Crater Lakes

Monday, September 6

Back at the beginning of summer, I postulated that I could visit all the lakes in James Peak Wilderness in five hikes, which could easily be done in one hiking season. I also said I didn’t really plan on doing it. And, here we are, at my fifth hike in JPW. But, because it took me two hikes to get both Forest Lakes, I’m still (at least) one hike away from bagging all the lakes.

I picked Crater Lakes this time. I should be able to get to the highest Crater Lake without too much difficulty. The two lower lakes are only a 5.8-mile round trip, and adding the upper lake only extends the hike another eight tenths and about five hundred feet of elevation gain. Yeah, so the last section of trail is a bit steep…

On my Heart Lake hike, I chatted with a volunteer about getting to Clayton Lake. I asked about the no-longer-maintained trail up the outlet. He said he preferred to go via Crater Lakes. So I wanted to get a good look at any likely places to leave the Crater Lake trail in search of his route.

I got to the parking lot at 7:30 and there was still plenty of parking available. Being a holiday, I expected more people to be here. I entered my info into the logbook and put boots on the trail at 7:44. It’s about a mile and a half to the Crater Lakes trail junction, and I was there at 8:34. It was cool; I wore my hoodie. There was a young guy with an SLR who started only a couple of minutes ahead of me. Overall our pace was almost identical – he was walking faster but stopped often to take pictures. In the end, he arrived at upper Crater Lake only a few minutes before me.

It’s about a mile from the trail junction to the lower Crater Lakes, climbing about 550 feet. But about 450 of those 550 is in the first half-mile from the trail junction up the side of the canyon. That is to say, that half-mile is a bit of a bitch.

That 450-foot climb puts you on a shelf. There are three shelves here. This lower one holds a pond, fed by the lakes above. The middle one has two lakes, a rounder northern one and a thinner southern one. The lakes are separated by a lightly forested isthmus. The small, high shelf is inundated by the upper Crater Lake. The two lower shelves are separated by only a hundred feet of elevation, but reaching the upper lake requires climbing another four hundred feet.

I get ahead of myself. When the climb up from the trail along S. Boulder Creek started leveling off, gaining the shelf, I kept an eye out for anything that looked like an easy way around the ridge to Clayton. I stopped and studied the map a couple of times but drew no conclusions.

Before I knew it, the smaller lake was off to my left. Here the trail started to split. The whole area is laced with a network of social trails, many of which lead you directly into someone’s campsite. Here I encountered two young women, early twenties. They were going to the upper lake as well. In navigating around someone’s tent, I managed to veer more toward the northern lake rather than heading up the obvious trail to my west, where I spotted SLR guy. The young ladies and I bushwacked in his direction.

Here we find ourselves at the base of our last four-hundred-foot ascent. This one starts with a quite steep climb up a loose, sandy surface. I find this stuff treacherous. I slip a lot. I made it up without too much difficulty. I was concerned about the descent, though. I really detest this stuff. Just a few yards away is a stream. It is snow-fed. There is no snow on any of the surrounding mountains, so this stream was just a trickle. It looked like it might be easier for me to go down the dry streambed with much less trepidation than this sandy shit.

At the top of this treacherous bit, the slope of the trail moderates somewhat, and the footing is much improved. The trail, hopping rocks now and then, leads to a saddle above us. This is the apex of our climb. On the saddle, we’re maybe a hundred higher than the lake. Most of the descent down to the lake is rock-hopping.

There’s a prominent rock outcropping that commands a view of the upper lake, the continental divide above it, and the small pond below it. The women took that spot. It was quite windy, they could have it. I put my hoodie back on and tried to find a large rock to sit in the lee of. SLR guy went to the outlet. On a trail on the opposite bank, I spotted a guy walking west.

I sat there for about an hour, had my lunch, enjoyed my can of beer. I had the lake to myself. Well, almost. SLR guy and the young ladies left within twenty minutes or so. Nobody new had arrived. I kept looking for the guy I spotted on the other side of the lake. Never did spot him until he popped up on my left. It probably took him an hour to circumambulate the lake.

A few minutes into the hike down, we come to the crux: descending the treacherous steep slippery shit. I elected to go down the way I came up, thinking if I didn’t like it, I could always change my mind and go down the dry streambed. I took my time. There were quite a few people working their way up, so I had many excuses to pause. A few of them were more bothered by it than I was.

Each pause allowed me to take in the view. I found it particularly rewarding. It’s too bad we continue to suffer the extreme haze from the west coast wildfires. Looking straight up, the sky was almost its normal deep, deep blue. But looking toward the horizon, all is obscured by a brownish-yellow haze.

When I crossed the isthmus between the lakes on the way up, I didn’t appreciate how many trails there were. On the way down, I explored a little. There really are a lot of trails there. When I went to find the trail down, at least twice I thought I’d gotten onto the trail only to come across a bigger trail.

Finally back on the trail below the twin lakes, I resumed my search for likely routes to Clayton. I think there are a couple of possibilities. One of them caught my eye both times I passed it: I took a photo of it both on my way up and back down.

I’m glad I started as early as I did. It’s a relatively short hike. I made it to the upper lake a minute before 10. If parking wasn’t a consideration, I could arrive two hours later and be at the upper lake for a noon picnic. But it would have been a different experience. Instead of half an hour of solitude, I’d have been in a crowd of dozens.

I keep wondering how so many people are on the trails given the size of the parking lot. There was a lot of traffic on the Crater Lakes trail. I took a quick break at the trail junction and watched a parade of hikers go by. Below the junction with the Forest Lakes trail, it was very nearly a “conga-line hike”. And, back at the parking lot, there are plenty of empty spaces.

Almost forgot to mention: I pulled into my parking spot this morning just as a train emerged from the tunnel. First time I’ve seen one. I hear the exhaust fans on every hike, sometimes twice, and I sometimes hear a train whistle, but it was kind of cool to see one come out of the tunnel.

All in all, another glorious day along the Continental Divide.

Upper Forest Lake

Back in June, I made my first hike in the James Peak Wilderness with the goal of reaching both Forest Lakes. There was a bit more snow than I was expecting, which gave us minor navigational difficulties and we stopped at the lower lake.

Tuesday, August 31

Guessing that the parking lot at the East Portal trailhead wouldn’t be terribly crowded on a weekday late in the season, I opted for a leisurely start and didn’t leave the house until nearly 7 am, arriving at the trailhead a bit after 8. There was plenty of parking.

The day was cloudless, but not clear: we’re still getting quite a bit of haze from the wildfires on the west coast. Looking straight up, the sky was the usual vivid blue, but visibility toward the horizon was quite limited – hillsides just a mile or so distant were noticeably obscured.

