Clayton Lake

Imagine your left hand, palm up. The hikes in the James Peak Wilderness correspond roughly to your fingers: Rogers Pass Lake and Heart Lake would be on your thumb and Lower and Upper Forest Lakes your pinky. Clayton Lake, then, as well as the two Iceberg Lakes, would correspond to your index finger.

Back before James Peak Wilderness became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 2002, there were trails serving the lakes on each of your fingers. The trail to Clayton Lake, though, was “abandoned” about thirty years ago. (The trail to Arapaho Lakes was similarly abandoned a bit more recently.) According to various online resources, though, the trail still gets quite a bit of use. All these sources say the same thing: just follow the creek straight up the hill. Descriptions of this former trail are all very similar: “The creek and trail funnel through a rock-bound gulch with little room to maneuver.” “That last part was pretty hard but really cool.” “There is a section that is a bit of a steep scramble. Used my hands quite a bit through that section.” And there’s this one: “I read all the comments and they said ‘It’s hard to see the trail as it’s not maintained.’ No, the trail just completely doesn’t exist at all. I attempted and got completely lost. It was quite scary and will never do it again.”

A couple of summers ago, I ran into a volunteer and quizzed him about reaching Clayton Lake. He suggested that it’s easier to get there by going up the Crater Lakes trail to about 9400′ or 9500′ elevation, then striking cross-country from there. On my hike to Crater Lakes a bit after that discussion had me thinking I knew where I should leave the trail. But it’s an inexact science. Satellite photos aren’t much help, as the area is fairly thick forest. But it does seem that this route avoids climbing straight up a steep slope. I was willing to give it a shot.

Ideally, I’d like to reach the two Iceberg Lakes as well, but I’m not confident I can do all three on a day hike. If I can’t collect the Icebergs in a day hike, I’ll need to backpack in and spend a night. I’m not confident that the “straight up the stream” route, including “steep scrambles” is something I want to try with a full pack. Perhaps the volunteer’s route is better suited. Well, there’s one way to find out.

Monday, July 10

I arrived at the trailhead parking lot at about 8 am. The road is in good shape right now and is set to improve as it is currently being graded. It’s about eleven miles of dirt road to reach the parking lot, but anything short of a low-slung sports car should have no trouble navigating it. I was a bit surprised to see only about a dozen cars in the lot, maybe half of which belong to backpackers not yet back from their destinations.

At the trailhead, there used to be a sign-in sheet where all hikers were expected to list the date, number in the group, their destination, and how long they’d be on the trail. This logbook is no longer there; at least it wasn’t there today.

It took me an hour and ten minutes to reach the trail to Crater Lakes. I hiked up this trail for about forty-five minutes, periodically checking the elevation with my phone. I was at more or less the correct elevation, I figured, so off the trail I went. Going was fairly easy at first, not too much deadfall and the terrain I was crossing was fairly level.

My plan was to avoid making any steep climbs, heading west or southwest and climbing as I went. Before long, I came across a small stream. I wasn’t expecting to reach water until I got to the stream that is the outlet from Clayton Lake, but it didn’t seem like this stream (actually three or four small streams braiding their way down the slope) carried enough water to be Clayton’s outlet. Nonetheless, I headed uphill following the stream.

The forest here was getting more difficult to traverse, getting steeper and having more fallen trees. I crossed the stream half a dozen times as I climbed, always searching for the easiest route. At one point, I climbed a bit where I knew I’d have difficulty going down. I try to avoid going up slopes I think will cause me difficulty when going down, but I figured (if I managed to retrace my steps) that I could make a small detour if need be.

After following the stream for a while, I found the source of my little stream. I was standing at the edge of a marshy meadow. Rather than slog my way across it, risking wet feet, I skirted the meadow. On the other side of the meadow, I found a grassy ramp, somewhat steep, that climbed alongside giant granite slabs. Above me looked to be the low spot of a saddle. Perhaps I was getting close to the lake.

Topping this slope I found myself back in the woods. With the ground much more level, the walking was easy again. I kept climbing, always looking to find the low spot on the saddle. Continuing west or southwest, I expected to come across the outlet stream eventually. Passing through a small band of trees, I found myself on another grassy slope, walking slightly downhill, and could now see the lake. I had arrived on the northern shore of Clayton Lake.

The lake is mostly surrounded by forest. I’m a big fan of finding a nice rock to sit on for my picnic. Ideally, said rock would be in the sun, out of the wind, and close to the water. In search of such a rock, I worked my way around to the outlet. There’s still quite a bit of snow here and I easily crossed a snowdrift that hid the outlet. I saw no sign of the old trail, but there was a social trail that edged the north shore. Finding mostly snow on the south shore, I abandoned my search in this direction and doubled back.

From the time I left the Crater Lakes trail until I returned to the trail about three hours later, the only sign I saw of any other person was a boot print in the mud on the little social trail that skirted the north shore.

