We had a leisurely morning. As our hike out would only take three hours (or a bit less, perhaps), we weren’t in any particular hurry.
I told Gordon that it wasn’t a marmot that ate my stuff. He told me he was visited by a squirrel that was trying to get into his things. He managed to shoo it away. I wondered if I shooed it towards him, or he towards me, or both. Pesky squirrel. I really do hope it got a bad case of the runs.
When I was packing up, I noticed that he’d gone after my backpack, too. He ate the zipper pulls on two of the pockets and devoured about half the mesh. Surely this is a sign of malice rather than a desire for salt. I really don’t sweat all over the zipper pulls.
Squirrel Damage Assessment
I’ve been saying for years that, for every situation, there’s either a Star Trek quote or a Monty Python quote that is apt. I’m tempted here to use “That rabbit’s dynamite!” from the Holy Grail and substitute “squirrel” for “rabbit”. Instead, I’ll go back to World War II and BDA: Bomb Damage Assessment. While my antagonist squirrel may be as vicious as Monty Python’s Rabbit of Caerbannog, it never tried to decapitate me, even though it was well within range. In the aftermath of our encounter, I am left to assess the damage.
The poles are the type that you twist to tighten to the proper length. I’ve never been happy with them and would have preferred to get the ones that use a cam. I guess this is an opportunity to upgrade. Meanwhile, I’ll see if I can find somebody to mend the packs.
The deeper question is: How do I prevent this from happening again (apart from never camping at Dutch Town)? My tent is too small to store all my belongings in it. I’d really rather not spray all my belongings with coyote piss or the like.
There was at least one healthy doe that frequented the area around our camp. I spotted a doe five or six times. It may have been the same one every time, maybe there was more than one. She went by my tent that first night.
The air traffic was pretty annoying. Even in the wilderness, it’s everpresent. But here it was loud. They went right over us. I decided I should time them the night before. I noted the time of the next one: 7:09. Didn’t hear another plane for half an hour when a two-engine propellor plane went over. So at least they weren’t so bad at night. Then two came over at about 6 am that were really low, just to remind us they were still there.
Just as we left the Ditch, a pickup truck when by on the service road. Water Supply & Storage Company. Those guys have owned the Ditch since 1891. They operate a vast system of canals and reservoirs in the Poudre River valley.
Now that I know the route, I think it’s possible Lake of the Clouds is within my day hiking range. It would certainly be an easy hike with a single-night stay at Dutch Town. We were back to camp early enough we could have packed up and hiked out on Tuesday.
The mosquitoes were not nearly as bad as at Upper Ouzel Creek. I finally did apply some bug spray at one point, but I wouldn’t have been terribly upset had I forgotten to bring it.
We saw no other hikers until we got within a quarter mile of the Colorado River. I don’t doubt Foster’s word that that Lake of the Clouds is the most visited destination in the area. This indicates that, if you’re seeking solitude, the Never Summer Mountains are the place to go.
I awoke a bit after sunrise after a somewhat chilly night to clear blue skies. It looked to be another marvelous day in the Park.
The first thing I noticed was that my trek poles, which I had leaned up against a long, downed tree, had been knocked over. Maybe the deer (or whatever) that passed through last night knocked them over. On closer inspection, though, the grips of both poles had been munched on and the straps had been eaten completely. Did that passing deer eat my poles?
A few minutes later, we were greeted by a Park Service trail crew. They were here to make a few improvements to the campsite. The ranger in charge asked to see our permit while the crew stowed their shovels and axes not far from where Gordon and I put our bear canisters overnight.
Having established our right to be here, I started asking the ranger questions. How did you get here so early? “We drove along the Ditch from Poudre cabin, so we had a short hike.” What creature did this skull belong to? “I don’t know. Not an ungulate.” What do you suppose ate my trek poles? “Probably a marmot. They want the salt from your sweat.” Did this campsite use to be over there beyond the preservation area sign? “Yes. It was threatened by dead trees so we moved it here.”
Last evening I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what percentage of trees in the area have succumbed to pine beetles. After much study, it became clear to me that all the dead trees were the largest trees. I’d guess nine out of ten of the largest quartile or quintile of trees were dead but very few of the medium and small trees were. I couldn’t help but wonder if all beetle-kill was this way and I just never noticed it before, or if things were different in this area. So I asked the ranger.
While I was correct that these trees had been killed by beetles, they were from the spruce beetle, which is a cousin of the pine beetle. Spruce beetles go after the big trees first, those with trunk diameters greater than ten inches. The victims in this area have been dead for a while – none are brown, they’re all gray.
Before they worked on our campsite, they headed up to Lake of the Clouds. They said it would take them about an hour to get there from here, which is only a bit less than I’d guessed it might take us. They left and we finished our breakfasts and got ready for our hike.
I grabbed my day pack, which is the top part of my backpack. It has a compartment you unzip to reveal the shoulder straps for the day pack. I’d stored this in the atrium of my tent (the space between the tent and the rain cover). It sat all night about six inches from my head, where the rustling noises were last night. It turns out my marmot friend didn’t just dine on my trek poles but worked my day pack over pretty well. Each shoulder strap was half eaten through and much of the fabric at the top was thoroughly chewed up. I wasn’t hearing the breeze rustle my tent, I was hearing a rodent wrecking my stuff. I hope that marmot got a really bad case of diarrhea.