The hike into the upper lake was quite pleasant. I passed one hiker not far from the trailhead and didn’t see anybody else until I was ready to leave the upper lake more than three hours later. I timed it perfectly for my purposes – my visit to the lake coincided with solitude. I had gotten it into my mind that all the trails here were crowded, except for the trails that have been closed for several years.

Upper Forest Lake is, I think, the most scenic of the lakes I’ve so far visited from this trailhead. This lake sits in a bowl beneath a 12,000′ high ridge of the Continental Divide. The slopes are a combination of sparse forest, grassy ramps, and rock outcroppings. There may be a trail around the lake, but if there isn’t, it looks like it is an easy lake to circumnavigate.

The summer season is nearing its end here. All the snow from last winter has melted, with the exception of the last vestiges of a couple of snow cornices. There is very little water flowing into the lake. One or two streambeds are visible due to the dark brown staining from the water that is now a trickle rather than a cascade. Only a few wildflowers survive: quite a few fireweed and the occasional queens crown, but the rest have all lost their petals or turned brown.

Sitting by the lake, I was wondering if there were any fish. The water looked… dead. No aquatic plants, very few insects buzzing above the surface of the water. Finally, I did spot a ten- or twelve-inch greenback cutthroat trout swimming about.

I’ve recently been better about carrying a telephoto zoom lens in case I encounter any wildlife. I decided that as long as I have the lens with me, I won’t spot any game. So I left the lens at home. That didn’t help – wildlife was nowhere to be seen. I continue to carry the GoPro in order to get a timelapse, but yet again the sky was cloudless, making a timelapse pointless. If these are my two biggest problems (and they were), it’s a good hike indeed.

I think I’d like to return here again, early in the season. I’m willing to give another mid-June hike a shot now that I have a better idea of the terrain. Even if I lose the trail, I think I can make it to the lake. (On our June hike, we reached the lower lake quite some distance from where the trail reaches the lake.)

Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake

Continuing this summer’s exploration of alpine lakes of the Front Range of Colorado outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, I decided it was time to take a stab at the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Not quite at random, I selected Blue Lake, which has its trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

I hadn’t been to Brainard Lake before. Just about everybody I know who does any hiking at all has been there, so it’s about time I joined the club.

Wednesday, August 25

Julie joined me for this hike. She said six miles or so is her limit. The trail guide tells me that it’s a 5.1 mile round trip from the trailhead to Blue Lake and back, with only about 830′ of climb. I won’t call it an “ideal fit”, given that it’s pretty much at her limit. She tells me she’s never been to Brainard Lake, either, so a new experience for both of us.

We left my house shortly after 7am, and Google directed us up Lee Hill Drive from north Boulder. I’ve never been on this road before, so another plus. It turns out that Lee Hill Drive connects with Left Hand Canyon Drive. Not long ago, I took Left Hand Canyon Drive as a detour when Boulder Canyon was closed for construction. I didn’t realize until now, that on that day, I turned off Left Hand Canyon Drive onto James Canyon Drive, which turns into a dirt road. Left Hand Canyon Drive remains paved all the way to its junction with the Peak to Peak Highway at the metropolis of Ward.

The entrance to Brainard Lake Recreation Area is about a hundred yards north of Ward (which isn’t really visible from the Peak to Peak). It, also, is a nice paved road. So when I make a return visit to Brainard, I can drive the Lotus if I want.

We couldn’t help but notice the signs that say “Reservation Required”. This is where I admit to a failure to properly research our visit. I didn’t visit Brainard’s Forest Service website. I looked at my usual list of sites, such as ProTrails. I did find some conflicting information. One site said there was a ten-dollar entrance fee. Another said it was eleven dollars. Neither said reservations were required.

We arrived at the entrance station and greeted the ranger. “Do you have a reservation?” We did not. “Reservations are required, and they’re sold out months in advance! But I do have a few left. I can let you park in the Brainard day-use area.” We told him we were going to hike to Blue Lake. “I can’t get you into that parking area, it’s been sold out for months.” When he handed me the pass, I asked about the fee. “It’s on me today. Pay me back by having a good time!”

As it turns out, the entrance fee was neither $10 nor $11 but $14. It’s a good thing he let us in gratis, as I only had $11 on me. (Yeah, he probably could have taken a credit card.)

Brainard is using a timed-entry pass system very much like RMNP. When I got home and visited the official site, I found that some passes are still available for the dates that have been released, but just a few, and just late in the day. None would be of any use to me.

We parked in the designated lot and found the trail that leads from there to the parking lot and trailhead we really wanted to use. This adds fifteen minutes each way to the hike, so maybe another mile round trip. So now we’re pushing Julie’s limits a bit more. Oh well.

I couldn’t help but notice that, for a place that’s been sold out for months, there were very few cars. The lot where we parked was perhaps 20% full and the lot at the Mitchell Lake trailhead was about a quarter full. I guessed that, by the time we got back, we’d see full parking lots.

The trail works its way through the valley between Mount Audubon (13,229′) on the north and Little Pawnee Peak (12,466′) on the south. Mount Toll (12,979′), Paiute Peak (13,088′), and Pawnee Peak (12,943′) are at the head of the valley. Blue Lake is a fairly large lake, and the trail officially ends there. There is another, higher, lake. It’s not named on any of the maps I use, but I’ve heard it called either Little Blue Lake or Upper Blue Lake. My plan was to make it to the upper lake while Julie enjoyed the views at Blue Lake.

To get to Blue Lake, you start at the Mitchell Lake trailhead. Mitchell Lake is a bit less than a mile from the trailhead, and it’s a pretty easy hike. The trail is well-maintained, not terribly rocky, and climbs only about 200′.

Not long after passing Mitchell Lake, the trail reaches a point that overlooks the lake and the pond that’s adjacent to it on the east. This overlook is roughly where you come to the first of the ponds, this one to the north of the trail. I couldn’t help but notice that the entire slope of Mount Audubon, stretching east/west for more than a mile, is comprised of talus and/or scree. I’ve probably seen more talus than this on one hillside, but if I have, I can’t think of where I’ve seen it. I found it to be a remarkable amount of talus.

The outlet of Blue Lake is one of the feeders of Mitchell Lake, but the trail doesn’t run along the stream. I’d say that the stream is visible for most of the hike between the two lakes, but that’s not exactly true: the terrain is fairly flat here, and the stream is overgrown by willow, so you can’t really see much of it.

