Fifth Lake – Day 2

Sunday, September 2

We were up and shortly after 6:30. In theory, as neither of us planned on a hot breakfast, we should have been able to start our journey to Fifth Lake well before eight. In practice, it wasn’t until 8:30 that we put boots on trail. We packed everything up into our packs which we left at the campsite partially covered by a log in case it rained.

On last month’s trip I packed my day pack in the backpack. After posting that trip report, Ed mentioned that he had a Kelty pack that had a day pack incorporated into it. After playing around with mine I discovered that mine did as well. I don’t like the little day pack bit as much as my lumbar pack, but I’d certainly give it a try. Not having to carry the extra equipment would save me some space and weight.

So in the little pack I carried a bottle of water, some food, and my rain jacket. Somehow I neglected to put the GoPro in it. I was a bit disappointed in my forgetfulness, but I didn’t want to turn around to get it.

Lake Verna pano

When I see pictures my other hiking friends post online I’ll admit I’m a bit jealous that they get so many shots of lakes with mirror-smooth surfaces. As a day-hiker, I’m never at any lakes early enough to see them before there’s any breeze. So I was quite pleased to see Lake Verna and Spirit Lake in such calm conditions. This is definitely an advantage that offsets carrying a heavy pack and sleeping on the ground.

Gordon on the beach at Lake Verna

Another distinct but mistaken memory I have is of the trail between Spirit Lake and Fourth Lake. I vividly recall coming to a split in the trail and having to choose whether to step across the stream and cross a meadow or stay to the left. I went right and ended up in a bit of a marsh. I navigated to higher ground, then found another game trail that deposited me in another marshy meadow. Today I came across no such split in the trail, and where I expected to find two or three meadows found only one.

Spirit Lake and ‘Aiguille de Fleur’

That is not to say that there weren’t any splits in the trail. As one progresses farther west from Spirit Lake the trail often becomes braided. Part of this is due to the many downed trees to be negotiated. In a number of places I took one fork of trail and Gordon took the other. We always came back together after a few dozen yards. So although the trail becomes indistinct and braided, it doesn’t really seem to matter.

Spirit Lake

After Fourth Lake, East Inlet makes a turn to the south. Or, rather, flowing down a steep hill, the stream turns from flowing north to flowing west. The trail is quite faint after Fourth Lake but not terribly difficult to follow. For quite a while it continues east and goes straight up the slope. A fair way up the hill we decided it was time to strike off the trail and back towards the stream.

Fourth Lake

Route finding was simple and we found ourselves hopping from rock to rock until we arrived at the stream itself. Although it’s called East Inlet, here I want to call it the outlet, as it’s the outlet of Fifth Lake. In early September the flow is quite diminished but based on the color of the rocks you can tell that the stream often flows much higher. We arrived on the shore of Fifth Lake by about 10:15.

The morning sky was still almost cloudless, so had I not forgotten the GoPro I wouldn’t have had a very interesting time-lapse. A few jetliners crossed the sky leaving contrails that dispersed into fat white ribbons and a half moon floated above the opposite ridge. Much of the lake was still in the shadow of the spectacular ridge of the Continental Divide. As the sun rose, it didn’t so much climb above the ridge as traverse it, moving behind first one peak then another, putting us alternately in shade, then sun, then shade again.

Fifth Lake

We weren’t the only ones there. A lone fisherman was working his way around the lake, casting his line in several different places. After about half an hour we headed back down. Arriving at Fourth Lake we spotted two moose wading across the lake. We kept an eye on them and they kept an eye on us. Gordon suggested they might be the same two moose we saw yesterday. If we made it here, they certainly could have too. I have my doubts that they’re the same moose but who knows.

Gordon scanned the opposite shore with is binoculars and spotted a bull moose in the trees. If Gordon hadn’t pointed him out to me I’d have never seen him. I could see him but any picture I took with the cell phone wouldn’t show him. The moose worked their way to the outlet stream and we found our paths converging.

Moose wading in Fourth Lake

Here we met a couple guys hiking up. They left the trailhead at seven this morning, arriving here at Fourth Lake at 11:40. They didn’t realize where they were. Their goal was Spirit Lake. I told them they were at Fourth Lake, gave them my map, and suggested they try to get to Fifth Lake. I somewhat expected to see them again on our hike out as they were moving quite a bit faster than us, but we never did see them again so I don’t know if they made it.

