Neva Lakes

Saturday, October 6

Two lakes sit due south of Mount Neva, a few yards east of the Continental Divide, at nearly 12,000′ above sea level. I’ve been wanting to hike there for a few weeks but couldn’t fit it into the schedule. It’s getting late enough in the season that if I don’t do it now, I won’t do it this year.

I talked Chad into going with me. The last time I took him off trail, we traversed a steep forested hillside that made him quite uncomfortable. And early in that hike, he tweaked his ankle a bit. He didn’t have a great time.

So I was pleasantly surprised he agreed to go on a hike I described as sunny but cold, with winds that might drive us from the lakes within minutes, and to get there, we’d have two hours off the trail over a route that ProTrails describes as marshy with a steep wall at the end.

We left my place at seven. I figured the trailhead wouldn’t be as busy as it is in August. It was a calculated risk, and I had no Plan B. Generally I reach the high school before the rangers are staffing their station. Today we arrived just as the ranger put out the “FULL” sign for the Fourth of July trailhead.

He told us that there may still be parking available there. The ranger up at the trailhead was now on her way down with a count of available parking. We were directed to park next to an orange cone in the school parking lot, first in line for any empty spots. We waited maybe fifteen minutes before being told to head on up. Next in line behind us was a big Audi sedan. It’s a rough road with lots of holes and exposed rocks. Three or four cars later was a BMW sedan. That those guys got those cars up there indicates you can drive damn near anything up there if you’re so inclined.

Before shutting off the car, I checked the temperature: 28 degrees F.

To reach the lakes, we headed up the Arapaho Pass trail to the derelict mine and the junction with the trail that climbs the flank of South Arapaho Peak. It’s a two-mile hike from the trailhead, rising about 1100′ at a fairly constant grade. It took us an hour. From the trail junction, we’d descend a couple hundred feet to the floor of the valley. Chad was glad to be done with the relentless trail.

We’re pretty much right at treeline when we leave the trail. The trees are in clumps, fairly easy to skirt. Any flat spaces between the trees and along the stream are normally boggy and marshy, but this late in the season, everything is dry. Well, almost everything. We do come across a few bogs, but it’ll never be any drier than it is today. We followed a number of game trails that appeared and faded out at the edge of a dry marsh or a small talus field. Regardless, navigation is as easy as it gets with these expansive views.

For about a mile above our stream crossing, we gain only about three hundred feet. It’s a pleasant, leisurely stroll. The sun is shining brightly in a deep cobalt sky with a gentle breeze. It has snowed here, lightly, a couple of times over the last several days. A thin dusting of snow clings to the high, steep, shady, northern mountainside. Where we’re walking, there are occasional spots of snow in the shade of a bush or rock. One pool we passed had a very thin sheet of ice on it. It was nearly invisible. I gently pushed on it. Not hard enough to crack it, but I did make some water rise through a few silver dollar-sized holes at the other end of the ice. Pretty cool.

Being off-trail, I expected not to see any other hikers. Just before we came to ProTrails’ “steep wall” below the lakes, we spotted three hikers with a dog working their way up the valley, still on the other side of the stream. They passed us pretty quickly, they were moving at a pretty good clip. We had a brief chat as to the best route. This was their first trip to these lakes, too. I said we were going to try to make use of any grassy ramps a bit to the left of the lakes to avoid the steep talus. This would take us to the upper lake first, putting us on its southeastern shore.

We arrived at the upper lake pretty much on schedule. We found a nice spot for our picnic not too close to the other hikers, whose dog ran over to greet us when we appeared. We had a nice view of Mount Neva. There was still not a cloud in the sky, and the winds were about as calm as one can expect beneath the Divide. I brought beers. I had a blood orange blonde, Chad had the lager.

After the other group left, Chad spotted a couple of hikers descending a ravine from the ridgeline between Mount Neva and Mount Jasper. There’s a route from Arapaho Pass that summits Neva and comes down here. Not long after those two guys, wearing shorts and lightweight shoes, disappeared down the outlet of the lake we saw two more hikers mid-descent. Too steep for me, I think.

The upper lake looks to already have drained two feet below its high-water mark, judging from the bathtub ring. The outlet is high and dry. A few yards below the lake, following the dry outlet we came to running water: the upper lake is draining from here. It’s a pretty strong flow. I’d guess it’s eight or ten feet of elevation below the surface of the lake. This drain is surrounded by tufts of grass. The water flows gently to a small pond that then drains into the lower lake. The lower lake is still full.

Leaving the lower lake at its outlet, we were at the top of a large, steep talus field. The grassy ramps we came up on are quite a ways to our right. We worked our way down diagonally, crossing more talus than is to my liking.

Navigation back across the valley and up to the trail is, again, dead simple. The trail we’re heading toward is a plainly visible slash across the mountain ahead of us. Again, we gained and lost social trails. A few times, I saw the footprints of the hikers with the lightweight footwear.

After crossing the stream, we needed to climb about two hundred feet to gain the trail. Getting near the end, I found a faint game trail. We followed it for a short while, but I decided I wanted to climb faster and took a more direct route. We stopped for a short break when we got to the trail. I figured we were between the mine and the junction. We discussed whether we wanted to head up to the mine or not. We decided not.

This was a good choice. It turns out we were above the mine and didn’t need to make a side trip to get there. Had we made the side trip, we’d have gone the wrong way.

When I was here before, I wanted to get a picture of the vertical mine shaft. There was no barrier around it. I’m smart enough to go nowhere near the slippery-looking edge, but I could imagine coming across it in the dark or in bad weather. Today I have my GoPro on a stick. Perhaps I could get a video looking down into the black hole.

It was not to be. They have somehow managed to fill the hole with dirt and rocks. I imagine they must have had to somehow put a plug in it and cover the plug with dirt. This was a pretty deep shaft and filling it up is out of the question. This trail gets quite a bit of traffic. I’m surprised they didn’t plug the shaft before now.

It was a great hike. We couldn’t have had better weather. The views were fantastic

Upper Diamond Lake

This is my second trip up this valley. Back in early July, I came up here thinking I’d be able to get to the upper lake, but there was too much snow. Yes, it was silly of me to think I’d be able to hike above 11,000′ that early in the season. One nice thing about not getting to where I wanted to go is that it’s a built-in excuse to make another trip.

Friday, September 1

Rather than repeat myself, I’ll begin at Diamond Lake. (There is no shuttle to the trailhead, so I’ll note that on a Friday before a holiday weekend, there were still a few parking spots available at 7:30 am.)

There are more like four Diamond Lakes than two. In addition to Diamond Lake (10,960′) and Upper Diamond Lake (11,732′), there are two more. One is at 11,359′ and a much shallower one lies at 11,518′. I’m reasonably certain this second one never dries out, but it’s a close call.

When I’m hiking on a well-maintained trail, I generally don’t use trek poles. I carry them with me, strapped to my daypack. When I got to Diamond Lake, I broke out the poles only to get hit with glitch number one of the day. One of the nuts on the cams had come off. I couldn’t extend the pole to anything like a usable length. Oh well. No poles today. I hope that’s not going to be a problem.

To get to Upper Diamond Lake from Diamond Lake, continue to follow the trail that skirts the lake on its northern shore. I followed it all the way to the inlet stream. The trail climbs steeply for a while beside the burbling stream on a grassy slope. After a bit, I reached a T intersection. This surprised me a bit. On the hike back down, I didn’t even see this intersection and ended up at Diamond Lake a fair distance farther east than where I left the lake.

At one point, the trail seems to terminate right up against a giant rock. I saw that some hikers had gone around the rock to the right, so that’s what I did. Circling above the rock, I found the trail again. At the foot of the rock, there’s a “crack” there that is easily climbed. I just didn’t look closely enough.

Not long after this, we get to the southernmost of the lakes. The trail goes right down to the water. This is ideal if you’re ending your hike here, but not so ideal if you are continuing to the upper lake. This is more or less the end of the trail.

We’re above treeline by now, so the lack of a trail isn’t that big of a deal. From here on out, it’s fairly easy to see where you need to go, and there is enough hiking traffic that occasionally you come across some grass that’s clearly been walked through. I also spotted a cairn here and there, but these cairns are more of a confirmation that I’m going in the right direction than they signal a clear route.

The final approach to the upper lake is across a mix of narrow grassy slopes and boulders/talus. The lake is stark – a drop of water at the head of a narrow, rocky canyon. I didn’t stay there long. The wind, while not fierce, was steady.

It was only 10:30 (so, a bit less than a three-hour hike from the trailhead) and I wasn’t yet ready for lunch. I had a quick snack and headed back down, thinking I could find a scenic spot for lunch back at the lake where the trail ends. This was a much shorter stay at my destination than usual. It wasn’t that I was rushed for time, or that I didn’t find the lake very scenic. I just didn’t feel like sitting in the wind for very long, and, frankly, I enjoyed the hike between the lakes as much as I did the lake itself.

I took another break at the lower lake to slurp down a tasty Palisade peach.