And, being fairly flat, there are four or five unnamed ponds along the way. This looks like ideal moose territory to me. And, overlooking the second of these ponds, we heard the snort of an animal. It was loud enough that the beast couldn’t have been very far away. Julie wondered if it might be a bear; I suggested it was probably a moose. Neither of us spotted either a bear or a moose. A few minutes later, we heard another snort. Still we couldn’t find the creature.

Nearing Blue Lake, we came across a couple of hikers asking if we’d seen the moose. Actually, this happened several times throughout the day. We’d meet hikers who asked if we’d seen the moose. One group saw two big bulls. Another saw a cow and calf. We were about the only ones who hadn’t seen moose, even though we were within earshot of their snorts. So it goes.

In due time, we reached Blue Lake, where I left Julie. The trail skirts the northern shore of the lake, climbing slightly as it goes west. The guide at ProTrails tells me, “Here the maintained trail ends, but a fairly intuitive route continues up the north shore to Upper Blue Lake.” I beg to differ. Before long, I reached a steep section of very loose footing. I nearly turned around here. I passed this bit, continuing the climb. Before long, the trail disappeared completely. Nothing intuitively obvious here.

If the trail would have been better (or more obvious), I’d have continued. If I’d have been hiking with somebody to help with route selection, I’d have continued. But alone, with no trail, I figured it would take longer than I wanted to make Julie wait for me. So I turned around.

On my way back down, I met two pairs of hikers who were thinking they’d try to reach the upper lake as well. It wasn’t my intention, but both turned around after talking to me. The first pair told me they didn’t have any off-trail experience. The second pair turned around after I pointed out the section with the loose footing. I really didn’t mean to be so discouraging.

After our picnic lunch, we headed back, all the while on the lookout for moose. There was a bit more traffic on the trail than we saw on the way up, but I would not call this a crowded trail at all.

Back at the Mitchell Lake trailhead, we saw a nearly empty parking lot. And the lot we were parked in was also not more than a quarter or a third full. Here at Brainard, the timed-entry pass system is certainly keeping the crowds down.

There are a couple more trails I’d like to hike here, so I’ll definitely be back for further visits.

It was a nice, easy hike, not too crowded. And the weather was pretty much ideal – the haze we’ve experienced the last month or so from the wildfires on the west coast was not in evidence. Just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Heart Lake

Of the five hikes I figured it would take to reach all the named lakes in James Peak Wilderness, the hike to Heart Lake is the southernmost and the longest. It may also be the most crowded. Searching online sources for information about this hike yields a variety of conflicting information. One site says it’s 8.7 miles (round trip) to Heart Lake, another says 9.7 miles. Each gives a different number for elevation gain. I’m going with 8.8 miles and 2,061′ (net).

Saturday, August 7

This may not be the best day for a hike. In one way, it may be the worst. We’re getting the full effect of the smoke from the wildfires on the west coast. Today, according to the local news, Denver had the worst air quality of anywhere in the world. Normally, the sun is far too bright to look directly at even a few minutes after it rises. But the last few days, it was an orange disk, easily looked at. And the last few days were clear compared to today.

Gordon and Eric went with me. I picked them up at the little park and ride at the intersection of highways 72 and 93. When we passed through one of the last meadows before reaching the parking lot at the trailhead, several cars were stopped on the road. The occupants were watching a moose that was ambling eastward near the edge of the meadow. A few yards farther up the road, we spotted two deer, antlers in velvet, crossing the road. As it turns out, these three were the only large animals we spotted all day.

Arriving at the trailhead, even though we were nearly an hour earlier than I was two weeks ago, again the parking lot was nearly full. It was a bit breezy, and a bit on the chilly side. I carry a light rain jacket in my pack, but there’s not enough room for me to carry anything heavier, so I almost decided to take my hoodie off and leave it in the car. But I made a sound choice, and kept it on, figuring I’d take it off before long and end up spending the day with it tied around my waist.

Visibility was very bad. I couldn’t even tell how cloudy it was. Certainly, there were clouds. The very tops of a few peaks were shrouded, but aside from that, the sky was filled with a haze somewhere between orange and brown. I don’t think we could see anything more than about three miles away. At least it didn’t smell of smoke.

I’d say that the trail to Heart Lake is the main trail through the Wilderness. The trails to all the other lakes here are spurs off this trail. In turn, we arrive at the junctions with trails to Forest Lakes, Crater Lakes, and Clayton Lake. (Arapaho Lakes are reached via a spur trail off the Forest Lakes trail.) I chatted with a volunteer later in the day who told me that the Arapaho Lakes trail was “closed” in 2008, and the Clayton Lake trail quite some time before that. I asked him specifically about Clayton Lake. He said the route of the former trail is pretty rough and that a better way is to go to Crater Lakes and contour around a ridge to Clayton Lake. So I guess I’ll visit Crater Lakes before I make any attempt on Clayton (and the Iceberg Lakes above it).

From the junction with the Forest Lakes trail to Rogers Pass Lake, the hike is a pleasant walk through forest. It runs alongside (or, at least, never far from) South Boulder Creek and never gets very steep. There are a number of passages where we had a bit of difficulty getting through mud bogs, particularly as a backpacker told me it had rained for three hours last night.

Just before I met that backpacker, I passed a group of campers. Their tents were several yards off the trail on one side and they were grouped together on the other side. At first, I thought they had a radio on. (Okay, these days probably not a radio. But some music replay device.) But it was no radio: they were in a circle, holding songbooks and singing. Two of them had small drums. That was an interesting place for a recital. As a some-times backpacker, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the drums weighed.

Rogers Pass Lake

We arrived at James Pass Lake (on some maps, I see it called James Peak Lake) at 9:30. There were dozens of people there, some who had passed us on the trail, most who had camped there.

From James Pass Lake, the trail crosses a short ridge to reach Heart Lake. Both lakes feature grassy shores and little to no talus and only sparse willow, so they could be fairly easily circumnavigated. This also means that there is precious little shelter from the wind.

Heart Lake

I was glad I didn’t leave my hoodie in the car. Not only had I not taken it off yet, but by the time we arrived at Heart Lake, I was considering digging my light rain jacket out of the pack so I could add another layer.

The trail deposits us on the windswept south side of the lake. We agreed that it wasn’t a very pleasant place for a picnic given the current conditions, so we decided to work our way around the east shore, past the outlet, and into a small copse of krummholz. Even here, it was a bit on the blustery side. We chowed down and when finished, didn’t dilly-dally. We hit the trail for the hike out.

