I have been aching for another walk in the Park. I was thinking it has been two months since my last hike, but I see it’s more than three. Definitely past due. I reached out to Ed to see what he had on his calendar. Thursday worked for both of us, so Thursday it was.
Thursday, December 26
I told Ed I’d pick him up between 8:10 and 8:20. For a while, I thought I’d be late. There was more traffic than I’d expected. And it was foggy. Dense enough that you couldn’t see much past your headlights. And a surprisingly large number of drivers didn’t bother with headlights.
North of Boulder the road goes alongside the foothills and up the slope I could see blue skies while everything to the east was in the soup. By the time I got to Lyons, I was out of it. There wasn’t much traffic north of Boulder. I made up the time I lost earlier and pulled up in front of Ed’s house right at 8:20.
We got to the Bear Lake parking lot in good time and met the third of our party, Judy. She’d hiked with Ed once or twice in the past. Since I can’t drive wearing my big hiking boots, I have to get ready when we get there: take the shoes off, put on the snow pants, put on the gaiters and boots, change to the heavy coat, and all the rest. Ed and Judy went up and chatted with the volunteers while I got it together.
We began by taking Ed’s winter trail to Lake Haiyaha. Or, two-thirds of it anyway. At the meadow at the top of the gully, instead of heading uphill to the right we went left. I keep thinking I should know my way on this route, having been on it several times now. Today, his trail was pretty easy to follow. He’s been working on it all season, and for most of the way I’d have been okay wearing micro-spikes instead of snowshoes, the base was that good.
Our route took us between West Glacier Knob and the eastern flank of Otis Peak, along the shores of “Beautiful Lake Marv”. Today, not so much along the shores as right across it. This is one of three unnamed lakes in the immediate vicinity that Ed has named.
Just before arriving at The Loch, we met up with the last few yards of the summer route. I was a bit surprised to see so many footprints here. The other times I’ve been to The Loch in winter, I came up the stream. The hike so far had been quite pleasant. A bit on the cool side, but no wind at all. The skies to the east were still quite clear, but above the Divide was a maelstrom, often blotting out the sun.
At the lake, though, the wind whipped in a steady gale down the valley, blowing snow across the ice. All the nice sunny summer picnic places today were instead cold, bleak stone benches blasted by blowing snow. Naturally, I had to suggest we stay here long enough to get some time-lapse video. I sent Ed and Judy to find a place out of the wind, following after I got the camera running and set in a place I thought the wind wouldn’t move it.
I found them a hundred yards or so away, in a hollow half surrounded by a fifteen-foot snowdrift. There wasn’t any place to sit, but it was out of the wind. We told each other stories until we decided standing still wasn’t the most fun thing to do, whence I went and collected the camera. It ran for not quite twenty minutes and looked to be exactly where I left it.
We left by the route I’d always used in winter: down the outlet stream. When we started down it occurred to me that my other winter trips here were later in the season. Today there isn’t nearly as much snow here as before. I could see why the summer trail was still carrying all the traffic: this was not the easiest way down.
We took another short break at the hitching posts near the bridge to Mills Lake. The snow was deep enough to make them nice benches. I ate about half my lunch here. After a few minutes, we were moving again.
Ed took us from the trail junction on a route that included the two other unnamed lakes that Ed has named: Joyce’s Pond and Zone Lake. As bodies of water, they’re not much to brag about. But all three of these little ponds have three nice attributes: they’re a short hike, have nice views, and very few visitors.
All day on the trail it was Ed leading, Judy in the middle, and me at the back. When you’re hiking, anything you say is projected forward. Being in the back I couldn’t hear what Ed and Judy were talking about. Which, actually, was fine.
I could be unengaged. I was always following, never leading. I didn’t do any navigation, I didn’t set the pace, I generally wasn’t involved in any conversation. We weren’t on any sort of schedule. It was easy walking. It was a beautiful day. I could let my mind wander. I soaked in my surroundings. I enjoyed myself immensely.
This is the second time I’ve camped at Lost Lake. The first time was three years ago, my first backpacking trip. That time, I only camped one night so I had too little time to get past Lake Dunraven even if I’d gotten through the willow. Two nights is the way to go to get to Lake Dunraven and beyond, perhaps to Rowe Glacier.
Saturday, September 14
Gordon was my companion again. We left my place at 7:15 and arrived at the trailhead and had boots on the trail by a quarter to nine. I was surprised at the light traffic on 36. And I was pleased to see that they’ve just repaved the top of Devils Gulch Road.
I described the trail fairly well in that earlier post, so no need to repeat it here (other than to correct the obvious mistake of misidentifying Glen Haven as Drake). I will add one note, though. We stopped for a break at the same place I stopped last time. Between there and the base of the grueling, stamina sucking climb there’s a section of trees that have been toppled and uprooted. It looks much like the section of Glacier Gorge that was blown down several years ago. Here it’s a much smaller area than in Glacier Gorge.
At the Boundary Creek campsite, two hikers entered the trail ahead of us. We leapfrogged them a few times until our break at the base of the climb. I knew what was ahead and I kept telling myself that it’s more mental then physical. I’m not sure I’m convinced. I tried to focus on the trail immediately in front of me, tried not to look too far ahead. I had to take three breathers before we got to the top.
I think I mentioned that Gordon races bicycles. He’s a bit of a hill climb specialist. So here I am, after five and a half or six miles into a ten mile hike on this steep section of trail with a thirty-five pound backpack. I wasn’t going all that fast earlier, but this brought me to a crawl. My heart was going in the neighborhood of 140 and I’m breathing about as fast as I can. At our my three breaks I couldn’t help but notice Gordon isn’t breathing hard. Not even breaking a sweat.
We get to the lake in six hours, arriving twenty minutes behind the father/son duo we leapfrogged on the trail. The father was checking out the status of the north side camp sites. The prime waterfront site I had before was occupied. The father/son took one of the southern sites, we took the other northern one.
After an early dinner, we headed up to the shelf Lake Husted sits on to get a good look at what we’ll have to deal with tomorrow to reach Dunraven. We went up the way I did last trip (directly from the camp sites on the north). We came down the trail from the south side camp sites. The trail is much easier.
A marshy wetland sits at the confluence of the North Fork of the Big Thompson and the outlet stream from Lake Louise. On the maps it’s depicted as three ponds, but they are surrounded by a sea of deep, thick willow. We walked downstream a bit, looking for possible routes. It seemed if we got to a gully on the other side of a krummholz forested hillock on the other side of the stream we’d have easy going. Who knows? It could be a good passage, or it could be filled with willow. There’s one way to find out.
After our recce, we stopped at the creek to refill our water bottles. Somehow, I managed to smack my shin into a rather large rock. That really hurt! Not much blood, but it swelled up considerably. Time for a beer.
Sunday, September 15
Gordon is trying a hammock this trip instead of a tent. In the morning he reported a lack of sleep. I slept okay. It was a bit chilly, but not uncomfortably so when I had to relieve myself in the middle of the night .
We put boots on the trail at about nine. In the forest just above Lost Lake we saw a cow moose and a bull elk through the trees a few minutes apart. We quickly and easily made our way to the stream in search of a way through. Early on we had a couple of short stretches of dense krummholz but avoided the disheartening willow. Where we expected easy moving, we found easy moving. We made our way along the border of the trees and the talus field above them. Eventually we had to cut across a large willow patch, but we found a nice game trail that took us where we wanted to go.
And that was at the base of a steep, wide gully that tops out on a tundra slope about fifty or sixty feet above the northern end of Lake Dunraven. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to retrace our steps on the way out, but that was a problem for later.
Lake Dunraven sits at the mouth of a valley carved by glaciers, drained today by the North Fork of the Big Thompson river. It is the first of three lakes. The other two have no official names, but in Foster’s guide she calls them “Whiskey” and “Scotch”. Arriving at Dunraven is the hard part: the three lakes are separated by just over a half mile of tundra and a climb of less than three hundred feet.
