Hunters Creek

Monday, September 14

I arrived at the Sandbeach Lake trailhead a few minutes after seven. The skies were without a cloud, and compared to the last several weeks, it looked like there wasn’t any smoke. Now that it’s mid-September, it’s starting to get a bit cool. It looked to be another glorious day in the Park.

I’ve decided that the timed entry passes aren’t being checked here in Wild Basin. As usual, there was nobody at the entrance station before eight. And when I returned from my hike at about 3:30, there was still nobody there. Perhaps the thinking is that there is fairly limited parking in this part of the Park and therefore it can’t get overcrowded.

Anyway, I put boots on the trail by a quarter after seven. My plan, I told myself, was to hike to Keplinger Lake. This is my third trip up Hunters Creek, first time falling short of Keplinger, second time succeeding. On my way down on my successful trip, I thought I had a pretty nice route. I figured it would be fairly trivial to retrace my steps and given my starting time I expected to arrive there by something like 11:30.

Keplinger is about seven miles from the trailhead. Half of that is on the trail to Sandbeach Lake. It alternates between fairly steep climbs (for a pack trail) and level stretches unencumbered by roots or rocks. I kept seeing small hoof prints. These were much smaller than those made by a horse, but looked almost the same: perfect horseshoe shapes, just a few inches across.

Tiny horseshoes?

I haven’t heard of anybody who likes my route. I just follow Hunters Creek, using a trail I believe to be frequented by people climbing Longs Peak from this side. The trail is not maintained but is quite easy to follow except for two places where some deadfall has blocked it. After about a mile and a quarter, a stream joins Hunters Creek from the north, while Hunters Creek turns to the west. I cross this unnamed tributary here and continue up Hunters Creek.

The forest isn’t very dense through here, allowing sunlight to dapple the ground. The trick is to cross Hunters Creek before it makes a turn to the north. If you continue following the creek, you’ll end up in the messy mass of willow that surrounds an unnamed pond at about 11,200′. There was the terminus of my first attempt to reach Keplinger.

Today, I crossed Hunters Creek fairly early. I figured it didn’t really make much difference. All I needed to do was work my way through some trees and I’d find a treeless gully I could follow up the slope to where the creek drains from another unnamed pond, this one at about 11,400′. From there, it’s maybe a third of a mile to the lake.

Getting to the top of the gully puts you back on the banks of the creek between the two ponds. I stopped here for a short break. At least, that was my plan. It was a very pleasant spot. Due north of me was Pagoda Mountain. An arm of the mountain reaches to the south, toward me. Just to the left of this arm, directly below the summit, lies Keplinger Lake. I could have made it there in twenty minutes or so. To the right of Pagoda are Longs and Meeker. From this angle, Meeker looks to be the highest and biggest, and Longs looks … unclimbable.

Pagoda Mountain, Longs Peak, and Mount Meeker

I decided I didn’t need to go any farther. It had been cool enough all morning that I never took off my hoodie. It wouldn’t be any warmer at Keplinger, a couple hundred feet higher. The view of Pagoda is much more dramatic there, but the other peaks are hidden. Keplinger is all rocks and water; vegetation is sparse. Here, there was almost no breeze. Directly above me, the sky was almost its usual brilliant blue but there was a noticeable smoky haze on the horizon.

From the time I started hiking until I stopped here for lunch, I’d watched a number of helicopters fly overhead. At first, I thought there were two choppers sporting similar livery. The first two passes overhead were in the same direction: from roughly the direction of Allenspark and passing between Pagoda and Longs to go over Glacier Gorge. There may have been just the one helicopter and I missed its return trip. I didn’t know what they were up to. My first thought was that they were dealing with the Cameron Peak fire somehow, but they weren’t carrying a bucket or any other obvious cargo. They stopped flying over at about 11:00.

View to the east, roughly. A bit of smoke haze, but not bad.

I let the world go by for half an hour, ate my sandwich, drank my beer, and relaxed.

If I had brought a map with me, I probably would have tried an alternate route back. That would be everybody’s preferred route, which goes by Sandbeach Lake. Looking east, I’d stay out of the trees then head over the forested hump at the eastern end of Mount Orton, then descend to the lake. I’ll come back here again and give that route a shot.