Normally, Gordon is a much faster hiker than I am and no matter how much I try to keep up a good pace, he’s right behind me. By now, though, my legs were feeling a bit sore so I didn’t try very hard to keep up a good pace. Gordon, though, wasn’t close behind. I didn’t see him again until we were back at the trailhead. He showed up at the car with a phone full of mushroom pictures. On my hike to Arapaho Lakes, I took about a dozen fungus photos, thinking I’d spotted a nice variety. Gordon had at least a hundred pictures, and not too many were duplicates. Clearly, he was paying much more attention to the fungus among us than I was.

When I encounter a small number of hikers on the trail, it’s easy to keep track. On the hike to Arapaho Lakes, I met four other hikers when I was off the main trail. Today, I certainly would have lost track. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I saw on the order of 300 other hikers. This is about a nine-mile hike, so it’s not quite a “conga line hike”, but it’s close.

I asked some hikers I met at the Crater Lakes junction how crowded that trail was. “It’s pretty crowded.” I’m not sure I’ll do another James Peak Wilderness hike this season, but if I do, I’ll find out just how crowded the Crater Lakes trail is.

So, on a day where the air quality had the weather service telling people to stay indoors and not to exert themselves, where the haze made for some of the worst visibility I’ve ever encountered (except when raining or snowing) and resulting in some really poor photos, hiking crowded trails, and dealing with a cold wind, you might think it wasn’t any fun. But it was a good day.

Arapaho Lakes

Saturday, July 24

For my second visit to James Peak Wilderness, I chose Arapaho Lakes.

Sometime not long ago, the trail to Arapaho Lakes was maintained. From what I understand, there used to be a sign at the trail junction, and a bridge across Arapaho Creek. Neither the sign nor the bridge exists, and I could see no evidence that a bridge was ever there. But judging by the amount and age of deadfall, I’d guess maintenance stopped six to ten years ago. Perhaps the bridge was taken out in the flood of 2013 and that contributed to the decision to stop maintaining the trail?

I arrived at the parking lot a few minutes before 8 am. This was about half an hour later than I’d planned. For the last mile or two on the road, I was followed by three other vehicles. When I arrived at the parking lot, there were only two spots left, and I’m not really sure they were spots. If I’d have been at the end of the line rather than the front, I’d have had nowhere to park. That’ll teach me to be late out the gate for hikes here.

The first two miles or so of trail is also the way to Forest Lakes. The route splits not far after the bridge over Arapaho Creek. Last time, I reported that the railing was pretty sketchy and I’m happy to say they’ve repaired it nicely. From this bridge, I kept an eye out for anything that looks like a blocked-off trail. Generally, it’s a few limbs on the ground, a visual fence. After about five minutes, I found the place.

The trail was quite clear the first few yards, but it quickly led down to a sizeable marsh. I spotted a faint trail a bit to the right, staying on higher, drier, ground. It’s not too hard to follow but requires some attention. This seems to be a detour. It clearly was never a maintained trail. I’m sure that by September, there’d be no marsh, rendering this detour unnecessary.

Back on the trail that used to be maintained, the walking is easy except for an occasional tree trunk across the trail. Less than half a mile off the Forest Lakes trail, we arrive (again) at Arapaho Creek. I spotted a trail on the opposite bank. (I now think this is the site of the former bridge.) I didn’t want to cross here, so I kept going on the trail. According to the CalTopo map, if you stayed on this side of the creek the trail would take you to the outlet of lower Forest Lake. But this trail dumped me into another marsh.

I plowed through to the next clump of trees upstream. By this time, I was above the confluence of Arapaho Creek and the outlet of Forest Lakes. I searched for a crossing here. It didn’t take long, but once I was across, I knew I’d have a short bushwhack. There was another small stream between the two outlet streams, so I ended up with three crossings total rather than the one where I’m guessing the bridge formerly stood.

A few yards after my third crossing, Arapaho Creek, I was back on the trail. I regained the trail at the base of a fairly steep climb: 500 feet up in 1500 feet to the west. None of this was treacherous. The footing was generally good; there were lots of roots that made for nice steps. In places, it’s a lot like climbing stairs. The good thing is, you’re climbing pretty much adjacent to the creek. You don’t always see the creek, but when you do, it’s a falls or a cascade. I enjoyed several short pauses to take in a few breaths and the spectacle of the falling water.

As soon as we’re out of the forest, the trail nearly levels off. The expansive view appears as if a curtain had opened. We’re above 10,800′ elevation here. I was taking my time when a hiker and his dog passed me. He was the first hiker I saw in quite a while. I was a bit surprised to see somebody; I was beginning to think I had the place to myself (other than the mosquitoes).

I did see a few fresh-looking boot prints. I’m guessing it rained yesterday afternoon or last night. The prints didn’t look to me like they’d been rained on. I saw at least one print heading in each direction, so I’m guessing somebody has already made the round-trip this morning.

The lakes lie at about 11,150′ above sea level. The smaller, western one is four feet higher than the larger, eastern one. The southern bank is grassy, and the grass is heavily sprinkled with wildflowers. The north shore is a mix of rocks and willow and krummholz. The trail skirts the south side, petering out before reaching the western end of the lake. Any route generally to the west from here will get you to the eastern shore of the upper lake.

Near the outlet of the lower lake

The sky was a bit hazy due to some combination of humidity and the smoke from West Coast fires. It wasn’t just hazy, it was also mostly cloudy. Here at the lake, it was windy. There’s nothing resembling shelter here. And because it’s not a nice, bright, sunny day, it’s a bit on the chilly side. Unusually, the wind was from the east. There were a couple of layers of clouds. The lower clouds were pushed on that easterly wind towards the divide. They moved so fast it was as if you’re watching a time-lapse. A few small clouds were higher. They moved slowly in nearly the opposite direction.

I sat there, eating my picnic, watching the clouds fly by, listening to the squirrels and marmots chirping and barking, for forty-five minutes. When I stood up to leave, I saw another hiker a couple of hundred yards away, hiking away from me. She couldn’t have been here long; she didn’t come to the second lake.

On the way down, I stopped at one of the many scenic spots and took a few photos. The man and his dog passed me again. This time we chatted. He’s getting married in Estes Park in a few weeks, then he and his bride will hike to the summit of Longs Peak. We chatted about hiking in RoMo and about the fire damage and trail closures. This was his first hike in James Peak. We agreed that this area is a nice Plan B when you can’t hike in the Park.

As to crossing the river on the way down, I had a bit of an internal argument. My intention was to follow the trail to its end where the former bridge was to verify whether there’s an easier crossing. “What if I can’t find a good place to cross?” That’s a stupid question: I’ve proved I can find a crossing. “What if I can’t find the same crossing point?” What’s with the stupid questions? I found that crossing, I can find another.