I hadn’t seen another hiker since I first arrived at the lower lake. On the hike out, there was quite a bit of traffic on the trail. A short distance before reaching the junction with the Arapaho Pass trail, hikers told me to be on the lookout for a moose. I can’t tell you how often hikers tell me to be on the lookout for moose that I never see. This time, though, I spotted her. She was sitting comfortably in the shade only about twenty feet off the trail, chewing her cud.

My second glitch of the day happened about ten minutes from the trailhead. I’m the first to admit I’m a bit of a clumsy oaf. Last week, I mentioned that I fell down four times. When I’m bushwhacking through dense forest, this doesn’t bother me much. It seems like tree limbs make a sport of grabbing my boots and pulling me off-balance. It goes with the territory.

On the trail, however, I expect to be able to keep on my feet. I don’t know what happened, but I took a mighty fall. I managed to break my fall with my hands, then sort of half-roll. I got a little bit of road rash on my left hand, which is annoying. But I landed on that hand pretty hard and it’s quite swollen and a bit discolored. I popped a couple of ibuprofen and continued back to the car. I have a couple of other bruises – my left upper arm just below the shoulder and my left leg, just above the knee.

This is the second time I’ve fallen on the trail. The first was about ten years ago. I scraped my arm pretty well and was covered in blood. I still carry about a six-inch scar from that one. Very little blood today. In addition to the sore, bruised, swollen left hand, I did a bit of damage to the GoPro. I carry it in the left front pocket of my pants. The selfie-stick/tripod it’s mounted on is a bit too long to fit in the pocket, so the camera sticks out. I landed right on top of the camera before my half-roll. No damage to the camera, but I did break the clear lens cap.

At least nobody witnessed my oafishness.

But for my clumsiness, it was an ideal day.

Spruce Canyon Addendum

In my write-up of last week’s backpacking trip, I somehow completely forgot to mention the toad.

As long as I’ve been hiking to Spruce Lake, they’ve had notices prominently posted that the wetlands on the east side of the lake are closed. That includes the shallow part of the lake where I saw the male and female moose sniffing each other and the marshy area from there to the trail. This area is closed to protect the breeding habitat for the boreal toad, which is classified as endangered by the state of Colorado.

I’ve never once seen nor heard any toads around here. I had no idea any toads or frogs lived in this part of the world, it being a few hundred feet short of 10,000′ above sea level and pretty much frozen solid a few months every year.

Well, this trip I finally spotted one. It wasn’t anywhere near the closure, but on one of the few stretches of bushwhacking we did on our way up to Loomis Lake when we lost the trail. The little guy (or gal) hopped right in front of me. I snapped a couple of photos, but he didn’t stand still for his portrait and none of them turned out. Still, it’s not every day one gets to see an endangered species in the wild.

Diamond Lake

Mount Jasper rises to nearly thirteen thousand feet on the Continental Divide in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. One might think of it as being shaped somewhat like a starfish as it has five major ridges emanating from it. Two of these are situated on a nearly east-west axis. Between these two arms is a drainage that contains Diamond Lake, Upper Diamond Lake, and a couple of smaller unnamed ponds.

In addition to Mount Jasper, there is also Jasper Lake, an operating reservoir in the next drainage to the south of Diamond Lake.

There’s a well-traveled trail from the Fourth of July trailhead to Diamond Lake, a popular camping destination. There is no official trail from Diamond Lake to Upper Diamond Lake, but a little research yields at least two routes from Diamond Lake to Upper Diamond Lake. For maps, my go-to resource is They indicate a trail from the westernmost shore of Diamond Lake up an inlet, passing a pond before climbing to the north. ProTrails, on the other hand, suggests heading more or less due west from a meadow reached just prior to the trail actually reaching Diamond Lake.

Diamond Lake, like most of the other alpine lakes in Indian Peaks, sits fairly high up at a shade under 12,000′. Upper Diamond Lake is another 800′ or so higher. Because we have had such a wet spring, I expect the forest sections of trail below Diamond Lake might still be covered with snow. Certainly, no matter what route I might take to Upper Diamond Lake, I expect to find quite a bit of snow. At this time of year, even without higher-than-usual snowfall, microspikes would be required.

Monday, July 3

Both the Hessie trailhead and the Fourth of July trailhead are served by the same road, which becomes a dirt road just after passing through the town of Eldora. I’ve only been up this road a handful of times before today, and never on a weekend. Yes, today is a Monday, but with a holiday tomorrow, I expect it to be busier than a typical weekday. I was correct.

A sort of temporary entrance station was set up on the road at the entrance to Nederland High School. I arrived here at 7:45. They already had the shuttle bus for the Hessie trailhead operating. I was second in a line of four vehicles; we all were going to the Fourth of July trailhead at the end of the road. The fellow working the station got on the radio with a ranger at the trailhead to see how many of us could proceed. We were the last four cars allowed up the road. We had to wait a few minutes for the shuttle bus to return because the road is narrow.

It appears that sections of the road have been recently graded. Other sections are quite rough. Four-wheel drive isn’t required, but a fair amount of ground clearance is. Almost all the vehicles in the parking lot at the trailhead were SUVs and 4x4s, but there were a couple of compact cars.

When I arrived at the parking lot, I was afraid the ranger had miscounted. As I was approaching the lot, she was headed down the road in her truck. The spot I parked in was right up against a no-parking sign and I was concerned that overzealous enforcement might result in a ticket. One of the cars behind me took a similarly marginal spot across from me. I never did see where the fourth car parked.

The morning was beautiful, with clear deep blue skies, calm, with a temperature of just under 60 according to the car’s thermometer. Outstanding hiking weather.

The trail from the parking lot climbs about 600′ to the junction with the Diamond Lake trail. There is one pair of switchbacks in the middle of this climb, which traverses an increasingly steep slope. After the switchbacks, there are a few places where you get a nice view of the opposite side of the valley. Prominent in these views is the outlet stream from Diamond Lake, which cascades more than 400′. The sound of the falling water is constant accompaniment on this first mile or so of trail.

A bit more than a mile from the trailhead is a junction: to the left is Diamond Lake; to the right, the Fourth of July mine and trails to Arapaho Pass, Lake Dorothy, and South Arapaho Peak.

Heading left, the trail descends about three hundred feet before climbing the other side of the valley. There are a few stream crossings, with at least one of the bridges in need of some repair. As I expected, there is snow on the trail in places that don’t get much sunshine.

Just before reaching the lake, the trail levels off quite a bit and dumps the hiker on the east end of a large meadow. This early in the season, only the yellow flowers that flourish in marshy ground are in abundance. Perhaps as soon as a few days from now, flowers sporting all the colors in the rainbow will carpet the place.

Here, today, the trail is still covered in snow. A small rivulet is carving a little canyon through the snow. Snow melts from the bottom, and you can easily see that the trail crosses a snow bridge. It’s hard to judge just how thick the bridge is, but when I crossed it in the morning it was twelve or fifteen feet wide. Still, I was careful to not step where I thought it was thinnest. On the way back, a couple of hours later, the bridge was nearly gone, the snow is melting so quickly.

One possible route to Upper Diamond Lake heads across this meadow and up the slope that’s northwest of the lake. I didn’t see an obvious “easy” route – the meadow is more like a marsh right now, and the slope still held quite a bit of snow. It might be a good route in August or September, but I wasn’t going to head up that way.

When I got to the shore of Diamond Lake, I met a couple of hikers. I asked them if they had tried to get to the upper lake. I showed them my map while we discussed it. They weren’t familiar with the route suggested by ProTrails but did make an attempt to go the way that’s marked on the CalTopo map. They didn’t get too far: it was too snowy for them. Here, I decided to skip any attempt to reach the upper lake. The hike so far was a pleasant one, and there’s no reason not to come back when there’s less snow on the ground and the meadows aren’t marshes.

I walked along the northern shore of the lake. It’s grassy. Well, it’s grassy under the snow. I was a bit surprised at how much snow was still on the ground here, given that it’s in direct sunlight much of the day. It’s three, four, even five feet thick and stretches along the entire north shore of the lake. There are a few rocks along the shore that might make good picnic spots, but I preferred the somewhat larger rocks right along the trail.

The summit of Mount Jasper isn’t visible from here, just one of its eastern ridges. Here, much closer to the Divide than the parking lot, it was naturally a bit breezier. No mirror-like lake surface, but not so windy as to make whitecaps.

I didn’t count the number of campsites. Diamond Lake isn’t quite as busy as Lost Lake, but it’s still quite popular. On the hike and at the lake, I never went more than a few minutes without encountering other hikers. That said, my picnic spot had the illusion of solitude. Other than the few people who passed my picnic spot on the trail, I only noticed a couple of hikers who were circumnavigating the lake.

On the hike out, I stopped for a break where a stream crosses the trail. There’s no bridge here, hikers just step from rock to rock. With the water running high this time of year, it can be a bit fraught. While I was eating my grapes, I watched two couples make the crossing. The first couple had an infant strapped to mom. They made it easily. The second was a bit more tentative. She went first, he stood by getting her crossing on video. She nearly tripped. I told her that if she had tripped, he’d have gotten it on video. “Good thing I didn’t trip!”