I did stay out of the trees for a longer distance than on my way up. It was easy walking and I made good time. I kept thinking I should make my way to the creek but kept delaying it. I found a game and followed it. It snowed that fell last week, several inches of wet, heavy stuff. Sometimes it was hard to tell if it had been walked through or if it was just knocked down by the snow. I saw several places where it looked like elk had bedded down, but hadn’t seen any elk, deer, or moose all day. I finally did spot an elk for an instant: she heard me coming and ran away. I saw a flash of her backside as she fled through the trees.

Game trail through the grass

When I got to the end of this series of treeless gullies I found myself at the top of an outcropping I wasn’t willing to descend, so I had to backtrack a bit and find a route that didn’t bother me. I came across a talus field I spotted on the way up. It wasn’t the greatest route, but the rocks weren’t too big for me to make my way down.

Back in the woods I slowly worked my way to the creek. I came across a small pond I didn’t expect to find. It’s not on my map, but I did later find it on the satellite image. Back at the creek, I found an easy crossing and was back on ground I’d navigated before. I didn’t bother sticking too close to the creek. I can roam anywhere I want, as long as I head downhill. Eventually, I’ll run into the tributary I crossed when I left the climbers trail or I’d be back to Hunters Creek.

Staying away from the creek made for easier walking. The forest is sparse enough that there’s no deadfall to speak of and it’s late enough in the season that everything is dry. In July, I’d certainly be running into various trickles of water and marshy/grassy leas, and route finding would be more challenging. I shortly reached the tributary and crossed it to regain the climbers’ trail. I was only about fifty yards upstream of where I crossed on my way up.

I took a short break when I got back to the trail to Sandbeach Lake. I refilled my water bottle and ate the last of my fruit. I considered making the side trip to the lake, figuring it would take me an hour or a bit more. I was up for it physically, but I didn’t want to take more than an hour and figured it wasn’t worth making the trip if I couldn’t relax for a while at the lake. So I headed back to the car.

When I started hiking again, I heard another helicopter. I paid more attention to them now, noting the times they flew over and which direction they were going. They passed very close to the west side of Longs Peak. I’m sure anybody on the summit got a good look down on them.

The first flight of the afternoon was headed towards Glacier Gorge and it flew over me on its way back twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes after that, it was headed back to Glacier Gorge. This chopper made two round trips. Then a different one came from Glacier Gorge. It was a different model of aircraft, candy apple red instead of the orange and white of the earlier one. Instead of flying away, it descended into the valley below me. It took me a while to spot it through the trees. After a few minutes, it took off on its way back to Glacier Gorge. It made this trip twice.

The afternoon’s first helicopter

I made it back to the trailhead by 3:30. I was curious to know what the helicopters were up to. I’d have asked the ranger at the entrance station, had there been a ranger there. There was a group of motorcyclists there, taking a break and using the restrooms. So I asked the bikers if they knew anything. They hadn’t been there very long, and the red chopper never flew over here, stopping a bit west of Copeland Lake. They didn’t know anything about the choppers.

I was a bit surprised when one of them asked me what was on my hat. I’m always wearing my hat from Autobahn Country Club. The guy who asked was thinking my hat was from a track in New Jersey. I gave him points for knowing it was a track and told him it was Autobahn, in Illinois. He said he’d driven that track. I didn’t quiz him, but he did mention running laps at a few California tracks, so maybe he’s been to as many tracks as I have. I neglected to ask him whether he tracked a bike or a car.

He did ask me what I drove. He expressed surprise that I could fit in an Elise. And he was pretty well acquainted with Lotus. He asked if I’d “added any lightness” to it. “As a matter of fact, I have!” We chatted about track days for a bit.

It was another beautiful day in the neighborhood. I hiked about thirteen miles, climbing about 3100′. The weather was ideal. I saw only one person from 7:15 to 3:30 and didn’t see him until after 2:30. I’ve never had such solitude before. It doesn’t get much better than that.


Searching the news when I got home, I see that teams were out searching for a missing hiker. His car was found at the Glacier Gorge parking lot and he was assumed to be attempting the Glacier Gorge Traverse. That’s a “difficult 19 mile route” that crosses eleven summits. It seems they found his body today (Tuesday). The article I read says that they flew his body to a landing zone in Wild Basin. I can’t help but wonder if the article has the timing a bit wrong. Were they taking him out on the last helicopter I saw? How unfortunate. He was my son’s age.

