Upper Ouzel Creek 3

August 5, 2022

Friday was a short day. We were all packed up and ready to go by 8 am. We could have hung out up there for an additional while, but, frankly, I was looking forward to a shower. Sweat, sunscreen, and bug spray would make a terrible cologne. And did I mention the mosquitoes?

I was a bit amused by questions from many of the hikers we encountered on our way out. At least three times I was asked if we camped. I think it’s pretty obvious that we camped: if you’re not camping, why would you be carrying a big backpack?

My other favorite type of question is along the lines of “Did you make it all the way?” or “Did you make it to the lake?” All the way to where? To which lake? There are a number of destinations on this trail: Calypso Cascade, Ouzel Falls, Ouzel Lake, Bluebird Lake, and some more beyond the trail’s end. I guess people get focused on where they’re going and assume everybody is going to the same place.

Because I keep track of when I get to each navigation point, I always have a pretty good idea of how long it’ll take me to get back to the trailhead. Sometimes, the last half hour of the hike out can be a mental struggle. Time seems to stretch. Particularly on the third day of hiking, I’m pretty fatigued. I just keep telling myself to put one foot in front of the other. This time, thinking I’d just about gotten back to the parking lot, a large group of young kids was hiking in. They were singing 99 Bottles of Beer. I’ve hated that song since junior high school, but it cheered me up. They were on 71, so I knew I only had 29 bottles of beer to go before I was finished!

More Visuals

I didn’t take any pictures on the hike out. So here are a couple more slideshows. The first is some of the flowers I came across over the three days.

More flowers, but with pollinators!

Readers who have been paying attention may be wondering if there’s a missing timelapse video. It’s not missing, I’m just spreading them out. This is the second angle I shot sitting at Bluebird Lake the first afternoon.

Dam History

As I said in an earlier entry, the dam at Bluebird Lake was removed in 1989-90 when they airlifted out five million pounds of concrete and reinforcing steel. I couldn’t help but wonder how they got the five million pounds in there. (Yes, I know they didn’t bring that much in. They’d have sourced the water, sand, and aggregate on-site.)

Concrete is cement, water, sand, and aggregate. What machines do you need to build a concrete dam there? How many men were on the crew? How do get all the men and materiel up there without a road? For Sandbeach Lake, they built a road and there are stretches of trail today where you could easily drive a two-wheel drive SUV. There’s nothing road-like on the hike to Bluebird.

Back in 1922, the lead engineer on the project wrote a small article for an engineering magazine – just a few paragraphs – about transporting materials to the dam site. The dam had a structural height of 58 feet and a hydraulic height of 55 feet. It was nearly 150 feet long.

unknown date (Loveland Reporter Herald)

The engineer tells us that they can only work between July 14 and September 10 and that it took three years. He also mentions that everything had to be transported six miles, which tells me the trucks were being unloaded at the current trailhead, or the old cabin or thereabouts.

There was no sand on site, so they needed a rock crusher and an automobile engine to run it. They took these machines apart and hauled them up on burros. Each season they had to transport two thousand bags of cement, on burros. And they needed the rebar. This was tied in bundles and a bundle was attached to a wagon axle, the other end dragging on the ground. The axle was drawn by a team of four horses and the driver balanced on the axle.

Each burro carries two bags of cement. The season is 56 days, which means an average of 36 bags a day, or 18 burros. (Presumably, these are 50-lb bags. They probably didn’t carry more than a hundred pounds each.) The rock crusher engine needs fuel, so more burros carry cans of gasoline.

We don’t know how big the crew was, or where they stayed. Did the crew commute the twelve-mile round-trip every day, or did they have a camp on-site? If they camped, the tents and field kitchens needed to go up each season, and food and other supplies for the duration. And they’d have needed to have a latrine on-site.

In any event, every day for fifty-six days a year, give or take, you’d have round-trips for a four-horse team, twenty or twenty-five burros and their muleskinners (or whatever the proper term is for burros), and an unknown number of men.

I don’t know anything about burros, but I imagine they can go where I can go. But I’m doubtful about that four-horse team dragging a wagon axle. At least not above where our campsite is, not where the trail is today.

The dam (originally named Arbuckle #2) was built as an element of Longmont’s irrigation system, as were the several other dams that used to be in the Park. They were all removed in the aftermath of the Lawn Lake flood. Parts of the berms are still standing at Lawn Lake and Sandbeach Lake. Those lakes, as well as Pear Lake, all still have obvious bathtub stains.

At Bluebird, when you stand a short distance from the inlet on the north side and look back to where the trail dumps hikers onto the shore of the lake, you can see where the dam used to be. It’s been gone 32 years. Why isn’t there a more noticeable bathtub ring?

The Bluebird Lake dam was inspected a week after Lawn Lake failed. The water level was forty-two feet below the top of the dam, or just under fourteen feet deep at the lower outlet. The dam’s lower outlet was six feet below the lake’s original outlet. That may or may not be where the current outlet is, but it can’t be far. The upper outlet was larger, near the center of the dam, twenty-five feet below the crest. So, in 1982, the lake was only eight feet above its level before the dam was built. It must have been that empty for a long time before 1982.

Which evidently was a good thing. The inspection report stated that the thin mortar on the faces and crest was spalled off over extensive areas. “Lift lines” are the horizontal lines between the layers that occur between concrete placing cycles. There was significant erosion on the downstream face along the lift lines and the lift lines were probably unbonded.

As well, the concrete in the structure was poor compared to other similarly constructed dams of the same time. A pocket was found on the upstream face that was twenty-one inches deep. Several places tested with a geologist’s pick showed very little cementitious material. In places, the plum stones (those up to nearly a foot in diameter) were too numerous and placed closer to the face than allowed by the specifications.

The city of Longmont sent men out every year to clean the outlet, which had a tendency to collect a buildup of material. The city said the lower outlet had been inoperable in 1974. At the time of the inspection, the upper outlet had been dismantled: missing the drive gear, shaft, and crank assembly.

If the dam was in such sad shape in 1982, why wasn’t it taken out before? Today, concrete dams must be inspected every 3-5 years. I don’t know if it was different fifty years ago, or if, because of the low water level, it was considered out of commission and didn’t require inspections. I can only surmise that, with the water level not much higher than it was originally, it was felt that the danger of failure was minimal and that Button Rock Reservoir could handle it. But I find it hard to believe its general condition was not well known.

It’s unfortunate I never hiked there when the dam was still standing. I’d been as far as Ouzel Falls in the 80s, but at the time, I considered a twelve-mile roundtrip hike out of my range. Ah, my “misspent youth”.

Upper Ouzel Creek 2

Thursday, August 4

I would say I woke up around 6:00 but that wouldn’t be exactly true. The reality is that I never really got back to sleep after my attempt at astrophotography. I did get some sleep, but for the most part, I just tossed and turned. So it goes.

After breakfast, Gordon and I hit the trail a few minutes before eight. The trail only goes as far as Bluebird Lake, where we arrived in less than half an hour. Yesterday, while sitting on the shore of Bluebird for hours, I pointed out to Gordon the route I used to reach Pipit Lake several years ago and made some suggestions as to how we should attack Isolation Lake.

First, we cross the outlet. Step over three or four rocks in the stream, then climb a crack in the rock on the other side. Even though I did this round-trip when I hiked solo to Pipit, I knew I’d have a little heartburn over the descent back down the crack on the return trip. I’ve done it before, I know I can do it again, so why do I let it bother me? If this is my biggest problem for the day, I’m okay with that.

On the north shore of Bluebird is a rather large talus field. We crossed this fairly high up the slope and continued to climb on the other side, staying to the north of where Pipit hikers would go. We were essentially aiming for a spot a couple of hundred yards north of Lark Pond (which we couldn’t yet see) while trying not to get into any of the patches of willow that are in our path. We had soon reached a flatish bench and past any terrain we could see yesterday from Bluebird.

We weren’t entirely able to avoid all the willow and had to power through a few yards of the nasty stuff before coming out on the next bench. Before long, we were at the foot of a rather steep climb across another talus field. Gordon and I took different routes. I think his involved quite a bit more talus than mine. I think the talus could be avoided by swinging farther to the south and that might be an easier route, if a bit longer.

Isolation Lake sits a few feet below 12,000′, about 300′ below the saddle between Isolation Peak and Mahana Peak. The lake is not very large, a bit less than two acres. We paused here for about fifteen minutes, which I spent mostly gazing at the slope we’d need to climb to continue on to Frigid Lake. We’d climb the three hundred feet to gain the saddle and any route would involve a slope angle exceeding 35 degrees. That might not sound too bad to many people, but it’s about as steep a slope as I want to climb. Not so much for the climbing bit as for the descending bit.