I was thinking we’d have plenty of time to make an attempt to reach Rowe Glacier, at the very top of the canyon at a whopping 13,120′ of elevation. There are many peaks in the park that aren’t this high. But as soon as I saw the pile of sand, scree, and talus, with a skirt of snow on the southern shore of “Scotch” I said I’d gone far enough.
I said to Gordon that he could go up to Rowe and I’d wait here for him. I have no problem watching the world go by for a couple of hours. It’s a beautiful day to sit on the shores of an alpine lake with a stunning view of Gibraltar Mountain. How long could it take him? Three hours max? So he’d be back by two. No big deal.
I set my day pack and water bottle by some rocks that would serve nicely as seats. Even if I wandered off, anybody going by on the faint game trail here would see them at about eye-level. I sat there for long spells, pondering the imponderable, and occasionally made little exploration trips. Up to the top of the rise that gives a view of the valley below, or around the outlet to see if I can cross, or out on a sandy stretch to start and stop the GoPro. But mostly I sat right there.
I’d shed my thermal under clothes and had them on a rock to dry out. After three aborted attempts, a ground squirrel made his way to sniffing distance of them. He ran off right away, but he wasn’t done. He scrambled back and forth along the fringe of the willow that was growing here, stunted to only be 12-18″ high. Every now and again, he’d climb to the top of the willow for a shaky look around.
He really wanted the salt from my shirt. Twice he had licking sessions that were longer than I expected, for such a jittery creature. I’d never seen them do that, but I guess I’ve never given them the opportunity.
Sitting there, I had a bird give me a bit of a buzz. It flew from behind me, silently, until it got inches over my head and flapped loudly. I wasn’t expecting it and it made me jump. Later, I saw the same bird buzz the ground squirrel the same way.
“Scotch Lake” has one of the biggest beaches I’ve seen in the Park. The hillside on the east is quite sandy, and the big pile that made me decide to stop was pretty sandy, too. There is a fairly fresh alluvial fan below a narrow crease in the slope, severely eroded. This one has been recent enough that almost no plants are living on it, but there were other, older fans. At first I wanted to attribute this one to the 2013 floods, but it could be more recent, with one of the older ones from 2013. Who knows?
I go back and sit by my pack and water. One o’clock passes, as does two, and three. It’s been four hours. If he only went to Rowe Glacier, he should have been back a long time ago. Perhaps he went farther? It’s only a short climb to the top and then on to the summit of Rowe Peak, or Gibraltar Mountain, or even Mummy Mountain. He may also have taken a different route down.
It also occurs to me that he might have twisted an ankle, or stepped on a “wobbler” in a talus field and cracked his noggin open. By now, even if I felt I was capable of going up toward Rowe myself it was too late. I decide I need to leave “Scotch” by five or risk darkness before I’m back to camp. So I’m working through my options if he doesn’t show up before I leave, if he doesn’t return to camp by dark, if he doesn’t show by morning, given that it’s a nearly full moon.
I tried to make a sign out of rocks on the alluvial fan. “LEFT AT 5:”. The idea is that he’d be able to see it from the top, but it was obvious that I’d made the letters too small. I left promptly at five. It took me two hours to get here, so I figured it would be about the same to return. I made it from “Scotch” to the bottom of the gully below Dunraven retracing our steps. I easily found the same game trail we used before and followed it to it’s natural conclusion, somewhat downstream of where we crossed in the morning. Here was an easy crossing using game trails. Much easier than this morning, when we whacked through some krummholz.
When I got back to the camp sites, I ran into the father/son hikers. The father asked how my hike went. I told him I was worried that I’d abandoned my companion. “You talking about the guy you hiked in with yesterday? He got back about half an hour ago.”
That turns out to be half true. He made it back to “Scotch” by about one. How he left there without seeing me or my backpack, and how he made it through without me seeing him is a puzzle. He says that when he last saw me, I looked to be leaving “Scotch”, and he figured I’d be waiting at Dunraven. So when he didn’t see me at “Scotch” he kept going. He was back to camp by two. After a while he grew concerned that I wasn’t back to camp, so he made another trip up to Dunraven. He left Dunraven the second time at five.
In the end, no harm, no foul. I didn’t really mind sitting at this lake for six hours, except for the tension of wondering if he was hurt. I probably would have enjoyed two hours at each lake, but “Scotch” has a fine view.
From the map, we expected the lake at Rowe Glacier to be a significant body of water. Gordon says it’s more like a big puddle or two. [As I’m late writing this, I’ll add a late update from him: “I’m quite sure now that I didn’t make it to Rowe Glacier, but just below it. Foiled again!”]
So it was a rather late dinner. Gordon had had a beer before I returned and had his second while I had my first. One was enough for me tonight, so there was a leftover beer.
Monday, September 16
I didn’t sleep quite as well as the night before. I was a bit restless, and although the swelling had greatly reduced, my shin was still tender.
Not long before sunrise I heard a large animal walking through camp. I figured it was either an elk or a moose. It wasn’t moving very fast, and three or four times it made an odd noise. My immediate thought was “Indigestion!” With a noise like that, I decided it had to be a moose. We discussed it in the morning over breakfast. Gordon agrees it was a moose and commented on the odd noise it made.
I drank the last beer so Gordon wouldn’t have to pack it out.
The hike out was uneventful. We took a short break at the usual place, at the bottom of the grueling climb. I had my last peach: sweet and juicy. We were making good time; I told Gordon he shouldn’t expect it to continue.
We ran into a ranger on his way up the trail. “I see you have your permit hanging off your backpack. Thanks!” He asked us where we went; Gordon showed him pictures of Rowe Glacier. His parting words were, “Have a nice hike! I have a couple llamas coming up the trail.”
Saturday, it took us six hours to make the hike up. I was expecting it to take six and a half. When we left camp on the way out, I expected to be back to the car in five and a half hours. In the end it took only five, so my actual vs estimated variance was consistent.
I thought it might be possible to bag four new lakes this trip. I fully expected to get three and have a decent shot at the fourth. I got the three. So although I didn’t bag the maximum, I didn’t come up shorter than expectations.
Which has usually been the case. It’s good to finally have a backpacking trip where I got to all the places I expected to get to. This was my fourth two night trip. Last year I thought I’d get to four lakes on the Gorge Lakes hike. I got one. My July trip was way too early to get either of the two high lakes above Bluebird. So early that I didn’t even make it as far as Bluebird. And two weeks ago when I reached one of four again in Spruce Canyon.
It was unfortunate that Gordon missed me on his hike down from the glacier. I didn’t really mind spending six hours there. But I did feel pinned to a spot. Six hours is a long time, and would have been more enjoyable if it had been two hours at each lake. But the GoPro battery held out a surprisingly long time. I ran the camera with five different views for a total of nearly two hours. I never get two hours of battery at the track.
It’s unlikely I’ll be back there. This was my second trip. It’s a long hike to camp. I much prefer the six to seven mile range to ten. Luckily, that isn’t much of a limitation in the Park. There are still many lakes I haven’t visited that are within reach from a campsite six or seven miles in.
I’m happy that we got through the sea of willow and krummholz as easily as we did. I obsessed for days over a photo I took last time that shows the area. Our recce Saturday evening was time well spent. All that miserable vegetation wasn’t nearly the roadblock I feared it could be.
I’m pleasantly surprised that I was able to average two miles an hour on the hike out.
I got almost twice the normal amount of time lapse footage. I didn’t use it all, but probably too much.
I started plotting this summer’s backpacking trips about a year ago. One thing I decided after the last couple trips is that, for where I want to go, spending one night in the backcountry isn’t sufficient. Another thing was that doing zone camping is less than ideal because you have to move your camp from night to night. So this year, my three trips are all two nighters in official camp sites. Hike in on the first day, go wherever I’m trying to get to on the second, and hike out the third.
The plan for this trip was to spend two nights at Spruce Lake and spend an entire day in Spruce Canyon, hoping to visit four lakes: Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, Lake Irene, and Sprague Tarn. In preparation, I had searched for descriptions of the area with very little luck. I found the report of a guy who wanted to summit Stones Peak but changed his mind due to weather. He had a few pictures of the Canyon, but not much description..
