It’s officially unnamed, but if I don’t apply names to some of the officially unnamed bodies of water I visit in the Park I’ll confuse myself. In the past I’ve resorted to calling them things like “unnamed lake at 11,200′ on Hunter’s Creek”. That’s a bit cumbersome and I don’t really want to continue very far down that road.
But I’m not certain how to name this one. Is it Ptarmigan Tarn, or would Fern Tarn be better? It sits beneath the snow field at Ptarmigan Point, but it’s at the source of Fern Creek. Do you name the tarn after the glacier or the stream? Is it a glacier, or just a snow field? Is it a tarn if a stream flows from it? Too many questions. I’m going with Ptarmigan Tarn.
Sunday, August 25
It’s a fairly short hike, just a bit over three and a half miles, and about fourteen hundred feet in elevation gain. That meant we didn’t have to get too early of a start. I had Chad meet me at my place at 6:30, and we stopped for a quick bite of breakfast as we passed through Boulder. Historically I haven’t been too concerned about getting a parking spot at the Park and Ride, but this summer I’ve seen the lot there get quite full, so I did have a bit of low-grade anxiety about getting to park there after 8:00. The anxiety was not founded, as the lot was back to what I’m accustomed to there: it was only about a third or less full, and there was no line waiting for the bus.
We hit the trail at Bear Lake at 8:36 and spent most of our time on the trail discussing the relative merits of various Sci-Fi television series. I usually make a note of the time when I reach various navigation points, which in this case would be the junction with the Flattop Mtn trail and upon reaching Lake Helene, but we were in the depths of plot line analysis of various Star Trek and Farscape episodes, and how many demerit points Farscape deserves for ripping off a Gilligan’s Island episode. So I didn’t note the time until we reached our destination, not quite two hours after leaving Bear Lake.
I have somehow never noticed that there’s a fairly well-developed trail leading up the hill around the west west side of Lake Helene. I’ve never gone any farther up the canyon than some large rocks overlooking the lake, and I always went around the east side of the lake to reach them.
This trail served us well on the way up. It was covered for a few yards by a bit of snow, and there really aren’t many cairns marking the way, but it was fairly obvious which way to go. I did note one place where I thought might be easy to make a wrong turn on the way down. But overall it was easy route finding and we avoided what little willow and krummholz we saw.
My map shows one body of water up here, but in reality there are two. In spite of a forecast high in the upper 90’s for Denver, it was quite cool here at nearly 11,000′. And to say there was a stiff breeze would be a bit of an understatement. Unable to find a spot that was both out of the wind and in the sun, the best we could get was the leeward, shady side of a large boulder beside the easternmost, smaller lake. And “leeward” isn’t quite right, either, as the wind swirled around our rock chaotically. Within a few minutes we had both donned our jackets to keep warm.
I set the GoPro up where I thought it least likely to get moved by the wind and placed a rock behind it as ballast. We had our early lunch, well before eleven, and watched the wind whip whitecaps on the water. And twice while we sat there, the wind blew my hat off sending us scurrying to grab it before it could start a trip to Kansas.
After our blustery break we headed back down. And, of course, we managed to make one wrong turn on the way down but it wasn’t difficult to get back to the route we took on the way up. As it was still early, I considered taking another pause on the shores of Lake Helene but it was still fairly windy here and neither of us particularly wanted to deal with it, so we headed back down the trail and into the trees.
Very quickly we encountered two twenty-something women. They asked us if we could point them to Lake Helene. It turns out they were headed to Ptarmigan Tarn as well, and that’s the name they used for it. I donated my map to them and we gave them a couple of route finding tips and a warning about the wind.
Approaching the junction with the Bierstadt trail I considered the option of walking back to the Park and Ride, but Chad had just run out of water. So I’ll save that option for another time. We made it back to Bear Lake by 1:15. After a stop for food and beer we headed back home. The thermometer in Chad’s car read 101 as we passed through Boulder, and our chilly, breezy picnic was just a fond memory.
My alarm went off at 2:45am this morning. Crazy, yes?
Kristin and Coop are in the neighborhood with plans to do a week’s worth of back country hiking. I’ve known them online for about a decade, and met them a year or two back. They’re nice people and we share a common passion so I reached out to them to see if we could get together to break bread or something. They suggested a few alternatives. Two of them don’t fit my schedule, and the third was to meet at the Bear Lake parking lot at 5am for a hike up to Dream Lake to watch the sunrise.
To get to Bear Lake at 5am, I need to leave the house not long after 3. This sounds like a stupid thing do, so of course I said “yes”.
The reason behind this is that Coop is a much better photographer than I am. My photos tend to be more like documentary evidence that I’ve been somewhere, while his you could call “art”. There’s a fundamental difference in how we go about it. That’s probably not correct: there are perhaps several fundamental differences in how we go about it. One of those is that he wants to take pictures during the “golden hour”. That means being somewhere at sunrise or sunset.
Which, today, means getting my butt out of bed before 3 and driving a couple of hours, then hiking a mile in the dark, all so we could be at Dream Lake for sunrise; to see Dream Lake and Hallett Peak bathed in the colors of the rising sun.
It seems I’m always saying I got out of the house a few minutes later than I’d wanted, and that I arrived at the trailhead late. But today I managed to leave by my desired time, and as might be expected, I hit no traffic once out of the city. So instead of being late I was at the Bear Lake parking lot early. I could have slept another fifteen minutes!
We hit the trail at 5. First decision was whether to take the shortcut to Nymph Lake or not. We went for the shortcut, but none of us could find it in the dark, so the long/usual way it was. Once at Dream, Coop picked a spot near the outlet. Another photographer was already set up there, and space was at a premium, so rather than get a poorer quality shot of the same thing as the others, I went for a slightly different angle and found a spot on a rock outcropping that wasn’t in their view.
The GoPro is fully automatic but I set it running anyway. I figured it would have a hard time with the lighting conditions, but you never know how things will turn out.
I’m really not a very astute photographer, and I still haven’t figured out all the ins and outs of the new camera. (I figured since it was another Canon it would be fairly similar to my old one. It is, but it isn’t. Most of the features that are in common work the same way, but not all. And there are loads of new features.) So I made some guesses and tried a few different things hoping that maybe I’d get a result I like. In the end, I think I did okay.