Greeting the hiker upon gaining the saddle is a very dramatic view of the mountains to the north. In the near distance is Tanima Peak, just over a mile away as the crow files. Tanima is dwarfed by the mountains to the north: from left to right (west to east) are Mount Alice and Pilot Mountain, Chiefs Head Peak, Longs Peak, and Mount Meeker.

The slope down the north side of the saddle is somewhat gentler than what we just climbed. It’s a nice stroll across tundra, until the next talus field. Descending across the talus, the slope continues to steepen slowly, revealing that we’d soon need to skirt around a snow field. Grassy bits become few and far between. The final descent to Frigid Lake is down from a small ridge that skirts the south side of the lake. It’s more talus.

It was now nearly noon. We’d been hiking for four hours, mostly off trail, all of it at high elevations, and the last few yards down to the lake are talus. I capitulated. I found a nice comfy spot to take a break and have a snack. Gordon continued down to the shore of the lake. Purists might suggest that because I didn’t dip my feet in the lake, I hadn’t really visited it. I say I was close enough, purists be damned.

I dug through my backpack to find that I somehow managed to leave the GoPro in the tent, so no timelapse video from either Frigid or Isolation. Oops.

After about half an hour, I whistled to Gordon that I was heading back. Gordon is a much faster hiker than I am. No matter how much of a head start I take, he always catches up to me in short order. This time, he caught me by the time I got to the little snow field.

In my planning, I couldn’t help but note that from the top of the saddle between Isolation Peak and Mahana Peak that the summit of Mahana is only three hundred feet higher and it can be reached by making a short detour without dealing with any steep slopes. I have no doubt Gordon could have done it quickly and easily, but it’s a bit too much for me to do both Frigid Lake and summit Mahana. I’m not particularly disappointed that I didn’t even think about summiting Mahana when I was so close.

Just before reaching Isolation Lake on our return trip, we spotted a trio of bighorn sheep ewes. This is only the second time I’ve seen bighorn sheep in the park. Previously it was a large herd of ewes and yearlings and they were a couple of hundred yards away. These three were much closer. We watched them for a few minutes. At first, two of them would keep an eye on us while the third grazed. In the end, they must have figured we weren’t a threat and paid no more attention to us.

Our second break at Isolation Lake was about an hour long. The weather didn’t look too threatening, which can be a risky line of thought here below the Divide. Even with the extended break, I was still feeling the effects of climbing up and down the mountain at more than two miles above sea level. I do fine at nine or ten thousand feet, but above tree line it’s a different story.

The trip back to Bluebird was fairly straightforward. We didn’t exactly follow our route up but managed to again avoid most of the willow. Couldn’t avoid the talus, though, which was really wearing out my legs.

After a short break at Bluebird, I headed down to our camp for nourishment. And a beer. (Today’s beer was a repeat: Left Hand Brewing’s Wheels Gose Round, a delicious sour gose made with raspberry and lemon.)

Back at camp meant back in mosquito central. In that regard, the evening was a repeat of yesterday. Gordon had a bit of fun with it, though. He noticed that the corpse of one of the mosquitoes he had killed had been carted off by an ant. He dispatched fifteen or eighteen more blood-suckers and piled their remains where the ant had found the first one. Had he done this closer to my tent I might have worried I’d have to deal with a line of ants.

Having missed the opportunity to record timelapse videos at the lakes, I ran the camera to see what sort of results I might get by shooting the rugged northern flank of Copeland Mountain. As we had last night and all afternoon, there were some clouds. But they pretty much cleared up right at sunset, so I set an alarm so I could have another try getting a Milky Way shot. Unfortunately, at 11:30 I woke up to high, thin clouds and got right back into the tent.

Here’s today’s timelapse:

Upper Ouzel Creek 1

I’ve been planning this backpacking trip for several years now. The idea is to reach both Isolation Lake and Frigid Lake. It may be possible that I could reach Isolation Lake on a day hike, but after my visit to Eagle and Box Lakes (reached from Thunder Lake), I decided that Foster’s route to Frigid Lake would not work for me. The answer, I decided, was to camp at Upper Ouzel Creek and try to reach both lakes from there.

In fact, I made the attempt a few years ago. It was not well thought out. I somehow decided that a trip in the first week of July would work just fine. There was so much snow. I was able to pitch my tent on dry ground, but the campsite featured several snowdrifts. I didn’t even make it to Bluebird Lake that time, let alone another thousand feet of elevation to Isolation. Needless to say, I took a bit more care in choosing when to make another attempt.

I keep telling myself that, on one of these trips, I’ll try to get a photo of the night sky: the Milky Way. When selecting my dates, though, I don’t give any consideration to the lunar calendar. This time I got a bit lucky. The moon would be in the first quarter and would set not long after the sun. So for this trip, I’ll bring the tripod. It’s an extra four pounds. And, while I’m adding extra weight, why not bring the critter cam? What’s one more pound?

Wednesday, August 3

Gordon decided to join me on this trip and I managed to talk him into driving. I told him that our first day’s hike wasn’t long so we didn’t need to get an early start, but I was concerned about getting a parking spot at the trailhead. The timed-entry passes are in effect for Wild Basin, but only after 9 am. However, I’m sure the parking lot fills up well before then. So it was an early start nonetheless. We arrived a bit before 7:30 to find plenty of available parking.

I’ve described the route to Bluebird Lake in earlier posts, so I won’t repeat myself.

I think I first hiked this trail back in 2008 or so. That would have been thirty years after the Ouzel fire. There’s a section of trail that runs along the top of a ridge above Ouzel Falls to the junction with the spur trail to Ouzel Lake. This section of trail was a bit of a two-edged sword: with no trees, the open views of all the surrounding mountains are impressive, but with no shade, the hiker is subject to the merciless sun.

Today, though, I was struck by how much the trees have grown in the last few years. The once open view is getting closed in. The vast majority of young pine trees are more than six feet tall now. Our two-edged sword is no more: the trees block the views but don’t provide any shade. So it goes.

The Upper Ouzel Creek campsite, by my reckoning, is about a third of a mile below Bluebird Lake. The trail signs indicate it’s farther. It’s a steep third of a mile, though, gaining nearly four hundred feet. I think my favorite part of the trail to Bluebird is a steep section just above the campsite. Maps of the area don’t indicate any switchbacks, probably because they’re too close together to show. Those switchbacks carry the hiker up a slope carpeted with wildflowers. The whole rainbow is represented: yellow flowers make up the majority, but there are red, orange, blue, indigo, and violet flowers, too.

We arrived at our campsite just as the prior occupants were packing up. They were there to fish; they stayed two nights and dipped their lines in both Bluebird and Ouzel, but no luck at Bluebird.

Having arrived at our destination before noon, we had plenty of time to kill. We were done setting up camp and eating lunch by 1 pm and so headed up to Bluebird to sit and relax and watch the world go by.

I was a bit surprised to see several hikers reach the lake after we did. One group, a family of four, stayed at Bluebird until about 4 pm. I guess because I have an hour-and-a-half drive home after my hikes, I want to be back to the car no later than 5 or 5:30. Those folks, if they kept up a good hiking pace, wouldn’t be back to the trailhead until 8 pm.

We hung out at the lake for nearly four hours. The weather seemed to be threatening: the white, puffy clouds grew bigger and darker but we never got more than a few sprinkles. Down the valley, though, it looked at times to be raining heavily. Without wind, it would have been comfortable in shirtsleeves, but it was breezy enough to warrant putting on a jacket.

I’m generally at these alpine lakes for no more than an hour, generally around noon. Being there a bit later and for an extended time I enjoyed watching the shadows change on the surrounding mountains. I ran the GoPro from two different positions, watched a little pika navigate through and around the rocks trying to avoid us humans, and investigated the nearby flora.

Gordon found some remnants of the dam that used to be here. I told him that I’d read about the removal of concrete. I was thinking I’d heard that 1,100 tons of concrete had been removed but was unsure of the number. It’s actually five million pounds of concrete and rebar. That’s 2,500 tons. They airlifted it out in 1989 and 1990 (well before my first visit here). I can’t help but wonder how they got that much material up here. There’s nothing like a road, or the remains of a road, and the dams in the area were all built around the turn of the twentieth century. The material sure wasn’t airlifted in. More on this topic later in another post.

