Junco Lake

Sunday, September 3

Leading up to this hike, I was telling myself that I only need to visit two more lakes in Wild Basin and I’ll have been to them all. I was thinking I only needed to go to Junco Lake and Isolation Lake and I’d “have the set.” I was a bit off. In addition to those two, I also have yet to hike to Frigid Lake and Indigo Pond. In any event, my goal for this next hike was to get to Junco Lake.

Originally, Chad was going to go with me but his plans changed. We were going to meet Bob at the trailhead. Bob wouldn’t go with us, but would accompany us the first few miles. But I didn’t properly communicate where Bob was to us me and we didn’t connect. I waited a few minutes past our appointed rendezvous for him then hit the trail. I discovered later that he was there, just at the wrong trailhead. Entirely my fault.

Anyway, to get to Junco Lake we will essentially start with Bluebird Lake. The hike to Bluebird Lake has a lot to offer. It has three notable water features: Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls. Then there are the open views where the trail goes along the top of a ridge that was burned by the Ouzel fire back in ’78. And the last three times I’ve hiked to Bluebird, other hikers have said they’ve spotted moose. I never can find them, but that’s just my luck.

Just above Ouzel Lake the trail passes through some talus and with no trees there, it’s an ideal place for raspberries. There are a number of stretches where raspberries grow in abundance. I couldn’t resist tasting a few. The berries may have been small, but they were delicious. The leaves were starting to turn dark, and there were no immature berries. The plants are much smaller than the ones in my back yard. But the weight of fruit as a percentage of the total weight of the plant is much higher. These little plants were densely covered with the sweet little tasty morsels.

A little farther up the trail I came across a couple who had passed me on the trail a bit earlier. Looked like they were picking berries, but there were no raspberries here. “We found huckleberries!” I’m sure I’ve had a slice of huckleberry pie, but I could certainly never identify them in the wild. These were growing on very small plants, close to the ground. Most of the berries were red, about as red as a not-quite-ripe raspberry. “You want the purple ones.” They were quite tiny, not much bigger than a BB but quite tasty.

The steepest part of the trail below Bluebird Lake is also quite lovely. The hillside is covered with an avalanche of wildflowers. I was thinking it might be a bit late in the season, but here the flowers were still quite vibrant.

I was pleased with my progress thus far, reaching Bluebird in a few minutes over three hours. It’s less than a mile from Bluebird to Junco, but there’s no trail and about a 750′ climb.

The Foster guide says to go around the base of the ridge and follow the stream. The last few times I went to Bluebird I spent some time studying the terrain and was never happy that that was the way to go. So I asked around. Kristin sent me a couple of pictures with two suggested routes. Each looked to be better than Foster’s suggestion.

So, without taking a break here, I headed up the ridge to Junco. It was easy enough to start, there are all sorts of grassy ramps and shallow gullies. But before long I managed to get to a spot that I didn’t like and backtracked a little. Then I ran into the couple I shared huckleberries with. I followed them for a bit, until they went down a section that made me uncomfortable. I let them go their way; I headed to the top of the ridge. Kristin told me it would be easier up top and I think she was correct.

I made it to Junco pretty much at the same time as the Huckleberries. I made my way to a comfy spot near the outlet and tucked in to my picnic. The wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but there was a faint haze from wildfires half a continent away. I brought the GoPro with me but didn’t bother setting it up as, without clouds, there’s no point in trying to do a time lapse video. Meanwhile, the Huckleberries had changed into their swim suits. She did a bit of sunbathing but he took a dip in the lake. I put my soda can in the water for a few minutes so I’d have a cold drink.

Ouzel Peak and Junco Lake

I headed back down after a half hour break. Having told myself that I’d be better off staying on the top of the ridge, I found myself heading down one of the many grassy ramps. It started off well enough but soon had me in a spot I didn’t like at all. I backtracked and chose another ramp. Again, no joy. As I was backtracking the second time, I ran into the Huckleberries again. I followed them for a good while, but they were moving faster than me and soon were out of sight. But by then I was pretty sure we were retracing the route we used on the way up.