I went to the end of the trail. I was back at the place I didn’t cross on the way up. I spent some time judging whether I could cross. Any potential crossing involved a step or two in water deeper than my boot tops. I could take my boots off and wade, but without trek poles, I was concerned about slipping. I decided to backtrack and cross the way I did in the morning. I quickly found two of my three crossing points but for the third, I chose a place that was slightly inferior to my route in the morning.

Just before regaining the Forest Lakes trail, I ran into two more hikers. I mentioned the stream crossing. One responded, “I’m not worried, I’m wearing boots.” These were the third and fourth people I encountered in four hours, but these guys hardly count, as I was nearly back to the crowded trail anyway. Not total solitude, but damn near. Not bad for a Sunday.

Back on the Forest Lakes trail, from the bridge with the repaired handrail back to the parking lot it was pretty busy. Not “conga line hike” busy, but I never went more than a few minutes without encountering other hikers. Individuals (with dogs), pairs (with or without dogs), large groups (all with dogs).

Dogs aren’t allowed on the trails in RMNP, so I’m not accustomed to seeing them. I’m surprised by the number of dogs. All along the trail are little plastic bags of, presumably, dog poo. I’m hoping that they were left beside the trail by hikers and their dogs going up the trail and they’ll be collected by those same hikers on their way out.

On today’s episode of “What did I forget?” we have a map and mosquito spray. Last night, getting into bed, I thought “I need to print a map in the morning. And I should take the bug spray with me” Nope, didn’t happen. I wasn’t concerned about being mapless, though; I’ve been studying the map for some time. But I sorely missed the mosquito repellent.

Also on the list: sunscreen. I didn’t forget to take it, but I didn’t remember to apply it until I was nearly back to the main trail. “Better late than never” doesn’t always include sunscreen. Luckily, I emerged unburnt.

I really enjoyed the hike. It’s not too long, at 7.1 miles round trip. It does have a very strenuous section in the middle, a stream crossing (or three), and some route-finding skills come in handy. I didn’t quite have the place to myself, but that might be a different story on a weekday.

In addition to the open views above treeline, and the extended climb alongside the falling water, there was an abundance of wildflowers. Blues and yellows in the lower elevations, reds and oranges and violets up higher. I saw only a few columbines, all fairly low. One of my new favorites, Elephant’s Heads, is quite common here. There is also a profusion of mushrooms.

It was a good day.

Andrews Tarn

Saturday, July 10

I think this is the sixth time I’ve visited Andrews Tarn, most of those back in the 1980s. The first two visits, we hiked a loop: up Flattop Mtn, along the divide, and down the glacier. Back then, the foot of the glacier was in the tarn, rising perhaps eight or ten feet above the water. My previous visit was back in 2007 and I was disappointed to see how far the glacier retreated. Today, there’s still snow on the ground between the glacier and the tarn, so I couldn’t tell how much smaller the glacier is now than it was forty years ago.

This is my first experience with the timed entry passes for the Bear Lake corridor. A permit is now required if you want to go to any destination on Bear Lake Road. The passes begin at 5 am and the last time slot available is 4 pm. For my purposes, only the 5 am and 7 am time slots will work. When I arrived at the entrance station, a few minutes before 8, they had all but one lake closed with traffic cones. And there was nobody in the booth. A few yards up Bear Lake Road they check your permit and give you a permit. They said, “Put this on your dashboard” but it has a post-it note sort of adhesive and it looked like most folks stuck it on their windshields as I did.

Unless I’m in the park well before 7, I don’t bother trying to park in either the Glacier Gorge or Bear Lake parking lots. I pulled into the park and ride to see quite a long line waiting for the shuttle bus. Face masks are required on the shuttle. If you don’t have one, they’ll give you one. The driver’s area is closed off to the rest of the bus, so everybody boards and exits through the back door. (Not really a back door, but you know what I mean.)

The Foster guide says 4.6 miles and a vertical climb of 2,200′ to the tarn.

Follow the crowd to the Loch and keep going up the trail to Sky Pond. At about three-quarters of a mile after reaching the Loch the trail crosses Andrews Creek. If I didn’t know there was a trail here, I wouldn’t have seen it. There’s a sign on the south side of the trail, but it was in dark shade. And the first few yards of the trail to Andrews is solid rock.

At this point we’re about three-quarters of the way there but we’ve only climbed a bit more than half the total: the last mile climbs a thousand feet.

The trail climbs on the west side of Andrews Creek. The trail bends slightly to head due north. Fairly quickly you arrive at the Andrews Creek campsite. It’s off to the right; the trail continues to the left, now going pretty much due west. Not long after that, you leave the forest to find in front of you a canyon full of talus. On the right, the north, is the eastern arm of Otis Peak, towering twelve or thirteen hundred feet above the trail.

The trail now alternates between a crude trail and sections of rock-hopping across the talus. It seemed like there was a small cairn every few yards, which seemed excessive. By now we’re well over ten thousand feet, and the one-in-five climb is starting to take its toll. I figured I have all day – it’s not a long hike, and I got a fairly early start. I took several breaks.

At one breather, I chatted with a hiker who caught up to me. He had a slight accent. I asked where he was from. “It’s complicated. I’m from France, but I’ve been in Denver since the pandemic. But I live in New York, and I hope to be back there soon.” He didn’t spend much time at the lake – he passed me on his way down before I even made it up there.

The last seven or eight hundred feet before the top climbs almost straight up, between a large snowfield and a clump of trees clinging to the top of a rock outcropping. The footing is less than ideal in places.

When I topped the crest, I knew why the French guy didn’t stay long: it was quite windy. Andrews Tarn is pretty stark. A little halo of tundra arcing around the outlet, talus everywhere else except the western shore, which is snow. Here, years ago, I watched a skier come to a stop at the brink, just a few feet short of a ten-foot drop into the drink. Today it’s just snow. The glacier has retreated quite far up the hillside.

Andrews Tarn beneath Otis Peak

I emulated my French friend and left after just a few minutes. The wind was relentless and there is no shelter here. I headed back down to just a bit above where the trail crosses the creek for the last time, just below the snowfield. There’s a large boulder here, perhaps twenty feet across. Part of the creek is running underneath it, undermining it. I wonder how often it moves. Does it shift a couple of inches every now and then?

I heard the barking of marmots at the lake but didn’t hear them here. I was fairly close to the water, so I’d only hear things in my immediate vicinity. I saw a pika. I spotted him three times, each time a few yards farther away. He never came back. Although I was bothered by mosquitoes in the forest, there were none here. Very few insects at all.

