Back in my misspent youth, I organized a hike to Emerald Lake every year around the Memorial Day weekend. I didn’t keep track of when I started this, or how long it went on, but at one point I considered making a few t-shirts that said, “Umpteenth Annual Emerald Lake Hike”. This was my traditional first hike of the season. It was early enough that we were always hiking across snow, and both Dream and Emerald were still frozen, although not frozen enough to hike across.
Although I’m not generally a big fan of crowds when I hike, I still make it to Emerald Lake at least once a year. This time, I dragged Scott along. This was his first hike to Emerald.
As is usual, the weather along the Divide was much different than the surrounding area. It wasn’t exactly clear in Estes, but it wasn’t bad. The roads were dry until about a mile from the parking lot at Bear Lake, where we entered a snowstorm and the road became snowpacked. The Glacier Gorge lot was full, and I was a bit concerned that we’d find a full lot at the end of the road. I needn’t have worried – it was only about 2/3 full.
I was considering two different destinations: Emerald Lake and Two Rivers Lake. For a time, the trail to Odessa Lake was closed at the Flattop Mtn trail junction due to the fire last autumn. It’s open now, but the volunteers told me it has been getting very little traffic. Little enough, that is, that we’d need snowshoes rather than microspikes. I was feeling a bit on the lazy side, and there’s always enough traffic to Emerald that snowshoes aren’t needed.
To Scott, I described the hike as a “conga-line” hike. Not everybody who parked here at Bear Lake was going to Emerald, but most of them were. I guessed we might see fifty people when we got there.
At Nymph Lake, I generally try to follow the winter route rather than the summer route. I found some footprints and we followed them for a few yards, but this was not the “beaten path” and after we postholed a few times we retreated back to Nymph and opted for the summer route.
The ice at Dream Lake was covered by a few inches of freshly fallen snow. Typically, the wind keeps the ice clear, but it was quite calm today.
As has been usual lately, I’m often amused by the navigation questions I get from other hikers. I think the map at the trailhead is pretty clear. Either quite a few people can’t read maps, or choose not to. Everybody is just following somebody else up the trail, not terribly concerned with where they’re going. “How much farther to Gem Lake?” and “Is this Lake Haiyaha?” were my favorites from today. Also, standing on the ice at Emerald Lake, “Is there another lake above this one?”
A common problem with a January hike to Emerald Lake is, where to sit to take a break? Generally, if a rock here doesn’t have snow on it, it’s because of the harsh winds. It was calm and snowing, so no rocks were clear. We headed towards the western shore in search of something better than closer to the trail and came upon two young women taking pictures of each other. They had stripped down to their sports bras. Instagram culture.
We never did find a nice place to relax, so we ate our snacks standing up. Naturally, this limits the length of our break.
After our break, while we were still crossing the ice, I counted thirty-two people. Not quite the fifty I predicted, but it very well could be that eighteen people had come and gone while we were there.
On the way down, the winter route from Dream back to Nymph had gotten more traffic, so we went that way. We stopped a couple of times and I attempted to describe the nearby topography to Scott, but I didn’t do a very good job: visibility was better than when we started, but everything beyond the two large glacial knobs was obscured by snow. At one of these pauses, I spotted what looked like a brown disk at my feet. It was the bottom of a water bottle somebody had dropped. I meant to leave it at the trailhead but forgot about it. It’s a nice metal REI bottle.
Some hours later, Scott sent me a couple of Strava screen shots. It says we went 4.50 miles, which I think overstates it by a mile. It also says we averaged 1.8 mph. I really don’t think we were going that fast: I kept stopping to chat. I recall mentioning that I’m sometimes hiking with people who never stop talking, and today it was me who never stopped talking. Pot, meet kettle.
I don’t think I scared Scott off yet. He says he’s interested in going to Haiyaha this winter and wants to go on a longer summer hike, or maybe even a backpacking trip.
Today Ed led me on his off-trail route to the Loch. We met at the Bear Lake parking lot at eight and were on our way by a quarter after. I’ve been to the Loch many times, so I won’t waste a lot of words, but I will say that the weather was nearly perfect, with calm winds, a cloudless, brilliant blue sky, and a surprisingly balmy temperature near thirty. We were at the Loch by noon, and back to the car by two-thirty.
A bit of explanation may be useful for this one. The snow here was about fifteen inches deep, near the base of a north-facing slope. It was about the average depth we encountered, being quite thin where the wind blew and piled up in other places. Ed is noting the bottom layer of the snow. That first snowfall got melted by the heat still in the earth, then re-frozen. Subsequent snow storms were obvious in the layers.
I should have taken a picture of this in the morning, when it was more obvious that the hillside in the center of the photo had burned. I’m sure I’ll have many more opportunities for a better picture. I will note that there are signs forbidding people from walking in the moraine, but there are two people doing just that in the lower left of the photo.
Last week I took a little spin through the high country with some like-minded folks in the Lotus and Miata car clubs. Near the end of that drive, we crossed Guanella Pass, stopping for a short break at the summit. Here, I couldn’t help but notice, was the trailhead for the hike to the summit of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 (or 53, depending on how you count) fourteen thousand foot peaks.
Standing in the parking lot it struck me as a sort of no-brainer of a hike. I’ve said many times, and my history proves, that I prefer hiking to alpine lakes over hiking to the tops of mountains. When you’re standing on the top of a mountain, there is a lot of scenery around you, but it’s all miles away. At a lake, listening to the water lap the rocks at your feet, the beauty of the place is much more immediate: up close and personal.
To now, I’ve only done two 14ers: Longs and Quandary. There is a short list of others I’d like to “conquer”, if that’s not too dramatic a word. There are two main considerations. First, I’m not a big fan of exposure, so I’ll only consider routes that are Class 1 or Class 2. Second, for the most part, I’m limited to trailheads that I can reach in the Lotus. Both of these conditions are met here. So, what am I waiting for?
Now a side note: how are Colorado 14er’s counted? There are 58 peaks in the state that top out over 14,000′. But to be “ranked”, a peak must rise at least 300 feet above the saddle that connects it to the nearest 14er peak. There are five such peaks. Mount Bierstadt is the 38th highest of the 53 ranked 14ers. If you ignored the “300 foot saddle” rule, it would be 40th of 58.
Wednesday, October 7
This trail is one of the busiest of the summer 14er routes, so I was a bit concerned with getting a parking spot. On our visit last week, both parking lots were full and most of us parked alongside the road. That was okay for a short break but wouldn’t work at all for a six or seven hour hike. I decided to leave the house at six, arriving at the trailhead by 7:30 or so. If the lower lot was full, the upper lot would most likely still have spots.
There were still several spots in the lower lot when I arrived. One of the advantages of being here on an October weekday.
I put boots on the trail at 7:32. The first order of business is to descend a couple of hundred feet and cross a broad valley (if that word can be properly used in this geography) to reach the point where the trail actually begins the climb to the summit. This broad “valley” features several hundred acres of my hiking nemesis: willow.
To be fair, my detestation of willow manifests when I’m off-trail. If there’s no game trail through it, it’s best to go around. If you decide to cross a patch of willow, there’s no telling how much effort will be required to get through it. Here, there’s a nice trail through the stuff. Construction of the trail includes hundreds of yards of boardwalk, and the trail looks to be regularly maintained by trimming the plants that border the trail.
In these days of pandemic, I couldn’t help but notice that this boardwalk is only three feet wide. In the photograph, we can see less than half the length of this section. The hikers in the distance are on it. If you come across oncoming traffic, there’s no way to get six feet from them without jumping off the boardwalk. In places, the walk is a couple of feet off the ground. It’s nice and dry this time of year, but stepping off the boardwalk when things are still green means stepping into a marsh.
And with the willow growing almost six feet high, it’s next to impossible to see other hikers until you’re nearly on top of them.
In the willow where no boardwalk is required, it’s somewhat easier to distance yourself from other hikers. There are lots of short paths that lead away from the trail. These, judging by the amount of toilet paper on the ground here, are latrines. Keeping in mind that this part of the hike is within a mile of the trailhead, I was surprised at the sheer number of people who, evidently, couldn’t make it back to the toilets at the trailhead. (I’m pretty sure it’s not people who just embarked on their hikes.)
