Back in my misspent youth, I organized a hike to Emerald Lake every year around the Memorial Day weekend. I didn’t keep track of when I started this, or how long it went on, but at one point I considered making a few t-shirts that said, “Umpteenth Annual Emerald Lake Hike”. This was my traditional first hike of the season. It was early enough that we were always hiking across snow, and both Dream and Emerald were still frozen, although not frozen enough to hike across.
Although I’m not generally a big fan of crowds when I hike, I still make it to Emerald Lake at least once a year. This time, I dragged Scott along. This was his first hike to Emerald.
As is usual, the weather along the Divide was much different than the surrounding area. It wasn’t exactly clear in Estes, but it wasn’t bad. The roads were dry until about a mile from the parking lot at Bear Lake, where we entered a snowstorm and the road became snowpacked. The Glacier Gorge lot was full, and I was a bit concerned that we’d find a full lot at the end of the road. I needn’t have worried – it was only about 2/3 full.
I was considering two different destinations: Emerald Lake and Two Rivers Lake. For a time, the trail to Odessa Lake was closed at the Flattop Mtn trail junction due to the fire last autumn. It’s open now, but the volunteers told me it has been getting very little traffic. Little enough, that is, that we’d need snowshoes rather than microspikes. I was feeling a bit on the lazy side, and there’s always enough traffic to Emerald that snowshoes aren’t needed.
To Scott, I described the hike as a “conga-line” hike. Not everybody who parked here at Bear Lake was going to Emerald, but most of them were. I guessed we might see fifty people when we got there.
At Nymph Lake, I generally try to follow the winter route rather than the summer route. I found some footprints and we followed them for a few yards, but this was not the “beaten path” and after we postholed a few times we retreated back to Nymph and opted for the summer route.
The ice at Dream Lake was covered by a few inches of freshly fallen snow. Typically, the wind keeps the ice clear, but it was quite calm today.
As has been usual lately, I’m often amused by the navigation questions I get from other hikers. I think the map at the trailhead is pretty clear. Either quite a few people can’t read maps, or choose not to. Everybody is just following somebody else up the trail, not terribly concerned with where they’re going. “How much farther to Gem Lake?” and “Is this Lake Haiyaha?” were my favorites from today. Also, standing on the ice at Emerald Lake, “Is there another lake above this one?”
A common problem with a January hike to Emerald Lake is, where to sit to take a break? Generally, if a rock here doesn’t have snow on it, it’s because of the harsh winds. It was calm and snowing, so no rocks were clear. We headed towards the western shore in search of something better than closer to the trail and came upon two young women taking pictures of each other. They had stripped down to their sports bras. Instagram culture.
We never did find a nice place to relax, so we ate our snacks standing up. Naturally, this limits the length of our break.
After our break, while we were still crossing the ice, I counted thirty-two people. Not quite the fifty I predicted, but it very well could be that eighteen people had come and gone while we were there.
On the way down, the winter route from Dream back to Nymph had gotten more traffic, so we went that way. We stopped a couple of times and I attempted to describe the nearby topography to Scott, but I didn’t do a very good job: visibility was better than when we started, but everything beyond the two large glacial knobs was obscured by snow. At one of these pauses, I spotted what looked like a brown disk at my feet. It was the bottom of a water bottle somebody had dropped. I meant to leave it at the trailhead but forgot about it. It’s a nice metal REI bottle.
Some hours later, Scott sent me a couple of Strava screen shots. It says we went 4.50 miles, which I think overstates it by a mile. It also says we averaged 1.8 mph. I really don’t think we were going that fast: I kept stopping to chat. I recall mentioning that I’m sometimes hiking with people who never stop talking, and today it was me who never stopped talking. Pot, meet kettle.
I don’t think I scared Scott off yet. He says he’s interested in going to Haiyaha this winter and wants to go on a longer summer hike, or maybe even a backpacking trip.
Today Ed led me on his off-trail route to the Loch. We met at the Bear Lake parking lot at eight and were on our way by a quarter after. I’ve been to the Loch many times, so I won’t waste a lot of words, but I will say that the weather was nearly perfect, with calm winds, a cloudless, brilliant blue sky, and a surprisingly balmy temperature near thirty. We were at the Loch by noon, and back to the car by two-thirty.
