Gorge Lakes – Day 3

Sunday, August 5

Rain started again at about a quarter to six. We had breakfast in the rain, taking shelter under the trees. The sky was a uniform gray, giving no indication that the rain would break any time soon. We had a short discussion as to how long we were willing to wait before packing up in the rain. We came to no conclusion but fortunately before long the rain stopped and the sun poked through the clouds. We were packed up by shortly after eight.

The route back to the trailhead was up the high ridge. We’d turn north at Love Lake, climb up to the unnamed lake above it (‘Lake Amore’ in the Foster guide) and refill our water. From there, circle to the west then south to head up the ridge. Somewhere between 12,400’ and 12,600’ we’d gain the Mt. Ida trail and be home free.

When we got to where I said we should find Lake Amore we instead found just a puddle of water. The guys were confident that their filtration systems would handle this, so we filled up as this would be our last opportunity. I still had nearly a liter of good lake water but filled my other bottle anyway. In the end this was unnecessary and proved to be dead weight as I drank none of it. But better to carry water you don’t need than need water you didn’t carry.

Love Lake (near) and Arrowhead Lake

I suspect we were on a rise slightly above and south of Lake Amore as my phone told me we were about forty feet higher than the map indicated for the lake. But I didn’t waste the steps to verify my suspicion. Once we filled up, Brad asked me if there was any reason we couldn’t just climb straight up the steep slope above us to gain the top of the ridge. It looked to be about two hundred fifty feet and quite steep. I’d have rather gone my route: longer but not so steep. I was outvoted, so up we went.

Yours truly, atop the ridge

We took our time working up the ridge and back to the trail. At altitude none of us was moving very swiftly and we took a number of short breaks. The wind was blowing fairly stiffly and the clouds to the west were building up threateningly. At one of our pauses, James asked “Did you hear that?” I didn’t hear anything until there was a break in the wind. It wasn’t the bugling of elk, but the yipping of coyotes. Not the howl I used to hear regularly during the night when I lived in Estes, but a definite yipping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard coyotes except at night.

View to the northwest. We crossed this valley (toward the right of the picture) Friday.

When we got to the trail we could see a rain squall to the south. Tim said he thought we’d miss it. We may have missed that one, but almost immediately after his remark we found ourselves getting rained on again. Back on the trail, and heading mostly downhill, our progress was a bit faster. Which was good, because we soon saw the flash of lightning. We had about three miles to cover before we gained treeline. For a short while, we got hailed on. The wind was stiff and blew the hail nearly horizontally.

The rain ended before we got back to treeline and we made it back to the car by 1:00pm without getting hit by lightning. On the drive back over Trail Ridge Road we stopped at the Rock Cut to review our trip. The general consensus (joking, I think) was that it was good we couldn’t see anything on Friday morning: “We’re going where?”

In the picture below, taken from Trail Ridge Road a bit west of the Rock Cut, we could see most of the terrain we crossed. The Mount Ida trail is on the other side of the ridge that climbs from right to left ending in about the center of the shot. We went off trail starting to the right of the snow field moving east (right to left) a bit below treeline. Gorge Lakes lie in the left third of the shot, under the pointy peak (Mount Julian).

View from Trail Ridge Road.


From the maps, it looked to me like I could reach all those lakes given enough time. I could have started my assault on the lakes an hour or more earlier than I did. And the weather worked against me. But it’s the terrain that stopped me, not bad weather or a lack of time. I just don’t have the skills or temperament to reach all these lakes. I certainly can’t get them on a day hike, and there are enough other remote places in the park that I’d like to visit that I’m unlikely to do another backpacking trip here.

I was quite happy with the borrowed backpack. It is borrowed no more: Paul has kindly given it to me. Thanks, Paul.

On the clothing front, I’ll have to look at getting some rain pants. I’m pretty sure my boots would have kept my feet dry had I not had water running down my legs. For around camp, I had my sweat pants and hoodie. I was comfortable with these, and used the hoodie as a pillow, but they’re on the bulky side and space in the pack is at a premium. So I’ll start investigating on that front. And I learned that I need to have enough socks.

I was pretty happy with my food selection, with the exception of the jerky bars. They left an odd aftertaste and the texture wasn’t at all like jerky. They were not what I was expecting. Next time I’ll go with your basic jerky.

All in all I enjoyed the trip. I won’t lie: I am disappointed that I only managed to get to one of the four lakes I was after, and that one only marginally. And the weather was, shall we say, less than ideal. I was tempted several times to say that I was cold, wet, and miserable. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent time in the park that I felt truly miserable. It’s an incredible place, and I’m happy to be there to experience it in all its variety.

