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.

Gorge Lakes – Day 2

Saturday, August 4

We broke camp by 8:15 and headed east around the buttress of the ridge in search of our next campsite. We needed to be a mile away from last night’s location, and I wanted to be as close as possible to where we’d be spending most of the day. We also needed to be in reasonable proximity to a water source.

When I got up this morning, I had the choice of wearing yesterday’s wet socks or the one pair of dry socks I carried. As my boots were still thoroughly wet, I went with the wet socks. I figured if I used the dry ones, they’d be wet pretty quickly and then all my socks would be wet. I wanted to keep a pair dry for the night. It made for cold feet for the start of the day but once we got going it wasn’t so bad.

In our passage through the forest we came upon the occasional bone. Yesterday I found a scapula, deer or elk I’m not sure which. Today we saw two more. I’m not sure why I see so many scapulae. I see more of them than anything else, with vertebrae next most common. I rarely see skulls. But we found an elk skull today.

Elk skull.

We bushwhacked more or less due east and came upon a small unnamed lake that lies at 11,000’. We needed to go a bit farther. The map shows a sort of plateau between 11,000’ and 11,200’ about two tenths of a mile ENE of Love Lake. I’m not sure that this area is within our zone, but I figured it was close, and it met all the other requirements of a legal campsite. We dropped our packs here and Brad and I went off in search of Love Lake.

Our navigation was spot-on and we arrived there after about fifteen minutes hiking. It sure was easier without our packs, but we should have at least carried a filter and a couple of empty bottles. So, other than the simple fact that we verified where we were, it was a wasted trip.

We headed back to our packs and selected our campsite on this plateau. I think it was a better spot than last night. The vegetation wasn’t as thick and we had some nice rocks to sit on. A couple of the rocks were in sunshine and would be handy for putting our wet items on in an attempt to dry them.

Once we set up camp, we decided on our day’s action plan. The guys all wanted to fish. The park’s website said there were fish in Rock Lake and the outlet from Arrowhead. I wanted to bag the four lakes I missed last time. So we went as a group up to Love Lake and from there down to the outlet of Arrowhead. I left them there and headed across the large rock outcroppings along the eastern side of Arrowhead toward Doughnut Lake.

Tim takes in the view

From the map, it looked like I could go from Doughnut up a gully to the southwest, over a ridge and then descend to Inkwell. From there, I should be able to follow the inlet stream up to Azure Lake. If things were still going well and I had enough time, I could follow that inlet stream to Highest Lake. From the slope above the northern end of Arrowhead, very little of this was visible. The terrain looked rugged, but passable.

So off I went to Doughnut. The ridge I traversed had a couple of large gullies leading up to saddles and so had three distinct summits. I made it to the first saddle easily enough. And from there to the second. The saddle between the second and third summits is shown on the map with two contour lines, or on the order of sixty to eighty feet. What I was faced with was a thirty foot cliff. I worked around the east side, but it’s quite steep here, too, essentially a fifty or sixty foot cliff. I was stymied.

I took a few pictures but never made it to the shore of the lake. I’m going to add it to my list, though. I’m saying I made it there, or close enough. I went west through the saddle looking for a way to get to the top of the next little summit, but no dice. So I found a place to sit down, eat my lunch, and run the GoPro for a while for a time lapse video.

Doughnut Lake

When we were up at Love Lake, we heard voices but didn’t see anybody. Now, down below me at the far southern end of Arrowhead I saw the other hikers. At first I only saw two, but there were four. They made their way to the base of a nice waterfall – the stream that flowed from Inkwell. It looked like they had found quite a nice place and they were there the whole time I was sitting there. They were a noisy bunch. They were about three hundred yards away and a hundred fifty feet below me. Once I thought perhaps they had spotted me and were yelling at me. I waved my arms but couldn’t see them responding.

I ran the camera for about thirty five minutes and watched the clouds roll by. I had a nice view of Trail Ridge in the distance. Had it been calm, I probably would have been able to hear the louder motorcycles and trucks. But it was quite windy. I tried to keep an eye out for incoming weather, but the high ridge to my west obscured my view. Before long, dark threatening clouds came over the gorge. I packed up the camera and started heading back to camp.