Pika

We were back at the campsite a bit before 1:00. This is somewhat later than I was hoping but not a concern. It took us about five hours to get here yesterday, and I typically don’t hike out any faster than I hike in. That could mean we don’t get back to the car until six. But we make it to Lone Pine Lake in half an hour and don’t take any breaks until we crossed the bridge over the river another half hour below Lone Pine. We stopped there for more water.

About ten minutes before reaching the bridge I heard quite a loud noise somewhere below us. I can’t really describe it, and at the time I had no idea what it was. My first thought was that it was man-made, but I couldn’t imagine how it was made. I didn’t give it any more thought until a couple hundred yards down the trail from our break at the bridge. A dead tree had fallen across the river, landing on a large rock slab that the trail crossed. The trunk had been burned, was black. Where it hit the rock it was broken in a couple places. Broken but not quite shattered. This, obviously, was the source of the noise.

I was a bit surprised at the number of hikers on the trail. My last visit I only saw a handful of people. But that was a weekday and this is a holiday weekend. Still, the number of people hiking up toward Lone Pine Lake this late in the day was unexpected. Closer to the trailhead, one couple asked me how far to the lake. I told them we’d been hiking for about two hours; they turned right around. Another woman passed us asking if the moose was still there. Last moose we saw was at Fourth Lake.

Yours truly, crossing a bridge just above Lone Pine Lake

We finally made it back to the car at around 4:30, maybe a little later. It felt like a long day. I won’t say the last two miles were agony, but I really struggled. But every worthwhile thing has a cost. The valley of upper East Inlet is gorgeous: large, beautiful lakes beneath stunning peaks. We couldn’t have had much better weather. We had some threatening clouds but never got rained on, and when it was sunny it wasn’t hot.

Just another beautiful day (or two) in the neighborhood.

Fifth Lake – Day 1

East Inlet is a stream that flows roughly ten miles from the northern flank of Isolation Peak to the eastern shores of Grand Lake. There are five lakes along this stream, like beads on a string: Lone Pine Lake, Lake Verna, Spirit Lake, Fourth Lake, and Fifth Lake. They ran out of names.

I tried to get to Fifth Lake back in 2009. That was the first year that I kept a log of my hikes, but before I was blogging. I attempted it as a day hike, hitting the trail at 7:30 and reaching Fourth Lake at noon. As that was my “bingo” time, I stopped there, ate my picnic, then headed back. I returned to the car a bit before 5:00. Given that it might take about an hour to get to Fifth Lake from Fourth Lake, I figured it was out of range for me for a day hike.

If I can’t do it in one day, perhaps I should try it in two. So when March 1 rolled around I went online to make a reservation for one night at the Lake Verna campsite. I didn’t get my request but when I visited the back country office to make my reservation for zone camping for my Gorge Lakes hike, I managed to negotiate a good alternative. The Lake Verna campsite was booked up on all the dates I was interested in, but Upper East Inlet was available for September first. It’s just a couple tenths of a mile below Lake Verna so there’s no real functional difference.

The plan was to hike in to the campsite on day one, rise early on day two to get up to Fifth Lake and back to the campsite around noon, then hike back to the car. When I made the reservation, I didn’t have anybody lined up to accompany me but I booked it for two people anyway. About a week ago Gordon volunteered to go.

Saturday, September 1

Because we essentially had all day to get to Lake Verna we made a leisurely start, putting boots on the trail at about 10:00am.

It has been nine years since I hiked this trail but I have a few very distinct memories of it. I remember encountering a bull moose just below Lake Verna with a lame left front leg. I remember it being on a section of trail that traversed a rather steep treeless slope. There is no such section of trail. I’m the first to admit my memory isn’t the best, but in this case it’s a pretty disappointing mismatch. As to the rest of the trail, only a couple of short sections of that hike stayed with me. So in a sense, much of it was somewhat like being on a trail I’d never hiked before.

On that hike long ago, I found a moose in the marshy meadow quite near the trailhead. Today we found two moose even closer to the start. They were quite near the trail. Almost too close for comfort when I realized it was a cow and yearling calf. I probably have that nomenclature wrong. It was a young moose, but now nearly fully grown. I know moose can be unpredictable and wouldn’t want to get between mother and calf.

These two were quite calm, probably used to being in the presence of people. The only other time I’ve been this close to a moose was that earlier encounter on this trail with the lame one. We quietly watched them for a few minutes and took a few pictures. As they slowly worked their way into the trees and away from the trail, the cow let out an odd little moan, then pooped. I realized I’ve never knowingly seen moose poo before. Last year I learned that much of what I’ve taken for years to be deer poo is actually llama poo. This year I learned that moose poo looks a lot like horse poo.