Gorge Lakes – Day 2

Saturday, August 4

We broke camp by 8:15 and headed east around the buttress of the ridge in search of our next campsite. We needed to be a mile away from last night’s location, and I wanted to be as close as possible to where we’d be spending most of the day. We also needed to be in reasonable proximity to a water source.

When I got up this morning, I had the choice of wearing yesterday’s wet socks or the one pair of dry socks I carried. As my boots were still thoroughly wet, I went with the wet socks. I figured if I used the dry ones, they’d be wet pretty quickly and then all my socks would be wet. I wanted to keep a pair dry for the night. It made for cold feet for the start of the day but once we got going it wasn’t so bad.

In our passage through the forest we came upon the occasional bone. Yesterday I found a scapula, deer or elk I’m not sure which. Today we saw two more. I’m not sure why I see so many scapulae. I see more of them than anything else, with vertebrae next most common. I rarely see skulls. But we found an elk skull today.

Elk skull.

We bushwhacked more or less due east and came upon a small unnamed lake that lies at 11,000’. We needed to go a bit farther. The map shows a sort of plateau between 11,000’ and 11,200’ about two tenths of a mile ENE of Love Lake. I’m not sure that this area is within our zone, but I figured it was close, and it met all the other requirements of a legal campsite. We dropped our packs here and Brad and I went off in search of Love Lake.

Our navigation was spot-on and we arrived there after about fifteen minutes hiking. It sure was easier without our packs, but we should have at least carried a filter and a couple of empty bottles. So, other than the simple fact that we verified where we were, it was a wasted trip.

We headed back to our packs and selected our campsite on this plateau. I think it was a better spot than last night. The vegetation wasn’t as thick and we had some nice rocks to sit on. A couple of the rocks were in sunshine and would be handy for putting our wet items on in an attempt to dry them.

Once we set up camp, we decided on our day’s action plan. The guys all wanted to fish. The park’s website said there were fish in Rock Lake and the outlet from Arrowhead. I wanted to bag the four lakes I missed last time. So we went as a group up to Love Lake and from there down to the outlet of Arrowhead. I left them there and headed across the large rock outcroppings along the eastern side of Arrowhead toward Doughnut Lake.

Tim takes in the view

From the map, it looked like I could go from Doughnut up a gully to the southwest, over a ridge and then descend to Inkwell. From there, I should be able to follow the inlet stream up to Azure Lake. If things were still going well and I had enough time, I could follow that inlet stream to Highest Lake. From the slope above the northern end of Arrowhead, very little of this was visible. The terrain looked rugged, but passable.

So off I went to Doughnut. The ridge I traversed had a couple of large gullies leading up to saddles and so had three distinct summits. I made it to the first saddle easily enough. And from there to the second. The saddle between the second and third summits is shown on the map with two contour lines, or on the order of sixty to eighty feet. What I was faced with was a thirty foot cliff. I worked around the east side, but it’s quite steep here, too, essentially a fifty or sixty foot cliff. I was stymied.

I took a few pictures but never made it to the shore of the lake. I’m going to add it to my list, though. I’m saying I made it there, or close enough. I went west through the saddle looking for a way to get to the top of the next little summit, but no dice. So I found a place to sit down, eat my lunch, and run the GoPro for a while for a time lapse video.

Doughnut Lake

When we were up at Love Lake, we heard voices but didn’t see anybody. Now, down below me at the far southern end of Arrowhead I saw the other hikers. At first I only saw two, but there were four. They made their way to the base of a nice waterfall – the stream that flowed from Inkwell. It looked like they had found quite a nice place and they were there the whole time I was sitting there. They were a noisy bunch. They were about three hundred yards away and a hundred fifty feet below me. Once I thought perhaps they had spotted me and were yelling at me. I waved my arms but couldn’t see them responding.

I ran the camera for about thirty five minutes and watched the clouds roll by. I had a nice view of Trail Ridge in the distance. Had it been calm, I probably would have been able to hear the louder motorcycles and trucks. But it was quite windy. I tried to keep an eye out for incoming weather, but the high ridge to my west obscured my view. Before long, dark threatening clouds came over the gorge. I packed up the camera and started heading back to camp.

When I got to the top of the gully I took to get to the first saddle it started to rain. I popped into a small grove of trees just as it began to hail. I pondered how long I was willing to wait there. This squall could be over in a few minutes, or it could rain for hours. When the hail stopped the rain increased. Visibility across the lake was noticeably reduced. I waited a bit longer and the hail returned. After hail abated the second time, I set out again.

Arrowhead Lake panorama, above the eastern shore

Much of the way back to Love Lake was across open rock. The rock has quite a bit of lichen on it, and when that stuff is wet it can be quite slippery. I more or less was able to retrace my steps but did end up going through a nasty bit of krummholz that I didn’t encounter on the way up. Going through that, I got my pants soaked, which led to my damp socks getting pretty wet again.