Had I given it any thought, I might have taken my dinner with me to the lake. As no forethought was involved, we had to return to camp for dinner. The breeze we had at the lake was absent at camp. Normally, this is a good thing. But not tonight. We were besieged by mosquitoes.

I sprayed a liberal dose of repellent on all my exposed skin. This was only a partial solution. Before long, I applied a second coat and sprayed my clothes as well. These measures made it so the little buggers didn’t land on me, but it didn’t keep them away from me. From our arrival back at camp until dark, when I retreated to the tent, there were never less than a couple of dozen mosquitoes buzzing within twelve or fifteen inches of my head. While eating, I had to be careful not to ingest one accidentally. These mosquitoes were relentless.

Today’s beer was a Colorado Native Palisade Peach tart ale. Delicious.

Until dark, I kept a close monitor on the cloud situation. Several times it seemed like the clouds were finally breaking up, only to have another batch of them appear over the divide. By dark, I decided that the sky would soon enough be cloud-free, so I set an alarm for 11:30. I figured the quarter moon would be down by then, the skies would be clear, and I’d be able to try my hand at astrophotography.

I was in luck: the skies had cleared. At least, I think they did. There may have been some high, thin clouds in the east. I had a couple of suggestions for exposure settings. I tried them, and a few others. It took only a few minutes, and I was back in the sack before midnight.

But I never really got back to sleep.

Finally, here’s the first timelapse of the trip:

The Data

I’ve been recording how long it takes me to hike from point A to point B for quite a while. I share the timetables so somebody else might be able to get a clue how long it might take them. In the table below, for example, someone who has gone to Ouzel Falls but not to Ouzel Lake can compare how long it took them to reach the falls to my time. Whether they were faster or slower to the Falls, they can extrapolate a time for the hike to the lake. Also, next time I hike any of these sections of trail, I’ll have a good idea of how long it’ll take.

Trailhead7:25 am
Campsite shortcut8:00 am
Calypso Cascade8:14 am
Ouzel Falls8:45 am9:09 am
Bluebird/Ouzel trail jct9:21 am
Ouzel trail jct10:12 am
Campsite11:40 am
Arrival time and departure time are the same where no departure time is given

It didn’t really occur to me that I could use times from one hike and forecast how long it might take me to do another hike. Certainly, there are many factors. How steep is the trail? Am I carrying a backpack or a day pack? What’s the elevation? Am I on a trail or bushwhacking? How long was I hiking prior to a specific section – how fatigued am I?

StartEndDistance (Miles)Slope (Ft/Mile)Elapsed TimeMiles per Hour
TrailheadCampsite shortcut1.4250:352.4
Campsite shortcutCalypso Cascade0.4625:141.3
Calypso CascadeOuzel Falls0.8350:311.5
Ouzel FallsBluebird/Ouzel trail jct0.40:122.0
Bluebird/Ouzel trail jctOuzel trail jct1.4425:511.6
Ouzel trail jctCampsite1.54601:281.0
Distance and Slope are approximate

Frozen Lake

There is no shortage of stunning scenery in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d even say that that sentence is a bit of an understatement.

My loquacious nature shows up regularly on the trail when I have brief encounters with other hikers. In the back-and-forth of “where are you headed”, “where are you from”, and so on, it often comes up that I’ve traveled extensively through the Park. And, so, it’s only natural that I often get asked what’s my favorite place to visit.

It’s a surprisingly easy question to answer: Black Lake. Specifically, climb up the inlet stream two or three hundred feet of elevation. The views there are tough to beat.

There are eight named lakes in Glacier Gorge. In my misspent youth, when I thought you could only visit places that had official trails, I repeatedly visited Mills Lake, Jewell Lake, and Black Lake. On one visit to Black Lake, we saw the trail that climbs alongside the inlet stream. We explored a bit, with the payoff being the fabulous views of Black Lake, McHenry’s Peak, and all the rest.

I’ve now visited all eight of the named lakes, plus the unnamed lake commonly called ‘Italy Lake’. Actually, I’ve been to all of them at least twice. Except for Frozen Lake, which I’ve only been to once before.

My first visit to Frozen Lake was back in July 2012, with Ed. This was just a few months after a microburst devastated a section of Glacier Gorge, knocking down thousands of trees. We had to crawl over, under, and around downed trees. I’m pretty sure they had the trail back in shape by the end of that summer. It was a very interesting hike at the time. Tree roots tend not to go very deep in these parts, and when a tree is knocked down like they were, the trunks don’t break at ground level: instead, the tree is knocked over with a large disk of roots, rocks, and soil still attached to the base. I think some of those knocked-down trees are still alive, living off their root disk.

Anywho, it’s time to make another trip to Frozen Lake.

Thursday, July 21

For this visit, I obtained a timed-entry pass good between 5 am and 7 am. Gordon joined me, saying that he wanted to be back by 6 pm. I told him that was doable, but might be tight. I said that if we left my place by 5:30 we’d enter before 7 and, parking at the park-and-ride, we’d put boots on the trail by 7:30. I reckoned that if we stayed at the lake for only half an hour, we could make it back to my house by 6 pm. So that was the plan.

We were off to a rocky start when Gordon showed up at my place with a flat tire. We might make it back here by 6, but it’d probably take him a while to get going. Oh well.

Arriving at the Park, we queued up in the line of cars headed up the Bear Lake corridor. The line this week was longer than last time I was here, a couple of weeks ago, for my Sky Pond hike. That time, there were two rangers checking passes. This time there was only one, and the line we found ourselves in was roughly twice as long as last time. Also, last time I wasn’t asked if I had a day pass. I didn’t, and my annual pass had expired. This time I did get asked. I said I have a Senior Pass, but she didn’t demand I produce it.

I know it takes me almost exactly an hour to get to Mills Lake from the Glacier Gorge parking lot/trailhead. I’m not as sure how long it takes to get to Black Lake from there, or how long it may have taken me to get to any of the lakes above Black Lake. I estimated that it would take an hour and a half to get from Mills to Black and another hour and a half to get to Frozen. So I was quite pleased to see that we reached Mills in a few minutes less than an hour, and Black in about an hour and a quarter. So we were already a bit ahead of schedule.

This summer, I’ve taken to using my trek poles. I bought them when I bought my snowshoes. I used them once or twice but wasn’t very happy with them. I’m not sure why I decided to give them another try, but here we are. My thinking is, I’d find them useful when I’m off trail, or for crossing streams or navigating talus fields. But I don’t want to use them all the time. I figured out how to carry them on my lumbar pack. Reduced to their minimum length they’re still a bit long: with them on my pack, I’m now as wide as if I were standing with hands on hips, elbows out. I have to be careful passing other hikers on the trail, and if I get into a willow patch I have to take them off the pack.

So, at the base of the climb above Black Lake, I started using the poles. I didn’t really need them until we reached a place where the stream goes alongside a tilted granite slab. These ten feet or so always give me a little heartburn. Not so with the poles.

The trail above Black Lake is pretty easy to follow until you gain the large bench that holds Frozen, Green, and Blue Lakes. At some point, however, you find yourself in a place where you can more or less go whichever way you want, subject to stream crossings and fields of willow. On our way down, we spent more time on what passes for the trail in this area than we did on the way up. I think our route up was a bit easier than the well-traveled trail.

The gist of the hike from the top of the climb from Black up and over to Frozen is a series of large inclined slabs separated by grass or willow. There are cairns throughout the area, generally indicating paths through the willow or leading to the stream crossings. So navigation is pretty simple: just bear to the west of the Spearhead.

The weather was beautiful if perhaps a bit warm at lower elevations. At 11,600′ above sea level, it was about as pleasant as it gets: sunny, warm, not terribly breezy, with mostly clear skies. I was thinking we’d only sit at the lake for half an hour, but before I knew it an hour had passed. (Today’s beer: Avery Brewing’s Electric Sunshine, a tart ale brewed with papaya, pineapple, kiwi, and huckleberry.)

Again, I usually had a fair amount of heartburn descending the steeper bits of the inclined slabs. What can I say? I’m a bit of a weenie. I was much happier having poles, but I was still a bit slow in places. But they did wonders for my confidence.

We could hear voices but didn’t see where they were coming from. I figured they were climbers working up the Spearhead. I stopped a few times trying to spot them but never did see anybody. I also tried inspecting the area around the Keyhole on Longs. The lens I normally use isn’t much of a telephoto, and I didn’t bring a longer lens. I thought I saw some people up there but couldn’t be sure.