When I got to the top of the gully I took to get to the first saddle it started to rain. I popped into a small grove of trees just as it began to hail. I pondered how long I was willing to wait there. This squall could be over in a few minutes, or it could rain for hours. When the hail stopped the rain increased. Visibility across the lake was noticeably reduced. I waited a bit longer and the hail returned. After hail abated the second time, I set out again.

Arrowhead Lake panorama, above the eastern shore

Much of the way back to Love Lake was across open rock. The rock has quite a bit of lichen on it, and when that stuff is wet it can be quite slippery. I more or less was able to retrace my steps but did end up going through a nasty bit of krummholz that I didn’t encounter on the way up. Going through that, I got my pants soaked, which led to my damp socks getting pretty wet again.

Forest Canyon rain squall. Rock Lake visible 700′ below.

I made it back to the outlet of Arrowhead, crossed the stream without incident, and climbed the talus slope up to Love Lake. I went pretty slow, taking great care on the slippery rocks. Up on the shore of Love Lake I let my guard down and nearly slipped on rocks there.

On our way out for the day, we refilled water bottles at Love Lake. Everybody took what water they needed for the afternoon and we left some full bottles and our filter gear there. When I got there, everything was gone, so the guys had already returned to camp. If they quit fishing when the rain started, they had about an hours head start on me.

By the time I returned to camp, the rain had stopped and shortly thereafter the sun was shining brightly. I took the opportunity to take off my boots and socks and lay them out on a rock. Sadly, the sunshine didn’t last long and nothing quite got dry.

The guys told me they didn’t venture far from Arrowhead’s outlet. The park’s website said fish could be caught there, and down below in Rock Lake. The terrain is pretty rugged at there the outlet, and Rock Lake is something like 700’ below. They didn’t catch anything, but all had hits on their lines.

The evening was uneventful. The rain didn’t return before we turned in. Even so, it was an early night with everybody retiring before dark. I slept about as well as the night before; one excursion before midnight and otherwise sleeping in fits and spurts. It rained for about an hour starting at three. No dreams tonight, at least that I recall.

Gorge Lakes – Day 1

Friday, August 3

When we made the reservations back on the first of March we had no way of knowing what the weather would be like five months hence. We were reasonably expecting warm, sunny days with a chance of afternoon thunder showers. That’s not at all how it turned out.

Tim picked me up a few minutes after eight and we met Brad and James in Estes Park. They left their car at the visitors center. Parking there for the two nights was free, but they did have to fill out some paperwork. We were soon on our way up Trail Ridge Road. My plan was that we’d stop at the Rock Cut and get a good view of our destination and the interesting bits of our routes in and out. Instead, we drove into the clouds at about Many Parks Curve and visibility was on the order of a couple hundred yards.

We got to the Milner Pass parking lot shortly after eleven and were on the trail by 11:15. We’d been getting rained on since Lyons, lightly at first, but by now it was moderately heavy with no sign of letting up. We had the trail to ourselves, as nobody else was willing to venture more than a few hundred yards from their cars at Poudre Lake.

Just before we hit treeline, we decided to look for a place to eat a snack. We found a copse of trees not far from the trail that provided scant shelter from the rain. We shed our packs but didn’t have anyplace to sit, so it was a bit of a miserable picnic.

My original plan was to take the same route in and out – along the top of the ridge immediately west of Gorge Lakes. Although we hadn’t seen any lightning or heard any thunder, I didn’t really want to put us above treeline for an extended time. From treeline to the summit of Mt. Ida, it’s three and a half miles. We wouldn’t be reaching the summit, but would come within a quarter or half mile of it. Along the top of the ridge and back to the forest is another two miles or so. Also, one of the main appeals of this route is the view of the gorge. Today we had no view at all.

The alternative I decided on was to take the next ridge to the west. This is where I left the trail the first time I hiked here. At that time, I thought I was on the ridge overlooking the gorge but was mistaken. This ridge is lower and shorter. At the end of the ridge we could work our way down to about 11,000’, cross open, unforested ground, and hopefully be high enough to avoid the worst of the marshy areas.

