Lake Verna 2

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

— Lisa Foster

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

Tuesday, August 18

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

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

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

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

Mount Craig on the right, our route to the left

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

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

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

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

Ten Lake Park

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

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

Our view of Mount Craig as we descend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Lake Verna 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to…

Monday, August 17

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

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

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

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

Climbing Devil’s Ladder

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

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

Calm and somewhat smokey Lake Verna

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

A tiny tree growing out of a giant stump

Tomorrow’s goal is Ten Lake Park.

I fell asleep fairly quickly.

Renegade 2

Monday, July 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

The upper unnamed pond

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

The lower unnamed pond

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

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

First glimpse of Murphy Lake

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

Murphy Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random trailside flora

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

The Gathering Storm

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

Gordon hiking; Big Meadow burn scar in the valley

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

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

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

Picnic vista

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

Obligatory Columbine picture

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Addendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renegade 1

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

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

Sunday, July 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renegade campsite

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

Haynach Lakes and Nakai Peak

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

Haynach Lakes

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

Snowdrift Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunraven Scotch Whiskey

This is the second time I’ve camped at Lost Lake. The first time was three years ago, my first backpacking trip. That time, I only camped one night so I had too little time to get past Lake Dunraven even if I’d gotten through the willow. Two nights is the way to go to get to Lake Dunraven and beyond, perhaps to Rowe Glacier.

Saturday, September 14

Gordon was my companion again. We left my place at 7:15 and arrived at the trailhead and had boots on the trail by a quarter to nine. I was surprised at the light traffic on 36. And I was pleased to see that they’ve just repaved the top of Devils Gulch Road.

I described the trail fairly well in that earlier post, so no need to repeat it here (other than to correct the obvious mistake of misidentifying Glen Haven as Drake). I will add one note, though. We stopped for a break at the same place I stopped last time. Between there and the base of the grueling, stamina sucking climb there’s a section of trees that have been toppled and uprooted. It looks much like the section of Glacier Gorge that was blown down several years ago. Here it’s a much smaller area than in Glacier Gorge.

At the Boundary Creek campsite, two hikers entered the trail ahead of us. We leapfrogged them a few times until our break at the base of the climb. I knew what was ahead and I kept telling myself that it’s more mental then physical. I’m not sure I’m convinced. I tried to focus on the trail immediately in front of me, tried not to look too far ahead. I had to take three breathers before we got to the top.

I think I mentioned that Gordon races bicycles. He’s a bit of a hill climb specialist. So here I am, after five and a half or six miles into a ten mile hike on this steep section of trail with a thirty-five pound backpack. I wasn’t going all that fast earlier, but this brought me to a crawl. My heart was going in the neighborhood of 140 and I’m breathing about as fast as I can. At our my three breaks I couldn’t help but notice Gordon isn’t breathing hard. Not even breaking a sweat.

We get to the lake in six hours, arriving twenty minutes behind the father/son duo we leapfrogged on the trail. The father was checking out the status of the north side camp sites. The prime waterfront site I had before was occupied. The father/son took one of the southern sites, we took the other northern one.

After an early dinner, we headed up to the shelf Lake Husted sits on to get a good look at what we’ll have to deal with tomorrow to reach Dunraven. We went up the way I did last trip (directly from the camp sites on the north). We came down the trail from the south side camp sites. The trail is much easier.

A marshy wetland sits at the confluence of the North Fork of the Big Thompson and the outlet stream from Lake Louise. On the maps it’s depicted as three ponds, but they are surrounded by a sea of deep, thick willow. We walked downstream a bit, looking for possible routes. It seemed if we got to a gully on the other side of a krummholz forested hillock on the other side of the stream we’d have easy going. Who knows? It could be a good passage, or it could be filled with willow. There’s one way to find out.

After our recce, we stopped at the creek to refill our water bottles. Somehow, I managed to smack my shin into a rather large rock. That really hurt! Not much blood, but it swelled up considerably. Time for a beer.

Sunday, September 15

Gordon is trying a hammock this trip instead of a tent. In the morning he reported a lack of sleep. I slept okay. It was a bit chilly, but not uncomfortably so when I had to relieve myself in the middle of the night .

We put boots on the trail at about nine. In the forest just above Lost Lake we saw a cow moose and a bull elk through the trees a few minutes apart. We quickly and easily made our way to the stream in search of a way through. Early on we had a couple of short stretches of dense krummholz but avoided the disheartening willow. Where we expected easy moving, we found easy moving. We made our way along the border of the trees and the talus field above them. Eventually we had to cut across a large willow patch, but we found a nice game trail that took us where we wanted to go.

And that was at the base of a steep, wide gully that tops out on a tundra slope about fifty or sixty feet above the northern end of Lake Dunraven. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to retrace our steps on the way out, but that was a problem for later.

A sea of willow and krummholz

Lake Dunraven sits at the mouth of a valley carved by glaciers, drained today by the North Fork of the Big Thompson river. It is the first of three lakes. The other two have no official names, but in Foster’s guide she calls them “Whiskey” and “Scotch”. Arriving at Dunraven is the hard part: the three lakes are separated by just over a half mile of tundra and a climb of less than three hundred feet.

Lake Dunraven

I was thinking we’d have plenty of time to make an attempt to reach Rowe Glacier, at the very top of the canyon at a whopping 13,120′ of elevation. There are many peaks in the park that aren’t this high. But as soon as I saw the pile of sand, scree, and talus, with a skirt of snow on the southern shore of “Scotch” I said I’d gone far enough.

‘Scotch Lake’ and Gibraltar Mountain

I said to Gordon that he could go up to Rowe and I’d wait here for him. I have no problem watching the world go by for a couple of hours. It’s a beautiful day to sit on the shores of an alpine lake with a stunning view of Gibraltar Mountain. How long could it take him? Three hours max? So he’d be back by two. No big deal.

I set my day pack and water bottle by some rocks that would serve nicely as seats. Even if I wandered off, anybody going by on the faint game trail here would see them at about eye-level. I sat there for long spells, pondering the imponderable, and occasionally made little exploration trips. Up to the top of the rise that gives a view of the valley below, or around the outlet to see if I can cross, or out on a sandy stretch to start and stop the GoPro. But mostly I sat right there.