One thing I will say: If I had seen this view before climbing Longs Peak, I never would have climbed Longs Peak. From here, it looks to me like one would have to be insane to climb it. It’s not straight up-and-down, but it’s pretty dang steep. And large sections are giant slabs that look to have no footholds or handholds. I have climbed it, though. Let’s just say I was highly adrenalized by the time I got back to the Keyhole. Let’s also say I see no reason to do it again.

The hike back to the trailhead was uneventful. We got sprinkled on twice, very briefly, not enough to even wet the rocks. I was quite surprised at how few other hikers we ran into. Part of that, no doubt, is because we used the Fire Trail. But I expected quite a few people at both Mills and Black. I don’t think we came across more than two dozen people all day.

We did enjoy a close encounter with a cow elk. She was crossing the trail just a few feet in front of me. She was quite habituated to people and didn’t really give us a second thought. She worked across the trail munching on grass and flowers and came within twelve or fifteen feet of us. After we passed, we could hear her whistle. That was Gordon’s description of the noise. It’s not a bugle or trumpet. More like a … bass flute? She was whistling up a storm; we could hear her for quite a distance down the trail.

Even with our extended stay at Frozen Lake, we were back to the car ahead of my original schedule. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected and we were back to my place by 5:30. Gordon still had to deal with his flat tire. This was a bit more difficult than we anticipated. His tire iron wasn’t the correct size for his lug nuts, and his jack didn’t lift his truck high enough to get the flat tire off, let alone to get a fully inflated tire back on. Luckily for Gordon, his nephew wasn’t too far away and had a jack he used to lift his lifted Jeep. We got him back on the road not much after 6:30. Typing this, I haven’t heard from him. So I’m hoping he actually made it home without any additional drama.

Except for Gordon’s flat tire, I’d say the day was a success!


Trailhead7:24 am3:33 pm
Mills Lake8:18 am2:38 pm
Black Lake9:32 am1:15 pm
Frozen Lake11:11 am12:07 pm

And, finally, the time-lapse:

Isabelle Glacier

According to the United States Geological Survey, a glacier is “a large, perennial accumulation of crystalline ice, snow, rock, sediment, and often liquid water that originates on land and moves downslope under the influence of its own weight and gravity.” I’m guessing, then, that when a glacier shrinks enough, it won’t be massive enough for its weight to overcome friction and it will stop moving and it will no longer be a glacier, but a permanent snowfield.

There are fourteen named glaciers in Colorado. I’d be surprised if all these fourteen are still glaciers by the end of my lifetime.

Isabelle Glacier forms the headwaters of South St. Vrain Creek and clings to the Continental Divide between Apache Peak and Shoshoni Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The easiest access is from the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Tuesday, July 12

Not long ago, Brainard implemented a timed-entry pass system much like that in use at RMNP. Passes are made available two weeks before the date and when I went to pick a date and make my reservation, there were plenty of passes still available for each day in the fourteen-day window. I picked up a pass in the earliest time slot, 5 am to 8 am. I bought a pass for parking at the Brainard Lake picnic area. There are permits available for the small lot right at the Long Lake trailhead, but the early times sell out pretty quickly.

The ProTrails writeup for the hike to Isabelle Glacier says it’s an 8.75-mile round-trip with a net elevation gain of 1,510′. That’s from the Long Lake trailhead, which is about a mile (and 200′ of elevation) from where I parked. I neglected to account for this when I was thinking about how long the hike would take. It turns out, I also didn’t give much credit to the overall steepness of the trip.

I arrived at the parking lot a few minutes before 8 and was quickly on my way. Because I took a somewhat more scenic route from my car to the Long Lake trailhead, it took me half an hour to get there. The trail from the trailhead to the first sight of Lake Isabelle is fairly typical for the area: well-maintained, wide, and busy, through forest. Long Lake is, well, pretty long: about six-tenths of a mile. The valley the trail traverses is wide and for the most part, the trail doesn’t rise much above the floor. The South St. Vrain meanders a bit and forms the usual pools and marshes in the grassy meadows. There aren’t many views through this forested section of trail, although there are the occasional glimpses of Niwot Ridge and the cascades formed just below the outlet of Lake Isabelle.

At Lake Isabelle, there’s a trail junction. Continue straight to see the lake or proceed up to Isabelle Glacier. Take a right turn to head up to Pawnee Pass. One could go that way to summit Pawnee Peak or Shoshoni Peak or to visit Pawnee Lake, but I’m not sure I’m up to any of those. Either peak is about a thousand feet higher than Isabelle Glacier and add a bit of distance. Pawnee Lake is something like 1,600′ below the pass, so you’d be looking at dealing with more than 3,000′ of climbing.

Lake Isabelle is another significant body of water, measuring about half a mile from east to west and spanning the entire width of the canyon. The trail skirts the north shore of the lake, sometimes right at the water level, sometimes navigating through talus fields. For the entire length of the trail, from the Long Lake trailhead to the glacier, the trail is intuitive and easy to follow, except for two or three short stretches of talus.

Just west of the lake, the trail climbs a bit to a rocky outcropping where the stream makes a wide and scenic cascade. Those hikers not up to the challenge of reaching the glacier would find this area a very pleasant place to stop and take in the scenery.

As is typical for hikes through valleys with multiple lakes, the trail is alternately fairly flat and somewhat steep. Each lake sits on a bench, with a short ascent from one bench to another. The bench above Lake Isabelle lacks a lake and instead is filled with a sea of willow. The trail crosses the stream in the midst of the willow. In mid-July, the flow of water is still near its peak, and in addition to the main stream, there are several smaller rivulets to cross. None of these crossings are treacherous, but some are challenging.

After navigating the willow, the trail climbs to the next bench. I met a hiker headed down and asked him if he’d been to the Glacier. He hadn’t. He was stymied by a field of snow. I’d spotted this from below and noted the tracks that ran across it. For today’s hike, I consulted the weather forecast for the area which said we’d see a high temperature of about 70 degrees. I decided to bring a hoodie rather than microspikes. At this point, I was wondering if I made the best choice: even at 10:30, it was about 70 degrees and sunny. And this snow field looked to be fairly steep.

An aside here: For most of my hiking history, I eschewed trek poles. I always figured that on any given hike I might find poles of limited usefulness and therefore not worth the weight penalty. Recently, I’ve been reassessing. I’ve decided that, if I’m going off-trail, I should bring the poles. This hike had no off-trail component, but I figured that poles might be handy on the final steep section. From the trailhead to Lake Isabelle, I carried them on my pack. I relied on them quite a bit for all my water crossings. (Carrying them on my pack makes me wider – they stick out on either end. I’m still getting used to that. I have to account for this in narrow spots.)

The snowfield looked to be about a hundred yards across, with boot prints that went neither uphill nor downhill. When I stepped onto the snow, I decided that spikes wouldn’t have helped much. The snow gets pretty soft when it’s been in the sunshine all morning and I don’t think spikes would have improved traction. But I was quite happy to have my poles with me. This crossing was near the top of this snowfield and a slip might have meant a slide of a couple of hundred feet. But it wasn’t as steep as it looked from below, so I continued.

There’s an unnamed tarn on this bench, only a few yards past the snowfield. Here I met another hiker. He asked if I’d seen anybody else headed this way and told me that he was the only one up here. He said I had about a third of a mile to go, but that it was “straight uphill”. He was quite impressed by the glacier, calling it a “bucket list” item.

Standing on the talus shore of the tarn, it’s a bit intimidating to look at the slope the trail ascends. The trail has many switchbacks and quite a bit of effort went into constructing it. But from below, there’s no sign of a way up.

Usually, when on a treeless slope, it’s pretty easy to see where the trail goes. Here it’s almost as if you’re on a stretch of magical trail. The trail seems to exist for only a short distance ahead and behind. The trail coalesces in front of you from nothing and decays back to nothing behind you.

One of the trail’s switchbacks is next to a falls. There’s not a huge volume of water, but it falls thirty or forty feet straight down and is fairly wide. It doesn’t exactly roar but makes a fair noise. Just as the trail seems to annihilate itself once it’s behind you, the sound of the falls quickly fades to nothing just a few steps up the trail.

After a final stream crossing, the trail dumps you onto a rim of rocks surrounding another tarn, this one full of snow and ice and water. The glacier stretches above and to the west. By surface area, it’s a bit smaller than Lake Isabelle. Not very long ago, some intrepid skier hiked to the top for a single run down the glacier. How badly must you want to ski, to carry your skis as far as I just hiked, then climb another 500-600′ of very steep snow?