Mahana Peak, Bluebird Lake. Longs and Meeker in background.

I took another break at Bluebird – snacked on my peach and slathered on another coat of SPF. At the Upper Ouzel campsite the trail crosses the outlet from Bluebird. I refilled my water here. By the time I was back to the car, I’d used up all the water. That’s the flip side of the open views in the burn area – there’s no shade and I feel a little broiled in the afternoon sun. I drank as much water in the last five and a half miles as I did in the first nine.

It was a full day, and by the time I made it back to the car I was exhausted. The Foster guide tells me it’s 7.2 miles from the trailhead to Junco Lake, with a 3,210′ net elevation gain. I’m guessing that with my backtracking I didn’t add much distance but did add a non-trivial amount of elevation. The hike was not only physically challenging, but I’ll admit to more than the usual difficulty route finding.

Timetable

Out In
Trailhead 07:30 AM 05:04 PM
Calypso Cascades 08:12 AM 04:19 PM
Ouzel Falls 08:31 AM 03:56 PM
Thunder/Ouzel junction 08:41 AM 03:45 PM
Ouzel/Bluebird junction 09:20 AM 03:08 AM
Bluebird Lake 10:42 AM 02:00 PM
Junco Lake 11:55 AM 12:30 PM

Bluebird Lake, Almost

Sometime last year my Eagle/Box trip got a few dozen hits in just a couple of days from a MeetUp group, the Grey Wolves. So I joined. I figured if there was a group that went to Eagle Lake, they’d likely go somewhere new for me.

Sunday, June 18

The original plan was that Chad and I would head to American/Michigan Lakes near Cameron Pass. His plans changed. Then I saw an invite from the Grey Wolves for a Bluebird Lake hike. Bluebird Lake isn’t new for me, but could make for a good test drive for joining the group. I’ve been there a couple of times, and will need to go again to collect my last two Wild Basin lakes: Junco and Isolation.

The first time I tried to get to Bluebird was in mid-June of a snowy year. I didn’t make it much past Ouzel. I walked into an avalanche debris field. The avalanche could have happened two days before or two weeks before, I had no idea. The snow was like a giant pine sno-cone. Trees were reduced to their elements – tree trunks, snapped like toothpicks, with no limbs and all the bark stripped off. Branches and twigs of all sizes. All mixed up. The entire forest smelled like a lumber mill. Water coursed down the slope, everywhere, audible under the mass of snow and rubble. It was almost alive. Over the course of eating my picnic, the debris pile visibly settled.

A once in a lifetime experience, no doubt.

Prior to the debris field hike, I attempted Ouzel in mid-June. That time, the section from the Thunder Lake/Ouzel Lake trail junction to the top of the ridge was snow, and the entire meadow below Ouzel was a complex of drifts. So I had a pretty good idea we’d have to hike four or five miles of snow, given the heavy late spring snows this year. Anyway, Bluebird sounded like a nice hike for a June day.

We met at Lyons and carpooled to the trailhead. Got there just in time, as we got the last few parking spaces. We were on the trail at 8. We maintained a nice pace on the trail, although we stopped more than I generally stop. We went through the little bypass for Copeland Falls, which I normally skip. But that’s okay, it’s a pleasant day. The water was running very high. Not the highest I’ve ever seen it, but close.

The lower part of the hike follows the river closely. The sheer volume of water demands attention. It roars. The amount of water was truly remarkable. We leave the river for a while when we cross it at Ouzel Falls. This is the first time I’ve been here since the 2013 floods. The bridge was out for a long time. I’m not sure when it got reopened, but it’s open now. They moved it a few yards downstream. And based on how high the old bridge was, I tried to visualize how high the water had to be to carry it off.