Luckily, it was still intact enough to get me through the day. I hoped. As long as I didn’t put too much weight in the pack.
Anyhow, lunch and water and GoPro in the mangled pack, using my now strapless and heavily gnawed trek poles, we headed up the trail to Lake of the Clouds.
The trail ends well before the lake, where it exits the forest and dumps the hiker on the shore of a sea of talus. To the south, to the north, and to the west, nothing but talus. I vaguely recall writing on this blog some time ago about a large amount of talus. Wherever that was, there is more talus here. (It isn’t only here – our campsite has a view of the north slope of Howard Mountain. It’s all talus. Except for some that looks like scree.)
The first thing I did, once we had the route to the lake in view, was to search for the work party. I found them, but not where I expected them to be. When I was here on my failed day-hike, I thought that if I hadn’t made my 45-minute wrong turn I’d have made it to the lake. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it because I surely wouldn’t have gone the correct way.
We worked our way across the talus between the end of the trail and the base of the slope we’d have to climb. That slope is talus. We worked our way up between a couple of growths of willow and over to a grassy ramp. Once on the ramp, the route of cairns was pretty easy to follow. There may be cairns in the talus we had to cross, but finding a cairn in a talus field is like finding a pile of rocks in a bigger pile of rocks.
The ramp is broken in the middle by another section of talus. Imagine that. Back on the ramp, following the cairns, we crossed the lake’s outlet stream and arrived atop the bench that holds the lake. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to get here from camp.
The slopes of Howard Mountain and Mount Cirrus rise steeply 1400′ above the lake. You guessed it: talus everywhere. The rocks these mountains are made of aren’t the giant granite slabs you see above Black Lake, for example. The rocks on Howard and Cirrus are fractured and full of cracks running in all directions. The freeze-thaw cycle undoubtedly keeps a significant amount of rock falling, endlessly adding to the piles of talus.
As is my wont, I chatted a bit with the members of the work crew. They were celebrating the end of the season (even though they’ll be working another month). The ranger in charge told me she has been doing this for eighteen years. She’s been just about everywhere in the Park but doesn’t visit very many summits. One of the guys will turn 30 in a couple of weeks. He decided that he’d take a dip in 30 lakes by then. Today he got his 23rd and he’s confident that he’ll get the remaining seven without too much difficulty. One day last week, he got six in one day: The Loch, Mills, Jewel, Black, Blue, and Green.
Gordon set off to circumnavigate the lake while I surveyed my surroundings. Looking out over the valley below, my metaphor likening the talus to a sea couldn’t be more apt. This sea of rock is arranged in what looks like storm-tossed waves. The troughs of the waves are lighter in color than the tops due to weathering.
I was surprised the lake was so green. Fluorescent green, nearly.
We stayed at the lake for a bit more than two hours. On the way down, we lost our chain of cairns a couple of times, forcing us to backtrack. And when we went looking for the terminus of the trail, we found we’d gone much too far to the north. Rather than backtracking across the talus, we worked our way back to the forest and followed a game trail back to the main trail.
When we arrived at our campsite, the work crew had already left. They cut a long section out of the tree trunk I’d had my poles leaning on overnight. This expanded the area where one might want to pitch a tent. As I said earlier, I saw an axe and shovels. But they must have had a power saw and something to shred the tree trunk. To level the ground, they didn’t move any dirt around, they just spread a thick layer of shredded tree trunk. It looked like it might be comfy, but I wonder how well it’ll hold tent spikes and suspect it’ll retain a fair amount of water after a rain.
At ten minutes to four, I thought we were going to get a visitor. Pretty much wherever we sat at the campsite, we could see the main trail. I saw a lone hiker come up to the sign, look up at the campsite, then check his map. He had a full backpack – much more than he’d need for a day hike. My first thought was that maybe he had a permit for this site but showed up a day early. But after a short pause, he continued up the trail. If he was a day hiker, he was pretty late. As it takes more than an hour to reach the lake, he’d be looking at passing our site no sooner than 6 pm. We never did see him again, so my guess is he camped at Lake of the Clouds without a permit. I wonder how often that sort of thing happens.
When it came time to bed in for the night, I made sure to keep wearing my headlamp. If that pesky marmot made a return visit, I wanted to be able to scare him away without rummaging around for my light.
Sure enough, sometime around midnight, I heard a rustling noise. I turned the lamp on and found myself eyeball to beady little eyeball with… a squirrel! The little bastard was about four inches away from my face. The light didn’t scare him off – I had to hiss at him. We repeated this little ritual three or four more times before he finally gave up.
I take back all the bad things I was thinking about marmots.
Foster tells us that Lake of the Clouds is the “most highly visited destination in the Never Summer Mountains”. I don’t doubt her, but if it’s true it tells me just how few people visit any destination in the Never Summer Mountains. (She certainly includes only the mountain destinations and not those in the valley, like Lulu City.)
