Tourmaline Lake

September 27, 2014

This is the second time I hike to Tourmaline Lake. Last year I hiked here from the Fern Lake trailhead. This time I started at Bear Lake. It’s a bit shorter this way, and downhill a bit as well between Lake Helene and Odessa Lake.

As seems to be the general case, I got a bit of a late start. It was another free day in the park, and traffic was a bit worse than I was expecting. By the time I got to Bear Lake road, the signs indicated the parking lot was full and visitors should use the park and ride. It’s been a while since I used the shuttle and while the route hasn’t changed, there are more stops than I was used to. It was a few minutes after nine before I hit the trail.

A calm, clear morning

The morning was calm and clear. Expecting a touch of fall in the air, I wore jeans rather than shorts. I wasn’t uncomfortable in jeans, but would have been happier in shorts. So it goes. Getting a bit of a late start, I made an effort to make some good time. It’s about four miles to Odessa Lake and I felt I should be able to cover that ground in two hours and arrive by 11:07. Well, let’s just round that down and target Odessa Lake by 11:00.

The trail was pretty busy. I had a trail runner pass me before I arrived at the junction with the Bierstadt trail. At the Flattop junction, I passed a group of five or six hikers headed to the Fern Lake trailhead. A bit later on, it was a guy with fishing gear and his companion who where headed to Fern Lake. I met many others as well, and most people were going from Bear Lake to Fern Lake trailhead.

Just before reaching Odessa Lake, I ran into the trail runner again. He had made it to Fern Lake and was on his way back. I asked how quick a pace he was able to maintain and he said he was doing eight and a half or nine minute miles. Not bad on a rocky and root crossed trail.

I arrived at Odessa Lake ahead of schedule. By now the sky was no longer cloudless – small puffy white clouds were in action, and contrary to normal were moving roughly east to west. I didn’t even pause at Odessa and headed straight up Tourmaline Creek. At the risk of repeating myself, the route from here is more or less straight up the creek. It’s pretty steep at first, mellows out a bit in the middle, then gets steep again. For the top half of the climb, the creek is mostly invisible but burbling vibrantly under rocks and boulders. With no sign of trail or cairns, just rock hop up the creek. It took me about fifty minutes to get from Odessa to Tourmaline, a climb of 560′ in six tenths of a mile.

Knobtop Mountain and Tourmaline Lake

Tourmaline Lake isn’t much of a lake. I’ve been to several unnamed ponds in the park that are bigger. What it lacks in size it more than makes up in setting. It is surrounded by dramatic rock walls, some with interesting spires. Although it wasn’t windy, it’s clear that high winds are a normal aspect of the place. All the trees around my picnic spot were one-sided, having no branches on their west sides.

While I was eating my lunch I heard somebody yell out. I think whoever it was just wanted to hear their voice echo. I responded with my own yell. A short while later I thought I heard voices quite a bit nearer to me but I never did see anybody. On these off trail hikes in solitude I often think I hear people talking. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a trick of the imagination.

It was a very pleasant day and I enjoyed sitting there by this small lake for the better part of an hour. Ate my sandwich and a plum, and a cookie that was in several pieces, chocolate chips beginning to melt slightly. There was never more than a slight breeze, and no pesky insects. The clouds, unusually, went from east to west.

The outlet stream is fairly flat exiting the cirque, going northeast before making a right turn and tumbling steeply downhill. The flank of Flattop is to the right, with Joe Mills Mtn directly in front. I can’t help but think it wasn’t this steep on the way up, but everything looks steeper to me on the way down. There is much less water flowing now than when I hiked in late June, making for easier hiking.

Before returning to Odessa I refill the water bottle and ponder which way to return. I didn’t give it any thought when I decided to go to Tourmaline, I guess my assumption was that I’d hike back to Bear Lake. I got to thinking that because I was parked at the park and ride rather than Bear Lake, I could hike out to the Fern Lake bus stop instead. Of course, I could have done that even had I parked at Bear Lake. Sure, it’s something like 1.7 miles farther, but it’s all downhill.

I decided to make the one way trip. This would be the third time I’ve done it, but the first adding the spur to Tourmaline. And this time, even with the late start and the extra lake, I’d probably get to the car at about the same time as the other times.

