Green Lake

The upper end of Glacier Gorge is arguably the most scenic terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills Lake and its little sister, Jewel Lake, are fed by Glacier Creek. This creek is fed by half a dozen named lakes and a multitude of ponds and rivulets cascading down the slopes of some of the highest and steepest mountainsides in the area. The eastern side of the gorge is formed by a monolithic wall that is comprised of Half Mountain, Storm Peak, Longs Peak, and the Keyboard of the Winds. The western side is Thatchtop, Powell Peak, Arrowhead, and McHenrys Peak. Forming the southern end are Chiefs Head Peak, Spearhead, and Pagoda Mountain.

When you arrive at Mills Lake, the peaks to the east and west rise fifteen hundred feet above you. From Mills to Black Lake is about 2.8 miles and a climb of 700 feet or so. At Black Lake, you are surrounded by granite cliffs towering twenty-five hundred feet. It seems that no matter how high you follow these streams, the summits you pass beneath climb even higher.

This is my second trip to Green Lake, my first being back in 2011. That was before I began this blog, so the hike deserves the full treatment here rather than the abbreviated version that other repeat visits generally get.

Saturday, July 27

The weather report warned me that I could be dealing with storms as early as 10am but that didn’t deter me. I had wanted to get out of the house by six but I, as usual, ran a few minutes late. Traffic wasn’t too bad and I was at the Park & Ride by a quarter to eight. My plan was to put boots on the trail at eight o’clock, and I missed this by only ten minutes.

I generally take the Fire Trail, skipping Alberta Falls and the heavy trail traffic that goes along with it, but I got to chatting with a couple from upstate New York and missed the turnoff. Still, I arrived at Mills Lake in less than an hour. It is here, for me, that the hike really begins.

One of the interesting aspects of the trail between Mills Lake and Black Lake is the rather large debris field that was the result of a micro-burst that hit, I believe, in the autumn of 2011. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the thousands of trees were knocked down by the time I hiked to Black Lake in March of 2012. That first summer it took the Park Service quite some time and a lot of effort to cut through all the tree trunks that blocked the trail for more than half a mile.

A fair section of trail just above Mills Lake passes through some fairly marshy stretches. These sections are made passable by a series of crude bridges each a hundred or two hundred feet long. I’ve crossed these bridges for nearly forty years and now they’re mostly rotten and decaying. This year the Park Service is rebuilding them in an effort that may match that of clearing the path of the downed trees from that micro-burst.

Bridge Reconstruction

It had started sprinkling at about ten and before long the sprinkles turned to rain, so I donned my rain coat. It wasn’t raining heavily, but the cool of the morning was still lingering, and between the light rain and light breeze, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the rain gear. I ran into a hiker here who had been to Green Lake on another occasion; he said he’d prefer it in the sunshine over this morning’s grey skies and light rain. Perhaps the weather will remain dull and damp, but perhaps it will improve. Besides, even a dull day in the park is a good day.

The last few hundred feet of trail below Black Lake rises beside Ribbon Falls on a series of steps not quite hewn from the living rock, lifting the hiker onto the outlet of the lake and onto a series of large rectangular stepping stones. Even though these stones form the trail itself here, many hikers find them inviting places to sit, and I don’t recall a visit where I didn’t have to step over or around lounging hikers here.

There’s no doubt that the view from these stepping stones is spectacular, but it’s just as spectacular if you go another few hundred feet to the eastern shore of the lake. There, you’ll face the sight that is McHenrys Peak. Water pours off the stark cliffs on all sides here. The main feeder of the lake is behind you, and a crude trail climbs beside it, gaining four hundred feet of elevation in just 1,600 feet of distance. Even late into summer there is snow on the southern slopes here.

Levitating snow

At about 11,000′ of elevation, the terrain levels off and you find yourself on a large expanse of granite slabs, clumps of willow, and marshy areas where water flows nearly everywhere. Every time I’ve come up here, I’ve found many elk. Being so high, the wildflowers are much smaller than those lower down. They’re just as colorful and diverse, but are tiny in comparison. The scale is different: you won’t find entire slopes splashed with color, but that color is all around you. You just have to look closer.