After watching the sunrise and taking in Dream Lake and Hallett Peak in all their glory we headed up to Emerald Lake. Kristin wanted to go there because it’s been a long time since she was there in summer. Hiking up there, it became obvious to me that I haven’t been there in summer in a long, long time myself. There are some wood bridges we crossed that I don’t recall ever crossing. I’m pretty sure every time I’ve been there in the last thirty years involved hiking across snow most of the way between Dream and Emerald.
We were up there early enough that it wasn’t crowded yet. We weren’t alone, but there were far fewer than the fifty or so (minimum, even in winter) that I’m accustomed to. I set up the GoPro again and we hung out there for quite a while. Hikers came and went the whole time, but the biggest group we saw was a mama duck with her eight ducklings. They swam around and stumbled over some deadwood floating on the edge of the lake before getting onto the trail like they were going to hike back to Dream Lake.
When we got back to the Bear Lake parking lot we discussed where we should go for breakfast and headed back to Estes Park. We ate at Molly B’s, sitting at the tables outside. It was quite pleasant (another beautiful day in the neighborhood), in spite of the heavy truck traffic rumbling up and down Moraine Avenue.
They explained where they were going to be hiking. It sounds like a nice time. I don’t know that I’m up to spending a week in the back country, but four years ago I’d have said I wasn’t up to any backpacking at all, so perhaps my attitude will change.
I like to think that I know my way around the Park. I may not know the names of all the mountains, even the ones I’ve hiked beneath many times, but I’d like to think if you mention a lake I’ll know where it is. So when Kristin talked about Ten Lake Park, I nodded as if I knew exactly what she was talking about. I had no clue. So after getting home, I had to look it up in the Foster guide. This will certainly go on the to-do list, most easily accomplished by staying a couple of nights near Verna Lake and getting there by bushwhacking up and over the flank of Mount Craig. It’s certainly too much effort for me to do as a day hike.
So it was a short day: too early of a start for me to make a habit of watching the sunrise, but a pleasant walk in beautiful surroundings, with friendly people. If they want to put up with me again, I’d be happy to meet up with them again on their next trip.
The upper end of Glacier Gorge is arguably the most scenic terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills Lake and its little sister, Jewel Lake, are fed by Glacier Creek. This creek is fed by half a dozen named lakes and a multitude of ponds and rivulets cascading down the slopes of some of the highest and steepest mountainsides in the area. The eastern side of the gorge is formed by a monolithic wall that is comprised of Half Mountain, Storm Peak, Longs Peak, and the Keyboard of the Winds. The western side is Thatchtop, Powell Peak, Arrowhead, and McHenrys Peak. Forming the southern end are Chiefs Head Peak, Spearhead, and Pagoda Mountain.
When you arrive at Mills Lake, the peaks to the east and west rise fifteen hundred feet above you. From Mills to Black Lake is about 2.8 miles and a climb of 700 feet or so. At Black Lake, you are surrounded by granite cliffs towering twenty-five hundred feet. It seems that no matter how high you follow these streams, the summits you pass beneath climb even higher.
This is my second trip to Green Lake, my first being back in 2011. That was before I began this blog, so the hike deserves the full treatment here rather than the abbreviated version that other repeat visits generally get.
Saturday, July 27
The weather report warned me that I could be dealing with storms as early as 10am but that didn’t deter me. I had wanted to get out of the house by six but I, as usual, ran a few minutes late. Traffic wasn’t too bad and I was at the Park & Ride by a quarter to eight. My plan was to put boots on the trail at eight o’clock, and I missed this by only ten minutes.
I generally take the Fire Trail, skipping Alberta Falls and the heavy trail traffic that goes along with it, but I got to chatting with a couple from upstate New York and missed the turnoff. Still, I arrived at Mills Lake in less than an hour. It is here, for me, that the hike really begins.
One of the interesting aspects of the trail between Mills Lake and Black Lake is the rather large debris field that was the result of a micro-burst that hit, I believe, in the autumn of 2011. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the thousands of trees were knocked down by the time I hiked to Black Lake in March of 2012. That first summer it took the Park Service quite some time and a lot of effort to cut through all the tree trunks that blocked the trail for more than half a mile.
A fair section of trail just above Mills Lake passes through some fairly marshy stretches. These sections are made passable by a series of crude bridges each a hundred or two hundred feet long. I’ve crossed these bridges for nearly forty years and now they’re mostly rotten and decaying. This year the Park Service is rebuilding them in an effort that may match that of clearing the path of the downed trees from that micro-burst.
It had started sprinkling at about ten and before long the sprinkles turned to rain, so I donned my rain coat. It wasn’t raining heavily, but the cool of the morning was still lingering, and between the light rain and light breeze, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the rain gear. I ran into a hiker here who had been to Green Lake on another occasion; he said he’d prefer it in the sunshine over this morning’s grey skies and light rain. Perhaps the weather will remain dull and damp, but perhaps it will improve. Besides, even a dull day in the park is a good day.
The last few hundred feet of trail below Black Lake rises beside Ribbon Falls on a series of steps not quite hewn from the living rock, lifting the hiker onto the outlet of the lake and onto a series of large rectangular stepping stones. Even though these stones form the trail itself here, many hikers find them inviting places to sit, and I don’t recall a visit where I didn’t have to step over or around lounging hikers here.
There’s no doubt that the view from these stepping stones is spectacular, but it’s just as spectacular if you go another few hundred feet to the eastern shore of the lake. There, you’ll face the sight that is McHenrys Peak. Water pours off the stark cliffs on all sides here. The main feeder of the lake is behind you, and a crude trail climbs beside it, gaining four hundred feet of elevation in just 1,600 feet of distance. Even late into summer there is snow on the southern slopes here.
At about 11,000′ of elevation, the terrain levels off and you find yourself on a large expanse of granite slabs, clumps of willow, and marshy areas where water flows nearly everywhere. Every time I’ve come up here, I’ve found many elk. Being so high, the wildflowers are much smaller than those lower down. They’re just as colorful and diverse, but are tiny in comparison. The scale is different: you won’t find entire slopes splashed with color, but that color is all around you. You just have to look closer.