The new bridge is obscured by trees. The old bridge was sited to the left of the tree stump and the trail ran on this side of the log on the right.

We didn’t get to snow until we arrived in the area of my avalanche debris field. Somehow I was in the lead after we all deployed our micro spikes. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at a large rock outcropping. Water was cascading off it. Waterfalls everywhere. The sound of water was ubiquitous, torrents flowing beneath the banks of snow. Watch where you step in the low spots – snow melts from the bottom, often making delicate bridges.

In a few short weeks this area will be a riot of blue and yellow and red and white wildflowers. There are only yellow ones now, though, in bloom inches away from the snowbanks.

Leaving the outcropping we climb a gully to a large talus field. I’d forgotten about it and was thinking we were already approaching the lake. We had one more gully to climb. This final one is narrower and steeper. There is snow in it even into August. Today it’s a wall of snow maybe sixty feet high. I’ve been to the lake before, so I didn’t feel compelled to climb up it.

A few went up, but most of us had our picnics here. The narrow, steep gully on the right leads to Bluebird. The broader, shallow gully to the left leads to Junco. It’s still not clear to me the best route to Junco and this view of the terrain wasn’t terribly helpful, as it all looks so different with the snow.

After lunch we split up. Larry stayed at our picnic spot to wait for those who went all the way. I was in the early group to head back. Around Ouzel I kept my eyes peeled for moose. On the way up, hikers coming the other way reported moose nearby, but I don’t think any of us saw them. I was thinking there’s be a good chance they were still in the neighborhood. I didn’t spot them, but some of the others did.

I had both GoPros with me, but didn’t bother setting them up. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky until after 3pm. There weren’t even any jetliner contrails. The sun was brilliant but even on the exposed ridge wasn’t harsh, as it was still a cool, spring day.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. I don’t normally do the same trail twice in a season, but I’m thinking I should try to get to Junco this summer. I’m thinking that the talus field below Bluebird Lake might be a good place to leave the trail and look for a route to Junco.

 

A Discouraging Wind

Sunday, September 20

Denver’s forecast for Sunday was mid-80’s and clear. It sounded like ideal weather for one last hike above treeline. The goal this time was Isolation Lake. I’d been leaving my options open; there are two lakes above Bluebird Lake that I’ve never been to. Junco Lake is about a mile, across terrain I’ve not gotten a good look at. Isolation Lake is at 12,000′, accessed via a bit over a mile of open tundra. I was undecided which I’d visit until I got to the Park.

I wanted to be on the trail about 7:30. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get to Bluebird. It’s 6.3 miles, with the last mile fairly steep. I figured the stretch between Bluebird and Isolation would take an hour, so I wanted to be to Bluebird by eleven. I was between Boulder and Lyons for sunrise. Not a cloud in the sky. The drive all the way to the Park was pleasant – there was almost no traffic.

At the trailhead I snagged an end spot. The lot was perhaps a third full. Somehow I got the idea that the bridge had been repaired at Ouzel Falls, but they had signs up saying it was still out. I could try that way on the hike out, as it would only cost me a mile or so if I had to turn around.

Above Copeland Falls they’re nearly done with significant repairs to the trail, damaged two years ago. With the bridge out, I had to take the campsite route to the Thunder Lake trail. I’d been calling it an unimproved trail, but the bridge out sign called it “primitive”. It’s your basic forest trail that gains about seven hundred feet of elevation.

The trail to Ouzel Lake follows the spine of a ridge that was burned in the Ouzel fire in 1978. It’s like a big eraser went through there, removing a strip mature forest a half mile wide and several miles long. This time of year you get a better sense of how much of this strip has been filled in by aspen, the only aspen visible south of the St. Vrain. This section of trail is exposed to the wind and sun. The sun was shining brightly in a clear, deep blue sky. On a July or August afternoon this would be a fierce sun but this morning was quite pleasant. It wasn’t calm, just a light breeze.

