in about half a mile. The creek drains a hanging valley called “The Wonderland”. In this large valley are Bench Lake, perched above War Dance Falls, and three high alpine lakes: Ptarmigan Lake, Snowdrift Lake, and “Wonderland Lake”. (“Wonderland Lake” is not officially named but is widely used.)

I’ve day hiked to Ptarmigan Lake and Bench Lake and know that the other two are well out of my single-day range. Regular readers will recall that I’m a big fan of the North Inlet Trail. My two longest day hikes were on this trail. Gordon and I did a backpacking trip three years ago and on the hike out, I paid particular attention to the locations of each of the campsites near Ptarmigan Creek.

The plan was to spend two nights at Porcupine, a quarter of a mile from Ptarmigan Creek. Hike in on Friday, spend all day Saturday in “The Wonderland” in an attempt to visit Snowdrift Lake and “Wonderland Lake”, and hike out on Sunday. Here’s what Lisa Foster says about reaching Snowdrift and Wonderland:

Reaching the lakes involves slogging through marshland and bushwhacking into stunted forest, then scrambling over rough talus fields to boulder-strewn granite benches.

In the off-season, I bought a new sleeping bag and repaired or replaced equipment due to the squirrel incident last year. I have not fully repaired the backpack – the damn squirrel ate a good amount of the webbing. I might still need to have the webbing repaired, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. I replaced the half-eaten poles with a pair of carbon fiber ones with cam-style locks.

Friday, July 28

I’m starting to get paranoid about how early I need to get to the trailhead in order to get parking. The campsite is seven miles from the trailhead, which is a fair distance, but you only climb 800′, and the trail has many extended sections that allow you to keep a long, steady stride, as if on a sidewalk. I figure three or three and a half hours is all it will take. There’s no point in getting to the trailhead at 7 am. Given an estimate of two and a half hours drive to the trailhead and three and a half hiking to camp, Gordon suggested he pick me up at 9. If we don’t get to park in the lot, we’ll have to add a quarter of a mile each way to the hike. My worries were needless: there was room for five or six more vehicles.

I haven’t hiked the North Inlet trail since the fire. But I have hiked through several recent burn scars so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. What struck me this time was the scale of the fire. I hiked on the western fringes of the fire last summer. The extent of the East Troublesome fire east of the Divide is greater than either the Fern Lake fire or the Big Meadows fire. The area that East Troublesome burned east of the Divide is a tiny fraction of what East Troublesome burned in the Park. And the acreage burned in the Park is a tiny fraction of the total fire.

Wildfires are a natural part of the life cycle of the forest. But, historically, fires never burned such large areas. More than a century ago, we decided it would be a good thing to suppress wildfires. So we have a century’s worth of accumulated fuel piling up on the forest floors, and we have a lot of dead trees due to beetle kill.

The trail begins with a stretch of total devastation. I expect that trees next to lakes or streams will survive these fires. The trees along Fern Creek survived this fire, but even around the much larger North Inlet, the trees were burned. Without the forest, the terrain is revealed. Everything in sight is totally burned.

Totally burned: no trees survive. All the trunks are still standing. The fire only burns a couple of millimeters into the tree, not rendering it to ash but roasting it. The needles are gone as are many of the branches. Over the next thirty years, almost all of these dead tree trunks will fall. Deadfall accumulated prior to the fire burned in a similar way, but often with a thicker layer of charcoal.

Also totally burned: the cabin that was about twenty minutes up the trail from the parking lot. It was well-maintained and looked to see regular service. All that’s left now is the “Private Property: Stay on Trail” sign and the old hand pump for the water well.

Last year, near Fern Lake, fireweed was by far the most common living plant. Today, fireweed is still in abundance, but many of the rest of the cast of wildflowers are present as well. If you can stand a long walk in direct sunlight, this should be a great wildflower hike for many years.

Maybe an hour into the hike, we met a group on horseback heading back to the trailhead. I asked them how much farther until we get some shade. The guy I asked laughed. “Back at camp!” In fact, though, it wasn’t that much farther. The area around Cascade Falls didn’t burn too badly. The fire burned thoroughly on the bank opposite the trail, but nothing on the north side of the stream was burned. We took a break here in the shade of the trees and the spray of the falls and had lunch.