Navigation isn’t particularly difficult here. After a while the trail fades away, but hikers have left a multitude of cairns. There are sometimes so many that they’re not helpful on a grand scale, but they often will lead you through the sections of willow.
To get to Green Lake, I kept the main stream on my right until I was nearly to the lake. I had my micro spikes with me, anticipating that I might be crossing some snow. Just below the lake I came across the solitary section I’d need to cross, and it was only a few hundred feet. Arriving at the base of this snow field, I found myself in the midst of a herd of elk. To my left was a large bull, antlers large and velvety. To my right was a cow and two calves, still sporting their youthful spots. The cow had an ear tag and wore a big collar with a large 9. I’m no judge of female elk flesh. Perhaps she was a 9. Or, perhaps, the collar wasn’t intended as an indication of her beauty.
They were really quite close, twenty or thirty feet. I’ve been close to elk fairly often. I’ve never felt threatened by them, but just the same I didn’t want to put myself between the cow and her calves. I also didn’t want to be closer to the calves than I was to the cow or bull. But to continue on the last few hundred yards to my destination, I’d have to walk right through them.
I sort of yelled at them, “I want to go that way!”, pointing across the snow. They looked at me quizzically. They clearly weren’t getting my drift. After further hollering and gesticulation I clapped my hands loudly. This got the calves to move to my right, on the other side of their mother, and I finally felt it was okay to proceed.
Had there been no elk there, I probably would have put on the spikes. I carried them all this way, so why not use them? But I didn’t want to sit there in the middle of the herd any longer than necessary so I proceeded without them. I didn’t need them, and on the way back down I again didn’t bother with them.
The rain had stopped some time ago, and the small breaks in the clouds had turned to mostly bright blue sky. There were still clouds, but they were white and fluffy and (as always) relatively fast moving. It would be hard to expect much better weather for a picnic beside an alpine lake than I was having.
There’s a snow field that sits on the eastern shore of Green Lake. I think it’s always there. Today, there were two little icebergs (or would they be snowbergs?) that were floating freely in the lake, recently broken off the main field. It might have been interesting to have the time lapse camera recording them, but instead I had it aimed at Spearhead and the clouds behind it. I would have liked to sit on the eastern shore, but there wasn’t a lot of shoreline there free of snow, and the flow out of the lake was running a few inches too high for me to cross without risking getting wet feet, so I stayed on the northern end.
On the way up from Black Lake I encountered a couple of climbers who had spent two nights on a bivy permit on Spearhead. I came across another couple of climbers on their way down at about the point where the route to Frozen Lake diverges from my route. So I kept an eye out for climbers on Spearhead. I don’t really know what interests climbers, so I didn’t know where to look. But I did see somebody wearing a pink jacket or shirt who hadn’t very far up the cliff.
After half an hour I headed down. My herd of elk was still there, but they’d moved a bit to the east and I didn’t have to split them to make my exit. On the way up, you’re facing the stark cliffs in the immediate vicinity. Heading down, you get a nice view of the Mummy Range in the distance. The clouds there were no longer white and fluffy, but steel colored and menacing. With the divide just a few hundred meters to the west, you can’t see what sort of weather is headed your way, but it was obvious that on the way down I’d likely get more than the light rain I encountered on the way up.
I’d kept the rain coat on through my lunch and only packed it away when I refilled my water bottle on the descent to Black Lake. My shirtsleeved hiking was short lived, though, as the clouds opened up by the time I got to the bridge leading to the Glacier Gorge campsite. The thunder that was rumbling in the distance was now crashing in the immediate vicinity, so I kept my pace up.
Usually there’s a fair crowd on the slabs that form the Mills Lake shoreline but not now. Nobody wanted to sit in the rain. It wasn’t heavy enough to entirely obscure the view to the south, but certainly heavy enough to make the view less pleasant. Between here and the trail junction I ran into a young couple on their way up to Mills: she wearing sandals and a jacket, he shirtless and smiling. Even with my jacket on and hiking a brisk pace, I found it slightly chilly.
A bit farther down I found a solo hiker standing in the shelter of a tree, assessing the skies. I told him it would quit eventually, but no telling how long that might be. He was going to wait it out. That turned out to be a short wait for him, as the rain stopped when I was half way down the Fire Trail, and the sun was again shining brightly. It was about here that I realized I’d probably left the passenger window of the car open an inch or two. Oh well.
Traffic down the mountain was heavier than last week, but what I’d call more or less the new normal. Until I got to about mile marker 10, where we came to a complete stop. At about mile 4 an ambulance had passed me going towards Estes, lights and siren on. It should have been obvious to me that I’d run into the scene of an accident but it didn’t click until we were stopped. It took nearly half an hour to get going again. They had the road down to one lane, letting a few dozen cars pass first in one direction then the other. When I passed the scene, I didn’t see any damaged vehicles. Had they already cleared the wreckage, or was it off the road, down the slope? I suspect the latter.
I can’t help but say that it was a very enjoyable day. A hike to the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge is always rewarding and satisfying.
Round Pond is a small round pond that lies on the saddle between Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh. According to the map, it has neither inlet nor outlet streams. I happened across it when thinking of going to the two small, unnamed ponds 350′ above and about four tenths of a mile southwest of Lake Helene.
Not far away from Round Pond is another small body of water called Marigold Lake. (This should not be confused with Marigold Pond, also in the vicinity, a few yards down the outlet stream of Two Rivers Lake.) After studying the map for a while, it seemed to me that it should be possible to visit both these lakes on the same hike.
The Foster guide has the distance to Round Pond at 2.4 miles. The distance from Round Pond to Marigold Lake looks to be about a kilometer. Assuming I make it to Marigold Lake, I’d return to Bear Lake on Foster’s route which she has at 3.9 miles. So the whole thing is about 6.9 miles and less than 900 vertical feet. Should be relatively easy, yes?
Well, perhaps not. Both lakes are quite small and in the middle of the forest. With unobstructed views of Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh it would be easy to locate Round Pond, but I fully expect the forest to be dense enough to provide no views of either of those mountains. And it may be challenging to get from Round Pond to Marigold Lake by my route, having to traverse some fairly steep terrain between them.
And, who knows? If I get back to Lake Helene early enough, maybe I can get to those two unnamed ponds that caught my eye in the first place.