Forest Canyon rain squall. Rock Lake visible 700′ below.

I made it back to the outlet of Arrowhead, crossed the stream without incident, and climbed the talus slope up to Love Lake. I went pretty slow, taking great care on the slippery rocks. Up on the shore of Love Lake I let my guard down and nearly slipped on rocks there.

On our way out for the day, we refilled water bottles at Love Lake. Everybody took what water they needed for the afternoon and we left some full bottles and our filter gear there. When I got there, everything was gone, so the guys had already returned to camp. If they quit fishing when the rain started, they had about an hours head start on me.

By the time I returned to camp, the rain had stopped and shortly thereafter the sun was shining brightly. I took the opportunity to take off my boots and socks and lay them out on a rock. Sadly, the sunshine didn’t last long and nothing quite got dry.

The guys told me they didn’t venture far from Arrowhead’s outlet. The park’s website said fish could be caught there, and down below in Rock Lake. The terrain is pretty rugged at there the outlet, and Rock Lake is something like 700’ below. They didn’t catch anything, but all had hits on their lines.

The evening was uneventful. The rain didn’t return before we turned in. Even so, it was an early night with everybody retiring before dark. I slept about as well as the night before; one excursion before midnight and otherwise sleeping in fits and spurts. It rained for about an hour starting at three. No dreams tonight, at least that I recall.

Gorge Lakes – Day 1

Friday, August 3

When we made the reservations back on the first of March we had no way of knowing what the weather would be like five months hence. We were reasonably expecting warm, sunny days with a chance of afternoon thunder showers. That’s not at all how it turned out.

Tim picked me up a few minutes after eight and we met Brad and James in Estes Park. They left their car at the visitors center. Parking there for the two nights was free, but they did have to fill out some paperwork. We were soon on our way up Trail Ridge Road. My plan was that we’d stop at the Rock Cut and get a good view of our destination and the interesting bits of our routes in and out. Instead, we drove into the clouds at about Many Parks Curve and visibility was on the order of a couple hundred yards.

We got to the Milner Pass parking lot shortly after eleven and were on the trail by 11:15. We’d been getting rained on since Lyons, lightly at first, but by now it was moderately heavy with no sign of letting up. We had the trail to ourselves, as nobody else was willing to venture more than a few hundred yards from their cars at Poudre Lake.

Just before we hit treeline, we decided to look for a place to eat a snack. We found a copse of trees not far from the trail that provided scant shelter from the rain. We shed our packs but didn’t have anyplace to sit, so it was a bit of a miserable picnic.

My original plan was to take the same route in and out – along the top of the ridge immediately west of Gorge Lakes. Although we hadn’t seen any lightning or heard any thunder, I didn’t really want to put us above treeline for an extended time. From treeline to the summit of Mt. Ida, it’s three and a half miles. We wouldn’t be reaching the summit, but would come within a quarter or half mile of it. Along the top of the ridge and back to the forest is another two miles or so. Also, one of the main appeals of this route is the view of the gorge. Today we had no view at all.

The alternative I decided on was to take the next ridge to the west. This is where I left the trail the first time I hiked here. At that time, I thought I was on the ridge overlooking the gorge but was mistaken. This ridge is lower and shorter. At the end of the ridge we could work our way down to about 11,000’, cross open, unforested ground, and hopefully be high enough to avoid the worst of the marshy areas.

It turned out to be a pretty good choice. The hiking was easy with good footing everywhere except one place where we had to skirt a rather large snowfield. By this time of year it wasn’t so much snow as ice. We’d have preferred to contour across it and not lose the elevation but even with microspikes I think it would have been sketchy. The ground we descended was loose and without much vegetation and was not ideal, but we made it down without incident.

To this point, even in the continuing rain, my feet were still dry. But now that we were off the tundra we were crossing open meadows. We made a point to avoid the greener areas, feeling that these would be pretty marshy (which was correct), but we still crossed quite a bit of ground with taller grass or ground cover that reached our knees. I didn’t have rainproof pants. (None of us did.) Walking through this vegetation, my pants got soaked and the water wicked down my legs and into my boots. Before long my feet were thoroughly wet.

There were a couple of notable observations in this section of our hike. As we were now below the clouds the view of the valley below us had opened up. About a half a kilometer away we spied a small herd of elk making their way along the Big Thompson. To my surprise, we heard one or two of them bugling. I’m certainly no expert, but I didn’t expect to hear bugling for another few weeks. That was the good observation. On the bad side, we came across a bit of litter. I picked up a disposable water bottle. It collapsed small enough to not be a burden. But the tent poles and stakes we found were a different matter. None of us wanted to carry them out. We made some noise about collecting them if we found them on our way out, but I wasn’t expecting to return this way. So we were bad citizens and left them where we found them.