After my pleasant picnic I headed back. It seemed that, at every patch of talus, I’d manage to lose the trail. I didn’t see nearly as many carins on the way down as I recalled on the way up. Maybe there should have been more! I find it’s generally pretty easy to spot the trail when you’re above it, and it was never really out of my sight. It’s just that there often seemed no obvious way through the talus. I didn’t have any difficulty on the way up.

Back in the forest, the creek (or part of the creek, actually) enters a small pool. It’s fairly deep, but the water is moving quite quickly at the surface. It’ll never be mirror-smooth. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but the water looks to have just the slightest tint of that turquoise you often see in glacial melt. I refilled my water bottle near here. Fantastic!

I took a final break just a few yards above the junction with the trail to Sky Pond. In the four hours since I was here in the morning, I encountered ten or twelve other hikers. My break here was only about fifteen minutes and I saw about twice that many people on the Sky Pond trail. It just reinforces how much I like getting on the less well-traveled trails.

I made it back to the shuttle bus at about 3 pm.

This hike kicked my ass. I can’t recall the last time I thought a sub ten mile hike was difficult. I know this trail kicked my ass the last time I was here. That was 2007, when I was twenty or twenty-five pounds heavier and living in Phoenix, not acclimated to altitude. I have no excuses this time. I’m typing this up two days later and my legs are still sore.

Forest Lakes

Saturday, June 12

After a bit of map study, I came across the James Peak Wilderness. There’s a trailhead at the eastern portal of the Moffat Tunnel. From that trailhead, in about five day-hikes, it should be possible to visit more than a dozen named lakes all above 10,500′. Each of these hikes will take you to two or three lakes.

A couple of years ago, I failed to reach Bluebird Lake in early July because of the amount of snow on the ground. So in mid-June, I should expect to find a fair amount of snow as low as 10,000′. The only one of these five day hikes that doesn’t top 11,000′ is the one to Forest Lakes. The lower, smaller lake sits at about 10,675′ and the larger, upper lake at 10,850′. ProTrails lists this hike as “moderate” while AllTrails says it’s “hard”.

I’ve never hiked in this area before, so I have no idea how crowded the trails are. None of these hikes are longer than ten miles, so they’re not very long. A few of them climb 2,000′ from the trailhead. ProTrails says “The Forest Lakes are part of a heavily used trail system and very popular among anglers. Arrive early to secure parking and avoid crowds.” From Google’s satellite image, the parking lot doesn’t look too big, so how early is early? I set a 7 am target. We were only a few minutes behind schedule and managed to put boots on the trail at 7:20.

The trail skirts the entrance of the tunnel and quickly meets South Boulder Creek, which it then parallels for a bit less than a mile. Half an hour after we began, we reached the Forest Lakes trail junction. The next section of trail, from this junction to a bridge over Arapaho Creek is wide, perhaps wide enough to drive a jeep on, and of an almost constant grade.

The bridge over Arapho Creek has seen better days. It’s a couple of split logs with a railing, but half the railing is gone. The creek carries the combined outflow of Forest Lakes and Arapaho Lakes. Right now it is running robustly, overflowing onto the trail. Stepping onto the bridge, I grabbed the post that formerly held the missing railing. I didn’t put any weight on it but used it only for balance. This is good, as it’s not exactly secure.

When planning this hike, as I said, I was expecting to be hiking over some snow. My guess as to how much snow we’d see was a bit off. This bridge is at about 9,800′ and this is where we started dealing with snow. There were isolated patches of snow almost as low as the trailhead, but those were small, isolated, and not on the trail. From now on it became more challenging to follow the trail, as it quickly became totally buried. The parts of the trail that weren’t covered with snow were rivers of snowmelt. Before long, we weren’t so much following a trail as previous hikers’ footprints.

In planning our little trek, I found conflicting information about the trails. Some maps indicate there are two trails to Forest Lakes while others only have one. About a quarter of a mile after the bridge I was expecting to find a junction with the trail to Arapaho Lakes. That trail continues along the creek to the confluence of the outlet stream from Forest Lakes. Here, maybe, there’s another junction; another route to Forest Lakes.

I never saw the Arapaho Lakes trail. For a while, I wasn’t sure which trail we were on. But after hiking a distance I figured to be much farther than we needed to go to reach that junction, I got the phone out to see what elevation we had reached. By now, we’d gone about half the distance between the missed junction and the lower Forest Lake.

We continued to lose and regain the trail until we could see the lake through the trees. Lower Forest Lake is, as the name implies, in the forest, having trees all around it. We arrived on its eastern shore, which is shaded and show bound. We spotted a rock outcropping sitting in the sun on the northern shore and made our way there. This entailed crossing a somewhat marshy area. Actually, that’s not a great description. All the ground around the lake was covered in flowing water. More than once I stepped where I shouldn’t have stepped and got some water in my boots. This early in the season, the only wildflowers I spotted are those yellow and white ones that grow in abundance in these marshy areas.

Lower Forest Lake

Just to be clear, my main issue with the snow involves navigation. Given the route-finding difficulties we faced reaching the lower lake, we decided not to bother trying to reach the upper lake (which would be somewhere roughly in the center of the above panorama). Had I been here before, and been familiar with where we were headed, I’d have continued.

We sat on our rock and basked in the bright, cloudless sunshine for an extended break. It was a bit early for lunch but I’d worked up an appetite and ate anyway. I don’t know what it is about eating on the shore of some alpine lake after a few hours of hiking, but even average food is delicious. My turkey avocado Swiss sandwich on sourdough bread was fantastic. The can of Tommyknocker Blood Orange IPA wasn’t bad, either.

I took the GoPro with me so I could capture a time-lapse video, but we didn’t see a single cloud all day. Sometimes the weather is just too perfect!

On our hike out, we more or less retraced our footsteps. During our break, I’d managed to pretty much get my feet dry, but I quickly made another misstep and gave myself another case of wetfoot. So it goes.

So far, we’d encountered only a handful of other hikers. I was starting to think that perhaps ProTrails had overstated the amount of traffic this trail gets. It may be that the snow was discouraging people from reaching the lake, but from the bridge over Arapaho Creek back to the trailhead we ran into substantially more traffic. Unlike RMNP, dogs are allowed on the trails here, as long as they’re on leashes. Well over half of the hikers we met had dogs with them.

Not long before we reached the trail junction at South Boulder Creek, we heard the blast of a locomotive horn. I don’t know if it was entering the tunnel or leaving it. I was a bit disappointed we missed seeing it. The tunnel is ventilated by giant fans. These fans run for twenty or thirty minutes after the train clears the tunnel. These fans sound like giant power saws and we could hear them from more than half a mile away. I couldn’t tell how they were powered – are they electric or diesel?