Saturday, July 20
I arrived at the Park & Ride at about ten minutes after eight. I’ve never seen that parking lot so full. There were only a few spots left, and the line for the shuttle wound back and forth several times. I didn’t make it to the Bear Lake parking lot until a few minutes before nine. No big deal, this hike shouldn’t take too long.
The only snow on the trail was the large drift where the trees thin out on the east side of Flattop. In the winter, when I go to either Helene or Two Rivers Lakes, this is where I always lose the trail. The wind blows all the time here in the winter, quickly erasing hikers’ tracks. But in mid-July it’s just a hundred yards or so of snow and not any sort of navigational impediment. The trail both before and after this snow is filled with the overflow of the rivulets that cross it.
Farther up the trail is another spot that gives me grief in winter. The trail crosses a talus field and in winter I’ve often resorted to going to the bottom of the hill to avoid the traverse. It’s steep enough here to give me pause, and better safe than sorry. Again, in mid-July this is not a problem, but this talus field is where I leave the trail in my quest for Round Pond.
Immediately after stepping across Mill Creek I’m in fairly dense forest. A few minutes later an elk crashed across my path just a few yards in front of me. This was fortuitous, as it led me to a game trail. It’s not too difficult to cover ground but as I suspected, navigation is a challenge. It’s quite flat and level and no landmarks of any kind are visible. My game trail started to veer to the right when I thought I should be veering to the left, so I abandoned it and started making my own way.
On my cell phone I have a speedometer app that I use in the car. The car’s speedometer is not at all accurate, and in addition to the correct speed, it also displays (among other things) your elevation and direction of travel. It’s not a compass: to get a direction you have to be moving. This app works even when the phone is in airplane mode, so I often use it when I’m off-trail and need to make my way to a particular elevation.
Before long I figured I was in the right place and should be coming across Round Pond any minute now. But it’s really hard to judge, so I started doing a bit of a random walk across this saddle. It had been about an hour since leaving the trail and I hadn’t found it yet. I was just about to give up when I spotted a gap in the trees: there’s my lake. The trees are well back from the water, separated by, essentially, a giant sponge. Walking across it, my boots weren’t getting wet, but each footstep sank a few inches.
There were no rocks or fallen tree trunks to sit on, so I didn’t stay long. Not much to look at, either. Just a few Elephant Head flowers here and there. My options were to try to retrace my route and return the way I came, or to head for Marigold Lake. I knew I might have a hard time finding that lake, but given all my changes in direction to this point, I figured turning back wouldn’t be an easy proposition either. So onward it was.
After leaving Round Pond, the terrain remained flat and level, but the amount of deadfall was much increased. It was like navigating a maze. A short distance later the slope started to fall in front of me. Now the deadfall wasn’t so much a maze as a series of hurdles: almost all the trunks were lying perpendicular to the path of somebody attempting to traverse the slope. Between the steepness of the slope and all the deadfall, my progress had slowed considerably. I had to consider each foot step.
If I could keep my current elevation and contour around the mountain, I’d be a bit above the lake and it would be fairly easy to spot. The slope kept getting steeper and steeper until I was a bit out of my comfort zone. I’m okay traversing this sort of slope in the forest, but I really didn’t want to ascend or descend. And I figured there was a good chance I’d come across some large rock outcropping that would prevent me from traversing.
Sure enough, that’s what happened. I only came across one of these outcroppings, but it was enough. I couldn’t find a way over the top so I had to descend forty or fifty feet. By now I was getting a bit disheartened. This was taking much longer than I had anticipated. I still hadn’t had lunch as I hadn’t found a suitable place: a rock or log to sit on, with some sort of view and a bit of a level area to set my things. And I see I have neglected to mention the rich insect life of the forest covering Joe Mills Mountain.
Just as the steepness of the slope began to diminish, I came across a talus field. It had a number of flat rocks, sitting in the sun, with a view to the north and west. I rested here for about half an hour and had my lunch. It was now about 12:30, an hour and a half since leaving Round Pond. And I guessed that I hadn’t covered a kilometer yet, meaning I was covering less than four tenths of a mile per hour. That’s pretty slow.
Between Round Pond and my lunch spot, I caught only a few glimpses of the surrounding area. Once or twice I had partial views of Fern Lake and Odessa Lake below me, and the Fern Lake Fire scar on the slopes of Tombstone Ridge to the north. Only upon entering this little talus field did I begin to see Gabletop, Little Matterhorn, and Notchtop.
Having had my little picnic lunch, I resumed my traverse. My elevation was still a bit lower than Marigold Lake but there had been no sign of any sort of bench above me where a small lake could reside. But just a few yards after my talus field, I could spot some blue sky between the trees above me. Perhaps I was right below the lake!
I climbed a few yards but was stymied three or four times by dense vegetation. I couldn’t get through so I continued along the slope. After a short distance I could finally get onto the bench above me. But no lake was here. Dang.
To my south stretched an open expanse, mostly talus with some grassy/rocky ramps giving nice views of upper Fern Creek canyon. Heading mostly south, I soon saw the trail to Odessa Lake. It was now time for my final decision of the day. Should I go up the trail towards Lake Helene and back to Bear Lake, or down to the Fern Lake trailhead? It took me so long to get here that I didn’t have time to make my side trip up to those ponds above Helene but I headed back to Bear Lake anyway.
I passed the nearest point to Lake Helene at 2:30, stopped to refill my water when I crossed Mill Creek below Two Rivers Lake, and enjoyed the easy downhill slope all the way back to Bear Lake. There was no line for the bus and I was back to the Park & Ride at 4:20. This little excursion took quite a bit longer than I anticipated. The section between Round Pond and my picnic spot on the slopes of Joe Mills Mountain put me a bit outside my comfort zone but on the whole, the day wasn’t particularly strenuous.
I can’t particularly recommend a visit to Round Pond, unless you’re looking for a navigational challenge. It would have been nice to visit Marigold Lake, but now that I’ve been in the neighborhood I think I can make it another time easily enough. Looking at aerial photos of the area, my little picnic spot was within 20 or 30 meters of it! If I’d have climbed slightly north from my spot instead of slightly south, I’m certain I’d have found it. So Marigold Lake is on the “to-do” list, but directly from the Odessa Lake trail across the open terrain of talus and grassy ramps.