We worked our way into the forest to about where I thought our camping zone began. I wanted to be as far south and as high as possible in this zone. I neglected to bring a map showing the zone, but wasn’t too concerned. The only map I had available was at a very high scale and didn’t show terrain, so I don’t think it would have been much help.

In any event, we found a spot that fit the rules for zone camping. By this time the rain had stopped. I was hoping to go a little farther, but there was no certainty we’d find as good a place or that the rain wouldn’t return. Also, we had to move our camp at least a mile between nights and going any farther toward our goal might make that problematic. So we made camp. It was about 2:30.

Our campsite had no large rocks to use as seating, and while one large downed tree made a good platform for preparing our dinners, none were suitable to sit on. So other than a quick recce of our nearby water supply we spent our time standing around. This standing around came to an end at about 6:30 when the rain returned and drove us into our tents.

When we first scouted our water supply, a small stream a hundred yards to our east, I managed to slip and fall. It was more embarrassing than painful. Nobody saw me fall, and no harm was done. It wasn’t until after I got home that I noticed I’d bruised my right forearm.

I was in my one man tent while the others all had two man tents. This allowed them to keep all their gear inside. On my tent, there’s a gap between the tent and the fly, which the manufacturers call an “atrium”. It’s not very big, but it did allow me to keep my boots and backpack both outside the tent and out of the rain. Probably not ideal, but it worked.

I don’t know what time I finally drifted off to sleep, but it was much earlier than usual. It might have been nice to have a book or the iPad, but I was unwilling to pay the price in weight or volume for either. I slept fitfully, waking up at irregular intervals. I only had to make one excursion before daylight and managed to sleep until six, which was much better than I anticipated.

The other guys said they slept, but never got to REM sleep. I dreamt, though: odd, disjointed dreams. The only bit I recall was one where a Frenchman was living in the house behind us. He had an old tractor which he used to plow his back yard. In the process, he knocked down a portion of our shared fence. He chattered what I presume to be an apology but I can’t be sure as I don’t speak French. (So, was it French in my dream, or just nonsense?) In the end he kissed me on one cheek, then the other, then square on the mouth.

Gorge Lakes – Preparation

Gorge Lakes are the lakes visible directly across Forest Canyon from the Rock Cut parking lot on Trail Ridge Road. There are five named lakes there, or maybe seven, depending on which ones you care to include. This high gorge is surrounded by Mount Ida, Chief Cheley Peak, Mount Julian, and Terra Tomah Mountain. It is both some of the most visible and most remote terrain in the park. Visible, because millions of people have seen it from Trial Ridge Road. Remote because there are no trails there.


When I was on a business trip to San Francisco back in January I had a beer with Tim. As I tend to go on a bit about my passions, I naturally brought up the subject of hiking. I told him that I wanted to do a two night backpacking trip with the object of bagging the four Gorge Lakes that I didn’t get on my day hike there back in 2013. He thought it sounded like a great idea, as long as it involved fishing. I don’t fish, but if he wanted to go with me, there wasn’t any reason he couldn’t bring his fishing gear.

By the time March first rolled around and we could apply for back country camping permits, it had grown into a four man expedition including his brother-in-law Brad and nephew James. I went up to the back country office and picked up a zone camping permit for the group and it was on. They all wanted to fish, I wanted to visit Doughnut Lake, Inkwell Lake, Azure Lake, and Highest Lake. We’d hike in on Friday, each do our things on Saturday, and hike out Sunday.


I would call myself a seasoned hiker but a novice backpacker. This is only my second backpacking trip. I’m using a borrowed pack. I have an old sleeping bag that’s heavy compared to modern ones and I have no idea what sort of temperatures it’s rated for. I have a reasonably light one man tent, a bear vault for my food, and a stove I bought a couple of years ago. Of course, I somehow managed to buy the wrong size fuel canister and it doesn’t fit inside the vessel for the stove, so there’s some wasted space there. And I don’t really know what I need to bring as far as food and clothing go. Experience is the best teacher, so I’ll just have to make a few mistakes before I figure it all out.

One thing I did figure out last year was that I needed to bring my day pack with me. When I visited Lost Lake it quickly became obvious that I couldn’t venture far from camp, as I had no way to carry water, my lunch, and a rain jacket. My lumbar pack isn’t terribly heavy, but it is on the bulky side.