Crystal Lake Redux

Last year, Gordon and I spent two nights camping at Lost Lake with the intention of hiking up to Rowe Glacier. I stopped at Scotch Lake but Gordon continued. For a short while, he thought he’d made it to the glacier but finally decided that he, too, had fallen short. When I opened discussion of our next backpacking trip he casually said that he was thinking of visiting Rowe Glacier as a day hike.

I have little doubt that he is capable of doing in one day what I failed to do in three, but I wasn’t sure he was serious. I told him there’s a shorter route, one that would get him to the summit of Hagues Peak as well. I told him, “I happen to have a timed entry pass for 9/5. We could hike together to Lawn Lake, then you could blaze ahead while I hang around at Crystal or Lawn. I could theoretically do the saddle instead of Crystal, but I wouldn’t want to slow you down.”

And, so, we more or less had a plan.

Saturday, September 5

On my trip to Crystal Lake back in July, I arrived at the trailhead a few minutes before seven. That was a weekday and the lot was nearly full. Assuming that on a weekend there might be more people on the trail, we agreed we’d need to start at about the same time. So Gordon arrived at my place to pick me up a few minutes before five-thirty. He brought Eric, one of his co-workers, to join us.

Both Eric and Gordon are fitter than I am, but for the hike to Lawn Lake, they let me set the pace. In July, it took me 2:45 to get from the trailhead to Lawn Lake. Today, I was just a slight bit faster: 2:39. I’ll admit that that made me a bit proud. It’s not exactly a metronomic pace, but it is nice and consistent.

I didn’t stop, or even pause, really, until a bit past Lawn Lake. I wanted to use my first break to apply some SPF and I figured a nice place to do that was sitting on a rock with a view of Lawn Lake below me. I did pause, very briefly, a few minutes earlier to try to get a picture of a bull moose that was a few yards off the trail. He was shy. I got a picture of his backside, but he kept foliage between his head and me. Perhaps he was thinking I couldn’t see him if he couldn’t see me. A further few yards up the trail, we came across a group of deer: a doe and three spotted yearlings.

My break finished, I insisted both Gordon and Eric go ahead of me. It’s steeper here, and where I stopped was about 11,200′ in elevation. The air is getting noticeably thin. There’s no way I can keep up my earlier pace, and I don’t even try.

This is my third time up here, and the first two times I always followed the spur trail to Crystal Lake. This time I continued up toward The Saddle. Not long after this junction, the trail crosses a stream. This is not the outlet from Crystal Lake. Although there’s almost no snow left in the area, the stream still has a significant flow. I couldn’t help but wonder where all the water was coming from. It’s just an indication of how much water the grassy/marshy landscape holds.

Eric was well ahead of Gordon, and Gordon was just thirty or forty yards ahead of me. He pointed out a herd of sheep browsing along the stream. We weren’t very close, and the only camera I had was the cell phone. And the phone isn’t particularly good for telephoto shots. But at least the subjects didn’t go to great pains to hide their heads from me. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I figured they were bighorn sheep, even though I didn’t see any rams with horns that curved all the way around. I’m now thinking they were some combination of ewes and yearlings. I’m pretty sure this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve spotted bighorn sheep in the Park.

Bighorn sheep

Several minutes later, I caught up with Eric. He had tweaked his knee last Sunday hiking Mt. Evans. He was feeling pretty good when we started, but by now he figured if he kept going he might be in a bit more pain than he was willing to put up with. So he decided not to go any further. We weren’t that far from The Saddle. I was hoping to make it that far, just to look over the other side, but I decided it wasn’t that important. I told him there’s a nice spot a bit below us where we could sit on a rock and look down on Crystal Lake. It seemed like an ideal place for a picnic.

Eric takes in the view: Lawn Lake, Little Crystal Lake, Crystal Lake, and Fairchild Mountain

I didn’t pay particular attention to how long we sat on that rock. It was at least half an hour. We had a good view of the lakes below and the spur trail, but I didn’t see anybody down there. On my first visit to Crystal Lake, many years ago, I was the only one there. But two months ago the place was crowded, and that was a weekday. So I was a bit surprised nobody was there today.