Note that I’m talking here of Lake Irene, just down the road from Poudre Lake, not Irene Lake, near the base of Sprague Glacier. I hope to write about Irene Lake before summer is over.
Last of the low-hanging fruit, perhaps?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven the section of Trail Ridge Road west of the Alpine Visitor Center. But I can tell you, before today, how many times I’ve stopped at the parking lot for Lake Irene: zero.
It’s a small parking lot that will hold about a dozen cars. There are a couple of picnic tables and an improved trail of not much more than a hundred yards to small Lake Irene. There’s not much to recommend here, other than it’s easy to get to. I am fortunate to be able to make long hikes to the many beautiful lakes in the park. I probably take that for granted. But I do know that not everybody can hike like I do, and it’s good that there are some places that are more accessible. That said, it’s not ADA compliant. But it is relatively low effort.
Of course, I didn’t make the trip up here just to visit this lake. My real reason was to stop by the back country office to pick up my permit for next week’s hike. So we made a day of it, stopping in Estes for lunch then heading over Trail Ridge Road and returning to Denver via Winter Park and Berthoud Pass.
I would have liked to have taken Old Fall River Road up to the AVC, but that road isn’t open yet. And the snowbanks at the AVC are still something like ten feet deep. Lake Irene sits at about 10,600′ and there’s still snow on the ground there. Trail Ridge was so crowded we weren’t able to stop at the Rock Cut, but a brief glance at the Gorge Lakes told me they’re still well frozen.
My backpacking trip next week may be much more challenging than I was hoping. I’ll be staying at Upper Ouzel Creek. I don’t know exactly the elevation there, but it’s somewhere close to that of Lake Irene so I’m guessing there will be snow at the campsite. And my hope is to reach both Isolation Lake (11,985′) and Frigid Lake (11,824′). Frigid Lake will be, not doubt, still quite frigid.
I think it has been four months since my last visit to the Park. That’s way too long. But it’s too early to do a nice long hike because that generally means a decent elevation gain, and from down here in the big city it looks like there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground in the high country. So I figured I’d do a short hike to get a sense of how much snow there really is.
Lacking any good ideas, I resorted to an old standby: Emerald Lake. For nearly twenty years, I managed to drag a rotating group of friends up to Emerald on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a bit past that time now, but close enough. I was hoping to make it around the lake and gain some elevation on the west side of it for a change of pace.
I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot a bit before nine. There were only a few empty parking spaces left. I probably should have grabbed the first one I saw, but hoping for a closer spot I found myself up at the top. There, one of the volunteers said, “Hey! We know that car!” Doc and I exchanged greetings; he wanted me to tell him about the car after I got parked. Well, Ed’s usual spot was empty, so I parked there. Before I was out of the car, another volunteer parked next to me. So I answered all of Doc’s questions and chatted with the both of them before hitting the trail.
Just before getting to Emerald I met a guy who had just skied down one of the couloirs from near the top of Flattop. Being a non-skier, this sort of thing strikes me as pretty hard-core.
At Emerald, I worked my way around the norther shore far enough to get out of the ever present crowd, but I didn’t try too hard to continue west to higher ground. Having failed to execute my original plan, it occurred to me that this hike is so short there isn’t any reason I can’t add another short hike to the day. When I recently redid my online photo gallery I noticed that I didn’t have any pictures of Lake Bierstadt. Why not make a side trip to Bierstadt and rectify that oversight?
Having arrived at the lake a few minutes before ten it was too early for lunch, so I just relaxed and took in the views. I couldn’t help but notice a bunch of debris on the ice over on the west side. There was an avalanche here back in early May. This debris is likely from that event. How else would a bunch of pieces of pine tree be on the ice in the middle of Emerald Lake?
The hike back to Bear Lake was at times painfully slow. This is what I call “conga line hiking”. There were so many people around the end of the trail at Emerald that it sounded like a high school cafeteria. On the way down, the only places I could make my way past long lines of people was on the snow: I had my micro spikes but most others were in sneakers. I would have taken the shortcut from Nymph to Bear, but I’ll only do that when nobody is watching – don’t want to let the general populace know about the shortcut. No chance of stealth today, so I took the long way.
Lake Bierstadt is named for Albert Bierstadt, a painter known for his landscapes of the American West. I saw a few of his paintings when I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They’re big paintings of dramatic landscapes. So I find it a bit ironic that, in a Park with so many stunning lakes, the one with his name on it is, shall we say, not that impressive.
The hike from Bear Lake to Bierstadt Lake is about two miles. The first section is along the Flattop Mtn trail. This section of trail climbs a bit, and after the trail junction it continues to go up for a short distance. After that, it’s all flat or slightly downhill. It’s a forest hike with no views at all, except for a very short glimpse of Halleck and Flattop on a few yards of trail that goes west. The walking is very easy, with few roots or rocks to deal with. I was able to keep up what I call a “sidewalk pace”.
There were a lot fewer hikers here than at Emerald. Between Bear Lake and Bierstadt I ran into about two dozen other people. I made my way to a rock on the southwestern shore of the lake and ate my picnic lunch. I was joined in lunch by a duck who was working his way back and forth through the grasses nibbling as he went. And not far away I was somewhat surprised to hear the almost constant croaking of frogs. I know there are frogs in the park, but I’ve never seen any, and until now hadn’t heard them either.
Up to now, the weather had been quite pleasant. But to the north, some ominous clouds had formed and a chill breeze had picked up. I’d wanted to circumnavigate the lake, but with the threat of rain I packed up and headed down the trail to the Bierstadt trailhead.
So I still don’t have any pictures of the best views of Bierstadt.
The trail from the lake to the trailhead climbs something like 600′ in a mile. It switches back and forth across the mostly treeless slope on its way. I’ve made that climb a few times, but the last couple passages on this trail have been downhill only, like today. Just when I started down, I ran into a family coming up. They were only a few yards from the top. I couldn’t resist: I said, “Only another mile to go!” and waited a beat before adding “Just kidding.”
It has been three months since I visited RMNP. Well, I was at the back country office last week, but that doesn’t count. I didn’t actually get into the park, let alone do any hiking. I tried back in January, but that was during the government shutdown. More recently I’ve had to schedule things around work on the car, so I haven’t had much opportunity. I finally made it happen today.