It turned out to be a pretty good choice. The hiking was easy with good footing everywhere except one place where we had to skirt a rather large snowfield. By this time of year it wasn’t so much snow as ice. We’d have preferred to contour across it and not lose the elevation but even with microspikes I think it would have been sketchy. The ground we descended was loose and without much vegetation and was not ideal, but we made it down without incident.

To this point, even in the continuing rain, my feet were still dry. But now that we were off the tundra we were crossing open meadows. We made a point to avoid the greener areas, feeling that these would be pretty marshy (which was correct), but we still crossed quite a bit of ground with taller grass or ground cover that reached our knees. I didn’t have rainproof pants. (None of us did.) Walking through this vegetation, my pants got soaked and the water wicked down my legs and into my boots. Before long my feet were thoroughly wet.

There were a couple of notable observations in this section of our hike. As we were now below the clouds the view of the valley below us had opened up. About a half a kilometer away we spied a small herd of elk making their way along the Big Thompson. To my surprise, we heard one or two of them bugling. I’m certainly no expert, but I didn’t expect to hear bugling for another few weeks. That was the good observation. On the bad side, we came across a bit of litter. I picked up a disposable water bottle. It collapsed small enough to not be a burden. But the tent poles and stakes we found were a different matter. None of us wanted to carry them out. We made some noise about collecting them if we found them on our way out, but I wasn’t expecting to return this way. So we were bad citizens and left them where we found them.

We worked our way into the forest to about where I thought our camping zone began. I wanted to be as far south and as high as possible in this zone. I neglected to bring a map showing the zone, but wasn’t too concerned. The only map I had available was at a very high scale and didn’t show terrain, so I don’t think it would have been much help.

In any event, we found a spot that fit the rules for zone camping. By this time the rain had stopped. I was hoping to go a little farther, but there was no certainty we’d find as good a place or that the rain wouldn’t return. Also, we had to move our camp at least a mile between nights and going any farther toward our goal might make that problematic. So we made camp. It was about 2:30.

Our campsite had no large rocks to use as seating, and while one large downed tree made a good platform for preparing our dinners, none were suitable to sit on. So other than a quick recce of our nearby water supply we spent our time standing around. This standing around came to an end at about 6:30 when the rain returned and drove us into our tents.

When we first scouted our water supply, a small stream a hundred yards to our east, I managed to slip and fall. It was more embarrassing than painful. Nobody saw me fall, and no harm was done. It wasn’t until after I got home that I noticed I’d bruised my right forearm.

I was in my one man tent while the others all had two man tents. This allowed them to keep all their gear inside. On my tent, there’s a gap between the tent and the fly, which the manufacturers call an “atrium”. It’s not very big, but it did allow me to keep my boots and backpack both outside the tent and out of the rain. Probably not ideal, but it worked.

I don’t know what time I finally drifted off to sleep, but it was much earlier than usual. It might have been nice to have a book or the iPad, but I was unwilling to pay the price in weight or volume for either. I slept fitfully, waking up at irregular intervals. I only had to make one excursion before daylight and managed to sleep until six, which was much better than I anticipated.

The other guys said they slept, but never got to REM sleep. I dreamt, though: odd, disjointed dreams. The only bit I recall was one where a Frenchman was living in the house behind us. He had an old tractor which he used to plow his back yard. In the process, he knocked down a portion of our shared fence. He chattered what I presume to be an apology but I can’t be sure as I don’t speak French. (So, was it French in my dream, or just nonsense?) In the end he kissed me on one cheek, then the other, then square on the mouth.

Gorge Lakes – Preparation

Gorge Lakes are the lakes visible directly across Forest Canyon from the Rock Cut parking lot on Trail Ridge Road. There are five named lakes there, or maybe seven, depending on which ones you care to include. This high gorge is surrounded by Mount Ida, Chief Cheley Peak, Mount Julian, and Terra Tomah Mountain. It is both some of the most visible and most remote terrain in the park. Visible, because millions of people have seen it from Trial Ridge Road. Remote because there are no trails there.