I’d shed my thermal under clothes and had them on a rock to dry out. After three aborted attempts, a ground squirrel made his way to sniffing distance of them. He ran off right away, but he wasn’t done. He scrambled back and forth along the fringe of the willow that was growing here, stunted to only be 12-18″ high. Every now and again, he’d climb to the top of the willow for a shaky look around.

He really wanted the salt from my shirt. Twice he had licking sessions that were longer than I expected, for such a jittery creature. I’d never seen them do that, but I guess I’ve never given them the opportunity.

Sitting there, I had a bird give me a bit of a buzz. It flew from behind me, silently, until it got inches over my head and flapped loudly. I wasn’t expecting it and it made me jump. Later, I saw the same bird buzz the ground squirrel the same way.

“Scotch Lake” has one of the biggest beaches I’ve seen in the Park. The hillside on the east is quite sandy, and the big pile that made me decide to stop was pretty sandy, too. There is a fairly fresh alluvial fan below a narrow crease in the slope, severely eroded. This one has been recent enough that almost no plants are living on it, but there were other, older fans. At first I wanted to attribute this one to the 2013 floods, but it could be more recent, with one of the older ones from 2013. Who knows?

Alluvial Fan

I go back and sit by my pack and water. One o’clock passes, as does two, and three. It’s been four hours. If he only went to Rowe Glacier, he should have been back a long time ago. Perhaps he went farther? It’s only a short climb to the top and then on to the summit of Rowe Peak, or Gibraltar Mountain, or even Mummy Mountain. He may also have taken a different route down.

It also occurs to me that he might have twisted an ankle, or stepped on a “wobbler” in a talus field and cracked his noggin open. By now, even if I felt I was capable of going up toward Rowe myself it was too late. I decide I need to leave “Scotch” by five or risk darkness before I’m back to camp. So I’m working through my options if he doesn’t show up before I leave, if he doesn’t return to camp by dark, if he doesn’t show by morning, given that it’s a nearly full moon.

I tried to make a sign out of rocks on the alluvial fan. “LEFT AT 5:”. The idea is that he’d be able to see it from the top, but it was obvious that I’d made the letters too small. I left promptly at five. It took me two hours to get here, so I figured it would be about the same to return. I made it from “Scotch” to the bottom of the gully below Dunraven retracing our steps. I easily found the same game trail we used before and followed it to it’s natural conclusion, somewhat downstream of where we crossed in the morning. Here was an easy crossing using game trails. Much easier than this morning, when we whacked through some krummholz.

When I got back to the camp sites, I ran into the father/son hikers. The father asked how my hike went. I told him I was worried that I’d abandoned my companion. “You talking about the guy you hiked in with yesterday? He got back about half an hour ago.”

That turns out to be half true. He made it back to “Scotch” by about one. How he left there without seeing me or my backpack, and how he made it through without me seeing him is a puzzle. He says that when he last saw me, I looked to be leaving “Scotch”, and he figured I’d be waiting at Dunraven. So when he didn’t see me at “Scotch” he kept going. He was back to camp by two. After a while he grew concerned that I wasn’t back to camp, so he made another trip up to Dunraven. He left Dunraven the second time at five.

In the end, no harm, no foul. I didn’t really mind sitting at this lake for six hours, except for the tension of wondering if he was hurt. I probably would have enjoyed two hours at each lake, but “Scotch” has a fine view.

From the map, we expected the lake at Rowe Glacier to be a significant body of water. Gordon says it’s more like a big puddle or two. [As I’m late writing this, I’ll add a late update from him: “I’m quite sure now that I didn’t make it to Rowe Glacier, but just below it. Foiled again!”]

So it was a rather late dinner. Gordon had had a beer before I returned and had his second while I had my first. One was enough for me tonight, so there was a leftover beer.

Monday, September 16

I didn’t sleep quite as well as the night before. I was a bit restless, and although the swelling had greatly reduced, my shin was still tender.

Not long before sunrise I heard a large animal walking through camp. I figured it was either an elk or a moose. It wasn’t moving very fast, and three or four times it made an odd noise. My immediate thought was “Indigestion!” With a noise like that, I decided it had to be a moose. We discussed it in the morning over breakfast. Gordon agrees it was a moose and commented on the odd noise it made.

I drank the last beer so Gordon wouldn’t have to pack it out.

The hike out was uneventful. We took a short break at the usual place, at the bottom of the grueling climb. I had my last peach: sweet and juicy. We were making good time; I told Gordon he shouldn’t expect it to continue.

We ran into a ranger on his way up the trail. “I see you have your permit hanging off your backpack. Thanks!” He asked us where we went; Gordon showed him pictures of Rowe Glacier. His parting words were, “Have a nice hike! I have a couple llamas coming up the trail.”

Second ranger, with llamas!

Saturday, it took us six hours to make the hike up. I was expecting it to take six and a half. When we left camp on the way out, I expected to be back to the car in five and a half hours. In the end it took only five, so my actual vs estimated variance was consistent.

See more photos of the trip here.

On Reflection

I thought it might be possible to bag four new lakes this trip. I fully expected to get three and have a decent shot at the fourth. I got the three. So although I didn’t bag the maximum, I didn’t come up shorter than expectations.

Which has usually been the case. It’s good to finally have a backpacking trip where I got to all the places I expected to get to. This was my fourth two night trip. Last year I thought I’d get to four lakes on the Gorge Lakes hike. I got one. My July trip was way too early to get either of the two high lakes above Bluebird. So early that I didn’t even make it as far as Bluebird. And two weeks ago when I reached one of four again in Spruce Canyon.

It was unfortunate that Gordon missed me on his hike down from the glacier. I didn’t really mind spending six hours there. But I did feel pinned to a spot. Six hours is a long time, and would have been more enjoyable if it had been two hours at each lake. But the GoPro battery held out a surprisingly long time. I ran the camera with five different views for a total of nearly two hours. I never get two hours of battery at the track.

It’s unlikely I’ll be back there. This was my second trip. It’s a long hike to camp. I much prefer the six to seven mile range to ten. Luckily, that isn’t much of a limitation in the Park. There are still many lakes I haven’t visited that are within reach from a campsite six or seven miles in.