So I spent a lot of time studying the map. I had a route planned: about three miles each way, through unknown terrain, and a sprinkling of relativly steep sections to deal with. I’ve done enough off-trail hiking to, I think, have an idea how long it might take to get from one place to another. In this case, I decided I’d be able to go about a mile an hour, and it looked from the map that I’d be able to skirt the steepest bits. I might get a bit out of my comfort zone, but as long as I had a hiking companion I figured this would be a challenging hike, but with a decent chance of reaching my goals.
Gordon agreed to go with me. I hiked with Gordon last year. He races bicycles with some degree of success and thus is in much better shape than I am.
After my last backpacking trip I decided that I needed to buy a backpack. First I used a borrowed one, than one that was given to me. I didn’t particularly like the first one, and the second was too small. So a couple weeks ago I went to REI and bought one.
Since we were only going to Spruce Lake, about 4.8 miles and a fifteen hundred foot climb, we didn’t need to get to the trailhead early. My only concern was getting a parking spot right at the trailhead. If we couldn’t get a spot there, we might have to park at the bus stop and walk an extra three quarters of a mile.
We left my house by ten, stopped for an early lunch at The Other Side, stopped at the back country office to pick up the permit for the next trip (in two weeks), and headed to the trail. My concern about getting a spot was in vain. Enough folks hike to the Pool or Fern Falls that there’s some turnover in the parking lot and there were a few empty spots. We put boots on the trail at 12:30.
The only delay we faced getting there was an accident on Pole Hill, just before the overlook. A mail truck went through the guardrail and was hanging precipitously off the edge. I’m sure that was a brown-pants moment for the driver.
I’ve described the hike to Spruce Lake before, so I won’t dwell on it here. In the past, I always enjoyed the last section of trail, from just below Fern Lake to Spruce Lake. It’s an unimproved trail with a fair amount of character. Carrying a 35lb backpack changes the character of it a bit. With the backpack I certainly prefer the nice, wide pack trails. With short breaks at Fern Falls and Fern Lake, we reached our campsite a few minutes before four.
To now, I never thought Spruce Lake is anything special. There are many lakes in the Park in spectacular settings. Spruce Lake is not one of them. But Spruce Lake is not without its charms. It is absolutely loaded with fish. Sitting on the shore you can see the greenback cutthroat trout swimming within arms reach. A bit before dusk they were rising, breaking the surface with a soft “plop”, the expanding ripples marking the spot. And at any moment there were maybe two hundred sets of these ripples. That’s a lot of fish!
The fish weren’t the only creatures in the lake. A mother moose and her yearling calf were there. She, wading belly deep where the tops of the long grasses floated, repeatedly submerging her head to pull the grass by the roots, then shaking the water off, sometimes winding the grass around her snout. Her calf was lounging on the shore, mostly hidden. About the time Gordon wanted to get closer for a better view, they decided they’d had enough and moving up the hill away from the lake.
I was expecting my alarm to go off at six, but I’d forgotten that I’d turned it off. But we weren’t in any particular hurry. Even leaving camp at eight, if we managed a mile an hour we’d have plenty of time to spend at the lakes. So, off we were at eight.
We climbed to about 9800′ and contoured around Castle Rock. Rather than descend to Spruce Creek, we continued along the slope working our way west. When encountering obstacles, we typically climbed above them rather then descending. Making any progress was very challenging. The forest is quite dense, with a lot of deadfall. We came across rock slabs that I was unwilling to cross. We crossed talus fields that sometimes bordered on scree.
At about 10,400′ we descended to the creek and crossed it. My original plan was to cross the outlet of Hourglass to work our way up a gentler slope. But the terrain in front of us was a sea of willow. Gordon suggested we stick to the forest and climb straight up. About four hundred feet up, we emerged onto a large meadow. Being the last week of August, it was mostly dry, but generally it is a boggy marsh. We walked on the firmer bits of earth, but these were still quite spongy, even if dry.
The outlet of Hourglass falls into this meadow from the west. The stream is running at only a fraction of its full flow; the rocks in the stream bed discolored a rusty brown, but water running over half the width, or maybe a bit less. It was fairly easy climbing up alongside the stream, but I think it would be much more difficult when the stream is in full song. After a couple of false summits we found ourselves on the eastern shore of Hourglass Lake.
It was 12:26.
That’s nearly four and a half hours to travel about two and a quarter miles.
We took a short break and continued our climb, looking for Rainbow Lake next. We worked our way through a maze of krummholz until we found ourselves on an outcropping with a fabulous view down the canyon: the Fern Lake fire scar, Moraine Park, and Lake Estes in the distance.
There looked to be one more fairly steep climb to the next bench and Rainbow Lake. I made an executive decision. It was after one now, and I had no expectation that the return trip would be any easier or quicker than our journey here. I called it quits. Gordon said he wanted to check out that last climb and I told him to go for it. I’d meet him back at Hourglass.
He’s so much faster than I am, he’d made it to Rainbow Lake and returned to Hourglass in the time it took me to get back to Hourglass. Granted, I made a bit of a wrong turn and ended up having to navigate some willow. And Gordon admitted to running part of the way. Gordon is somewhat more comfortable on steep terrain than I am and he said it was a challenge for him. Based on this, even if there was no time constraint, I would have had difficulty reaching Rainbow and the other lakes.
In any event, we headed down from Hourglass at about two. Gordon said something about retracing our route in; I said I didn’t expect we’d be able to, but that any reasonable route would work for me. We did cross Spruce Creek at the same spot, and once or twice Gordon thought we passed by this spot on the way up. I wasn’t convinced. For the most part, we followed an entirely different route. Afterwards, Gordon said he thought the return route was worse than the way in. I won’t argue.
We crossed large talus fields then found ourselves descending a couple hundred feet down a gully. Back in dense forest we came to a point were we could see the stream again. I figured we had another hour to go, so I went down and filled my water bottle (for the third time today). I intended to climb back to where Gordon was, but he followed me down to the water a few minutes later and we continued our trek from nearer the stream.
When we’d descended to below about 9800′, we left the stream and worked our way around Castle Rock toward Spruce Lake. In this area we found a few cairns, both in the morning and on our way back. They were scattered so far apart as to be of little or no help to us, and we found them only in the vicinity of Castle Rock.
It was in here somewhere that I got stung by a bee. I haven’t been stung by a bee since I was about four years old. This little fucker got me on my right wrist. It hurt like hell and swelled up a bit. And I don’t know what I did to deserve it.
We returned to our campsite at 6:15. I was spent. It took us more than ten hours to go about five miles. It was physically challenging for me, and due to our slow progress, mentally challenging as well. Had I been on my own, I’d have turned back well before reaching Hourglass Lake. I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t reach the other lakes, especially given that we were so close.
Given the grueling nature of the hike, I’m not likely to make another attempt. Quite a number of times during the day I found myself asking “What am I doing here? I do this for fun, and very little of this is fun.”
Gordon packed in a six pack of beer. We’d had two of them last night and he put the other four in the lake to chill. He reported that our moose friends were back, browsing around the rock we’d sat on earlier. I went down to the water to watch them. The yearling nearly stepped on our bag of beers. They began working their way towards me. I didn’t really want to be closer to the calf than the mother, so I bushwhacked back to the camp site.
All the afternoon clouds disappeared and we enjoyed the starry night skies. After having two beers before sacking out, I was not surprised that I had to get up in the middle of the night. The Milky Way wasn’t visible when we retired, but it was out in full glory at 1:30.
We took our time breaking camp and were on the trail at 8:30. We made it back nearly to the Fern Lake trail junction when I realized I’d left my camera at camp. Gordon volunteered to “run back and get it”. I was selfish and let him. I figured it would take me forty five minutes without the backpack for the round trip. He was back in twenty six (“a nice warmup,” he says). We took short breaks at Fern Falls and the Pool and were back to the trailhead at 11:30.
It’s not a long hike down from Spruce Lake, and the day had not really started to heat up by the time we were done. But I was not exactly moving fast. The fatigue in my legs served as a constant reminder of yesterday’s struggles. My Fitbit tried to tell me I hiked more than twelve miles yesterday. It often overstates distances when I’m hiking. But it sure felt like I’d hiked much more than twelve miles the day before. I’m blaming my fatigue on all the talus we covered, particularly the sections where we were descending steeply. So I didn’t exactly set a blistering pace.