There are two or three other tracks in the snow. They’re not made by man or beast, but the tracks of rocks that have fallen from above. When I used to hike to Emerald Lake every Memorial Day, I’d often hear the crack and rumble of falling rocks. Sitting here at the glacier eating my lunch I heard that noise again. I couldn’t help but think of the recent major rockfall in Chaos Canyon, even though I knew it was just a single, small rock.

The scenery is very dramatic. Isabelle Glacier is draped off the ridge between Apache and Shoshoni peaks. Navajo Peak is almost due south and has a smaller, unnamed glacier clinging to its steep slope. Niwot Ridge runs off Navaho Peak nearly due east for a mile and a half or more. My lunch spot was at almost exactly 12,000′ elevation and all the steep, craggy peaks surrounding it rise another thousand feet or so.

When planning the hike, I figured it would only take two and a half or three hours to reach the glacier. In fact, it was more like four and a quarter. I hadn’t accounted for the extra half hour from the car to the trailhead and I clearly didn’t account for this hike being so high. I knew I’d be climbing 1,500′ feet, but I guess I wasn’t accounting for the trailhead being at 10,500′. It took me about 40 minutes to climb from the tarn at 11,400′ to my picnic spot beside the glacier at 12,000′. I never stopped for longer than it took to snap a photo or two, but I wasn’t exactly breaking any land speed records.

I took only a short break at the glacier. My last few hikes were short enough that I had the luxury of stopping where I wanted for however long I wanted. As it was already a bit past noon when I got to the glacier, I had to be concerned with the weather. Being right below the Divide, you can find yourself in a thunderstorm with no warning.

I was back down a bit below the tarn when it started sprinkling. The summits above me were becoming slightly obscured by a white veil: the rain had turned to graupel. This forced me to don my hoodie and by now I was happy to think I’d made the correct choice of the hoodie over the microspikes.

On the hike down from the tarn to Isabelle Lake, I could watch the progress of the rain clouds as they blew to the east. I never got more than a slight sprinkle (and the graupel), but it looked like somebody downwind was getting a good shower.

Just before regaining Isabelle Lake, I ran into a few hikers heading up. None of them intended to try for the glacier. One said something to the effect that Isabelle Glacier isn’t a real glacier. I was about to protest when she said that she used to live in Alaska. Certainly, Colorado glaciers are nothing like Alaska ones, so I could see her point. I told her how much I’d seen Andrews glacier shrink in the last forty years and wondered how much bigger Isabelle was back then.

I took a short break at the outlet of Isabelle Lake. The stream flows under a large snowfield here, that was visible momentarily from the trail below. Clouds obscured the sun and the wind kicked up but I packed the hoodie away and stowed the poles. It took me an hour and a half to get here from the car on my way up, then two and a half hours to get from here to the glacier. Given that I don’t hike down these trails any faster than I hike up them, I figured I could be back to the car by 4:30.

Overall, I found it a most satisfying hike. The section up to Lake Isabelle isn’t very strenuous. Hikers wishing to go no further can find excellent places to take in the views just above the lake. There are scenic cascades and lake views, surrounded by dramatic mountains. And, for those willing and able, Isabelle Glacier is worth a visit.

No time-lapse video for this hike. Instead, here’s a larger-than-usual slideshow.

Sky Pond

Last month I picked up a couple of timed-entry passes for July for the Bear Lake corridor. There aren’t any named lakes in the area that I haven’t already visited, except Marigold Lake, a very minor body of water more or less midway between Odessa Lake and the summit of Joe Mills Mountain. Perhaps I’ll manage to collect that one this summer. But not this time.

Wednesday, July 6

I picked Sky Pond for this trip, as it has been quite a while since I was last there. I described the trail in my last report, so I won’t repeat myself.

The mountains along the divide were wreathed in clouds that looked to be starting to break up a bit. The forecast was for a nice, warm day, so I expected things would clear up a bit. Hopefully the clouds would make for an interesting sky.

I managed to put boots on the trail a few minutes after 7 am and was at the base of Timberline Falls a bit before 9. There was a fair group at the falls, as this is the chokepoint for the hike. I don’t mind climbing up the section, but it always gives me a bit of heartburn on the way down. Especially “early” in the season, when the water flow is high and the spray gets all the rocks nice and wet.

Here I met volunteer Dan. We chatted for quite a while. I don’t recall his exact words, but he expressed some amazement that so many people manage to navigate up and down this steep bit without any “loss of blood”. He said the climb was much easier six weeks ago when it was all covered in snow. He was able to walk right up the slope.

Even with the pass system in place, these popular trails can get quite crowded. I admit that I’m pretty spoiled on this point, but by seeking out some of the more obscure places in the Park, I can find quiet solitude. Quiet and solitude are quite often not available at Sky Pond. As soon as I sat down on a rock to enjoy the view, I heard somebody fire up a drone. They flew their drone nearly the entire time I was at the lake. I wonder if the drone pilot knew drones are illegal in the Park and was just thumbing his nose at authority, or if he didn’t realize he could be fined $5,000 and spend six months in jail. Just after he retrieved his drone, he looked in my direction and noticed that I was pointing my telephoto lens his way. I was a bit far away to discern his expression. Was it embarrassment?

After listening to the drone for the better part of half an hour, I went down to Glass Lake for another extended break. This time I ran across a woman listening to music as she searched for a spot to watch the world go by. Rather than using headphones or earbuds, she was broadcasting her taste in music to the world, or at least those of us who were trying to enjoy nature.

At the trailhead (well, not exactly the trailhead, but close enough), they have a notice warning of a “habituated” mountain goat in the area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mountain goat in the Park. I’d forgotten about this warning until I spotted said mountain goat, who seemed to be following a couple of hikers who didn’t notice who was behind them.

I chatted briefly with one of these hikers, who claimed to have spotted a fox. “I don’t know if it was a fox or a marmot. I think it went under this rock!” I’ve never seen a fox in the Park. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but I’m pretty sure what he saw was a marmot.

Back at The Loch, I found that one of the rocky peninsulas on the east side of the lake was unoccupied. These peninsulas, I think, give the best views of Loch Vale. I made my way there for my final extended break of the day. It was noon, and time for lunch. Today’s beer was a Roadie Grapefruit Radler by Great Divide Brewing Company.

On the shuttle bus back to the park-and-ride, the driver pointed out a large bull elk by the side of the road. His antlers were still quite velvety. The driver mentioned this; he would soon rub the velvet off. She told us not to be deceived: the antlers are quite sharp. She said a bull got a bit angry with this particular bus and punched a hole in the side. Naturally, when I disembarked I managed to forget to look for the hole. So it goes.

Sandbeach Lake

Robert Browning once said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We should aim high: there is value in attempting that which, in the end, may be impossible.

Today, we have (yet another) case where my reach exceeded my grasp. I had every intention of hiking to the summit of Mount Orton, but I succeeded only in reaching Sandbeach Lake. In times past, I’d have titled this post “Mount Orton FAIL”. I’m beginning to concentrate more on what I do than on what I fail to do. I think it’s important to have goals, even if we sometimes fail to attain them.

The plan was to climb (walk up, really) Mount Orton from Sandbeach Lake. Depending on whose numbers you use, Sandbeach Lake is 4.2 or 4.5 miles from the trailhead with an elevation gain of about 1,950′. From the lake to the summit is an additional 1.5 miles and 1,450′, and that’s off-trail. From the lake to the summit, then, should be less strenuous than the Manitou Incline, if you ignore the fact that you don’t have to hike four and a half miles before you start the incline.

There’s road construction on highway 7 that affects traffic starting at 7 am. With that in mind, I planned to arrive at the trailhead by around 7, which should get me to the lake by 9:30 or so, allowing me to take two hours to reach the summit and not worry too much about afternoon thundershowers. I felt it was a good plan.

Digression #1: Trail History

Many of the trails in the Park have been entered into the National Register of Historic Places. From my reading, most of the trails on the west side of the Park were developed with recreation in mind, with the routes scouted by and initial construction done by operators of Grand Lake hotels. The Sandbeach Lake trail, however, was initially a purely commercial endeavor.

Many lakes in Wild Basin were enlarged by building earthen berms. The extra water capacity was intended for use by farmers and ranchers around Fort Collins, Loveland, and Longmont. Off the top of my head, I count Bluebird, Box and Eagle, Pear, and Sandbeach. Also on the list, but not in Wild Basin, is Lawn Lake.

In the early 1900s, “the Supply Reservoir Company filed upon Sandbeach Lake, intending to make the natural lake into a reservoir.” That language isn’t very clear to me, but we can see that an earthen dam was built at Sandbeach Lake. From what remains of the dam, it appears that it raised the water level by perhaps twenty feet.