I wandered the north shore for about fifteen minutes before I found my picnic rock, considerably farther from the water than I wanted to be, but so it goes. Just before I got off the Crater Lakes trail, I met a couple of backpackers on their way back to the trailhead. I asked if they’d seen any game. “Just mosquitoes!” Mosquitoes aren’t big game, but even on my picnic rock, out of the trees and in a light breeze, mosquitoes buzzed me constantly. I’d sprayed some mosquito repellent on me back at the car, so I was happy that it seemed to still be working. They buzzed, but they never landed.

After relaxing for a bit more than half an hour, I started to retrace my steps back down the mountain. I’ve found that route finding is easier on the way down than on the way up: the value of the high ground. I quickly found a game trail. A few yards down the trail, I felt that I should have been heading more to my left, but I stayed on this game trail for a bit longer. It seemed to be well-traveled, punctuated as it was with pellets. Before long, I decided to backtrack, forgoing the trail for the untracked ramp I climbed earlier.

Back at the marshy meadow that was the source of the small stream I followed uphill for a while this morning, I managed to find another game trail. At no time on my climb to Clayton Lake did I find a game trail, but from this trail I found just below my marshy meadow all the way back to the Crater Lakes trail, I managed to go from one game trail to another.

My experience with game trails is that they’re nice when they’re nice, but they often stop being nice in the most inconvenient places. Today, every time deadfall blocked the trail, I was able to find its continuance a few yards later. Game trails generally aren’t singular things: they’re all part of a network. From the marshy meadow back to the trail, whenever there was a choice of direction, I kept to the left and downhill. I figured I couldn’t go too far left – I’d eventually reach the Crater Lakes trail. My only concern was not finding myself at the top of some rock outcrop that I couldn’t get down.

These game trails kept me out of trouble: I’m pretty sure the deer and elk aren’t interested in getting stuck on some random outcrop and they don’t want to go up or down anything too steep. As I said, this game trail took me right to the Crater Lakes trail. I made a note of where it is. On the hike up the Crater Lakes trail, there’s a large coil of cable just off the trail. I have no idea why it’s there, but it’s been there for years. I figure my game trail is something like three hundred yards past the cable, very near a large sawn tree trunk.

Given that my route back from Clayton Lake was so easy, I think I’ll return on a backpacking trip. Even having found this easy route, I think Iceberg Lakes are too far for me to reach on a day hike. Hiking cross-country with no trail is a lot more time-consuming and more strenuous. But I’m confident I can backpack up this route and by spending one night at Clayton Lake, I should be able to collect both Iceberg Lakes.

When I’m hiking on a trail, my mind often goes into auto-pilot mode. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other until I get to some navigation point. My feet stay on the trail, but my mind wanders. Bushwacking, though, is another story. My mind is intensely focused on the task at hand. Bushwacking is a bit like solving a maze that has more than one solution. At any given point, I’m looking for where I should go next. How do I get around this jumble of deadfall? I want to go there, but what’s the best way? Once I get there, where do I go next? My mind does not wander. I’m not thinking about some TV show, I don’t have some song earworming into my brain, I’m not bothered by what some idiot said on the internet, and I’m not worrying about rent, or debt, or thinking about what I might do tomorrow. I’m in the here and now, completely focused on the moment. It is glorious.

Trailhead8:10 am2:30 pm
Forest Lake jct8:46 am1:57 pm
Crater Lake jct9:20 am1:27 pm
Left trail/returned to trail9:54 am12:43 pm
Clayton Lake11:00 am11:57 am

Lower Forest Lake

I can’t wait to get the summer hiking season going. This is often a slight problem in the first week of June: in Denver, it seems summer is here, but where I want to hike, it’s not summer at all. A hike in the first week of June always means hiking over snow when you get over about 10,000′. Perhaps even more so, given our two large storms in late May: one that dumped enough snow here at the house to produce a truckload of broken tree limbs, and one a week after that that produced over an inch of precipitation that manifested as about eighteen inches of snow above 9,000′.

Having neglected to plan ahead by purchasing a timed entry pass for RMNP, I decided another visit to James Peak Wilderness would be a good alternative. Of the five hikes here, the lakes that are lowest are Forest Lakes. I did this hike last year about this time, so this will be a repeat.

June 3, 2022

In July and August, you have to get to the trailhead quite early to find a parking place. On a weekday in the first week of June, parking isn’t a problem. I arrived at about 8:15 and was the third car in the lot. At the trailhead, I signed into the log book as the first entry of the day. Either the parties belonging to the other two cars camped overnight or neglected to sign in.

On the lower part of the trail – the first quarter of a mile – the trail isn’t so much a trail as a small river. The next quarter-mile, the trail is in shade. There wasn’t any snow on the trail, but banks of snow lined both sides of the trail. Clearly, I’d be dealing with a bit more snow than last year. Last year, we didn’t start hiking on snow until after we crossed the bridge over Arapaho Creek (at about 9,800′). Today, I was trudging over snow almost 500′ lower. So it goes.

