Marigold Lake

Due east of Odessa Lake, on a small shelf two hundred feet up the north slope of Joe Mills Mountain, sits a small puddle of a lake. It has no inlet stream to fill it with snowmelt and no outlet stream to drain it. With an area of about a third of an acre, it’s not much larger than the suburban lot my house sits on.

I suspect it is rarely visited, being somewhat difficult to find. I’ve tried to reach it twice before, without success. The only reason I want to go there is to add it to the list of lakes I’ve been to. I admit that’s probably too much effort to reach a body of water not much more than a puddle that probably doesn’t even merit the designation of “lake”.

Chad told me he wanted to go on a hike so we agreed on a date and I made a plan. I decided we should circumambulate around Joe Mills Mountain as on my first attempt at Marigold. According to CalTopo, the saddle between Joe Mills Mountain and Mount Wuh was burned. Round Pond sits on that saddle. Based on what I saw on my Spruce Lake hike, I suspect the trees around the pond have survived. Why not find out? It doesn’t add any miles to the trip, but it does exchange trail miles for bushwhacking miles.

Saturday, October 22

The Park was very busy. The shuttle from the Park and Ride to Bear Lake was standing room only. We put boots on the trail at about 8:30.

It was a bit chilly. The forecast for the vicinity was “sunny and breezy, with a high of 46”. There were some thin clouds much of the day, but we could always see our shadows. In the woods, the wind is no big deal, and most of the day we’d be in the woods, so “sunny and breezy” sounds like a nice day.

An hour up the trail, we hit our departure point and headed cross-country. Our route would be to contour around Joe Mills Mountain at more or less 10,400′. From the trail to about the pond, the forest isn’t terribly dense and deadfall isn’t too bad, so the bushwhacking is a fairly pleasant stroll through the woods.

Before long, the ground in front of us started sloping down: we had reached the saddle, a bit west of it’s lowest point. We wandered around here for a short while looking for Round Pond but didn’t spot it. Frankly, it has a half-hearted search. I was more interested in getting to the burn. Missing Round Pond isn’t missing much.

The forest is denser on the north side of the mountain, and soon we’d need to traverse a fairly steep slope for a while, westbound to Marigold Lake. But first we started seeing burnt trees. Just individual trees here and there, all deadfall; burned with almost no damage to the surrounding forest. One was still standing: a hollow tree, like a chimney. After several of these we arrived at the edge of the burn scar.

I was expecting the edge to be “fuzzy”. Indistinct. Maybe a border of trees that didn’t ignite and kept their dead, red needles. But no. Green, apparently healthy trees directly adjacent to scorched earth: charred tree trunks standing like giant whiskers. The hillside won’t get shaved, but almost all those dead tree trunks will fall to the ground over the next several years.

It has been two years since the fire. Two summer growing seasons have passed. On my hike to Spruce Lake, the entire burn scar was carpeted with fireweed. Here, there were large areas where the ground is still black. I was surprised to find occasional piles of ash. I suspect they’re in dried puddles and the ash accumulated here. It’s bone dry now: disturb the frail crust and raise a bloom of ash.

On my hike to Spruce Lake, I noticed that the char on the trees is only a couple of millimeters thick, and it’s starting to flake off the dead wood. Here, I saw many interesting logs where the charred part has come off. The wood burned to different depths in random patterns, creating little topographic maps out of the tree rings.

As I said earlier, as we head west, the slope gets fairly steep for a while until we reach the bench that Marigold sits on. The forest isn’t burned here and is dense and there is much deadfall. It is a challenging route for about a third of a mile.

Chad had taken a little tumble shortly after we left the trail and his ankle was a bit tender. Now he mentioned that he was no longer enjoying the dinner he had so enjoyed last night. Then he asked me how steep I thought this slope was. And he was huffing and puffing.

We found a spot with a couple of flat rocks and a nice view and took a break. He told me later how uncomfortable he was. I had been thoughtless. Almost everyone I hike with is quite happy to go places I’m not comfortable going, so somehow I had the idea that, if I was okay going there, anyone would be okay with it. I know exactly what it’s like to find myself in terrain that makes me uncomfortable. It’s stressful. I should have gone over the route with Chad beforehand.

If we’ve navigated correctly, we’ll exit the steep, dense forest onto the bottom of a talus gully, right next to Marigold Lake. We came out a little bit below the lake but found it soon enough. After the dense forest, I was expecting that this pond would have no view. The view of Little Matterhorn from here is quite nice. In my plans, we were to take a nice break here, but unfortunately, there’s no place to sit. So we pressed on.

From Marigold Lake back to the trail, we’d go up a gully gaining about two hundred feet of elevation, then cross a fair amount of talus until we reached the Fern Lake trail about two-thirds of the way from Odessa Lake to the summit of the pass near Lake Helene. Although it’s a rather large talus field, the rocks are small and easy to cross and there are occasional outcroppings of grass.

Did I mention it was breezy? To now, it hadn’t been an issue. Sure, it was windy, the trees swayed quite a bit. On the forest floor, it wasn’t windy enough to disturb ashes. Crossing the talus was another matter. The wind was howling down from Ptarmigan Point unobstructed. I’d guess sustained winds were twenty miles per hour with gusts over forty or fifty. Several times, I was nearly blown over.

On the way, I came across the oddest thing. I found a solar-powered light. The kind with a stake on the end, so you can drive it into your lawn. Who would bring such a thing to the middle of a talus field? And leave it there? I packed it out. How long could it have been out here? The stickers on it were still intact. It came from WalMart.

Back on the trail, we reach the top of the pass, where the trail returns to the trees and out of the wind and it’s all downhill from here. We stopped for a break on a couple of nice, flat rocks in the sun on the lee side of a slope above what as late as August would be a small pond but is now dry ground.

Today’s beer was a repeat: Palisade Peach.

When we got back to Bear Lake, the line for the shuttle was pretty long. After the first bus loaded, it looked like there was more than a busful of people still in line in front of us. Somehow, we managed to get sardined onto the second bus. We didn’t even stop at the Glacier Gorge trailhead on the way down.

Traffic was bad all the way from the Park to my house. We were back to the car pretty much on my expected schedule, but by the time Chad dropped me off at home, it was half an hour later than expected. Traffic sucks.

In Summary

I enjoyed my day. I can finally cross Marigold off the list (or, more accurately, put it on the list). Marigold Lake had a nicer view than I expected, but I don’t think I’ll ever bother to return.

The time exploring the burned area was particularly rewarding. It won’t be like this for very long. The ash and black will soon be gone, and grass and wildflowers will soon be here. And I hope this will be the last fire in the Park for an extended period.

I’m sorry that I led Chad into a situation that he didn’t enjoy.

Spruce Lake

The East Troublesome fire was first reported on the afternoon of October 14, 2020, eighteen miles west of Rocky Mountain National Park. Nine days later, it jumped a mile and a half over the Continental Divide to Spruce Canyon. That same day, it jumped the mile-wide burn scar from the Fern Lake fire of 2012, ran past the Morraine Park campground and reached Beaver Brook.

The East Troublesom and Cameron Peak fires burned a bit less than ten percent. It’s more than ten if you add in the Fern Lake and Big Meadows fires, both in the last decade.

The thing to keep in mind is that wildfires are a natural part of the lifecycle of the forest. They provide for renewal and increase the diversity of plants and animals. However, we spent a century suppressing wildfires, and we’ve seen climate change contribute to beetle kill. There’s much more fuel in the forests now than is usual. And with increasing temperatures and drought conditions (climate change again), the fires we get burn much more intensely than ever before. Historically, fires were smaller and tended to burn in a haphazard pattern – a mosaic. Today’s fires tend to burn everything. They can create their own weather – when East Troublesome jumped highway 34, it had created winds of 150 miles per hour. The result: scorched earth.

Last week, the NPS posted on Instagram that they had just re-opened the Spruce Lake trail after some trail work. I don’t know how long the trail has been closed – it’s possible it’s been closed since the fire or was just closed for the duration of the work.

I’ve been to Spruce Lake four times, most recently in 2019 on a two-night stay with Gordon, in an attempt to visit the four lakes in upper Spruce Canyon. Although that wasn’t the most pleasant of hikes, I did enjoy the extended time I spent there. I watched a cow moose and her yearling calf for a good, long time.

I wanted to find out how badly burned the place is.

Friday, September 16

My timed-entry permit was for 6-8 am. I arrived at Fern Lake Road at about 7:15. The road was lined on both sides with parked cars. In the meadow right next to the road was a large herd of elk. A disproportionate number of people had serious glass on their cameras, lenses as long as my forearm. I’d guess those guys could count the hairs in the nose of the majestic bull facing them from about twenty yards away.

A few yards up the road, two bucks were grazing maybe six feet off the road. Nobody paid them any attention. I got a picture, though. I see does all the time, but not many bucks.

From the parking lot to a little bit past the Pool, I can’t say I noticed anything different from my last few hikes here. At the parking lot, I noticed that a couple of the tall aspen had been burned, but nothing else looked like it had burned since the Fern Lake fire.

After the Pool, though, it’s a different world.

It is now the end of the second growing season after the fire. When I hiked through the Big Meadows burn scar just weeks after the fire, pretty much everything was black. There wasn’t a blade of grass, not an insect, no birds. The tree trunks were black, the ground was black, many of the rocks on the trail were black.