Before exiting the burn scar and returning to the forest we pass just above Chickadee Pond and Ouzel Lake to the south. The trail makes climbs a quick four hundred feet, flattens out to cross a talus field, then climbs another four hundred. In this second climb I chatted with a hiker on his way down. “Did you spend the night up here?” “No, thank God. The wind is bad, maybe sixty miles an hour.”

That was a bit discouraging. From Bluebird to Isolation is open tundra, so I’d be hiking into the teeth of the wind. I can assume I might find a big rock to use as a wind break when I got to Isolation, but don’t really know. While it is probably quite pleasant to sit at 12,000′ in bright sunshine and calm, with any sort of wind it will be cold.

When I got to Bluebird I didn’t even take a picture. The wind was fierce. Maybe not sixty but easily forty miles an hour. I took one look in the general direction of my goal and turned around. Although the hike to Junco is more sheltered, the wind wouldn’t be any better. So Plan B is picnic at Ouzel.

Chickadee Pond

Rather than go back to the trail junction, I bushwhacked the hundred yards or so from the Bluebird Lake trail, going between Chickadee Pond and Ouzel Lake. It’s a forest lake, without an abundance of rocks. I tried to find a spot on a rock, in the sun, out of the wind, close to the water. Today, no such place existed. I did find a spot in the shade, slightly protected from the wind. I didn’t set up for a time lapse as there still wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Ouzel Lake

Below Ouzel Lake I ran into a guy coming up. “Boy, am I glad to see you and this trail!” He didn’t see the bridge out sign at the trailhead and made his way to Ouzel Falls. He went upstream on game trails until he found a spot to cross, but went a long way before regaining the trail. There was no point in heading to Ouzel Falls now that the missing bridge was confirmed. Ouzel Falls is only a nice spot for a break if you’re on the other side of the river.

I took another break on a rock outcropping on the campsite cutoff. Even so, with the shortened hike and abbreviated picnic, I was back to the car by 2:30. Traffic was not nearly as bad as I expected. I assumed lots of people would be driving around viewing the aspen. There was some of that; lots of convertibles and even a couple of early sixties British sports cars. But not heavy traffic, and everybody managed to go as fast as the speed limit for the most part. That is, until reaching Boulder where a biker raced to get to the front of the line then proceeded to putt along at twenty under the limit.

The hike itself was quite pleasant. Once away from the lake, even on the exposed ridge, there was no wind to speak of. And I didn’t see a cloud in the sky the entire day. I didn’t bag a new lake today, but that’s okay. I can pencil another attempt at Isolation on the calendar for next August.

Pipit Lake

Sunday, August 4

Within days of my failure to reach Lake of the Clouds, I decided that Pipit Lake would the be the next destination. I was all set to go on July 28 but the weather was bad so I delayed the hike for a week. Then on Saturday night I consulted the maps again and thought perhaps I’d hike to Junco Lake instead. Both Junco and Pipit require reaching Bluebird Lake first, both are the same distance, and Junco is at a slightly higher elevation. At one point I thought I’d make my decision only when I reached Bluebird, but as I’m hiking alone I thought it was better if I had a definite route planned before leaving the house. Always let people know where you’re going.

Before going to bed I decided to stick with the original plan – Pipit it was. I’ll save Junco Lake for next summer.

On my last hike, I walked alongside the Grand Ditch, a water diversion project started a century ago and still in operation. Bluebird Lake features in the history of water projects in Wild Basin, too. Back in 1915 the Arbuckle Reservoir Company received approval from the state engineer to build a dam at Bluebird Lake (Arbuckle Reservoir #2). I’m having a hard time imagining the effort required to get tools and materials to the lake. Bars of steel reinforcement were chained in bundles to an axle beam connecting two wagon wheels, with the end dragging along the ground behind a team of four horses. Sacks of cement were carried by donkeys, as were the parts of the disassembled rock crusher and the car engine used to run it.