I’m happy that we got through the sea of willow and krummholz as easily as we did. I obsessed for days over a photo I took last time that shows the area. Our recce Saturday evening was time well spent. All that miserable vegetation wasn’t nearly the roadblock I feared it could be.

I’m pleasantly surprised that I was able to average two miles an hour on the hike out.

I got almost twice the normal amount of time lapse footage. I didn’t use it all, but probably too much.

Spruce Canyon

I started plotting this summer’s backpacking trips about a year ago. One thing I decided after the last couple trips is that, for where I want to go, spending one night in the backcountry isn’t sufficient. Another thing was that doing zone camping is less than ideal because you have to move your camp from night to night. So this year, my three trips are all two nighters in official camp sites. Hike in on the first day, go wherever I’m trying to get to on the second, and hike out the third.

The plan for this trip was to spend two nights at Spruce Lake and spend an entire day in Spruce Canyon, hoping to visit four lakes: Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, Lake Irene, and Sprague Tarn. In preparation, I had searched for descriptions of the area with very little luck. I found the report of a guy who wanted to summit Stones Peak but changed his mind due to weather. He had a few pictures of the Canyon, but not much description..

So I spent a lot of time studying the map. I had a route planned: about three miles each way, through unknown terrain, and a sprinkling of relativly steep sections to deal with. I’ve done enough off-trail hiking to, I think, have an idea how long it might take to get from one place to another. In this case, I decided I’d be able to go about a mile an hour, and it looked from the map that I’d be able to skirt the steepest bits. I might get a bit out of my comfort zone, but as long as I had a hiking companion I figured this would be a challenging hike, but with a decent chance of reaching my goals.

Gordon agreed to go with me. I hiked with Gordon last year. He races bicycles with some degree of success and thus is in much better shape than I am.

After my last backpacking trip I decided that I needed to buy a backpack. First I used a borrowed one, than one that was given to me. I didn’t particularly like the first one, and the second was too small. So a couple weeks ago I went to REI and bought one.

August 29

Since we were only going to Spruce Lake, about 4.8 miles and a fifteen hundred foot climb, we didn’t need to get to the trailhead early. My only concern was getting a parking spot right at the trailhead. If we couldn’t get a spot there, we might have to park at the bus stop and walk an extra three quarters of a mile.

We left my house by ten, stopped for an early lunch at The Other Side, stopped at the back country office to pick up the permit for the next trip (in two weeks), and headed to the trail. My concern about getting a spot was in vain. Enough folks hike to the Pool or Fern Falls that there’s some turnover in the parking lot and there were a few empty spots. We put boots on the trail at 12:30.

The only delay we faced getting there was an accident on Pole Hill, just before the overlook. A mail truck went through the guardrail and was hanging precipitously off the edge. I’m sure that was a brown-pants moment for the driver.

I’ve described the hike to Spruce Lake before, so I won’t dwell on it here. In the past, I always enjoyed the last section of trail, from just below Fern Lake to Spruce Lake. It’s an unimproved trail with a fair amount of character. Carrying a 35lb backpack changes the character of it a bit. With the backpack I certainly prefer the nice, wide pack trails. With short breaks at Fern Falls and Fern Lake, we reached our campsite a few minutes before four.

To now, I never thought Spruce Lake is anything special. There are many lakes in the Park in spectacular settings. Spruce Lake is not one of them. But Spruce Lake is not without its charms. It is absolutely loaded with fish. Sitting on the shore you can see the greenback cutthroat trout swimming within arms reach. A bit before dusk they were rising, breaking the surface with a soft “plop”, the expanding ripples marking the spot. And at any moment there were maybe two hundred sets of these ripples. That’s a lot of fish!

The fish weren’t the only creatures in the lake. A mother moose and her yearling calf were there. She, wading belly deep where the tops of the long grasses floated, repeatedly submerging her head to pull the grass by the roots, then shaking the water off, sometimes winding the grass around her snout. Her calf was lounging on the shore, mostly hidden. About the time Gordon wanted to get closer for a better view, they decided they’d had enough and moving up the hill away from the lake.

August 30

I was expecting my alarm to go off at six, but I’d forgotten that I’d turned it off. But we weren’t in any particular hurry. Even leaving camp at eight, if we managed a mile an hour we’d have plenty of time to spend at the lakes. So, off we were at eight.

We climbed to about 9800′ and contoured around Castle Rock. Rather than descend to Spruce Creek, we continued along the slope working our way west. When encountering obstacles, we typically climbed above them rather then descending. Making any progress was very challenging. The forest is quite dense, with a lot of deadfall. We came across rock slabs that I was unwilling to cross. We crossed talus fields that sometimes bordered on scree.

At about 10,400′ we descended to the creek and crossed it. My original plan was to cross the outlet of Hourglass to work our way up a gentler slope. But the terrain in front of us was a sea of willow. Gordon suggested we stick to the forest and climb straight up. About four hundred feet up, we emerged onto a large meadow. Being the last week of August, it was mostly dry, but generally it is a boggy marsh. We walked on the firmer bits of earth, but these were still quite spongy, even if dry.

At about 10,900′.

The outlet of Hourglass falls into this meadow from the west. The stream is running at only a fraction of its full flow; the rocks in the stream bed discolored a rusty brown, but water running over half the width, or maybe a bit less. It was fairly easy climbing up alongside the stream, but I think it would be much more difficult when the stream is in full song. After a couple of false summits we found ourselves on the eastern shore of Hourglass Lake.

It was 12:26.

That’s nearly four and a half hours to travel about two and a quarter miles.

Standing at the outlet of Hourglass Lake

We took a short break and continued our climb, looking for Rainbow Lake next. We worked our way through a maze of krummholz until we found ourselves on an outcropping with a fabulous view down the canyon: the Fern Lake fire scar, Moraine Park, and Lake Estes in the distance.

There looked to be one more fairly steep climb to the next bench and Rainbow Lake. I made an executive decision. It was after one now, and I had no expectation that the return trip would be any easier or quicker than our journey here. I called it quits. Gordon said he wanted to check out that last climb and I told him to go for it. I’d meet him back at Hourglass.

Spruce Canyon

He’s so much faster than I am, he’d made it to Rainbow Lake and returned to Hourglass in the time it took me to get back to Hourglass. Granted, I made a bit of a wrong turn and ended up having to navigate some willow. And Gordon admitted to running part of the way. Gordon is somewhat more comfortable on steep terrain than I am and he said it was a challenge for him. Based on this, even if there was no time constraint, I would have had difficulty reaching Rainbow and the other lakes.