I know the lightweight fanatics recommend against taking fresh fruit, but on the trail my preferred breakfast is an apple and a protein bar. And I always enjoy a peach or plum at lunch time. This week the plums looked good, so plums it is. I made up my own trail mix because I’m a picky eater and don’t care much for nuts (peanuts aren’t nuts). This is peanuts, sesame sticks, raisins, dried cranberries, dried pineapple cubes, and a few peanut butter filled pretzels for good measure. I saw these jerky bars at Sprouts and thought I’d give them a try. Not pictured is the ham sandwich for Friday’s lunch. Also included is sunscreen, toothpaste, medicine, toilet paper, a couple paper towels, and an extra ziplock bag. Notably absent is mosquito repellent. This turned out to be a non-factor, as all the other guys had plenty to share.

All of that went in the bear vault. The rest of the gear is pictured below: sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, clothes, head lamp, emergency kit, rain jacket, Steri-Pen, lumbar pack, stove and fuel, and two water bottles. I normally carry only one, but I was a bit worried about the ready availability of water. Fully packed, with bottles full of water, the backpack weighed in at 35 lbs.

Not long ago I found a nice website for maps. Historically, I’ve been using screen shots of USGS 7½ minute series maps that I downloaded in PDF format. Now I use caltopo.com, where I can select any area I want and have it generate a nice PDF. The first obvious advantage is that I don’t have to worry about pasting something together from two different maps. Secondly, they include scales in both miles and kilometers. Rather than print one map covering the whole area I made three. Zooming out to the full area would result in a map with 200 foot contour lines rather than 40 foot. I felt this was just too rough to be useful.

Arrowhead Lake

Sunday, September 8

Until now, whenever I fell short of a hiking goal the destination would get placed on next year’s list of hikes. After making a premature turn on my last hike I decided I didn’t really want to wait the better part of a year to make another stab at it. So off I headed to the south eastern corner of the Fall River Pass quadrangle, on the Mount Ida trail towards Gorge Lakes.

Again Trail Ridge Road was traffic-free and fun to drive. I stopped at Rock Cut for a quick look at my destination then headed to the trailhead. I’ve taken photos here several times and was never happy with the result. This time I got a fairly good shot, and include it here. The red line is more or less the route I took, visiting first ‘Amore Lake’, then Love Lake, and finally Arrowhead Lake.

My route, more or less

Poudre Lake was shrouded in mist and a small cadre of photographers was there snapping away. I put boots on the trail twenty minutes earlier than last time and before long passed the point of my errant turn. When the trail got near the edge overlooking what I’ll now refer to as ‘Misplaced Valley’, I wandered over for a closer look.

Not far from there I left the trail and cut across the next ridge to a point where I’d get my first real look on the gorge.

Seven lakes are visible in this photo

A more intrepid hiker than myself might descend here. I’m not a big fan of steep descents, so I continue along the ridge line. My next landmark is cleverly named Point 11819. That is, it’s an unnamed point at 11,819′ above sea level. From here, that’s about a 600′ descent. At this point I considered abandoning the ridgeline and descending straight to Love Lake. It’s not too steep for me, but I figured I didn’t want to miss visiting ‘Amore Lake’ so I continued with the original plan.

Before leaving my vantage point, however, I should have used the telephoto lens to scope out the terrain surrounding the lakes below. Perhaps I’d have seen something to aid in my progress later. I guess I was just too wowed by the scenery to do anything like planning ahead.

Continuing down the ridgeline, I came to a ramp that led to ‘Amore Lake’. This is a pretty little officially unnamed pond. I skirted around the west side of it and went up and over the slight ridge separating it from Love Lake. I quickly found myself in difficult terrain. Trees on a steep rocky slope. I made my way easily enough through these and right into a patch of willow. I started flashing back to my hike to Keplinger Lake. But no worries, I was soon through this patch and descending another ramp to Love Lake.

From here, it looks like Love Lake and Arrowhead Lake are only a few yards apart. It’s more like a couple tenths of a mile and a hundred and fifty feet or so of elevation. Here’s where a bit of forethought would have come in handy. I continued along the west side of the lake, then up and over the slight rise. In retrospect, I think it would have been better to go on the east side of the lake and descend through the trees there. Why? Because I found myself in another giant patch of willow.

Before long, I gave up. You might say I technically didn’t reach Arrowhead Lake because I didn’t get close enough to put my toes in it. I’m going to count it anyway. I perched myself on a rock with a nice view of the lake and the surrounding mountains, set up the camera, and enjoyed my lunch. While relaxing, I surveyed the area in search of a way out that didn’t take me through the willow again. I thought I spied a wildlife trail and when I packed up to go, I headed that way.

This route was an illusion. Short of heading straight up the ridge there was no easy way out. So I forged through this patch of willow without too many new scratches on my legs. A few minutes after muscling my way through I was back on the shores of Love Lake where I refilled my water bottle.