I was afraid it wasn’t going to come together. Due to the recent heavy snows, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to get there in the Chrysler so I’d have to find somebody to go with who was willing to drive. Luckily, Ed stepped forward and volunteered to join me for a walk in the Park.
When we arrived at the entrance station, we couldn’t help but notice that the express lane was closed. And when Ed proffered his park pass the ranger asked if his car was four wheel drive. “We really discourage continuing unless you have four wheel drive.” We pressed on, undaunted.
The road was pretty slick right away, with ice just a few yards after turning onto Bear Lake Road. We took it easy, going slower than some 4WD trucks which Ed waved by us, and made it to the parking lot without any drama.
The plan was to take Ed’s route to Lake Haiyaha. This one never gets old for me. As I’ve said before, I’m somehow unable to navigate this route on my own. I keep thinking that I should be able to find my own way, and I recognize many landmarks along the way, but I can’t mentally string it together. Eventually, though, (I keep telling myself) I’ll get it figured out.
As I’ve mentioned, the Park as gotten quite a lot of snow over recent weeks. Even though Ed has broken this route many times this season, there is little to no trace of his trail. In the depths of the forested parts, I could make out a slight depression indicating his route. But in the clearings, where the wind works full time, there’s nothing. Ed tried pointing out the signs to me on occasion – “see that slight depression there?” – it was far from obvious anybody had ever been through here.
My snowshoe experience is fairly limited. I make it out only once or
twice a year. So I couldn’t help but tell Ed that this was by far the
deepest snow I’ve gone through. He responded that it doesn’t get much
deeper. Even on snowshoes, we were often sinking knee deep. We went
through a few drifts that were waist deep, and on the steeper uphill
sections it was tough going. Of course, Ed was in the lead, so he was
doing much more work than I was.
It was cold and windy, but that describes most winter days here beneath the Divide. At lower elevations, it was clear blue skies, but here clouds flew above the mountaintops and snow flew along the ground. It wasn’t so overcast that the sun didn’t make shadows, but it was overcast enough that the sun seemed small and distant. Surprisingly, given the amount of wind, the trees were laden with an amazing amount of snow.
In the end we didn’t make it to the lake. I needed to be back to Lyons by 3:30 or 4:00pm, and our progress was slower than usual. And, frankly, it was a fair amount of work plowing our way up the hillside. When we finally stopped, Ed guessed we had maybe another half hour at the rate we were going. Sure, I’d have liked to visited Haiyaha for a quick look at the always interesting ice there, but I’m not bothered we didn’t press on.
Chad and I hiked to Mills Lake. He drove. He didn’t want to make the trip on my summer tires in spite of my assurance that it would only be the last mile that’s dicey. We got to the Glacier Gorge parking lot around 8:30. It was about half full. In the summer, it takes me almost exactly an hour to get to the lake from the parking lot, but today it took an hour and a half.
We took the fire trail. When I came down it after visiting Ed’s igloo the tracks followed the summer trail but now it’s switched to it’s snowy winter route, up the gully. An outcropping of rock was covered with large icicles fifteen or twenty feet high.
There was a good crowd at the lake. It was pretty windy, but we stood in the lee of a small stand of pine. Even though it was out of the wind, I had a pretty nice view up the gorge. The sun is about as low in the sky as it will get as we’re just a few days from the solstice.
The view of the gorge as you near the lake is one of the most impressive views in the park. Today when we arrived there, clouds hung in giant curls from eastern flank of Thatchtop. Longs Peak plowed the wind, leaving a wake of condensation. The wind whipped through at high speed, kicking up clouds of snow up throughout the gorge. The low sun backlit the blowing snow, showing the wind’s form; its flows and eddies.
We were there for nearly an hour. I thought we’d be doing good if we to stayed much over half an hour, but our spot was comfortably out of the wind and I managed to blather on about something or other until I sufficiently bored Chad and he suggested we make our way back to the car.
Several days ago I reached out to Ed to see if he’d be interested in hiking with me today. His plans were more ambitious than mine: he said he would be going to the igloo he made the other day and spending Friday and Saturday nights there. He asked if I’d like to join him. I quickly declined, but agreed to spend the day with him. My excuse is that my sleeping bag isn’t sufficient for a November night at 10,500′ in a structure made of snow.
Earlier in the week, the forecast for the day looked pretty good. It would be mid-50’s in Denver, but windy. I don’t know why I keep mentioning the Denver forecast when I’m heading to the Park. In the summer I can count on my time in the Park being much the same as Denver, but cooler. In the winter it may as well be a different planet.
Ed wanted to meet at the Bear Lake parking lot at 7:30. That seemed a bit early for me, so I talked him into 8:00. Lately it has been taking me an hour and forty-five minutes to get to the parking lot, and when I add a few minutes to grab breakfast in Boulder and a few minutes cushion in case I run a bit late, I could leave at 6:00 to meet Ed at 8:00. As it turned out, I left promptly at 6:00 and didn’t have any traffic, so I arrived at Bear Lake at Ed’s preferred time. Which meant I had to wait.
According to the weather report, the forecast for the northern mountains was snow overnight Thursday, clearing up for most of the day, then snow again starting late afternoon or early evening. As of 7:30, the first part of that was more or less accurate. The skies were clear on my drive all the way up to the Bierstadt trailhead, just a few miles from Bear Lake. From there on, it was snowing, but not windy. Here I should mention that the Chrysler isn’t equipped for driving in snow: I have ultra-high performance summer tires on her. They’re fantastic for dry pavement, excellent in the rain, but there are few tires that are worse in the snow.
I’ll also add that the road to Bear Lake was in the worst condition I’ve ever seen. But that’s fairly meaningless, for three reasons. First, I only go to Bear Lake in the winter a few times a year. Second, I’m a fair-weather winter hiker and most times I’ve gone, I could easily take the Lotus (which is worse in the snow than the Chrysler). Third, the park service does a good job of keeping the road clear. So I made it to the parking lot without problem, but made sure to park so I didn’t have to go uphill on my way out, anticipating that conditions wouldn’t get any better.