In any event, we headed down from Hourglass at about two. Gordon said something about retracing our route in; I said I didn’t expect we’d be able to, but that any reasonable route would work for me. We did cross Spruce Creek at the same spot, and once or twice Gordon thought we passed by this spot on the way up. I wasn’t convinced. For the most part, we followed an entirely different route. Afterwards, Gordon said he thought the return route was worse than the way in. I won’t argue.

We crossed large talus fields then found ourselves descending a couple hundred feet down a gully. Back in dense forest we came to a point were we could see the stream again. I figured we had another hour to go, so I went down and filled my water bottle (for the third time today). I intended to climb back to where Gordon was, but he followed me down to the water a few minutes later and we continued our trek from nearer the stream.

When we’d descended to below about 9800′, we left the stream and worked our way around Castle Rock toward Spruce Lake. In this area we found a few cairns, both in the morning and on our way back. They were scattered so far apart as to be of little or no help to us, and we found them only in the vicinity of Castle Rock.

It was in here somewhere that I got stung by a bee. I haven’t been stung by a bee since I was about four years old. This little fucker got me on my right wrist. It hurt like hell and swelled up a bit. And I don’t know what I did to deserve it.

We returned to our campsite at 6:15. I was spent. It took us more than ten hours to go about five miles. It was physically challenging for me, and due to our slow progress, mentally challenging as well. Had I been on my own, I’d have turned back well before reaching Hourglass Lake. I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t reach the other lakes, especially given that we were so close.

Given the grueling nature of the hike, I’m not likely to make another attempt. Quite a number of times during the day I found myself asking “What am I doing here? I do this for fun, and very little of this is fun.”

Gordon packed in a six pack of beer. We’d had two of them last night and he put the other four in the lake to chill. He reported that our moose friends were back, browsing around the rock we’d sat on earlier. I went down to the water to watch them. The yearling nearly stepped on our bag of beers. They began working their way towards me. I didn’t really want to be closer to the calf than the mother, so I bushwhacked back to the camp site.

All the afternoon clouds disappeared and we enjoyed the starry night skies. After having two beers before sacking out, I was not surprised that I had to get up in the middle of the night. The Milky Way wasn’t visible when we retired, but it was out in full glory at 1:30.

See more pictures of Hourglass Lake.

August 31

We took our time breaking camp and were on the trail at 8:30. We made it back nearly to the Fern Lake trail junction when I realized I’d left my camera at camp. Gordon volunteered to “run back and get it”. I was selfish and let him. I figured it would take me forty five minutes without the backpack for the round trip. He was back in twenty six (“a nice warmup,” he says). We took short breaks at Fern Falls and the Pool and were back to the trailhead at 11:30.

It’s not a long hike down from Spruce Lake, and the day had not really started to heat up by the time we were done. But I was not exactly moving fast. The fatigue in my legs served as a constant reminder of yesterday’s struggles. My Fitbit tried to tell me I hiked more than twelve miles yesterday. It often overstates distances when I’m hiking. But it sure felt like I’d hiked much more than twelve miles the day before. I’m blaming my fatigue on all the talus we covered, particularly the sections where we were descending steeply. So I didn’t exactly set a blistering pace.

Many times this summer I’ve commented about the crowds in the Park. I think today was the extreme in my experience. The line of cars at the entrance station went all the way to Highway 66. I’d never seen it go past the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center before. And the entire way from Estes to Lyons the traffic heading to Estes was an unbroken line of cars. Assuming an average of 200′ between cars (but it was often much less), over 21 miles that would be 550 cars.

On Reflection

I’m pretty sore right now. I have a blister on my big toe and it hurts a little to go down the stairs in the house. I knew it would be a challenging hike before I started. I only made it to one of the four lakes, and the others were quite close. At times I wasn’t having very much fun. But I’m glad I did it.

I think the new backpack is an improvement over the others. My legs are sore but not my shoulders.

Maybe I should start a list of RMNP lakes that I’ll never visit.

Upper Ouzel Creek

I don’t know what I was thinking. Obviously, I wasn’t. To think that I’d be able to reach Isolation or Frigid Lakes in early July is pure fantasy. So if you’re just curious what I found at either of those lakes, I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t even make it to Bluebird Lake.

I ended up with a permit on this date because this site was already booked on the weekends later in July. For some reason, I fixated on doing one of my overnight trips in July, and only considered dates that included at least one weekend day. I could have had a date later in July had I been willing to do it in the middle of the week. Or, I could have had an August or September date had I been willing to make two trips in either of those months. But I was unwilling to take, or didn’t consider, those options.

But clearly taking a mid-week hike in July to try to bag Isolation and Frigid would have failed just the same. Certainly, this year. We had a very wet spring and there is still a lot of snow on the ground in the high country. That much is obvious from Denver.

The plan was to hike in to the Upper Ouzel Creek campsite, spend the night, explore whatever territory I could above Bluebird Lake for a day, spend a second night, then hike out on the third day. Even before setting out I knew it was unlikely I’d reach my goals. But so what? It’s a few days in the backcountry.

I filled the backpack with the usual stuff, then added more stuff. For these overnight trips I haven’t been taking the SLR. I decided to take it this time. I’ve been concerned about having my phone or GoPro batteries die, so I took along a battery that I could use to charge them. And, of course, the associated cables. And I knew I’d be trekking across a fair amount of snow so I included the micro-spikes.

Saturday began mostly overcast, but that changed as I approached Allenspark, where all skies to the west were a clear, clear blue. I wanted to arrive at the entrance a few minutes after eight. My permit was for 2 people in the party. I had asked Ed if he wanted to join me. He was in, until he was out, and a substitute could not be found. So I wanted to tell somebody that my party was just me.

At the gate at 8:10, they told me I might not get a parking spot. I was a bit concerned by this very thing; that’s why I wanted to be there pretty much as soon as the entry station was manned. Much later and the lot would be full for sure. When I got to the (first) bridge across the river I ran across a volunteer. She flagged me down. I told her I was backpacking and she said they generally save a spot or two for permit holders. But we happened to be in a radio dark spot and she couldn’t contact the other volunteers. She warned me that I might end up in the winter parking lot. Nothing like adding another mile to the trip!