A bit later, I came across a group of five or six backpackers. They were headed up to Lake Dorothy. They’d never been there before. I described the lake and its environs and jokingly said I hoped none of them intended on sleeping in hammocks as the lake is surrounded by tundra.

It was a gorgeous day for a hike. The weather was outstanding. I was never bothered by mosquitoes. Although I didn’t reach my ultimate destination, I’m not disappointed. All in all, it was another beautiful day in the neighborhood.

A final note: I overcame one of last week‘s disappointments. It seemed odd (but not out of the ordinary) for a new version of a product to remove a feature of an older version. In this case, though, it was simply a change in the defaults. I can still take individual photos for my time-lapse, and edit them to my heart’s content.

Trailhead8:37am2:19 pm
IPW Boundary8:48 am2:00 pm
Diamond Lake trail jct9:16 am1:14 pm
Diamond Lake10:14 am11:48 am

More photos can be found here.

Lost Lake

Thursday, June 29

Aside from a short walk one day on my Atlanta trip back in April, I haven’t been hiking yet this year. It’s past time to rectify this.

Back in the depths of winter, I did a bit of map study and came up with a list of ten day hikes I might possibly make this year. Most of the hikes on this list are in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. One of them is Skyscraper Reservoir, which is reached via the Woodland Lake trail from the Hessie Trailhead.

Much of the lower part of the route is along the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek. To get to the Woodland Lake trail, one must head north from this stream. On the map, there appear to be two options. The first is the trail I took last summer to reach Jasper Lake and Devils Thumb Lake. This trail runs parallel to another trail that connects the King Lake trail and the Woodland Lake trail. The two trails run on opposite sides of what I assume is Jasper Creek. The trails are never more than about a thousand feet apart, but neither trail is visible from the other. As I’ve already hiked the eastern one of these, I elected to take the western one.

This turned out to be a sound choice. There’s a spur trail connecting the two about a mile from Middle Boulder Creek. I assumed there’d be a bridge here to cross the creek. It doesn’t look like there ever was a bridge here. Many of the trails began as wagon tracks, and this crossing is simply a ford. Given the amount of snowpack the Indian Peaks received this year and the continued wet weather, the North Fork of Boulder Creek is flowing high and mighty. I’d probably be okay wading across it in August or September, but not today.

Part of the mile of trail between Middle Boulder Creek and the Woodland Lake trail can be challenging to follow. The trail gets a bit braided. It’s surprisingly easy to get off what should be the main trail onto something more like a game trail. I managed to do this hiking in both directions. It was more obvious on the way out. At one point, I knew I was on a trail I hadn’t been on earlier. I backtracked a bit but never did find where I went wrong.

Only about a quarter of a mile after the ford where the spur from the Jasper Lake trail, there’s a bridge that crosses the stream the trail is now following. To be more correct, the trail crosses the stream but the bridge is gone. Well, not “gone” so much as broken into pieces and lying in the middle of a raging torrent. It looks to me like this bridge has been out for a while, but I could be mistaken.

Again, given the flow of water, I wasn’t about to attempt a crossing. Clearly, I wouldn’t be reaching either Woodland Lake or Skyscraper Reservoir today. When I set out, I figured I might have time on the hike out to make a side trip to Lost Lake. Instead of a side trip, Lost Lake got promoted to today’s destination.

It’s only about a quarter of a mile from the main trail, up the spur to Lost Lake. The last few yards are the steepest. By the time I reached this steeper part, I’d already hiked about two and a half miles farther than anybody else here. I was powering my way up, huffing and puffing and sweating, when a downhill hiker felt the need to encourage me: “You’re already there!”

Lost Lake is a kidney-shaped body of water covering a bit less than five acres on the northern flank of Bryan Mountain, a non-descript peak topping out at less than 11,000′. There are nine campsites situated around the lake, and a trail (along with a network of social trails) circumnavigates the lake. The best view, in my opinion, is found on the eastern shore, looking a bit west of due north.

The trail guide says Lost Lake is a 2.7-mile round trip. I’m not sure if that’s the correct distance or not. If it’s measured from the trailhead, the hike is another half a mile each way. I’ve only ever seen one or two vehicles actually make it to the trailhead due to the deep water on the road that services it. Everybody else just parks along the main road. In any event, Lost Lake is the shortest hike from the Hessie trailhead and is therefore the busiest destination on the menu.

I stayed at the lake for a bit over an hour. There was a steady stream of hikers coming and going, and it looked to me like all the good shoreline resting spots were in constant use. At least a few of the folks didn’t seem to realize how well sound travels over water, and the other people there could clearly hear their conversation. I had my picnic lunch and relaxed, while other hikers fished or swam.

My first disappointment of the day was the washed-out bridge that stymied my hike to Skyscraper Reservoir. My second disappointment of the day was my peach. I should have realized it’s far too early in the season to get my favorite Palisade peaches, but when I bought them, they seemed ripe. I want my peach flesh soft, juicy, and sweet. Instead, it was crunchy like an apple; not very juicy, not terribly sweet, and only vaguely peach-flavored. So it goes.

While I ate and rested, I had my GoPro Max doing a timelapse. I should have played around with this camera before doing this. It doesn’t work at all like either of my older GoPros. With those, when I’m doing a timelapse, it snaps a still photo every two seconds (or whatever interval I want). After an hour or so, I’d have a couple of thousand stills that I can crop in whatever way I want. That allows me to make sure the image is not cockeyed, or to crop them in a way that simulates zooming or panning. Disappointment three is that the new camera outputs not a bunch of still photos, but a fully-formed 1080p video. My video editing tools allow me to do the pan/zoom/rotate thing, but I would lose quite a bit of resolution. Unless I figure out how to take a still photo every two seconds, I’ll have to continue using the older camera for time-lapse videos.

Shortly after leaving Lost Lake, the clouds started getting a bit threatening. By the time I made it back to the car, it had started to hail. The skies to the west didn’t look good at all. Perhaps it was a good thing that I couldn’t take my longer intended hike. I had my rain jacket with me, but I might very well have spent a few hours slogging through the rain.

Devils Thumb Lake

Today I return to the Hessie Trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness for a walk up to Jasper Lake and its surroundings. There are three lakes here: Jasper Lake, Storm Lake, and Devils Thumb Lake. There are more than those, actually, as there are three unnamed ponds and a small lake called Upper Storm Lake in the cirque above Storm Lake. There is no official trail from Lake Jasper to Storm Lake and above.

Theoretically, it might be possible to visit these three lakes in one day hike. But because I haven’t been there before and I don’t know what the terrain looks like between Jasper and Storm, I decided to go to Devils Thumb Lake. On the return trip, I’d stop at Jasper and do a little recon of the route to Storm.

Wednesday, September 7

Arriving at the trailhead at about 7 am worked well for me on my first hike from Hessie, so I stuck to that plan. Today I had to gas up the car and the station doesn’t open until 6, so I arrived at the trailhead just a few minutes later than planned.

On my previous Hessie hike, I logged my time at each waypoint. I skipped a few this time, as there aren’t any navigational choices between the car and where I leave the jeep trail and take the Devils Thumb Bypass trail to reach Devils Thumb Lake. The Devils Thumb Bypass trail parallels the Woodland Lake trail, the trails being on opposite sides of Jasper Creek. Although the trails are only a few hundred feet apart, the forest is dense enough that I never saw the other trail. The first hundred yards or so of the bypass trail is the steepest section of trail on the entire hike.

On this trail, you reach the IPW boundary sign in a large meadow about a hundred yards wide and a third of a mile long. The meadow affords the hiker of the first views of Mount Jasper. This section of trail is the easiest: almost flat and almost entirely free of roots and rocks, allowing the hiker to maintain a uniform stride. Too quickly, perhaps, the trail returns to the forest.

It seems that for much of the route from the IPW boundary to Jasper Lake, the trail follows an old roadbed. Jasper Lake is a functioning reservoir. I was unable to find out anything about when it was built, but it’s an earthen berm dam much like several of the (now removed) dams in RMNP. I assume it is of about the same vintage, or just over a century old, and that this old road was used in the dam’s construction.

Anyway, the trail doesn’t always follow the old roadbed. Occasionally, there are small signs along the trail that say “Trail →”. I found these little signs a bit odd, as any other option than following the arrow on the sign would be silly. And yet, once I somehow managed to note the sign but still go off in the wrong direction.

I found myself still on the old roadbed, on a somewhat steep section of it bounded on both sides by willow. The road itself was now a corduroy road: made of logs the width of the road, placed side-by-side. I usually read of these corduroy roads being built in low, swampy areas. This section isn’t in a low area and is somewhat steep. Conversely, willow tends to grow in wetter areas, so the area may be quite wet earlier in the season. By the looks of it, there’s a fair amount of foot traffic through here, so I’m not the only one who has errantly gone this way.

A bit farther up the trail is the junction with a trail to Diamond Lake. Diamond Lake is a fairly short hike when starting on the Fourth of July trailhead. From there, it’s a bit more than two and a half miles. This way, it’s perhaps three times that, plus an extra six or seven hundred vertical feet. A good stretch of this route is above timberline, so the open views may make the extra effort worthwhile.