Today, the trail between Ouzel Lake and Bluebird Lake hardly looks like a pack trail. While most pack trails in the park are quite wide and much improved, this section of trail is narrow and rocky with relatively few obvious improvements. In places, it’s packed dirt a few inches wide running through waist high grasses. The last section of trail is quite steep, switching back and forth. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

I hit the trail a bit before eight on another brilliant, nearly cloudless morning. Based on the cool temps when I left the house, I was expecting it to be a bit brisk at first but was pleasantly surprised it was quite nice – warm and calm. The first few miles of this trail can be quite crowded; the sandals and no water crowd visiting Copeland Falls, those with a bottle of water making it to Calypso Cascades or Ouzel Falls.

Not long after Ouzel Falls, the Thunder Lake trail meets the Bluebird Lake trail. I stopped here for a few minutes to apply sunscreen. After the junction, the trail climbs to the top of a ridge that was burned back in 1978. Lower on the trail, before Ouzel Falls, the forest almost seems back to its pre-fire condition when you’re hiking through it, but from above the fire’s path is still clear. Here on top of the ridge, the forest has made little progress and the views of the surrounding mountains are still clear and dramatic. While the views are fantastic, it means the hiker is left exposed to the sun and wind for an extended time. It was too early to be hot yet, but I was expecting it to be a bit on the warm side on my way down.

Here I chatted with a couple who had spent the night at Ouzel Lake. He said he’d heard moose were in the area but he didn’t see any. “If there were moose here, they’d have been around the lake where there’s lots of vegetation for them. There are no moose here.”

Spot the hikers

I was dreading, a bit, the section of trail between the Ouzel junction and Bluebird Lake. The trail climbs quite steeply, gaining about a thousand feet in less than two miles. As soon as the trail reenters the forest, there’s a large field of debris left by an avalanche that roared through the trees a few years ago. I stopped here to snack on some fruit but was hounded by mosquitoes so I didn’t dally long.

After a short forest section the trail passes through a series of meadows and rock piles. The meadows are a riot of wildflowers – red and yellow, blue and purple, white. When I say I hiked through mile after mile of wildflowers I’m not being hyperbolic. The last mile or so of the trail to Bluebird, plus the mile from there to Pipit were through these fantastic fields of flowers.

I reached Bluebird in good time. There were six or eight other hikers here, perched on rocks here and there near where the trail ends at the outlet stream. I made my way down into the little chasm the outlet stream passes through; crossed it on some rocks and made my way up the other side. This is where the dam was. There’s no sign of it; a testament to the skill of the rangers who cleared it out. Lisa Foster notes the obvious “bathtub ring” around the lake as indication it used to be dammed up, but I think nature has done a good job of erasing it.

Bluebird Lake and Mt. Copeland

Now on the north side of the lake, I gained elevation slowly as I worked my way west. I wanted to be above a large rock outcropping on the west side of the lake. There is no trail here. I occasionally found a faint path, but the route traverses a lot of talus and I saw few cairns. I made my way up a gully above the rock outcropping and ran into a wall of willow. I immediately flashed back to my hike to Keplinger. But here I was back in the clear after only a few feet and a few minutes later found myself at the edge of Lark Pond.

It occurs to me how many lakes in the area are named after birds: Finch Lake, Bluebird Lake, Lark Pond, Chickadee Pond, Falcon Lake. Those are the obvious ones. Pipit, Junco, and Ouzel are also birds. A few miles away, as the ptarmigan flies, is Ptarmigan Lake. How many more lakes here are named for birds?

Lark Pond

From Lark Pond it’s only a few more minutes and a few more feet of elevation to reach Pipit Lake. I was going to say “walk across the tundra and rocks”, but it’s not really tundra here, is it? I don’t generally think of wildflowers when I think tundra. Although the flowers aren’t as dense here as lower on the trail, they’re still quite abundant. I made a point to walk on rocks where I could. Not just to avoid stepping on the flowers, but the ground is marshy in places as well. It looked to me like water was flowing in braids through this area only a few days ago.