Much of the current hiking trail to the lake was originally a road that was built for the construction and/or maintenance of the dam. The company built a road from the Peak to Peak highway near Meeker Park that headed west. The current trail starts near Copeland Lake. The first section, to the junction with the Meeker Park trail, was not part of the road.

The application for the National Register (which I will just call “the application”) says, “Contemporary maps indicate that the road deteriorated over time. By 1917, it was designated one of the ‘poor automobile roads.’ Meanwhile, hikers and horseback riders discovered the route, effectively turning the old road into a tourist trail. In 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park’s first superintendent listed the pathway among the new park’s trail assets.”

Hiking the trail today, it’s easy to imagine a team of horses (or mules or oxen?) pulling a wagon over several significant sections of trail. The trail crosses Campers Creek and Hunters Creek and both crossings are wide, shallow fords easily passable by a modern 2-wheel-drive SUV. On the other hand, there are long stretches where I can’t imagine even a primitive road ever existed.

The application makes no mention of the only other bit of Sandbeach Lake history that I knew: the visit by John Wesley Powell. On his expedition to the area in 1868, the party camped at Sandbeach. While they were there, one of the party, a chap named Keplinger, explored the terrain up Hunters Creek and found the route the group took on the first-ever recorded summiting of Longs Peak.

Digression #2: Pondering Dam Building

Seeing where the trail could easily have been a road and seeing where the existence of a road challenges the imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of traffic, and for how long, this road needed to support.

It seems to me that that’s all determined by the construction of the dam. The dam was an earthen berm perhaps twenty feet high. I didn’t closely inspect what’s left of it on this trip, but I imagine that without modern earth-moving equipment, it would have been a non-trivial amount of work. Presumably, there would have been some sort of flood gate or valve installed about where the natural outlet was, and a spillway would have been created. The berm is fairly wide and at least a couple of hundred feet long.

How big of a crew did the work, and what sorts of tools did they employ? All this had to navigate the road. Was it done by truck or by wagon? I would think that, for the duration of the construction, the road would have seen regular use and have been what I’d call fairly “well-engineered”. However, I see little sign of engineering. There are no retaining walls or the like. The Park’s application includes the statement “Log bogwalks support the tread through flat, swampy areas. Some bogwalks look old, decomposing into the ground that they retain.” This application was written in 2007, and today I don’t see any bogwalks at all. So it doesn’t take long for things to change.

So, by 1917, the road had fallen into disuse and been claimed by hikers.

Digression #3: The Fate of the Reservoir

Looking at Sandbeach Lake today, it’s fairly obvious how much higher the water level was when it was enlarged. The trees between the current water level and the old level look to be about as mature as the trees that have grown back where the Ouzel fire burned back in 1978.

So when was the reservoir removed? The answer lies in the Lawn Lake flood of 1982. After that flood, the park began the process to remove some of the dams built around the turn of the twentieth century. In 1988, they removed the rock and dirt dams at Sandbeach and Pear Lakes. The shorelines were regraded to the original slope and the shores have been allowed to restore naturally with a minimum of supplemental planting, although they did plant willows around the Sandbeach outlet to create spawning habitat for greenback cutthroat trout. (In 1989 and 1990, five million pounds of concrete and rebar were removed from the Bluebird Lake dam and flown out of the backcountry. It boggles my mind to think of how so much material was emplaced at Bluebird in the first place.)

Wednesday, June 29

I can’t help but note that there are signs at the Wild Bain entrance station stating that timed-entry passes are required for visits starting at 9 am. It also seems to me that they don’t have any rangers working at the entrance station. I’m guessing the passes aren’t enforced in Wild Basin. Not that it matters that much: if you don’t get there well before 9, you won’t find a place to park.

Just as soon as I got out of the car, I heard some crashing in the undergrowth nearby: a cow moose was making her way through the area. I find it amusing that I often see a moose within twenty yards of my car and I can hike for hours and not see one in the backcountry.

I was early enough that I didn’t encounter too many hikers on the trail. I ran across two guys hiking out. They weren’t walking together, but I assumed they were together. I chatted with the second one. I told him I intended to summit Orton and that got him talking. He asked if I’d ever been to Ellington Lake. I told him I’d day-hiked to every lake in Wild Basin except Isolation and Frigid but that I’d never heard of Ellington Lake. He told me I wouldn’t be able to get there, as I had insufficient gear with me. It wasn’t until a few moments after parting ways that I figured out what he was talking about: Keplinger. Three syllables, same second syllable, same vowel sound in the first syllable. And in June, the lake would still be well frozen over and much snow would have to be crossed to reach it.

By the time I reached the lake at 9:17, pretty much spot-on my schedule, it was growing clear to me that I wouldn’t get to where I wanted to go. I’ll admit that the weather-related aspect of my hike planning goes something like this: “Well, it’s going to be 95 degrees in Denver. Sounds like a good day to hit the high country!” This is generally not a bad plan. But today it didn’t work out for me.

I was dressed in shorts and an aloha shirt. The only extra layer I brought was a thin waterproof shell. Instead of bright sunshine and warm temperatures, there was a large darkish cloud hanging over the Divide: sunshine well to the west; thin, high clouds over the plains. And it was a bit breezy. It seemed to me that the clouds were dark enough that they might produce some rain. I would likely be miserable above treeline.

I made a half-hearted attempt to start bushwhacking my way up the slope but abandoned it pretty quickly. I had made little attempt to find anything like a trail that might lead up the mountain but after I turned around I stumbled on a trail that might do the trick. I may not be able to walk right up to that trail next time I want to do this, but knowing that it’s there is enough, and I’m sure I’ll find it when the time comes.

In the end, I stayed at the lake for nearly two hours. I’m surprised I lasted that long. I found a nice rock on the shore with a nice view of Mt. Meeker, Longs Peak, and Pagoda, but with the cloud cover and wind, I really didn’t want to sit there. I could almost get out of the wind by hanging out in the nearby trees, and I walked around a bit, up to the old reservoir shoreline to check out the wind-gnarled trees. I didn’t want to eat lunch yet, as it was still early. I ended up stopping at Hunters Creek for my lunch.

When I made the decision to stay at the lake, I was feeling a bit disappointed with myself. “Don’t be such a wimp! You can make it, don’t be so lazy!” By the time I ate lunch, my attitude had changed. I was cold at the lake, where I could find at least a little shelter from the breeze. Another 1500′ up, above treeline, I’m sure I’d have been miserable. I think I’d have made a more sincere effort to continue if I’d have found the trail, but I’m convinced I made a sound choice to stop. I didn’t see my shadow between about 8 am and when I got back to Lyons.

I’m not sure I’ll make another stab at Mt Orton as a day hike. I think it’s within my range, but I’ll admit to beginning to think that my range probably isn’t what it was a few years ago. In my wanderings around the east shore of the lake, I took a good look at the campsite there. It’s one of the nicer ones I’ve visited. The privy even has walls! This looks like a good place to spend a night and making an early assault on the summit.

Lulu City

For several years, I’ve been telling people that I try to spend between twelve and eighteen days each year in the Park. I’ll admit that what I tell people may sometimes be an exaggeration, but I think I’m safe in saying that I’ve averaged more than a dozen days a year since 2008. If I pull a number out of the hat for visits prior to 2008, I might have spent another eighty days total. That means I’ve spent a total of over 260 days wandering around the Park. And yet, somehow, I’ve never been to Lulu City, one of the most popular hikes on the west side of the Park.

Ghost Town

Before seeing the place, I might have called it a ghost town.

I tend to spend a lot of time planning my little jaunts, and this one was no different. Usually, my research is reading a few paragraphs of Foster’s guide, then pulling up the area on CalTopo maps. My habit is to leave this browser window open for days or weeks, looking at it a couple of times a day. For Lulu City, though, I dug a bit deeper.

I have a giant book called Ghost Towns of the West that was published back in 1971. In the introduction, the authors define a ghost town. They say, “Most of the towns described and pictured in this book are ‘dead’ ghosts, but some still have life, though nothing to compare with the lusty vigor they enjoyed in their heyday.” Their chapter for Colorado is 112 pages. There’s no entry for Lulu City, but there are entries for Black Hawk, Breckenridge, Buena Vista, Central City, Creede, Crested Butte, Fairplay, Georgetown, Leadville, Silverton, and Telluride, among other places I’d never have considered “ghost towns”. I find this unsatisfying.

Digging deeper, I managed to find a paper written in 1980 that covers Lulu City and Dutchtown. I have a backcountry permit to stay at the Dutchtown campsite in August, so I’ll leave that part of the story for later.