Two seasons after East Troublesome is already quite different. The black is starting to fade. Plants are starting to cover the ground. Today I learned why fireweed, one of my favorite wildflowers, got its name. It’s mid-September, well past the prime time for wildflowers. But today I saw more flowers than on my last three or four hikes combined. Almost all of them were fireweed. In some places, fireweed must have made up 90% of the plants. It was everywhere.

The tree trunks, both those still standing, and new and old deadfall, are still black. I saw a number of tree trunks had been cut by trail crews in years past. Some of them were unburnt on the cut end. This showed me how deeply the tree trunks are burned. It’s not thick, and it’s starting to flake off many of the standing dead trunks.

Standing on the hillside, looking north to the Fern Lake fire scar, the difference is obvious. Those trees, burned ten years before, are brown. The fresh ones are all black. Eventually, they’ll all be gray and you’ll have to look at differences in live plants to tell which happened first. And it might not be obvious.

The trail zig-zags up a north-facing slope. This whole slope is burned, except along Fern Creek, where some forest survives. Away from the creek, total devastation. After the zig-zags, the trail straightens and heads southwest towards Fern Lake. The trail parallels Fern Creek, but not always closely. Where there was water on October 23, there is still life. I stopped at Fern Lake first, as it’s only about a hundred yards above the trail to Spruce.

The old cabin is gone, razed to the foundation, which is now covered in brown tarps. But most of the trees around and above the lake aren’t burned in the same way as those below. Those below are scorched trunks only. Above, the fire clearly wasn’t as hot. There are still some green, live trees mixed in. And the many of the dead ones still still have their brown needles.

The bridge across the outlet was undamaged, but the privy has been replaced with a brand new one. And I find it a bit amusing that the little restoration area between the trail and the lake survived. It’s not amusing that that bit survived: it’s right next to the water. It’s amusing that one of the few unburnt places is fenced off, with a sign saying to keep out.

The trail to Spruce Lake climbs over a ridge, gaining about two hundred feet on the Fern Creek side. This slope is all burned, but from the top of the ridge, or a bit past, to the wetlands adjacent to Spruce Lake, it alternates between burned and unburned. The recent trail work included rebuilding the bridge with a bogwalk across the outlet. There are a couple of other new bogwalks, too, but others survived (if a bit scorched).

Speaking of trail work, a substantial amount of work was done on the trail where it zig-zags up the slope. There are a couple of long sections where the trail is paved with rock. The width of the trail (about four feet) for lengths of sixty feet in one place and more than a hundred in another. Looks like it’ll last centuries.

Spruce Lake has less damage than Fern Lake. The campsites look undamaged. The privy survived, but just barely: a tree trunk two feet in front of the stool is scorched. The wetlands at the outlet didn’t seem to get burned at all. In fact, there’s an enormous amount of dead tree matter that’s been there for years – it’s all gray – that doesn’t have a black mark on it. I’m amazed it’s still there.

The forest above the lake, on the way to Loomis, looked undamaged except for a small area of “slightly” burned trees (still with needles) high on one slope. Seeing no fire damage on the way to Loomis and an intact forest to the north and west, I decided not to go any farther. More about this decision later.

I haven’t seen any big game since the buck by the side of the road. Before I set out this morning, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be any left in any of this area. I’d imagine any moose or other deer would survive if they could get to the lake. But if they did, is there enough left to keep them here? Although I didn’t lay eyes on any game, I was happy to spot fresh moose shit and deer shit.

After only a short break at Spruce, I headed back to Fern. The idea was to get a short time-lapse sequence there, then hike down to somewhere before Fern Falls to eat my lunch and get a longer sequence, prominently featuring the burnt tree trunks. But, as Helmuth von Moltke noted, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

The Fern Lake bit of the plan went off well. But the weather was turning. I packed up after only fifteen minutes, and a light rain started to fall a few minutes later. It didn’t take long before it was raining hard enough to convince me to don my waterproof shell. Naturally, as soon as I did, the rain stopped. But I wasn’t fooled and kept it on. The rain came and went until I reached Fern Falls.

I stopped there for a quick snack. The sun was shining again, and it was calm. I took the shell off but kept it handy. The skies looked pretty threatening – everything to the west was dark. I was lucky to have a few minutes of nice weather for my snack and didn’t expect that luck to continue. And, not long after leaving the falls, I had the jacket back on. I wanted to have my picnic, but not in the rain. I hoped I wouldn’t need to eat my picnic in the car.

By the time I was perhaps only a quarter of a mile from the car I decided to stop. The threatening clouds hadn’t moved down the canyon with me. The sun was shining. I found a nice place to sit next to the stream and had my lunch. It wasn’t until a family went by on the trail that I realized just how close to the car I was. They weren’t carrying their toddler, she was walking. Still, better a picnic here than in the car. In the car, I wouldn’t have drunk today’s beer (a returning favorite, Left Hand Brewing’s Wheels Gose ‘Round).

My picnic spot was a three-minute walk from the car.


When I got in the car, I figured I had a few options, depending on what I saw. I could just go to Spruce Lake. Or, if the fire above the lake was bad, I could go to Loomis to check on it. Or, if the fire was worse below the lake, I could contour around and take a look up Spruce Canyon. I took my squirrel-eaten poles with me, in case I went anywhere beyond Spruce Lake. Good plan!

But silly me didn’t bother to refresh his memory about the fire or to even look at the fire history on CalTopo. Had I done this, I would definitely have taken a peek up Spruce Canyon. Now I have an excuse to come back next July or so to put eyes on what I didn’t bother to look at this time.

You see, it occurs to me that, after the fire, another try on Rainbow Lake, Irene Lake, and Sprague Tarn might be considerably easier. Route finding would be much easier, and although the big deadfall will still be there, it should be substantially easier to navigate. I only managed half a mile an hour before, where I generally can manage twice that bushwhacking. It might be worth another shot.

It would mean another two-night stay at Spruce. There’s a privy there. We watched moose eating aquatic grasses. It’s not a long hike. Why not do it again? But only if I get a look at Spruce Canyon first.

Colorful Lake Haiyaha

Back on June 28, a large rockfall event occurred on the south slope of Hallett Peak, halfway up Chaos Canyon. My college geology teacher probably would have called it a “mass wasting event”. Mass wasting is simply the movement of rock or soil downslope due to gravity. In RMNP over the last decade, we’ve seen a number of these but most were due to flooding. The water loosened things up and gravity took over. This one, though, was not like those others.

Mountains erode over time. Generally, we think of erosion as being due to water or wind. Very little of it is due to wind. Erosion due to the normal, continuous flow of water isn’t that great, either, mostly just making jagged rocks round. Mass wasting, whether it be landslides due to flooding or rockslides like what happened in Chaos Canyon in late June, is by far the largest contributor to erosion.

Due to the rockslide, the NPS closed off access to most of Chaos Canyon above the lake. Obviously, things are quite unstable there and it’s entirely possible that more slides are in store. This closure doesn’t really affect me, as I’m not a rock climber. I’ve only been a significant distance up the canyon from the lake once when Ed and I hiked to the small, unnamed tarn near the head of the canyon.

It’s not the slide, though, that interests me. I’m interested in the glacial flour. Also called glacial silt or rock flour, glacial flour is the sediment from ground-up rock particles produced during glacial erosion. This stuff is very finely ground. The particle sizes typically range from 2 microns to 65 microns. Particles that small will hang suspended in water for a long time. (A human hair is around 70 microns thick, while wheat flour is in the 10-41 micron range.)

This glacial flour is what gives the turquoise color to lakes that are fed by glaciers.

Clear water absorbs longer wavelengths of visible light (yellow, orange, and red) and strongly reflects shorter blue and blue-green wavelengths. Therefore, unless there is another pigment present near the surface of the water, like algae, it will always appear blue or blue-green. The glacial flour that floats in the water provides reflects light back to our eyes and makes the water appear both opaque and bright. Interestingly, the composition of glacial flour absorbs most of the blue light and reflects some blue and green, as well as yellow, orange, and red (but, as mentioned above, these colors are absorbed by water). With the elimination of the colors absorbed by both the glacial flour and the water itself, what is left is mostly green and some blue light reflected back off the glacial flour to our eyes: turquoise. The more glacial flour present in the waters, the greener the water will appear.

There is no glacier in Chaos Canyon; there hasn’t been one for a long time. But it turns out that a significant amount of rock flour is released in these rockslides. There was a smaller rockslide here back in 2018. The lake changed color for a few months, but to a much lesser degree than right now.

I can’t predict how long the lake will have this color. It is my guess, though, that the water will be clear again next spring. Lakes fed by active glaciers are always being fled flour, but I doubt snowmelt will pick up more flour from this rockfall and so I expect the lake to be clear again in the spring.

Then: If I want to see the lake decked out in turquoise, I better go now.

Tuesday, September 13

Lake Haiyaha is only a couple of miles from the Bear Lake parking lot, so it’s one of the shortest hikes I take. And, being so close to the parking lot, the place is always crowded.

I followed the masses up the trail to Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. It was a conga line. The flip-flops and no-water crowd was well represented. Nearly everyone was talking. Some hikers on their way back to Bear Lake gave words of encouragement to those going up: “You’re almost there!” It amuses me that everyone seems to think everyone else is going to the same place they’re going to. In this case, “You’re almost there” meant Dream Lake, 1.1 miles from the parking lot.

At the turnoff for Haiyaha, the crowd thins a bit. I had three or four minutes where I could see nobody ahead of me or behind me.