Ed had posted a few pictures of the igloo on Facebook, but I didn’t have a great idea where it was other than the top of a little ridge with a great view. Given Ed’s range, even restricting it to within a few miles of Bear Lake, that doesn’t narrow it down much. Perhaps I should have asked him before we started, or before I agreed to go with him, but I waited until we were on our way. We stopped for a few minutes and he used his trek pole to make a diagram in the snow.
This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve followed Ed through the snow. He’s led me to Lake Haiyaha a few times and I still don’t think I could get there on his route without his guidance. I think I’m figuring it out. I think I could do it in the summer, but for some reason the terrain looks totally different to me when it’s covered with snow.
Ed leads the way
My inability to follow his route isn’t because he’s not a good guide. He is constantly pointing out terrain features. Today perhaps he was trying to show me too much. I felt it was a bit of information overload. But that may have been because I was a bit preoccupied. You see, this was a one-way trek with Ed. Because he’d be spending two nights in the igloo, I’d have to find my own way back to the car.
We spent a lot of time turning around and looking back the way we came. “Through the trees here our trail should be fairly clear. But in this clearing it will drift over. You’ll want to avoid the bottom of the gully here. Stay to the left of that log there.” That sort of thing. You see, it was snowing pretty good. The wind wasn’t as bad as it often is here so close to the Divide. But it would be hours before I came back this way.
Yours truly. This is a smile, not a grimace. Look closely: the snow is falling sideways.
Where our route crossed the trail from Lake Haiyaha to the junction with the trail to Mills Lake and the Loch, we walked back and forth along that trail so that “tourists” wouldn’t be tempted to follow our tracks. Here we discussed one of my options. I could either follow our tracks, or take the official trail. It didn’t look like the official trail was very well traveled, so I was thinking following our own tracks would be the best bet.
From here our route started getting steep. Our destination was a glacial knob at the eastern end of Otis Peak, immediately north of The Loch, and about 300′ above it. Ed knows I’m not a big fan of the steep stuff, so he gave me a bit of a pep talk. The final approach to the igloo would be quite steep. He compared it to the descent we made from the ridge on the south side of Dream Lake back in the spring. It would be that steep, but not that long, and broken into short segments.
On that final approach there was only one spot that had me bothered. It was a bit tough climbing it, as the snow seemed to want to give way under my weight. I had to be very careful to put my weight directly above the balls of my feet, which I found a bit of a challenge. At one point, I was almost crawling up the snow.
“Come stand out here on this precipice and check out the view!”
The igloo is sited atop a rock outcropping, with clear views to the east and south. Or, it would have clear views if the weather was clear. When we arrived, we could see a bit down the Bear Lake road and we had a view of Half Mountain. A cliff face of Otis was just a few yards away to the northwest, and the northern flank of Thatchtop was prominent to the south. After a quick look at the surroundings, we retreated to the shelter of the igloo for lunch.
Click on the picture to see it full-sized.
We ate and chatted for about forty-five minutes. My soda was nice and cold, but my water was colder: it was starting to freeze. This should not have surprised me, but it was a bit distressing to have to knock a plug of ice out of the mouth before I could take a sip. We set my water bottle beside Ed’s little furnace. Although it was nice and cozy inside, it wasn’t warm enough to melt the ice. Standing up, though, I found that the air was close to fifty degrees at the top, while it was more like freezing down at the level of the door.
Igloo at center; Thatchtop in background.
After lunch it was time for me to head back. When we popped out of the igloo, it was quite obvious how the conditions had changed. Visibility was just a few hundred yards. Ed kindly escorted me down the steep bits and I was soon on my way, retracing our steps from the morning. These steps, of course, were our most recent. So they had had the least amount of snow, either freshly fallen or wind-blown, obscuring them. In the trees it was quite easy to follow them. I was feeling pretty good, in spite of the degraded conditions.
Wind-sculpted pillows of snow.
The first challenging part was around a small unnamed body of water that Ed likes to call “Beautiful Lake Marv”. We had walked through an open area where the wind gets an unimpeded run. Our track was completely erased. Ed’s advice was to stay to the left and don’t go down into the gully. It took me a few minutes, but I eventually did spot our trail below me. I was able to follow it all the way down to the trail from Haiyaha.
On the way up, we didn’t just cross directly over it. After reaching it, we went along it for maybe a hundred yards, then left it. I thought I’d easily find where we gained the trail, but I had no luck. Some other hikers had come through; I followed their tracks off the trail, but they just made a short excursion to look at the stream. After a couple times up and down the trail looking for my way, I decided that the tracks along the official trail were my best bet, so off I went.
Although a bit longer, it was an easy hike out. I arrived at the trial junction in good time and ran into a few hikers. Two guys asked me how it was the way I came. I told them I didn’t go all that far. They told me they’d come up the Fire Trail and that it was pretty clear. So that’s the way I went. A few minutes later they passed me, one on skies, the other booting it. They went at a pretty good clip, the one in boots running.
By now the wind was getting pretty fierce. Even in the wooded sections, the trail was getting harder to follow. Those guys were just a few minutes ahead of me and their tracks were indistinct. Then a few minutes later another pair of hikers passed me, and shortly after that the trail was sufficiently out of the wind that it was quite obvious.
I was back to the car by 2:45. There were surprisingly few cars in the parking lot. My car was the closest to the top of the hill, and was pretty well covered by snow. By 3:00 I was on my way. I practically crawled along the road, ABS engaging quite a bit. My doors don’t lock until I reach 13mph. They didn’t lock until I passed the Glacier Gorge lot. Even going so slow, I managed to catch two other cars, who pulled over to let me by. The road was pretty treacherous, with blowing snow creating blizzard-like conditions, until about Hollowell Park. At Moraine Park, a ranger had his truck, lights flashing, blocking up-bound traffic. Clearly, they weren’t letting people go any farther. That explains why there were so few cars at Bear Lake.
So, to recap: I walked through sometimes blizzard-like conditions, up and down sometimes incredibly steep terrain, sometimes trying to follow my own vanishing tracks in the snow, then drove my car on summer tires through more blizzard conditions. Through all that, I was warm and dry. What can I say? It was another beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Things are a bit on the slow side at work, and I have a few vacation days I haven’t used. So with the weather looking good for today, I took advantage of the opportunity and headed up to the Park for a short hike. I figured I’d try something similar to my last hike – that is, a short hike to a familiar destination but try to get a different perspective by gaining a little elevation. So I headed up to the Loch, with the intention of finding a nice rock outcropping with a view of the lake and the valley in which it sits.
