Tourmaline Lake

Sunday, June 16

Tourmaline is a gemstone that comes in a wide variety of colors. More technically, tourmaline is a crystal boron silicate mineral compounded with elements such as aluminum, iron, magnesium, sodium, lithium, or potassium. Whatever that means. Was the lake given this name because tourmaline can be found there, or because of the color? I have no idea.

There are two obvious routes to reach Tourmaline Lake. In either case, you get there by visiting Odessa Lake first, meaning you can start either at Bear Lake or the Fern Lake trailhead. It is nearly a mile shorter starting from Bear Lake, but I chose to start at the Fern Lake trailhead for two reasons. First, the trail from Bear Lake descends about 500′ between Lake Helene and Odessa Lake, meaning I’d have to do an uphill stretch on the way back. I like to get most of my uphill hiking done before lunch. Second, and more importantly, I haven’t hiked from the Fern Lake trailhead since last fall’s fire.

The fire started on October 9 in rugged terrain near the Pool. It was still burning November 30 when seventy mile per hour winds pushed it to Moraine Park. Except for a small stand of trees damaged on the south side, Moraine Park looks almost untouched by the fire – the grass is regrown and although many of the shrubs along the stream were burned many of them are now sprouting green leaves. It appears to me that many of those shrubs have black bark on the trunks (stems?) so it may be that fewer of them burned than I originally surmised.

I arrived at the trailhead shortly after eight and was on the trail by 8:20. It was a pleasant sunny morning. Forecast for Denver was a high of 84, so I figured maybe ten degrees cooler at the trailhead and another few degrees at Tourmaline. The weather report suggested a fifty percent chance of rain. But at eight, there were no clouds in the sky and no wind to speak of.


Burned area south of the Big Thompson

Within a couple hundred yards of the trailhead, I could see large burned areas across the river on the south side of the valley. In my mind, I always felt the section of this trail, from the trailhead to the Pool, is very similar to the lower section of the Thunder Lake trail in Wild Basin. Both run alongside the north bank of a large, boisterous stream and have very gentle gradients. On the Thunder Lake trail, you don’t get to the burn area of the Ouzel fire until well after you cross the river. On the Fern Lake trail, there is very little fire damage on the trail itself. There are a few small burned spots right along the trail before arriving at the Pool.


Looking towards Trail Ridge Road

At the Pool, the trail crosses to the south side of the Big Thompson and splits: Cub Lake to the left, Fern Lake up and to the right. Not long after that junction, the Fern Lake trail crosses Fern Creek. This crossing is a simple log bridge – two logs side by side, cut flat for a walkway, with a smaller log serving as a railing. Here the fire crossed the creek with burned trees and blackened ground on both sides of the creek. But the bridge was, strangely, untouched. From here the trail climbs steadily and zig-zags a couple of times reaching Fern Falls before finally flattening and straightening on the final approach to Fern Lake. At times the hiker is presented with a view of the terrain on the north side of the valley. That is where most of the fire burned, all the way up to the tree line.

I didn’t see any snow on the ground until reaching Fern Lake, where a snow bank covered the trail. By now the skies along the divide were no longer blue. Trying to be witty I might say the weather performed alchemy, transforming cobalt to lead. But the clouds weren’t that gray. At Fern Lake the trail crosses the outlet then passes through a boulder field before regaining the forest. From here to the Odessa Lake spur, the trail climbs steadily and provides the occasional view of Fern Lake through the trees.

The spur trail to Odessa Lake crosses the stream once again. The trail here is quite close to the stream. There is quite a bit of runoff and the trail here is wet and muddy. The trail dumps you at the northern end of the lake with a nice view of Notchtop. To get to Tourmaline Lake, circle to the west and south until reaching Tourmaline Creek. From here, there’s not much of a trail. Just follow the stream. I occasionally found a faint trail or a few cairns, but that was the exception.

The hike gets steep here. From trailhead to Tourmaline Lake the total elevation gain is 2,470′ over 5.4 miles. But the elevation gain from Odessa to Tourmaline is 560′ of that and in only about a half mile. The stream falls down the mountainside in braids and quite often underneath piles of boulders. I took my time on the steep parts, taking in the view of Joe Mills Mountain. The trail from Odessa to Bear Lake is a visible gash on the far side of the valley.

Here the clouds got productive. After one steep ascent the route flattens out a bit. This is where the graupel started falling. Neither snow nor hail, but something in between it melted fairly quickly when it hit the boulders, making them somewhat slippery. I put my windbreaker on (just shorts and Hawaiian shirt necessary until now) and the little pellets were now quite audible. After a short while the trail gets steep again for the final assault on the lake. There was some snow on the ground. I came prepared with micro spikes but never put them on. I postholed in a couple of places but the snow wasn’t much of an issue.

Tourmaline pano

Tourmaline pano

Arriving at the lake, I set up the GoPro for a timelapse before tucking in to my picnic lunch. The sky was solid formless cloud with no apparent motion. I let the camera run anyway, as you never know what you’ll get. (In this case, I got nothing. So no time lapse video for this lake. Yet.) But because of the clouds, I didn’t bother setting up the SLR for a time lapse and instead climbed up a pile of boulders in an attempt to get a nicer angle.

Tourmaline Lake

Tourmaline Lake

Seems a turkey sandwich always tastes better when I’m sitting at an alpine lake, even if it has been slightly smashed in the pack. And even if the clouds are starting to look a bit threatening. I didn’t dawdle long. I often linger for an hour or so, to make sure I take in all I can. But I didn’t like the looks of things, so I packed up and headed down the mountain. Just in time to get graupeled on again. I managed to retrace my steps, finding most of the trail fragments and cairns I saw on the way up.

On the final steep part before reaching Odessa, the precipitation changed to rain and thunder started rumbling through the valley. At first, it was just a light sprinkle but by the time I reached Odessa I decided it was more likely to get worse before it got better so I dug the poncho out of the pack. It rained steadily from there to Fern Lake, then only lightly until clearing up at Fern Falls.

Rain lashes Fern Lake

Rain lashes Fern Lake

Not long after Fern Falls, the clouds had completely disappeared.

I took a number of photos of the burned sections right along the trail, but most of them are not very interesting – or perhaps misleading. Posting a few pictures of burned trees along the trail may give the impression there’s more damage than there really is. As I said earlier, it is often just a few feet of burn where the fire crossed the trail. But I will post one more, a panorama built from three photos around a bend in the trail. Note that the trees appear undamaged; only the deadfall actually burned.

Burned section of trail

Burned section of trail

All in all, a quite enjoyable hike. I’d like to revisit the lake with better weather, perhaps next time from Bear Lake.



There Back
Trailhead 08:20:00 AM 03:50:00 PM
The Pool 09:00:00 AM 03:05:00 PM
Fern Lake 10:10:00 AM 02:00:00 PM
Odessa Lake 11:00:00 AM 01:30:00 PM
Tourmaline Lake 12:10:00 PM 12:55:00 PM

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