A bit of explanation may be useful for this one. The snow here was about fifteen inches deep, near the base of a north-facing slope. It was about the average depth we encountered, being quite thin where the wind blew and piled up in other places. Ed is noting the bottom layer of the snow. That first snowfall got melted by the heat still in the earth, then re-frozen. Subsequent snow storms were obvious in the layers.
I should have taken a picture of this in the morning, when it was more obvious that the hillside in the center of the photo had burned. I’m sure I’ll have many more opportunities for a better picture. I will note that there are signs forbidding people from walking in the moraine, but there are two people doing just that in the lower left of the photo.
Last week I took a little spin through the high country with some like-minded folks in the Lotus and Miata car clubs. Near the end of that drive, we crossed Guanella Pass, stopping for a short break at the summit. Here, I couldn’t help but notice, was the trailhead for the hike to the summit of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 (or 53, depending on how you count) fourteen thousand foot peaks.
Standing in the parking lot it struck me as a sort of no-brainer of a hike. I’ve said many times, and my history proves, that I prefer hiking to alpine lakes over hiking to the tops of mountains. When you’re standing on the top of a mountain, there is a lot of scenery around you, but it’s all miles away. At a lake, listening to the water lap the rocks at your feet, the beauty of the place is much more immediate: up close and personal.
To now, I’ve only done two 14ers: Longs and Quandary. There is a short list of others I’d like to “conquer”, if that’s not too dramatic a word. There are two main considerations. First, I’m not a big fan of exposure, so I’ll only consider routes that are Class 1 or Class 2. Second, for the most part, I’m limited to trailheads that I can reach in the Lotus. Both of these conditions are met here. So, what am I waiting for?
Now a side note: how are Colorado 14er’s counted? There are 58 peaks in the state that top out over 14,000′. But to be “ranked”, a peak must rise at least 300 feet above the saddle that connects it to the nearest 14er peak. There are five such peaks. Mount Bierstadt is the 38th highest of the 53 ranked 14ers. If you ignored the “300 foot saddle” rule, it would be 40th of 58.
Wednesday, October 7
This trail is one of the busiest of the summer 14er routes, so I was a bit concerned with getting a parking spot. On our visit last week, both parking lots were full and most of us parked alongside the road. That was okay for a short break but wouldn’t work at all for a six or seven hour hike. I decided to leave the house at six, arriving at the trailhead by 7:30 or so. If the lower lot was full, the upper lot would most likely still have spots.
There were still several spots in the lower lot when I arrived. One of the advantages of being here on an October weekday.
I put boots on the trail at 7:32. The first order of business is to descend a couple of hundred feet and cross a broad valley (if that word can be properly used in this geography) to reach the point where the trail actually begins the climb to the summit. This broad “valley” features several hundred acres of my hiking nemesis: willow.
To be fair, my detestation of willow manifests when I’m off-trail. If there’s no game trail through it, it’s best to go around. If you decide to cross a patch of willow, there’s no telling how much effort will be required to get through it. Here, there’s a nice trail through the stuff. Construction of the trail includes hundreds of yards of boardwalk, and the trail looks to be regularly maintained by trimming the plants that border the trail.
In these days of pandemic, I couldn’t help but notice that this boardwalk is only three feet wide. In the photograph, we can see less than half the length of this section. The hikers in the distance are on it. If you come across oncoming traffic, there’s no way to get six feet from them without jumping off the boardwalk. In places, the walk is a couple of feet off the ground. It’s nice and dry this time of year, but stepping off the boardwalk when things are still green means stepping into a marsh.
And with the willow growing almost six feet high, it’s next to impossible to see other hikers until you’re nearly on top of them.
In the willow where no boardwalk is required, it’s somewhat easier to distance yourself from other hikers. There are lots of short paths that lead away from the trail. These, judging by the amount of toilet paper on the ground here, are latrines. Keeping in mind that this part of the hike is within a mile of the trailhead, I was surprised at the sheer number of people who, evidently, couldn’t make it back to the toilets at the trailhead. (I’m pretty sure it’s not people who just embarked on their hikes.)
After crossing the willow field, the trail starts to climb. After a while, it gets steeper. But that’s just the steep bit before it gets really steep. Then, near the top, the trail disappears about 250′ of elevation below the summit. The route description at 14ers.com calls this bit “the crux of the route” and the reason it’s rated Class 2.
For much of the way, it’s clear from the trail condition that this route gets tons of traffic. Rather than a trail that’s a couple of feet wide, it’s often three or four times that. In quite a few places, it’s evident how much of the current trail is the “original” trail, with people widening it by walking on either side. Some of the steeper bits have had quite a bit of work done to remedy this. There are significant sections where the trail is a staircase of rocks.