What’s a Park?

The first chapter of this paper (authored by Susan Baldwin) gives a history of Middle Park. Here I will confess that, having lived in Colorado for more than four decades, and having heard the name “Middle Park”, I never knew where it was.

In this context, a park is a large upland valley. The word comes from the French word “parc”, which means “enclosure”. The principal ones are North Park (which was originally called “New Park”), Middle Park (originally “Old Park”), South Park, and the San Luis Valley. I’m quite familiar with North, South, and San Luis. These are large basins, lie at relatively high altitudes, and are miles across in all directions. “Basin” is a fitting term, in my opinion. I have never really thought of North Park or South Park or the San Luis Valley as valleys. They’re all more or less oval shapes, have flat bottoms, and lack trees.

The topography of Middle Park differs markedly from that of North and South Parks making it isolated and relatively inaccessible. Middle Park isn’t oval, but Y-shaped. The southern entrance to Middle Park is Berthoud Pass. In the west, it stretches to Kremmling. And the northern arm is the valley where you will find the headwaters of the Colorado River. That is, where you’ll find Lulu City and Dutchtown.

Who Built Lulu City?

Because Middle Park was relatively difficult to reach, there’s not a long history of the place. The northern arm of the Park was a fertile hunting ground for the Northern Utes. Baldwin says “The streams were filled with fish, and game was abundant with elk, deer, mountain sheep, antelope, buffalo, all varieties of bear including grizzlies, grouse, sage hens, ducks, geese, and turkeys making Middle Park the best hunting ground in Colorado.” The Utes weren’t the only Indians aware of this and they had frequent conflicts with the Arapahos, Sioux, Crow, and Blackfoot Indians who also vied with the Utes for use of the region.

It wasn’t until after gold was found in Cripple Creek and Central City that whites were attracted to the place. Fremont wandered through the place in 1844, and Powell visited in 1868 (when he submitted Longs Peak), and there were a few other early visitors. But these were visitors. Whites didn’t settle here in any numbers until the 1870s.

Most of these early settlers were looking for gold. A number of mines were dug here on both sides of the Colorado River (originally called the Grand River; thus the name of Grand County and Grand Lake). There were enough people in the vicinity to warrant building towns, and thus Grand Lake and Lulu City were born, both in 1879.

Why is Lulu City a ghost town but not Grand Lake? Grand Lake was built more as a place to supply miners while Lulu was where the mines were. The basic problem was that the mines in the area supplied only low-grade ore. Access to Lulu was limited to wagon and horseback, and that was restricted by the harsh winters. Taking this low-grade ore out was difficult, and there wasn’t enough financial incentive to build a smelter at Lulu.

Lulu did have a sawmill, without which a town couldn’t be built. But that was about the extent of local industry. The plat of Lulu City (laid out by H.Y. Harding, Deputy U.S Surveyor, in early June of 1880) was conceived on an ambitious scale and encompassed 160 acres of land and was situated along the North Fork of the Grand River. Its east-west streets were numbered from 1st to 19th and those running north-south were given the names Lead Mountain, Trout, Riverside, and Howard.

Towns didn’t just spring up out of thin air. Generally, the first step was to make a company. In this case, it was the Middle Park and Grand River Mining and Land Improvement Company, created by a group of Fort Collins residents. They had an ambitious plan. According to the Fort Collins Courier, they “were supplied with tools and building materials and under the direction of Mr. Harris, an experienced mechanic, some eight or ten buildings will be put up before they return. A hotel, store, saloon, blacksmith shop, and various other business enterprises will be opened between now and mid-June. Steps are being taken to establish mail route from Fort Collins to Lulu City and other points in Middle and North Park. Management of the company is in the hands of competent and responsible people and no pains nor expense have been spared in acquiring perfect title to its property.”

A bustling place in the summers, almost no one stayed over the winter. The one road in was impassable until mid-June. The mines were for the most part deserted by late 1883 as was Lulu City. Postal service was discontinued on November 26, 1883, and no elections were held there that year. In December 1883 it was noted that “Lulu is practically dead for the winter, the bears having run everyone out of there. J.R. Godsmark, county judge elect, will winter at the Lake and as he has been the mainstay of Lulu, it will leave that place without a head.”

Much anxiety is felt for the safety of the mines at Lulu. Since the departure of Judge Godsmark and some more of the old timers, the bears and mountain lions have taken possession of the boys’ houses and old, discarded overalls and gumboots, and are running municipal government of their own, to wit; using all their efforts to restore Lulu to its primeval status. But wait until Judge returns and assumes the judicial ermine, then their rule will soon end. Lulu has bright future in store for her the coming summer.

Georgetown Colorado Miner, January 5, 1884

The bright future never happened. Lulu City was history before the end of 1884. The low grade of the ore, the lack of a smelter, and the harsh winters did the place in. There was never a school, never a church, and most of the buildings were tents. Joseph E. Shipler was one of the founders, and he was about the last to leave. Remnants of his cabin still stand, and he was greeting visitors as late as 1912, when Rocky Mountain National Park was founded.

Thursday, June 23

I left the house promptly at 6am. For these west side hikes, I generally take Berthoud pass in the morning and Trail Ridge Road in the afternoon, but today I decided to do TRR in both directions. This probably cost me nearly half an hour, but the hike is a short one so an 8:30 start is not a big deal. This summer, timed-entry passes are required at all times for the Bear Lake corridor, but only after 9am for the remainder of the Park. I arrived at the Beaver Meadows entrance station shortly after 7am. Only one gate was open and I waited in line for twenty minutes.

The trail parallels the Colorado River. It runs a few feet of elevation above the valley floor. It has to: much of the valley floor is marshy grassland. Foster says it’s 3.5 miles from the trailhead to Lulu, with a 320′ elevation gain. The sign on the trail has the distance at 3.7 miles. The 320′ is net gain, so you really climb a bit more than 400′ as the spur trail to Lulu is after the main trail has started rising from the valley. This little spur, about two-tenths of a mile, is easily the steepest section of the entire trail.

There’s one area where a “temporary” trail makes a detour. High water has washed away part of the trail. Rangers have marked the detour with little flags on each end of the detour, but in the middle the trail gets indistinct and several routes are possible, including one that I took which had a steep, wet, slippery section.

Foster lists this hike as “family-friendly”. I would agree with this, but the short detour might make it less friendly for little kids. As well, there are a number of downed trees that block the trail. Hopefully, these will be rectified this summer.

Shipler’s cabin ruins are somewhere along the trail. I never did see the place. I came across a little spur off the main trail. I went down this a few yards on my way up in the morning but gave up on it immediately. By the time I made it back here on the way back, I was convinced that Shipler’s cabin was down this trail. I was wrong.

There are a few places where the trail enters grassy meadows that are sufficiently high above the valley to not be marshes. Were I looking for a place to build a cabin in 1880 or so, many of these would have been possibilities.

Earlier, I said that this is one of the more popular hikes on the west side of the Park. I have no data to support this. And, in fact, on the hike up to Lulu, I only encountered two other hikers. But on arrival at Lulu, I came across a group of about fifteen guys, all sitting in a circle and telling stories. I stayed there for an hour. Another group of five or six arrived, along with a random selection of couples and solo hikers. On the way out, I passed a stream of hikers surpassed only by what you’d encounter between Bear Lake and Emerald Lake.

The location of Lulu is quite nice. It has a nice view (but not a spectacular one), and the river meanders a bit in a stony bed a few times wider than the stream itself. Here, we’re only about two miles from the headwaters and even in late June with the water running fairly high, it’s hard to imagine this river carving the Grand Canyon (there’s the old name again!). If I’d brought my trek poles with me, I’m sure I could have forded the river without taking my boots off and still had dry feet.

It took me only an hour and a half to get to Lulu, so it was a little early for me to have lunch. I thought I’d stop at Shipler’s cabin for my picnic, but as I mentioned above, that didn’t exactly work out. I found a nice rock with a view of a bend in the river.

On the hike out, I came across the most mellow marmot I’ve ever seen. He was on a rock right next to the trail when I found him. I didn’t see him until I was within a few feet of him. I thought he was unaware of my presence, but he could clearly hear the shutter of my camera. He got off his rock to eat some flowers right on the trail. Hikers coming from the other direction didn’t bother him either: he pretty much looked at me, turned his back on me, and walked right up to the other hikers. There, he ate some more flowers before finally leaving the trail and letting us all proceed.