Given the recent snows and the apparent small number of visitors, I was a bit concerned about route-finding. There were quite a few tracks in the snow just above the bridge, but they quickly petered out until there were only two sets: a pair of snowshoe tracks heading up, and the tracks of a hiker just in boots that looked to be a round-trip: both uphill and down. One thing about following tracks in the snow: you have to hope that the people making the tracks went where you want to go, and they know how to get there.

I didn’t bring snowshoes but did have the micro-spikes. The snow was pretty good – I only postholed twice on the way up to the lake. At the lake, I met the hikers who left the snowshoe tracks. They had hiked up yesterday and camped at the lake. Last year, there were plenty of snow-free rocks around the lake to sit on. Today there was just one. The three of us sat there and had our picnics.

I hung out for about an hour before packing up to leave. In this time, with the sun shining brightly on the snow, my hike out was slightly transformed. Each day the sun works its magic on the top of the snow, melting it a bit. Then, overnight, the top freezes, making it easy to walk on in the morning. My hike out was quite different than the hike in: I postholed hundreds of times. That’s only a slight exaggeration.

It may be counter-intuitive that the snow melts from the bottom, not the top. For the most part, you want to hike along the tops of the snowbanks and avoid stepping next to any rocks or trees that may be poking through the snow. Anything darker than the snow will heat up faster than the snow. If you step next to it, you’ll likely posthole either to mid-thigh or until your boot hits something solid. And, because the snow melts from the bottom, whatever solid you hit will be covered by running water. And any low spots between the tops of the snowbanks are good places to posthole, too.

I ran across one guy hiking to the lake and another couple quite near the trailhead. When I got back to the car, the parking lot was not quite twice as crowded as in the morning: there were now five cars in addition to my own.

Here’s a short timelapse of the sky. Notice that my camera slowly melted into the snow.

Crater Lakes

Monday, September 6

Back at the beginning of summer, I postulated that I could visit all the lakes in James Peak Wilderness in five hikes, which could easily be done in one hiking season. I also said I didn’t really plan on doing it. And, here we are, at my fifth hike in JPW. But, because it took me two hikes to get both Forest Lakes, I’m still (at least) one hike away from bagging all the lakes.

I picked Crater Lakes this time. I should be able to get to the highest Crater Lake without too much difficulty. The two lower lakes are only a 5.8-mile round trip, and adding the upper lake only extends the hike another eight tenths and about five hundred feet of elevation gain. Yeah, so the last section of trail is a bit steep…

On my Heart Lake hike, I chatted with a volunteer about getting to Clayton Lake. I asked about the no-longer-maintained trail up the outlet. He said he preferred to go via Crater Lakes. So I wanted to get a good look at any likely places to leave the Crater Lake trail in search of his route.

I got to the parking lot at 7:30 and there was still plenty of parking available. Being a holiday, I expected more people to be here. I entered my info into the logbook and put boots on the trail at 7:44. It’s about a mile and a half to the Crater Lakes trail junction, and I was there at 8:34. It was cool; I wore my hoodie. There was a young guy with an SLR who started only a couple of minutes ahead of me. Overall our pace was almost identical – he was walking faster but stopped often to take pictures. In the end, he arrived at upper Crater Lake only a few minutes before me.

It’s about a mile from the trail junction to the lower Crater Lakes, climbing about 550 feet. But about 450 of those 550 is in the first half-mile from the trail junction up the side of the canyon. That is to say, that half-mile is a bit of a bitch.

That 450-foot climb puts you on a shelf. There are three shelves here. This lower one holds a pond, fed by the lakes above. The middle one has two lakes, a rounder northern one and a thinner southern one. The lakes are separated by a lightly forested isthmus. The small, high shelf is inundated by the upper Crater Lake. The two lower shelves are separated by only a hundred feet of elevation, but reaching the upper lake requires climbing another four hundred feet.

I get ahead of myself. When the climb up from the trail along S. Boulder Creek started leveling off, gaining the shelf, I kept an eye out for anything that looked like an easy way around the ridge to Clayton. I stopped and studied the map a couple of times but drew no conclusions.

Before I knew it, the smaller lake was off to my left. Here the trail started to split. The whole area is laced with a network of social trails, many of which lead you directly into someone’s campsite. Here I encountered two young women, early twenties. They were going to the upper lake as well. In navigating around someone’s tent, I managed to veer more toward the northern lake rather than heading up the obvious trail to my west, where I spotted SLR guy. The young ladies and I bushwacked in his direction.

Here we find ourselves at the base of our last four-hundred-foot ascent. This one starts with a quite steep climb up a loose, sandy surface. I find this stuff treacherous. I slip a lot. I made it up without too much difficulty. I was concerned about the descent, though. I really detest this stuff. Just a few yards away is a stream. It is snow-fed. There is no snow on any of the surrounding mountains, so this stream was just a trickle. It looked like it might be easier for me to go down the dry streambed with much less trepidation than this sandy shit.