Even with it being an October weekday, and the parking lots not yet full, there was quite a bit of traffic on the trail. I started meeting descending hikers before I had gone halfway. There weren’t that many, and I didn’t keep track. I did keep track, however, of the hikers going my way. A group of three (with a “small” Saint Bernard) passed me in the willows and a solo hiker zipped by me nearer the top. I passed eleven hikers before the “crux”, then four more before I gained the summit. It wasn’t that I was walking any faster than any of them, just that they kept stopping. I paused to take pictures or to drink water, but only stopped for a break once.
At the trailhead, I had estimated that it would take me three hours to reach the summit. I figured I could do the first mile in half an hour, then expected I’d be no faster than a mile an hour after that. Normally, my pace slows considerably when I’m above 11,000′. This whole hike is above that, starting at nearly 11,700′. I made it a point to set a slow pace that I could hopefully maintain. It looks like I succeeded. I beat my target time, making it in two hours and forty minutes.
The weather was fantastic. There wasn’t a cloud in the skies all day, and the wind was calm, even at the summit. I didn’t notice any wind at all until I was about half way back to the trailhead at about 12:30. And that breeze didn’t last. It was cool in the morning – I wore a thermal undershirt, an Aloha shirt, and a hoodie. I didn’t take the hoodie off until halfway down the trail, and ditched the thermal layer when I got back to the car.
I spent about 45 minutes at the summit, eating my picnic lunch and enjoying a beer. There were never fewer than a dozen people up there. I didn’t see a register or a USGS marker. I asked a few people, none of them saw them either.
I met two young nurses. They sat near me. I noticed that as soon as they sat down, they checked their blood oxygen level with a fingertip pulse oximeter. I asked if I could check mine. It read 93%. They were joking that, at the trailhead, one of them measured only 62%. Evidently, these devices don’t work very well in the cold.
Another young woman was asking if anybody was going to do Mt. Evans from here. She was hiking solo and without a map. In researching this hike, I didn’t look into the combination route that would get you to both summits. But judging by the terrain, there isn’t any route I’d be willing to take. She wisely gave up on her goal. She had recently moved to Colorado and was now living near Aspen. She’d started climbing 14ers this summer, and Bierstadt was her ninth. She really wanted to get a tenth before the snows. I suggested she try Quandary. She thought that was a good idea.
Although the weather was great, the visibility wasn’t. Normally from up at these elevations, you can see great distances. When I was on Quandary, a high school student was pointing out and naming a bunch of 14ers. We could see Pikes Peak, Mt. Evans, Longs Peak, the Maroon Bells, and many others. Today, here on Bierstadt, the only one of these I could see was Mt. Evans, which is, of course, only about a mile away. The haze was fairly uniform, except to the north, where it was thicker, presumably from the Cameron Peak fire.
As is the usual case for me, my hike back to the car wasn’t any faster than my hike up. I stopped several times to take pictures, or to give encouraging words to those on their way to the top. In greeting, people typically ask some variation of “How are you doing?” On a day like today, the answer is “Fantastic!”
This was only my third 14er. Maybe next year I’ll try to get a two-fer: Grays and Torreys.
We awoke to another beautiful day in the neighborhood. That is, I should say “I awoke” because Gordon had a sleepless night.
Last night when I hit the sack, I plugged my phone into my battery. For some reason, the phone insists on being powered on when it’s charging. It read 46%. A few minutes later, it read 47%. Good, it’s charging. When I woke up, the phone was at 0%. The cable had come undone and the phone just ran down.
This is a bit of a problem. The phone is my only camera. The SLR, which failed on the Renegade trip, was still not back from Canon. I plugged the phone back into the battery and set it on a stable base. It got up to 38% by the time we hit the trail a bit before nine.
This might be the time for peak aspen in the Park, I don’t know. There aren’t many aspens in the valley. It’s all pine, so you might not expect much color. You’d be wrong. In this pine forest, the autumn colors are on the ground. The leaves go from green to green and yellow to yellow to gold then a bright red and finally to a dull brown. Sometimes large areas are all one color, sometimes all the colors show up within a few feet.
I’d said that we’d be to Nokoni in an hour (which is what it took yesterday) and to Nanita an hour after that. As expected, it did take an hour to reach Nokoni, but we made it from Nokoni to Nanita in forty minutes. None of that territory was new to me. I had also said it would take another hour to get to Catherine. That turned out to be quite optimistic.