Just before reaching the lake’s outlet, I head west to reach the northern shore of the lake. The trail dumps the crowd onto the boulder-strewn southern shore. To get to my spot on the quieter shore, I have to navigate a bit of talus and dodge downed trees, but it’s worth it. Even though nobody is over here, you don’t really get any solitude: sound travels surprisingly well over water. You can not only see the people on the other side of the lake, you can sometimes make out what they’re saying.

Sitting on my rock, enjoying a snack, I concentrated on my nearer surroundings. The water is translucent for only maybe six inches. Any water deeper than that appears opaque. I was wondering what effect the glacial flour has on fish, but I did see trout rise a few times. They can still see insects on the surface because of the shadow, and they’re now pretty much invisible to predators, so unless the flour interferes with their gills, the fish are probably doing fine.

I wanted to make my way to the top of the ridge between here and Dream Lake. I’ve been up there twice, once in winter and once in spring. There’s a really nice view of Haiyaha from there. I never made it. I was too far west when I started and never got more than halfway. I spent about twenty minutes in the attempt before capitulating and heading to the crowded side of the lake.

There’s a social trail that leaves the main trail just before the main trail starts crossing a rock pile. A few feet up the social trail, the Park Service has posted a sign showing the area of the canyon that’s closed. I worked around the south shore for a bit until I found a nice, flat, unoccupied boulder to sit and have my picnic lunch on.

Today’s beer: Great Divide Brewing Company’s American Lager.

On the way back, rather than return the way I came, past Dream and Nymph, I headed down the “back way” on the trail that goes to Glacier Gorge junction.

An interesting thing about Lake Haiyaha is that it has a leak. In winter, the lake drains to a level several feet below the level of the outlet. I’m not exactly sure where this leak comes out onto the ground, but this trail follows the stream formed by the leak for a short way, to where it fills a pond. The stream itself looks milky, and the pond is less green and more a milky, pale blue.

I’m happy I got to see the lake in this condition. The small rockslide in 2018 didn’t have nearly the same effect as this year’s big slide. Seeing the lake this color may be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And, although I complain about the crowds, I think it’s great that so many people can enjoy the Park. Besides, it helps me appreciate my hikes where I get hours of solitude.

[See some of my older Lake Haiyaha photos here.]

Devils Thumb Lake

Today I return to the Hessie Trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness for a walk up to Jasper Lake and its surroundings. There are three lakes here: Jasper Lake, Storm Lake, and Devils Thumb Lake. There are more than those, actually, as there are three unnamed ponds and a small lake called Upper Storm Lake in the cirque above Storm Lake. There is no official trail from Lake Jasper to Storm Lake and above.

Theoretically, it might be possible to visit these three lakes in one day hike. But because I haven’t been there before and I don’t know what the terrain looks like between Jasper and Storm, I decided to go to Devils Thumb Lake. On the return trip, I’d stop at Jasper and do a little recon of the route to Storm.

Wednesday, September 7

Arriving at the trailhead at about 7 am worked well for me on my first hike from Hessie, so I stuck to that plan. Today I had to gas up the car and the station doesn’t open until 6, so I arrived at the trailhead just a few minutes later than planned.

On my previous Hessie hike, I logged my time at each waypoint. I skipped a few this time, as there aren’t any navigational choices between the car and where I leave the jeep trail and take the Devils Thumb Bypass trail to reach Devils Thumb Lake. The Devils Thumb Bypass trail parallels the Woodland Lake trail, the trails being on opposite sides of Jasper Creek. Although the trails are only a few hundred feet apart, the forest is dense enough that I never saw the other trail. The first hundred yards or so of the bypass trail is the steepest section of trail on the entire hike.

On this trail, you reach the IPW boundary sign in a large meadow about a hundred yards wide and a third of a mile long. The meadow affords the hiker of the first views of Mount Jasper. This section of trail is the easiest: almost flat and almost entirely free of roots and rocks, allowing the hiker to maintain a uniform stride. Too quickly, perhaps, the trail returns to the forest.

It seems that for much of the route from the IPW boundary to Jasper Lake, the trail follows an old roadbed. Jasper Lake is a functioning reservoir. I was unable to find out anything about when it was built, but it’s an earthen berm dam much like several of the (now removed) dams in RMNP. I assume it is of about the same vintage, or just over a century old, and that this old road was used in the dam’s construction.

Anyway, the trail doesn’t always follow the old roadbed. Occasionally, there are small signs along the trail that say “Trail →”. I found these little signs a bit odd, as any other option than following the arrow on the sign would be silly. And yet, once I somehow managed to note the sign but still go off in the wrong direction.

I found myself still on the old roadbed, on a somewhat steep section of it bounded on both sides by willow. The road itself was now a corduroy road: made of logs the width of the road, placed side-by-side. I usually read of these corduroy roads being built in low, swampy areas. This section isn’t in a low area and is somewhat steep. Conversely, willow tends to grow in wetter areas, so the area may be quite wet earlier in the season. By the looks of it, there’s a fair amount of foot traffic through here, so I’m not the only one who has errantly gone this way.

A bit farther up the trail is the junction with a trail to Diamond Lake. Diamond Lake is a fairly short hike when starting on the Fourth of July trailhead. From there, it’s a bit more than two and a half miles. This way, it’s perhaps three times that, plus an extra six or seven hundred vertical feet. A good stretch of this route is above timberline, so the open views may make the extra effort worthwhile.

Slightly more than half a mile further on, the trail reaches the outlet of Jasper Lake. I didn’t pause here but trekked on toward Devils Thumb Lake. I would stop here on the way back.

From Jasper to Devils Thumb, the forest thins. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say we’re hiking through grassy areas with clumps of trees rather than forest with clearings. In any event, Devils Thumb and Skyscraper Peak and parts of the Continental Divide are often in view.

The trail soon climbs to and crosses the outlet of Devils Thumb Lake. The lake is about ten acres in area, maybe 425 feet wide at its widest (north to south) and a quarter of a mile in length east to west. It is bounded on the east and west by large, thick stands of willow while the north shore is a tumble of talus. That leaves the south shore as the most easily explored. This shore is covered with forest, and the banks are more steep than flat. If you go down to the water, you can find a view of the entire lake, but the only places I found to sit in the sun and relax offered only partial views of the lake.

I spent about an hour here, between my search for a comfy spot to relax, consumption of a small snack, and application of sunscreen.

At this altitude (and for much of the hike, frankly), most of the wildflowers are gone, either eaten by squirrels or cached in burrows. The only flowers still with blooms were a few yellow species. All the blue, red, and purple were gone. I didn’t see a single columbine on the entire hike.

The relative lack of wildflowers wasn’t the only sign of the changing season. The grasses were beginning to turn yellow, and while the aspen leaves are still green, the ground cover beneath the aspen was already golden.

From the car to Devils Thumb Lake, I encountered only one other hiker. I started seeing more people once I started my return trip. Two sets of two hikers between Devils Thumb and Jasper told me to be on the lookout for a mother moose and her calf. I never spotted any moose, elk, or deer the whole day.

Back at Jasper, I turned off on a spur trail that leads to a few of the campsites. I went far enough along this trail to decide that this is the way to go if you want to head up to Storm Lake. This trail runs along the western shore of the lake, just high enough up the slope to avoid any marshy areas along the shore. I hopped off the trail here to explore a peninsula. I don’t think maps accurately depict the shape of the lake. This is probably because the shape of the lake changes drastically when it’s not full.

Much of the shoreline of the lake is forest, with steep banks. It’s a very scenic lake. At the farthest extent of my peninsula, I found a nice spot for a picnic and had my lunch. I had a nice open view of the corrugated ridge north of the lake. I also had a view of the terrain leading up to Storm Lake and could see a couple of falls made by its outlet stream.

Today’s beer was Hazy IPA by Great Divide Brewing Company. I’m not a huge IPA fan, but when you buy a variety pack you take the non-favorites with the favorites. I selected this particular beer today because I expected the skies to be a bit on the hazy side – an effect of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. The IPA was a nice change of pace from my recent string of sour fruit ales, and the hazy skies were noticeable but not terribly bad.

Last week, I found myself directly underneath a flight path for eastbound jetliners. It turns out that Jasper Lake is directly beneath a westbound flight path. Like last time, atmospheric conditions were such that these planes weren’t leaving any contrails so I had a little trouble initially spotting them. As they all use the same routes, when you spot one, you can spot them all. Being a city dweller near a regional airport, I’m accustomed to hearing aircraft all the time. But they don’t fly right over my house. If these jets didn’t fly right overhead, I don’t know that I’d be complaining about them.

Here in the first week of September, Jasper Lake is at its fullest. What looks today like the outlet of the lake is actually the dam’s spillway. Some care was taken to make it look natural. The same is true, to an extent, of the dam itself. From below the dam, on the trail, it’s not obvious that it’s a dam. The slope is gentle and is covered with grass (and flowers, perhaps, in July and August).

The water that goes over the spillway makes a 90-degree turn then drops fifteen feet or so to where I’m guessing the original outlet of the lake was. The outlet pipe is here. Once the valve is opened, the lake’s level will drop such that water no longer goes over the spillway; the lake is drained through this pipe. There’s a building of some sort (I didn’t explore it) where I assume the valve is operated.