At the top of this treacherous bit, the slope of the trail moderates somewhat, and the footing is much improved. The trail, hopping rocks now and then, leads to a saddle above us. This is the apex of our climb. On the saddle, we’re maybe a hundred higher than the lake. Most of the descent down to the lake is rock-hopping.

There’s a prominent rock outcropping that commands a view of the upper lake, the continental divide above it, and the small pond below it. The women took that spot. It was quite windy, they could have it. I put my hoodie back on and tried to find a large rock to sit in the lee of. SLR guy went to the outlet. On a trail on the opposite bank, I spotted a guy walking west.

I sat there for about an hour, had my lunch, enjoyed my can of beer. I had the lake to myself. Well, almost. SLR guy and the young ladies left within twenty minutes or so. Nobody new had arrived. I kept looking for the guy I spotted on the other side of the lake. Never did spot him until he popped up on my left. It probably took him an hour to circumambulate the lake.

A few minutes into the hike down, we come to the crux: descending the treacherous steep slippery shit. I elected to go down the way I came up, thinking if I didn’t like it, I could always change my mind and go down the dry streambed. I took my time. There were quite a few people working their way up, so I had many excuses to pause. A few of them were more bothered by it than I was.

Each pause allowed me to take in the view. I found it particularly rewarding. It’s too bad we continue to suffer the extreme haze from the west coast wildfires. Looking straight up, the sky was almost its normal deep, deep blue. But looking toward the horizon, all is obscured by a brownish-yellow haze.

When I crossed the isthmus between the lakes on the way up, I didn’t appreciate how many trails there were. On the way down, I explored a little. There really are a lot of trails there. When I went to find the trail down, at least twice I thought I’d gotten onto the trail only to come across a bigger trail.

Finally back on the trail below the twin lakes, I resumed my search for likely routes to Clayton. I think there are a couple of possibilities. One of them caught my eye both times I passed it: I took a photo of it both on my way up and back down.

I’m glad I started as early as I did. It’s a relatively short hike. I made it to the upper lake a minute before 10. If parking wasn’t a consideration, I could arrive two hours later and be at the upper lake for a noon picnic. But it would have been a different experience. Instead of half an hour of solitude, I’d have been in a crowd of dozens.

I keep wondering how so many people are on the trails given the size of the parking lot. There was a lot of traffic on the Crater Lakes trail. I took a quick break at the trail junction and watched a parade of hikers go by. Below the junction with the Forest Lakes trail, it was very nearly a “conga-line hike”. And, back at the parking lot, there are plenty of empty spaces.

Almost forgot to mention: I pulled into my parking spot this morning just as a train emerged from the tunnel. First time I’ve seen one. I hear the exhaust fans on every hike, sometimes twice, and I sometimes hear a train whistle, but it was kind of cool to see one come out of the tunnel.

All in all, another glorious day along the Continental Divide.

Upper Forest Lake

Back in June, I made my first hike in the James Peak Wilderness with the goal of reaching both Forest Lakes. There was a bit more snow than I was expecting, which gave us minor navigational difficulties and we stopped at the lower lake.

Tuesday, August 31

Guessing that the parking lot at the East Portal trailhead wouldn’t be terribly crowded on a weekday late in the season, I opted for a leisurely start and didn’t leave the house until nearly 7 am, arriving at the trailhead a bit after 8. There was plenty of parking.

The day was cloudless, but not clear: we’re still getting quite a bit of haze from the wildfires on the west coast. Looking straight up, the sky was the usual vivid blue, but visibility toward the horizon was quite limited – hillsides just a mile or so distant were noticeably obscured.

The hike into the upper lake was quite pleasant. I passed one hiker not far from the trailhead and didn’t see anybody else until I was ready to leave the upper lake more than three hours later. I timed it perfectly for my purposes – my visit to the lake coincided with solitude. I had gotten it into my mind that all the trails here were crowded, except for the trails that have been closed for several years.

Upper Forest Lake is, I think, the most scenic of the lakes I’ve so far visited from this trailhead. This lake sits in a bowl beneath a 12,000′ high ridge of the Continental Divide. The slopes are a combination of sparse forest, grassy ramps, and rock outcroppings. There may be a trail around the lake, but if there isn’t, it looks like it is an easy lake to circumnavigate.

The summer season is nearing its end here. All the snow from last winter has melted, with the exception of the last vestiges of a couple of snow cornices. There is very little water flowing into the lake. One or two streambeds are visible due to the dark brown staining from the water that is now a trickle rather than a cascade. Only a few wildflowers survive: quite a few fireweed and the occasional queens crown, but the rest have all lost their petals or turned brown.

Sitting by the lake, I was wondering if there were any fish. The water looked… dead. No aquatic plants, very few insects buzzing above the surface of the water. Finally, I did spot a ten- or twelve-inch greenback cutthroat trout swimming about.

I’ve recently been better about carrying a telephoto zoom lens in case I encounter any wildlife. I decided that as long as I have the lens with me, I won’t spot any game. So I left the lens at home. That didn’t help – wildlife was nowhere to be seen. I continue to carry the GoPro in order to get a timelapse, but yet again the sky was cloudless, making a timelapse pointless. If these are my two biggest problems (and they were), it’s a good hike indeed.