Eric started back to the car. He wanted to take his time and didn’t want to slow us down. After a few minutes I decided to make a quick visit to Crystal Lake. It looked to me like it should be easy to cross the little isthmus between the two lakes to find a spot on the north shore of the lake to get a slightly different view.

I didn’t go all the way back to the trail junction, but struck off cross-country, saving me maybe three-tenths of a mile. It all looked so simple from above, but on the ground it was a bit more complicated. Then again, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for a route. I was guessing Gordon was making quick time of things, and I didn’t want him to pass me on the way out. So my exploration was cursory, and I’ll save a more thorough attempt for my next visit.

I was getting low on water but didn’t replenish my supply at Lawn Lake. I was thinking that I’d have a chance to refill at one of the switchbacks, where I’d be close to Roaring River. This was poor thinking. The river isn’t convenient to the trail until a few yards above the junction to Ypsilon Lake. I made it that far (now not much more than thirty minutes from the trailhead) and stopped. I rummaged through my pack but couldn’t find my Steri-Pen. I would have sworn I had it. I just replaced the batteries in it. But perhaps I neglected to return it to the pack.

A bit below the Ypsilon turnoff, I ran into a couple headed up. They asked if I’d made it to any of the lakes. We chatted a bit. It was nearly four now. I told them it took me nearly three hours to get to Lawn Lake, that Ypsilon was a bit closer, but perhaps a bit steeper. While we were chatting, a group of four hikers passed us in great haste, heading down.

“See that cloud? It’s not a cloud. There’s a fire just over the ridge!” That wasn’t a very good description. I asked them where they were hiking from. They said they’d been to Ypsilon. In any event, I wasn’t certain what I was seeing was smoke instead of clouds, and what did they mean by “just over the ridge”? They didn’t stick around to provide any more details.

Continuing our discussion, I suggested to the couple that they go as far as the river crossing on the Ypsilon trail. They were unlikely to make any lake and get back out before dark. Then they asked for suggestions for tomorrow. Hopefully, they’ll be happy with my guidance.

I made it back to the trailhead at 4:18. I asked Eric how long he’d been waiting; he said he wasn’t waiting long and that he’d gotten a nice little nap. During our chat, I related the tale of my missing Steri-Pen, which I now easily found in the pack. How could I have missed it?

Gordon arrived about an hour later. By now, there was no doubt that what was above us was smoke and not cloud.

When I was applying my sunscreen above Lawn Lake, we all noted how clear the skies were. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the smoke we’d been seeing (and smelling) for much of the last month was gone. While waiting for Gordon, Eric and I talked about how folks in the backcountry would never know about a new fire: they’d only know what they saw. We wondered what Gordon may have seen.

He showed us a couple of pictures he took from the summit of Hagues Peak. From his description of the direction and distance, I guessed that this was the Cameron Peak fire, which I haven’t heard about in several days.

Well, it’s in the news again. The smoke plume over our heads was, indeed, from the Cameron Peak fire. This plume went up 36,000′ and as I write this the fire has expanded to more than 34,000 acres (an increase of 10,000 acres Saturday alone) and is dumping ash on Greeley. It has now crossed into the Park and several trails and roads have been closed.

Smoke from the Cameron Peak fire

Every hike I take, I have some goal in mind. Today, it was to reach The Saddle and look over the other side. I didn’t make it. Falling short of my hiking goals just serves as an excuse for another attempt at a later date. Still on the table here are The Saddle and a bit of exploration of the isthmus between Little Crystal Lake and Crystal Lake. And, just a mile up the Black Canyon trail is a body of water called Potts Puddle. So there are still a few new sights for me in this area.

Lake Verna 2

Imagine a verdant shelf set high on a stately mountainside above an unspoiled, heavenly creek valley. Add a series of lovely lakes to ornament the shelf and place it in a location so remote that few humans would ever have the ambition to go there. Put it all together and you’ve got Ten Lake Park.

— Lisa Foster

I studied the map of the terrain between Lake Verna and Ten Lake Park for quite some time. The first thing I noticed is that there aren’t ten lakes in Ten Lake Park. My map shows only five. And three of those look more like puddles than lakes. Regardless, it looked to me that I might be able to reach the place. I know that a forty-foot contour interval on a map can hide a multitude of terrain that might give me difficulties. But half or a bit less of the way was in forest so route finding should be simple for much of the way.