I’m guessing this dam was built much the same way as the (no longer standing) dams for Sandbeach, Lawn, and Pear Lakes (and others) in RMNP. I can only hope that its construction is more robust than those dams (which, by 1982, all suffered serious structural issues). I understand that dams in Colorado are rated as to their riskiness. This rating is based on the danger to people and structures below the dam should it fail and not just on the soundness (or lack thereof) of the dam itself. If this dam were to fail, it would flood Middle Boulder Creek through the town of Eldora, then Nederland, and ultimately flow into Barker Reservoir.

I ran into a lot more trail traffic on the way out than on the way in. More than half the folks I encountered had dogs with them. There are plenty of signs that tell us dogs must be on leashes. Of all the dogs I saw, only one group kept theirs leashed. All the rest allowed their dogs to run free. One group at least made the attempt to seem like they kept their dogs leashed: they managed to get one of their two on a leash by the time they passed me. But a hundred feet past me, they let that one off to run free. (There was a fair amount of dog poo right on the trail, too.)

I’m sure every dog owner feels that their Fido is a kind, gentle dog not very interested in biting people. But on my daily walks in my neighborhood, I’ve been bitten multiple times by dogs. Back in my misspent youth, when I delivered Avon to the Avon ladies, I encountered hundreds of vicious dogs. So perhaps I’m oversensitive to the issue. But I really wish people would follow the rules on this one and keep Rover on a leash.

I will definitely be back in this area. I’d like to visit Storm Lake (and perhaps Upper Storm Lake and the unnamed ponds, too). In the valley between Jasper and Betty and Bob Lakes, there are two more lakes, one of which is also a reservoir. Skyscraper Reservoir looks to be a concrete dam rather than an earthen berm. I probably won’t get to Skyscraper this season, but it’s definitely on the to-do list. I’ll admit that I’m curious about these alpine lakes that were dammed in service of irrigating farms on the eastern plains.

Hike Segment Data

StartEndDistance (Miles)Slope (Ft/Mile)Elapsed TimeMiles per Hour
CarDevils Thumb Bypass jct1.5297:362.5
Devils Thumb Bypass jctIPW Boundary0.5380:152.0
IPW BoundaryWoodland Lake trail jct0.8201:202.4
Woodland Lake trail jctDiamond Lake trail jct1.5593:491.8
Diamond Lake trail jctJasper Lake0.6223:201.8
Jasper LakeDevils Thumb Lake1.0325:361.7
CarDevils Thumb Lake5.93642:562.0
Distance and Slope are approximate

Betty Lake, Bob Lake, and King Lake

As I tend to do, I kept a browser tab open for about a week showing the topo map of the area I’m going to hike. This week, it was Betty and Bob Lakes in the IPW. They, and King Lake, form the headwaters of South Fork Middle Boulder Creek. (Last week I hiked along North Fork Middle Boulder Creek.)

I came up with all sorts of possibilities, most of which I discarded. In the end, my plan was to get to Betty and Bob Lakes, then do the side trip to King Lake. I had considered going cross-country from Bob to King but figured it’d be faster to use the trail even though it meant losing and regaining about 300′ of elevation. Another one I considered was skipping King and going over the ridge between Betty and Skyscraper Reservoir, collecting Woodland Lake, and returning by the Woodland Lake trail. This would have been the same mileage and elevation gain as doing Betty, Bob, and King. The big unknowable until reaching the top of the ridge is the state of the terrain on the other side.

Monday, July 22

Parking for the Hessie Trailhead is just a short distance past the town of Eldora, on the side of the road. The map indicates a road from this point to a small parking lot at the trailhead, but the road is closed now. It’s about half a mile to the parking lot. More, actually, because there were already ten cars parked on the road. Before I had changed into my boots, two more cars came in and parked.

When I put boots on the trail, the sun had not yet climbed above the ridge, so the area was in shadow. I was thinking I’d be walking on the old road, but right away the road wasn’t so much “road” as “river”. A narrow trail snakes alongside the road/river. It was dark, and last night’s rain still clung to the grass, leaves, and pine needles. The temperature was in the low forties and the humidity made it clammy. It felt a bit … primordial.

The trailhead is right on the river. (North Fork Boulder Creek. The North and South Forks have their confluence just out of sight about five hundred feet downstream.) The parking lot isn’t the end of the road. There’s a stout pedestrian bridge next to a wide, shallow ford for vehicles and livestock. The 4×4 road and trail are one and the same nearly to the IPW boundary. The road crosses the river again, this time using a fairly new bridge (South Fork this time). I’m guessing it was replaced after the 2013 floods. At this bridge is the junction with the trail to Jasper Lake, Storm Lake, and Devil’s Thumb Lake. You could use it for Woodland Lake/Skyscraper Reservoir as well.

Continuing up the road, we next come to a nice waterfall. Not far past the falls is the junction with the Lost Lake trail and a couple bends past that is the junction with the Woodland Lake trail (which could also be used for Jasper, et al). At this junction, we are finally off the disused jeep trail. I didn’t like the road – it was full of loose rocks. At times, I felt like a drunken sailor when a rock would shift underfoot. A quarter of a mile farther on, the trail finally reaches the boundary of Indian Peaks Wilderness, a mile and a half (or more) from the car.

Carved by glaciers, the valley is U-shaped, with the stream at the bottom and the trail a bit above the river, always audible but not always in sight. It’s a nice trail, of fairly constant slope, free of rocks and roots for extended distances, allowing for consistent strides. The forest obscures any surrounding views but isn’t dense – the trees are spaced farther apart than usual, and the sun illuminates the grass and flowers on the forest floor.

Approaching the head of the valley, the forest starts breaking up and the mountain to the south is revealed. Only glimpses to begin, but just before the trail climbs up off the valley floor we see the whole mountain flank. The Rollins Pass Road is clearly visible. There’s a short section where the trestles still stand, but most of the mountainside is littered with old lumber from the road.

The history of Rollins Pass is extensive, with archeological studies indicating it was in use as much as 10,000 years ago. The lumber strewn along the mountainside is what’s left of the snowsheds used by the railroad. Essentially, the snowshed was an almost continuous wooden tunnel that ran near the summit. The idea was to keep the railroad operational for more than just August (workers on the Moffat Road had an adage: “There’s winter and then there’s August”). The snowshed wasn’t a great success. Trains were often stranded for several days (sometimes weeks) during heavy snowstorms because snow could fall or be blown through the wood planking of the sheds. Coal smoke and toxic gasses from the locomotive collected in the snowsheds often causing temporary blindness, loss of consciousness, and sometimes death. The snowsheds are long gone, but the lumber debris has been there for a century and will likely be around for centuries more.

The map shows there’s a pond in the valley below where the trail snakes up the wall, but the map is incorrect. The trail tops out of its climb and reaches the spur trail to Betty and Bob Lakes. ProTrails says the section from the junction to the lake is tricky through willow and krummholz. I found it fairly obvious and easy to follow.

About three hundred feet higher than the trail junction we find Betty Lake. My plan was to skip right on by and take my first break at Bob Lake. Here is where I was foiled. The trail crosses the outlet of Betty, which flows through a bunch of willow. It flows fast and deep. There are two or three branches thrown across, but they’re old and small. When I put any weight on them, they bowed badly. It’s too far to jump. If I had bothered to bring my trek poles, I’d have crossed it without too much trepidation. But the risk isn’t just wet feet: I judge the water to be nearly thigh deep here.

The lesson here is to bring the poles on routes I haven’t traveled before.

I spent a few minutes looking through the krummholz for a dead limb I could use as a pole to make the crossing but couldn’t find anything. So I gave up and looked for a nice spot for a short break. I worked my way to the north shore and got the idea that I could get to Bob this way, but when I worked around to where I could see the whole route there was more willow than I wanted to deal with. So much for going to Bob.

I had a snack on the shore of Betty, but I didn’t linger long. I worked my way back down to the King Lake junction and headed up that way. The trail continues past the lake and up to the Continental Divide, reaching a parking lot on Rollins Pass.

A couple of hikers arrived just after I did. They wanted me to take their picture, and we chatted a bit. They left about the same time another couple hiked down from the pass. These two were from Arkansas and had rented a 4×4 for the trip over the pass. The guy stripped down to his shorts and took a quick swim in the lake.

I stayed at King for nearly an hour, ate my picnic lunch, drank my beer (Tivoli Brewing’s Mile Hi Hefe, which I’ll have to call “Two Mile Hi Hefe”), and watched the world go by.

The weather couldn’t decide whether to be threatening or not. A short squall blew over while I was going from Betty to King but it didn’t amount to much. After leaving King, I heard thunder to the north, but I could see no dark clouds and there were large patches of blue sky overhead. The thunder died out after twenty minutes or so, except for one late rumble perhaps fifteen minutes later.

On the hike out, I ran into a couple about my age. They were carrying backpacks and had with them three fully-loaded llamas. We had a quick chat. They were looking for nice camping spots near King Lake. I can’t help but wonder how long they were going to stay, and in what luxury. They must have had a couple of hundred pounds of gear.

When my water was two-thirds gone, I found a nice rock to sit on beside the stream. I ate my peach (a delicious Colorado Palisade peach: big, sweet, and juicy) and then refilled my water bottle.

I started early enough this morning that I encountered only two hikers between the car and the King Lake junction. It was quite a bit more crowded in the afternoon, particularly after I started passing the various trail junctions. I ran across so many people, I was trying to picture how far down the road people must have parked. I even ran into a group of four or five folks wearing flip-flops and carrying no water. I don’t imagine they made it too far.