I made it back to the car shortly after 1pm, for a round-trip time of just over four hours. As that included an hour at Lulu and a lunch break on the way back, it’s a pretty easy hike.

Lower Forest Lake

I can’t wait to get the summer hiking season going. This is often a slight problem in the first week of June: in Denver, it seems summer is here, but where I want to hike, it’s not summer at all. A hike in the first week of June always means hiking over snow when you get over about 10,000′. Perhaps even more so, given our two large storms in late May: one that dumped enough snow here at the house to produce a truckload of broken tree limbs, and one a week after that that produced over an inch of precipitation that manifested as about eighteen inches of snow above 9,000′.

Having neglected to plan ahead by purchasing a timed entry pass for RMNP, I decided another visit to James Peak Wilderness would be a good alternative. Of the five hikes here, the lakes that are lowest are Forest Lakes. I did this hike last year about this time, so this will be a repeat.

June 3, 2022

In July and August, you have to get to the trailhead quite early to find a parking place. On a weekday in the first week of June, parking isn’t a problem. I arrived at about 8:15 and was the third car in the lot. At the trailhead, I signed into the log book as the first entry of the day. Either the parties belonging to the other two cars camped overnight or neglected to sign in.

On the lower part of the trail – the first quarter of a mile – the trail isn’t so much a trail as a small river. The next quarter-mile, the trail is in shade. There wasn’t any snow on the trail, but banks of snow lined both sides of the trail. Clearly, I’d be dealing with a bit more snow than last year. Last year, we didn’t start hiking on snow until after we crossed the bridge over Arapaho Creek (at about 9,800′). Today, I was trudging over snow almost 500′ lower. So it goes.

Given the recent snows and the apparent small number of visitors, I was a bit concerned about route-finding. There were quite a few tracks in the snow just above the bridge, but they quickly petered out until there were only two sets: a pair of snowshoe tracks heading up, and the tracks of a hiker just in boots that looked to be a round-trip: both uphill and down. One thing about following tracks in the snow: you have to hope that the people making the tracks went where you want to go, and they know how to get there.

I didn’t bring snowshoes but did have the micro-spikes. The snow was pretty good – I only postholed twice on the way up to the lake. At the lake, I met the hikers who left the snowshoe tracks. They had hiked up yesterday and camped at the lake. Last year, there were plenty of snow-free rocks around the lake to sit on. Today there was just one. The three of us sat there and had our picnics.

I hung out for about an hour before packing up to leave. In this time, with the sun shining brightly on the snow, my hike out was slightly transformed. Each day the sun works its magic on the top of the snow, melting it a bit. Then, overnight, the top freezes, making it easy to walk on in the morning. My hike out was quite different than the hike in: I postholed hundreds of times. That’s only a slight exaggeration.

It may be counter-intuitive that the snow melts from the bottom, not the top. For the most part, you want to hike along the tops of the snowbanks and avoid stepping next to any rocks or trees that may be poking through the snow. Anything darker than the snow will heat up faster than the snow. If you step next to it, you’ll likely posthole either to mid-thigh or until your boot hits something solid. And, because the snow melts from the bottom, whatever solid you hit will be covered by running water. And any low spots between the tops of the snowbanks are good places to posthole, too.

I ran across one guy hiking to the lake and another couple quite near the trailhead. When I got back to the car, the parking lot was not quite twice as crowded as in the morning: there were now five cars in addition to my own.

Here’s a short timelapse of the sky. Notice that my camera slowly melted into the snow.

Manitou Incline

The Manitou Incline is a trail that climbs a bit over 2,000′ in less than a mile. The sign at the base of the trail tells us there are 2,744 steps to the top, but a marker on the top step tells us it is the 2,768th. Evidently, the count varies somewhat over time due to trail maintenance. It is, by far, the steepest trail I’m aware of. By contrast, in RMNP, the steepest sections of any trail that pack animals are allowed on climbs about 400′ in six-tenths of a mile (a kilometer). To climb two thousand feet at that slope would take three miles.

So many people want to subject themselves to this torture that reservations are required.

I had the mental image of somebody standing at the bottom of this hill a hundred years ago and saying to themselves, “I know: let’s make a hiking trail that starts here and goes straight up to the top. That would be fun!” This imaginative scenario is not correct. The somewhat more reasonable story is that the trail is the remains of a narrow-gauge funicular railway whose tracks washed out during a rock slide in 1990.

(A funicular is essentially a cable car. Two cars, actually, attached to the cable and used to counterweight each other. Cog railways also are used to climb steep slopes, but they don’t use cables. The Pikes Peak Cog railway starts just a few yards from the base of the Incline.)

They say one should allow two hours to get to the summit. The record is in the seventeen-minute range. Some folks seem to think doing it once isn’t enough, so they came up with the “Inclinathon”: 13 consecutive trips up and down the Incline in one day and has been completed in less than 12 hours.

I’ve been thinking of tackling this challenge for a number of years. Somehow it never really bubbled to the top of my to-do list. A couple of weeks ago, Chad reached out to me and asked if I wanted to join him.

Friday, April 8

Our reservations were in the 9:30-10:00 am slot, and we arrived in the area right on time. We found a parking lot with lots of open spaces, but it’s parking for the Barr Trail, and Incline hikers aren’t allowed to park here. Next, we found the lot for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. No Incline parking here, either. We finally found the right place, which, naturally, adds a quarter of a mile and maybe 200′ of elevation we’d need to gain.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The forecast high was for the mid-60s and calm. At the start, it was still cool enough to wear a hoodie but with the bright sunshine and cloudless cerulean sky, we were soon down to shirtsleeves and getting out the sunscreen.

We hit the first step of the incline at 9:36, at the same time as a woman and her son who looked to be about six years old. An indication of my performance on this hike is that I only managed to beat this six-year-old to the top by a few minutes. Judging by the dirt on the seat of his pants, he spent a lot of time waiting for his mother (and us other slow hikers) to catch up to him.

It wasn’t my lung capacity that was the limiting factor here. It was my legs. Most of the steps are single railroad ties, but in the steeper parts, each step is two railroad ties. And in some places, the ties are so close together that the tread width of the step is shorter than my boot is long. (The Incline is famous for its steepness, with an average grade of 45% (24°) and as steep as 68% (34°) in places.)

Not far from the bottom, a small herd of deer browsed their way across the trail. They’re quite acclimated to people; several of them came within 8 or 10 feet of me. I think I might have been able to pet them, had I been so inclined. Sorry for the pun.

I didn’t see anybody running up, but quite a few ran down. I thought I saw somewhere that the Incline is one-way: climb up the Incline and take the Barr Trail back down. The hardcore group didn’t get enough agony on the trip up, they had to compound it by going back down the steps. No way I could have done it. We saw one guy who made two trips, and one gal we encountered was going down the steps backward. She said it was easier on the legs and falls wouldn’t be so bad. She said she would make a second ascent as soon as she got back to the base. At this point, I have no plans to do it a second time in my life, let alone a second time in a day.

There’s a marker on every hundredth step so you have a good idea of just how much torture still lies ahead of you. Or maybe I should say “above you”. I never bothered to count, so I don’t know how accurate these markers are. When we reached step 2000, I was a few steps above our intrepid 6-year-old. Naturally, he was unable to fight the need to start counting: “2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, …”.

At one point, I looked up and decided that I’d only need to take two more breaks before reaching the top. Seems I did this when looking at a bit of a “false summit”. I could see the top, but it didn’t look as far as it actually was, and a particularly steep section was obscured. I think I actually stopped five or six more times. Chad was a good sport about it and slowed his pace to stay with me. I have no doubt he’d have finished on the order of half an hour quicker than me.

Because I kept stopping to rest, I had plenty of opportunity to look at how the trail was made. For the most part, the timbers are flat, level, and square. They’re all attached with fittings to stout cables on each end, and the cables are anchored in concrete periodically up the slope. But, hikers and the weather have conspired to shift some of the ties so that they’re rotated a bit, or the soil behind them is starting to wash away. I imagine they need to constantly do a fair amount of work to keep the trail in good enough condition to support the traffic it gets.

We gained the summit at noon precisely. I had the forethought to pack a couple of beers. They were (amazingly) still cold. I didn’t set any records in climbing the Incline, but I did suck that beer down my gullet in pretty quick time.

The hike down the Barr Trail is quite pleasant in comparison to the Incline and doesn’t merit much description, other than that it’s fairly highly engineered (many retaining walls and fences) to handle the traffic.

I’m writing this the next day. My calves are quite sore. I’ll try to minimize my trips up and down the stairs today.