Many times this summer I’ve commented about the crowds in the Park. I think today was the extreme in my experience. The line of cars at the entrance station went all the way to Highway 66. I’d never seen it go past the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center before. And the entire way from Estes to Lyons the traffic heading to Estes was an unbroken line of cars. Assuming an average of 200′ between cars (but it was often much less), over 21 miles that would be 550 cars.
I’m pretty sore right now. I have a blister on my big toe and it hurts a little to go down the stairs in the house. I knew it would be a challenging hike before I started. I only made it to one of the four lakes, and the others were quite close. At times I wasn’t having very much fun. But I’m glad I did it.
I think the new backpack is an improvement over the others. My legs are sore but not my shoulders.
Maybe I should start a list of RMNP lakes that I’ll never visit.
It’s officially unnamed, but if I don’t apply names to some of the officially unnamed bodies of water I visit in the Park I’ll confuse myself. In the past I’ve resorted to calling them things like “unnamed lake at 11,200′ on Hunter’s Creek”. That’s a bit cumbersome and I don’t really want to continue very far down that road.
But I’m not certain how to name this one. Is it Ptarmigan Tarn, or would Fern Tarn be better? It sits beneath the snow field at Ptarmigan Point, but it’s at the source of Fern Creek. Do you name the tarn after the glacier or the stream? Is it a glacier, or just a snow field? Is it a tarn if a stream flows from it? Too many questions. I’m going with Ptarmigan Tarn.
Sunday, August 25
It’s a fairly short hike, just a bit over three and a half miles, and about fourteen hundred feet in elevation gain. That meant we didn’t have to get too early of a start. I had Chad meet me at my place at 6:30, and we stopped for a quick bite of breakfast as we passed through Boulder. Historically I haven’t been too concerned about getting a parking spot at the Park and Ride, but this summer I’ve seen the lot there get quite full, so I did have a bit of low-grade anxiety about getting to park there after 8:00. The anxiety was not founded, as the lot was back to what I’m accustomed to there: it was only about a third or less full, and there was no line waiting for the bus.
We hit the trail at Bear Lake at 8:36 and spent most of our time on the trail discussing the relative merits of various Sci-Fi television series. I usually make a note of the time when I reach various navigation points, which in this case would be the junction with the Flattop Mtn trail and upon reaching Lake Helene, but we were in the depths of plot line analysis of various Star Trek and Farscape episodes, and how many demerit points Farscape deserves for ripping off a Gilligan’s Island episode. So I didn’t note the time until we reached our destination, not quite two hours after leaving Bear Lake.
I have somehow never noticed that there’s a fairly well-developed trail leading up the hill around the west west side of Lake Helene. I’ve never gone any farther up the canyon than some large rocks overlooking the lake, and I always went around the east side of the lake to reach them.
This trail served us well on the way up. It was covered for a few yards by a bit of snow, and there really aren’t many cairns marking the way, but it was fairly obvious which way to go. I did note one place where I thought might be easy to make a wrong turn on the way down. But overall it was easy route finding and we avoided what little willow and krummholz we saw.
My map shows one body of water up here, but in reality there are two. In spite of a forecast high in the upper 90’s for Denver, it was quite cool here at nearly 11,000′. And to say there was a stiff breeze would be a bit of an understatement. Unable to find a spot that was both out of the wind and in the sun, the best we could get was the leeward, shady side of a large boulder beside the easternmost, smaller lake. And “leeward” isn’t quite right, either, as the wind swirled around our rock chaotically. Within a few minutes we had both donned our jackets to keep warm.
I set the GoPro up where I thought it least likely to get moved by the wind and placed a rock behind it as ballast. We had our early lunch, well before eleven, and watched the wind whip whitecaps on the water. And twice while we sat there, the wind blew my hat off sending us scurrying to grab it before it could start a trip to Kansas.
After our blustery break we headed back down. And, of course, we managed to make one wrong turn on the way down but it wasn’t difficult to get back to the route we took on the way up. As it was still early, I considered taking another pause on the shores of Lake Helene but it was still fairly windy here and neither of us particularly wanted to deal with it, so we headed back down the trail and into the trees.
Very quickly we encountered two twenty-something women. They asked us if we could point them to Lake Helene. It turns out they were headed to Ptarmigan Tarn as well, and that’s the name they used for it. I donated my map to them and we gave them a couple of route finding tips and a warning about the wind.
Approaching the junction with the Bierstadt trail I considered the option of walking back to the Park and Ride, but Chad had just run out of water. So I’ll save that option for another time. We made it back to Bear Lake by 1:15. After a stop for food and beer we headed back home. The thermometer in Chad’s car read 101 as we passed through Boulder, and our chilly, breezy picnic was just a fond memory.
My alarm went off at 2:45am this morning. Crazy, yes?
Kristin and Coop are in the neighborhood with plans to do a week’s worth of back country hiking. I’ve known them online for about a decade, and met them a year or two back. They’re nice people and we share a common passion so I reached out to them to see if we could get together to break bread or something. They suggested a few alternatives. Two of them don’t fit my schedule, and the third was to meet at the Bear Lake parking lot at 5am for a hike up to Dream Lake to watch the sunrise.
To get to Bear Lake at 5am, I need to leave the house not long after 3. This sounds like a stupid thing do, so of course I said “yes”.
The reason behind this is that Coop is a much better photographer than I am. My photos tend to be more like documentary evidence that I’ve been somewhere, while his you could call “art”. There’s a fundamental difference in how we go about it. That’s probably not correct: there are perhaps several fundamental differences in how we go about it. One of those is that he wants to take pictures during the “golden hour”. That means being somewhere at sunrise or sunset.
Which, today, means getting my butt out of bed before 3 and driving a couple of hours, then hiking a mile in the dark, all so we could be at Dream Lake for sunrise; to see Dream Lake and Hallett Peak bathed in the colors of the rising sun.
It seems I’m always saying I got out of the house a few minutes later than I’d wanted, and that I arrived at the trailhead late. But today I managed to leave by my desired time, and as might be expected, I hit no traffic once out of the city. So instead of being late I was at the Bear Lake parking lot early. I could have slept another fifteen minutes!
We hit the trail at 5. First decision was whether to take the shortcut to Nymph Lake or not. We went for the shortcut, but none of us could find it in the dark, so the long/usual way it was. Once at Dream, Coop picked a spot near the outlet. Another photographer was already set up there, and space was at a premium, so rather than get a poorer quality shot of the same thing as the others, I went for a slightly different angle and found a spot on a rock outcropping that wasn’t in their view.
The GoPro is fully automatic but I set it running anyway. I figured it would have a hard time with the lighting conditions, but you never know how things will turn out.
I’m really not a very astute photographer, and I still haven’t figured out all the ins and outs of the new camera. (I figured since it was another Canon it would be fairly similar to my old one. It is, but it isn’t. Most of the features that are in common work the same way, but not all. And there are loads of new features.) So I made some guesses and tried a few different things hoping that maybe I’d get a result I like. In the end, I think I did okay.
After watching the sunrise and taking in Dream Lake and Hallett Peak in all their glory we headed up to Emerald Lake. Kristin wanted to go there because it’s been a long time since she was there in summer. Hiking up there, it became obvious to me that I haven’t been there in summer in a long, long time myself. There are some wood bridges we crossed that I don’t recall ever crossing. I’m pretty sure every time I’ve been there in the last thirty years involved hiking across snow most of the way between Dream and Emerald.
We were up there early enough that it wasn’t crowded yet. We weren’t alone, but there were far fewer than the fifty or so (minimum, even in winter) that I’m accustomed to. I set up the GoPro again and we hung out there for quite a while. Hikers came and went the whole time, but the biggest group we saw was a mama duck with her eight ducklings. They swam around and stumbled over some deadwood floating on the edge of the lake before getting onto the trail like they were going to hike back to Dream Lake.