Slightly more than half a mile further on, the trail reaches the outlet of Jasper Lake. I didn’t pause here but trekked on toward Devils Thumb Lake. I would stop here on the way back.

From Jasper to Devils Thumb, the forest thins. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say we’re hiking through grassy areas with clumps of trees rather than forest with clearings. In any event, Devils Thumb and Skyscraper Peak and parts of the Continental Divide are often in view.

The trail soon climbs to and crosses the outlet of Devils Thumb Lake. The lake is about ten acres in area, maybe 425 feet wide at its widest (north to south) and a quarter of a mile in length east to west. It is bounded on the east and west by large, thick stands of willow while the north shore is a tumble of talus. That leaves the south shore as the most easily explored. This shore is covered with forest, and the banks are more steep than flat. If you go down to the water, you can find a view of the entire lake, but the only places I found to sit in the sun and relax offered only partial views of the lake.

I spent about an hour here, between my search for a comfy spot to relax, consumption of a small snack, and application of sunscreen.

At this altitude (and for much of the hike, frankly), most of the wildflowers are gone, either eaten by squirrels or cached in burrows. The only flowers still with blooms were a few yellow species. All the blue, red, and purple were gone. I didn’t see a single columbine on the entire hike.

The relative lack of wildflowers wasn’t the only sign of the changing season. The grasses were beginning to turn yellow, and while the aspen leaves are still green, the ground cover beneath the aspen was already golden.

From the car to Devils Thumb Lake, I encountered only one other hiker. I started seeing more people once I started my return trip. Two sets of two hikers between Devils Thumb and Jasper told me to be on the lookout for a mother moose and her calf. I never spotted any moose, elk, or deer the whole day.

Back at Jasper, I turned off on a spur trail that leads to a few of the campsites. I went far enough along this trail to decide that this is the way to go if you want to head up to Storm Lake. This trail runs along the western shore of the lake, just high enough up the slope to avoid any marshy areas along the shore. I hopped off the trail here to explore a peninsula. I don’t think maps accurately depict the shape of the lake. This is probably because the shape of the lake changes drastically when it’s not full.

Much of the shoreline of the lake is forest, with steep banks. It’s a very scenic lake. At the farthest extent of my peninsula, I found a nice spot for a picnic and had my lunch. I had a nice open view of the corrugated ridge north of the lake. I also had a view of the terrain leading up to Storm Lake and could see a couple of falls made by its outlet stream.

Today’s beer was Hazy IPA by Great Divide Brewing Company. I’m not a huge IPA fan, but when you buy a variety pack you take the non-favorites with the favorites. I selected this particular beer today because I expected the skies to be a bit on the hazy side – an effect of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. The IPA was a nice change of pace from my recent string of sour fruit ales, and the hazy skies were noticeable but not terribly bad.

Last week, I found myself directly underneath a flight path for eastbound jetliners. It turns out that Jasper Lake is directly beneath a westbound flight path. Like last time, atmospheric conditions were such that these planes weren’t leaving any contrails so I had a little trouble initially spotting them. As they all use the same routes, when you spot one, you can spot them all. Being a city dweller near a regional airport, I’m accustomed to hearing aircraft all the time. But they don’t fly right over my house. If these jets didn’t fly right overhead, I don’t know that I’d be complaining about them.

Here in the first week of September, Jasper Lake is at its fullest. What looks today like the outlet of the lake is actually the dam’s spillway. Some care was taken to make it look natural. The same is true, to an extent, of the dam itself. From below the dam, on the trail, it’s not obvious that it’s a dam. The slope is gentle and is covered with grass (and flowers, perhaps, in July and August).

The water that goes over the spillway makes a 90-degree turn then drops fifteen feet or so to where I’m guessing the original outlet of the lake was. The outlet pipe is here. Once the valve is opened, the lake’s level will drop such that water no longer goes over the spillway; the lake is drained through this pipe. There’s a building of some sort (I didn’t explore it) where I assume the valve is operated.

I’m guessing this dam was built much the same way as the (no longer standing) dams for Sandbeach, Lawn, and Pear Lakes (and others) in RMNP. I can only hope that its construction is more robust than those dams (which, by 1982, all suffered serious structural issues). I understand that dams in Colorado are rated as to their riskiness. This rating is based on the danger to people and structures below the dam should it fail and not just on the soundness (or lack thereof) of the dam itself. If this dam were to fail, it would flood Middle Boulder Creek through the town of Eldora, then Nederland, and ultimately flow into Barker Reservoir.

I ran into a lot more trail traffic on the way out than on the way in. More than half the folks I encountered had dogs with them. There are plenty of signs that tell us dogs must be on leashes. Of all the dogs I saw, only one group kept theirs leashed. All the rest allowed their dogs to run free. One group at least made the attempt to seem like they kept their dogs leashed: they managed to get one of their two on a leash by the time they passed me. But a hundred feet past me, they let that one off to run free. (There was a fair amount of dog poo right on the trail, too.)

I’m sure every dog owner feels that their Fido is a kind, gentle dog not very interested in biting people. But on my daily walks in my neighborhood, I’ve been bitten multiple times by dogs. Back in my misspent youth, when I delivered Avon to the Avon ladies, I encountered hundreds of vicious dogs. So perhaps I’m oversensitive to the issue. But I really wish people would follow the rules on this one and keep Rover on a leash.

I will definitely be back in this area. I’d like to visit Storm Lake (and perhaps Upper Storm Lake and the unnamed ponds, too). In the valley between Jasper and Betty and Bob Lakes, there are two more lakes, one of which is also a reservoir. Skyscraper Reservoir looks to be a concrete dam rather than an earthen berm. I probably won’t get to Skyscraper this season, but it’s definitely on the to-do list. I’ll admit that I’m curious about these alpine lakes that were dammed in service of irrigating farms on the eastern plains.

Hike Segment Data

StartEndDistance (Miles)Slope (Ft/Mile)Elapsed TimeMiles per Hour
CarDevils Thumb Bypass jct1.5297:362.5
Devils Thumb Bypass jctIPW Boundary0.5380:152.0
IPW BoundaryWoodland Lake trail jct0.8201:202.4
Woodland Lake trail jctDiamond Lake trail jct1.5593:491.8
Diamond Lake trail jctJasper Lake0.6223:201.8
Jasper LakeDevils Thumb Lake1.0325:361.7
CarDevils Thumb Lake5.93642:562.0
Distance and Slope are approximate

Betty Lake, Bob Lake, and King Lake

As I tend to do, I kept a browser tab open for about a week showing the topo map of the area I’m going to hike. This week, it was Betty and Bob Lakes in the IPW. They, and King Lake, form the headwaters of South Fork Middle Boulder Creek. (Last week I hiked along North Fork Middle Boulder Creek.)

I came up with all sorts of possibilities, most of which I discarded. In the end, my plan was to get to Betty and Bob Lakes, then do the side trip to King Lake. I had considered going cross-country from Bob to King but figured it’d be faster to use the trail even though it meant losing and regaining about 300′ of elevation. Another one I considered was skipping King and going over the ridge between Betty and Skyscraper Reservoir, collecting Woodland Lake, and returning by the Woodland Lake trail. This would have been the same mileage and elevation gain as doing Betty, Bob, and King. The big unknowable until reaching the top of the ridge is the state of the terrain on the other side.

Monday, July 22

Parking for the Hessie Trailhead is just a short distance past the town of Eldora, on the side of the road. The map indicates a road from this point to a small parking lot at the trailhead, but the road is closed now. It’s about half a mile to the parking lot. More, actually, because there were already ten cars parked on the road. Before I had changed into my boots, two more cars came in and parked.

When I put boots on the trail, the sun had not yet climbed above the ridge, so the area was in shadow. I was thinking I’d be walking on the old road, but right away the road wasn’t so much “road” as “river”. A narrow trail snakes alongside the road/river. It was dark, and last night’s rain still clung to the grass, leaves, and pine needles. The temperature was in the low forties and the humidity made it clammy. It felt a bit … primordial.

The trailhead is right on the river. (North Fork Boulder Creek. The North and South Forks have their confluence just out of sight about five hundred feet downstream.) The parking lot isn’t the end of the road. There’s a stout pedestrian bridge next to a wide, shallow ford for vehicles and livestock. The 4×4 road and trail are one and the same nearly to the IPW boundary. The road crosses the river again, this time using a fairly new bridge (South Fork this time). I’m guessing it was replaced after the 2013 floods. At this bridge is the junction with the trail to Jasper Lake, Storm Lake, and Devil’s Thumb Lake. You could use it for Woodland Lake/Skyscraper Reservoir as well.

Continuing up the road, we next come to a nice waterfall. Not far past the falls is the junction with the Lost Lake trail and a couple bends past that is the junction with the Woodland Lake trail (which could also be used for Jasper, et al). At this junction, we are finally off the disused jeep trail. I didn’t like the road – it was full of loose rocks. At times, I felt like a drunken sailor when a rock would shift underfoot. A quarter of a mile farther on, the trail finally reaches the boundary of Indian Peaks Wilderness, a mile and a half (or more) from the car.

