Ptarmigan Tarn

It’s officially unnamed, but if I don’t apply names to some of the officially unnamed bodies of water I visit in the Park I’ll confuse myself. In the past I’ve resorted to calling them things like “unnamed lake at 11,200′ on Hunter’s Creek”. That’s a bit cumbersome and I don’t really want to continue very far down that road.

But I’m not certain how to name this one. Is it Ptarmigan Tarn, or would Fern Tarn be better? It sits beneath the snow field at Ptarmigan Point, but it’s at the source of Fern Creek. Do you name the tarn after the glacier or the stream? Is it a glacier, or just a snow field? Is it a tarn if a stream flows from it? Too many questions. I’m going with Ptarmigan Tarn.

Sunday, August 25

It’s a fairly short hike, just a bit over three and a half miles, and about fourteen hundred feet in elevation gain. That meant we didn’t have to get too early of a start. I had Chad meet me at my place at 6:30, and we stopped for a quick bite of breakfast as we passed through Boulder. Historically I haven’t been too concerned about getting a parking spot at the Park and Ride, but this summer I’ve seen the lot there get quite full, so I did have a bit of low-grade anxiety about getting to park there after 8:00. The anxiety was not founded, as the lot was back to what I’m accustomed to there: it was only about a third or less full, and there was no line waiting for the bus.

We hit the trail at Bear Lake at 8:36 and spent most of our time on the trail discussing the relative merits of various Sci-Fi television series. I usually make a note of the time when I reach various navigation points, which in this case would be the junction with the Flattop Mtn trail and upon reaching Lake Helene, but we were in the depths of plot line analysis of various Star Trek and Farscape episodes, and how many demerit points Farscape deserves for ripping off a Gilligan’s Island episode. So I didn’t note the time until we reached our destination, not quite two hours after leaving Bear Lake.

I have somehow never noticed that there’s a fairly well-developed trail leading up the hill around the west west side of Lake Helene. I’ve never gone any farther up the canyon than some large rocks overlooking the lake, and I always went around the east side of the lake to reach them.

Odessa Lake, Lake Helene, and Two Rivers Lake

This trail served us well on the way up. It was covered for a few yards by a bit of snow, and there really aren’t many cairns marking the way, but it was fairly obvious which way to go. I did note one place where I thought might be easy to make a wrong turn on the way down. But overall it was easy route finding and we avoided what little willow and krummholz we saw.

My map shows one body of water up here, but in reality there are two. In spite of a forecast high in the upper 90’s for Denver, it was quite cool here at nearly 11,000′. And to say there was a stiff breeze would be a bit of an understatement. Unable to find a spot that was both out of the wind and in the sun, the best we could get was the leeward, shady side of a large boulder beside the easternmost, smaller lake. And “leeward” isn’t quite right, either, as the wind swirled around our rock chaotically. Within a few minutes we had both donned our jackets to keep warm.

Ptwo Ptarmigan Ptarns

I set the GoPro up where I thought it least likely to get moved by the wind and placed a rock behind it as ballast. We had our early lunch, well before eleven, and watched the wind whip whitecaps on the water. And twice while we sat there, the wind blew my hat off sending us scurrying to grab it before it could start a trip to Kansas.

After our blustery break we headed back down. And, of course, we managed to make one wrong turn on the way down but it wasn’t difficult to get back to the route we took on the way up. As it was still early, I considered taking another pause on the shores of Lake Helene but it was still fairly windy here and neither of us particularly wanted to deal with it, so we headed back down the trail and into the trees.

Odessa Lake and the Fern Lake burn scar

Very quickly we encountered two twenty-something women. They asked us if we could point them to Lake Helene. It turns out they were headed to Ptarmigan Tarn as well, and that’s the name they used for it. I donated my map to them and we gave them a couple of route finding tips and a warning about the wind.

Approaching the junction with the Bierstadt trail I considered the option of walking back to the Park and Ride, but Chad had just run out of water. So I’ll save that option for another time. We made it back to Bear Lake by 1:15. After a stop for food and beer we headed back home. The thermometer in Chad’s car read 101 as we passed through Boulder, and our chilly, breezy picnic was just a fond memory.

Lake Helene

I’ve developed a real appreciation for Lake Helene. It only recently made it on to my radar. I had hiked from Bear Lake to Fern Lake several times before venturing the couple hundred yards off the trail. The hike is a bit on the short side for me so I’ve been doing it either in winter or late spring, most recently last Sunday.

Jerry and I hiked it last year, a bit earlier in June. We hiked over quite a bit of snow, from not much after the Flattop trail junction all the way to the lake. This time there was not as much snow in spite of the cooler and wetter May. But I get ahead of myself.

As it’s a shorter hike, I didn’t need to get up at the crack of dawn. I left the house around seven and stopped in Boulder for breakfast. I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at about a quarter to nine. I was surprised none of the signs suggested I park at the shuttle parking lot. It was a near thing. I snagged one of the last few parking places in time to hear the rangers “call it” – the parking lot was full.

The forecast for Denver was a pleasant but warm day with a high in the mid-90’s. I was expecting the usual brilliant blue skies, but it’s been more humid than normal so visibility wasn’t as good as normal. Perhaps we’re also getting some smoke from the forest fires in California. Other than the haze, though, it was fairly clear.