When we got back to the Bear Lake parking lot we discussed where we should go for breakfast and headed back to Estes Park. We ate at Molly B’s, sitting at the tables outside. It was quite pleasant (another beautiful day in the neighborhood), in spite of the heavy truck traffic rumbling up and down Moraine Avenue.
They explained where they were going to be hiking. It sounds like a nice time. I don’t know that I’m up to spending a week in the back country, but four years ago I’d have said I wasn’t up to any backpacking at all, so perhaps my attitude will change.
I like to think that I know my way around the Park. I may not know the names of all the mountains, even the ones I’ve hiked beneath many times, but I’d like to think if you mention a lake I’ll know where it is. So when Kristin talked about Ten Lake Park, I nodded as if I knew exactly what she was talking about. I had no clue. So after getting home, I had to look it up in the Foster guide. This will certainly go on the to-do list, most easily accomplished by staying a couple of nights near Verna Lake and getting there by bushwhacking up and over the flank of Mount Craig. It’s certainly too much effort for me to do as a day hike.
So it was a short day: too early of a start for me to make a habit of watching the sunrise, but a pleasant walk in beautiful surroundings, with friendly people. If they want to put up with me again, I’d be happy to meet up with them again on their next trip.
The upper end of Glacier Gorge is arguably the most scenic terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills Lake and its little sister, Jewel Lake, are fed by Glacier Creek. This creek is fed by half a dozen named lakes and a multitude of ponds and rivulets cascading down the slopes of some of the highest and steepest mountainsides in the area. The eastern side of the gorge is formed by a monolithic wall that is comprised of Half Mountain, Storm Peak, Longs Peak, and the Keyboard of the Winds. The western side is Thatchtop, Powell Peak, Arrowhead, and McHenrys Peak. Forming the southern end are Chiefs Head Peak, Spearhead, and Pagoda Mountain.
When you arrive at Mills Lake, the peaks to the east and west rise fifteen hundred feet above you. From Mills to Black Lake is about 2.8 miles and a climb of 700 feet or so. At Black Lake, you are surrounded by granite cliffs towering twenty-five hundred feet. It seems that no matter how high you follow these streams, the summits you pass beneath climb even higher.
This is my second trip to Green Lake, my first being back in 2011. That was before I began this blog, so the hike deserves the full treatment here rather than the abbreviated version that other repeat visits generally get.
Saturday, July 27
The weather report warned me that I could be dealing with storms as early as 10am but that didn’t deter me. I had wanted to get out of the house by six but I, as usual, ran a few minutes late. Traffic wasn’t too bad and I was at the Park & Ride by a quarter to eight. My plan was to put boots on the trail at eight o’clock, and I missed this by only ten minutes.
I generally take the Fire Trail, skipping Alberta Falls and the heavy trail traffic that goes along with it, but I got to chatting with a couple from upstate New York and missed the turnoff. Still, I arrived at Mills Lake in less than an hour. It is here, for me, that the hike really begins.
One of the interesting aspects of the trail between Mills Lake and Black Lake is the rather large debris field that was the result of a micro-burst that hit, I believe, in the autumn of 2011. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the thousands of trees were knocked down by the time I hiked to Black Lake in March of 2012. That first summer it took the Park Service quite some time and a lot of effort to cut through all the tree trunks that blocked the trail for more than half a mile.
A fair section of trail just above Mills Lake passes through some fairly marshy stretches. These sections are made passable by a series of crude bridges each a hundred or two hundred feet long. I’ve crossed these bridges for nearly forty years and now they’re mostly rotten and decaying. This year the Park Service is rebuilding them in an effort that may match that of clearing the path of the downed trees from that micro-burst.
It had started sprinkling at about ten and before long the sprinkles turned to rain, so I donned my rain coat. It wasn’t raining heavily, but the cool of the morning was still lingering, and between the light rain and light breeze, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the rain gear. I ran into a hiker here who had been to Green Lake on another occasion; he said he’d prefer it in the sunshine over this morning’s grey skies and light rain. Perhaps the weather will remain dull and damp, but perhaps it will improve. Besides, even a dull day in the park is a good day.
The last few hundred feet of trail below Black Lake rises beside Ribbon Falls on a series of steps not quite hewn from the living rock, lifting the hiker onto the outlet of the lake and onto a series of large rectangular stepping stones. Even though these stones form the trail itself here, many hikers find them inviting places to sit, and I don’t recall a visit where I didn’t have to step over or around lounging hikers here.
There’s no doubt that the view from these stepping stones is spectacular, but it’s just as spectacular if you go another few hundred feet to the eastern shore of the lake. There, you’ll face the sight that is McHenrys Peak. Water pours off the stark cliffs on all sides here. The main feeder of the lake is behind you, and a crude trail climbs beside it, gaining four hundred feet of elevation in just 1,600 feet of distance. Even late into summer there is snow on the southern slopes here.
At about 11,000′ of elevation, the terrain levels off and you find yourself on a large expanse of granite slabs, clumps of willow, and marshy areas where water flows nearly everywhere. Every time I’ve come up here, I’ve found many elk. Being so high, the wildflowers are much smaller than those lower down. They’re just as colorful and diverse, but are tiny in comparison. The scale is different: you won’t find entire slopes splashed with color, but that color is all around you. You just have to look closer.
Navigation isn’t particularly difficult here. After a while the trail fades away, but hikers have left a multitude of cairns. There are sometimes so many that they’re not helpful on a grand scale, but they often will lead you through the sections of willow.
To get to Green Lake, I kept the main stream on my right until I was nearly to the lake. I had my micro spikes with me, anticipating that I might be crossing some snow. Just below the lake I came across the solitary section I’d need to cross, and it was only a few hundred feet. Arriving at the base of this snow field, I found myself in the midst of a herd of elk. To my left was a large bull, antlers large and velvety. To my right was a cow and two calves, still sporting their youthful spots. The cow had an ear tag and wore a big collar with a large 9. I’m no judge of female elk flesh. Perhaps she was a 9. Or, perhaps, the collar wasn’t intended as an indication of her beauty.
They were really quite close, twenty or thirty feet. I’ve been close to elk fairly often. I’ve never felt threatened by them, but just the same I didn’t want to put myself between the cow and her calves. I also didn’t want to be closer to the calves than I was to the cow or bull. But to continue on the last few hundred yards to my destination, I’d have to walk right through them.
I sort of yelled at them, “I want to go that way!”, pointing across the snow. They looked at me quizzically. They clearly weren’t getting my drift. After further hollering and gesticulation I clapped my hands loudly. This got the calves to move to my right, on the other side of their mother, and I finally felt it was okay to proceed.
Had there been no elk there, I probably would have put on the spikes. I carried them all this way, so why not use them? But I didn’t want to sit there in the middle of the herd any longer than necessary so I proceeded without them. I didn’t need them, and on the way back down I again didn’t bother with them.
The rain had stopped some time ago, and the small breaks in the clouds had turned to mostly bright blue sky. There were still clouds, but they were white and fluffy and (as always) relatively fast moving. It would be hard to expect much better weather for a picnic beside an alpine lake than I was having.
There’s a snow field that sits on the eastern shore of Green Lake. I think it’s always there. Today, there were two little icebergs (or would they be snowbergs?) that were floating freely in the lake, recently broken off the main field. It might have been interesting to have the time lapse camera recording them, but instead I had it aimed at Spearhead and the clouds behind it. I would have liked to sit on the eastern shore, but there wasn’t a lot of shoreline there free of snow, and the flow out of the lake was running a few inches too high for me to cross without risking getting wet feet, so I stayed on the northern end.
On the way up from Black Lake I encountered a couple of climbers who had spent two nights on a bivy permit on Spearhead. I came across another couple of climbers on their way down at about the point where the route to Frozen Lake diverges from my route. So I kept an eye out for climbers on Spearhead. I don’t really know what interests climbers, so I didn’t know where to look. But I did see somebody wearing a pink jacket or shirt who hadn’t very far up the cliff.