I tried to reach Lake of the Clouds quite a while ago as a day hike. I wasted some time with a navigation error and made it only to where the trail ends on the map. Since then, I’ve suspected it was out of my day hike range, and decided to give it the two-night treatment: hike to the campsite on day one, hit the lake (or lakes) on day two, and hike out on day three.
The trail is accessed from the Colorado River trailhead. I’ve never seen that lot full, so we could pick our own departure time without worrying about getting a place to park.
Monday, August 29
We had a leisurely 7 am departure from my house, traffic wasn’t horrible, and we put boots on the trail at 9:20.
The first section of trail goes due north from the parking lot for half a mile to a trail junction. Many hikers won’t go any farther than here, or hereabouts. There’s a bridge over the Colorado river a few yards from the junction. Most of those who don’t stop here will continue on toward Lulu City. To reach Lake of the Clouds (or our campsite, Dutch Town), you make the left turn and take the route less traveled.
After crossing the valley, the trail turns south to climb the lower flank of Red Mountain. The trail traverses a fairly steep slope and by the time it has gained about four hundred feet, the hiker is presented with a view of the trailhead parking lot. It surprises me how often a trail gains four hundred feet from a valley floor up to a bench. That happens here, and although there are no lakes on this bench, there are some wetlands.
Having gone a very short distance south of our starting point, the trail turns around and heads generally north until it comes out on the service road for the Grand Ditch. The Grand Ditch is a water diversion project that is capable of taking all the water on the east side of the Never Summer Range and putting it into Long Draw Reservoir, which feeds the Cache la Poudre River.
The trail continues along the ditch for nearly two miles. I’d say that there’s more water flowing in it than in the Colorado River just below us. The ditch is flowing opposite to the river, but we’re at about the midpoint of the ditch, so it’s not a bad approximation that where we crossed the river, there should be more than twice as much water in it. It’s indicative of the abuse the Colorado River gets that, in its first 15 or 20 miles, more than half its water has been rerouted.
From the start of the hike to a fair piece northward along the Ditch, traffic noise from Trail Ridge Road has been a constant companion. As we approach the end of our flat and level stroll on the service road, we’re about a mile north of the highway and turning west. The road noise fades away. Now we can easily hear the jet airliners passing overhead. The westbound ones are a bit north of us, but the eastbound fly directly overhead.
At the Lake of the Clouds trail junction with the Grand Ditch, there’s a sign that indicates Dutch Town is 1.3 miles distant, and Hitchens Gulch is .8 miles. I never did see any sign for the Hitchens Gulch campsite, going or coming, so I suspect it’s no longer in use. I also suspect the miles are inflated a bit. I reckon it’s more like .7 to Dutch Town. It took us thirty minutes to get from the Ditch to the campsite. That’s a five-hundred-foot gain, so I think 1.4 miles per hour is much more reasonable than the 2.6 miles per hour required by the sign.
It took us three hours of hiking to make the trip. Add some time for our break at the base of the Lake of the Clouds trail. Since we crossed the Colorado River, we had encountered only three other people. They had camped at Valley View, very close to where the trail first reached the Ditch. There was nobody at our site, which surprised me. If I could have gotten a Sunday/Monday instead of our Monday/Tuesday, I would have. Either the previous occupants of Dutch Town made it to the trailhead before we left, or they hiked to another campsite. Or, possibly, they canceled. No matter.
Some previous occupant of the campsite left us a present: a somewhat chewed-up skull. I have no idea what sort of creature it belonged to. It’s just the skull; no mandible, and it’s not obvious where the mandible would attach. The brain would be a bit smaller than my fist.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit spoiled backpacking in the Park, given the generally outstanding trails and campsites. That said, I’ve only camped in about half a dozen established campsites in the Park. This one is a bit different than the others I’ve been to. First, it’s very close to the trail and my tent is clearly visible from the trail even before reaching the sign and spur trail. Second, it’s not ideal for water. Sitting at the campsite, the stream is audible. But what can be heard is water flowing under some talus. Just upstream, the stream is very wide, very shallow, and flows slowly. Here, the streambed is a soft mud that is easily disturbed. I use a SteriPen rather than a filter and it was impossible to get any water without a bit of sediment. It is necessary to go quite a way upstream to avoid the sediment.
A few yards from the level spots at the site, there’s a sign saying “Restoration Area: Stay Off”. I believe the site was located by this sign in years past. Here, tents wouldn’t be visible from the trail. The difference in location wouldn’t have made much difference as to water, though.
On my last backpacking trip, I brought the critter cam. The only critter it spotted was me. I probably should bring it every trip, but I figured I didn’t want to carry the extra weight. I should have brought it.
At about 10:30 I was awakened by something moving through the campsite. It sounded like a large quadruped. I’ve had moose go past my tent. It wasn’t exactly a quiet animal. This one was quiet, so I guessed it was either an elk or a deer. It didn’t linger and was quickly out of earshot.
Later, I heard my tent rustling. It sounded like the rain cover was being disturbed by a slight breeze. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. But things are not always what they seem.
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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:
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.
Bluebird/Ouzel trail jct
Ouzel trail jct
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?
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.
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.