After crossing the willow field, the trail starts to climb. After a while, it gets steeper. But that’s just the steep bit before it gets really steep. Then, near the top, the trail disappears about 250′ of elevation below the summit. The route description at 14ers.com calls this bit “the crux of the route” and the reason it’s rated Class 2.
For much of the way, it’s clear from the trail condition that this route gets tons of traffic. Rather than a trail that’s a couple of feet wide, it’s often three or four times that. In quite a few places, it’s evident how much of the current trail is the “original” trail, with people widening it by walking on either side. Some of the steeper bits have had quite a bit of work done to remedy this. There are significant sections where the trail is a staircase of rocks.
Even with it being an October weekday, and the parking lots not yet full, there was quite a bit of traffic on the trail. I started meeting descending hikers before I had gone halfway. There weren’t that many, and I didn’t keep track. I did keep track, however, of the hikers going my way. A group of three (with a “small” Saint Bernard) passed me in the willows and a solo hiker zipped by me nearer the top. I passed eleven hikers before the “crux”, then four more before I gained the summit. It wasn’t that I was walking any faster than any of them, just that they kept stopping. I paused to take pictures or to drink water, but only stopped for a break once.
At the trailhead, I had estimated that it would take me three hours to reach the summit. I figured I could do the first mile in half an hour, then expected I’d be no faster than a mile an hour after that. Normally, my pace slows considerably when I’m above 11,000′. This whole hike is above that, starting at nearly 11,700′. I made it a point to set a slow pace that I could hopefully maintain. It looks like I succeeded. I beat my target time, making it in two hours and forty minutes.
The weather was fantastic. There wasn’t a cloud in the skies all day, and the wind was calm, even at the summit. I didn’t notice any wind at all until I was about half way back to the trailhead at about 12:30. And that breeze didn’t last. It was cool in the morning – I wore a thermal undershirt, an Aloha shirt, and a hoodie. I didn’t take the hoodie off until halfway down the trail, and ditched the thermal layer when I got back to the car.
I spent about 45 minutes at the summit, eating my picnic lunch and enjoying a beer. There were never fewer than a dozen people up there. I didn’t see a register or a USGS marker. I asked a few people, none of them saw them either.
I met two young nurses. They sat near me. I noticed that as soon as they sat down, they checked their blood oxygen level with a fingertip pulse oximeter. I asked if I could check mine. It read 93%. They were joking that, at the trailhead, one of them measured only 62%. Evidently, these devices don’t work very well in the cold.
Another young woman was asking if anybody was going to do Mt. Evans from here. She was hiking solo and without a map. In researching this hike, I didn’t look into the combination route that would get you to both summits. But judging by the terrain, there isn’t any route I’d be willing to take. She wisely gave up on her goal. She had recently moved to Colorado and was now living near Aspen. She’d started climbing 14ers this summer, and Bierstadt was her ninth. She really wanted to get a tenth before the snows. I suggested she try Quandary. She thought that was a good idea.
Although the weather was great, the visibility wasn’t. Normally from up at these elevations, you can see great distances. When I was on Quandary, a high school student was pointing out and naming a bunch of 14ers. We could see Pikes Peak, Mt. Evans, Longs Peak, the Maroon Bells, and many others. Today, here on Bierstadt, the only one of these I could see was Mt. Evans, which is, of course, only about a mile away. The haze was fairly uniform, except to the north, where it was thicker, presumably from the Cameron Peak fire.
As is the usual case for me, my hike back to the car wasn’t any faster than my hike up. I stopped several times to take pictures, or to give encouraging words to those on their way to the top. In greeting, people typically ask some variation of “How are you doing?” On a day like today, the answer is “Fantastic!”
This was only my third 14er. Maybe next year I’ll try to get a two-fer: Grays and Torreys.
I arrived at the Sandbeach Lake trailhead a few minutes after seven. The skies were without a cloud, and compared to the last several weeks, it looked like there wasn’t any smoke. Now that it’s mid-September, it’s starting to get a bit cool. It looked to be another glorious day in the Park.
I’ve decided that the timed entry passes aren’t being checked here in Wild Basin. As usual, there was nobody at the entrance station before eight. And when I returned from my hike at about 3:30, there was still nobody there. Perhaps the thinking is that there is fairly limited parking in this part of the Park and therefore it can’t get overcrowded.
Anyway, I put boots on the trail by a quarter after seven. My plan, I told myself, was to hike to Keplinger Lake. This is my third trip up Hunters Creek, first time falling short of Keplinger, second time succeeding. On my way down on my successful trip, I thought I had a pretty nice route. I figured it would be fairly trivial to retrace my steps and given my starting time I expected to arrive there by something like 11:30.
Keplinger is about seven miles from the trailhead. Half of that is on the trail to Sandbeach Lake. It alternates between fairly steep climbs (for a pack trail) and level stretches unencumbered by roots or rocks. I kept seeing small hoof prints. These were much smaller than those made by a horse, but looked almost the same: perfect horseshoe shapes, just a few inches across.
I haven’t heard of anybody who likes my route. I just follow Hunters Creek, using a trail I believe to be frequented by people climbing Longs Peak from this side. The trail is not maintained but is quite easy to follow except for two places where some deadfall has blocked it. After about a mile and a quarter, a stream joins Hunters Creek from the north, while Hunters Creek turns to the west. I cross this unnamed tributary here and continue up Hunters Creek.
The forest isn’t very dense through here, allowing sunlight to dapple the ground. The trick is to cross Hunters Creek before it makes a turn to the north. If you continue following the creek, you’ll end up in the messy mass of willow that surrounds an unnamed pond at about 11,200′. There was the terminus of my first attempt to reach Keplinger.
Today, I crossed Hunters Creek fairly early. I figured it didn’t really make much difference. All I needed to do was work my way through some trees and I’d find a treeless gully I could follow up the slope to where the creek drains from another unnamed pond, this one at about 11,400′. From there, it’s maybe a third of a mile to the lake.
Getting to the top of the gully puts you back on the banks of the creek between the two ponds. I stopped here for a short break. At least, that was my plan. It was a very pleasant spot. Due north of me was Pagoda Mountain. An arm of the mountain reaches to the south, toward me. Just to the left of this arm, directly below the summit, lies Keplinger Lake. I could have made it there in twenty minutes or so. To the right of Pagoda are Longs and Meeker. From this angle, Meeker looks to be the highest and biggest, and Longs looks … unclimbable.
I decided I didn’t need to go any farther. It had been cool enough all morning that I never took off my hoodie. It wouldn’t be any warmer at Keplinger, a couple hundred feet higher. The view of Pagoda is much more dramatic there, but the other peaks are hidden. Keplinger is all rocks and water; vegetation is sparse. Here, there was almost no breeze. Directly above me, the sky was almost its usual brilliant blue but there was a noticeable smoky haze on the horizon.
From the time I started hiking until I stopped here for lunch, I’d watched a number of helicopters fly overhead. At first, I thought there were two choppers sporting similar livery. The first two passes overhead were in the same direction: from roughly the direction of Allenspark and passing between Pagoda and Longs to go over Glacier Gorge. There may have been just the one helicopter and I missed its return trip. I didn’t know what they were up to. My first thought was that they were dealing with the Cameron Peak fire somehow, but they weren’t carrying a bucket or any other obvious cargo. They stopped flying over at about 11:00.
I let the world go by for half an hour, ate my sandwich, drank my beer, and relaxed.
If I had brought a map with me, I probably would have tried an alternate route back. That would be everybody’s preferred route, which goes by Sandbeach Lake. Looking east, I’d stay out of the trees then head over the forested hump at the eastern end of Mount Orton, then descend to the lake. I’ll come back here again and give that route a shot.
I did stay out of the trees for a longer distance than on my way up. It was easy walking and I made good time. I kept thinking I should make my way to the creek but kept delaying it. I found a game and followed it. It snowed that fell last week, several inches of wet, heavy stuff. Sometimes it was hard to tell if it had been walked through or if it was just knocked down by the snow. I saw several places where it looked like elk had bedded down, but hadn’t seen any elk, deer, or moose all day. I finally did spot an elk for an instant: she heard me coming and ran away. I saw a flash of her backside as she fled through the trees.