Carved by glaciers, the valley is U-shaped, with the stream at the bottom and the trail a bit above the river, always audible but not always in sight. It’s a nice trail, of fairly constant slope, free of rocks and roots for extended distances, allowing for consistent strides. The forest obscures any surrounding views but isn’t dense – the trees are spaced farther apart than usual, and the sun illuminates the grass and flowers on the forest floor.

Approaching the head of the valley, the forest starts breaking up and the mountain to the south is revealed. Only glimpses to begin, but just before the trail climbs up off the valley floor we see the whole mountain flank. The Rollins Pass Road is clearly visible. There’s a short section where the trestles still stand, but most of the mountainside is littered with old lumber from the road.

The history of Rollins Pass is extensive, with archeological studies indicating it was in use as much as 10,000 years ago. The lumber strewn along the mountainside is what’s left of the snowsheds used by the railroad. Essentially, the snowshed was an almost continuous wooden tunnel that ran near the summit. The idea was to keep the railroad operational for more than just August (workers on the Moffat Road had an adage: “There’s winter and then there’s August”). The snowshed wasn’t a great success. Trains were often stranded for several days (sometimes weeks) during heavy snowstorms because snow could fall or be blown through the wood planking of the sheds. Coal smoke and toxic gasses from the locomotive collected in the snowsheds often causing temporary blindness, loss of consciousness, and sometimes death. The snowsheds are long gone, but the lumber debris has been there for a century and will likely be around for centuries more.

The map shows there’s a pond in the valley below where the trail snakes up the wall, but the map is incorrect. The trail tops out of its climb and reaches the spur trail to Betty and Bob Lakes. ProTrails says the section from the junction to the lake is tricky through willow and krummholz. I found it fairly obvious and easy to follow.

About three hundred feet higher than the trail junction we find Betty Lake. My plan was to skip right on by and take my first break at Bob Lake. Here is where I was foiled. The trail crosses the outlet of Betty, which flows through a bunch of willow. It flows fast and deep. There are two or three branches thrown across, but they’re old and small. When I put any weight on them, they bowed badly. It’s too far to jump. If I had bothered to bring my trek poles, I’d have crossed it without too much trepidation. But the risk isn’t just wet feet: I judge the water to be nearly thigh deep here.

The lesson here is to bring the poles on routes I haven’t traveled before.

I spent a few minutes looking through the krummholz for a dead limb I could use as a pole to make the crossing but couldn’t find anything. So I gave up and looked for a nice spot for a short break. I worked my way to the north shore and got the idea that I could get to Bob this way, but when I worked around to where I could see the whole route there was more willow than I wanted to deal with. So much for going to Bob.

I had a snack on the shore of Betty, but I didn’t linger long. I worked my way back down to the King Lake junction and headed up that way. The trail continues past the lake and up to the Continental Divide, reaching a parking lot on Rollins Pass.

A couple of hikers arrived just after I did. They wanted me to take their picture, and we chatted a bit. They left about the same time another couple hiked down from the pass. These two were from Arkansas and had rented a 4×4 for the trip over the pass. The guy stripped down to his shorts and took a quick swim in the lake.

I stayed at King for nearly an hour, ate my picnic lunch, drank my beer (Tivoli Brewing’s Mile Hi Hefe, which I’ll have to call “Two Mile Hi Hefe”), and watched the world go by.

The weather couldn’t decide whether to be threatening or not. A short squall blew over while I was going from Betty to King but it didn’t amount to much. After leaving King, I heard thunder to the north, but I could see no dark clouds and there were large patches of blue sky overhead. The thunder died out after twenty minutes or so, except for one late rumble perhaps fifteen minutes later.

On the hike out, I ran into a couple about my age. They were carrying backpacks and had with them three fully-loaded llamas. We had a quick chat. They were looking for nice camping spots near King Lake. I can’t help but wonder how long they were going to stay, and in what luxury. They must have had a couple of hundred pounds of gear.

When my water was two-thirds gone, I found a nice rock to sit on beside the stream. I ate my peach (a delicious Colorado Palisade peach: big, sweet, and juicy) and then refilled my water bottle.

I started early enough this morning that I encountered only two hikers between the car and the King Lake junction. It was quite a bit more crowded in the afternoon, particularly after I started passing the various trail junctions. I ran across so many people, I was trying to picture how far down the road people must have parked. I even ran into a group of four or five folks wearing flip-flops and carrying no water. I don’t imagine they made it too far.

Back at the car, I felt pretty worn out. But it was a good worn-out.

I’ll definitely do some more hiking from the Hessie trailhead. By missing Bob Lake this time, I have an excuse to do this trail again. Skyscraper Reservoir is still in use, so I’d like to get a good look at it and compare it to the former reservoirs in the Park. Counting the three lakes I tried to get to today, there are eight lakes on Hessie trails that are at roughly 11,000′ to 11,500′ in elevation within a mile or so of the Continental Divide.

Lake Dorothy

Wednesday, August 17

Lake Dorothy sits in a cirque at 12,067′ in the shadow of Mount Neva, a few feet of elevation above Arapaho Pass. It is the highest named lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It covers about fourteen acres and is a hundred feet deep. There are native cutthroat trout in it, but I understand they are wily and elusive. The Continental Divide makes a turn from north/south to east/west here, and Lake Dorothy occupies the corner. To both the north and west, the divide is only a couple of hundred yards away.

You take the Arapaho Pass trail to reach it, and you’ll find that at the Fourth of July trailhead. Take Eldora Rd west from CO 119 in Nederland. At the west end of the town of Eldora, the pavement ends. From here, it’s five miles of pot-holed dirt road. We just had a couple of days of heavy rain, so all the holes were filled with water. It’s slow going. I was able to dodge most of the puddles but you just can’t miss them all. In the end, the parking lot was full of SUVs, pickups, and Subaru Outlanders. But one guy did get in there with his Ford Escort station wagon, so it’s doable without a huge amount of ground clearance.

The road to the Fourth of July trailhead is called Fourth of July road. And, of course, there’s the Fourth of July mine. The trailhead and road get their names from the mine, which is so named because C.C. Alvord discovered a silver lode there on the Fourth of July, 1872. More about that later.

The satellite image of the trailhead shows a full parking lot and cars parked along the road for quite some distance. I reckoned it wise to get there early and to have a Plan B in case I found no place to park. I left the house at six and satnav said I’d be there by 7:15. It is quite a crowded trailhead. I had two cars in front of me on the way in in the morning. The lot was about two-thirds full so I’d guess people started parking on the road by 7:45 at the latest.

When I left, the lot was full and cars lined the road for a considerable distance.

I put boots on the trail at 7:30. The car’s thermometer said the outside air temperature was 47. I kept the jacket in the pack figuring the exertion would keep me warm enough. Some of last night’s raindrops still clung to the pine needles. Given the amount of recent rain, the trail wasn’t terribly muddy and there weren’t that many puddles.

The trail climbs pretty steadily at about five hundred feet per mile. From the trailhead to the lake, it runs in a large arc, bending toward the west as it climbs the south-facing flank of Quarter to 5 Peak. It doesn’t meander at all and has only two short pairs of switchbacks. The first section of the hike is in dense forest. Shortly after the junction with the trail to Diamond Lake, the trail emerges from the trees onto a wide bench.

After crossing a couple of very wide, very shallow streams you reach the next trail junction and the Fourth of July mine. Take a right turn at the junction to climb a punishing twenty-one hundred feet in 2.2 miles to summit South Arapaho Peak. A shorter hike up that trail gets to a viewpoint of Arapaho Glacier. From this junction, the trail is visible on the mountainside above. Instead, I’m happy to keep the same bearing and continue following the arc’s not-too-strenuous climb to Arapaho Pass.

First, I poked around the mine for a quick minute. There are a few rusted machines and the remnants of a couple of timbers. There are some very small stakes ringed around a hole. The hole is the mine. Supposedly, it’s more than two hundred feet deep. There’s nothing covering the hole. Aside from two or three timbers, there is no sign of any structures here.

Once you pass the mine, you can see the trail almost all the way to the lake. From here to about a hundred yards from the lake you travel on an old roadbed. There are two different I’ve read about this road. It was built in 1900. One story is that they ran out of money when they reached the pass. The other says that two companies agreed to build the road, but the one on the west side didn’t build anything.

Today, standing at the pass, it’s striking that the old road was on an ideal route to the pass: an almost constant grade, no switchbacks, no having to dodge rock outcroppings, just a nearly straight shot. It’s also striking how the other side of the pass is a horrible place to try to put a road. This was before the automobile, and I don’t have any idea what the turning radius is for a team of oxen pulling a wagon. But you’re gonna need a bunch of switchbacks to go down that hill.

I imagine a light-duty road built for wagons more than a century ago would have been quite fragile and require a fair amount of maintenance to keep operational. It hasn’t been maintained in a century but there are still considerable stretches where it’s surprisingly intact. Long sections of retaining wall supporting the downslope side are still solid. Many places, of course, have fallen or eroded.