Reaching Pipit Lake, I set up the cameras and tucked into my lunch. There’s no shade here, and no shelter from the wind. But it was fairly calm, so not a problem. After only a few bites I was wishing there was a bit more of a breeze, to keep the rich insect life out of my face. I found it better to pace back and forth a bit.

Pipit Lake pano

I’ve been taking a can of soda with me on these hikes for as long as I can remember. I’ve never had a problem with the carbonation before. But today when I opened the can, it fizzed right out of the can. I kept sucking it up but it kept boiling over. By the time it calmed down, I was left with only about two thirds of a can and a sticky hand. I was nearly out of water now, so it was a great time to refill.

I’ve been using a SteriPEN for about a year now and am quite pleased with it. I used to carry two one liter bottles of water. On the longer hikes, I found myself husbanding my water supply somewhat so that I didn’t run out of water before making it back to the trailhead. Now I don’t worry about it at all. I carry one bottle and the device and can drink as much as I want. On this hike, I refilled twice – once at Pipit Lake and again at Ouzel Falls on my way out.

So after getting more water at the outlet of Pipit Lake, I head back past Lark Pond and down to Bluebird Lake. Before long I see another hiker thirty or forty yards ahead of me. How can this be? I hadn’t seen anybody for quite a while, certainly not at Lark Pond or Pipit Lake. I caught up to her a few minutes later and we hiked together until just below Bluebird. She hit the trail at 5:45 and hiked to Isolation Lake. This lake is nestled at about 12,000′ in a cranny between Isolation Peak and Mahana Peak. Looking at the map, I had decided it was beyond my ability, but she told me the hardest part of the hike was crossing the area where we met. Just angle up the slope a little higher than I went to get to Lark Pond and it would be easy to get to.

Wildflowers abound

Further down the trail, still above Ouzel, I met a couple of hikers who told me they’d seen two bull moose farther down the trail. They were below Chickadee Pond and heading west. The next hikers repeated the story. I kept my eyes peeled and occasionally used the camera’s telephoto lens to aid in the search but no luck. The next hikers I caught up to also failed to see the moose. So, contrary to the hikers I met in the morning, moose are in the Ouzel Lake area if you’re lucky enough to see them.

On the hike out, it clouded up a bit (as is not unusual). This made the section through the burn area more pleasant than I was expecting; instead of dealing with bright sunshine on a warm afternoon it was slightly overcast and quite comfortable.

I took a final break at Ouzel Falls for more fruit and a refill of water. Fatigue was finally setting in and my pace slowed a bit. From Ouzel Falls on down the trail is quite crowded. I could see or hear other hikers the rest of the way.

Back at the car I was approached by a couple of park rangers. “We saw your car and wanted to chat with you.” They told me they’d seen me parked at the Sandbeach trailhead last month and were happy to see I didn’t have any hail damage. Evidently it hailed hard enough to set off the car’s alarm. I had no idea. We talked about how often people take pictures of my car. They were amused that with such natural beauty around people would take pictures of a car in the parking lot. We also talked about the sorry state of the dirt road to the trailhead. It’s in serious need of grading. I had to crawl along quite slowly not to fall into the holes. It’s noticeably worse now than it was when I hiked from the Finch Lake trailhead.

And here’s the obligatory time lapse:

Timetable

Up Down
Trailhead 07:40 AM 04:00 PM
Campground shortcut 08:05 AM 03:35 PM
Calypso Cascades 08:15 AM 03:20 PM
Ouzel Falls 08:35 AM 02:50 PM
Bluebird trail jct 08:45 AM 02:40 PM
Ouzel trail jct 09:35 AM 02:05 PM
Bluebird Lake 11:00 AM 01:05 PM
Pipit Lake 11:50 AM 12:30 PM