At the trailhead lot I managed to shoehorn the car into a spot between a truck and an SUV. I had told the first volunteer at the lot that I had a permit, and asked where to park. He just told me to look for a spot. The second volunteer remarked that I’d parked where he didn’t know there was a spot, then said “You should have told me you have a permit. We have a couple spots saved!”

I was on the trail by a quarter to nine. That’s a bit later than I usually start on this trail, because on my day hikes I need to be six or eight miles in by noon. No such restriction today: I had all day to do about six miles. So I took my time.

Ouzel Falls

I’m using a backpack a friend gave me. This is my third trip with it. I’ve decided it’s too small. Other than that, I like it. Well, except that I can’t get my water bottle properly secured when I have the backpack on. I can get the water bottle out, but can’t put it back in properly. So, at least when I’m going solo, I have resigned myself to taking an extended break every time I want some water.

Then there was an additional break when I realized I’d packed my sunscreen in the bear vault. So much of this hike is in direct sunshine that the old SPF is in no way optional. It’s never optional for me, but especially so on this trail. So I stopped where the trail splits and Ouzel/Bluebird is to the left, Thunder/Lion to the right. And again along the top of the ridge where regrowth in the burn scar hasn’t blocked the view up the canyon. And again where the trail splits between Ouzel and Bluebird. Did I mention I was taking my time?

Big sky over the upper Ouzel drainage

I know people generally aren’t big fans of forest fires. I figure they’re a natural part of the life cycle of the forest and try to take the bad with the good. This area burned back in 1978. About ten years ago, along the top of the ridge above Ouzel Falls, you still had unimpeded views of all the surrounding terrain. But now the new growth is getting taller and thicker. Open views are still common and shade is sparse, but the forest is returning here.

Tree growth is considerably slower up higher, and by the time the trail is even with Ouzel Lake, it looks a lot like it looked in the first few years after the fire. The ground is covered only by grasses and a scattering of wildflowers. A few dead trunks stand upright over their fallen neighbors, and the trail is lined by raspberries for long stretches.

Along the way, I talked to a pair of twenty-something women and a thirty-something couple. It struck me that in both discussions we described the terrain in fundamentally different ways. They all oriented around peaks, I orient around lakes. I know the names of many of the mountains, but too many of the names are just names. I know Mahana Peak and Tanima Peak are around here, but it’s not important to me to know which ones are which. So there was some back-and-forth in these conversations translating geography: Hunters Creek to Mt. Orton, and the like.

When I got to about the end of the burn scar on the Bluebird trail, I ran into a guy in black shorts and no shirt that had motored past me earlier. “If you’re going to the lake, you may want to reconsider. I made it 95% of the way there, but had to turn back due to all the snow.” I asked if he made it to the campsite but he didn’t know. He showed me on his map how far he thought he’d gone.

I mounted the micro-spikes and continued. It was pretty easy going, but lots of big snow drifts to cross. Before long, it’s snow as often as not. Did he think this was too much snow, or that next stretch? Then I arrived at a place where I had to traverse high up on a steep snowbank. Even with traction, I didn’t like the looks of it. Without the backpack I’d have done it. It was an easy choice to descend a bit and climb some rocks rather than risk a fall.

As I started down, another couple caught up to me. She wanted to follow the tracks, but he thought my way was better. Turns out this is their third attempt to get to Bluebird Lake. First was in December. They snowshoed. They only made it to Ouzel Falls and the round trip was seven hours. Then in May they made it to “that boulder right there”. They swore they’d make it this time.

Snow-lily, Erythronium grandiflorum, all around my campsite

I pushed on a little farther, then took a breather. They took a breather then pushed on, and we happened to reach the spur to the campsite at the same time. They started up toward the campsite. I told them where they were going and pointed the other way. “See that log bridge over there? You go that way.” I’m absolutely certain they didn’t go much farther and will soon be making their fourth attempt.

Campsite

I was relieved to find the campsite free of snow. It was not exactly dry, though. It was pretty obvious that water had flowed here quite recently. Flowed here and puddled there. Luckily, the least wet spot was almost exactly the size of my tent. I got it set up then took a jacket and some water and headed up to Bluebird Lake. I quickly found myself at the bottom of the last steep bit to the lake. Later in the summer, this little section is one of my favorite fields of wildflowers. But right now it’s just snow.

So that’s where I stopped. In snow shoes, with an able companion, I’d have done it. With just the micro-spikes and solo, no way.

And that’s when I decided I didn’t need to stay two nights up here.

I sat for a while beside the stream, the outlet from Bluebird. The water was running fast and clear; a distinct blue. It cascades out of a tunnel it’s bored through the bottom of a huge drift of snow. The sound of the water was, in a way, intense. It is unwavering. It’s not as loud as nearby thunder, but it is certainly louder than the wind through the trees. It’s quite loud.

Front porch view of Copeland Mtn

By about six I made my way back to camp. It’s a nice camp. The view from the pad itself is nice, but it’s atop a large rock outcropping. A few feet down a gentle slope is a half log, seats two. Twenty feet below is the trail. I sat here after dinner and watched the shadow of the setting sun climb the flank of Copeland Mtn.

Although I’m a fair distance from the stream, the sound of rushing water is a dull roar, louder than any airliners passing overhead. I can’t see my stream, but across the canyon I can see six significant water falls. There’s still so much snow here, water is flowing everywhere, (except, thankfully, for my campsite).

By eight it was time to turn in. There wasn’t anything to watch for a while, and I knew I’d fall asleep before I’d get a good look at the night sky so I set an alarm for ten. Had to use the phone because the Fitbit wouldn’t sync with my phone without internet access. At ten, there were some scattered clouds. The crescent moon had set, or at least fallen behind out of sight beyond the divide.

I was awake again at 3:30 for a comfort break. The clouds had cleared and the Milky Way was spilled across the sky. I rarely see the Milky Way. Seems like few times I get to experience a dark sky, the moon is always shining brightly.

Surprisingly, I was able to sleep almost until seven. I took my time breaking camp and was on the trail by a quarter to nine. I hadn’t seen any big mammals on the hike in, but did see a solo deer in the evening and three more in the morning, below my porch.