When I got to the end of this series of treeless gullies I found myself at the top of an outcropping I wasn’t willing to descend, so I had to backtrack a bit and find a route that didn’t bother me. I came across a talus field I spotted on the way up. It wasn’t the greatest route, but the rocks weren’t too big for me to make my way down.
Back in the woods I slowly worked my way to the creek. I came across a small pond I didn’t expect to find. It’s not on my map, but I did later find it on the satellite image. Back at the creek, I found an easy crossing and was back on ground I’d navigated before. I didn’t bother sticking too close to the creek. I can roam anywhere I want, as long as I head downhill. Eventually, I’ll run into the tributary I crossed when I left the climbers trail or I’d be back to Hunters Creek.
Staying away from the creek made for easier walking. The forest is sparse enough that there’s no deadfall to speak of and it’s late enough in the season that everything is dry. In July, I’d certainly be running into various trickles of water and marshy/grassy leas, and route finding would be more challenging. I shortly reached the tributary and crossed it to regain the climbers’ trail. I was only about fifty yards upstream of where I crossed on my way up.
I took a short break when I got back to the trail to Sandbeach Lake. I refilled my water bottle and ate the last of my fruit. I considered making the side trip to the lake, figuring it would take me an hour or a bit more. I was up for it physically, but I didn’t want to take more than an hour and figured it wasn’t worth making the trip if I couldn’t relax for a while at the lake. So I headed back to the car.
When I started hiking again, I heard another helicopter. I paid more attention to them now, noting the times they flew over and which direction they were going. They passed very close to the west side of Longs Peak. I’m sure anybody on the summit got a good look down on them.
The first flight of the afternoon was headed towards Glacier Gorge and it flew over me on its way back twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes after that, it was headed back to Glacier Gorge. This chopper made two round trips. Then a different one came from Glacier Gorge. It was a different model of aircraft, candy apple red instead of the orange and white of the earlier one. Instead of flying away, it descended into the valley below me. It took me a while to spot it through the trees. After a few minutes, it took off on its way back to Glacier Gorge. It made this trip twice.
I made it back to the trailhead by 3:30. I was curious to know what the helicopters were up to. I’d have asked the ranger at the entrance station, had there been a ranger there. There was a group of motorcyclists there, taking a break and using the restrooms. So I asked the bikers if they knew anything. They hadn’t been there very long, and the red chopper never flew over here, stopping a bit west of Copeland Lake. They didn’t know anything about the choppers.
I was a bit surprised when one of them asked me what was on my hat. I’m always wearing my hat from Autobahn Country Club. The guy who asked was thinking my hat was from a track in New Jersey. I gave him points for knowing it was a track and told him it was Autobahn, in Illinois. He said he’d driven that track. I didn’t quiz him, but he did mention running laps at a few California tracks, so maybe he’s been to as many tracks as I have. I neglected to ask him whether he tracked a bike or a car.
He did ask me what I drove. He expressed surprise that I could fit in an Elise. And he was pretty well acquainted with Lotus. He asked if I’d “added any lightness” to it. “As a matter of fact, I have!” We chatted about track days for a bit.
It was another beautiful day in the neighborhood. I hiked about thirteen miles, climbing about 3100′. The weather was ideal. I saw only one person from 7:15 to 3:30 and didn’t see him until after 2:30. I’ve never had such solitude before. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Searching the news when I got home, I see that teams were out searching for a missing hiker. His car was found at the Glacier Gorge parking lot and he was assumed to be attempting the Glacier Gorge Traverse. That’s a “difficult 19 mile route” that crosses eleven summits. It seems they found his body today (Tuesday). The article I read says that they flew his body to a landing zone in Wild Basin. I can’t help but wonder if the article has the timing a bit wrong. Were they taking him out on the last helicopter I saw? How unfortunate. He was my son’s age.
Last year, Gordon and I spent two nights camping at Lost Lake with the intention of hiking up to Rowe Glacier. I stopped at Scotch Lake but Gordon continued. For a short while, he thought he’d made it to the glacier but finally decided that he, too, had fallen short. When I opened discussion of our next backpacking trip he casually said that he was thinking of visiting Rowe Glacier as a day hike.
I have little doubt that he is capable of doing in one day what I failed to do in three, but I wasn’t sure he was serious. I told him there’s a shorter route, one that would get him to the summit of Hagues Peak as well. I told him, “I happen to have a timed entry pass for 9/5. We could hike together to Lawn Lake, then you could blaze ahead while I hang around at Crystal or Lawn. I could theoretically do the saddle instead of Crystal, but I wouldn’t want to slow you down.”
And, so, we more or less had a plan.
Saturday, September 5
On my trip to Crystal Lake back in July, I arrived at the trailhead a few minutes before seven. That was a weekday and the lot was nearly full. Assuming that on a weekend there might be more people on the trail, we agreed we’d need to start at about the same time. So Gordon arrived at my place to pick me up a few minutes before five-thirty. He brought Eric, one of his co-workers, to join us.
Both Eric and Gordon are fitter than I am, but for the hike to Lawn Lake, they let me set the pace. In July, it took me 2:45 to get from the trailhead to Lawn Lake. Today, I was just a slight bit faster: 2:39. I’ll admit that that made me a bit proud. It’s not exactly a metronomic pace, but it is nice and consistent.
I didn’t stop, or even pause, really, until a bit past Lawn Lake. I wanted to use my first break to apply some SPF and I figured a nice place to do that was sitting on a rock with a view of Lawn Lake below me. I did pause, very briefly, a few minutes earlier to try to get a picture of a bull moose that was a few yards off the trail. He was shy. I got a picture of his backside, but he kept foliage between his head and me. Perhaps he was thinking I couldn’t see him if he couldn’t see me. A further few yards up the trail, we came across a group of deer: a doe and three spotted yearlings.
My break finished, I insisted both Gordon and Eric go ahead of me. It’s steeper here, and where I stopped was about 11,200′ in elevation. The air is getting noticeably thin. There’s no way I can keep up my earlier pace, and I don’t even try.
This is my third time up here, and the first two times I always followed the spur trail to Crystal Lake. This time I continued up toward The Saddle. Not long after this junction, the trail crosses a stream. This is not the outlet from Crystal Lake. Although there’s almost no snow left in the area, the stream still has a significant flow. I couldn’t help but wonder where all the water was coming from. It’s just an indication of how much water the grassy/marshy landscape holds.
Eric was well ahead of Gordon, and Gordon was just thirty or forty yards ahead of me. He pointed out a herd of sheep browsing along the stream. We weren’t very close, and the only camera I had was the cell phone. And the phone isn’t particularly good for telephoto shots. But at least the subjects didn’t go to great pains to hide their heads from me. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I figured they were bighorn sheep, even though I didn’t see any rams with horns that curved all the way around. I’m now thinking they were some combination of ewes and yearlings. I’m pretty sure this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve spotted bighorn sheep in the Park.
Several minutes later, I caught up with Eric. He had tweaked his knee last Sunday hiking Mt. Evans. He was feeling pretty good when we started, but by now he figured if he kept going he might be in a bit more pain than he was willing to put up with. So he decided not to go any further. We weren’t that far from The Saddle. I was hoping to make it that far, just to look over the other side, but I decided it wasn’t that important. I told him there’s a nice spot a bit below us where we could sit on a rock and look down on Crystal Lake. It seemed like an ideal place for a picnic.
I didn’t pay particular attention to how long we sat on that rock. It was at least half an hour. We had a good view of the lakes below and the spur trail, but I didn’t see anybody down there. On my first visit to Crystal Lake, many years ago, I was the only one there. But two months ago the place was crowded, and that was a weekday. So I was a bit surprised nobody was there today.
Eric started back to the car. He wanted to take his time and didn’t want to slow us down. After a few minutes I decided to make a quick visit to Crystal Lake. It looked to me like it should be easy to cross the little isthmus between the two lakes to find a spot on the north shore of the lake to get a slightly different view.
I didn’t go all the way back to the trail junction, but struck off cross-country, saving me maybe three-tenths of a mile. It all looked so simple from above, but on the ground it was a bit more complicated. Then again, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for a route. I was guessing Gordon was making quick time of things, and I didn’t want him to pass me on the way out. So my exploration was cursory, and I’ll save a more thorough attempt for my next visit.