There’s another trail junction at the pass. One way heads eight hundred feet down the other side to Caribou Lake. The other goes to Lake Dorothy or to Caribou Pass (which is not on the Continental Divide). A short climb above the junction is rewarded with the first view of the lake.

It took me a few minutes short of two hours to make the hike. I was expecting to take more like two and a half, so I was pleased with myself. I found a nice spot along the water to sit and watch the world go by.

A few seconds after sitting down, I noticed I picked a spot only about fifteen yards from somebody’s backpack. I didn’t see who belonged to it. There was a hiker some distance away from me who was just leaving and I didn’t see anybody else. Then I started hearing voices and figured the pack’s owner and a friend were further along the shore, around a slight bend.

I couldn’t pinpoint the voices. Instead of being out of sight on my shore, it started sounding like perhaps they were on the opposite shore. I scanned the whole place but didn’t see anybody. After a bit, I heard a rock falling somewhere. It’s not uncommon. This one I thought sounded like it was the result of a footstep, but I couldn’t tell you why. A few minutes later, there was a second one.

Eventually, I spotted them. There were two: a man and a woman, by the sound of their voices. They were on the opposite side of the lake, but not on the shore. They were at the very top of the spine on the north ridge of Mount Neva, five hundred feet above the lake. I spotted the white helmet before I saw the orange one.

The mountain’s spine there resembles a flat W. I first spotted them when they reached the bottom of the right-hand part. They were going north to south, or right to left. They went right along the top – they were in silhouette quite often. The things people do. I could never do that. I’d be petrified, immobile. But the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things.

I enjoyed my surroundings for an hour and a quarter before packing up and heading back down the hill. It was too early for lunch but I figured by the time I got back down to the mine I’d be ready. There was a nice open view there. C.C. Alvord may have picked a dud of a place for a mine, but he picked a place with a fantastic view. Oh, and I finally found the guy who belonged to the backpack. He was fishing quietly on the south shore.

So, about the mine…

In researching it, I was a bit confused at first. I found one reference that said it was a copper mine, another said it was silver and lead, and a third said gold. I had just assumed that it was gold. In the end, it was all of the above. Sort of.

It started with silver. The Rocky Mountain News said it was an outcropping of an enormous silver ledge that would keep a hundred thousand men mining for generations. The News was a bit off. Next to the deep shaft, Alvord built a bunkhouse for the crew, a blacksmith shop, and a stable for the horse that spent its days powering the mine’s hoist. I didn’t see anywhere how big the crew was, but I suspect it was maybe 99,990 short of a hundred thousand.

Over a five-year period, the mine did okay. Alvord expanded the operation with a tunnel downslope from the shaft (which I didn’t look for) and added another blacksmith shop there. But the mine was very close to a stream, and water constantly seeped into it. The whole operation was shut down in 1880. In addition to the streams, I’m sure there are many springs. There’s a small spring right on the trail a bit before reaching the ledge the mine sits on.

Twenty years later, the mine was promoted as being a huge copper source, the biggest in the region. The promoters put together a glossy 32-page brochure and sold 3 million shares at a dollar apiece. I can’t help but wonder if somebody from the News helped out with the brochure. When extending the tunnel they somehow managed to make a U-turn, blasting out of the mountain not far from where they started. Three million dollars was a lot of money in 1900, and I’d be amazed if they spent anywhere near that in their efforts.

Somebody got rich, and somebody got the shaft.

Isabelle Glacier

According to the United States Geological Survey, a glacier is “a large, perennial accumulation of crystalline ice, snow, rock, sediment, and often liquid water that originates on land and moves downslope under the influence of its own weight and gravity.” I’m guessing, then, that when a glacier shrinks enough, it won’t be massive enough for its weight to overcome friction and it will stop moving and it will no longer be a glacier, but a permanent snowfield.

There are fourteen named glaciers in Colorado. I’d be surprised if all these fourteen are still glaciers by the end of my lifetime.

Isabelle Glacier forms the headwaters of South St. Vrain Creek and clings to the Continental Divide between Apache Peak and Shoshoni Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The easiest access is from the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Tuesday, July 12

Not long ago, Brainard implemented a timed-entry pass system much like that in use at RMNP. Passes are made available two weeks before the date and when I went to pick a date and make my reservation, there were plenty of passes still available for each day in the fourteen-day window. I picked up a pass in the earliest time slot, 5 am to 8 am. I bought a pass for parking at the Brainard Lake picnic area. There are permits available for the small lot right at the Long Lake trailhead, but the early times sell out pretty quickly.

The ProTrails writeup for the hike to Isabelle Glacier says it’s an 8.75-mile round-trip with a net elevation gain of 1,510′. That’s from the Long Lake trailhead, which is about a mile (and 200′ of elevation) from where I parked. I neglected to account for this when I was thinking about how long the hike would take. It turns out, I also didn’t give much credit to the overall steepness of the trip.

I arrived at the parking lot a few minutes before 8 and was quickly on my way. Because I took a somewhat more scenic route from my car to the Long Lake trailhead, it took me half an hour to get there. The trail from the trailhead to the first sight of Lake Isabelle is fairly typical for the area: well-maintained, wide, and busy, through forest. Long Lake is, well, pretty long: about six-tenths of a mile. The valley the trail traverses is wide and for the most part, the trail doesn’t rise much above the floor. The South St. Vrain meanders a bit and forms the usual pools and marshes in the grassy meadows. There aren’t many views through this forested section of trail, although there are the occasional glimpses of Niwot Ridge and the cascades formed just below the outlet of Lake Isabelle.

At Lake Isabelle, there’s a trail junction. Continue straight to see the lake or proceed up to Isabelle Glacier. Take a right turn to head up to Pawnee Pass. One could go that way to summit Pawnee Peak or Shoshoni Peak or to visit Pawnee Lake, but I’m not sure I’m up to any of those. Either peak is about a thousand feet higher than Isabelle Glacier and add a bit of distance. Pawnee Lake is something like 1,600′ below the pass, so you’d be looking at dealing with more than 3,000′ of climbing.

Lake Isabelle is another significant body of water, measuring about half a mile from east to west and spanning the entire width of the canyon. The trail skirts the north shore of the lake, sometimes right at the water level, sometimes navigating through talus fields. For the entire length of the trail, from the Long Lake trailhead to the glacier, the trail is intuitive and easy to follow, except for two or three short stretches of talus.

Just west of the lake, the trail climbs a bit to a rocky outcropping where the stream makes a wide and scenic cascade. Those hikers not up to the challenge of reaching the glacier would find this area a very pleasant place to stop and take in the scenery.

As is typical for hikes through valleys with multiple lakes, the trail is alternately fairly flat and somewhat steep. Each lake sits on a bench, with a short ascent from one bench to another. The bench above Lake Isabelle lacks a lake and instead is filled with a sea of willow. The trail crosses the stream in the midst of the willow. In mid-July, the flow of water is still near its peak, and in addition to the main stream, there are several smaller rivulets to cross. None of these crossings are treacherous, but some are challenging.

After navigating the willow, the trail climbs to the next bench. I met a hiker headed down and asked him if he’d been to the Glacier. He hadn’t. He was stymied by a field of snow. I’d spotted this from below and noted the tracks that ran across it. For today’s hike, I consulted the weather forecast for the area which said we’d see a high temperature of about 70 degrees. I decided to bring a hoodie rather than microspikes. At this point, I was wondering if I made the best choice: even at 10:30, it was about 70 degrees and sunny. And this snow field looked to be fairly steep.

An aside here: For most of my hiking history, I eschewed trek poles. I always figured that on any given hike I might find poles of limited usefulness and therefore not worth the weight penalty. Recently, I’ve been reassessing. I’ve decided that, if I’m going off-trail, I should bring the poles. This hike had no off-trail component, but I figured that poles might be handy on the final steep section. From the trailhead to Lake Isabelle, I carried them on my pack. I relied on them quite a bit for all my water crossings. (Carrying them on my pack makes me wider – they stick out on either end. I’m still getting used to that. I have to account for this in narrow spots.)

The snowfield looked to be about a hundred yards across, with boot prints that went neither uphill nor downhill. When I stepped onto the snow, I decided that spikes wouldn’t have helped much. The snow gets pretty soft when it’s been in the sunshine all morning and I don’t think spikes would have improved traction. But I was quite happy to have my poles with me. This crossing was near the top of this snowfield and a slip might have meant a slide of a couple of hundred feet. But it wasn’t as steep as it looked from below, so I continued.

There’s an unnamed tarn on this bench, only a few yards past the snowfield. Here I met another hiker. He asked if I’d seen anybody else headed this way and told me that he was the only one up here. He said I had about a third of a mile to go, but that it was “straight uphill”. He was quite impressed by the glacier, calling it a “bucket list” item.

Standing on the talus shore of the tarn, it’s a bit intimidating to look at the slope the trail ascends. The trail has many switchbacks and quite a bit of effort went into constructing it. But from below, there’s no sign of a way up.

Usually, when on a treeless slope, it’s pretty easy to see where the trail goes. Here it’s almost as if you’re on a stretch of magical trail. The trail seems to exist for only a short distance ahead and behind. The trail coalesces in front of you from nothing and decays back to nothing behind you.