Here I heard voices. I hadn’t seen anybody since early morning when I passed a couple on their way up Mount Ida. I met them at about treeline, more than five hours earlier. Scanning the slope above the lake I saw the first hiker coming through the willow in about the same place I went. He was talking to a companion, suggesting a route. After several minutes I saw four hikers total. Only the fourth found the route I intended to take out, missing the willow entirely.

I chatted with these guys for a few minutes. It was about 1:30 now. They asked if I went along the ridge above us and when I confirmed, they mentioned they’d seen me. This must have been nearly two hours earlier, as I’d spent an hour at Arrowhead. They came via Forest Canyon Pass. If I ever return here, I’ll give that route a shot for reasons that will become clear soon enough. I asked if they were spending the night, but they said that wasn’t in their plans. I wonder how long it took them to return to their car.

Gathering Storm

As we separated, it began to rain. It didn’t look to last too long so I didn’t bother with the poncho yet. The next mile or so from here would be grueling, gaining about a thousand feet. I considered cutting across ‘Misplaced Valley’ and returning to the trail using the same route I explored three weeks ago. The idea was, I’d need to gain about 400′ less elevation. But when I saw where I was, I decided to stay on my route in. To cut across here, I’d have to go down a few hundred feet so there’d be no real savings.

Arrowhead Lake and Mount Julian

So I continued my climb. A few minutes later it started raining again. I had to often pause to take in the scenery. And to take in oxygen. I stopped and faced nearly due east. The wind was at my back, rain coming down at enough of an angle to keep my front dry. Judging by the clouds above me and the prevailing winds, I figured the rain would stop shortly. I continued my slog up the ridge.

Feathered friends

Subtly, the wind shifted. I was under the edge of the rain cloud, but it was now moving south to north. I’d be right under this edge for a while unless the wind shifted back. The rain turned to hail for a short while and I donned the poncho. Looking to the north, things were getting ugly. I saw lightning strike on the other side of Trail Ridge Road. In the grand scheme of things, this is not very far – three or four miles as the ptarmigan flies.

This was not a happy development. I reckoned I was still two and a half hours away from the trailhead, and nearly the entire way is above treeline. I intended to stay well below the top of the ridge in order to gain as little elevation as necessary. This now seemed like a doubly good idea considering the weather. I couldn’t really increase my pace as I was climbing steadily. And I had to cross the occasional pile of rocks, which were now slippery with rain.

I took fairly regular breathers. I’d pick a point ahead, tell myself not to pause again until I reached it, pause for a few seconds and repeat. During one of these many pauses, I heard elk bugling below me in ‘Misplaced Valley’. ‘Tis the season! I wasn’t seeing any lightning ahead of me, but my vision was somewhat limited by the hood of the poncho. Thunder did occasionally boom, reassuringly distant. During my pauses I’d scan the slopes north of TRR – that’s where all the excitement was.

On the way up the Mount Ida trail, both this time and three weeks ago, I was thinking I’d have preferred the trail to be closer to the top of the ridge. Now, though, I was somewhat chagrined that it wasn’t a bit lower. When I regained the trail, I still wasn’t seeing any lightning but the thunder was noticeably more numerous but thankfully still some distance away.

I now increased my pace. The rain was coming down fairly steadily, and my poncho had developed a tear. If I let go of it, the poncho would slip backwards and the tear would get bigger, so I had to keep a hand on it. The pleasant morning walk and the hour lazing in the sun at Arrowhead now seemed like distant memories. I was no longer having any fun.

By the time I reached treeline, the peals of thunder were almost continuous and the lightning strikes were around me in all directions. Thankfully, none appeared to be within a mile, but still too close for comfort. I was happy now to be in the trees. Again I heard the bugle of an elk, much closer now than when I was atop the ridge. Normally, elk are seen and not heard. Today it was the opposite.

When I finally reached the car, it was raining quite heavily. To add to the fun, I had just had the car detailed. It was as clean as it had ever been since I bought it. When getting off the trail, I’ve always been able to sit in the open car door and change from boots to driving shoes but not today – muddy boots in the nice clean car. Oh, well.

It rained nearly all the way to Lyons. Between the three hours or so of rain while hiking and another hour and a half on the drive it was a pretty good downpour. But that was only a hint of what was to come. As I write this, both Estes Park and Lyons are cut off from the world; roads covered by debris or washed away. Nearly a whole year’s rain has fallen in the last couple days. I’ve seen video of downtown Estes Park and the water is perhaps as high as it was when the Lawn Lake damn burst back in 1982.


Trailhead (10,758′)07:40 AM04:50 PM
Milner Pass trail jct07:55 AM04:35 PM
Unknown trail jct08:25 AM04:10 PM
Overlook @ 12,440′10:25 AM 
Arrowhead Lake (11,120′)11:30 AM12:30 PM

Navigational Error

I’m still in catch-up mode. I used my business trip last week as the excuse for the late report on my Haynach Lake hike. No such excuse this week. It was just a busy week.