Above Cascade Falls, the trail reenters the burn scar. It’s not a long section, and the burn ends before Big Pool. Above Big Pool, there is still some burn, but it’s not totally burned. In places, it looks like the fire was on the ground rather than in the crowns of the trees. Deadfall is blackened, standing beetle kill trees are charred at the base, but many trees still live.

Porcupine campsite is about a quarter of a mile beyond Ptarmigan Creek and is on the opposite side of North Inlet as the trail. It is reached by crossing a long bridge made out of a tree trunk sawn flat. It bounces when you cross it and bounces oddly when two people are crossing it.

There are two sites here. We took the western one without even looking at the other one. The western one is very close to the bridge and only a few yards from the stream. After we were set up, I decided to find out whether we made the correct choice. The eastern camp is about a hundred paces from the bridge and not anywhere near water. Other than that, they were much the same, down to identical sawn-log benches. Due to our easy proximity to water, I think we made the right choice. That camp was unoccupied when I looked, and we never saw anybody cross the bridge. I’m surprised that a campsite went unused.

We had nice weather all afternoon. Clear skies above us, but threatening weather to our north. We got sprinkled on briefly. We met a group of four backpackers; we caught up to them and we ended up passing each other a couple of times. I passed them when it was starting to rain and they stopped to don their rain gear. I told them that I could guarantee it would stop raining if I went to the effort of putting my rain jacket on. Amusingly, it quit raining before I was out of their sight.

Our camp was visited by a lone doe. She seemed pretty habituated to people. She would come within feet of us or our gear until one of us made eye contact with her. Even then, she only retreated a few yards. She was browsing around our camp for fifteen or twenty minutes before she crossed the river.

The south side of the river near the camp was unburned, but just across the river, the fire had gone through on the ground. Looking across to the other side of the valley: charred deadfall, charred beetle kill, and still quite a few live trees.

Passing through the areas of total devastation we were unmolested by mosquitoes. At camp, though, it was another story. My third application of repellent was finally enough to get the little buggers to not land on me. They hovered persistently, though, much to my annoyance.

As it was getting dark, I asked Gordon what time sunset was. “Astronomical or civil?” I rephrased the question: When will we see our first star? Neither of us offered a guess, which turned out to be the correct answer. It was cloudy and we never saw any stars. I was awakened during the night by a short rain but otherwise slept well.

And what did I forget to pack? Just paper towels. Genae even asked if I had some, and I showed her a Ziploc bag with what turned out to be nothing but toilet paper. If this is my biggest problem, it’ll be a great trip.

Herman Lake

Herman Lake sits at the head of a valley below the continental divide between Citadel Peak and Pettingell Peak. It’s a high lake, just a few feet below 12,000′. It is reached from the Herman Gulch trailhead at exit 218 on I-70, the last exit (westbound) before the Eisenhower Tunnel.

There’s a Pettingell Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Both the peak and the lake are named after Jacob Pettingell. He moved to Grand County back in 1880 at the age of 20 and served as postmaster, notary public, insurance agent, legal counsel, justice of the peace, and county clerk. One of these days I hope to hike to the lake, but I’ll probably not climb the peak.

Different websites give different distances for this hike, between 2.5 and 3.4 miles each way. Elevation gain is about 1,700′. Much of the trail is fairly level but bookended with steep sections. The first half mile or so of the trail gains about five hundred feet, and there’s another section, about six-tenths of a mile near the end that gains another six hundred feet. I would call this a moderately strenuous hike, but some sources call it “strenuous” due to these two steeper sections.

Friday, July 21

This is my first time for this hike, and I’ve read a number of trip reports saying that the parking lot fills up early. I arrived a few minutes after seven and there was still plenty of parking. I figure the lot holds about a hundred cars. At seven, it was less than half full. At 12:30, when I returned to the car, there were quite a few empty spaces but the lot had overflowed and a few cars were parked on the westbound off-ramp of I-70.