Background

When I was on a business trip to San Francisco back in January I had a beer with Tim. As I tend to go on a bit about my passions, I naturally brought up the subject of hiking. I told him that I wanted to do a two night backpacking trip with the object of bagging the four Gorge Lakes that I didn’t get on my day hike there back in 2013. He thought it sounded like a great idea, as long as it involved fishing. I don’t fish, but if he wanted to go with me, there wasn’t any reason he couldn’t bring his fishing gear.

By the time March first rolled around and we could apply for back country camping permits, it had grown into a four man expedition including his brother-in-law Brad and nephew James. I went up to the back country office and picked up a zone camping permit for the group and it was on. They all wanted to fish, I wanted to visit Doughnut Lake, Inkwell Lake, Azure Lake, and Highest Lake. We’d hike in on Friday, each do our things on Saturday, and hike out Sunday.

Preparation

I would call myself a seasoned hiker but a novice backpacker. This is only my second backpacking trip. I’m using a borrowed pack. I have an old sleeping bag that’s heavy compared to modern ones and I have no idea what sort of temperatures it’s rated for. I have a reasonably light one man tent, a bear vault for my food, and a stove I bought a couple of years ago. Of course, I somehow managed to buy the wrong size fuel canister and it doesn’t fit inside the vessel for the stove, so there’s some wasted space there. And I don’t really know what I need to bring as far as food and clothing go. Experience is the best teacher, so I’ll just have to make a few mistakes before I figure it all out.

One thing I did figure out last year was that I needed to bring my day pack with me. When I visited Lost Lake it quickly became obvious that I couldn’t venture far from camp, as I had no way to carry water, my lunch, and a rain jacket. My lumbar pack isn’t terribly heavy, but it is on the bulky side.

I know the lightweight fanatics recommend against taking fresh fruit, but on the trail my preferred breakfast is an apple and a protein bar. And I always enjoy a peach or plum at lunch time. This week the plums looked good, so plums it is. I made up my own trail mix because I’m a picky eater and don’t care much for nuts (peanuts aren’t nuts). This is peanuts, sesame sticks, raisins, dried cranberries, dried pineapple cubes, and a few peanut butter filled pretzels for good measure. I saw these jerky bars at Sprouts and thought I’d give them a try. Not pictured is the ham sandwich for Friday’s lunch. Also included is sunscreen, toothpaste, medicine, toilet paper, a couple paper towels, and an extra ziplock bag. Notably absent is mosquito repellent. This turned out to be a non-factor, as all the other guys had plenty to share.

All of that went in the bear vault. The rest of the gear is pictured below: sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, clothes, head lamp, emergency kit, rain jacket, Steri-Pen, lumbar pack, stove and fuel, and two water bottles. I normally carry only one, but I was a bit worried about the ready availability of water. Fully packed, with bottles full of water, the backpack weighed in at 35 lbs.

Not long ago I found a nice website for maps. Historically, I’ve been using screen shots of USGS 7½ minute series maps that I downloaded in PDF format. Now I use caltopo.com, where I can select any area I want and have it generate a nice PDF. The first obvious advantage is that I don’t have to worry about pasting something together from two different maps. Secondly, they include scales in both miles and kilometers. Rather than print one map covering the whole area I made three. Zooming out to the full area would result in a map with 200 foot contour lines rather than 40 foot. I felt this was just too rough to be useful.

Beyond Lost, Day 2

Sunday, September 11

I was awoken from a deep sleep by the wind. A gust came down on the tent, hitting it like a drum: boom! It was 12:30. The wind certainly didn’t die down at sunset. Listening to music, waiting for the stars to appear, I found a rock someone had placed next to a tree. It made a nice seat. Leaning up against the tree resulted in a rocking motion, the tree swaying considerably in the wind. The wind had mellowed a bit by the time I climbed into the tent but now there was nothing mellow about it.