Navigation isn’t particularly difficult here. After a while the trail fades away, but hikers have left a multitude of cairns. There are sometimes so many that they’re not helpful on a grand scale, but they often will lead you through the sections of willow.

Busy bee

To get to Green Lake, I kept the main stream on my right until I was nearly to the lake. I had my micro spikes with me, anticipating that I might be crossing some snow. Just below the lake I came across the solitary section I’d need to cross, and it was only a few hundred feet. Arriving at the base of this snow field, I found myself in the midst of a herd of elk. To my left was a large bull, antlers large and velvety. To my right was a cow and two calves, still sporting their youthful spots. The cow had an ear tag and wore a big collar with a large 9. I’m no judge of female elk flesh. Perhaps she was a 9. Or, perhaps, the collar wasn’t intended as an indication of her beauty.

Bull elk

They were really quite close, twenty or thirty feet. I’ve been close to elk fairly often. I’ve never felt threatened by them, but just the same I didn’t want to put myself between the cow and her calves. I also didn’t want to be closer to the calves than I was to the cow or bull. But to continue on the last few hundred yards to my destination, I’d have to walk right through them.

I sort of yelled at them, “I want to go that way!”, pointing across the snow. They looked at me quizzically. They clearly weren’t getting my drift. After further hollering and gesticulation I clapped my hands loudly. This got the calves to move to my right, on the other side of their mother, and I finally felt it was okay to proceed.

Had there been no elk there, I probably would have put on the spikes. I carried them all this way, so why not use them? But I didn’t want to sit there in the middle of the herd any longer than necessary so I proceeded without them. I didn’t need them, and on the way back down I again didn’t bother with them.

Green Lake

The rain had stopped some time ago, and the small breaks in the clouds had turned to mostly bright blue sky. There were still clouds, but they were white and fluffy and (as always) relatively fast moving. It would be hard to expect much better weather for a picnic beside an alpine lake than I was having.

There’s a snow field that sits on the eastern shore of Green Lake. I think it’s always there. Today, there were two little icebergs (or would they be snowbergs?) that were floating freely in the lake, recently broken off the main field. It might have been interesting to have the time lapse camera recording them, but instead I had it aimed at Spearhead and the clouds behind it. I would have liked to sit on the eastern shore, but there wasn’t a lot of shoreline there free of snow, and the flow out of the lake was running a few inches too high for me to cross without risking getting wet feet, so I stayed on the northern end.

On the way up from Black Lake I encountered a couple of climbers who had spent two nights on a bivy permit on Spearhead. I came across another couple of climbers on their way down at about the point where the route to Frozen Lake diverges from my route. So I kept an eye out for climbers on Spearhead. I don’t really know what interests climbers, so I didn’t know where to look. But I did see somebody wearing a pink jacket or shirt who hadn’t very far up the cliff.

Gathering storm

After half an hour I headed down. My herd of elk was still there, but they’d moved a bit to the east and I didn’t have to split them to make my exit. On the way up, you’re facing the stark cliffs in the immediate vicinity. Heading down, you get a nice view of the Mummy Range in the distance. The clouds there were no longer white and fluffy, but steel colored and menacing. With the divide just a few hundred meters to the west, you can’t see what sort of weather is headed your way, but it was obvious that on the way down I’d likely get more than the light rain I encountered on the way up.

I’d kept the rain coat on through my lunch and only packed it away when I refilled my water bottle on the descent to Black Lake. My shirtsleeved hiking was short lived, though, as the clouds opened up by the time I got to the bridge leading to the Glacier Gorge campsite. The thunder that was rumbling in the distance was now crashing in the immediate vicinity, so I kept my pace up.

Usually there’s a fair crowd on the slabs that form the Mills Lake shoreline but not now. Nobody wanted to sit in the rain. It wasn’t heavy enough to entirely obscure the view to the south, but certainly heavy enough to make the view less pleasant. Between here and the trail junction I ran into a young couple on their way up to Mills: she wearing sandals and a jacket, he shirtless and smiling. Even with my jacket on and hiking a brisk pace, I found it slightly chilly.