Back at the car, I felt pretty worn out. But it was a good worn-out.

I’ll definitely do some more hiking from the Hessie trailhead. By missing Bob Lake this time, I have an excuse to do this trail again. Skyscraper Reservoir is still in use, so I’d like to get a good look at it and compare it to the former reservoirs in the Park. Counting the three lakes I tried to get to today, there are eight lakes on Hessie trails that are at roughly 11,000′ to 11,500′ in elevation within a mile or so of the Continental Divide.

Lake Dorothy

Wednesday, August 17

Lake Dorothy sits in a cirque at 12,067′ in the shadow of Mount Neva, a few feet of elevation above Arapaho Pass. It is the highest named lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It covers about fourteen acres and is a hundred feet deep. There are native cutthroat trout in it, but I understand they are wily and elusive. The Continental Divide makes a turn from north/south to east/west here, and Lake Dorothy occupies the corner. To both the north and west, the divide is only a couple of hundred yards away.

You take the Arapaho Pass trail to reach it, and you’ll find that at the Fourth of July trailhead. Take Eldora Rd west from CO 119 in Nederland. At the west end of the town of Eldora, the pavement ends. From here, it’s five miles of pot-holed dirt road. We just had a couple of days of heavy rain, so all the holes were filled with water. It’s slow going. I was able to dodge most of the puddles but you just can’t miss them all. In the end, the parking lot was full of SUVs, pickups, and Subaru Outlanders. But one guy did get in there with his Ford Escort station wagon, so it’s doable without a huge amount of ground clearance.

The road to the Fourth of July trailhead is called Fourth of July road. And, of course, there’s the Fourth of July mine. The trailhead and road get their names from the mine, which is so named because C.C. Alvord discovered a silver lode there on the Fourth of July, 1872. More about that later.

The satellite image of the trailhead shows a full parking lot and cars parked along the road for quite some distance. I reckoned it wise to get there early and to have a Plan B in case I found no place to park. I left the house at six and satnav said I’d be there by 7:15. It is quite a crowded trailhead. I had two cars in front of me on the way in in the morning. The lot was about two-thirds full so I’d guess people started parking on the road by 7:45 at the latest.

When I left, the lot was full and cars lined the road for a considerable distance.

I put boots on the trail at 7:30. The car’s thermometer said the outside air temperature was 47. I kept the jacket in the pack figuring the exertion would keep me warm enough. Some of last night’s raindrops still clung to the pine needles. Given the amount of recent rain, the trail wasn’t terribly muddy and there weren’t that many puddles.

The trail climbs pretty steadily at about five hundred feet per mile. From the trailhead to the lake, it runs in a large arc, bending toward the west as it climbs the south-facing flank of Quarter to 5 Peak. It doesn’t meander at all and has only two short pairs of switchbacks. The first section of the hike is in dense forest. Shortly after the junction with the trail to Diamond Lake, the trail emerges from the trees onto a wide bench.

After crossing a couple of very wide, very shallow streams you reach the next trail junction and the Fourth of July mine. Take a right turn at the junction to climb a punishing twenty-one hundred feet in 2.2 miles to summit South Arapaho Peak. A shorter hike up that trail gets to a viewpoint of Arapaho Glacier. From this junction, the trail is visible on the mountainside above. Instead, I’m happy to keep the same bearing and continue following the arc’s not-too-strenuous climb to Arapaho Pass.

First, I poked around the mine for a quick minute. There are a few rusted machines and the remnants of a couple of timbers. There are some very small stakes ringed around a hole. The hole is the mine. Supposedly, it’s more than two hundred feet deep. There’s nothing covering the hole. Aside from two or three timbers, there is no sign of any structures here.

Once you pass the mine, you can see the trail almost all the way to the lake. From here to about a hundred yards from the lake you travel on an old roadbed. There are two different I’ve read about this road. It was built in 1900. One story is that they ran out of money when they reached the pass. The other says that two companies agreed to build the road, but the one on the west side didn’t build anything.

Today, standing at the pass, it’s striking that the old road was on an ideal route to the pass: an almost constant grade, no switchbacks, no having to dodge rock outcroppings, just a nearly straight shot. It’s also striking how the other side of the pass is a horrible place to try to put a road. This was before the automobile, and I don’t have any idea what the turning radius is for a team of oxen pulling a wagon. But you’re gonna need a bunch of switchbacks to go down that hill.

I imagine a light-duty road built for wagons more than a century ago would have been quite fragile and require a fair amount of maintenance to keep operational. It hasn’t been maintained in a century but there are still considerable stretches where it’s surprisingly intact. Long sections of retaining wall supporting the downslope side are still solid. Many places, of course, have fallen or eroded.

There’s another trail junction at the pass. One way heads eight hundred feet down the other side to Caribou Lake. The other goes to Lake Dorothy or to Caribou Pass (which is not on the Continental Divide). A short climb above the junction is rewarded with the first view of the lake.

It took me a few minutes short of two hours to make the hike. I was expecting to take more like two and a half, so I was pleased with myself. I found a nice spot along the water to sit and watch the world go by.

A few seconds after sitting down, I noticed I picked a spot only about fifteen yards from somebody’s backpack. I didn’t see who belonged to it. There was a hiker some distance away from me who was just leaving and I didn’t see anybody else. Then I started hearing voices and figured the pack’s owner and a friend were further along the shore, around a slight bend.

I couldn’t pinpoint the voices. Instead of being out of sight on my shore, it started sounding like perhaps they were on the opposite shore. I scanned the whole place but didn’t see anybody. After a bit, I heard a rock falling somewhere. It’s not uncommon. This one I thought sounded like it was the result of a footstep, but I couldn’t tell you why. A few minutes later, there was a second one.

Eventually, I spotted them. There were two: a man and a woman, by the sound of their voices. They were on the opposite side of the lake, but not on the shore. They were at the very top of the spine on the north ridge of Mount Neva, five hundred feet above the lake. I spotted the white helmet before I saw the orange one.

The mountain’s spine there resembles a flat W. I first spotted them when they reached the bottom of the right-hand part. They were going north to south, or right to left. They went right along the top – they were in silhouette quite often. The things people do. I could never do that. I’d be petrified, immobile. But the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things.

I enjoyed my surroundings for an hour and a quarter before packing up and heading back down the hill. It was too early for lunch but I figured by the time I got back down to the mine I’d be ready. There was a nice open view there. C.C. Alvord may have picked a dud of a place for a mine, but he picked a place with a fantastic view. Oh, and I finally found the guy who belonged to the backpack. He was fishing quietly on the south shore.

So, about the mine…

In researching it, I was a bit confused at first. I found one reference that said it was a copper mine, another said it was silver and lead, and a third said gold. I had just assumed that it was gold. In the end, it was all of the above. Sort of.

It started with silver. The Rocky Mountain News said it was an outcropping of an enormous silver ledge that would keep a hundred thousand men mining for generations. The News was a bit off. Next to the deep shaft, Alvord built a bunkhouse for the crew, a blacksmith shop, and a stable for the horse that spent its days powering the mine’s hoist. I didn’t see anywhere how big the crew was, but I suspect it was maybe 99,990 short of a hundred thousand.

Over a five-year period, the mine did okay. Alvord expanded the operation with a tunnel downslope from the shaft (which I didn’t look for) and added another blacksmith shop there. But the mine was very close to a stream, and water constantly seeped into it. The whole operation was shut down in 1880. In addition to the streams, I’m sure there are many springs. There’s a small spring right on the trail a bit before reaching the ledge the mine sits on.

Twenty years later, the mine was promoted as being a huge copper source, the biggest in the region. The promoters put together a glossy 32-page brochure and sold 3 million shares at a dollar apiece. I can’t help but wonder if somebody from the News helped out with the brochure. When extending the tunnel they somehow managed to make a U-turn, blasting out of the mountain not far from where they started. Three million dollars was a lot of money in 1900, and I’d be amazed if they spent anywhere near that in their efforts.

Somebody got rich, and somebody got the shaft.

Frozen Lake

There is no shortage of stunning scenery in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’d even say that that sentence is a bit of an understatement.

My loquacious nature shows up regularly on the trail when I have brief encounters with other hikers. In the back-and-forth of “where are you headed”, “where are you from”, and so on, it often comes up that I’ve traveled extensively through the Park. And, so, it’s only natural that I often get asked what’s my favorite place to visit.

It’s a surprisingly easy question to answer: Black Lake. Specifically, climb up the inlet stream two or three hundred feet of elevation. The views there are tough to beat.

There are eight named lakes in Glacier Gorge. In my misspent youth, when I thought you could only visit places that had official trails, I repeatedly visited Mills Lake, Jewell Lake, and Black Lake. On one visit to Black Lake, we saw the trail that climbs alongside the inlet stream. We explored a bit, with the payoff being the fabulous views of Black Lake, McHenry’s Peak, and all the rest.

I’ve now visited all eight of the named lakes, plus the unnamed lake commonly called ‘Italy Lake’. Actually, I’ve been to all of them at least twice. Except for Frozen Lake, which I’ve only been to once before.

My first visit to Frozen Lake was back in July 2012, with Ed. This was just a few months after a microburst devastated a section of Glacier Gorge, knocking down thousands of trees. We had to crawl over, under, and around downed trees. I’m pretty sure they had the trail back in shape by the end of that summer. It was a very interesting hike at the time. Tree roots tend not to go very deep in these parts, and when a tree is knocked down like they were, the trunks don’t break at ground level: instead, the tree is knocked over with a large disk of roots, rocks, and soil still attached to the base. I think some of those knocked-down trees are still alive, living off their root disk.