With the trailhead a mere fifty yards from I-70, it is quite noisy and there’s a distinct lack of any backcountry vibe. Less than two-tenths of a mile up the trail, there’s a junction with the Watrous Gulch trail. The map doesn’t show any lakes up that way, and the trail seems to peter out before long. I imagine hikers going that way never get away from the sound of the highway. Proceeding up the Herman Gulch trail to the lake, the trail gets into its first steep section. Near the top of this stretch, the trail nears the stream, which finally drowns the highway noise.

The steep section done, the trail moderates and climbs gently through a high valley, alternating between forest sections and grassy meadows. These pleasant meadows are filled with wildflowers and afford nice views of the surrounding mountains. The trail is generally wide and dry, often lacking roots and rocks that interrupt an even stride and making the walking easy.

About halfway through the steep section near the end, the trail junctions with the Jones Pass trail. Jones Pass itself is a fair distance from this junction, but I’m guessing nice views of the valley that Woods Creek flows through can be had by hiking to the top of the first ridge. This is the valley that is visible from the first switchback on Berthoud Pass, at Berthoud Falls.

From the Jones Pass junction, it’s about another half-mile to Herman Lake. There’s a small pond by the trail about halfway, right at timberline. There’s a nice spot here for camping, just off the trail, with a beautiful view of upper Herman Gulch.

I arrived at the lake less than two hours from the car. Along the way, I passed three hikers headed up and was passed by three hikers. Not too crowded, then. Or so I thought at the time. I met one hiker who was already on his way down. I met him just below the Jones Pass junction. He described this steep section of trail as “not all champagne and roses.” Another hiker on her way down was one of the three who passed me earlier. She said she had a busy day: she wanted to check out Jones Pass, then go home and work.

There were already several people at the lake when I got there, including some campers whose tent showed up in almost all my pictures. Being that it was only nine, and I was thinking I wanted to eat my lunch here, I had quite a bit of time to enjoy my surroundings. I started by heading to the north shore of the lake, and from there up the slope a bit. I found a spot on the edge of a talus field with a rivulet of water gurgling down the slope through grass and bluebells.

I considered circumnavigating the lake from here, continuing counter-clockwise. I very nearly did it, but I decided later it would have taken longer than I originally thought. There’s a large clump of willow that would have to be avoided, and that would take the hiker quite a bit downslope from the lake. Here you would regain the trail to the lake. The trail officially ends at the lake but is visible for quite a ways. It may take hikers to the summit of Citadel Peak, but I can’t be sure.

One thing to keep in mind about these alpine lakes is that although they have only one outlet, there are almost always more than one inlet. In the case of Herman Lake, I might describe it as having no inlet. Water flows into the lake from almost all sides. In my photos, anywhere you see clumps of willow there is water flowing into the lake. Inflows are ubiquitous.

My second resting spot was on the eastern shore of the lake. I sat there for a while watching a small bird hopping along the ground, hunting insects. In the twenty minutes or so that I watched, he made a thorough search of an area about half the size of my backyard, occasionally stopping to sing me a little song.

While I sat there, perhaps another thirty people reached the lake. One chap found a place on the shore to collapse and loudly exclaimed, “The torture was worth it!” I’m sorry, buddy. If you felt this two-hour hike was torture, perhaps hiking isn’t for you!

There were perhaps a dozen dogs as well, many of them unleashed. (Dogs are permitted, but are supposed to be on a leash.) During my stay at the lake, I heard the chirps and barks of chipmunks, ground squirrels, and marmots, but I never actually saw any. I’m guessing the dogs kept the little critters stressed and out of sight. I’ve read many reports that say this area is good for spotting moose, elk, and bighorn sheep, but I saw no large game all day.

After scouting the lake’s outlet and southern shore, I found a third location and had my lunch. This spot was near where the trail reached the lake and I could get a good sense of how many people were coming and going. Assuming room for about a hundred cars at the trailhead, that would mean about two hundred people at the lake or on the trail. And with early hikers leaving their parking spots, even more people could make the trip.

Even though it wasn’t yet 11 am, I decided it was time for lunch, which included a Sippin’ Tropical Sour beer (mmm!) from Odell. It was after noon somewhere, eh? Fed and watered beered, I started back down the trail. It didn’t take me long to doubt my math. At no time between the lake and the trailhead was I out of sight or earshot of other hikers. This is a really busy trail! Anybody searching for solitude won’t find it here.