Tuesday, August 18

We had another leisurely morning. I slept until nearly 7 and we took our time with breakfast. We started off at about 9:30. The smoke cleared considerably overnight.

The obvious route from Lake Verna to Ten Lake Park is to follow an unnamed creek up the eastern flank of Mount Craig. Once out of the trees, look for the pass between the two prominent points east of Mount Craig. Cross the pass and descend into Ten Lake Park.

Rather than backtrack the quarter-mile to the creek, we crossed East Inlet west of the creek and went up the slope toward the creek at an angle. It was fairly steep for my taste, but there wasn’t much deadfall. Still, it was slow going. We came to a bit of a cliff that we bypassed by crossing the creek. After crossing the stream again, there was a big section of slick rock we had to cross that bothered me. I knew I’d be able to go down it but I also knew it would have my heart rate up.

We often looked back at where we’d just been, making sure we got a good look at the route from this vantage. Ed stacked up some cairns as bread crumbs. He used a couple chunks of wood as a marker where no stones were available.

Mount Craig on the right, our route to the left

As we climbed, the forest thinned and receded from the creek, which ran through a grassy meadow filled with wildflowers. Most were still blooming nicely, but the Elephant Heads were past their prime.

We saw only a few small lingering drifts of snow. Earlier in summer, these grassy areas are filled with water; big spongy masses. But now that the snow has melted and we’ve had about half the normal precipitation this year, things are dry. Judging by the watermarked rocks, the creek was running at a small fraction of its spring flow.

Not long after coming out into the open, we came to a gully on our left that climbed quite a way. I suggested that what we saw was the pass we were looking for. This proved to be a … well, not a false summit but a false pass. We weren’t so much looking for a gully as a grassy ramp. When we got to the top of our false pass we spotted the real thing.

Or, more accurately, a choice of passes. We could continue up and left, climbing a wide grassy area or a slightly steeper, narrower, rockier one a bit to the right. It looked like the one to the right was a bit lower and would be a few steps shorter, so that’s where we headed. It didn’t take us long to reach the top and take in the view of the other side.

Ten Lake Park

I knew going into this that there aren’t actually ten lakes in Ten Lake Park. And I know that these sorts of places can look considerably different in, say, June than in mid-August in an abnormally dry year. A little trickle of water emerged from a nearby spring, making a narrow band of green across an increasingly brown expanse. Below us, we could see a couple of small lakes and ponds, along with two dry lake beds.

In an ideal world, we’d have taken some time to enjoy the place, but it was approaching 1:30 pm, and assuming it would take about as long to return as it did to get here, we’d be back in camp well after 5. So, after a quick reconnaissance of the upper reaches of the park we turned around and climbed back to the pass.

Our view of Mount Craig as we descend

The descent down the slopes and gullies was fairly quick and painless and once back into the upper reaches of the forested slope below us, we came upon the first of the cairns we’d set up earlier. We successfully found our route in, and Ed knocked down the cairn as we passed it.

Approaching the top of the slick rock we crossed on the way up, we made a change to our route. On the way up we saw a game trail at the top of this rock. Deer and elk won’t often cross rock like this and we figured it was worth a shot at following the game trail. As often happens with these things, it looked good for a while before petering out. But we continued to go down the steepening slope, climbing over the occasional dead tree trunk, regaining and re-losing game trails on the way.

It sometimes seemed these game trails haven’t seen much use lately, but there is game in the vicinity. We came across some deer in the upper meadows and here in the forest we came across a cow elk with two or three calves still in spots. We didn’t spy any moose, but there was ample evidence of their passage, and I don’t mean footprints.

Ed is a big fan of glacial knobs. At one point in our descent we had a very nice view of the opposite slope, which is the southern exposure of Andrews Peak. To Ed it must have looked like glacial knob heaven.

As on our way up, we crossed to the west side of the stream on the way down. This time we didn’t recross it and stayed to the west. The slope was not quite as steep here, and we had a relatively easy time of it. Before long, we saw the East Inlet just below us. The stream is wide and shallow here and Ed just headed straight across. I’d have followed, but I don’t hike with poles and without poles I’d have undoubtedly slipped so I went upstream to find a crossing more to my liking.