Anywho, it’s time to make another trip to Frozen Lake.

Thursday, July 21

For this visit, I obtained a timed-entry pass good between 5 am and 7 am. Gordon joined me, saying that he wanted to be back by 6 pm. I told him that was doable, but might be tight. I said that if we left my place by 5:30 we’d enter before 7 and, parking at the park-and-ride, we’d put boots on the trail by 7:30. I reckoned that if we stayed at the lake for only half an hour, we could make it back to my house by 6 pm. So that was the plan.

We were off to a rocky start when Gordon showed up at my place with a flat tire. We might make it back here by 6, but it’d probably take him a while to get going. Oh well.

Arriving at the Park, we queued up in the line of cars headed up the Bear Lake corridor. The line this week was longer than last time I was here, a couple of weeks ago, for my Sky Pond hike. That time, there were two rangers checking passes. This time there was only one, and the line we found ourselves in was roughly twice as long as last time. Also, last time I wasn’t asked if I had a day pass. I didn’t, and my annual pass had expired. This time I did get asked. I said I have a Senior Pass, but she didn’t demand I produce it.

I know it takes me almost exactly an hour to get to Mills Lake from the Glacier Gorge parking lot/trailhead. I’m not as sure how long it takes to get to Black Lake from there, or how long it may have taken me to get to any of the lakes above Black Lake. I estimated that it would take an hour and a half to get from Mills to Black and another hour and a half to get to Frozen. So I was quite pleased to see that we reached Mills in a few minutes less than an hour, and Black in about an hour and a quarter. So we were already a bit ahead of schedule.

This summer, I’ve taken to using my trek poles. I bought them when I bought my snowshoes. I used them once or twice but wasn’t very happy with them. I’m not sure why I decided to give them another try, but here we are. My thinking is, I’d find them useful when I’m off trail, or for crossing streams or navigating talus fields. But I don’t want to use them all the time. I figured out how to carry them on my lumbar pack. Reduced to their minimum length they’re still a bit long: with them on my pack, I’m now as wide as if I were standing with hands on hips, elbows out. I have to be careful passing other hikers on the trail, and if I get into a willow patch I have to take them off the pack.

So, at the base of the climb above Black Lake, I started using the poles. I didn’t really need them until we reached a place where the stream goes alongside a tilted granite slab. These ten feet or so always give me a little heartburn. Not so with the poles.

The trail above Black Lake is pretty easy to follow until you gain the large bench that holds Frozen, Green, and Blue Lakes. At some point, however, you find yourself in a place where you can more or less go whichever way you want, subject to stream crossings and fields of willow. On our way down, we spent more time on what passes for the trail in this area than we did on the way up. I think our route up was a bit easier than the well-traveled trail.

The gist of the hike from the top of the climb from Black up and over to Frozen is a series of large inclined slabs separated by grass or willow. There are cairns throughout the area, generally indicating paths through the willow or leading to the stream crossings. So navigation is pretty simple: just bear to the west of the Spearhead.

The weather was beautiful if perhaps a bit warm at lower elevations. At 11,600′ above sea level, it was about as pleasant as it gets: sunny, warm, not terribly breezy, with mostly clear skies. I was thinking we’d only sit at the lake for half an hour, but before I knew it an hour had passed. (Today’s beer: Avery Brewing’s Electric Sunshine, a tart ale brewed with papaya, pineapple, kiwi, and huckleberry.)

Again, I usually had a fair amount of heartburn descending the steeper bits of the inclined slabs. What can I say? I’m a bit of a weenie. I was much happier having poles, but I was still a bit slow in places. But they did wonders for my confidence.

We could hear voices but didn’t see where they were coming from. I figured they were climbers working up the Spearhead. I stopped a few times trying to spot them but never did see anybody. I also tried inspecting the area around the Keyhole on Longs. The lens I normally use isn’t much of a telephoto, and I didn’t bring a longer lens. I thought I saw some people up there but couldn’t be sure.

One thing I will say: If I had seen this view before climbing Longs Peak, I never would have climbed Longs Peak. From here, it looks to me like one would have to be insane to climb it. It’s not straight up-and-down, but it’s pretty dang steep. And large sections are giant slabs that look to have no footholds or handholds. I have climbed it, though. Let’s just say I was highly adrenalized by the time I got back to the Keyhole. Let’s also say I see no reason to do it again.

The hike back to the trailhead was uneventful. We got sprinkled on twice, very briefly, not enough to even wet the rocks. I was quite surprised at how few other hikers we ran into. Part of that, no doubt, is because we used the Fire Trail. But I expected quite a few people at both Mills and Black. I don’t think we came across more than two dozen people all day.

We did enjoy a close encounter with a cow elk. She was crossing the trail just a few feet in front of me. She was quite habituated to people and didn’t really give us a second thought. She worked across the trail munching on grass and flowers and came within twelve or fifteen feet of us. After we passed, we could hear her whistle. That was Gordon’s description of the noise. It’s not a bugle or trumpet. More like a … bass flute? She was whistling up a storm; we could hear her for quite a distance down the trail.

Even with our extended stay at Frozen Lake, we were back to the car ahead of my original schedule. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected and we were back to my place by 5:30. Gordon still had to deal with his flat tire. This was a bit more difficult than we anticipated. His tire iron wasn’t the correct size for his lug nuts, and his jack didn’t lift his truck high enough to get the flat tire off, let alone to get a fully inflated tire back on. Luckily for Gordon, his nephew wasn’t too far away and had a jack he used to lift his lifted Jeep. We got him back on the road not much after 6:30. Typing this, I haven’t heard from him. So I’m hoping he actually made it home without any additional drama.

Except for Gordon’s flat tire, I’d say the day was a success!


Trailhead7:24 am3:33 pm
Mills Lake8:18 am2:38 pm
Black Lake9:32 am1:15 pm
Frozen Lake11:11 am12:07 pm

And, finally, the time-lapse:

Isabelle Glacier

According to the United States Geological Survey, a glacier is “a large, perennial accumulation of crystalline ice, snow, rock, sediment, and often liquid water that originates on land and moves downslope under the influence of its own weight and gravity.” I’m guessing, then, that when a glacier shrinks enough, it won’t be massive enough for its weight to overcome friction and it will stop moving and it will no longer be a glacier, but a permanent snowfield.

There are fourteen named glaciers in Colorado. I’d be surprised if all these fourteen are still glaciers by the end of my lifetime.

Isabelle Glacier forms the headwaters of South St. Vrain Creek and clings to the Continental Divide between Apache Peak and Shoshoni Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The easiest access is from the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Tuesday, July 12

Not long ago, Brainard implemented a timed-entry pass system much like that in use at RMNP. Passes are made available two weeks before the date and when I went to pick a date and make my reservation, there were plenty of passes still available for each day in the fourteen-day window. I picked up a pass in the earliest time slot, 5 am to 8 am. I bought a pass for parking at the Brainard Lake picnic area. There are permits available for the small lot right at the Long Lake trailhead, but the early times sell out pretty quickly.

The ProTrails writeup for the hike to Isabelle Glacier says it’s an 8.75-mile round-trip with a net elevation gain of 1,510′. That’s from the Long Lake trailhead, which is about a mile (and 200′ of elevation) from where I parked. I neglected to account for this when I was thinking about how long the hike would take. It turns out, I also didn’t give much credit to the overall steepness of the trip.

I arrived at the parking lot a few minutes before 8 and was quickly on my way. Because I took a somewhat more scenic route from my car to the Long Lake trailhead, it took me half an hour to get there. The trail from the trailhead to the first sight of Lake Isabelle is fairly typical for the area: well-maintained, wide, and busy, through forest. Long Lake is, well, pretty long: about six-tenths of a mile. The valley the trail traverses is wide and for the most part, the trail doesn’t rise much above the floor. The South St. Vrain meanders a bit and forms the usual pools and marshes in the grassy meadows. There aren’t many views through this forested section of trail, although there are the occasional glimpses of Niwot Ridge and the cascades formed just below the outlet of Lake Isabelle.

At Lake Isabelle, there’s a trail junction. Continue straight to see the lake or proceed up to Isabelle Glacier. Take a right turn to head up to Pawnee Pass. One could go that way to summit Pawnee Peak or Shoshoni Peak or to visit Pawnee Lake, but I’m not sure I’m up to any of those. Either peak is about a thousand feet higher than Isabelle Glacier and add a bit of distance. Pawnee Lake is something like 1,600′ below the pass, so you’d be looking at dealing with more than 3,000′ of climbing.

Lake Isabelle is another significant body of water, measuring about half a mile from east to west and spanning the entire width of the canyon. The trail skirts the north shore of the lake, sometimes right at the water level, sometimes navigating through talus fields. For the entire length of the trail, from the Long Lake trailhead to the glacier, the trail is intuitive and easy to follow, except for two or three short stretches of talus.

Just west of the lake, the trail climbs a bit to a rocky outcropping where the stream makes a wide and scenic cascade. Those hikers not up to the challenge of reaching the glacier would find this area a very pleasant place to stop and take in the scenery.