I think I’d like to return here again, early in the season. I’m willing to give another mid-June hike a shot now that I have a better idea of the terrain. Even if I lose the trail, I think I can make it to the lake. (On our June hike, we reached the lower lake quite some distance from where the trail reaches the lake.)

Heart Lake

Of the five hikes I figured it would take to reach all the named lakes in James Peak Wilderness, the hike to Heart Lake is the southernmost and the longest. It may also be the most crowded. Searching online sources for information about this hike yields a variety of conflicting information. One site says it’s 8.7 miles (round trip) to Heart Lake, another says 9.7 miles. Each gives a different number for elevation gain. I’m going with 8.8 miles and 2,061′ (net).

Saturday, August 7

This may not be the best day for a hike. In one way, it may be the worst. We’re getting the full effect of the smoke from the wildfires on the west coast. Today, according to the local news, Denver had the worst air quality of anywhere in the world. Normally, the sun is far too bright to look directly at even a few minutes after it rises. But the last few days, it was an orange disk, easily looked at. And the last few days were clear compared to today.

Gordon and Eric went with me. I picked them up at the little park and ride at the intersection of highways 72 and 93. When we passed through one of the last meadows before reaching the parking lot at the trailhead, several cars were stopped on the road. The occupants were watching a moose that was ambling eastward near the edge of the meadow. A few yards farther up the road, we spotted two deer, antlers in velvet, crossing the road. As it turns out, these three were the only large animals we spotted all day.

Arriving at the trailhead, even though we were nearly an hour earlier than I was two weeks ago, again the parking lot was nearly full. It was a bit breezy, and a bit on the chilly side. I carry a light rain jacket in my pack, but there’s not enough room for me to carry anything heavier, so I almost decided to take my hoodie off and leave it in the car. But I made a sound choice, and kept it on, figuring I’d take it off before long and end up spending the day with it tied around my waist.

Visibility was very bad. I couldn’t even tell how cloudy it was. Certainly, there were clouds. The very tops of a few peaks were shrouded, but aside from that, the sky was filled with a haze somewhere between orange and brown. I don’t think we could see anything more than about three miles away. At least it didn’t smell of smoke.

I’d say that the trail to Heart Lake is the main trail through the Wilderness. The trails to all the other lakes here are spurs off this trail. In turn, we arrive at the junctions with trails to Forest Lakes, Crater Lakes, and Clayton Lake. (Arapaho Lakes are reached via a spur trail off the Forest Lakes trail.) I chatted with a volunteer later in the day who told me that the Arapaho Lakes trail was “closed” in 2008, and the Clayton Lake trail quite some time before that. I asked him specifically about Clayton Lake. He said the route of the former trail is pretty rough and that a better way is to go to Crater Lakes and contour around a ridge to Clayton Lake. So I guess I’ll visit Crater Lakes before I make any attempt on Clayton (and the Iceberg Lakes above it).

From the junction with the Forest Lakes trail to Rogers Pass Lake, the hike is a pleasant walk through forest. It runs alongside (or, at least, never far from) South Boulder Creek and never gets very steep. There are a number of passages where we had a bit of difficulty getting through mud bogs, particularly as a backpacker told me it had rained for three hours last night.

Just before I met that backpacker, I passed a group of campers. Their tents were several yards off the trail on one side and they were grouped together on the other side. At first, I thought they had a radio on. (Okay, these days probably not a radio. But some music replay device.) But it was no radio: they were in a circle, holding songbooks and singing. Two of them had small drums. That was an interesting place for a recital. As a some-times backpacker, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the drums weighed.

Rogers Pass Lake

We arrived at James Pass Lake (on some maps, I see it called James Peak Lake) at 9:30. There were dozens of people there, some who had passed us on the trail, most who had camped there.

From James Pass Lake, the trail crosses a short ridge to reach Heart Lake. Both lakes feature grassy shores and little to no talus and only sparse willow, so they could be fairly easily circumnavigated. This also means that there is precious little shelter from the wind.

Heart Lake

I was glad I didn’t leave my hoodie in the car. Not only had I not taken it off yet, but by the time we arrived at Heart Lake, I was considering digging my light rain jacket out of the pack so I could add another layer.

The trail deposits us on the windswept south side of the lake. We agreed that it wasn’t a very pleasant place for a picnic given the current conditions, so we decided to work our way around the east shore, past the outlet, and into a small copse of krummholz. Even here, it was a bit on the blustery side. We chowed down and when finished, didn’t dilly-dally. We hit the trail for the hike out.

Normally, Gordon is a much faster hiker than I am and no matter how much I try to keep up a good pace, he’s right behind me. By now, though, my legs were feeling a bit sore so I didn’t try very hard to keep up a good pace. Gordon, though, wasn’t close behind. I didn’t see him again until we were back at the trailhead. He showed up at the car with a phone full of mushroom pictures. On my hike to Arapaho Lakes, I took about a dozen fungus photos, thinking I’d spotted a nice variety. Gordon had at least a hundred pictures, and not too many were duplicates. Clearly, he was paying much more attention to the fungus among us than I was.