I was getting low on water but didn’t replenish my supply at Lawn Lake. I was thinking that I’d have a chance to refill at one of the switchbacks, where I’d be close to Roaring River. This was poor thinking. The river isn’t convenient to the trail until a few yards above the junction to Ypsilon Lake. I made it that far (now not much more than thirty minutes from the trailhead) and stopped. I rummaged through my pack but couldn’t find my Steri-Pen. I would have sworn I had it. I just replaced the batteries in it. But perhaps I neglected to return it to the pack.
A bit below the Ypsilon turnoff, I ran into a couple headed up. They asked if I’d made it to any of the lakes. We chatted a bit. It was nearly four now. I told them it took me nearly three hours to get to Lawn Lake, that Ypsilon was a bit closer, but perhaps a bit steeper. While we were chatting, a group of four hikers passed us in great haste, heading down.
“See that cloud? It’s not a cloud. There’s a fire just over the ridge!” That wasn’t a very good description. I asked them where they were hiking from. They said they’d been to Ypsilon. In any event, I wasn’t certain what I was seeing was smoke instead of clouds, and what did they mean by “just over the ridge”? They didn’t stick around to provide any more details.
Continuing our discussion, I suggested to the couple that they go as far as the river crossing on the Ypsilon trail. They were unlikely to make any lake and get back out before dark. Then they asked for suggestions for tomorrow. Hopefully, they’ll be happy with my guidance.
I made it back to the trailhead at 4:18. I asked Eric how long he’d been waiting; he said he wasn’t waiting long and that he’d gotten a nice little nap. During our chat, I related the tale of my missing Steri-Pen, which I now easily found in the pack. How could I have missed it?
Gordon arrived about an hour later. By now, there was no doubt that what was above us was smoke and not cloud.
When I was applying my sunscreen above Lawn Lake, we all noted how clear the skies were. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the smoke we’d been seeing (and smelling) for much of the last month was gone. While waiting for Gordon, Eric and I talked about how folks in the backcountry would never know about a new fire: they’d only know what they saw. We wondered what Gordon may have seen.
He showed us a couple of pictures he took from the summit of Hagues Peak. From his description of the direction and distance, I guessed that this was the Cameron Peak fire, which I haven’t heard about in several days.
Well, it’s in the news again. The smoke plume over our heads was, indeed, from the Cameron Peak fire. This plume went up 36,000′ and as I write this the fire has expanded to more than 34,000 acres (an increase of 10,000 acres Saturday alone) and is dumping ash on Greeley. It has now crossed into the Park and several trails and roads have been closed.
Every hike I take, I have some goal in mind. Today, it was to reach The Saddle and look over the other side. I didn’t make it. Falling short of my hiking goals just serves as an excuse for another attempt at a later date. Still on the table here are The Saddle and a bit of exploration of the isthmus between Little Crystal Lake and Crystal Lake. And, just a mile up the Black Canyon trail is a body of water called Potts Puddle. So there are still a few new sights for me in this area.
Based on how quickly the Bear Lake parking lot filled up the last time I went hiking (on a weekday), I figured we’d need to arrive at the Wild Basin parking lot very early if we wanted to get a parking spot on a Saturday. I told Chad to pick me up at about a quarter to six. He arrived a bit early and we were easily on the road by our appointed time.
With the timed entry passes in effect, I was assuming the entrance station at Wild Basin would be manned starting at six, but there appears to be no change here. In the past, whenever I arrived before eight there was nobody to show my pass to. And, today, there was nobody here to present my timed entry pass to. So it looks like if you want to hike in Wild Basin you won’t need a timed entry reservation if you arrive before eight. I could be wrong on that, as we arrived a bit before seven. Still, the parking lot for Sandbeach Lake right there at the entrance station was already full. Not a good sign.
I was now worried that we’d arrived too late. My Plan B was to hike to Keplinger Lake, and that hike starts at the Sandbeach Lake trailhead. With that lot already full, Plan B was a no-go. I really wasn’t that interested in visiting Finch Lake and Pear Lake, but there were a few empty spots at the parking area for that trailhead, so at least we had a fallback position.
Arriving at the end of the road and the Wild Basin parking lot, it didn’t look good. I think all the parking places were full, but there was room for two cars to parallel park on the road at the far western end, where it turns around. We parked there and got ready for our little walk. We put boots on the trail at 7:05.
It was going to be a hot day, but at seven it was still cool. The skies were clear, a brilliant blue overhead, but looking toward the horizon it was quite hazy. And we could smell smoke. The haze and smell dissipated before long, though. Neither of us had paid much attention to the local news, so we didn’t know the wildfire situation. I’m reasonably sure that this smoke was the product of the Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction.
Wild Basin holds many beautiful scenes but it takes a bit more effort to find them than, say, in the Bear Lake area. Our route today starts with about 1.4 miles of trail along North Saint Vrain Creek. We take the Campsite Cutoff, making a right turn. If you are so disposed, you can stay on the main trail, which crosses the creek before heading steeply uphill to visit Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. The main trail eventually meets up with the other end of the Campsite Cutoff. You just need to decide whether a visit to these two water features is worth the extra half mile or so.
We had plenty of miles in front of us, so we took the shortcut. The trail is a bit steeper and has more rocks and roots to step over. The shortcut doesn’t stray too far from the banks of the creek; we can hear it much of the time, but can only see it once or twice. About 1.3 miles later and something like a 600′ climb, we arrive back on the trail to Thunder Lake. Another 1.3 miles or so and five or six hundred vertical feet brings you to the spur trail to Lion Lake #1.
The trail to Thunder Lake is a pack trail, but no stock are allowed on the trail to Lion Lake #1, not even llamas. It’s about two miles from this junction to the lake, and almost exactly a thousand feet of elevation gain. Overall, not very steep, but it does have a couple of short sections that are steep enough to be breathtaking. The forest is not very dense through here, which allows for the occasional views of the surrounding peaks. At one point, Pagoda Mountain makes an appearance over the ridge that runs between Chiefs Head Peak and Mount Orton.
We found ourselves taking in the view of Lion Lake #1 and Mt. Alice a few minutes short of three hours after hitting the trail. Depending on how you look at it, these lakes sit in one or two high valleys, sparsely forested, with nice open views over wide, grassy meadows dotted with wildflowers.
It’s a relatively simple matter to reach Lion Lake #2 and Snowbank Lake from here. The trail is indistinct at times, either crossing rock slabs or just fading into the grass, but there are numerous small cairns to aid you. Even now, in August, there are still a couple of snowfields but these are easily skirted. Along the way is Trio Falls. It’s much more impressive in July than in August; it’s better with more water. After a short half-mile that climbs about four hundred feet, you arrive at Lion Lake #2.
The inlet to Lion Lake #2 passes under a nearly permanent snow field. Today, the stream has nearly eaten its way through and just a small, fragile looking snow bridge connects the snow on either side of it.
Snowbank Lake lies just a couple hundred yards farther, about a hundred feet uphill. The lake is surrounded by rock and snow and krummholz. Even on a mild day like today the wind can be a bit discouraging. We made it here in good time, just four hours from the car. This meant it was a little early to break for lunch. That was a good thing: there really wasn’t any convenient place to relax that overlooked the lake and was out of the breeze. Had we decided to spend much time there, I’d have had to don my jacket.
We worked our way back down to a nice spot between the two Lion Lakes and found a place to sit on a rock in the sun and with a nice view. This was not difficult to do: we had plenty of places to choose from.
When I first proposed this hike to Chad, I said we could get these three lakes plus Castle Lake, which is a short distance off-trail. Chad thought that a four lake hike sounded like “a serious challenge” that he was interested in taking on. It later occurred to me that we could bag Thunder Falls quite easily as well, as those falls are not very far off the trail in the opposite direction from Castle Lake. It would involve a bit of backtracking, but it shouldn’t be out of the question.