At Fern Lake I chatted again with the fisherman and his wife/girlfriend. They were heading back to Bear Lake. Near Fern Falls I ran into the group I met at the Flattop trail junction. Nearer the Pool, I felt the fire damage wasn’t as dramatic as it was last spring, but there’s a good sized landslide there now as well.

Hiking out from the Pool always seems like drudgery to me, I’m tired, it’s usually warm, the trail is crowded. It always seems to take forever. This time, though, it was over quicker than I expected. I covered the eight tenths of a mile from the trailhead to the bus stop in thirteen minutes, which nearly equals the pace of my walks around home. I felt real good.  Then I nearly dozed off on the (36 minute!) bus ride back to the car.

All in all, a very satisfying hike.

I’m still working on the time lapse. Seems each one takes longer than the previous one.


Every year about this time, the folks over at Rocky Mountain National Park Forums put together a little shindig they call “STOMP”. This is the ninth year. They hike up to Lake Haiyaha, build a couple of igloos and spend a couple of nights. Not everybody wants to sleep in an igloo, though, so there’s a bigger get together on the Saturday of the week allowing the day trippers to get involved with a hike to the igloos followed by a dinner that evening.

Those of us just doing the Saturday hike were to meet up at 8am at the Bear Lake parking lot. I didn’t really want to spend all day on this hike, particularly as it’s a fairly short one. And it would be fairly cold. And I wasn’t that interested in getting up early on a Saturday. I figured I’d be able to follow the tracks of those who did get there on time so wasn’t too concerned about not finding my way. I roughly knew the way. I’ve only ever taken the summer route, and I knew that wasn’t going to happen this time. How hard can it be to follow a path taken by 15 or 20 people just a few hours earlier?

Jerry went with me. I’m somewhat prepared for winter hiking, he’s a bit less. I have a pair of snow shoes, some micro spikes, ski pants and gaiters. I also just recenly bought a decent winter coat and a pair of gloves with fairly long gauntlets. Jerry has ski bibs, hat, gloves and boots and that’s about it. When we got to the parking lot, I gave him the snow shoes and I took the spikes. I figured if we stayed on the beaten path, the snow would be packed enough I wouldn’t need the floatation the snow shoes provide and if I did occasionaly posthole the gaiters would keep my feet dry. If I gave Jerry the spikes and I took the snow shoes, his feet would be wet pretty quickly.

The weather was about normal for the area – mostly cloudy along the divide, wind obviously blowing hard above treeline, and cold but not bitter. The weather wonks predicted snow in the area by noon or shortly thereafter. From the looks of things, it was snowing not far from where we were going.

We hit the trail a bit before 11am and found the rock marking Ed’s departure from the trail without problems. I’d been this way with Ed a couple of times before, but both when there wasn’t any snow. Every time I hike in the snow I’m taken by how different the terrain looks. In some places, there might be only a few inches of snow but a few feet away it may have drifted ten feet deep. Streams and large rocks that may be used as landmarks may be covered completely. Nonetheless, the trail was well trod and easy to follow; snow shoes not necessary.

The forest was quite pretty in its winter clothes, even with the weather closing in. The clouds were not far above us; it was snowing lightly and the gusty wind blew the snow along the ground when we weren’t in denser forest.

I thought if we encountered anybody on this trail they’d be members of the STOMP party. After a few minutes we caught up to a group going our direction. I thought this was a good sign – somebody that might have been up and down this part of the trail. I asked where they were going, expecting to hear something about igloos, but they said they were looking for Bear Lake. I told them they were going in the wrong direction – Bear Lake is behind us. They thanked us and turned around.

We continued on our way. Before long, it became obvious to me that the trail we were following wouldn’t take us to Lake Haiyaha. We were a bit north of where we needed to go. I had come down from Haiyaha last spring on the steep slope directly in front of us and knew we were unlikely to make it up that way. We needed to go to our left and up a more moderate slope. I knew if we’d just reach the top of that ridge the lake would be an easy hike. The trail we were intending to follow must have gone left somewhere that we went straight. But I certainly didn’t see any tracks that way. Blowing snow clearly obscured the correct path.