Morning visitors

I was not exactly looking forward to putting that backpack on. Because it’s too small, almost none of the weight is on my hips; it’s all on my shoulders. My shoulders are sore, it it would be nice to have a day off. My one adjustment is to put (clean) socks between my shoulders and the straps. This worked better than anticipated. The discomfort was much reduced and I didn’t feel the need to stop as often. It took me more than six hours to go up, but not much over four on the way down.

Although I didn’t get to where I wanted to go, and I spent one night instead of two, I still had a good time. Any day in the Park is a good day.

No time lapse this trip. But there’s this, instead.

Fifth Lake – Day 2

Sunday, September 2

We were up and shortly after 6:30. In theory, as neither of us planned on a hot breakfast, we should have been able to start our journey to Fifth Lake well before eight. In practice, it wasn’t until 8:30 that we put boots on trail. We packed everything up into our packs which we left at the campsite partially covered by a log in case it rained.

On last month’s trip I packed my day pack in the backpack. After posting that trip report, Ed mentioned that he had a Kelty pack that had a day pack incorporated into it. After playing around with mine I discovered that mine did as well. I don’t like the little day pack bit as much as my lumbar pack, but I’d certainly give it a try. Not having to carry the extra equipment would save me some space and weight.

So in the little pack I carried a bottle of water, some food, and my rain jacket. Somehow I neglected to put the GoPro in it. I was a bit disappointed in my forgetfulness, but I didn’t want to turn around to get it.

Lake Verna pano

When I see pictures my other hiking friends post online I’ll admit I’m a bit jealous that they get so many shots of lakes with mirror-smooth surfaces. As a day-hiker, I’m never at any lakes early enough to see them before there’s any breeze. So I was quite pleased to see Lake Verna and Spirit Lake in such calm conditions. This is definitely an advantage that offsets carrying a heavy pack and sleeping on the ground.

Gordon on the beach at Lake Verna

Another distinct but mistaken memory I have is of the trail between Spirit Lake and Fourth Lake. I vividly recall coming to a split in the trail and having to choose whether to step across the stream and cross a meadow or stay to the left. I went right and ended up in a bit of a marsh. I navigated to higher ground, then found another game trail that deposited me in another marshy meadow. Today I came across no such split in the trail, and where I expected to find two or three meadows found only one.

Spirit Lake and ‘Aiguille de Fleur’

That is not to say that there weren’t any splits in the trail. As one progresses farther west from Spirit Lake the trail often becomes braided. Part of this is due to the many downed trees to be negotiated. In a number of places I took one fork of trail and Gordon took the other. We always came back together after a few dozen yards. So although the trail becomes indistinct and braided, it doesn’t really seem to matter.

Spirit Lake

After Fourth Lake, East Inlet makes a turn to the south. Or, rather, flowing down a steep hill, the stream turns from flowing north to flowing west. The trail is quite faint after Fourth Lake but not terribly difficult to follow. For quite a while it continues east and goes straight up the slope. A fair way up the hill we decided it was time to strike off the trail and back towards the stream.

Fourth Lake

Route finding was simple and we found ourselves hopping from rock to rock until we arrived at the stream itself. Although it’s called East Inlet, here I want to call it the outlet, as it’s the outlet of Fifth Lake. In early September the flow is quite diminished but based on the color of the rocks you can tell that the stream often flows much higher. We arrived on the shore of Fifth Lake by about 10:15.

The morning sky was still almost cloudless, so had I not forgotten the GoPro I wouldn’t have had a very interesting time-lapse. A few jetliners crossed the sky leaving contrails that dispersed into fat white ribbons and a half moon floated above the opposite ridge. Much of the lake was still in the shadow of the spectacular ridge of the Continental Divide. As the sun rose, it didn’t so much climb above the ridge as traverse it, moving behind first one peak then another, putting us alternately in shade, then sun, then shade again.

Fifth Lake

We weren’t the only ones there. A lone fisherman was working his way around the lake, casting his line in several different places. After about half an hour we headed back down. Arriving at Fourth Lake we spotted two moose wading across the lake. We kept an eye on them and they kept an eye on us. Gordon suggested they might be the same two moose we saw yesterday. If we made it here, they certainly could have too. I have my doubts that they’re the same moose but who knows.

Gordon scanned the opposite shore with is binoculars and spotted a bull moose in the trees. If Gordon hadn’t pointed him out to me I’d have never seen him. I could see him but any picture I took with the cell phone wouldn’t show him. The moose worked their way to the outlet stream and we found our paths converging.

Moose wading in Fourth Lake

Here we met a couple guys hiking up. They left the trailhead at seven this morning, arriving here at Fourth Lake at 11:40. They didn’t realize where they were. Their goal was Spirit Lake. I told them they were at Fourth Lake, gave them my map, and suggested they try to get to Fifth Lake. I somewhat expected to see them again on our hike out as they were moving quite a bit faster than us, but we never did see them again so I don’t know if they made it.

Pika

We were back at the campsite a bit before 1:00. This is somewhat later than I was hoping but not a concern. It took us about five hours to get here yesterday, and I typically don’t hike out any faster than I hike in. That could mean we don’t get back to the car until six. But we make it to Lone Pine Lake in half an hour and don’t take any breaks until we crossed the bridge over the river another half hour below Lone Pine. We stopped there for more water.

About ten minutes before reaching the bridge I heard quite a loud noise somewhere below us. I can’t really describe it, and at the time I had no idea what it was. My first thought was that it was man-made, but I couldn’t imagine how it was made. I didn’t give it any more thought until a couple hundred yards down the trail from our break at the bridge. A dead tree had fallen across the river, landing on a large rock slab that the trail crossed. The trunk had been burned, was black. Where it hit the rock it was broken in a couple places. Broken but not quite shattered. This, obviously, was the source of the noise.

I was a bit surprised at the number of hikers on the trail. My last visit I only saw a handful of people. But that was a weekday and this is a holiday weekend. Still, the number of people hiking up toward Lone Pine Lake this late in the day was unexpected. Closer to the trailhead, one couple asked me how far to the lake. I told them we’d been hiking for about two hours; they turned right around. Another woman passed us asking if the moose was still there. Last moose we saw was at Fourth Lake.