When I encounter a small number of hikers on the trail, it’s easy to keep track. On the hike to Arapaho Lakes, I met four other hikers when I was off the main trail. Today, I certainly would have lost track. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I saw on the order of 300 other hikers. This is about a nine-mile hike, so it’s not quite a “conga line hike”, but it’s close.

I asked some hikers I met at the Crater Lakes junction how crowded that trail was. “It’s pretty crowded.” I’m not sure I’ll do another James Peak Wilderness hike this season, but if I do, I’ll find out just how crowded the Crater Lakes trail is.

So, on a day where the air quality had the weather service telling people to stay indoors and not to exert themselves, where the haze made for some of the worst visibility I’ve ever encountered (except when raining or snowing) and resulting in some really poor photos, hiking crowded trails, and dealing with a cold wind, you might think it wasn’t any fun. But it was a good day.

Arapaho Lakes

Saturday, July 24

For my second visit to James Peak Wilderness, I chose Arapaho Lakes.

Sometime not long ago, the trail to Arapaho Lakes was maintained. From what I understand, there used to be a sign at the trail junction, and a bridge across Arapaho Creek. Neither the sign nor the bridge exists, and I could see no evidence that a bridge was ever there. But judging by the amount and age of deadfall, I’d guess maintenance stopped six to ten years ago. Perhaps the bridge was taken out in the flood of 2013 and that contributed to the decision to stop maintaining the trail?

I arrived at the parking lot a few minutes before 8 am. This was about half an hour later than I’d planned. For the last mile or two on the road, I was followed by three other vehicles. When I arrived at the parking lot, there were only two spots left, and I’m not really sure they were spots. If I’d have been at the end of the line rather than the front, I’d have had nowhere to park. That’ll teach me to be late out the gate for hikes here.

The first two miles or so of trail is also the way to Forest Lakes. The route splits not far after the bridge over Arapaho Creek. Last time, I reported that the railing was pretty sketchy and I’m happy to say they’ve repaired it nicely. From this bridge, I kept an eye out for anything that looks like a blocked-off trail. Generally, it’s a few limbs on the ground, a visual fence. After about five minutes, I found the place.

The trail was quite clear the first few yards, but it quickly led down to a sizeable marsh. I spotted a faint trail a bit to the right, staying on higher, drier, ground. It’s not too hard to follow but requires some attention. This seems to be a detour. It clearly was never a maintained trail. I’m sure that by September, there’d be no marsh, rendering this detour unnecessary.

Back on the trail that used to be maintained, the walking is easy except for an occasional tree trunk across the trail. Less than half a mile off the Forest Lakes trail, we arrive (again) at Arapaho Creek. I spotted a trail on the opposite bank. (I now think this is the site of the former bridge.) I didn’t want to cross here, so I kept going on the trail. According to the CalTopo map, if you stayed on this side of the creek the trail would take you to the outlet of lower Forest Lake. But this trail dumped me into another marsh.

I plowed through to the next clump of trees upstream. By this time, I was above the confluence of Arapaho Creek and the outlet of Forest Lakes. I searched for a crossing here. It didn’t take long, but once I was across, I knew I’d have a short bushwhack. There was another small stream between the two outlet streams, so I ended up with three crossings total rather than the one where I’m guessing the bridge formerly stood.

A few yards after my third crossing, Arapaho Creek, I was back on the trail. I regained the trail at the base of a fairly steep climb: 500 feet up in 1500 feet to the west. None of this was treacherous. The footing was generally good; there were lots of roots that made for nice steps. In places, it’s a lot like climbing stairs. The good thing is, you’re climbing pretty much adjacent to the creek. You don’t always see the creek, but when you do, it’s a falls or a cascade. I enjoyed several short pauses to take in a few breaths and the spectacle of the falling water.

As soon as we’re out of the forest, the trail nearly levels off. The expansive view appears as if a curtain had opened. We’re above 10,800′ elevation here. I was taking my time when a hiker and his dog passed me. He was the first hiker I saw in quite a while. I was a bit surprised to see somebody; I was beginning to think I had the place to myself (other than the mosquitoes).

I did see a few fresh-looking boot prints. I’m guessing it rained yesterday afternoon or last night. The prints didn’t look to me like they’d been rained on. I saw at least one print heading in each direction, so I’m guessing somebody has already made the round-trip this morning.

The lakes lie at about 11,150′ above sea level. The smaller, western one is four feet higher than the larger, eastern one. The southern bank is grassy, and the grass is heavily sprinkled with wildflowers. The north shore is a mix of rocks and willow and krummholz. The trail skirts the south side, petering out before reaching the western end of the lake. Any route generally to the west from here will get you to the eastern shore of the upper lake.