So we took off cross-country. Jerry took the lead as he was wearing the snow shoes. At times, even he was sinking a foot into the snow. I was often postholing quite badly behind him. Where the slope got steeper he had trouble with traction. We crested a ridge only to reveal another ridge above it. We topped that one to find yet another. I was sometimes sinking hip deep in the snow, crawling to get out. On the plus side, I was warm and dry, all my winter gear doing the job. But I was getting pretty worn out.

It was now about 1pm. I didn’t think Jerry would keep buying that we just had to gain one more ridge and we’d be back on the trail. We chatted about it for a few minutes and decided to back track the way we came. On the way, we kept a lookout for a nice place to sit and eat our lunches. In places we were quite surprised how steeply we had climbed. Soon we found a nice downed tree, barkless and gray, not covered with snow. We ate quickly as we had to take our gloves off.

By the time we were done and on our way again, my fingers were so cold I couldn’t feel them. I wasn’t particularly concerned. I knew that once we were exerting ourselves again I’d warm right up. This was true, it was only five or ten minutes before my fingers were warm again. The snow had stopped falling and sun was sparkling on the snow.

We again ran into other hikers; two groups of four or five hikers each.

“Where are you coming from?” they asked.
“The middle of nowhere. We didn’t get where we were going.”
“Where’s that?”
“Lake Haiyaha. Where you headed?”
“We’re trying to find Bear Lake.”
“Well, you’re heading in the wrong direction.”

One group took off down the trail in front of Jerry and I, the other lagged behind. I’d been looking for signs of tracks I might have missed but didn’t see any. We did come to a fork in the trail, though. The group behind us said the other hikers had gone that way only to reach a dead end. I thought the proper way was to the left and went that way. The group in front of us had by now turned around saying this way was a dead end also. In fact, the trail went nicely up the hill to gain the proper trail from Bear to Nymph. We could even see hikers on that trail. I hollered at the other hikers to follow me and we all got where we were going.

As two of them passed me, one said to the other “I wasn’t worried.” Perhaps he should have been. Granted, Jerry and I never made it to Haiyaha, but we were never lost. I knew exactly where I was. I just missed the tracks to the lake. These folks evidently had no idea where they were and seemed unable to follow fairly obvious tracks. I wonder how long they’d have been wandering around there.

Jerry and I made it back to the car by 3pm. Which left us three hours before pizza. I suggested we grab a beer at the brew pub and off we went. After a couple beers and some appetizers we headed to the shindig. We were still quite early so we sat in the car chatting and watching the clouds creep in from the west. The clouds looked like a big down blanket, slowly slipping over the divide, smothering the Bear Lake area.

Cars started arriving, so we went inside. There was a good turn out, a couple dozen folks at least. All had made it to Haiyaha but us, but no matter. People introduced themselves with their real names and their handles on the forum. I was surprised to find out that folks came from quite a distance for this little shindig. One couple flew in from Brooklyn.

As we were leaving, Mike suggested that we could still make it to the igloos if we wanted. He expected at least one of them to stand for another few weeks. I’m not sure I’ll make the attempt. I know I don’t want to take the summer route and I clearly demonstrated I can’t follow Ed’s route.

Maybe next year I’ll be willing to meet the Saturday group at the appointed time.

Lake Helene

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been wanting to hike to Tourmaline Lake. It’s in a small canyon west of Odessa Lake, which can be reached from either the Fern Lake or Bear Lake trailhead. I was all set to go there via the Fern Lake route when the fire broke out and every trail north and west of Bear Lake was closed. The Fern Lake trailhead is still closed, but hikers are now allowed to get to Odessa Lake from the Bear Lake side.

Taken from Bear Lake road in Moraine Park.

Once snow is on the ground, I’m less inclined to take the longer hikes. From Bear Lake, Tourmaline Lake is about 4.5 miles. That’s about two-thirds of a mile less than from the Fern Lake trailhead but it’s probably not any easier – the highest point on the trail from Bear Lake is near Two Rivers Lake, which is higher than Tourmaline Lake. Then you descend about 600′ to Odessa before gaining those 600′ back. On the return, you get to do the up and down again.

I didn’t really know how much snow to expect. The updates for the fire said it snowed two inches one day. I figure that probably won’t obstruct the trail but there’s no trail from Odessa to Tourmaline. Also, it’s always pretty windy up there, so two inches of snow could get redistributed in drifts. And always wanting to travel light, I didn’t want to take snow shoes. So I set off toward Tourmaline Lake with the expectation that I might not actually make it there.