Our return trip was quite a bit faster, taking only two and a half hours. In retrospect, we could have spent a bit longer at Ten Lake Park. But the future is hard to predict, and we did start getting rained on a bit on the lower portion of our descent. I’m not at all unhappy with our little hike.

I found the upper area of this unnamed valley beneath the eastern flank of Mount Craig quite beautiful. Add a small lake here and it might even be ideal, but I’m a big fan of alpine lakes so I admit my bias.

It should come as no surprise that we encountered no other people on our little trek. In fact, we saw no sign that people had ever walked here before us. At some of my more remote destinations, I wonder how many other hikers make the trip in a year. I often see cairns or bootprints and surmise dozens or maybe a hundred. Here, perhaps only a handful of people come through here each year.

Because we were back in camp a little earlier than planned, we had a bit of an extended evening. Although the smoke from the wildfires was quite mild in the morning, it had steadily increased throughout the day. Now it was quite thick. I couldn’t taste it yet, but the odor was very noticeable.

The late afternoon saw a succession of rain storms. That overstates it a bit: we got sprinkled on several times. The smoke made it nearly impossible to tell if clouds were overhead, but we were still seeing our shadows, so we kept telling ourselves that the rain wouldn’t last. It never did, and the little rain had no effect on the smoke.

In fact, it might have been tempting to think that our sprinkles of rain had somehow turned to a light sprinkling of snow. But it wasn’t snow, it was ash. Each little particle of ash was rectangular, rather than the hexagonal shape of an individual snowflake. Like snow, sometimes the individual rectangular ashes clung together making larger bits of ash.

The big fires that I was blaming for the smoky air are well to the west of us. The nearer fires are north and south. And so I was quite surprised to note that the ash was falling on us from the east. I’m guessing that this was ash from the Cameron Peak fire, which is the nearest one, and so the complex winds along the Continental Divide carried this payload east, then south, then west.

The ash fell all evening, but the smoke thankfully never got much worse.

We nearly went the entire day without seeing or hearing another person. Sitting in camp chatting, we heard nearby voices. I climbed to the top of a rock where I could see the trail along the shore of Lake Verna and spotted one hiker. Unless she was talking to herself, there was at least one more hiker. Nonetheless, I can’t think of a day in the Park when I saw so few other people.

As the sky darkened and the stars started to appear, we could tell that all the clouds were gone now, we would get no more sprinkles, and if ash was still falling we could at least no longer see it.

Wednesday, August 19

We awoke to another beautiful RMNP morning. Like yesterday, the smoke was much reduced. And no more ash was falling.

We were packed up and on the trail not long after eight. We made somewhat better time on the way out and were back to the trailhead at about 2:30. In all my years of hiking the Park, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen horses on the trail. I see lots of road apples, but not many horses. In addition to the two horses we met while on our break on Devil’s Ladder on Monday, today we were passed by two park rangers on horseback, leading two pack horses. And closer to the trailhead another pair of riders. I think Ed was trying to work out how big of a bribe it would take to ride out rather than to walk.

At the trailhead, there was a ranger picking up litter. It’s sad that this is a part of anybody’s job. Why do people go looking for wilderness and then promptly pollute it?

Another ranger was at the trailhead checking timed entry passes. This trailhead isn’t outside the Park, but you don’t have to go through an entrance station to get here. When we arrived on Monday there was nobody performing this check.

Ed stopped in Grand Lake for some ice cream before we re-entered the Park for the drive over Trail Ridge. Approaching the entrance station, Ed’s ice cream cone suffered containment failure and he nearly wore the last few bites.

To the north were the smoke plumes from the Cameron Peak fire. The smoke blew to the east, and when we descended down the east side of the Divide we drove down into quite a thick soup. Some rain clouds made it look even darker but a look over our shoulders when we passed Deer Mountain showed us that the smoke here was much, much worse than we dealt with on our hike.

Final Thoughts

I’ve hiked the East Inlet Trail three times now, once as a day hike, once with a one-night stay, and now with a two-night stay. I’ve visited all the places along this trail that interest me with the exception of Adams Falls, which is the easiest feature to visit on this trail.