We made our way across Nanita’s outlet and quickly found a game trail. I thought of yesterday’s ranger calling them “moose trails”. I’m not sure why I found it amusing, but I did. You know you’re on a good game trail when you keep finding poo. Elk pellets and moose patties.
It didn’t take us too long to get out in the open. There are three great cirques between Ptarmigan Mountain and Andrews Peak. To our right we had a nice view of the one closest to Andrews. The ramp we were climbing got pretty steep. I took my time, often checking out the view behind me.
The top of the saddle is 600′ above Nanita. Catherine is 800′ below us, but out of sight around the corner. Directly in front of us, about a mile away, is a pass, another saddle. There’s a small pond there, a couple of hundred feet below the top. A century ago, there were plans to make a trail connecting Spirit Lake and ‘Lake Catherine’. Presumably, that is where the trail would have gone.
There at the top Gordon and I parted ways. He wanted to take a more direct, slightly steeper route to Catherine. I opted for the longer, shallower arc, out of the trees. It was nice, easy walking for the most part, generally following game trails. Only as I approached the lake did I need to get back to the edge of the trees to avoid giant boulders.
I got to Catherine at 12:30, so three and three-quarters hours. I found Gordon, who said he hadn’t been waiting long. But he is a patient man, so he may have been enjoying the wait. We scouted the northwestern shore for a place to snack and relax in the sun but out of the wind.
We spotted a promising place nearly opposite us, but on closer inspection, the trees there were swaying pretty good in the wind. We continued along the shore. The spot we eventually picked was pleasant enough, a few chill gusts excepted.
Gordon couldn’t resist pointing out that he put all this effort into getting to one of the least visited lakes in the Park, only to find me there, too.
After our relaxing picnic, we started our bushwhack. I have a good idea that Foster would call it an “arduous bushwhack”.
One of the great things about hiking at this time of year, other than the fantastic colors on the ground, is that everything is much dryer. All the streams are running quite low and are much easier to cross. The grassy marshes are more grass than marsh now. This would be much more difficult earlier in the season when it’s all wet.
According to the map, it didn’t matter which side of the outlet we descended until we came to a pond two hundred feet below the lake. At this pond, we’d need to go down the right side to avoid some steep terrain. We had good game trails and there wasn’t too much deadfall.
Below this pond, things got interesting. It was easy going when we had game trails to follow, but we started coming across denser deadfall. We didn’t worry too much about staying close to the stream, all we had to do was go downhill. Maybe half an hour after leaving the pond we came across a stream. I thought, “Ah, a tributary!” But checking the map, we’d arrived at the North Inlet. Although the stream we’d been following from Catherine carries about the same volume of water as the stream that flows from Lake Powell, it’s farther to Lake Powell, so that stream is the North Inlet while the one we’d been paralleling has no name.
We didn’t need to cross the North Inlet so we didn’t. Yet. We followed it for just a few yards before returning to our unnamed stream. This we crossed. After a while, we decided that the “grass was greener” on the other side of the North Inlet, so we crossed it. This we did a few times before we were done.
Once, on the north side of the stream, our game trail petered out in a mass of deadfall. We were working our way slowly through here when we heard an elk bugle. I asked Gordon how far away he thought that was. A few minutes later through the trees he spotted a bull and some cows about a hundred yards ahead of us, crossing our path, headed uphill. The bull stopped and bugled. Given how far the sound travels, I expected it to be much louder. Another bull some ways behind us bugled a response. How close was he?
We worked our way through the deadfall and had easy going for only a short distance. We entered another pile of deadfall. This one, though, was different. Instead of the trees lying in random directions, here they were all facing one way. And the dead trunks weren’t still connected to their roots. The roots were still in the ground, with stumps two or three or four feet tall, splintered. This is an avalanche debris field.
Crossing the North Inlet for the last time, we began searching for Lake Solitude (not to be confused with Solitude Lake, in Glacier Gorge). This is a small forest lake with no inlet or outlet. In the proximity of Solitude, the stream meanders through a large open meadow. We wandered around a bit, backtracked a little, made at least a token search for it, but didn’t stumble upon it.
The rest of the way back to camp, there weren’t any serious obstacles. There weren’t that many game trails, either, but so it goes. Before we knew it, we spotted Gordon’s hammock. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig!