August 17, 2013

I won’t exaggerate and say I’ve been over Trail Ridge Road hundreds of times – it’s only in the dozens. And I don’t always stop along the way to enjoy the view. But I have spent a fair amount of time at the Rock Cut looking across the valley at Gorge Lakes, thinking how marvelous it would be to visit them. It has only been the last few years that I’ve even considered actually trying to hike there.

Lisa Foster gives us four possible routes. One way would be to park at the Rock Cut, make the steep descent to the Big Thompson river, find a potentially precarious crossing on a downed tree, then make the climb up the other side. Her description of this route is such that I’m unlikely ever to make the attempt. Another option is up Forest Canyon, which also sounds much too difficult for me. The other two are variations on a theme involving the trail to the summit of Mount Ida, one of which involves a steep descent. I’m not a fan of steep descents.

So I decided to attempt to reach Arrowhead Lake by going up the Mount Ida trail then contouring along the ridge a few hundred feet below ‘Jagor Point’ to ‘Lake Amour’, Love Lake, and up to my destination. I have not been on the Mount Ida trail before. I felt there was a fairly decent chance of spotting some bighorn sheep (which I haven’t seen since childhood) and was looking forward to it since deciding on this hike shortly after returning from Haynach Lake.

The trail starts at Milner Pass, so the most direct route is a drive over Trail Ridge east to west. So far this summer I’ve only driven the road west to east after my west side hikes, always in late afternoon weekend traffic. That means I’ve crawled along in something like a tundra version of rush hour – a nice view, but a frustrating drive in a sports car.

On a Saturday morning before eight it’s another story. I had an almost unimpeded drive; from below Rainbow Curve on the east side to Milner Pass on the west side I only encountered one other car going my direction and was able to pass him as soon as I caught him. Not that I wanted to go particularly fast, but it was a comfortable speed not grossly illegal.

I hit the parking lot in plenty of time to get geared up and on the trail by eight. I again scored the end spot closest to the trail and chatted with another hiker while I changed shoes and strapped on the pack, camera, and tripod. It was then I realized I left my map on the kitchen counter. It’s not the first time I’ve managed to do this, so I wasn’t particularly bothered. It was yet another beautiful morning in the park and I felt I’d studied the map well enough to do without.

Not far up the trail I found this notice:





The hike from here to the summit of Mount Ida is 3.5 miles of exposed tundra without a maintained trail and few reference points. You will need to pay strict attention to weather and terrain. A map and compass along with a strong sense of direction are paramount to a safe return.


Several hikers have been lost in an attempt to return from Mount Ida to their starting point. Don’t be one of them.

I am not deterred. I really did intend to have a map, but I never carry a compass. And I feel I have a strong sense of direction, in spite of making silly mistakes like wandering off in the wrong direction along Grand Ditch on my way to Lake of the Clouds. Ahem.

Not long after this sign I ran into a couple guys loaded down with camping and fishing gear. They were also on their way to Arrowhead Lake. We chatted a bit before I continued on. They had gone less than a mile before taking a break; I would clearly make much better time than them.

Before long I was above treeline and able to take in the view of the Never Summer range and the verdant valley immediately below me. Contrary to the warning sign, the trail looked quite well maintained and easy to follow. In addition, there were several obvious game trails criss-crossing the slope below me. Although saw a deer very near the trailhead, no big game was in evidence. I did see a mother marmot with her adolescent child scurry off the trail in front of me, too quick to get a picture.

Not far above treeline there’s a fork in the trail. I paused here to slather on some SPF and consider my route. Even had I had my map, it wouldn’t have been much help. Though the trail on the ground appears well maintained, it appears not at all on my map. But I must bear to the right, for that leads to the higher ground. So I continue on my way.

The trail isn’t particularly steep, but I paused many times to catch my breath and study the nice views. I wondered how long before I’d see the fishermen on the trail below me. Instead of them, I saw a lone hiker in a white shirt. Every few minutes I’d pause and notice that although this hiker seemed to be standing still, he was closer each time. About the fourth or fifth pause I finally caught him not standing still. He was running.

It was about this time I realized I could use the speedometer app on my phone to determine my elevation. I was at about 11,800′ when he caught me and we chatted. I asked if he’d done this hike before. He hadn’t. He also confessed that he didn’t have a map either and was a bit disconcerted by the warning sign from earlier. He had never been in the park before and was visiting from D.C. I congratulated him on his ability to run up this trail, the better part of twelve thousand feet above sea level.

He continued up the trail ahead of me and there was still no sign of the fishermen. According to my phone, I was now a bit above 12,000′. I looked to the northeast and decided it was time to leave the trail and head toward ‘Jagor Point’, which I decided was ‘right over there’.