In general, the valley of the East Inlet is a beautiful place to visit and worth the effort of climbing all those stairs. And Devil’s Ladder is a dramatic piece of trail offering an expansive view of the Grand Lake area.

More specifically, our visit to Ten Lake Park was a bit of a challenge but, I think, well worth the calories burned.

Lake Verna 1

My second backpacking trip of the year is a two-night stay at the Lake Verna campsite. This is very similar to my trip two years ago when Gordon and I stayed one night at the Upper East Inlet campsite with the goal of bagging Fifth Lake. That was the trip where I learned I need to spend two nights in camp instead of one. One day to hike in, a day to visit whatever the real goal of the trip is, and a day to hike out.

In that earlier trip report I went on a bit about the condition of the trail. Specifically, that there are an almost uncountable number of stair steps to negotiate and there are quite a few impressive retaining walls and bridge abutments. It’s what I would call a “highly engineered trail”. Rather than repeat that, I’ll go into some of the trail’s history. Much of this info comes from an application the Park made to get the trail into the National Register of Historic Places.

Unlike the North Inlet and Tonahutu Creek, the East Inlet doesn’t offer any sort of easy route from Grand Lake over the Continental Divide. Which is to say that before about a century ago there were no existing trails through the valley. According to Charles Edwin Hewes, a local who wrote about his tramp through the valley, no feasible trail existed there in 1913. That summer, the Estes Park Trail (before it was the Estes Park Trail Gazette, I guess) said that “a new trail was made from Grand Lake to a chain of lakes six miles east of Grand Lake.” It would seem that this could only be describing the East Inlet.

The Trail does not name a trail builder, but in those days trails were often made by lodge keepers, guides, or other locals. Just because Hewes didn’t find a trail doesn’t mean one didn’t exist. It could mean that the trail was a more casual, less permanent style of trail that Hewes and his hiking group could have missed. Lodge keepers weren’t professional trail builders and didn’t have the resources for developing sustainable trails.

In 1919, Roger Toll, who would later become a superintendent of RMNP, recommended that mountaineers who wanted to get up the valley should just follow the waterway rather than to find a trail. In 1922, when he was superintendent, Toll reported that the trail was blocked by a rockslide near Lone Pine Lake. One would think that he wouldn’t report a trail closure unless there was a trail there. Park records don’t mention any trail construction there between 1919 and 1922.

By 1923, the East Inlet Trail had gained some popularity with the tourists. It also gained a bit of a reputation for being dangerous among local guides. The section called “Devil’s Ladder” was notoriously tricky for horses. Fred McLaren, in his first year as ranger, watched his horse slide over Devil’s Ladder and down the hill. I’m guessing it wasn’t one of the steeper bits, as the horse was just a little spooked. McLaren went to the superintendent (Toll, I believe) and suggested that if the Park supplied the food, locals would volunteer to do the work. In 1924 and 1925 such a crew built a new trail through the Devil’s Ladder area and made a handrail out of pipe. That handrail is long gone but the careful observer will note a couple remnants of it today.

In spite of McLaren’s efforts to build a sturdy, sustainable trail all the way to Lake Verna, in 1931 the entire trail was considered “poor”. In 1931 and 1934, trail workers redeveloped the section between Lone Pine Lake and Lake Verna. I don’t know how much of the work was done in 1931 as opposed to 1934, but I suspect the bulk of the work was done in 1934. This section is remarkable today for it’s extensive dry-rock walls and intricate bridge abutments. In the summer of 1934, Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration funded two shifts a day to make these improvements.

In 1935, there was some interest in connecting the East Inlet Trail to the North Inlet Trail. This would have been accomplished by a route over the saddle between Mt. Alice and Andrews Peak. A survey was completed, but given the great distance from both trailheads, it’s not surprising that this was never done as it would get very little traffic.

Another big improvement project was completed in 1940 when the Civilian Conservation Corps worked on the section between Adams Falls and the Devil’s Ladder. Then in 1970, another $70,000 project was implemented. This was mainly for improved sustainability rather than any realignment of the trail. Many older rock walls still remain, although the pipe handrail at Devil’s Ladder was removed at this time.

The official Park trail ends at Lake Verna, but an unimproved and unmaintained “fisherman’s” trail continues on to Spirit Lake, Fourth Lake, and Fifth Lake.