We were back to the trailhead a few minutes after 1 pm. In spite of the snow, and of not reaching the upper lake, I found the day quite satisfying. Of course, if I want to visit all the lakes in this area I’ll have to hike this trail again, but that’s quite alright. Lower Forest Lake isn’t the most scenic lake, and the hike is your average forest hike (that is, “you can’t see the views for the trees”), but there are plenty of worse ways to spend a day.

Although it’s possible I could hike all these trails in a summer, I don’t think I’ll make such a concerted effort. This trail had the lowest destination elevation of the group so I figure it’ll be another month before many of the other lakes served by this trailhead are easily reached.

Emerald Lake

Saturday, January 23

Back in my misspent youth, I organized a hike to Emerald Lake every year around the Memorial Day weekend. I didn’t keep track of when I started this, or how long it went on, but at one point I considered making a few t-shirts that said, “Umpteenth Annual Emerald Lake Hike”. This was my traditional first hike of the season. It was early enough that we were always hiking across snow, and both Dream and Emerald were still frozen, although not frozen enough to hike across.

Although I’m not generally a big fan of crowds when I hike, I still make it to Emerald Lake at least once a year. This time, I dragged Scott along. This was his first hike to Emerald.

As is usual, the weather along the Divide was much different than the surrounding area. It wasn’t exactly clear in Estes, but it wasn’t bad. The roads were dry until about a mile from the parking lot at Bear Lake, where we entered a snowstorm and the road became snowpacked. The Glacier Gorge lot was full, and I was a bit concerned that we’d find a full lot at the end of the road. I needn’t have worried – it was only about 2/3 full.

I was considering two different destinations: Emerald Lake and Two Rivers Lake. For a time, the trail to Odessa Lake was closed at the Flattop Mtn trail junction due to the fire last autumn. It’s open now, but the volunteers told me it has been getting very little traffic. Little enough, that is, that we’d need snowshoes rather than microspikes. I was feeling a bit on the lazy side, and there’s always enough traffic to Emerald that snowshoes aren’t needed.

To Scott, I described the hike as a “conga-line” hike. Not everybody who parked here at Bear Lake was going to Emerald, but most of them were. I guessed we might see fifty people when we got there.

At Nymph Lake, I generally try to follow the winter route rather than the summer route. I found some footprints and we followed them for a few yards, but this was not the “beaten path” and after we postholed a few times we retreated back to Nymph and opted for the summer route.

The ice at Dream Lake was covered by a few inches of freshly fallen snow. Typically, the wind keeps the ice clear, but it was quite calm today.

As has been usual lately, I’m often amused by the navigation questions I get from other hikers. I think the map at the trailhead is pretty clear. Either quite a few people can’t read maps, or choose not to. Everybody is just following somebody else up the trail, not terribly concerned with where they’re going. “How much farther to Gem Lake?” and “Is this Lake Haiyaha?” were my favorites from today. Also, standing on the ice at Emerald Lake, “Is there another lake above this one?”

A common problem with a January hike to Emerald Lake is, where to sit to take a break? Generally, if a rock here doesn’t have snow on it, it’s because of the harsh winds. It was calm and snowing, so no rocks were clear. We headed towards the western shore in search of something better than closer to the trail and came upon two young women taking pictures of each other. They had stripped down to their sports bras. Instagram culture.

We never did find a nice place to relax, so we ate our snacks standing up. Naturally, this limits the length of our break.

After our break, while we were still crossing the ice, I counted thirty-two people. Not quite the fifty I predicted, but it very well could be that eighteen people had come and gone while we were there.

On the way down, the winter route from Dream back to Nymph had gotten more traffic, so we went that way. We stopped a couple of times and I attempted to describe the nearby topography to Scott, but I didn’t do a very good job: visibility was better than when we started, but everything beyond the two large glacial knobs was obscured by snow. At one of these pauses, I spotted what looked like a brown disk at my feet. It was the bottom of a water bottle somebody had dropped. I meant to leave it at the trailhead but forgot about it. It’s a nice metal REI bottle.

Some hours later, Scott sent me a couple of Strava screen shots. It says we went 4.50 miles, which I think overstates it by a mile. It also says we averaged 1.8 mph. I really don’t think we were going that fast: I kept stopping to chat. I recall mentioning that I’m sometimes hiking with people who never stop talking, and today it was me who never stopped talking. Pot, meet kettle.

I don’t think I scared Scott off yet. He says he’s interested in going to Haiyaha this winter and wants to go on a longer summer hike, or maybe even a backpacking trip.

Snowshoe to the Loch

Friday November 27

Today Ed led me on his off-trail route to the Loch. We met at the Bear Lake parking lot at eight and were on our way by a quarter after. I’ve been to the Loch many times, so I won’t waste a lot of words, but I will say that the weather was nearly perfect, with calm winds, a cloudless, brilliant blue sky, and a surprisingly balmy temperature near thirty. We were at the Loch by noon, and back to the car by two-thirty.

Ed digs a hole in the snow

A bit of explanation may be useful for this one. The snow here was about fifteen inches deep, near the base of a north-facing slope. It was about the average depth we encountered, being quite thin where the wind blew and piled up in other places. Ed is noting the bottom layer of the snow. That first snowfall got melted by the heat still in the earth, then re-frozen. Subsequent snow storms were obvious in the layers.

Critter tracks
A tree with a tree growing out of itself
The Loch
Part of the East Troublesome burn scar

I should have taken a picture of this in the morning, when it was more obvious that the hillside in the center of the photo had burned. I’m sure I’ll have many more opportunities for a better picture. I will note that there are signs forbidding people from walking in the moraine, but there are two people doing just that in the lower left of the photo.

Mount Bierstadt

Last week I took a little spin through the high country with some like-minded folks in the Lotus and Miata car clubs. Near the end of that drive, we crossed Guanella Pass, stopping for a short break at the summit. Here, I couldn’t help but notice, was the trailhead for the hike to the summit of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 (or 53, depending on how you count) fourteen thousand foot peaks.

Standing in the parking lot it struck me as a sort of no-brainer of a hike. I’ve said many times, and my history proves, that I prefer hiking to alpine lakes over hiking to the tops of mountains. When you’re standing on the top of a mountain, there is a lot of scenery around you, but it’s all miles away. At a lake, listening to the water lap the rocks at your feet, the beauty of the place is much more immediate: up close and personal.

To now, I’ve only done two 14ers: Longs and Quandary. There is a short list of others I’d like to “conquer”, if that’s not too dramatic a word. There are two main considerations. First, I’m not a big fan of exposure, so I’ll only consider routes that are Class 1 or Class 2. Second, for the most part, I’m limited to trailheads that I can reach in the Lotus. Both of these conditions are met here. So, what am I waiting for?