I wanted to park at the Glacier Gorge parking lot, so I left a bit earlier than last time. This had the side-effect of missing the worst of rush-hour traffic going into Boulder. Between Boulder and Lyons I was treated to a beautiful sunrise, which is always a nice way to start the day.
There was relatively little traffic on US 36 and now that it’s off-season, I skipped my usual detour by the hospital and actually went through downtown Estes Park. Approaching the RMNP entrance station, I saw a few temporary signs indicating that there was a chance of fog or smoke. I thought it was odd, as the weather was fine and the skies were mostly clear. In Moraine Park their electronic sign told me that the Bear Lake parking lot was already full. I wondered how that could be, given that it was 8:30am on the last Monday of October. How can there possibly be that many people there already? If the Bear Lake lot is already full, there’s no way I’ll get a spot at Glacier Gorge.
When I arrived at Glacier Gorge parking lot there were about eight cars there. Clearly the sign in Moraine Park was in error. Two of the eight cars had just arrived moments before I did. Two guys got out of one of the cars, looked at each other, decided it was too windy and got back in their car. I told them it wouldn’t be windy on the trail, but they weren’t convinced. And, actually, I didn’t think it was very windy at all, compared to what I’ve found there in the past.
Andrews Glacier barely visible
Although I’m quite comfortable deciding what to wear and what to carry on my summer hikes, I’m not that experienced in autumn or winter. I think part of my problem is my lumbar pack. It’s sufficient for my summer day hikes but doesn’t allow me to carry what I might need on a colder weather hike. Today I wore my thermal (light or medium, I forget) underwear, hiking pants, Hawaiian shirt, hoodie, and windbreaker. I had a woolen hat and gloves, and I had my rain jacket as well. I brought my microspikes and gaiters, but ended up leaving the microspikes in the car. I figured I probably wouldn’t need them, but once I got off the trail there might be enough snow I’d want the gaiters. In the end, I didn’t use them.
The day was quite pleasant. On the trail, the wind was not an issue and I didn’t think about it until I got near my destination. There was very little snow on the ground for my entire hike, while the trail had icy stretches that became longer and more common as I gained elevation. The ice was only in the shady bits, starting about halfway up the fire trail. About half way between the Mills Lake trail junction and the Loch I encountered a hiker on his way out. He was trying for Sky Pond but turned around at Timberline Falls. All he had was microspikes and that wasn’t enough for him. He was the only person I met since the parking lot.
Shortly after arriving at the Loch I started looking for a place to start climbing. As it turns out, I started climbing too soon. But it didn’t take long to run into the talus field that’s on the south side of the lake. It runs at an angle. If I’d kept to the trail for a little longer I’d have come across it and had an easier way up.
In planning the hike, I had considered following this talus field all the way up to one of Ed’s glacial knobs. But I found a nice place with a view of the valley that was in the sun and out of the wind. I was perhaps two-thirds of the way up the talus. There was a bit of snow here, but I easily avoided it. I didn’t want to step on some snow only to find out that there’s nothing beneath it but a giant hole.
Interesting grain, a little burned around the edges
In the talus there’s a fair amount of dead wood. Not a lot: it’s a talus field so more or less by definition there aren’t any trees. But there are a few ribs of soil here and there and over the few hundred yards of talus I maneuvered I came across quite a few pieces of deadwood. Each one showed signs of being burned. Some were subtly discolored, just a touch of brown. Others were deeply charred. I assume all these were the result of the Bear Lake Fire of 1900. Burned bits of tree can be found throughout the area, but they’re move obvious here as no trees have grown here in the intervening century.
About two-thirds of the way to the top of the talus field I found a spot with a nice view. As a bonus, it had full sun and was not particularly windy. I fully expected that any place I found that was in the sun and wasn’t surrounded by trees obstructing the vista would be blustery, but my little spot was close to ideal. It may very well be that it wasn’t as windy as it normally is in the cooler months this close to the Divide. But it wasn’t exactly calm. The small clump of trees thirty or forty yards above me sang a bit when the heavier gusts blew by.
While I let the camera run, and after my picnic, I explored the immediate neighborhood. This meant hopping from rock to rock through the talus. On my way to a spot where I could get a bit of a view of Andrews Glacier, I hopped on a rock that looked to be about three feet on a side. It was a “wobbler”. I’m often concerned that some of the smaller rocks I step on will move, but haven’t had that happen with a boulder this size. Frankly, it kind of spooked me. This one had to be three quarters of a ton or so. I had a quick mental image of it moving a large area of talus; not something I want to be in the middle of. From then on, until I got back to the trail, it seemed like every rock I stepped on moved a bit. I know it was my imagination, but it had me being very careful.
After about an hour of watching the world go by, I packed up and headed back down to the trail. Along the way I came across a large upended stump. Its color matched all the other dead wood nearby, except that it had no obvious signs of burn. What it did have was a rock that the roots had grown around. I took a few pictures of it from various angles; didn’t get one that shows it very well, but so it goes.
Rock encased in wood
Back on the trail I started encountering other hikers. One couple asked if they’d passed Sky Pond. I told them that they hadn’t, and that they weren’t likely to make it past Timberline Falls given that they lacked any kind of traction devices. The next couple I came across said they were properly equipped, and I wished them luck. They looked to be fit, but it seemed to me they wouldn’t be getting up there until fairly late in the day.
I briefly considered taking the long way back to the car and spending a few minutes at Alberta Falls. Maybe I was feeling lazy, maybe I preferred the solitude of the fire trail, and in the end took the shortcut. As I hiked out, I shed my layers ending up in shirtsleeves. The forecast high for Denver was in the mid-70’s, while NOAA predicted a high in the mid-40’s for Loch Vale. No doubt, it was warmer than the mid-40’s where I had my picnic.
Leaving the park I saw why they had signs up warning of smoke or fog: they were doing a prescribed burn on the north side of the road, covering the whole distance between the entrance station and the Beaver Meadows visitor center. By now all the excitement seemed to be over: I saw a fair amount of smoke but no flames.