We left Catherine a few minutes after one and arrived in camp at 4:30, so we managed about a mile an hour. I’ve done worse. My trip to Julian Lake a couple of months ago had some brutal stretches. And up Spruce Canyon with Gordon last year we could only manage half a mile an hour.
To celebrate the completion of our little odyssey we drank the rest of the beer Gordon carted up and had dinner. The skies weren’t quite clear, just some thin, high clouds; a lacy veil that slightly diffused the light of the gibbous moon.
Before dusk, another helicopter flew over. It followed the trail up the mountain towards the Divide. A few minutes later we heard another chopper, but couldn’t spot it. Maybe it was the same one, on its return trip. This was not the cargo helicopter, I think it was the same kind as the one I saw on my Hunters Creek hike – a rescue chopper.
Not long after, Gordon spotted a blinking light on the mountainside across from us. It was random, intermittent. It didn’t take us long to see that it was not one but several lights. We discussed it: we agreed it probably wasn’t aliens, and elk don’t generally carry lights. It had to be people, right? What were they doing up there, wandering around like that? Was it a search party?
Well, I didn’t print a map of that part of the trail. We weren’t going that way, and I didn’t pay particular attention to the layout of the trail. I knew there were a couple of large switchback sections, but thought they were farther up the valley, out of our sight. I was wrong. The first switchbacks, climbing six hundred feet, were directly in front of us. We’d been watching a group of six or eight hikers work their way down the mountain on the trail.
Tonight, Gordon gave up before I did. I wasn’t as cold as I was last night, so wasn’t in as big of a hurry to climb into the warm sleeping bag.
We didn’t see another person all day.
Saturday, September 26
I took my obligatory excursion at one. The thin veil of clouds was gone, the air was calm.
We were packed up and on the trail a bit before nine. It took us four hours to hike in, we should be able to beat that by a bit on the way out. On most backpacking trips, the pack weighs heavily on my back on the hike out, but today I felt pretty good.
We ran into another ranger. This one was hiking in. When we came upon him, he was talking to a woman backpacker on her way out. We chatted a bit. I asked if there was some search operation last night. There wasn’t, so we were seeing hikers. The woman somehow knew that a group had gotten a late start. They didn’t make it to camp (or out? I’m not sure) until 11:00 pm.
We told him we’d been to Catherine. He said, “People used to walk all through these forests twelve or fifteen years ago. Not as much now; there’s too much deadfall from the pine beetle.” He told us he was working “pre-rescue”. He was on the lookout for people “wearing flip-flops and not carrying any water.”
As we got closer to the trailhead, we encountered more and more hikers. At first, I was counting them. Once they started coming in groups of four or six or more, I switched to counting dozens. In the end, I figured it was 8 or 9 dozen. I couldn’t help but wonder where they all parked. I don’t think there’s room for much more than a dozen cars in the lot. (Most of them were parked on the paved road a quarter-mile below the trailhead.)
I did get a bit of a kick from some of the questions people asked me. “Did you make it all the way? All the way to the falls?” The falls are the first point of interest on the trail. Yes, I made it “all the way”. Another one saw my big backpack and asked, “Are you backpacking?”
Back at the trailhead, I was happy to be done.
But, boy, what a satisfying trip! The weather was great, the scenery awesome. I felt great the whole time. We saw an elk bugle, marveled at mysterious lights, and went to one of the least visited lakes in the Park.
My third and final backcountry permit is for the 24th and 25th at Pine Marten, the campsite at the base of the spur trail to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. I’ve been to both of them on day trips. Once to Nanita and once failing to reach Pettingell Lake. This time, the idea is to get to ‘Lake Catherine’, the officially unnamed lake highest in the valley between Andrews Peak and Mount Alice.
The Foster Guide says it’s 12.8 miles from the trailhead with an elevation gain of 1,800′. This is not a fair description. Her route is from Lake Nanita, which has the hiker crossing a ridge at just over 11,000′ and another that reaches nearly 11,400′ to get to a lake at only 10,600′. There is another way to get there without gaining and losing so much elevation: follow the stream.
The Pine Marten campsite is at something like 7.8 miles in, and sits at 9,500′. The route via Nanita, then, is five miles and climbs a total of 2100 feet. The bushwhack is maybe 3.5 miles and gains about 1000 feet. The Nanita route is quite scenic and navigation is trivial. The bushwhack route is through dense forest with few views and constantly challenging route-finding.