The day started off crisp and clear but a bit on the breezy side. I arrived at Bear Lake at about 8:30 and was thinking at first that I might not have dressed warmly enough. I was expecting a fairly warm day for this time of year and wore a couple of shirts and a windbreaker, along with gloves and a knit cap. But I figured it was still pretty early; it would probably get 20 degrees warmer by noon and the hike would get me warmed up. By 8:45 I had my boots on and was on the trail. As I said, I didn’t take snow shoes but I did put my micro spikes in the pack.

The path around Bear Lake was a sheet of ice. The first part of the trail is the same as that for Flattop Mtn. The trail goes up the side of a ridge, initially on the sunny south facing side, then crosses to the north face. Where the sun shines on it, it was covered with ice but once reaching the north face it is just packed snow. There isn’t a lot of snow on the ground yet and the trail is quite easy to follow.

Although I thought I was hiking slower than usual, I reached the Flattop/Odessa trail junction in my usual time. The trail is in forest and affords no views except for a couple of places where you can see Bierstadt Lake and points east. From here the trail bends more to the west along the foot of Flattop Mtn, climbing slowly but steadily. Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene are off the trail to the left under the craggy north face of Flattop and the dramatic Notchtop.

After catching a glimpse of Two Rivers Lake through the trees, the trail starts to descend slightly. Here the snow was getting a bit deeper on the trail where the wind piled it up in small drifts. The trail makes a sharp turn to the north but all the footprints in the snow headed off the trail towards Lake Helene. I continued along the trail which gets a bit steeper now. Very quickly Odessa Lake came into view, partially frozen over. Also very quickly, the drifts on the trail got much deeper. I decided I can wait to reach Tourmaline Lake until next summer, but I still wanted to go a bit farther down the trail with the idea of getting a better view of the burn area. Alas, there was no end of the deep drifts in sight so I turned around and headed for Lake Helene.

I left the trail a bit before I came to everybody else’s footprints. There is a vague trail that leads to Helene’s outlet stream. Topping this small scramble of rocks I found myself at the northern end of the lake. Winter hiking is still new for me, and I’m still surprised how much lower the water level is compared to spring and summer. I could walk twenty feet or more from the grassy summer shore to the edge of the ice today. And it is solid ice, already supporting my weight.

I walked around the lake taking pictures and looking for a sunny spot on a rock, out of the wind. There aren’t any. I might have been disappointed, if it had been closer to lunch time, or if the sky wasn’t absolutely cloudless. After wandering around for about twenty minutes, I headed back toward Bear Lake.

I thought about stopping at Two Rivers Lake, but figured I’d also fail to find a sunny spot out of the wind and there was no prospect of clouds for an interesting time lapse. And I’d stopped there back in April so it’s not like I haven’t been there recently. I was a bit hungry, though, and didn’t want to wait to eat until I got back to Bear Lake. Before long I found a nice sunny becalmed rock and tucked in.

My sandwich was already a memory when the birds arrived, begging. Two little chickadees (I think; I don’t know birds) were interested in my lunch. I don’t feed the wildlife, at least not intentionally. One bird was quite brave, flitting from one spot to another, all within arm’s length. After a few minutes of this, he got even more brave and landed between my feet and found a crumb of bread I’d dropped.

On my way again, I shortly arrived at a place where the trail traverses a talus field and has a view of Joe Mills Mtn. By now some clouds were forming. I decided to set up the GoPro and grab a quick time lapse. I found myself in the shade with no place to sit down and relax so I wandered up and down the trail a bit to keep warm. There was one spot with a small break in the trees where I could see to the north – a slightly obstructed view of the fire area.

By now it was a very pleasant day; it had warmed up nicely and the winds had died down a bit. Because I was hoping for a longer hike, I was back to the car quite early. And because my little time lapse segment was quite short, I set the camera up with a view of the parking lot and let it run a few minutes.


Out In
Trailhead 08:45 AM 01:10 PM
Flattop/Odessa jct 09:12 AM 12:44 PM
Lake Helene 10:35 AM 10:55 AM