As is typical for hikes through valleys with multiple lakes, the trail is alternately fairly flat and somewhat steep. Each lake sits on a bench, with a short ascent from one bench to another. The bench above Lake Isabelle lacks a lake and instead is filled with a sea of willow. The trail crosses the stream in the midst of the willow. In mid-July, the flow of water is still near its peak, and in addition to the main stream, there are several smaller rivulets to cross. None of these crossings are treacherous, but some are challenging.

After navigating the willow, the trail climbs to the next bench. I met a hiker headed down and asked him if he’d been to the Glacier. He hadn’t. He was stymied by a field of snow. I’d spotted this from below and noted the tracks that ran across it. For today’s hike, I consulted the weather forecast for the area which said we’d see a high temperature of about 70 degrees. I decided to bring a hoodie rather than microspikes. At this point, I was wondering if I made the best choice: even at 10:30, it was about 70 degrees and sunny. And this snow field looked to be fairly steep.

An aside here: For most of my hiking history, I eschewed trek poles. I always figured that on any given hike I might find poles of limited usefulness and therefore not worth the weight penalty. Recently, I’ve been reassessing. I’ve decided that, if I’m going off-trail, I should bring the poles. This hike had no off-trail component, but I figured that poles might be handy on the final steep section. From the trailhead to Lake Isabelle, I carried them on my pack. I relied on them quite a bit for all my water crossings. (Carrying them on my pack makes me wider – they stick out on either end. I’m still getting used to that. I have to account for this in narrow spots.)

The snowfield looked to be about a hundred yards across, with boot prints that went neither uphill nor downhill. When I stepped onto the snow, I decided that spikes wouldn’t have helped much. The snow gets pretty soft when it’s been in the sunshine all morning and I don’t think spikes would have improved traction. But I was quite happy to have my poles with me. This crossing was near the top of this snowfield and a slip might have meant a slide of a couple of hundred feet. But it wasn’t as steep as it looked from below, so I continued.

There’s an unnamed tarn on this bench, only a few yards past the snowfield. Here I met another hiker. He asked if I’d seen anybody else headed this way and told me that he was the only one up here. He said I had about a third of a mile to go, but that it was “straight uphill”. He was quite impressed by the glacier, calling it a “bucket list” item.

Standing on the talus shore of the tarn, it’s a bit intimidating to look at the slope the trail ascends. The trail has many switchbacks and quite a bit of effort went into constructing it. But from below, there’s no sign of a way up.

Usually, when on a treeless slope, it’s pretty easy to see where the trail goes. Here it’s almost as if you’re on a stretch of magical trail. The trail seems to exist for only a short distance ahead and behind. The trail coalesces in front of you from nothing and decays back to nothing behind you.

One of the trail’s switchbacks is next to a falls. There’s not a huge volume of water, but it falls thirty or forty feet straight down and is fairly wide. It doesn’t exactly roar but makes a fair noise. Just as the trail seems to annihilate itself once it’s behind you, the sound of the falls quickly fades to nothing just a few steps up the trail.

After a final stream crossing, the trail dumps you onto a rim of rocks surrounding another tarn, this one full of snow and ice and water. The glacier stretches above and to the west. By surface area, it’s a bit smaller than Lake Isabelle. Not very long ago, some intrepid skier hiked to the top for a single run down the glacier. How badly must you want to ski, to carry your skis as far as I just hiked, then climb another 500-600′ of very steep snow?

There are two or three other tracks in the snow. They’re not made by man or beast, but the tracks of rocks that have fallen from above. When I used to hike to Emerald Lake every Memorial Day, I’d often hear the crack and rumble of falling rocks. Sitting here at the glacier eating my lunch I heard that noise again. I couldn’t help but think of the recent major rockfall in Chaos Canyon, even though I knew it was just a single, small rock.

The scenery is very dramatic. Isabelle Glacier is draped off the ridge between Apache and Shoshoni peaks. Navajo Peak is almost due south and has a smaller, unnamed glacier clinging to its steep slope. Niwot Ridge runs off Navaho Peak nearly due east for a mile and a half or more. My lunch spot was at almost exactly 12,000′ elevation and all the steep, craggy peaks surrounding it rise another thousand feet or so.

When planning the hike, I figured it would only take two and a half or three hours to reach the glacier. In fact, it was more like four and a quarter. I hadn’t accounted for the extra half hour from the car to the trailhead and I clearly didn’t account for this hike being so high. I knew I’d be climbing 1,500′ feet, but I guess I wasn’t accounting for the trailhead being at 10,500′. It took me about 40 minutes to climb from the tarn at 11,400′ to my picnic spot beside the glacier at 12,000′. I never stopped for longer than it took to snap a photo or two, but I wasn’t exactly breaking any land speed records.

I took only a short break at the glacier. My last few hikes were short enough that I had the luxury of stopping where I wanted for however long I wanted. As it was already a bit past noon when I got to the glacier, I had to be concerned with the weather. Being right below the Divide, you can find yourself in a thunderstorm with no warning.

I was back down a bit below the tarn when it started sprinkling. The summits above me were becoming slightly obscured by a white veil: the rain had turned to graupel. This forced me to don my hoodie and by now I was happy to think I’d made the correct choice of the hoodie over the microspikes.

On the hike down from the tarn to Isabelle Lake, I could watch the progress of the rain clouds as they blew to the east. I never got more than a slight sprinkle (and the graupel), but it looked like somebody downwind was getting a good shower.

Just before regaining Isabelle Lake, I ran into a few hikers heading up. None of them intended to try for the glacier. One said something to the effect that Isabelle Glacier isn’t a real glacier. I was about to protest when she said that she used to live in Alaska. Certainly, Colorado glaciers are nothing like Alaska ones, so I could see her point. I told her how much I’d seen Andrews glacier shrink in the last forty years and wondered how much bigger Isabelle was back then.

I took a short break at the outlet of Isabelle Lake. The stream flows under a large snowfield here, that was visible momentarily from the trail below. Clouds obscured the sun and the wind kicked up but I packed the hoodie away and stowed the poles. It took me an hour and a half to get here from the car on my way up, then two and a half hours to get from here to the glacier. Given that I don’t hike down these trails any faster than I hike up them, I figured I could be back to the car by 4:30.

Overall, I found it a most satisfying hike. The section up to Lake Isabelle isn’t very strenuous. Hikers wishing to go no further can find excellent places to take in the views just above the lake. There are scenic cascades and lake views, surrounded by dramatic mountains. And, for those willing and able, Isabelle Glacier is worth a visit.

No time-lapse video for this hike. Instead, here’s a larger-than-usual slideshow.

Sky Pond

Last month I picked up a couple of timed-entry passes for July for the Bear Lake corridor. There aren’t any named lakes in the area that I haven’t already visited, except Marigold Lake, a very minor body of water more or less midway between Odessa Lake and the summit of Joe Mills Mountain. Perhaps I’ll manage to collect that one this summer. But not this time.

Wednesday, July 6

I picked Sky Pond for this trip, as it has been quite a while since I was last there. I described the trail in my last report, so I won’t repeat myself.

The mountains along the divide were wreathed in clouds that looked to be starting to break up a bit. The forecast was for a nice, warm day, so I expected things would clear up a bit. Hopefully the clouds would make for an interesting sky.

I managed to put boots on the trail a few minutes after 7 am and was at the base of Timberline Falls a bit before 9. There was a fair group at the falls, as this is the chokepoint for the hike. I don’t mind climbing up the section, but it always gives me a bit of heartburn on the way down. Especially “early” in the season, when the water flow is high and the spray gets all the rocks nice and wet.

Here I met volunteer Dan. We chatted for quite a while. I don’t recall his exact words, but he expressed some amazement that so many people manage to navigate up and down this steep bit without any “loss of blood”. He said the climb was much easier six weeks ago when it was all covered in snow. He was able to walk right up the slope.

Even with the pass system in place, these popular trails can get quite crowded. I admit that I’m pretty spoiled on this point, but by seeking out some of the more obscure places in the Park, I can find quiet solitude. Quiet and solitude are quite often not available at Sky Pond. As soon as I sat down on a rock to enjoy the view, I heard somebody fire up a drone. They flew their drone nearly the entire time I was at the lake. I wonder if the drone pilot knew drones are illegal in the Park and was just thumbing his nose at authority, or if he didn’t realize he could be fined $5,000 and spend six months in jail. Just after he retrieved his drone, he looked in my direction and noticed that I was pointing my telephoto lens his way. I was a bit far away to discern his expression. Was it embarrassment?

After listening to the drone for the better part of half an hour, I went down to Glass Lake for another extended break. This time I ran across a woman listening to music as she searched for a spot to watch the world go by. Rather than using headphones or earbuds, she was broadcasting her taste in music to the world, or at least those of us who were trying to enjoy nature.

At the trailhead (well, not exactly the trailhead, but close enough), they have a notice warning of a “habituated” mountain goat in the area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mountain goat in the Park. I’d forgotten about this warning until I spotted said mountain goat, who seemed to be following a couple of hikers who didn’t notice who was behind them.

I chatted briefly with one of these hikers, who claimed to have spotted a fox. “I don’t know if it was a fox or a marmot. I think it went under this rock!” I’ve never seen a fox in the Park. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but I’m pretty sure what he saw was a marmot.

Back at The Loch, I found that one of the rocky peninsulas on the east side of the lake was unoccupied. These peninsulas, I think, give the best views of Loch Vale. I made my way there for my final extended break of the day. It was noon, and time for lunch. Today’s beer was a Roadie Grapefruit Radler by Great Divide Brewing Company.