So, fortified with lunch, we renewed our hike. The idea is, you go just a few hundred yards off the trail eastward from the southern end of Lion Lake #1 and you’ll run into Castle Lake. I found it easily enough seven or eight years ago. I recall it as not requiring much of a bushwhack. This time I took us off the trail a bit farther south and we had a little deadfall to deal with instead of the grassy ramp I remembered from last time. After a few minutes, we checked our elevation and decided we needed to climb about forty feet. So we headed uphill and to the north and we came to the southern shore of the lake.
The money view at this lake is found on the east side of the lake, where you have a straight-on view of the sheer face of Mt. Alice. We were on the other side, where it’s not so interesting. We took another quick break here but didn’t put in the effort to find the view. This hike is my third visit to Lion Lake #1. The first time, I went to Lion Lake #2 and Snowbank Lake. The second time was to come here, to Castle Lake. Both those times I didn’t see another hiker after leaving the Thunder Lake trail. Today, we encountered ten other hikers at and above Lion Lake #1. Castle Lake provides much the same view as Lion Lake #1, but I suspect very few people visit it in spite of it being so close to the trail. Even on a busy day, solitude can be had here.
We left Castle Lake, descending a small gully. The last time I was here was later in the season, and no water flowed out of the lake. Today there was a little trickle of water. This flowed into the little meadows below the lake. I picked a route around these, thinking they might still be a bit marshy. We regained the trail a short while later.
I had completely forgotten about our possible side trip to Thunder Falls until a while later when Chad brought it up: “Is it okay if we just head back now?” He told me he was happy that I decided to skip the falls. I didn’t tell him I’d forgotten all about going there. By now we were well on our way back to the junction with the Thunder Lake trail.
While our hike in along this part of the trail this morning was pleasantly cool, in mid-afternoon it was on the warm side. And we started to see a lot more traffic. And Chad was no longer having much fun – his feet were getting quite sore. In retrospect, I should have told him how far we were going. I did say we’d be hiking for more than eight hours, but I should have been more specific. I guess he got his challenge.
We were back to the car about four-thirty, so nine and a half hours total. It was a beautiful day for a hike, even if it was a bit toasty at the end. The area around Lion Lake #1 is gorgeous and well worth the visit. Perhaps I’ll make a return trip soon, at least to Castle Lake, and make that side trip to Thunder Falls.
As I’ve demonstrated many, many times, not all my hiking plans come to fruition. But I’m okay with that, as the only important part of my hiking plans is the hiking itself: I’m fortunate that I’m in reasonable proximity to the Park and I’m healthy enough to take advantage of it.
The original plan for this hike was to arrive at the Bear Lake parking lot early enough to get a spot there and head off toward the western flank of Joe Mills Mountain in search of Marigold Lake. Marigold Lake is a small puddle on a forested bench pretty much due east of and upslope from Odessa Lake. It is not to be confused with Marigold Pond, which is pretty much the same size but lies a few yards east of Two Rivers Lake.
I think it’s some sort of joke that the folks who assigned names to bodies of water in the Park have given names to such insignificant puddles such as Marigold Lake but much larger “lakes” are not worthy of being named. I mean, I’m guessing no more people make the trip to Marigold Lake than to either of the ponds on Hunters Creek on the way to Keplinger Lake. Both those unnamed ponds are much bigger than Marigold Lake (or Embryo Lake, and a few others).
I tried to find Marigold Lake last year, along with Round Pond. Round Pond I found, Marigold Lake I didn’t. Near the end of that hike, I decided it would be much easier to locate Marigold by coming off the Odessa Lake trail rather than coming from Round Pond. Time to put that theory to the test.
Wednesday, July 29
I had the alarm set for 5:30, but work up on my own at 5:15. I was out the door promptly at 6:00 and at the Bear Lake parking lot at close to 7:30. So was everybody else. The signs all told me that the lot was full but I had to check it out for myself. It was, indeed, full. I lacked a plan B, and I won’t be riding the shuttle bus until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. My solution in this case was to make the hike directly from the Park and Ride.
Foster lists the distance from Bear Lake to Marigold Lake as 3.9 miles, with a net elevation gain of 770′. Doing it from the Park and Ride adds about 3 miles and something like 800′ of climbing. It also adds a visit to Bierstadt Lake, so that’s a bonus, I guess.
The skies were clear, but it was fairly windy. Most of the hike would be in the forest, so the wind wouldn’t be terribly annoying.
I’ve never hiked from the Park and Ride before. The hike from here to Bierstadt Lake is a bit longer and a bit more of a climb than from the Bierstadt trailhead, so I don’t know that I’d recommend it over either of the other routes. In the morning, I went around the south side of Bierstadt. It’s only about a tenth of a mile difference, and I figured I’d take the slightly shorter route in the afternoon.
I met a couple who were visiting from California. They asked me if I’d ever seen a bear while hiking and if there were grizzlies in the Park. I’ve seen a bear (and I’ve seen lots of bear poop), but there are no grizzlies here. That answer elicited a further question from them: what does bear poop look like?
Standing on the eastern shore of Bierstadt, I could (sort of) see where I was going. Joe Mills Mountain is the low, tree-covered mountain to the right of Flattop, in the middle right of the photo. Marigold Lake is on the other side of Joe Mills, a bit north of the summit.
I arrived at the trail junction to Bear Lake in less than an hour and a half, a bit after nine. A few minutes later I passed the trail to Flattop. I felt I was making pretty good time and now could expect to see fewer other hikers. Fewer, but not none. I didn’t run into anybody hiking back; all the traffic was going my way. Between the Flattop junction and starting the descent towards Odessa lake, I passed three groups of hikers and nobody passed me.
In this photo, the Fern Lake fire scar is visible in the distance. A giant talus field (bigger than the nearer one) starts at about the center of the picture and goes up and to the right, bordered by lines of trees. It tops out about where the upper line of trees ends. My plan was to leave the trail when I got to the giant talus field. Traverse that, gaining a bit of elevation as I go, and approach Marigold Lake from above. I was reasonably certain that I passed below the lake when I tried to get there from Round Pond. I didn’t want to end up below it again.
No longer in the forest, I got a better sense of just how windy it was. It wasn’t extreme, but it was unrelenting. It was borderline as to whether I wanted to put on my jacket. At the top of the talus I paused to search for my destination. I couldn’t see it. By now I was toying with the idea that Marigold Lake is a myth; a conspiracy between map makers and trail guide writers to get me out in the middle of the forest searching for a non-existent puddle of water.
I worked my way to the next pile of talus. Finally, I could see the lake. Or part of it, at least. It’s not much more than a water stain. It’s barely visible in this photo, just below center, above the rocks. It was a little lower than I expected, or I was a little higher. The route finding looked fairly straightforward. But it looked to be choked with a combination of krummholz and willow. I decided I didn’t want to deal with that. Given that there’d be no view while at the lake, and with the wind, I decided my best bet for a place to eat lunch would be Two Rivers Lake. So I turned around and headed back to the trail. Knowing now its exact location, I’m happy to make a return trip starting at Bear Lake rather than three miles farther away.
Given that Two Rivers Lake is less than a hundred yards from the trail, I’m always somewhat surprised that it can’t be seen from the trail. And, given its close proximity to the trail, I’m always a bit surprised that it’s such a pain in the ass to get to from the trail. There is a little trail that goes to the north shore of the lake, and I followed it. But there wasn’t a suitable place for lunch there, so I worked my way to the east.
I couldn’t stay very close to the shore, and as I worked east, the separation got larger. I finally had to force my way through some krummholz to get back to the shore. At the eastern end of the lake, there are a few rocks that would make suitable seats. I was looking for a rock in the sun but out of the wind. There was no such thing anywhere I could see. So I gave up and started back to the trail.
Returning to the trail along a different route, I almost immediately found myself on the edge of a small pond, almost attached to the lake. I was out of the wind here. The view was not as dramatic as Notchtop, but it was worth it to get out of the wind. I sat there long enough to eat and no longer.
On the way back, I didn’t go fifteen minutes without running into other hikers. Often, they were resting. None of them bothered to get off the trail to do this, and some of them picked the narrowest parts of the trail to do it on. I thought this showed a lack of situational awareness in this time of pandemic. It would be really easy to stay far enough apart that nobody would need to put on a mask, but so many people don’t give it any thought.