One of the trail’s switchbacks is next to a falls. There’s not a huge volume of water, but it falls thirty or forty feet straight down and is fairly wide. It doesn’t exactly roar but makes a fair noise. Just as the trail seems to annihilate itself once it’s behind you, the sound of the falls quickly fades to nothing just a few steps up the trail.

After a final stream crossing, the trail dumps you onto a rim of rocks surrounding another tarn, this one full of snow and ice and water. The glacier stretches above and to the west. By surface area, it’s a bit smaller than Lake Isabelle. Not very long ago, some intrepid skier hiked to the top for a single run down the glacier. How badly must you want to ski, to carry your skis as far as I just hiked, then climb another 500-600′ of very steep snow?

There are two or three other tracks in the snow. They’re not made by man or beast, but the tracks of rocks that have fallen from above. When I used to hike to Emerald Lake every Memorial Day, I’d often hear the crack and rumble of falling rocks. Sitting here at the glacier eating my lunch I heard that noise again. I couldn’t help but think of the recent major rockfall in Chaos Canyon, even though I knew it was just a single, small rock.

The scenery is very dramatic. Isabelle Glacier is draped off the ridge between Apache and Shoshoni peaks. Navajo Peak is almost due south and has a smaller, unnamed glacier clinging to its steep slope. Niwot Ridge runs off Navaho Peak nearly due east for a mile and a half or more. My lunch spot was at almost exactly 12,000′ elevation and all the steep, craggy peaks surrounding it rise another thousand feet or so.

When planning the hike, I figured it would only take two and a half or three hours to reach the glacier. In fact, it was more like four and a quarter. I hadn’t accounted for the extra half hour from the car to the trailhead and I clearly didn’t account for this hike being so high. I knew I’d be climbing 1,500′ feet, but I guess I wasn’t accounting for the trailhead being at 10,500′. It took me about 40 minutes to climb from the tarn at 11,400′ to my picnic spot beside the glacier at 12,000′. I never stopped for longer than it took to snap a photo or two, but I wasn’t exactly breaking any land speed records.

I took only a short break at the glacier. My last few hikes were short enough that I had the luxury of stopping where I wanted for however long I wanted. As it was already a bit past noon when I got to the glacier, I had to be concerned with the weather. Being right below the Divide, you can find yourself in a thunderstorm with no warning.

I was back down a bit below the tarn when it started sprinkling. The summits above me were becoming slightly obscured by a white veil: the rain had turned to graupel. This forced me to don my hoodie and by now I was happy to think I’d made the correct choice of the hoodie over the microspikes.

On the hike down from the tarn to Isabelle Lake, I could watch the progress of the rain clouds as they blew to the east. I never got more than a slight sprinkle (and the graupel), but it looked like somebody downwind was getting a good shower.

Just before regaining Isabelle Lake, I ran into a few hikers heading up. None of them intended to try for the glacier. One said something to the effect that Isabelle Glacier isn’t a real glacier. I was about to protest when she said that she used to live in Alaska. Certainly, Colorado glaciers are nothing like Alaska ones, so I could see her point. I told her how much I’d seen Andrews glacier shrink in the last forty years and wondered how much bigger Isabelle was back then.

I took a short break at the outlet of Isabelle Lake. The stream flows under a large snowfield here, that was visible momentarily from the trail below. Clouds obscured the sun and the wind kicked up but I packed the hoodie away and stowed the poles. It took me an hour and a half to get here from the car on my way up, then two and a half hours to get from here to the glacier. Given that I don’t hike down these trails any faster than I hike up them, I figured I could be back to the car by 4:30.

Overall, I found it a most satisfying hike. The section up to Lake Isabelle isn’t very strenuous. Hikers wishing to go no further can find excellent places to take in the views just above the lake. There are scenic cascades and lake views, surrounded by dramatic mountains. And, for those willing and able, Isabelle Glacier is worth a visit.

No time-lapse video for this hike. Instead, here’s a larger-than-usual slideshow.

Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake

Continuing this summer’s exploration of alpine lakes of the Front Range of Colorado outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, I decided it was time to take a stab at the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Not quite at random, I selected Blue Lake, which has its trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

I hadn’t been to Brainard Lake before. Just about everybody I know who does any hiking at all has been there, so it’s about time I joined the club.

Wednesday, August 25

Julie joined me for this hike. She said six miles or so is her limit. The trail guide tells me that it’s a 5.1 mile round trip from the trailhead to Blue Lake and back, with only about 830′ of climb. I won’t call it an “ideal fit”, given that it’s pretty much at her limit. She tells me she’s never been to Brainard Lake, either, so a new experience for both of us.

We left my house shortly after 7am, and Google directed us up Lee Hill Drive from north Boulder. I’ve never been on this road before, so another plus. It turns out that Lee Hill Drive connects with Left Hand Canyon Drive. Not long ago, I took Left Hand Canyon Drive as a detour when Boulder Canyon was closed for construction. I didn’t realize until now, that on that day, I turned off Left Hand Canyon Drive onto James Canyon Drive, which turns into a dirt road. Left Hand Canyon Drive remains paved all the way to its junction with the Peak to Peak Highway at the metropolis of Ward.

The entrance to Brainard Lake Recreation Area is about a hundred yards north of Ward (which isn’t really visible from the Peak to Peak). It, also, is a nice paved road. So when I make a return visit to Brainard, I can drive the Lotus if I want.

We couldn’t help but notice the signs that say “Reservation Required”. This is where I admit to a failure to properly research our visit. I didn’t visit Brainard’s Forest Service website. I looked at my usual list of sites, such as ProTrails. I did find some conflicting information. One site said there was a ten-dollar entrance fee. Another said it was eleven dollars. Neither said reservations were required.

We arrived at the entrance station and greeted the ranger. “Do you have a reservation?” We did not. “Reservations are required, and they’re sold out months in advance! But I do have a few left. I can let you park in the Brainard day-use area.” We told him we were going to hike to Blue Lake. “I can’t get you into that parking area, it’s been sold out for months.” When he handed me the pass, I asked about the fee. “It’s on me today. Pay me back by having a good time!”

As it turns out, the entrance fee was neither $10 nor $11 but $14. It’s a good thing he let us in gratis, as I only had $11 on me. (Yeah, he probably could have taken a credit card.)

Brainard is using a timed-entry pass system very much like RMNP. When I got home and visited the official site, I found that some passes are still available for the dates that have been released, but just a few, and just late in the day. None would be of any use to me.

We parked in the designated lot and found the trail that leads from there to the parking lot and trailhead we really wanted to use. This adds fifteen minutes each way to the hike, so maybe another mile round trip. So now we’re pushing Julie’s limits a bit more. Oh well.

I couldn’t help but notice that, for a place that’s been sold out for months, there were very few cars. The lot where we parked was perhaps 20% full and the lot at the Mitchell Lake trailhead was about a quarter full. I guessed that, by the time we got back, we’d see full parking lots.

The trail works its way through the valley between Mount Audubon (13,229′) on the north and Little Pawnee Peak (12,466′) on the south. Mount Toll (12,979′), Paiute Peak (13,088′), and Pawnee Peak (12,943′) are at the head of the valley. Blue Lake is a fairly large lake, and the trail officially ends there. There is another, higher, lake. It’s not named on any of the maps I use, but I’ve heard it called either Little Blue Lake or Upper Blue Lake. My plan was to make it to the upper lake while Julie enjoyed the views at Blue Lake.

To get to Blue Lake, you start at the Mitchell Lake trailhead. Mitchell Lake is a bit less than a mile from the trailhead, and it’s a pretty easy hike. The trail is well-maintained, not terribly rocky, and climbs only about 200′.

Not long after passing Mitchell Lake, the trail reaches a point that overlooks the lake and the pond that’s adjacent to it on the east. This overlook is roughly where you come to the first of the ponds, this one to the north of the trail. I couldn’t help but notice that the entire slope of Mount Audubon, stretching east/west for more than a mile, is comprised of talus and/or scree. I’ve probably seen more talus than this on one hillside, but if I have, I can’t think of where I’ve seen it. I found it to be a remarkable amount of talus.

The outlet of Blue Lake is one of the feeders of Mitchell Lake, but the trail doesn’t run along the stream. I’d say that the stream is visible for most of the hike between the two lakes, but that’s not exactly true: the terrain is fairly flat here, and the stream is overgrown by willow, so you can’t really see much of it.

And, being fairly flat, there are four or five unnamed ponds along the way. This looks like ideal moose territory to me. And, overlooking the second of these ponds, we heard the snort of an animal. It was loud enough that the beast couldn’t have been very far away. Julie wondered if it might be a bear; I suggested it was probably a moose. Neither of us spotted either a bear or a moose. A few minutes later, we heard another snort. Still we couldn’t find the creature.

Nearing Blue Lake, we came across a couple of hikers asking if we’d seen the moose. Actually, this happened several times throughout the day. We’d meet hikers who asked if we’d seen the moose. One group saw two big bulls. Another saw a cow and calf. We were about the only ones who hadn’t seen moose, even though we were within earshot of their snorts. So it goes.