I was back to the car a bit after 12:30. It took me a bit less than two hours to make the hike up. I spent nearly two hours exploring the lake, relaxing, and eating. And a bit over an hour and a half for the hike out. Back at the trailhead, a woman told me she thought it was a difficult hike.

I thoroughly enjoyed the hike and understand why it’s so popular.

A few additional photos can be found here.

Square Top Lakes

The summit of Guanella Pass lies at 11,669′ above sea level, making it the 8th highest pass in Colorado. Until recently, it was a gravel road. There are a couple of parking lots at the summit that serve as trailheads. On the east side of the road is the trail that goes to the top of Mount Bierstadt. On the west side is the South Park trail, which takes hikers to the two Square Top Lakes, the summit of Square Top Mountain, and points west and south.

I first drove over the pass only in the last few years. On my first crossing, I spotted the Bierstadt trailhead and decided it looked like a fairly easy hike. Many others evidently feel the same, as Bierstadt is the most popular 14er with hikers, with an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 hikers each year.

I didn’t realize that Bierstadt was that popular, but I was aware that there’s not a huge amount of parking available. Because the hike to Square Top Lakes is fairly short at just over two miles each way, I wasn’t concerned with hitting the trail first thing in the morning. But I did have a little heartburn over whether we’d be able to find parking.

Other than my almost obsessive desire to hike to alpine lakes I’ve never been to before, why these lakes? The hike is short and easy: it’s only a bit more than a four-mile round trip, climbing only about 600′. The trailhead is on a paved road, which is a logistical issue for me. And, finally, the lakes are high. The lower lake is 12,065′ and the upper lake is at 12,284′. These would be the highest-elevation lakes I’ve yet hiked to.

Sunday, July 16

Chad kindly volunteered to drive, and he had a forty-minute drive to collect me. I suggested he pick me up at 7 and I hoped that there would be enough people who did get on the trail early enough to be returning to their cars, freeing up some parking.

We arrived at the summit of the pass at about 8. To be fair, we arrived about a quarter of a mile below the summit at about 8. By then, cars were already parked on both sides of the road. We parked there and walked to the parking lot. Spotting several empty spots, Chad went back to the car to move it into the lot. We weren’t concerned about getting ticketed for parking on the road, but if there were a bunch of empty spots, why not park in one? The lesson here is, even if many cars are parked on the road, there may be empty spots in the lot.

Given the number of cars here, and the relatively small number of hikers on the trail to Square Top Lakes, I’m guessing the vast majority of people were heading up Bierstadt. That was fine by me: we would not find solitude on the trail today, but at least it wasn’t a “conga line hike”.

The hike itself is straightforward. It sees a lot of traffic and is entirely above treeline (and plainly visible on aerial/satellite photos) so there is no concern about route-finding. It’s not very steep, averaging about 300′ per mile. It took us about an hour to reach the upper lake from the trailhead, and that included a number of stops to enjoy the view.

There were a few folks there fishing. I don’t fish, so I don’t know, but I suspect these lakes are too high for fish and doubt they’re stocked. The lower lake looks shallow enough that it might freeze solid in the depths of winter. The upper lake, I think, is a little deeper.

I always carry a picnic lunch with me, but given our early start and short hike, we didn’t eat. We did relax for a while on the shore of the upper lake, though. It was a beautiful, cloudless day, not terribly breezy, and the sun warmed us even though the temperature was a bit on the cool side.

After our short break, we decided to circumnavigate the lake. The slopes of the mountain are not steep around these lakes, so they’re in direct sunshine all day and almost all the snow has melted. The shores are grassy rather than rocky, and there isn’t much willow or marsh, so it was an easy stroll around the lake.

We were back to the car by 12:30.

For the return trip home, we could either go back the way we came (up I-70 to Georgetown) or continue over Guanella Pass to US 285. Chad hadn’t been over the pass in quite a while, so we chose the “road less traveled”. This turned out to be a sound choice. I don’t drive I-70 on weekends very often. Michael drove home from Glenwood Springs a couple of hours later and reported that it was stop-and-go traffic from Silverthorne to Idaho Springs.

It looks like there are a number of other lakes in the area that deserve visits, so I’ll undoubtedly be back for more.