I took a short break where I had a view to the east. Probably every time I hike this trail, in either direction, I pause here for a sip of water or just to take in the view. This time, I sat for a few minutes and munched on some trail mix. Bierstadt moraine stretches before me, with the lake clearly visible, the reverse view of my picture taken from the shores of Bierstadt Lake this morning. I’d be hiking along there soon, just to the left of the lake and then dropping off the eastern end of it to return to my car.
I fully realize that my desire to visit to Marigold Lake is simply to tick a box: been there, done that. It has no particularly interesting attributes. It’s for the completist. I didn’t tick that box today, but I’ll be back, fully understanding that the pleasure in the achievement is much smaller than is warranted by the expenditure of the effort to get there. Particularly if it takes three tries!
Having just tried this a month ago, it seemed to me that I might be able to start this blog entry where I dropped out last time. Yeah, right.
Thursday, July 23
The alarm woke me at 5:15. I was out the door by a quarter til. I went over Trail Ridge with the idea I could run both cameras and if traffic was light maybe make a nice video. I stopped at Deer Mountain and mounted the cameras. Traffic was light but what there was, was really slow. Often just fifteen miles an hour. I passed some of them over a double yellow line.
At about Iceberg Lake (or Lava Cliffs, if you prefer), the car was making a funny noise. Not an engine noise, not a transmission noise. I decided it was probably one of the wheelwell inserts and didn’t worry about it. When I parked at the trailhead, I took a quick look. It wasn’t an insert, it was the diffuser. I will need to take it off. I lack the proper wrench. This is not good.
I put boots on trail a few minutes before eight, pretty much the same time as last month. About fifteen minutes in, I met a group of three hikers coming the other way. We exchanged greetings. They said they saw two moose just a few yards up the trail. I kept an eye peeled, but saw no moose.
They’re doing a big construction project just before you reach the first bridge over Onahu Creek. Last month I thought they were nearly done. It looks like it’s going to be a much larger structure than I thought. It’s not a bridge; more of a boardwalk, but on a slope. Maybe a hundred feet long, with a bend. And it needs to be stout enough to handle horses.
I got to the second bridge in just over an hour. I easily found the walking stick from last month and set off up the unimproved trail. Which I lost at the same place as last time. Very quickly, though, my stick broke, getting a foot shorter. I found a replacement, almost identical to the first one. Not long after that, I crossed the creek. None of it looked familiar to me, other than the general chaos of this forest. It was never my intention to cross here; I was thinking I was crossing a tributary. In fact, I had crossed the tributary already but didn’t recognize it because it carried so much less water.
As to carrying water, my boots got that honor in the second grassy meadow of the day. It had rained last night, and everything was wet. The pine needles weren’t too bad, I could avoid them for the most part. But the wet thigh-deep grass I had to cross in that meadow did the trick. The ground was sometimes spongy, sometimes slowly flowing water. My feet got pretty wet. I had three days of that a couple of years ago, just on the other side of Mt. Ida from here.
It was somewhere about now that I started to get a bit discouraged. When I started out this morning, I had no doubt that I’d reach the lake. I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into, but my doubt as to exactly where I was and everything looking different than last time was bothering me. On this hike, when you can follow a game trail it’s a relatively easy walk. But when you lose the trail, the deadfall puts you into “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” I was finding it to be a most challenging hike, both physically and mentally.
Having crossed the river early, I came across unique terrain for this hike: a talus field. No giant boulders, not too steep. I decided this was the path of least resistance and a welcome change of pace. Halfway up I realized it was the talus field where I ate my lunch last time. My doubts evaporated.
I reached this point fifteen minutes earlier than last month. It’s always easier the second time, even if only a little. I followed a game trail through the next set of trees, about a hundred yards, without significant deadfall, and arrived at the edge of a large meadow, perhaps a third of a mile long and five hundred feet wide in spots. By skirting the edge of it, I was able to avoid getting any wetter.
From a distance, it didn’t look like a good plan to just go up the lake’s outlet stream; obviously too wet. I came across a well-traveled game trail that kept to higher, firmer ground. No maze of deadfall here. The trees were sparser, the gound rockier. The trail skirts three or four more smaller meadows, each thick with elephant’s heads.
When I say I “dropped out” on my last hike here, I mean I paid the tuition but didn’t get the diploma. The misery of the deadfall is, by far, the worst part of this hike. That’s the tuition. The marshy meadows in that last mile and Julian Lake itself are the payoff, the diploma.
Foster’s description of the lake says it’s above treeline, but there are trees above it. She also warns of some nasty willow on the way. Following the game trail, I encountered no willow. The trail deposited me onto the shore of the lake, right next to the outlet. The better view looked to be from the east, so I crossed the outlet and looked for a nice rock to sit on. I couldn’t help but notice all the moose prints in the mud near the outlet. I didn’t spot any moose today, but obviously they’re in the neighborhood.
Foster says an alternate route would be to climb the saddle between Julian and Timber Lake. She says to “descend southeast over steep scree.” From my seat, it was clearly too steep for this kid. So if I want to return here, it’s back to the “demanding bushwhack.”
I was hoping to sit in the sun, take off my boots, and dry my feet and socks. As it was, there was only a small patch of clear blue sky to the west and overhead only the bottoms of gray clouds. I took off the boots and did manage to get the socks almost dry. But the boots never stood a chance, so feet and socks were wet again as soon as I put the boots back on.
I stayed only a short while. It started sprinkling, and the breeze picked up. I decided the only way to stay warm would be to put on the raincoat or to start hiking. I started hiking. The clear blue spot in the west was getting bigger; any rain would be light and short-lived. Or so I told myself. Fifteen minutes later, after a solitary drum-roll of thunder, I donned the raincoat and put up the hood. It wasn’t a hard rain; it didn’t totally obstruct the vision of the surrounding mountains, but I was happy to put on the jacket.
It rained for not quite an hour. I can’t help but wonder if the weather is always bad around Mt. Ida. That’s been the case for me. My day hike attempt at Gorge Lakes featured a thunderstorm that was the start of the 2013 floods. On my Gorge Lakes backpacking trip it rained every day and my feet were always wet.
Passing back through the largest meadow, I saw two deer about halfway across. They had spotted me first, and from this distance they might as well have been statues. They stared at me the whole time they were in my sight, rooted to their places.
I went down from my dropout spot the same way as last time. Or so I intended. I lost the trail in the dead zone and struggled. I found short, faint game trails, littered with a bit of poo, so I was sort of on the right track, but these all petered out. I’d like to see how elk make it through here. Maybe the place is such a mess that there are no game trails through this bit.
I kept losing the trail (or, more correctly, not finding the trail) at each meadow crossing. More demanding bushwhack. I found the trail for the last time, returned to the main trail (where I dropped my stick), and crossed the bridge a good twenty minutes before I expected to. I refilled my water, ate a plum, and resumed the hike.
A few minutes before reaching the trailhead, I encountered only the second hikers I’d seen all day, this time a couple. They asked if it was my Lotus in the lot and said “at least you’ll have a fun drive home!” I replied, “Maybe not” and asked if they had any pliers. They couldn’t help. She liked seeing my car. She drives a Fiat Abarth. She says with what folks say about Fiats, she’s afraid to drive it in the mountains. I told her she should enjoy her car.
I will say that the demanding bushwhack kept my mind off my diffuser problem. But now it was the immediate problem and It was now very much on my mind.
The diffuser was being held on by six small screws, all along the back edge. The large screws that do the heavy lifting were gone, and so the diffuser hung down in front with the rear panel acting as a hinge. It’s now not so much a diffuser as a scoop that opens when you’re driving. On the road, I quickly learned that the scoop will deploy all the way to the pavement at about 18 miles per hour.
I limped into Grand Lake to search for somebody with some tools. I stopped at the ATV rental place. All she had was a pair of channel-lock pliers. I gave them a shot. After some wrestling and a bit of cursing, I had half the screws out and all but one of the other half loosened. But I was beginning to round off the head of that last bugger. When the ATV rental lady closed up, she suggested I try a Polaris place down the road a couple of miles. So that’s what I did.
Just after getting back on US 34 (at 18 mph, with 4-way flashers on), a couple in a Geo Tracker pulled over to help me. They’d seen me on the ground in front of the ATV place when they were on their way to the Conoco station. When I passed that station, they hurried to come after me. He asked if there was anything he could do to help. I said what I really needed was an 8mm socket. He said, “I have one!”