A bit farther down I found a solo hiker standing in the shelter of a tree, assessing the skies. I told him it would quit eventually, but no telling how long that might be. He was going to wait it out. That turned out to be a short wait for him, as the rain stopped when I was half way down the Fire Trail, and the sun was again shining brightly. It was about here that I realized I’d probably left the passenger window of the car open an inch or two. Oh well.

Traffic down the mountain was heavier than last week, but what I’d call more or less the new normal. Until I got to about mile marker 10, where we came to a complete stop. At about mile 4 an ambulance had passed me going towards Estes, lights and siren on. It should have been obvious to me that I’d run into the scene of an accident but it didn’t click until we were stopped. It took nearly half an hour to get going again. They had the road down to one lane, letting a few dozen cars pass first in one direction then the other. When I passed the scene, I didn’t see any damaged vehicles. Had they already cleared the wreckage, or was it off the road, down the slope? I suspect the latter.

I can’t help but say that it was a very enjoyable day. A hike to the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge is always rewarding and satisfying.

Timetable

UpDown
Trailhead8:10 am3:31 pm
Mills Lake9:06 am2:42 pm
Black Lake10:25 am1:30 pm
Green Lake11:55 am12:30 pm

Black Lake

Saturday May 26

Black Lake sits at the top of Glacier Gorge. I think it is one of the most beautiful lakes in the park. Going to lakes that are farther from the trailheads has spoiled me when it comes to getting some solitude at these lakes. I figure I’ll never be at Black Lake alone, as it’s a popular destination. Even in March there were quite a few people there. I was hoping that in late May it wouldn’t be too crowded.

The drive up was uneventful. I believe US 34 is now open to traffic, but it seems US 36 is still more crowded than usual. I could be mistaken, though. Perhaps what I’m seeing is the new normal. And I think more people are taking my shortcut through Estes because of the construction there. This morning, I was actually in a short line of traffic going by the hospital.

A minor tragic note here: my car is a killer. Since I’ve owned it, I’ve hit five birds. And this morning, going by the hospital, a rabbit attempted to cross the road, darting out after the car in front of me. It didn’t make it. I hit it with a sickening little thump and in the mirror saw it tumbling, inert.

I probably should have gotten an earlier start. As it was, I didn’t arrive at the Bear Lake parking lot until about 8:00 and it was already nearly full. Alternatively, I could have parked in the park and ride as that would have saved me a little effort. The trailhead proper for Black Lake is Glacier Gorge Junction. When parking at Bear Lake, I have an extra half mile each way. It’s not the distance so much, as that it makes the last half mile of the hike uphill.

I knew I’d be hiking across quite a bit of snow before I got to the lake. The snow gets steep enough just below the lake that I won’t go there in spring without microspikes. I started seeing snow on the fire trail, in the shady spots on the north facing slopes. Snow here will probably be gone in a few days, given the high temperatures we’ve been seeing.

The snow hiking didn’t start in earnest until I reached the Glacier Gorge campsite. I stopped at the bridge there and mounted the spikes. There were still quite a few bare spots on the trail for the next third of a mile or so, but after that it was snow all the way. I ran into two groups of three hikers who were making their way down. I asked each if they made it to the lake. The both said they fell short and complained about postholing badly. This did not discourage me, and I never saw where they might have been having trouble.

It was when I got to within a couple hundred yards of the lake that I first encountered a hiker who made it. We chatted for a little bit, and as we talked two guys passed us on their way up, going at a pretty good clip. When I got up there, they were the only other people. I was thinking I’d go up above the lake a bit for my picnic, but instead I parked myself right at water’s edge. Or, I should say, at ices edge. Other than the area right around the outlet, there are only a few square yards of lake that are open water. This, too, should change rapidly in the coming days.

I brought the GoPro with me. I generally don’t bother using the app on the phone but I wanted to make sure I was framing the shot correctly. I couldn’t get the phone to talk to the camera, and as I was struggling with it a young woman came by. She was walking a lot closer to the edge of the water than I did, and a few steps from the rock I was planted on, she postholed knee deep right into the water.