On the shuttle bus back to the park-and-ride, the driver pointed out a large bull elk by the side of the road. His antlers were still quite velvety. The driver mentioned this; he would soon rub the velvet off. She told us not to be deceived: the antlers are quite sharp. She said a bull got a bit angry with this particular bus and punched a hole in the side. Naturally, when I disembarked I managed to forget to look for the hole. So it goes.

Sandbeach Lake

Robert Browning once said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We should aim high: there is value in attempting that which, in the end, may be impossible.

Today, we have (yet another) case where my reach exceeded my grasp. I had every intention of hiking to the summit of Mount Orton, but I succeeded only in reaching Sandbeach Lake. In times past, I’d have titled this post “Mount Orton FAIL”. I’m beginning to concentrate more on what I do than on what I fail to do. I think it’s important to have goals, even if we sometimes fail to attain them.

The plan was to climb (walk up, really) Mount Orton from Sandbeach Lake. Depending on whose numbers you use, Sandbeach Lake is 4.2 or 4.5 miles from the trailhead with an elevation gain of about 1,950′. From the lake to the summit is an additional 1.5 miles and 1,450′, and that’s off-trail. From the lake to the summit, then, should be less strenuous than the Manitou Incline, if you ignore the fact that you don’t have to hike four and a half miles before you start the incline.

There’s road construction on highway 7 that affects traffic starting at 7 am. With that in mind, I planned to arrive at the trailhead by around 7, which should get me to the lake by 9:30 or so, allowing me to take two hours to reach the summit and not worry too much about afternoon thundershowers. I felt it was a good plan.

Digression #1: Trail History

Many of the trails in the Park have been entered into the National Register of Historic Places. From my reading, most of the trails on the west side of the Park were developed with recreation in mind, with the routes scouted by and initial construction done by operators of Grand Lake hotels. The Sandbeach Lake trail, however, was initially a purely commercial endeavor.

Many lakes in Wild Basin were enlarged by building earthen berms. The extra water capacity was intended for use by farmers and ranchers around Fort Collins, Loveland, and Longmont. Off the top of my head, I count Bluebird, Box and Eagle, Pear, and Sandbeach. Also on the list, but not in Wild Basin, is Lawn Lake.

In the early 1900s, “the Supply Reservoir Company filed upon Sandbeach Lake, intending to make the natural lake into a reservoir.” That language isn’t very clear to me, but we can see that an earthen dam was built at Sandbeach Lake. From what remains of the dam, it appears that it raised the water level by perhaps twenty feet.

Much of the current hiking trail to the lake was originally a road that was built for the construction and/or maintenance of the dam. The company built a road from the Peak to Peak highway near Meeker Park that headed west. The current trail starts near Copeland Lake. The first section, to the junction with the Meeker Park trail, was not part of the road.

The application for the National Register (which I will just call “the application”) says, “Contemporary maps indicate that the road deteriorated over time. By 1917, it was designated one of the ‘poor automobile roads.’ Meanwhile, hikers and horseback riders discovered the route, effectively turning the old road into a tourist trail. In 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park’s first superintendent listed the pathway among the new park’s trail assets.”

Hiking the trail today, it’s easy to imagine a team of horses (or mules or oxen?) pulling a wagon over several significant sections of trail. The trail crosses Campers Creek and Hunters Creek and both crossings are wide, shallow fords easily passable by a modern 2-wheel-drive SUV. On the other hand, there are long stretches where I can’t imagine even a primitive road ever existed.

The application makes no mention of the only other bit of Sandbeach Lake history that I knew: the visit by John Wesley Powell. On his expedition to the area in 1868, the party camped at Sandbeach. While they were there, one of the party, a chap named Keplinger, explored the terrain up Hunters Creek and found the route the group took on the first-ever recorded summiting of Longs Peak.

Digression #2: Pondering Dam Building

Seeing where the trail could easily have been a road and seeing where the existence of a road challenges the imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of traffic, and for how long, this road needed to support.

It seems to me that that’s all determined by the construction of the dam. The dam was an earthen berm perhaps twenty feet high. I didn’t closely inspect what’s left of it on this trip, but I imagine that without modern earth-moving equipment, it would have been a non-trivial amount of work. Presumably, there would have been some sort of flood gate or valve installed about where the natural outlet was, and a spillway would have been created. The berm is fairly wide and at least a couple of hundred feet long.

How big of a crew did the work, and what sorts of tools did they employ? All this had to navigate the road. Was it done by truck or by wagon? I would think that, for the duration of the construction, the road would have seen regular use and have been what I’d call fairly “well-engineered”. However, I see little sign of engineering. There are no retaining walls or the like. The Park’s application includes the statement “Log bogwalks support the tread through flat, swampy areas. Some bogwalks look old, decomposing into the ground that they retain.” This application was written in 2007, and today I don’t see any bogwalks at all. So it doesn’t take long for things to change.

So, by 1917, the road had fallen into disuse and been claimed by hikers.

Digression #3: The Fate of the Reservoir

Looking at Sandbeach Lake today, it’s fairly obvious how much higher the water level was when it was enlarged. The trees between the current water level and the old level look to be about as mature as the trees that have grown back where the Ouzel fire burned back in 1978.

So when was the reservoir removed? The answer lies in the Lawn Lake flood of 1982. After that flood, the park began the process to remove some of the dams built around the turn of the twentieth century. In 1988, they removed the rock and dirt dams at Sandbeach and Pear Lakes. The shorelines were regraded to the original slope and the shores have been allowed to restore naturally with a minimum of supplemental planting, although they did plant willows around the Sandbeach outlet to create spawning habitat for greenback cutthroat trout. (In 1989 and 1990, five million pounds of concrete and rebar were removed from the Bluebird Lake dam and flown out of the backcountry. It boggles my mind to think of how so much material was emplaced at Bluebird in the first place.)

Wednesday, June 29

I can’t help but note that there are signs at the Wild Bain entrance station stating that timed-entry passes are required for visits starting at 9 am. It also seems to me that they don’t have any rangers working at the entrance station. I’m guessing the passes aren’t enforced in Wild Basin. Not that it matters that much: if you don’t get there well before 9, you won’t find a place to park.

Just as soon as I got out of the car, I heard some crashing in the undergrowth nearby: a cow moose was making her way through the area. I find it amusing that I often see a moose within twenty yards of my car and I can hike for hours and not see one in the backcountry.

I was early enough that I didn’t encounter too many hikers on the trail. I ran across two guys hiking out. They weren’t walking together, but I assumed they were together. I chatted with the second one. I told him I intended to summit Orton and that got him talking. He asked if I’d ever been to Ellington Lake. I told him I’d day-hiked to every lake in Wild Basin except Isolation and Frigid but that I’d never heard of Ellington Lake. He told me I wouldn’t be able to get there, as I had insufficient gear with me. It wasn’t until a few moments after parting ways that I figured out what he was talking about: Keplinger. Three syllables, same second syllable, same vowel sound in the first syllable. And in June, the lake would still be well frozen over and much snow would have to be crossed to reach it.

By the time I reached the lake at 9:17, pretty much spot-on my schedule, it was growing clear to me that I wouldn’t get to where I wanted to go. I’ll admit that the weather-related aspect of my hike planning goes something like this: “Well, it’s going to be 95 degrees in Denver. Sounds like a good day to hit the high country!” This is generally not a bad plan. But today it didn’t work out for me.

I was dressed in shorts and an aloha shirt. The only extra layer I brought was a thin waterproof shell. Instead of bright sunshine and warm temperatures, there was a large darkish cloud hanging over the Divide: sunshine well to the west; thin, high clouds over the plains. And it was a bit breezy. It seemed to me that the clouds were dark enough that they might produce some rain. I would likely be miserable above treeline.

I made a half-hearted attempt to start bushwhacking my way up the slope but abandoned it pretty quickly. I had made little attempt to find anything like a trail that might lead up the mountain but after I turned around I stumbled on a trail that might do the trick. I may not be able to walk right up to that trail next time I want to do this, but knowing that it’s there is enough, and I’m sure I’ll find it when the time comes.

In the end, I stayed at the lake for nearly two hours. I’m surprised I lasted that long. I found a nice rock on the shore with a nice view of Mt. Meeker, Longs Peak, and Pagoda, but with the cloud cover and wind, I really didn’t want to sit there. I could almost get out of the wind by hanging out in the nearby trees, and I walked around a bit, up to the old reservoir shoreline to check out the wind-gnarled trees. I didn’t want to eat lunch yet, as it was still early. I ended up stopping at Hunters Creek for my lunch.

When I made the decision to stay at the lake, I was feeling a bit disappointed with myself. “Don’t be such a wimp! You can make it, don’t be so lazy!” By the time I ate lunch, my attitude had changed. I was cold at the lake, where I could find at least a little shelter from the breeze. Another 1500′ up, above treeline, I’m sure I’d have been miserable. I think I’d have made a more sincere effort to continue if I’d have found the trail, but I’m convinced I made a sound choice to stop. I didn’t see my shadow between about 8 am and when I got back to Lyons.

I’m not sure I’ll make another stab at Mt Orton as a day hike. I think it’s within my range, but I’ll admit to beginning to think that my range probably isn’t what it was a few years ago. In my wanderings around the east shore of the lake, I took a good look at the campsite there. It’s one of the nicer ones I’ve visited. The privy even has walls! This looks like a good place to spend a night and making an early assault on the summit.