We got the thing off, and it fits in the passenger seat (on a towel) and the top even fits. Which is a good thing, as I would surely be encountering rain. I was very happy for their help. They told me they couldn’t bear to see me crawling along the shoulder. She has a Corvette and was curious about the car. I said she could sit in the driver’s seat if she wanted; she declined. But she did take a couple of pictures.
The drive home was uneventful. The diffuser didn’t obscure my right side mirror, but there was very little visibility out that window. It rained a little. There wasn’t much traffic and I was home before eight.
Up to now, I’ve been buying my timed entry passes well in advance. They released the vast majority of passes back in June for June and July. They also release a tranche of passes two days in advance. That is if you didn’t buy a pass in advance for, say, July 1, and you decide you want to go, they make an additional number available on 6/29 at 8 am MT. If you look at a date that has sold out, it’ll show how many they’ll release 2 days in advance. For the 6-8 am slot, it looks like 65 passes each day.
Wanting to hike on Wednesday, I signed on Monday morning to get a pass. I refreshed my page promptly at 8 and made my purchase. By the time I selected the date, time, and type of pass, it said only 40 of the 65 were still available. After completing the process, I went back to see how many were left. At 8:03, it was down to 7.
Clearly, the best way to get a pass is to buy one when the bulk of them are released. And, as it turns out, passes for August become available on July 1. Of course, I’ll be on the trail when August passes become available but I’m thinking that they won’t get snapped up much faster than they were in June. When I made my first reservations, there were hundreds available for each day/time I wanted.
Having obtained my pass, the next issue was where to hike. I’ve done a pretty thorough job of visiting lakes that are readily accessible. What’s left will either require camping or are at elevations or in locations where there’s likely still too much snow on the ground. And I’d like to avoid the crowded trails in the Bear Lake area. With this in mind, I decided on Crystal Lake, which I last visited back in 2011. It’s high enough that snow might be a problem, but the higher sections of trail are on south facing slopes.
Wednesday, July 1
I was thinking I wanted to be on the trail at about 7:30. I thought the lake is seven and a half miles up the trail, but I see that the Foster guide says it’s 7.9, with 2,960′ of elevation gain. I figured I could maintain a two mile per hour pace up to Lawn Lake, then somewhat slower for the bit above eleven thousand feet.
I left the house at 5:30 and, encountering little traffic, I was at the trailhead a few minutes before seven. There were plenty of empty parking spaces, and a couple of hikers started on their way while I was getting ready. I hit the trail spot on 7:00. Before leaving the car, I sprayed on some mosquito repellent. I don’t normally carry it with me for a day hike and hoped that a single application would do the trick.
The first section of trail gets your heart going right away, climbing about 700′ in a little over a mile. That’s about double the average rate of climb for the entire hike. The trail to Lawn Lake is a pack trail, so it’s mostly free of roots and rocks and never gets too steep.
The first navigation point is the junction with the Ypsilon Lake trail. I didn’t catch up to the hikers who left the parking lot before me, but I did encounter a group of four hiking back to the trailhead. If they were camping, they left their campsite quite early, and I can’t imagine how any day trippers were already on their way out.
The next section of trail, a bit over four miles, more or less follows Roaring River. When the river is in view, it’s quite dramatic. The Lawn Lake dam failed back in 1982, releasing something like 30 million cubic feet of water at a peak rate of 18,000 cubic feet per second. The effects are almost as visible today as they were nearly 40 years ago. The careful observer will note places where the trail was washed away. That really doesn’t explain it properly: it wasn’t so much that the trail was washed away, but that the hillside the trail passed over was washed away.
There are places where a hundred feet of hillside looks to have been scoured away. Trees on the edge of these cliffs are dead but still standing, half their roots supported only by air. Continuing erosion is obvious. Not just earth being washed away from above by rain and snow, but the stream still undercutting the banks. In wider spots, the deluge deposited large piles of tree trunks. In narrower places, everything was washed away, leaving bare bedrock. In some places, the flood scar is visible from miles away. The pace of life is slower at altitude; even in forty years, new trees and shrubs have barely started growing back.
For the most part, this section of trail is easy walking. Fairly long stretches of nearly level trail are broken by short, steeper climbs that feature a few switchbacks. As the trail more or less follows the stream, it’s at the bottom of the forest valley, so there are no views to speak of. I also will note that my mosquito preparation was (today, anyway) unnecessary: I neither heard nor saw a single mosquito.
Not long before reaching Lawn Lake, there’s a junction with the Black Canyon Trail. You could theoretically get to the Cow Creek trailhead or Gem Lake or Twin Owls from here, but I’m not sure why anybody would want to. I haven’t hiked it, but I imagine it’s mile after mile of vista-free walking. But it exists, and appears to be both well-maintained and well-traveled. So somebody must find it useful.
Lawn Lake is the end of the pack trail. There are two hitching posts here, one for llamas, one for horses. From here to Crystal Lake, the trail is narrower and steeper. At times it goes right through small patches of willow where it resembles a game trail and will get you a wet boot if you’re not watching your step.
Just above Lawn Lake the trail rises above treeline and leaves the forest behind. I stopped here with the idea that I’d slather on some SPF. But the sun’s warmth was a bit feeble and the breeze was definitely not feeble so instead of sunscreen, I put on my jacket. Much of my hike so far had been in shade. It was well after nine before a single ray of sunlight hit my body. I was expecting things to warm up as the day progressed, but clearly that wasn’t in the cards this morning. I did put sunscreen on my face and hands, though, as the sun above 11,000′, while pleasant, is harsh.
To this point, I hadn’t seen any hikers (other than the group of four right at the start). There was a guy fishing at Lawn Lake and a hiker there sitting on a rock. While I was getting my jacket on, she passed me on her way to Crystal Lake.
There really wasn’t much snow along the way. In some shady spots around Lawn Lake there were a few drifts not much bigger than a few paces across. A bit more than half way up the slope there’s another trail junction, with a spur trail that takes you to The Saddle. I considered heading up this way, not to the top of the saddle, but far enough up to get a view of Crystal Lake from above. It was still fairly early, so I had plenty of time, but my pace had slowed considerably and the cool, stiff breeze was a deterrent. I continued to the lake.
Not far after the junction I came to the only stretch of snow worth mentioning. Standing on the eastern edge and looking west, I couldn’t see the trail. Lucky for me, the gal who passed me had already crossed the snow and was working her way along the far edge. Scanning the terrain above her, I finally spotted the trail and so I made a direct line for it. I didn’t quite catch up to her, but I essentially wiped out the lead she had on me.
There are two lakes here, nearly side-by-side and differing by only three feet of elevation. The first one is Little Crystal Lake. It’s very scenic. Almost exactly as scenic, in fact, as its larger neighbor. But it is very much the “red-headed stepchild”; nobody seems to stop here to take in the view.
I caught up to the other hiker as we climbed onto the boulders that make up the shore of the lake. There we found a guy who was making an attempt at fishing. We sat on a rock about ten feet apart and chatted while we ate our lunches.
When I was last here, I had the place to myself. Today, at first it was three of us. I stayed about an hour and a half. While there, a group of four hikers arrived, then a solo hiker, then two more. On my way past Little Crystal Lake, another solo hiker arrived. Clearly, this place is more popular than I thought. Usually, if I’m going to a lake more than seven miles away there aren’t many (or any) other visitors.
Ironically, on the way up, from the Ypsilon trail junction to Lawn Lake I didn’t see anyone on the trails. And, likewise, on the way out it was the same thing. Usually, at any lake I visit where there are a dozen or so people, I’ll meet people on the trail who are headed to the same place, or have been there and are on their way back.
I didn’t see any big game, but the marmot population at Lawn Lake, Crystal Lake, and in between was impressive. They weren’t too shy, either. One perched himself on a pedestal-like rock and looked at me as if to say, “I’m ready for my portrait now!” Another made it’s home in a hole right next to the trail, only backing down out of sight when I got within a few feet.
Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. This time on “What Did I Forget?”: mosquito repellent and a map.