Yours truly, crossing a bridge just above Lone Pine Lake

We finally made it back to the car at around 4:30, maybe a little later. It felt like a long day. I won’t say the last two miles were agony, but I really struggled. But every worthwhile thing has a cost. The valley of upper East Inlet is gorgeous: large, beautiful lakes beneath stunning peaks. We couldn’t have had much better weather. We had some threatening clouds but never got rained on, and when it was sunny it wasn’t hot.

Just another beautiful day (or two) in the neighborhood.

Fifth Lake – Day 1

East Inlet is a stream that flows roughly ten miles from the northern flank of Isolation Peak to the eastern shores of Grand Lake. There are five lakes along this stream, like beads on a string: Lone Pine Lake, Lake Verna, Spirit Lake, Fourth Lake, and Fifth Lake. They ran out of names.

I tried to get to Fifth Lake back in 2009. That was the first year that I kept a log of my hikes, but before I was blogging. I attempted it as a day hike, hitting the trail at 7:30 and reaching Fourth Lake at noon. As that was my “bingo” time, I stopped there, ate my picnic, then headed back. I returned to the car a bit before 5:00. Given that it might take about an hour to get to Fifth Lake from Fourth Lake, I figured it was out of range for me for a day hike.

If I can’t do it in one day, perhaps I should try it in two. So when March 1 rolled around I went online to make a reservation for one night at the Lake Verna campsite. I didn’t get my request but when I visited the back country office to make my reservation for zone camping for my Gorge Lakes hike, I managed to negotiate a good alternative. The Lake Verna campsite was booked up on all the dates I was interested in, but Upper East Inlet was available for September first. It’s just a couple tenths of a mile below Lake Verna so there’s no real functional difference.

The plan was to hike in to the campsite on day one, rise early on day two to get up to Fifth Lake and back to the campsite around noon, then hike back to the car. When I made the reservation, I didn’t have anybody lined up to accompany me but I booked it for two people anyway. About a week ago Gordon volunteered to go.

Saturday, September 1

Because we essentially had all day to get to Lake Verna we made a leisurely start, putting boots on the trail at about 10:00am.

It has been nine years since I hiked this trail but I have a few very distinct memories of it. I remember encountering a bull moose just below Lake Verna with a lame left front leg. I remember it being on a section of trail that traversed a rather steep treeless slope. There is no such section of trail. I’m the first to admit my memory isn’t the best, but in this case it’s a pretty disappointing mismatch. As to the rest of the trail, only a couple of short sections of that hike stayed with me. So in a sense, much of it was somewhat like being on a trail I’d never hiked before.

On that hike long ago, I found a moose in the marshy meadow quite near the trailhead. Today we found two moose even closer to the start. They were quite near the trail. Almost too close for comfort when I realized it was a cow and yearling calf. I probably have that nomenclature wrong. It was a young moose, but now nearly fully grown. I know moose can be unpredictable and wouldn’t want to get between mother and calf.

These two were quite calm, probably used to being in the presence of people. The only other time I’ve been this close to a moose was that earlier encounter on this trail with the lame one. We quietly watched them for a few minutes and took a few pictures. As they slowly worked their way into the trees and away from the trail, the cow let out an odd little moan, then pooped. I realized I’ve never knowingly seen moose poo before. Last year I learned that much of what I’ve taken for years to be deer poo is actually llama poo. This year I learned that moose poo looks a lot like horse poo.

Lone Pine Lake is the first lake in the chain, 5.3 miles and 1500 vertical feet from the trailhead. The first two miles or so follow the stream as it meanders through a broad marshy valley and gains only about a hundred feet. After that easy first two miles, the trail climbs about 1400 feet in just over three miles. This section of trail goes through some fairly rugged country, and the trail between here and just above Lone Pine Lake is what I’d call “highly engineered”. There are a number of stretches where you climb rather a long series of stone stairs.

When we got to the campsite it seemed to me like we’d climbed a thousand of these stairs. That’s a ridiculous number, obviously. When we got to the first of these on the way down I asked Gordon how many he thought there were. “I don’t know. 232?” I said it seemed like a thousand, even though that was an exaggeration. I said that I didn’t intend to count them, but then went ahead and counted anyway. I lost track a couple of times, but by the time we got back to the car I’d counted 725. The actual number is probably between 700 and 750. Those are just the obviously engineered stairs and doesn’t include the many rocks that naturally lie on the trail or are set to divert rain water off the trail.

In addition to the many stairs, there are long lengths of trail that lie on top of carefully built stone walls. There are also some spots where the trail was laid on a ledge that was carved out of large rock outcroppings. Some serious work went into constructing this trail. I really appreciate it, as when looking at the terrain from below it doesn’t look like the kind of country I would be willing to cross without a trail.

I don’t know the fire history of this area. None of it has burned since 2000, but there’s a pretty good section that looks to me as if it has recently burned. There aren’t any large swaths of dead trees, but the tree trunks for quite a stretch of trail look like they’ve seen some fire. There’s one stretch of stone stairs that I recall quite well from before and through here it seemed to me that there were quite a few more downed trees now than then.

We stopped for a rest perhaps half way up the climb to Lone Pine Lake. That’s not half the trail distance, but half the climb, so maybe three and a half miles in. To that point I thought we were making pretty good time. But carrying the pack was starting to wear me out. We took another break at Lone Pine Lake. I really struggled to get there, as I wanted to stop about half an hour earlier. But Gordon took the lead for a while and convinced me to continue until we arrived at the lake.

Lone Pine Lake

It was nearly 2:00 when we got to the lake, and we paused for about fifteen minutes. The weather forecast for the area called for a 60% chance of rain in the afternoon, with some snow possible overnight (with “little to no accumulation of snow”). The skies by now were clearly threatening, with the occasional rumble of thunder. So we didn’t delay too long.

It’s just over a mile and a half from Lone Pine Lake to Lake Verna, and our campsite is a couple tenths below Verna, so we didn’t have much farther to go. Verna, Spirit, and Fourth lakes lie in a valley that hangs above Lone Pine. There’s not much elevation between those three lakes, but the trail climbs a bit over two hundred feet in the next half mile or so. This is another highly engineered stretch of trail that includes a few bridges and a rather large retaining wall. The trail tops out on a rock outcropping with a nice view of Lone Pine Lake.