After half an hour I headed down. My herd of elk was still there, but they’d moved a bit to the east and I didn’t have to split them to make my exit. On the way up, you’re facing the stark cliffs in the immediate vicinity. Heading down, you get a nice view of the Mummy Range in the distance. The clouds there were no longer white and fluffy, but steel colored and menacing. With the divide just a few hundred meters to the west, you can’t see what sort of weather is headed your way, but it was obvious that on the way down I’d likely get more than the light rain I encountered on the way up.
I’d kept the rain coat on through my lunch and only packed it away when I refilled my water bottle on the descent to Black Lake. My shirtsleeved hiking was short lived, though, as the clouds opened up by the time I got to the bridge leading to the Glacier Gorge campsite. The thunder that was rumbling in the distance was now crashing in the immediate vicinity, so I kept my pace up.
Usually there’s a fair crowd on the slabs that form the Mills Lake shoreline but not now. Nobody wanted to sit in the rain. It wasn’t heavy enough to entirely obscure the view to the south, but certainly heavy enough to make the view less pleasant. Between here and the trail junction I ran into a young couple on their way up to Mills: she wearing sandals and a jacket, he shirtless and smiling. Even with my jacket on and hiking a brisk pace, I found it slightly chilly.
A bit farther down I found a solo hiker standing in the shelter of a tree, assessing the skies. I told him it would quit eventually, but no telling how long that might be. He was going to wait it out. That turned out to be a short wait for him, as the rain stopped when I was half way down the Fire Trail, and the sun was again shining brightly. It was about here that I realized I’d probably left the passenger window of the car open an inch or two. Oh well.
Traffic down the mountain was heavier than last week, but what I’d call more or less the new normal. Until I got to about mile marker 10, where we came to a complete stop. At about mile 4 an ambulance had passed me going towards Estes, lights and siren on. It should have been obvious to me that I’d run into the scene of an accident but it didn’t click until we were stopped. It took nearly half an hour to get going again. They had the road down to one lane, letting a few dozen cars pass first in one direction then the other. When I passed the scene, I didn’t see any damaged vehicles. Had they already cleared the wreckage, or was it off the road, down the slope? I suspect the latter.
I can’t help but say that it was a very enjoyable day. A hike to the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge is always rewarding and satisfying.
Round Pond is a small round pond that lies on the saddle between Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh. According to the map, it has neither inlet nor outlet streams. I happened across it when thinking of going to the two small, unnamed ponds 350′ above and about four tenths of a mile southwest of Lake Helene.
Not far away from Round Pond is another small body of water called Marigold Lake. (This should not be confused with Marigold Pond, also in the vicinity, a few yards down the outlet stream of Two Rivers Lake.) After studying the map for a while, it seemed to me that it should be possible to visit both these lakes on the same hike.
The Foster guide has the distance to Round Pond at 2.4 miles. The distance from Round Pond to Marigold Lake looks to be about a kilometer. Assuming I make it to Marigold Lake, I’d return to Bear Lake on Foster’s route which she has at 3.9 miles. So the whole thing is about 6.9 miles and less than 900 vertical feet. Should be relatively easy, yes?
Well, perhaps not. Both lakes are quite small and in the middle of the forest. With unobstructed views of Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh it would be easy to locate Round Pond, but I fully expect the forest to be dense enough to provide no views of either of those mountains. And it may be challenging to get from Round Pond to Marigold Lake by my route, having to traverse some fairly steep terrain between them.
And, who knows? If I get back to Lake Helene early enough, maybe I can get to those two unnamed ponds that caught my eye in the first place.
Saturday, July 20
I arrived at the Park & Ride at about ten minutes after eight. I’ve never seen that parking lot so full. There were only a few spots left, and the line for the shuttle wound back and forth several times. I didn’t make it to the Bear Lake parking lot until a few minutes before nine. No big deal, this hike shouldn’t take too long.
The only snow on the trail was the large drift where the trees thin out on the east side of Flattop. In the winter, when I go to either Helene or Two Rivers Lakes, this is where I always lose the trail. The wind blows all the time here in the winter, quickly erasing hikers’ tracks. But in mid-July it’s just a hundred yards or so of snow and not any sort of navigational impediment. The trail both before and after this snow is filled with the overflow of the rivulets that cross it.
Farther up the trail is another spot that gives me grief in winter. The trail crosses a talus field and in winter I’ve often resorted to going to the bottom of the hill to avoid the traverse. It’s steep enough here to give me pause, and better safe than sorry. Again, in mid-July this is not a problem, but this talus field is where I leave the trail in my quest for Round Pond.
Immediately after stepping across Mill Creek I’m in fairly dense forest. A few minutes later an elk crashed across my path just a few yards in front of me. This was fortuitous, as it led me to a game trail. It’s not too difficult to cover ground but as I suspected, navigation is a challenge. It’s quite flat and level and no landmarks of any kind are visible. My game trail started to veer to the right when I thought I should be veering to the left, so I abandoned it and started making my own way.
On my cell phone I have a speedometer app that I use in the car. The car’s speedometer is not at all accurate, and in addition to the correct speed, it also displays (among other things) your elevation and direction of travel. It’s not a compass: to get a direction you have to be moving. This app works even when the phone is in airplane mode, so I often use it when I’m off-trail and need to make my way to a particular elevation.
Before long I figured I was in the right place and should be coming across Round Pond any minute now. But it’s really hard to judge, so I started doing a bit of a random walk across this saddle. It had been about an hour since leaving the trail and I hadn’t found it yet. I was just about to give up when I spotted a gap in the trees: there’s my lake. The trees are well back from the water, separated by, essentially, a giant sponge. Walking across it, my boots weren’t getting wet, but each footstep sank a few inches.
There were no rocks or fallen tree trunks to sit on, so I didn’t stay long. Not much to look at, either. Just a few Elephant Head flowers here and there. My options were to try to retrace my route and return the way I came, or to head for Marigold Lake. I knew I might have a hard time finding that lake, but given all my changes in direction to this point, I figured turning back wouldn’t be an easy proposition either. So onward it was.
After leaving Round Pond, the terrain remained flat and level, but the amount of deadfall was much increased. It was like navigating a maze. A short distance later the slope started to fall in front of me. Now the deadfall wasn’t so much a maze as a series of hurdles: almost all the trunks were lying perpendicular to the path of somebody attempting to traverse the slope. Between the steepness of the slope and all the deadfall, my progress had slowed considerably. I had to consider each foot step.
If I could keep my current elevation and contour around the mountain, I’d be a bit above the lake and it would be fairly easy to spot. The slope kept getting steeper and steeper until I was a bit out of my comfort zone. I’m okay traversing this sort of slope in the forest, but I really didn’t want to ascend or descend. And I figured there was a good chance I’d come across some large rock outcropping that would prevent me from traversing.
Sure enough, that’s what happened. I only came across one of these outcroppings, but it was enough. I couldn’t find a way over the top so I had to descend forty or fifty feet. By now I was getting a bit disheartened. This was taking much longer than I had anticipated. I still hadn’t had lunch as I hadn’t found a suitable place: a rock or log to sit on, with some sort of view and a bit of a level area to set my things. And I see I have neglected to mention the rich insect life of the forest covering Joe Mills Mountain.
Just as the steepness of the slope began to diminish, I came across a talus field. It had a number of flat rocks, sitting in the sun, with a view to the north and west. I rested here for about half an hour and had my lunch. It was now about 12:30, an hour and a half since leaving Round Pond. And I guessed that I hadn’t covered a kilometer yet, meaning I was covering less than four tenths of a mile per hour. That’s pretty slow.
Between Round Pond and my lunch spot, I caught only a few glimpses of the surrounding area. Once or twice I had partial views of Fern Lake and Odessa Lake below me, and the Fern Lake Fire scar on the slopes of Tombstone Ridge to the north. Only upon entering this little talus field did I begin to see Gabletop, Little Matterhorn, and Notchtop.
Having had my little picnic lunch, I resumed my traverse. My elevation was still a bit lower than Marigold Lake but there had been no sign of any sort of bench above me where a small lake could reside. But just a few yards after my talus field, I could spot some blue sky between the trees above me. Perhaps I was right below the lake!