Near the outlet of the lower lake

The sky was a bit hazy due to some combination of humidity and the smoke from West Coast fires. It wasn’t just hazy, it was also mostly cloudy. Here at the lake, it was windy. There’s nothing resembling shelter here. And because it’s not a nice, bright, sunny day, it’s a bit on the chilly side. Unusually, the wind was from the east. There were a couple of layers of clouds. The lower clouds were pushed on that easterly wind towards the divide. They moved so fast it was as if you’re watching a time-lapse. A few small clouds were higher. They moved slowly in nearly the opposite direction.

I sat there, eating my picnic, watching the clouds fly by, listening to the squirrels and marmots chirping and barking, for forty-five minutes. When I stood up to leave, I saw another hiker a couple of hundred yards away, hiking away from me. She couldn’t have been here long; she didn’t come to the second lake.

On the way down, I stopped at one of the many scenic spots and took a few photos. The man and his dog passed me again. This time we chatted. He’s getting married in Estes Park in a few weeks, then he and his bride will hike to the summit of Longs Peak. We chatted about hiking in RoMo and about the fire damage and trail closures. This was his first hike in James Peak. We agreed that this area is a nice Plan B when you can’t hike in the Park.

As to crossing the river on the way down, I had a bit of an internal argument. My intention was to follow the trail to its end where the former bridge was to verify whether there’s an easier crossing. “What if I can’t find a good place to cross?” That’s a stupid question: I’ve proved I can find a crossing. “What if I can’t find the same crossing point?” What’s with the stupid questions? I found that crossing, I can find another.

I went to the end of the trail. I was back at the place I didn’t cross on the way up. I spent some time judging whether I could cross. Any potential crossing involved a step or two in water deeper than my boot tops. I could take my boots off and wade, but without trek poles, I was concerned about slipping. I decided to backtrack and cross the way I did in the morning. I quickly found two of my three crossing points but for the third, I chose a place that was slightly inferior to my route in the morning.

Just before regaining the Forest Lakes trail, I ran into two more hikers. I mentioned the stream crossing. One responded, “I’m not worried, I’m wearing boots.” These were the third and fourth people I encountered in four hours, but these guys hardly count, as I was nearly back to the crowded trail anyway. Not total solitude, but damn near. Not bad for a Sunday.

Back on the Forest Lakes trail, from the bridge with the repaired handrail back to the parking lot it was pretty busy. Not “conga line hike” busy, but I never went more than a few minutes without encountering other hikers. Individuals (with dogs), pairs (with or without dogs), large groups (all with dogs).

Dogs aren’t allowed on the trails in RMNP, so I’m not accustomed to seeing them. I’m surprised by the number of dogs. All along the trail are little plastic bags of, presumably, dog poo. I’m hoping that they were left beside the trail by hikers and their dogs going up the trail and they’ll be collected by those same hikers on their way out.

On today’s episode of “What did I forget?” we have a map and mosquito spray. Last night, getting into bed, I thought “I need to print a map in the morning. And I should take the bug spray with me” Nope, didn’t happen. I wasn’t concerned about being mapless, though; I’ve been studying the map for some time. But I sorely missed the mosquito repellent.

Also on the list: sunscreen. I didn’t forget to take it, but I didn’t remember to apply it until I was nearly back to the main trail. “Better late than never” doesn’t always include sunscreen. Luckily, I emerged unburnt.

I really enjoyed the hike. It’s not too long, at 7.1 miles round trip. It does have a very strenuous section in the middle, a stream crossing (or three), and some route-finding skills come in handy. I didn’t quite have the place to myself, but that might be a different story on a weekday.

In addition to the open views above treeline, and the extended climb alongside the falling water, there was an abundance of wildflowers. Blues and yellows in the lower elevations, reds and oranges and violets up higher. I saw only a few columbines, all fairly low. One of my new favorites, Elephant’s Heads, is quite common here. There is also a profusion of mushrooms.

It was a good day.

Forest Lakes

Saturday, June 12

After a bit of map study, I came across the James Peak Wilderness. There’s a trailhead at the eastern portal of the Moffat Tunnel. From that trailhead, in about five day-hikes, it should be possible to visit more than a dozen named lakes all above 10,500′. Each of these hikes will take you to two or three lakes.

A couple of years ago, I failed to reach Bluebird Lake in early July because of the amount of snow on the ground. So in mid-June, I should expect to find a fair amount of snow as low as 10,000′. The only one of these five day hikes that doesn’t top 11,000′ is the one to Forest Lakes. The lower, smaller lake sits at about 10,675′ and the larger, upper lake at 10,850′. ProTrails lists this hike as “moderate” while AllTrails says it’s “hard”.

I’ve never hiked in this area before, so I have no idea how crowded the trails are. None of these hikes are longer than ten miles, so they’re not very long. A few of them climb 2,000′ from the trailhead. ProTrails says “The Forest Lakes are part of a heavily used trail system and very popular among anglers. Arrive early to secure parking and avoid crowds.” From Google’s satellite image, the parking lot doesn’t look too big, so how early is early? I set a 7 am target. We were only a few minutes behind schedule and managed to put boots on the trail at 7:20.