Which brings us to…

Monday, August 17

I reached out to Ed a couple of weeks in advance. I talked him into meeting at his place and having him drive to the trailhead. I said that because we had all day we didn’t need to get too early of a start. So I told him I’d be there at 8 am. He said that would be okay, but pointed out we’d be hiking in the heat of the day.

The other concern had to do with smoke. Specifically, from either the Cameron Peak fire, burning just north of the Park, or the Williams Fork fire, which is a bit farther from the Park and to the southwest. The prevailing winds blow from west to east, so I didn’t expect smoke from those fires, but I did expect smoke from the larger, more distant fires at Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch. I may have been a bit cavalier about the smoke: I suggested that if it was too bad, we’d just cut our trip short.

We were on the trail just a few minutes after 10 am. The weather was sunny and warm, with isolated clouds. The smoke wasn’t too bad. It was much worse in Denver on Friday, where visibility was quite limited and I could taste the smoke when I was in my back yard. Today I couldn’t smell it, let alone taste it. But it certainly didn’t look good.

Having all day, we made a leisurely time of it. We stopped for a lunch break halfway up Devil’s Ladder. We were in a relatively wide spot. Most of that section is quite narrow, particularly in these days of COVID. But we found a spot with a view that was wide enough to not cause a problem. And we put that to the test when two horses came up the trail. They were able to pass us with no difficulty. We took another break at Lone Pine Lake and even spent a few minutes admiring the stonework on the walls and bridges above Lone Pine Lake.

Climbing Devil’s Ladder

It was about 6 pm when we arrived at Lake Verna. There, we met two young men lounging by the water. They asked if we were staying the night and volunteered that they were camping at the Lake Verna campsite. “That’s our camp,” I told them. Ed and I went up to the campsite where we found their hammocks and gear all set up. There is only one campsite here, and it’s ours. When they came up from the lake I asked them if I could see their permit.They were supposed to be at Upper East Inlet.

We chatted a bit while they packed up. I felt a bit bad, but not that bad. It only took them a few minutes to get their stuff together. While they were packing they told us they’d just graduated from college and were making their way across the West. After RMNP they’d visit Flaming Gorge and Yellowstone. They had no reservations, but would take whatever was available when they arrived. That’s how they got Upper East Inlet. I’m a bit surprised it was available. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t available when I made the Lake Verna reservations back on March 2nd. Somebody probably cancelled due to COVID and these gents benefited.

Calm and somewhat smokey Lake Verna

In spite of our relaxed pace on the hike in, we were both pretty tuckered out. I managed to remain conscious quite some time after sunset. There’s not much sunset to see from here, being obscured by mountains and trees, but through some of the trees we could see the decidedly orange tint of the sunset. Until the stars began to shine, I wasn’t sure whether we had “clear” skies or clouds. Once the stars started coming out, we could tell there were no clouds. The stars directly above us twinkled normally, but those just above the nearby mountains were tinted orange from the smoke.

A tiny tree growing out of a giant stump

Tomorrow’s goal is Ten Lake Park.

I fell asleep fairly quickly.

Two Lions, a Snowbank, and a Castle

Saturday, August 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trio Falls

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

Lion Lake #2, from above

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

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

Snowbank Lake

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

Picnic view – Lion Lake #1 and Copeland Mtn.

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

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

Castle Lake, looking east

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

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

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

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

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

Two Rivers Lake, the Long Way

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Lake

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

Thursday, July 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephant’s heads

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

The final approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renegade 2

Monday, July 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

The upper unnamed pond

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

The lower unnamed pond

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

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

First glimpse of Murphy Lake

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

Murphy Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random trailside flora

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

The Gathering Storm

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

Gordon hiking; Big Meadow burn scar in the valley

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

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

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

Picnic vista

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

Obligatory Columbine picture

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Addendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renegade 1

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

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

Sunday, July 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renegade campsite

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

Haynach Lakes and Nakai Peak

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

Haynach Lakes

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

Snowdrift Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crystal Lake

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mummy Mountain and flood-scarred Roaring River

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

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

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

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

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

Lawn Lake, with Longs Peak in the distance

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

Mummy Mountain towers over Lawn Lake

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

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

Little Crystal Lake and Fairchild Mountain

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

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

Crystal Lake

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

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

Timetable

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