I climbed a few yards but was stymied three or four times by dense vegetation. I couldn’t get through so I continued along the slope. After a short distance I could finally get onto the bench above me. But no lake was here. Dang.
To my south stretched an open expanse, mostly talus with some grassy/rocky ramps giving nice views of upper Fern Creek canyon. Heading mostly south, I soon saw the trail to Odessa Lake. It was now time for my final decision of the day. Should I go up the trail towards Lake Helene and back to Bear Lake, or down to the Fern Lake trailhead? It took me so long to get here that I didn’t have time to make my side trip up to those ponds above Helene but I headed back to Bear Lake anyway.
I passed the nearest point to Lake Helene at 2:30, stopped to refill my water when I crossed Mill Creek below Two Rivers Lake, and enjoyed the easy downhill slope all the way back to Bear Lake. There was no line for the bus and I was back to the Park & Ride at 4:20. This little excursion took quite a bit longer than I anticipated. The section between Round Pond and my picnic spot on the slopes of Joe Mills Mountain put me a bit outside my comfort zone but on the whole, the day wasn’t particularly strenuous.
I can’t particularly recommend a visit to Round Pond, unless you’re looking for a navigational challenge. It would have been nice to visit Marigold Lake, but now that I’ve been in the neighborhood I think I can make it another time easily enough. Looking at aerial photos of the area, my little picnic spot was within 20 or 30 meters of it! If I’d have climbed slightly north from my spot instead of slightly south, I’m certain I’d have found it. So Marigold Lake is on the “to-do” list, but directly from the Odessa Lake trail across the open terrain of talus and grassy ramps.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Obviously, I wasn’t. To think that I’d be able to reach Isolation or Frigid Lakes in early July is pure fantasy. So if you’re just curious what I found at either of those lakes, I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t even make it to Bluebird Lake.
I ended up with a permit on this date because this site was already booked on the weekends later in July. For some reason, I fixated on doing one of my overnight trips in July, and only considered dates that included at least one weekend day. I could have had a date later in July had I been willing to do it in the middle of the week. Or, I could have had an August or September date had I been willing to make two trips in either of those months. But I was unwilling to take, or didn’t consider, those options.
But clearly taking a mid-week hike in July to try to bag Isolation and Frigid would have failed just the same. Certainly, this year. We had a very wet spring and there is still a lot of snow on the ground in the high country. That much is obvious from Denver.
The plan was to hike in to the Upper Ouzel Creek campsite, spend the night, explore whatever territory I could above Bluebird Lake for a day, spend a second night, then hike out on the third day. Even before setting out I knew it was unlikely I’d reach my goals. But so what? It’s a few days in the backcountry.
I filled the backpack with the usual stuff, then added more stuff. For these overnight trips I haven’t been taking the SLR. I decided to take it this time. I’ve been concerned about having my phone or GoPro batteries die, so I took along a battery that I could use to charge them. And, of course, the associated cables. And I knew I’d be trekking across a fair amount of snow so I included the micro-spikes.
Saturday began mostly overcast, but that changed as I approached Allenspark, where all skies to the west were a clear, clear blue. I wanted to arrive at the entrance a few minutes after eight. My permit was for 2 people in the party. I had asked Ed if he wanted to join me. He was in, until he was out, and a substitute could not be found. So I wanted to tell somebody that my party was just me.
At the gate at 8:10, they told me I might not get a parking spot. I was a bit concerned by this very thing; that’s why I wanted to be there pretty much as soon as the entry station was manned. Much later and the lot would be full for sure. When I got to the (first) bridge across the river I ran across a volunteer. She flagged me down. I told her I was backpacking and she said they generally save a spot or two for permit holders. But we happened to be in a radio dark spot and she couldn’t contact the other volunteers. She warned me that I might end up in the winter parking lot. Nothing like adding another mile to the trip!
At the trailhead lot I managed to shoehorn the car into a spot between a truck and an SUV. I had told the first volunteer at the lot that I had a permit, and asked where to park. He just told me to look for a spot. The second volunteer remarked that I’d parked where he didn’t know there was a spot, then said “You should have told me you have a permit. We have a couple spots saved!”
I was on the trail by a quarter to nine. That’s a bit later than I usually start on this trail, because on my day hikes I need to be six or eight miles in by noon. No such restriction today: I had all day to do about six miles. So I took my time.
I’m using a backpack a friend gave me. This is my third trip with it. I’ve decided it’s too small. Other than that, I like it. Well, except that I can’t get my water bottle properly secured when I have the backpack on. I can get the water bottle out, but can’t put it back in properly. So, at least when I’m going solo, I have resigned myself to taking an extended break every time I want some water.
Then there was an additional break when I realized I’d packed my sunscreen in the bear vault. So much of this hike is in direct sunshine that the old SPF is in no way optional. It’s never optional for me, but especially so on this trail. So I stopped where the trail splits and Ouzel/Bluebird is to the left, Thunder/Lion to the right. And again along the top of the ridge where regrowth in the burn scar hasn’t blocked the view up the canyon. And again where the trail splits between Ouzel and Bluebird. Did I mention I was taking my time?
I know people generally aren’t big fans of forest fires. I figure they’re a natural part of the life cycle of the forest and try to take the bad with the good. This area burned back in 1978. About ten years ago, along the top of the ridge above Ouzel Falls, you still had unimpeded views of all the surrounding terrain. But now the new growth is getting taller and thicker. Open views are still common and shade is sparse, but the forest is returning here.
Tree growth is considerably slower up higher, and by the time the trail is even with Ouzel Lake, it looks a lot like it looked in the first few years after the fire. The ground is covered only by grasses and a scattering of wildflowers. A few dead trunks stand upright over their fallen neighbors, and the trail is lined by raspberries for long stretches.
Along the way, I talked to a pair of twenty-something women and a thirty-something couple. It struck me that in both discussions we described the terrain in fundamentally different ways. They all oriented around peaks, I orient around lakes. I know the names of many of the mountains, but too many of the names are just names. I know Mahana Peak and Tanima Peak are around here, but it’s not important to me to know which ones are which. So there was some back-and-forth in these conversations translating geography: Hunters Creek to Mt. Orton, and the like.
When I got to about the end of the burn scar on the Bluebird trail, I ran into a guy in black shorts and no shirt that had motored past me earlier. “If you’re going to the lake, you may want to reconsider. I made it 95% of the way there, but had to turn back due to all the snow.” I asked if he made it to the campsite but he didn’t know. He showed me on his map how far he thought he’d gone.
I mounted the micro-spikes and continued. It was pretty easy going, but lots of big snow drifts to cross. Before long, it’s snow as often as not. Did he think this was too much snow, or that next stretch? Then I arrived at a place where I had to traverse high up on a steep snowbank. Even with traction, I didn’t like the looks of it. Without the backpack I’d have done it. It was an easy choice to descend a bit and climb some rocks rather than risk a fall.
As I started down, another couple caught up to me. She wanted to follow the tracks, but he thought my way was better. Turns out this is their third attempt to get to Bluebird Lake. First was in December. They snowshoed. They only made it to Ouzel Falls and the round trip was seven hours. Then in May they made it to “that boulder right there”. They swore they’d make it this time.
I pushed on a little farther, then took a breather. They took a breather then pushed on, and we happened to reach the spur to the campsite at the same time. They started up toward the campsite. I told them where they were going and pointed the other way. “See that log bridge over there? You go that way.” I’m absolutely certain they didn’t go much farther and will soon be making their fourth attempt.
I was relieved to find the campsite free of snow. It was not exactly dry, though. It was pretty obvious that water had flowed here quite recently. Flowed here and puddled there. Luckily, the least wet spot was almost exactly the size of my tent. I got it set up then took a jacket and some water and headed up to Bluebird Lake. I quickly found myself at the bottom of the last steep bit to the lake. Later in the summer, this little section is one of my favorite fields of wildflowers. But right now it’s just snow.
So that’s where I stopped. In snow shoes, with an able companion, I’d have done it. With just the micro-spikes and solo, no way.
And that’s when I decided I didn’t need to stay two nights up here.