The trail skirts the entrance of the tunnel and quickly meets South Boulder Creek, which it then parallels for a bit less than a mile. Half an hour after we began, we reached the Forest Lakes trail junction. The next section of trail, from this junction to a bridge over Arapaho Creek is wide, perhaps wide enough to drive a jeep on, and of an almost constant grade.

The bridge over Arapho Creek has seen better days. It’s a couple of split logs with a railing, but half the railing is gone. The creek carries the combined outflow of Forest Lakes and Arapaho Lakes. Right now it is running robustly, overflowing onto the trail. Stepping onto the bridge, I grabbed the post that formerly held the missing railing. I didn’t put any weight on it but used it only for balance. This is good, as it’s not exactly secure.

When planning this hike, as I said, I was expecting to be hiking over some snow. My guess as to how much snow we’d see was a bit off. This bridge is at about 9,800′ and this is where we started dealing with snow. There were isolated patches of snow almost as low as the trailhead, but those were small, isolated, and not on the trail. From now on it became more challenging to follow the trail, as it quickly became totally buried. The parts of the trail that weren’t covered with snow were rivers of snowmelt. Before long, we weren’t so much following a trail as previous hikers’ footprints.

In planning our little trek, I found conflicting information about the trails. Some maps indicate there are two trails to Forest Lakes while others only have one. About a quarter of a mile after the bridge I was expecting to find a junction with the trail to Arapaho Lakes. That trail continues along the creek to the confluence of the outlet stream from Forest Lakes. Here, maybe, there’s another junction; another route to Forest Lakes.

I never saw the Arapaho Lakes trail. For a while, I wasn’t sure which trail we were on. But after hiking a distance I figured to be much farther than we needed to go to reach that junction, I got the phone out to see what elevation we had reached. By now, we’d gone about half the distance between the missed junction and the lower Forest Lake.

We continued to lose and regain the trail until we could see the lake through the trees. Lower Forest Lake is, as the name implies, in the forest, having trees all around it. We arrived on its eastern shore, which is shaded and show bound. We spotted a rock outcropping sitting in the sun on the northern shore and made our way there. This entailed crossing a somewhat marshy area. Actually, that’s not a great description. All the ground around the lake was covered in flowing water. More than once I stepped where I shouldn’t have stepped and got some water in my boots. This early in the season, the only wildflowers I spotted are those yellow and white ones that grow in abundance in these marshy areas.

Lower Forest Lake

Just to be clear, my main issue with the snow involves navigation. Given the route-finding difficulties we faced reaching the lower lake, we decided not to bother trying to reach the upper lake (which would be somewhere roughly in the center of the above panorama). Had I been here before, and been familiar with where we were headed, I’d have continued.

We sat on our rock and basked in the bright, cloudless sunshine for an extended break. It was a bit early for lunch but I’d worked up an appetite and ate anyway. I don’t know what it is about eating on the shore of some alpine lake after a few hours of hiking, but even average food is delicious. My turkey avocado Swiss sandwich on sourdough bread was fantastic. The can of Tommyknocker Blood Orange IPA wasn’t bad, either.

I took the GoPro with me so I could capture a time-lapse video, but we didn’t see a single cloud all day. Sometimes the weather is just too perfect!

On our hike out, we more or less retraced our footsteps. During our break, I’d managed to pretty much get my feet dry, but I quickly made another misstep and gave myself another case of wetfoot. So it goes.

So far, we’d encountered only a handful of other hikers. I was starting to think that perhaps ProTrails had overstated the amount of traffic this trail gets. It may be that the snow was discouraging people from reaching the lake, but from the bridge over Arapaho Creek back to the trailhead we ran into substantially more traffic. Unlike RMNP, dogs are allowed on the trails here, as long as they’re on leashes. Well over half of the hikers we met had dogs with them.

Not long before we reached the trail junction at South Boulder Creek, we heard the blast of a locomotive horn. I don’t know if it was entering the tunnel or leaving it. I was a bit disappointed we missed seeing it. The tunnel is ventilated by giant fans. These fans run for twenty or thirty minutes after the train clears the tunnel. These fans sound like giant power saws and we could hear them from more than half a mile away. I couldn’t tell how they were powered – are they electric or diesel?

We were back to the trailhead a few minutes after 1 pm. In spite of the snow, and of not reaching the upper lake, I found the day quite satisfying. Of course, if I want to visit all the lakes in this area I’ll have to hike this trail again, but that’s quite alright. Lower Forest Lake isn’t the most scenic lake, and the hike is your average forest hike (that is, “you can’t see the views for the trees”), but there are plenty of worse ways to spend a day.

Although it’s possible I could hike all these trails in a summer, I don’t think I’ll make such a concerted effort. This trail had the lowest destination elevation of the group so I figure it’ll be another month before many of the other lakes served by this trailhead are easily reached.