Back in August of 2019, I made an attempt to reach the four lakes at the head of Spruce Canyon: Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, Lake Irene, and Sprague Tarn. I made it to only the first of those. It was a fairly miserable hike.
Last year, I visited Spruce Lake (which, curiously, is not in Spruce Canyon). The idea on that hike was to see more of the East Troublesome burn scar. Much of the trail passes through forest that was thoroughly burned. It seemed to me that a motivated hiker might be able to bushwhack up Spruce Canyon a lot easier now. I know the trees and deadfall don’t burn to ashes, but judging by much of what I saw, the underbrush should be pretty much gone, and with nothing but burned trunks standing, visibility for route-finding should be much improved.
So I decided to make a return trip.
Tuesday, August 22
Reckoning that it’s only a three-hour hike to the campsite at Spruce Lake, we decided on a relatively late start and lunch in Estes before setting out. We decided on Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ. There’s nothing like over-eating a bunch of barbecue before setting off on a hot day, carrying a 34 lb backpack. Probably not the best lunch choice.
It seems I’m always playing a mental game of “what did I forget” or “what will go wrong”. I don’t think I’m particularly pessimistic about things in general. I often forget things (in spite of constantly making checklists) and nothing ever goes perfectly. I always hope that if I forget something, it’ll be something that’s not mission-critical. And that if anything goes wrong, it’s something minor.
So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. My checklists served their purpose and nothing was forgotten. But a couple of minor things did go wrong. When backpacking, I carry two water bottles and a Steri-Pen to purify more water. I only need two bottles in camp and on the hike in or out, only one of them is full. Getting out of Gordon’s truck, I managed to drop my full bottle, which pretty much shattered when it hit the ground. The second mishap is that the batteries in my Steri-Pen died after two uses. So, for pretty much the whole trip I was hounding Gordon to filter some more water for me.
The hike to Spruce Lake was uneventful. It took us just a few minutes less than the three hours I anticipated. There are two campsites at Spruce Lake. Neither was occupied when we arrived, and we took the one closer to the lake (and further from the privy). I’ve always been under the impression that the backcountry campsites get sold out for the year in the first few days of March. I was a bit surprised, then, that nobody ever camped at the other site. On our previous trip a few weeks ago, the second campsite went empty one night. That’s a 37% vacancy rate. Do that many people make reservations but never show up?
When I picked up the permit last month, I was warned that there was a curious moose in the area. And when we entered the park, the ranger said to watch out for the large moose at Spruce Lake. I couldn’t help but wonder, then, if we were to be on the lookout for a large curious moose, or a large moose and a curious one.
After setting up camp, we sat on the shore of the lake to relax. We immediately spotted a bull moose on the far shore. We heard a loud splash a few minutes later and saw a cow moose wading or swimming out into the lake. My first thought was that it was swimming, but it could be that where she crossed it wasn’t all that deep. She was making good progress. Gordon wondered aloud if we should be concerned that she was heading straight for us.
She got out of the water 20 or 30 feet from us, then circled around us to get back into the water more toward the outlet. Meanwhile, the bull was working his way toward the outlet area as well. In 2019, we saw a cow here with a calf. This might be the same cow, and the bull might be the calf. On the other hand, these could be different moose entirely. He was a bit smaller than she. I’m not up on my moose behavior: they’re solitary beasts, and not territorial, but do they tolerate one another?
I went back to the camp to have dinner. Before long, the cow traipsed into camp. Not so much into camp as around it. She kept an eye on me as she made her orbit. Was she the curious moose we were warned about?
Wednesday, August 23
To get to the head of Spruce Canyon from Spruce Lake, the idea is to contour around Castle Rock, converging with Spruce Creek without losing any elevation. As I said earlier, I hoped the fire would allow for better route-finding and somewhat easier passage.
We were on the fringes of the burn scar, sometimes in badly burned areas, sometimes in a living forest. Visibility was somewhat better, but the bushwhacking was still grueling. Last time, we only managed half a mile an hour. I don’t think we were moving any faster today. We contoured around a fairly steep section. Where it was burned and steep, the footing was a bit treacherous. By the end of the morning, I’d fallen on my ass four times. Check that – it was three times on my ass, once on my face.
Each time I fell, I’d end up with my hands in the dirt. Each time, ash and soot and soil stuck to my sweating hands. The soil came off easily enough, but the soot and ash clung tenaciously to my fingernails.
Two hours into our expedition I could see ahead to where we were going and back to where we’d come from. I made the executive decision to abort the mission. I do these hikes to have fun. I was wrong that it would be easier this time. Soot stained my hands and pants and dealing with the deadfall was exhausting. I hauled out Plan B: hike to Loomis Lake after a lunch break back at Spruce Lake. Gordon didn’t seem too disappointed to turn around.
After lunch and a bit of moose-watching, we headed to Loomis Lake. I’ve been there twice before and I don’t recall it being particularly challenging. So I was surprised and disappointed that it was much more difficult than I recalled. As it turned out, on the way up to Loomis Lake, we lost the trail four times. starting right at Spruce Lake. Two other times we lost the trail going around deadfall that blocked the way. For a short while, I felt like I was back in Spruce Canyon.
About two-thirds of the way from Spruce Lake to Loomis Lake, you pass by a pond. There’s a big boulder that in the wettest time of the year is an island but is usually a peninsula. On that rock, clings a fairly good-sized tree. There is no soil, just a few cracks in the granite. That a tree of that size has managed to grow there for decades amazes me. The tenacity of life.
If you manage to follow the trail, it really isn’t a difficult hike. Unfortunately for me, every time I’ve been to Loomis, it’s been overcast. I still don’t have a decent picture of the place. It’s one of those “stark beauty” sorts of places, surrounded by imposing rock walls. The gray clouds and diffused light make it a bit gloomy. I’d like to see it in bright sunlight.
On the way down, we easily followed the trail. It started to sprinkle a bit, threatening rain. Usually, I have to put the raincoat on to make the rain stop; today all I had to do was tell Gordon I might need to stop to put on the coat. Once I said it, it pretty much stopped right away.
We were back to Spruce Lake and camp for dinner and more moose-watching. This evening, it was two bulls. They stayed on the opposite side of the lake, so I didn’t get a great look at them.
I climbed into the sack not long after dark. I’m generally up until well after 11, but I nodded off pretty quickly. At 9:30 it started raining. It really came down for a while, but moderated before long. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it was more than an hour. A good soaking. The tent’s rain cover did its job, keeping everything inside the tent and the little atrium dry.
Thursday, August 24
We awoke to mostly sunny skies – a pleasant morning.
The hike out was just under three hours. We came across a doe that insisted on grazing right next to the trail, not at all concerned about our presence.
My dad always used to say, “I was wrong once. I thought I made a mistake!”
That’s my story with Spruce Canyon. I thought I made a mistake saying I’d never make it to Rainbow Lake, Irene Lake, and Sprague Glacier, but I was wrong!
The other route to those destinations would be from Flattop. It’s not in my day-hike range from there, at well over 8 miles each way and a big climb. And I’ll not make the attempt via Spruce Canyon again, as I said after my first attempt.
So I’ve been twice unsuccessful in reaching three of the four points of interest in Spruce Canyon. I am not disappointed. Both times it was a bit miserable, but a miserable day in the forest is still a good day. I failed to reach my goal, but I’m okay with that. If you always reach your goals, you’re doing it wrong.