I sat for a while beside the stream, the outlet from Bluebird. The water was running fast and clear; a distinct blue. It cascades out of a tunnel it’s bored through the bottom of a huge drift of snow. The sound of the water was, in a way, intense. It is unwavering. It’s not as loud as nearby thunder, but it is certainly louder than the wind through the trees. It’s quite loud.
By about six I made my way back to camp. It’s a nice camp. The view from the pad itself is nice, but it’s atop a large rock outcropping. A few feet down a gentle slope is a half log, seats two. Twenty feet below is the trail. I sat here after dinner and watched the shadow of the setting sun climb the flank of Copeland Mtn.
Although I’m a fair distance from the stream, the sound of rushing water is a dull roar, louder than any airliners passing overhead. I can’t see my stream, but across the canyon I can see six significant water falls. There’s still so much snow here, water is flowing everywhere, (except, thankfully, for my campsite).
By eight it was time to turn in. There wasn’t anything to watch for a while, and I knew I’d fall asleep before I’d get a good look at the night sky so I set an alarm for ten. Had to use the phone because the Fitbit wouldn’t sync with my phone without internet access. At ten, there were some scattered clouds. The crescent moon had set, or at least fallen behind out of sight beyond the divide.
I was awake again at 3:30 for a comfort break. The clouds had cleared and the Milky Way was spilled across the sky. I rarely see the Milky Way. Seems like few times I get to experience a dark sky, the moon is always shining brightly.
Surprisingly, I was able to sleep almost until seven. I took my time breaking camp and was on the trail by a quarter to nine. I hadn’t seen any big mammals on the hike in, but did see a solo deer in the evening and three more in the morning, below my porch.
I was not exactly looking forward to putting that backpack on. Because it’s too small, almost none of the weight is on my hips; it’s all on my shoulders. My shoulders are sore, it it would be nice to have a day off. My one adjustment is to put (clean) socks between my shoulders and the straps. This worked better than anticipated. The discomfort was much reduced and I didn’t feel the need to stop as often. It took me more than six hours to go up, but not much over four on the way down.
Although I didn’t get to where I wanted to go, and I spent one night instead of two, I still had a good time. Any day in the Park is a good day.
No time lapse this trip. But there’s this, instead.
Note that I’m talking here of Lake Irene, just down the road from Poudre Lake, not Irene Lake, near the base of Sprague Glacier. I hope to write about Irene Lake before summer is over.
Last of the low-hanging fruit, perhaps?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven the section of Trail Ridge Road west of the Alpine Visitor Center. But I can tell you, before today, how many times I’ve stopped at the parking lot for Lake Irene: zero.
It’s a small parking lot that will hold about a dozen cars. There are a couple of picnic tables and an improved trail of not much more than a hundred yards to small Lake Irene. There’s not much to recommend here, other than it’s easy to get to. I am fortunate to be able to make long hikes to the many beautiful lakes in the park. I probably take that for granted. But I do know that not everybody can hike like I do, and it’s good that there are some places that are more accessible. That said, it’s not ADA compliant. But it is relatively low effort.
Of course, I didn’t make the trip up here just to visit this lake. My real reason was to stop by the back country office to pick up my permit for next week’s hike. So we made a day of it, stopping in Estes for lunch then heading over Trail Ridge Road and returning to Denver via Winter Park and Berthoud Pass.
I would have liked to have taken Old Fall River Road up to the AVC, but that road isn’t open yet. And the snowbanks at the AVC are still something like ten feet deep. Lake Irene sits at about 10,600′ and there’s still snow on the ground there. Trail Ridge was so crowded we weren’t able to stop at the Rock Cut, but a brief glance at the Gorge Lakes told me they’re still well frozen.
My backpacking trip next week may be much more challenging than I was hoping. I’ll be staying at Upper Ouzel Creek. I don’t know exactly the elevation there, but it’s somewhere close to that of Lake Irene so I’m guessing there will be snow at the campsite. And my hope is to reach both Isolation Lake (11,985′) and Frigid Lake (11,824′). Frigid Lake will be, not doubt, still quite frigid.
I think it has been four months since my last visit to the Park. That’s way too long. But it’s too early to do a nice long hike because that generally means a decent elevation gain, and from down here in the big city it looks like there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground in the high country. So I figured I’d do a short hike to get a sense of how much snow there really is.
Lacking any good ideas, I resorted to an old standby: Emerald Lake. For nearly twenty years, I managed to drag a rotating group of friends up to Emerald on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a bit past that time now, but close enough. I was hoping to make it around the lake and gain some elevation on the west side of it for a change of pace.
I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot a bit before nine. There were only a few empty parking spaces left. I probably should have grabbed the first one I saw, but hoping for a closer spot I found myself up at the top. There, one of the volunteers said, “Hey! We know that car!” Doc and I exchanged greetings; he wanted me to tell him about the car after I got parked. Well, Ed’s usual spot was empty, so I parked there. Before I was out of the car, another volunteer parked next to me. So I answered all of Doc’s questions and chatted with the both of them before hitting the trail.
Just before getting to Emerald I met a guy who had just skied down one of the couloirs from near the top of Flattop. Being a non-skier, this sort of thing strikes me as pretty hard-core.
At Emerald, I worked my way around the norther shore far enough to get out of the ever present crowd, but I didn’t try too hard to continue west to higher ground. Having failed to execute my original plan, it occurred to me that this hike is so short there isn’t any reason I can’t add another short hike to the day. When I recently redid my online photo gallery I noticed that I didn’t have any pictures of Lake Bierstadt. Why not make a side trip to Bierstadt and rectify that oversight?
Having arrived at the lake a few minutes before ten it was too early for lunch, so I just relaxed and took in the views. I couldn’t help but notice a bunch of debris on the ice over on the west side. There was an avalanche here back in early May. This debris is likely from that event. How else would a bunch of pieces of pine tree be on the ice in the middle of Emerald Lake?
The hike back to Bear Lake was at times painfully slow. This is what I call “conga line hiking”. There were so many people around the end of the trail at Emerald that it sounded like a high school cafeteria. On the way down, the only places I could make my way past long lines of people was on the snow: I had my micro spikes but most others were in sneakers. I would have taken the shortcut from Nymph to Bear, but I’ll only do that when nobody is watching – don’t want to let the general populace know about the shortcut. No chance of stealth today, so I took the long way.
Lake Bierstadt is named for Albert Bierstadt, a painter known for his landscapes of the American West. I saw a few of his paintings when I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They’re big paintings of dramatic landscapes. So I find it a bit ironic that, in a Park with so many stunning lakes, the one with his name on it is, shall we say, not that impressive.
The hike from Bear Lake to Bierstadt Lake is about two miles. The first section is along the Flattop Mtn trail. This section of trail climbs a bit, and after the trail junction it continues to go up for a short distance. After that, it’s all flat or slightly downhill. It’s a forest hike with no views at all, except for a very short glimpse of Halleck and Flattop on a few yards of trail that goes west. The walking is very easy, with few roots or rocks to deal with. I was able to keep up what I call a “sidewalk pace”.
There were a lot fewer hikers here than at Emerald. Between Bear Lake and Bierstadt I ran into about two dozen other people. I made my way to a rock on the southwestern shore of the lake and ate my picnic lunch. I was joined in lunch by a duck who was working his way back and forth through the grasses nibbling as he went. And not far away I was somewhat surprised to hear the almost constant croaking of frogs. I know there are frogs in the park, but I’ve never seen any, and until now hadn’t heard them either.
Up to now, the weather had been quite pleasant. But to the north, some ominous clouds had formed and a chill breeze had picked up. I’d wanted to circumnavigate the lake, but with the threat of rain I packed up and headed down the trail to the Bierstadt trailhead.
So I still don’t have any pictures of the best views of Bierstadt.
The trail from the lake to the trailhead climbs something like 600′ in a mile. It switches back and forth across the mostly treeless slope on its way. I’ve made that climb a few times, but the last couple passages on this trail have been downhill only, like today. Just when I started down, I ran into a family coming up. They were only a few yards from the top. I couldn’t resist: I said, “Only another mile to go!” and waited a beat before adding “Just kidding.”