I am now forced to decide how to continue this tale. The title of this entry is a bit of foreshadowing. Shall I keep my readers with me in my ignorance of my actual location, or cut to the chase and reveal my error now? Of course, even asking the question here provides its own answer.

Had I had my map, I’d have known I really needed to gain another few hundred feet of elevation before leaving the trail. In fact, I was one valley short of Gorge Lakes. When I reached what I thought was the saddle between ‘Jagor Point’ and Mount Ida, I was perhaps a mile short of there.

Recall that my plan was to contour around this ridge. From my map study, I decided the descent from the saddle was probably too steep for my comfort. But standing where I was I decided it really wasn’t that steep after all. I saw several lakes below me and headed more or less directly toward them, heading to the body of water at the top of the valley.

It was an easy descent, not too much loose talus. I quickly made it to the grassy meadows below. There I saw a few places where the grass was matted down where four or five elk or other large animals had lain down. A bit farther along, I saw an elk lying in a meadow and got the camera ready for a picture. Taking off the lens cap, I inadvertently clicked it against the barrel of the lens. The elk snapped his head in my direction and upon seeing me, he got up and cantered off to the trees toward my right. Dang.

By now it should have been obvious to me I wasn’t where I intended to be. I expected to make about a thousand foot descent from the ridge to the gorge. I probably only went half that distance. The lakes I was going to were substantial, all easily visible from Trail Ridge Road. The ponds I was heading to were much smaller. But I was blissfully unaware. It was a pleasant day and I was in beautiful surroundings. And I have a strong sense of direction.

IMG_9843sI had veered left when the elk ran to the right. A few minutes later, the elk dashed from right to left not far in front of me, followed by another one I hadn’t seen a few moments ago. I snapped a couple photos as they ran by, then continued to the pond in front of me. After a few minutes at this pond I headed down the valley to visit the other “lakes” I had spied from above. The walking was easy. There were a few marshy spots but the few clusters of willow were easily avoided.

I hiked from one lake to another, thinking that if I managed to stay high enough along the base of the ridge I’d soon come to Arrowhead Lake. I made it to the end of the ridge without coming to anything remotely like Arrowhead Lake and still hadn’t realized I wasn’t in the right place.

IMG_9856sOn many of these off-trail hikes I’ve come across piles of bones, bleached white. Some ribs or vertebrae, perhaps a pelvis. Always more than a single bone, always less than a full skeleton. Sometimes I can’t decide what sort of animal it was, and it’s never clear to me how long these bones have been there. This time I found a single leg bone, with skin still attached. Where’s the rest of the beast? Did some carnivore or scavenger make off with just this one?

By noon I had been through this valley without finding a pleasant shore for my picnic, so I found a nice outcropping of rocks with a view of Trail Ridge Road opposite. It was quite hazy due to forest fires in distant Idaho and the clouds didn’t look very entertaining so I didn’t bother setting up the cameras.

IMG_9870sAfter lunch, I worked my way along the ridge in the direction of the Mount Ida trail and an easy hike back to the car. Here well off the trail I found a bit of a puzzle. What is the purpose of these funnels? They don’t look like rain gauges to me, and they’re not hooked up to anything.

I quickly regained the trail and made a mental note of where the hiker should leave the trail to contour below ‘Jagor Point’. Ha ha. I made quick time back to tree line where I ran into a group of hikers led by a ranger. A bit farther down the trail I heard a commotion ahead of me and spotted an elk trotting down the trail. I followed him, snapping pictures. He caught up to a friend where the trail switches back. The two elk continued south, I followed the trail north.

I was back to the trailhead by 1:20, the earliest return to the car all summer. I figured I’d be home pretty early, easily by 4:00. After all, it only took me two hours to make the trip in the morning. It couldn’t take an extra forty minutes due to traffic, could it? Silly question. Of course it could. About a half mile before reaching the Rock Cut I found myself in an impromptu parking lot. This was clearly more than a half dozen cars ignoring the signs instructing drivers not to stop on the road, taking pictures of elk in the far distance. I got the camera out and spied flashing lights at the Rock Cut parking lot. Somebody was having a bad afternoon. We were stopped here for more than a half hour.

When I got home, I consulted the map and compared it to my notes. I visited a lake at 11,500′. There is no lake in Gorge Lakes at 11,500. Nor at 11,350′. So I finally accepted that I’d made a major navigational blunder. But no matter. As I always say when I fail to reach my desired destination, “There’s always another day.” I had a very enjoyable walk in the park, saw some wildlife in its natural habitat, got some exercise, and had a picnic above treeline. What’s not good about such a day?

Maybe next time I won’t forget my map.