Above Lone Pine Lake

From here to the campsite it’s pretty easy walking; a nearly straight line for about two thirds of a mile. The campsite itself is a few yards north of the trail, up another thirty or forty feet. It looks like a number of rather large dead trees have recently toppled, their thin disks of soil and roots standing upright. The large trees were dead, but in toppling they took with them some young, live trees. These were still green, so they haven’t been down for very long. I’m sure that if anybody was in the campsite when the trees came down it was quite thrilling.

Upper East Inlet campsite

After we set up camp we headed to Lake Verna. On last month’s trip, I carried two full bottles of water. This time I carried both bottles but only one was full. I figured we’d never be far from a water source so I didn’t need to carry the extra weight, but at camp I’d probably want to have more than one bottle of water, given I’d use something like half a bottle to cook my meal. After I filled my bottle, we sat there and watched the world go by for a little while.

Lake Verna, early evening

Back in camp Gordon surprised me by pulling a couple cans of beer out of his pack: Left Hand Brewing Traveling Light Kolsch. Much the way that I find a peach always seems to taste best when on the shores of an alpine lake, I was quite satisfied with this tasty little Kolsch, even though it was warm.

By sunset the clouds had cleared and by the time I turned in, the first stars in the night sky were shining brightly above us. Had I tried to stay up long enough, I might have seen a little sliver of the Milky Way as the moon wouldn’t rise for a few hours yet. I was happy that the 60% chance of rain hadn’t materialized, other than a few sprinkles when we sat at Lake Verna. With no clouds overhead at sunset, I was confident we wouldn’t get rain (or snow!) overnight.

 

Gorge Lakes – Day 3

Sunday, August 5

Rain started again at about a quarter to six. We had breakfast in the rain, taking shelter under the trees. The sky was a uniform gray, giving no indication that the rain would break any time soon. We had a short discussion as to how long we were willing to wait before packing up in the rain. We came to no conclusion but fortunately before long the rain stopped and the sun poked through the clouds. We were packed up by shortly after eight.

The route back to the trailhead was up the high ridge. We’d turn north at Love Lake, climb up to the unnamed lake above it (‘Lake Amore’ in the Foster guide) and refill our water. From there, circle to the west then south to head up the ridge. Somewhere between 12,400’ and 12,600’ we’d gain the Mt. Ida trail and be home free.

When we got to where I said we should find Lake Amore we instead found just a puddle of water. The guys were confident that their filtration systems would handle this, so we filled up as this would be our last opportunity. I still had nearly a liter of good lake water but filled my other bottle anyway. In the end this was unnecessary and proved to be dead weight as I drank none of it. But better to carry water you don’t need than need water you didn’t carry.

Love Lake (near) and Arrowhead Lake

I suspect we were on a rise slightly above and south of Lake Amore as my phone told me we were about forty feet higher than the map indicated for the lake. But I didn’t waste the steps to verify my suspicion. Once we filled up, Brad asked me if there was any reason we couldn’t just climb straight up the steep slope above us to gain the top of the ridge. It looked to be about two hundred fifty feet and quite steep. I’d have rather gone my route: longer but not so steep. I was outvoted, so up we went.

Yours truly, atop the ridge

We took our time working up the ridge and back to the trail. At altitude none of us was moving very swiftly and we took a number of short breaks. The wind was blowing fairly stiffly and the clouds to the west were building up threateningly. At one of our pauses, James asked “Did you hear that?” I didn’t hear anything until there was a break in the wind. It wasn’t the bugling of elk, but the yipping of coyotes. Not the howl I used to hear regularly during the night when I lived in Estes, but a definite yipping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard coyotes except at night.

View to the northwest. We crossed this valley (toward the right of the picture) Friday.

When we got to the trail we could see a rain squall to the south. Tim said he thought we’d miss it. We may have missed that one, but almost immediately after his remark we found ourselves getting rained on again. Back on the trail, and heading mostly downhill, our progress was a bit faster. Which was good, because we soon saw the flash of lightning. We had about three miles to cover before we gained treeline. For a short while, we got hailed on. The wind was stiff and blew the hail nearly horizontally.

The rain ended before we got back to treeline and we made it back to the car by 1:00pm without getting hit by lightning. On the drive back over Trail Ridge Road we stopped at the Rock Cut to review our trip. The general consensus (joking, I think) was that it was good we couldn’t see anything on Friday morning: “We’re going where?”

In the picture below, taken from Trail Ridge Road a bit west of the Rock Cut, we could see most of the terrain we crossed. The Mount Ida trail is on the other side of the ridge that climbs from right to left ending in about the center of the shot. We went off trail starting to the right of the snow field moving east (right to left) a bit below treeline. Gorge Lakes lie in the left third of the shot, under the pointy peak (Mount Julian).

View from Trail Ridge Road.

Conclusion

From the maps, it looked to me like I could reach all those lakes given enough time. I could have started my assault on the lakes an hour or more earlier than I did. And the weather worked against me. But it’s the terrain that stopped me, not bad weather or a lack of time. I just don’t have the skills or temperament to reach all these lakes. I certainly can’t get them on a day hike, and there are enough other remote places in the park that I’d like to visit that I’m unlikely to do another backpacking trip here.

I was quite happy with the borrowed backpack. It is borrowed no more: Paul has kindly given it to me. Thanks, Paul.

On the clothing front, I’ll have to look at getting some rain pants. I’m pretty sure my boots would have kept my feet dry had I not had water running down my legs. For around camp, I had my sweat pants and hoodie. I was comfortable with these, and used the hoodie as a pillow, but they’re on the bulky side and space in the pack is at a premium. So I’ll start investigating on that front. And I learned that I need to have enough socks.

I was pretty happy with my food selection, with the exception of the jerky bars. They left an odd aftertaste and the texture wasn’t at all like jerky. They were not what I was expecting. Next time I’ll go with your basic jerky.

All in all I enjoyed the trip. I won’t lie: I am disappointed that I only managed to get to one of the four lakes I was after, and that one only marginally. And the weather was, shall we say, less than ideal. I was tempted several times to say that I was cold, wet, and miserable. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent time in the park that I felt truly miserable. It’s an incredible place, and I’m happy to be there to experience it in all its variety.