After pondering for some time, I decided a loop might be the best way: take the Nanita route to get there and bushwhack on the return trip. As a bonus, it should be easy to pick up Lake Solitude.
Thursday, September 24
Gordon drove; we had our choice of spaces in the small parking lot at the trailhead and were hiking before nine. It was a beautiful morning, with some high, thin, wispy clouds. There was a fair amount of haze when you faced the sun, but a nice, deep blue with the sun to your back. No breeze to speak of.
Just a few minutes after passing the cabin at the Park boundary we heard our first elk bugle.
Not long after that a helicopter flew over. It was a cargo chopper, with counter-rotating blades. It wasn’t carrying anything. A few minutes later, it came back down the valley. This was the first of what ultimately was five round trips. After the empty run, it had what looked like a telephone pole dangling vertically; something as big as the telephone pole, but carried horizontally; a pallet stacked with large crates; and finally two nets full of smaller items.
This last drop we had a sort of front-row seat. Just before reaching the stringer bridge that crosses the North Inlet, we were stopped by a ranger wearing a fluorescent vest: “You have to wait here a minute.” They’re staging the materials to rebuild the bridge. The work won’t get started until next summer, but they said they were lucky to get helicopter time, given the demands of the Cameron Peak fire.
We chatted with them a bit. One gal had worked on the crew doing the big boardwalk project on the Onahu Creek trail. She said they still had three weeks to go. Another ranger said he’d been to Catherine. I asked if he went from Nanita or up the creek. “Up the creek. Not much deadfall.” Gordon heard “Lots of deadfall.” In any event, it confirmed the “Nanita there, bushwhack back” loop was doable.
We learned that the first, empty, trip of the helicopter was to hit the landing zone with its prop wash, knock anything loose out of the trees. The landing zone wasn’t a natural occurrence: it looks like they cut down a number of trees.
The bridge is looking pretty sad. There are a couple of patches on it, but it looks like a careless horse could break a leg. The materials they dropped looked to be an upgrade from the existing structure. I believe the current bridge is the second one, built in the 1970s.
Our campsite was just a few more yards up the trail. There are two sites here, we took Pine Marten #2, the higher of the two. Google maps has the location of the campsite wrong. I like the actual location over Google’s misinformation. It’s right on the North Inlet. Very easy access to water, and I find the sound of the rushing water quite pleasant.
We made excellent time, averaging a bit less than two miles per hour. It is a fairly mellow trail; when I day hiked it, I managed two and a half miles an hour. This is the longest stretch of trail in the Park that I can maintain that pace. Having arrived so early, we headed up to Nokoni. Then, depending on how I felt, we could possibly visit Pettingell.
They need to send a crew up this trail with a saw and clear the deadfall that blocks the trail in several places. The first, and biggest, was just below the campsite – we had to navigate that with the big packs.
It took us an hour to get to Nokoni. I decided I’d rather lounge about the lake than hike another two hours and climb a steep 500′ slope. Gordon thought the extra hiking was just the thing and headed off up the slope. I found a spot on the opposite shore and followed his progress. He made much better time than I could. Before he left, he told me he’d signal me from the top to tell me whether he’d continue on down to the lake or abandon the quest. I watched him climb most of the way but lost him just before he got to the top, so I don’t know what he signaled.
Ultimately, he was gone for an hour and a half. He put eyes on the lake but didn’t quite get there. I think I made a sound choice. It would have been more like two hours for me. I might think differently had Gordon made it, but I was comfortable with the day’s effort.
On the way back to camp we ran into a solo hiker. He was wondering if he could make it to Nanita. He was staying well below us, back by Ptarmigan Creek, at either Ptarmigan or Porcupine. Given how far he had to go back, I suggested that going to Nanita might put him in the dark before he got back to his camp. He told us he’d bought a permit for Lost Lake, but due to the Cameron Peak fire, they moved him to Porcupine.
Back to camp at 5:15, we chowed down and chatted and had a beer. It had been a nice, warm day all day, calm, very pleasant. The wispy clouds were gone by mid-afternoon. When the sun went down, it started to cool down fast. Before long, I was wearing nearly everything I brought: long underwear, t-shirt, sweats, hoodie, and the rain jacket on top of all that. A few minutes after eight, I called it quits and climbed into the tent and sleeping bag. It took me a while to get warm.
By the time of my inevitable nocturnal excursion, the quarter moon had set and the stars were shining brightly. I didn’t see the Milky Way but I could see the light pollution from Denver.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.