“I was planning to take a swim, but not with my shoe on!”

I was incredulous. “Really, you’re going to swim?” She was serious. She worked her way along the shore to where there was open water, but I never did see her take her swim. I sat there for about twenty minutes, ate my picnic lunch, and let the camera run. When the skies over the lake cleared completely, I shut off the camera and moved to the outlet and pointed the camera north, where the only other clouds were.

By now there were a dozen people at the lake, all congregated at the outlet with the exception of the swimmer. I relaxed here for another half hour or so before packing up and heading back down.

It was a very pleasant day, with brilliant blue skies and warm enough that I never needed a jacket. Perhaps a bit too warm for May. I enjoyed the hike; the trail wasn’t too crowded and I avoided the congestion at Alberta Falls by taking the fire trail. And I had a nice little workout – my Fitbit logged more than three hours of cardio and almost a half hour in the peak zone.

Timetable

Out In
Trailhead 08:15 AM 02:45 PM
Lower fire trail jct 08:25 AM 02:30 PM
Upper fire trail jct 08:55 AM 02:00 AM
Mills Lake 09:15 AM 01:45 AM
Black Lake 11:05 AM 12:15 AM

 

Blue Lake

Saturday, June 18

Black Lake is one of the most spectacular places in RMNP. I came to that belief very early in my exploration of the Park and I continue to feel this way having visited over half the named lakes in the Park. Only now I expand upon that thought: the upper part of Glacier Gorge, everything above the outlet of Black Lake, is simply incredible.

2016-06-18 10.49.20_stitch_crop_scale

Black Lake

When the Rocky Mountains were named, is was for places like this. Standing on the shores of any of the lakes in the area – Black, Blue, Green, “Italy”, Frozen – you are surrounded on three sides by vertical and nearly vertical slabs of solid rock, hundreds of feet high. The western flank of Longs, Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, The Spearhead, McHenrys, and Arrowhead all tower overhead; desolate, massive, beautiful.

I didn’t encounter much wildlife on this hike. Near the end of the boardwalk section just above Mills Lake I came across two elk – a cow and her calf – just ahead of me on the trail.

At the little waterfall, where the outlet of Blue Lake crosses the trail to Black Lake, I paused to install the microspikes. Quite a few hikers were on the trail, but only a few were properly equipped. I wouldn’t have gone much farther than here without the spikes, but I’m an admitted lightweight. In any case, the hike was a snow hike pretty much all the way from here to my destination. Only the higher reaches above Black Lake were snow free; above treeline and well bathed in sunshine.

Black Lake is still half frozen over. Climbing the trail along the main inlet to the lake it’s interesting to see how the snow clings to the steep walls of rock. Occasionally, large slabs of snow break off, slide down the rock to the steep snow and eventually come to rest in the meadow below.

The entire area is alive with flowing water. A ribbon of water, perhaps forty feet wide, pours down the sheer rock below McHenrys. Much of the water running to the valley below is heard but still unseen – flowing beneath the snow.

2016-06-18 11.37.36s

Blue Lake

The weather today was unbeatable. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day. I’d say it was calm, but that’s not quite true. There was only just enough of a breeze to prevent the surface of the lake being a perfect mirror. Normally, with it this calm, the flying insects will be a nuisance but today there was no problem with mosquitoes or flies.

Increasingly, over the last few years, I’ve felt that I need to go farther from the trailhead, farther off the trail, to find any solitude. That certainly wasn’t the case today. I take the “Fire” trail to bypass Alberta Falls and save some distance. As this trail isn’t on maps or signs I almost never run into other hikers. And today I didn’t meet anybody above Black Lake until I was on my way down. There I met a group of four who were asking if there is a lake above us. “There are four lakes. But you won’t find any of them without a map.” They elected to stop where they were and enjoy the view.

Timings Up Down
Trailhead 08:38 AM 03:41 PM
Fire trail Jct 08:48 AM 03:30 PM
Mills/Loch Jct 09:13 AM 03:02 PM
Mills Lake 09:28 AM 02:45 PM
Black Lake 10:48 AM 01:17 PM
Blue Lake 11:35 AM 12:25 PM