Now a side note: how are Colorado 14er’s counted? There are 58 peaks in the state that top out over 14,000′. But to be “ranked”, a peak must rise at least 300 feet above the saddle that connects it to the nearest 14er peak. There are five such peaks. Mount Bierstadt is the 38th highest of the 53 ranked 14ers. If you ignored the “300 foot saddle” rule, it would be 40th of 58.

Wednesday, October 7

This trail is one of the busiest of the summer 14er routes, so I was a bit concerned with getting a parking spot. On our visit last week, both parking lots were full and most of us parked alongside the road. That was okay for a short break but wouldn’t work at all for a six or seven hour hike. I decided to leave the house at six, arriving at the trailhead by 7:30 or so. If the lower lot was full, the upper lot would most likely still have spots.

There were still several spots in the lower lot when I arrived. One of the advantages of being here on an October weekday.

I put boots on the trail at 7:32. The first order of business is to descend a couple of hundred feet and cross a broad valley (if that word can be properly used in this geography) to reach the point where the trail actually begins the climb to the summit. This broad “valley” features several hundred acres of my hiking nemesis: willow.

Hundreds of acres of willow, extending higher than the highest trees seen here

To be fair, my detestation of willow manifests when I’m off-trail. If there’s no game trail through it, it’s best to go around. If you decide to cross a patch of willow, there’s no telling how much effort will be required to get through it. Here, there’s a nice trail through the stuff. Construction of the trail includes hundreds of yards of boardwalk, and the trail looks to be regularly maintained by trimming the plants that border the trail.

In these days of pandemic, I couldn’t help but notice that this boardwalk is only three feet wide. In the photograph, we can see less than half the length of this section. The hikers in the distance are on it. If you come across oncoming traffic, there’s no way to get six feet from them without jumping off the boardwalk. In places, the walk is a couple of feet off the ground. It’s nice and dry this time of year, but stepping off the boardwalk when things are still green means stepping into a marsh.

And with the willow growing almost six feet high, it’s next to impossible to see other hikers until you’re nearly on top of them.

In the willow where no boardwalk is required, it’s somewhat easier to distance yourself from other hikers. There are lots of short paths that lead away from the trail. These, judging by the amount of toilet paper on the ground here, are latrines. Keeping in mind that this part of the hike is within a mile of the trailhead, I was surprised at the sheer number of people who, evidently, couldn’t make it back to the toilets at the trailhead. (I’m pretty sure it’s not people who just embarked on their hikes.)

After crossing the willow field, the trail starts to climb. After a while, it gets steeper. But that’s just the steep bit before it gets really steep. Then, near the top, the trail disappears about 250′ of elevation below the summit. The route description at 14ers.com calls this bit “the crux of the route” and the reason it’s rated Class 2.

The “crux” of the route. The Meyer-Womble Observatory on Mt. Evans is visible in the distance.

For much of the way, it’s clear from the trail condition that this route gets tons of traffic. Rather than a trail that’s a couple of feet wide, it’s often three or four times that. In quite a few places, it’s evident how much of the current trail is the “original” trail, with people widening it by walking on either side. Some of the steeper bits have had quite a bit of work done to remedy this. There are significant sections where the trail is a staircase of rocks.

Cairn and The Sawtooth

Even with it being an October weekday, and the parking lots not yet full, there was quite a bit of traffic on the trail. I started meeting descending hikers before I had gone halfway. There weren’t that many, and I didn’t keep track. I did keep track, however, of the hikers going my way. A group of three (with a “small” Saint Bernard) passed me in the willows and a solo hiker zipped by me nearer the top. I passed eleven hikers before the “crux”, then four more before I gained the summit. It wasn’t that I was walking any faster than any of them, just that they kept stopping. I paused to take pictures or to drink water, but only stopped for a break once.

At the trailhead, I had estimated that it would take me three hours to reach the summit. I figured I could do the first mile in half an hour, then expected I’d be no faster than a mile an hour after that. Normally, my pace slows considerably when I’m above 11,000′. This whole hike is above that, starting at nearly 11,700′. I made it a point to set a slow pace that I could hopefully maintain. It looks like I succeeded. I beat my target time, making it in two hours and forty minutes.

The weather was fantastic. There wasn’t a cloud in the skies all day, and the wind was calm, even at the summit. I didn’t notice any wind at all until I was about half way back to the trailhead at about 12:30. And that breeze didn’t last. It was cool in the morning – I wore a thermal undershirt, an Aloha shirt, and a hoodie. I didn’t take the hoodie off until halfway down the trail, and ditched the thermal layer when I got back to the car.

I spent about 45 minutes at the summit, eating my picnic lunch and enjoying a beer. There were never fewer than a dozen people up there. I didn’t see a register or a USGS marker. I asked a few people, none of them saw them either.

Frozen Lake, below. Pikes Peak is hidden in the haze.

I met two young nurses. They sat near me. I noticed that as soon as they sat down, they checked their blood oxygen level with a fingertip pulse oximeter. I asked if I could check mine. It read 93%. They were joking that, at the trailhead, one of them measured only 62%. Evidently, these devices don’t work very well in the cold.

Another young woman was asking if anybody was going to do Mt. Evans from here. She was hiking solo and without a map. In researching this hike, I didn’t look into the combination route that would get you to both summits. But judging by the terrain, there isn’t any route I’d be willing to take. She wisely gave up on her goal. She had recently moved to Colorado and was now living near Aspen. She’d started climbing 14ers this summer, and Bierstadt was her ninth. She really wanted to get a tenth before the snows. I suggested she try Quandary. She thought that was a good idea.

Smoke layer to the north

Although the weather was great, the visibility wasn’t. Normally from up at these elevations, you can see great distances. When I was on Quandary, a high school student was pointing out and naming a bunch of 14ers. We could see Pikes Peak, Mt. Evans, Longs Peak, the Maroon Bells, and many others. Today, here on Bierstadt, the only one of these I could see was Mt. Evans, which is, of course, only about a mile away. The haze was fairly uniform, except to the north, where it was thicker, presumably from the Cameron Peak fire.

As is the usual case for me, my hike back to the car wasn’t any faster than my hike up. I stopped several times to take pictures, or to give encouraging words to those on their way to the top. In greeting, people typically ask some variation of “How are you doing?” On a day like today, the answer is “Fantastic!”

Moon setting over Grays and Torreys peaks

This was only my third 14er. Maybe next year I’ll try to get a two-fer: Grays and Torreys.