In due time, we reached Blue Lake, where I left Julie. The trail skirts the northern shore of the lake, climbing slightly as it goes west. The guide at ProTrails tells me, “Here the maintained trail ends, but a fairly intuitive route continues up the north shore to Upper Blue Lake.” I beg to differ. Before long, I reached a steep section of very loose footing. I nearly turned around here. I passed this bit, continuing the climb. Before long, the trail disappeared completely. Nothing intuitively obvious here.

If the trail would have been better (or more obvious), I’d have continued. If I’d have been hiking with somebody to help with route selection, I’d have continued. But alone, with no trail, I figured it would take longer than I wanted to make Julie wait for me. So I turned around.

On my way back down, I met two pairs of hikers who were thinking they’d try to reach the upper lake as well. It wasn’t my intention, but both turned around after talking to me. The first pair told me they didn’t have any off-trail experience. The second pair turned around after I pointed out the section with the loose footing. I really didn’t mean to be so discouraging.

After our picnic lunch, we headed back, all the while on the lookout for moose. There was a bit more traffic on the trail than we saw on the way up, but I would not call this a crowded trail at all.

Back at the Mitchell Lake trailhead, we saw a nearly empty parking lot. And the lot we were parked in was also not more than a quarter or a third full. Here at Brainard, the timed-entry pass system is certainly keeping the crowds down.

There are a couple more trails I’d like to hike here, so I’ll definitely be back for further visits.

It was a nice, easy hike, not too crowded. And the weather was pretty much ideal – the haze we’ve experienced the last month or so from the wildfires on the west coast was not in evidence. Just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Watanga Lake

Friday, July 3

Last week when musing on the difficulties of bagging new lakes, I broke the challenges down into longer hikes, more bushwhacking, and more remote trailheads. This week I pulled Watanga Lake out of the Foster guide. It is reached from the Roaring Fork trailhead which is situated on Arapaho Bay, the southwestern extreme of Lake Granby. I would put it in the “remote trailhead” category. It’s not any farther than the other jumping off points on the west side of the park but it’s at the end of a ten mile dirt road. The road supports quite a bit of RV traffic and is quite smooth, but it is covered with stones. The speed limit is 25, but I probably never topped 15.

Watanga Lake is in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, about two tenths of a mile south of the RMNP boundary. There’s a self service permit kiosk just off US 34, at the end of the pavement. Day use is $5. About ten miles up the road, make a left turn towards the Roaring Fork campground. The trailhead is on the right.

The first couple hundred yards of trail are forested and flat. There’s a sign here announcing your entrance to the IPWA. Immediately the trail starts climbing steeply. It looks to me like a fire burned through here a few decades ago; many dead trees are standing, but there are aspen and some young pine with a smattering of mature pine. The trail is sunny, but the views of Lake Granby are still somewhat obscured.

The trail just keeps going up and up. When the trail bends to the northwest it looks to me like the trees have gone from dead by fire to dead by beetle. The ascent moderates a bit, but continues to climb. About a mile in we’ve climbed nine hundred feet and reach the first river crossing.

I would call this an unimproved trail. It is just a path, well traveled, but a path. No bars to

The first bridge is in the best condition…

divert flowing water, no rocks line the trail, nothing resembling a stair step. There are sawn log bridges, but no milled lumber anywhere. The Roaring Fork river is too wide here to be crossed with a log. Here is the only structure that could be called an improvement. In the middle of the river is a triangular log pier that supports two spans of logs. It’s a unique bridge in my experience. It was the first of what turned out to be nine water crossings, where each bridge was sketchier than the last, until the stream was small enough for me to leap across.

After this first crossing, the trail mellows out quite a bit. The next two miles only climb another seven hundred feet with the Roaring Fork river audible much of the time. Just before the confluence of Watanga Creek and the Roaring Fork there’s a trail junction. Watanga Lake is to the left. I passed a couple of hikers on the climb who were going to more distant lakes on the Roaring Fork trail.

Shortly after the trail junction, we make our sixth or seventh river crossing. We went from a double span to a long single span, two logs wide, to a single log, to a single broken log (still quite serviceable) and finally to a broken log replaced with a skinny limb. I arrived there at the same time a group of four hikers and a dog arrived on the other side.

I waited patiently and watched their crossing operation. They had a short length of white cord. They tied it onto a tree and the first guy kept it under tension to aid the crossing. I don’t think he stood a chance of making it without the cord. He was in full-cowboy attire: cowboy hat, blue jeans (with a circle worn in one back pocket), and cowboy boots, missing only the shirt with snaps. Using the cord, he crossed without incident, as did the next guy.

The third guy, wearing trail running shoes, lost his balance and went in the drink getting soaked nearly up to his knees. The last guy on the other side tied the cord to the dog’s harness and the second guy pulled the dog across. The dog looked terrified during the act and quite happy afterwards. Then they tied the cord to a tree on this side and tossed the free end to the last hiker, who then crossed without incident.

In the middle of this operation they asked if I wanted to use the cord, but I figured I wouldn’t do any better than the guy who soaked both his feet so I declined. I had decided to take boots and socks off and ford the stream as that’s what I’d need to do when returning.

The water was almost knee deep, moving quickly, and quite cold. The rocks were slippery but I had no problem making my way across. I did it a lot quicker than they did, and one of them had wet feet for the rest of his hike.

Before we parted, I asked, “How far to the lake? Two miles or so?” They said that was about right, but one of them also said they’d left the lake a half hour ago so I thought it was probably less. But they also said it felt like it took them three hours to get there from this point. I didn’t take that seriously.

A short distance past the ford the trail crosses the river again then begins to climb steeply. The last mile or so climbs another seven hundred feet. I generally don’t sit down before reaching my destination. I’ll often pause for a breather; take a sip of water or snap a photo, chat with other hikers. But I don’t sit down. This final climb took me off my feet. Part of the climb is on a hillside in full sunshine. After several switchbacks I sat in a little patch of shade and ate some fruit.

Somewhat refreshed, I pushed on, vanquished the final climb and arrived at Watanga Lake. The hike in took me three hours. This was a bit longer than I expected. Of course, there was the delay at the ford. But more annoying was that the trail was much steeper than I expected. Last week I said that the trail to Timber Lake climbed a bit more than the typical five mile hike. This trail is shorter but climbs five hundred feet more. I clearly didn’t pay any attention to that statistic when planning the hike.

Dogs were common hiking companions on this trail. Only myself and one couple lacked a canine. At the lake was a guy with three dogs. He fished, they ranged over a wide area. The dogs were small, smaller, and smallest.

The lake is scenic, but not dramatic. It’s small and shallow, with a large marshy area to the west. On my way out I ventured that way looking for another picture but there was no better view than where I sat and ate. Found a few nice flat rocks next to a handy snowbank to chill my beverage. It never ceases to amaze me how much better food tastes when enjoyed in a beautiful setting after three hours of hiking.

On the way down realized how fast the trail climbed. The guy at the lake complained about it, but I think he was complaining more about the sixty pound pack and herding the dogs. Hefting an extra sixty pounds, yeesh. That’s why I ‘m a day tripper. It took me three hours to get to the lake, but that includes probably twenty minutes watching those four guys cross the stream.

As I approached the ford, I was thinking how much more efficiently I crossed than they did. It took them quite a while and one went in the drink. But on my second crossing, I tossed one boot short and bounced into a puddle. Dang. It was standing upright, but it landed on its side. Maybe it didn’t get wet inside. Alas, it was pretty well soaked.

I sopped as much as I could with a paper towel, but it still felt pretty wet. I opened the tongue wide and set it down with as much sun shining in as I could. I took a short break and ate my cherries. Resigned to a wet foot for the remainder of the day I packed up and put the boots back on. For about thirty seconds my foot felt wet but after that it felt normal.

I made it back to the car shortly before four. No shade at the car, toasty, a bit dusty. Between the hot sun and the slow dusty drive to the highway I elected to keep the top on. I almost always return over Trail Ridge but figured the traffic there would be very bad so I drove back the way I came.

I stopped for a cold soda in Granby. There was a couple in a Polaris. Technically, they rode their Polaris; legally it’s a motorcycle and of course they get wet when it rains. Everybody was so busy asking them questions they didn’t notice me. It’s not often my car isn’t the center of attention.

Traffic moved pretty well, pretty much the speed limit all the way to Winter Park. I dispatched some slower cars going up the pass. People moved at a reasonable speed on the down side and before long we’re to I-70. The westbound traffic was horrendous. It only appeared to be stop-and-go in short blips, but it never moved fast, all the way to the bottom of Floyd Hill. And I’m sure it was that way all the way to the Eisenhower tunnel. Quite the contrast from what it was in the morning.

Fitbit app (GPS) says 4.51 miles, wristband recorded 5.97 miles with only 80 more paces on the way out. Foster says 4.8. Just a tad short of 25,000 paces for the round trip. Depending on how often the app queries the satellite, the GPS may read short on all the switchbacks. But I wouldn’t expect three tenths short, so I’ll assume the lower number is the most accurate.