From 12:30 to 6:30 I didn’t get much sleep. The tent only drummed once more but the wind gusted and raged the rest of the night. At 6:30 I heard an odd noise. Sounded like a snort. At first I thought it was an odd noise for the tent to make in the wind. But it sure sounded like a snort. A few minutes later I heard a couple more snorts, farther away now. Elk, perhaps? I didn’t hurry and by the time I got out of the tent there were no critters in sight.

I had breakfast and took down the tent and packed everything but the bear vault into the pack. When I was done I stepped through the trees to the lake and met one of the guys in the big group. Yesterday, four or five of them went up the canyon all the way to Rowe Glacier, then summitted Mount Dunraven. Sounds like a great day to me. I told him I wanted to go as far as Scotch. He recommended taking the ramp I spotted yesterday.

While we’re talking he points to the marshy area I crossed to climb the hill. “There’s a moose.” He went off to get his long lens. I grabbed some water and started off the way I went yesterday. The moose had disappeared now, but I was heading that way so I kept on the lookout for him. Never did spot him again.

I retraced yesterdays route to the tundra slope south of Husted. The wind hadn’t died down much. At sunrise the sky was clear but as the morning progressed a wave cloud formed just to the east, putting the area in shadow.

I needed to get to the other side of the valley and it wasn’t clear to me which way to go. It’s a wet marshy area with a couple of ponds, lots of willow, lots of flowing water. I started working my way across, got in an area of long grass. Near a wildlife trail the grass was matted where a couple of elk may have bedded down.

In a particularly spongy area I had stopped and was looking for a good way to go. I saw some movement on the ground out of the corner of my eye. I wouldn’t have seen it if it had just stayed still but it took another hop away and I saw it. The frog was three or four inches long, matched the color of the muck pretty well. He was gone in a few seconds. First frog I’ve ever seen in the Park.

Ultimately I got stymied in here. I tried a couple of different routes with no luck. The clouds were getting bigger, the wind wasn’t getting better, I decided to abort. There’s obviously a way across, I just need to take another look at it. This is a pretty cool place and I have an excuse to come back again. So it goes.

I headed back toward Husted. I decided to go circumnavigate it. The southern shore of the lake is mostly tundra. The peninsula is big rock slabs. The northern shore is more talus. Standing at the outlet you have a nice view of Gibraltar, ‘Middle No Name’, and ‘Little No Name’.

I made two round trips up the slope between Husted and Lost. I passed a jawbone all four times. About eighty feet downhill and across the stream from it is an antler fragment, two points off a bigger rack. Likely the same animal.

2016-09-10-15-09-54sI was back to the camp by 9:30 and on the trail by 9:36. I immediately ran into another one of the guys from the other camp. He was off to look for Lost Falls. I’m pretty sure there’s a camp site there, but I believe it’s closed. I didn’t see any signs for the falls or the site and neither did he.

We chatted a bit as we walked. He told me they were “llama supported.” They hired an outfitter out of Estes who packed their gear in by llama and will return to fetch it tomorrow. They’re all carrying their day hiking gear instead of big backpacks. They hiked all the lakes and a few of the summits. And perhaps find Lost Falls. I wished him a good day and at that he was off, running.

A few minutes later I caught up to four more from that group. Two couples, one of each who had to work tomorrow so they’re on their way out. The first guy I met was here. I last saw him as he ran off to get his telephoto lens. He asked, “Did you see that moose move through your camp?” It was there when he got back with his lens. I was on my way up the hill by then. So this would be the second time a moose was in my camp and I didn’t see him. It was a moose that snorted outside my tent, not an elk.

We passed each other a few times as the day wore on. Next I met two young women headed to the lake. I gave them the scouting report and my map. After exiting the Park I started seeing more people. I was too early yesterday to see the day trippers, but they were in peak rush today.

Before now I haven’t given llamas much thought. There’s that sign on the campground shortcut to Thunder Lake: “No Livestock – Llamas excepted”. Llamas can carry something like eighty pounds. That means probably three llamas did a round trip on this trail Friday. Llamas are pretty low-impact pack animals. I saw absolutely no sign of the llamas except for one thing. I’ve been seeing llama shit on trails for years and never realized what it was.