If I were to follow my usual naming convention, this one would be “Julian Lake FAIL” instead of “Onahu Creek”. It’s good to have goals, but just about any day in the Park is a good day, even if I don’t get to where I originally wanted to go. So for today’s hike, let’s just call it a reconnaissance instead of a fail.
The Foster guide tells us there are two routes to Julian Lake: one is via Timber Lake and the other is bushwhacking up Onahu Creek. The Timber Lake route would be a five-mile hike to Timber Lake and then basically go straight up 700′ and down 700′ in less than a mile. I’m not a big fan of descending steep slopes, so I figured the bushwhack route would be my best bet.
To get there this way, start at the Onahu Creek trailhead and hike about three miles to Onahu Bridge, which is where the trail crosses Onahu Creek for the second time. Then leave the trail to follow the creek. Near Julian Lake, there’s a confluence of the lake’s outlet stream with Onahu Creek. Follow the stream on the left and climb the last 500′ or so to reach the lake. Sounds simple, no?
I really only had two concerns. First, the lake sits above 11,000′ and it’s still June and there may be too much snow. But looking at the map/satellite/aerial photos it appears that the last few hundred feet of climbing are up a gully that has no trees and has southern exposure. I took the microspikes with me just in case. And, second, I might have to ford a stream if I can’t find a better way to cross. My bruised foot is still pretty tender. It’s not a problem at all with a shoe or boot on, but barefoot on stones in a stream might cause some real discomfort. I figured I’d “burn that bridge when I try to cross it”.
This is the second time I’ve been on this trail. The first time, I only went to the first crossing of Onahu Creek, then headed off-trail to Chickaree Lake.
The first bridge is about half way to the second, both in distance and in elevation gain. Immediately after crossing the first bridge, the trail climbs pretty steeply. It’s a pack trail. I’m pretty sure they have “building codes” for pack trails. All over the park I can find pack trails that climb as steeply as 400′ in a kilometer. I’m sure the code doesn’t mix units like that, but this is one of those 400’/kilometer climbs. After that, the trail levels off for the rest of the way to the second bridge.
My decision here was, do I go up the left side, or the right side? From my map study, I recalled that there are two streams that come in from the left and one from the right. But going up the right side, I’d have to cross Onahu Creek itself, so that’s two crossings either way. I picked the right side and dove into the forest.
Almost immediately I found myself in a maze of deadfall. No, “maze” doesn’t do it justice. There were a surprising number of downed trees, trunks in every direction, sometimes stacked three high. I soon came to a small trunk, only about ten feet long. The top half looked like it might make a nice walking stick, so I broke it in half. I broke it exactly where I intended, but the fatter (discard) half bounced up and clobbered me in the neck. As I said, sometimes I’m my own worst enemy.
After quite some time working through the deadfall forest, I found a game trail that looked promising, but it veered off in the wrong direction, so back into the thick of it, although it wasn’t nearly as bad as before. After a while, I came across a fairly well-traveled game trail. It was much easier going until it dumped me out on the border of what looked like a grassy meadow. It was a marsh. I managed to make my way across without getting wet feet, but I saw no game trail on the other side.
Back into the mess. My strategy was to keep the creek fairly near. Not necessarily always in sight, but always audible. In some of the steeper sections, the creek came down some nice cascades. The nasty deadfall wasn’t a constant thing, but was quite common. The worst of it was on the steeper slopes.
The mosquitoes were the worst I’ve ever dealt with. They weren’t big, the sort that would carry off small children. But there were millions of them. Swarms of them. I tried not to stop more often than necessary. It has been my experience that they’re worse in the woods than in the clearings, but not today. I stopped to take very few pictures and every time I stopped to take a sip of water, three or four would land on each arm while others would buzz my ears and go for the back of my neck. At one point there were three lined up on my arm, a few inches apart. I rubbed my hand up my arm, killed the mosquitoes and left three smears of my own blood.
I easily crossed the tributary that came in from the right and figured I didn’t have that far to go, perhaps another mile. The terrain became steep again, and I came across another nice cascade. At the top of this, I was once again standing on the edge of a swampy meadow. The creek flowed right through it, rather than beside it, so it meandered. The channel was narrow, deep, and swift. Narrow for the amount of water; too wide for me to vault it. In this meadow/marsh, it looked like there was a confluence here. I was expecting a steep grassy slope after the confluence, but there was a talus field over there. Perhaps I’m misremembering the map. But this looked like where I needed to cross Onahu Creek and follow the other stream to the lake.
I found a crossing, then went about following the other stream. I had been faked out: it was a meander loop that was now cut off from the main stream. It made a loop to nowhere. It was now a bit after eleven. I hadn’t really stood still for two hours and I was hungry. I decided I’d find a flat rock in the talus, in the sun, and hope that the mosquitoes weren’t so bad. So that’s what I did. And the mosquitoes weren’t a problem at all.
It wasn’t as sunny as I was hoping, and it was a bit on the cool side. After sitting for a while, it was cool enough that I donned my rain jacket. It occurred to me that I could wear it on the hike back to the trail to help with the mosquitoes. I could even put the hood up to protect my neck and ears. I’d be hot and sweaty, but I figured that was a fair trade.
I relaxed for an hour. The view was not dramatic but pleasant. After I ate, I spent a few minutes looking at the terrain. My phone said I my elevation was 10,607′, and the lake is at about 11,100′. Is the lake above the gully to the left? It doesn’t look like what I was expecting from the aerial images. I thought about how disappointed I’d be to learn that I was really close but gave up.
I was quite happy using the walking stick. Perhaps I need to rethink my attitude about using poles. One consideration is that I nearly walked away from my stick twice, once when I started back down, once right after my first stream crossing. I can easily see myself losing my poles.
On the way out I was a bit more successful following the game trails. I found myself on a section that I avoided on the way up, thinking I didn’t like the direction. It was a very easy trail, nearly a straight line with almost no deadfall. Whenever the game trail looked to be forking, I tried to pick the route that looked better traveled. Or had more elk poo!
In the steeper parts, I lost the game trail but I always managed to get back to it. I had less success crossing the marshes. The only time I found the trail on the opposite side was crossing the last of them. This was the “heavily-traveled” game trail from the morning. But it turns out that it isn’t a game trail, it’s an unimproved park trail. If I’d have gone another 20 yards after crossing the bridge this morning, I’d have seen it and saved myself a bit of trouble.
Now back on the main trail, I tossed my walking stick into the underbrush and headed back to the car. This trail really doesn’t go anywhere, and it has a small parking lot, so I wasn’t expecting to see any other hikers. Very quickly, two groups of hikers passed me in the other direction, one group of four, the other of seven. Then I caught up to a group of eight heading my way. I was reluctant to pass them, as I was planning on refilling my water at the first bridge. I’d just have to pass them again.
But they saw me and stopped to let me by. I hustled down to the bridge and refilled my bottle. I’m not sure how long the UV light stays on, but it seems like ages. So the big group was going even slower than I thought, as I was back on my way before they showed up. Near the parking lot, I passed one more group, who were just hitting the trail. So that’s four groups totaling more than twenty people. In the parking lot, there was my car and two others. Seems to me there should have been more cars.
My last decision of the day was which way to return home. I decided that, even though it’ll take a bit longer, I’d go over Trail Ridge Road. I’m still curious about the timed entry passes being 60% of normal, so I wanted to see how bad the traffic was.
I was pleasantly surprised. The parking lot at the Alpine Visitors Center was less than half full. All the pulloffs between there and Rainbow Curve had empty spots. I never had a clear road in front of me, but we generally went the speed limit over that stretch. We caught slower traffic at Rainbow Curve, but it wasn’t as slow as I ordinarily see at that time of day.
I have more than a dozen mosquito bites on each arm. One bite has another bite right on top of it. But it could have been worse: I could have been wearing shorts. I’m quite confident that wearing the jacket on the way out, although not exactly comfortable, was a wise decision.
It turns out I made it to within a mile of the lake. I had not much more than another hundred yards of forest to bushwhack through, then cross another marsh and finally climb to the lake. I’m thinking that if I try again, in August perhaps, when the ground will be drier, I should be able to make it. Hit the trail a few minutes earlier, follow the game trails better, and (of course) remember the mosquito repellent!