Lone Pine Lake is the first lake in the chain, 5.3 miles and 1500 vertical feet from the trailhead. The first two miles or so follow the stream as it meanders through a broad marshy valley and gains only about a hundred feet. After that easy first two miles, the trail climbs about 1400 feet in just over three miles. This section of trail goes through some fairly rugged country, and the trail between here and just above Lone Pine Lake is what I’d call “highly engineered”. There are a number of stretches where you climb rather a long series of stone stairs.

When we got to the campsite it seemed to me like we’d climbed a thousand of these stairs. That’s a ridiculous number, obviously. When we got to the first of these on the way down I asked Gordon how many he thought there were. “I don’t know. 232?” I said it seemed like a thousand, even though that was an exaggeration. I said that I didn’t intend to count them, but then went ahead and counted anyway. I lost track a couple of times, but by the time we got back to the car I’d counted 725. The actual number is probably between 700 and 750. Those are just the obviously engineered stairs and doesn’t include the many rocks that naturally lie on the trail or are set to divert rain water off the trail.

In addition to the many stairs, there are long lengths of trail that lie on top of carefully built stone walls. There are also some spots where the trail was laid on a ledge that was carved out of large rock outcroppings. Some serious work went into constructing this trail. I really appreciate it, as when looking at the terrain from below it doesn’t look like the kind of country I would be willing to cross without a trail.

I don’t know the fire history of this area. None of it has burned since 2000, but there’s a pretty good section that looks to me as if it has recently burned. There aren’t any large swaths of dead trees, but the tree trunks for quite a stretch of trail look like they’ve seen some fire. There’s one stretch of stone stairs that I recall quite well from before and through here it seemed to me that there were quite a few more downed trees now than then.

We stopped for a rest perhaps half way up the climb to Lone Pine Lake. That’s not half the trail distance, but half the climb, so maybe three and a half miles in. To that point I thought we were making pretty good time. But carrying the pack was starting to wear me out. We took another break at Lone Pine Lake. I really struggled to get there, as I wanted to stop about half an hour earlier. But Gordon took the lead for a while and convinced me to continue until we arrived at the lake.

Lone Pine Lake

It was nearly 2:00 when we got to the lake, and we paused for about fifteen minutes. The weather forecast for the area called for a 60% chance of rain in the afternoon, with some snow possible overnight (with “little to no accumulation of snow”). The skies by now were clearly threatening, with the occasional rumble of thunder. So we didn’t delay too long.

It’s just over a mile and a half from Lone Pine Lake to Lake Verna, and our campsite is a couple tenths below Verna, so we didn’t have much farther to go. Verna, Spirit, and Fourth lakes lie in a valley that hangs above Lone Pine. There’s not much elevation between those three lakes, but the trail climbs a bit over two hundred feet in the next half mile or so. This is another highly engineered stretch of trail that includes a few bridges and a rather large retaining wall. The trail tops out on a rock outcropping with a nice view of Lone Pine Lake.

Above Lone Pine Lake

From here to the campsite it’s pretty easy walking; a nearly straight line for about two thirds of a mile. The campsite itself is a few yards north of the trail, up another thirty or forty feet. It looks like a number of rather large dead trees have recently toppled, their thin disks of soil and roots standing upright. The large trees were dead, but in toppling they took with them some young, live trees. These were still green, so they haven’t been down for very long. I’m sure that if anybody was in the campsite when the trees came down it was quite thrilling.

Upper East Inlet campsite

After we set up camp we headed to Lake Verna. On last month’s trip, I carried two full bottles of water. This time I carried both bottles but only one was full. I figured we’d never be far from a water source so I didn’t need to carry the extra weight, but at camp I’d probably want to have more than one bottle of water, given I’d use something like half a bottle to cook my meal. After I filled my bottle, we sat there and watched the world go by for a little while.

Lake Verna, early evening

Back in camp Gordon surprised me by pulling a couple cans of beer out of his pack: Left Hand Brewing Traveling Light Kolsch. Much the way that I find a peach always seems to taste best when on the shores of an alpine lake, I was quite satisfied with this tasty little Kolsch, even though it was warm.

By sunset the clouds had cleared and by the time I turned in, the first stars in the night sky were shining brightly above us. Had I tried to stay up long enough, I might have seen a little sliver of the Milky Way as the moon wouldn’t rise for a few hours yet. I was happy that the 60% chance of rain hadn’t materialized, other than a few sprinkles when we sat at Lake Verna. With no clouds overhead at sunset, I was confident we wouldn’t get rain (or snow!) overnight.