I wanted to use the Fitbit to log the hike, but the Android app was wonky again so I just pushed the button on the wristband. I’d try the app again for the return trip. I had no intention of using it both directions, as my battery life has been poor lately and I suspect the Fitbit app makes it even worse.


Notchtop over Lake Helene

I arrived at Lake Helene a bit after ten and looked for a nice sunny spot to sit and watch the world go by. I made my way to a peninsula of talus surrounded by a sea of snow that stretched about a hundred yards in all directions. Mid-90’s in Denver and here I am, sitting in the pleasantly cool sun on a rock in the snow.

I set up the camera facing down the valley to the north and surveyed the sky. Although the mornings are often cloudless here beneath the divide, it’s typical to see clouds form by eleven or noon. You don’t need time lapse to see them move; they’re generally quite boisterous. Today, though, it was just a thin veil of high clouds with little apparent motion. That’s okay; variety is a good thing.

I spent about two hours not doing much. The snow is melting everywhere around me, just about everywhere I can see. The rocks on Notchtop are streaked dark with water. Lake Helene is brimming at its banks. The falls are too far away to hear, but there is a slight breeze whispering through the pines. Occasional gusts kicked up, painting ripples on the surface of the lake.

Being that there is no official trail to Lake Helene it doesn’t see many visitors. It’s obvious people come here; there is a faint trail and I found footprints in the snow. At this time there are probably fifty people at Emerald Lake, and on the trail there you’re never out of sight or ear-shot of other hikers. Here, I had the illusion of solitude. While I was there, a couple of hikers appeared at the outlet but they were far enough away I never heard them and between here and the Flattop trail junction I met fewer than a dozen other hikers.

According to the Fitbit app, it’s three and a quarter miles. The bracelet comes up with 3.8 miles, but it’s not using GPS. I suspect the shorter distance is more correct. Comparing the data in the two logs, I see pretty much what I’d expect. It took me fifteen minutes longer on the way up than the way back, and I was working harder, burning about 30% more calories.

Back at Bear Lake there was a steady stream of cars arriving at the parking lot. I guess most of these folks figured the signs saying the parking lot was full aren’t intended for them. Strangely, nobody waited for me to back out of my spot. The last guy to pass me waved me by. “Did you just leave that spot?” He thought he might back up and snag that spot, but he never stood a chance. Probably took me 10 minutes to get out of the parking lot. Very crowded.

On the way out of the park, the signs said all the parking lots were full and visitors should try again after 4pm. I’ve never seen any indication that all the parking lots were full before. I don’t recall seeing the shuttle parking lot more than half full. Busy day.

Lake Helene

Last Saturday Jerry and I hiked to Lake Helene. This was Plan B. Plan A was to hike from Bear Lake to Tourmaline Lake. I hiked to Tourmaline last year, from the Fern Lake trailhead. That’s the longer route, but I wanted to walk through the fire area. I wanted to return because the weather that day wasn’t very good for photography.

US 36 was closed for construction the last two times I headed to the park so this was my first look at any road repairs. For the time being, this is not a good route for the fun car. Both canyon sections are dirt. They’ve done a lot of blasting and it looks like there will either be very wide shoulders or an extra lane. I’ll be surprised if they don’t put in a left turn lane just before where the first passing lane starts.

My park pass expired in April so we didn’t get to use the express lane. By this late hour, the lower parking lot was full and the Bear Lake lot was about two-thirds full. We hit the trail a few minutes before nine.

We made fairly good time on the lower section of the trail. A half hour to the Flattop/Odessa trail junction. Up to here, there was little snow on the ground. From about a quarter mile past the trail junction all the way to Lake Helene there was quite a bit of snow. We brought microspikes with us, but I wasn’t expecting to install them so soon. By the end of the day, we’d passed dozens of other hikers but none had spikes. A few wore sneakers without socks, but at least I didn’t see anybody in sandals.

Following the trail was a pretty straight-forward exercise, for the most part. The snow lay on the ground in big ridges, sometimes across the trail but sometimes also along the trail, big drifts four feet deep or more. Seldom did the snow obscure the trail more than twenty yards, and in these areas there were blazes on the trees.

By the time we got to where the trail makes the hairpin turn and descends to Odessa Lake, the blazes led us up the slopes of Joe Mills Mountain. We ran into a couple who intended hiking to the Fern Lake trailhead. I knew we were no longer on the trail, but they didn’t. After taking in the view of Odessa Lake below, I got us down to the trail, showed them where it goes, and Jerry and I headed to Helene. The snow was slowing us down; we wouldn’t make it to Tourmaline by noon and Jerry was getting pretty tired. So Plan B it was, and we headed to Helene and searched for someplace not covered in snow to have our lunches.

We spent about an hour and a half relaxing over lunch. The day had started off quite reminiscent of last year – a solid, undifferentiated bank of clouds. For a while on the trail it seemed we’d end up with bright, sunny skies. In the end, it was more cloudy than not, and by the time we decided to head back things were looking decidedly threatening. We never did get rained on, but it was probably a close thing. There was a bit of lightning a short distance to the north.

When we got back to the car we ran in to the couple we ran into on the trail. They didn’t make it much past where I put them back on the trail. The snow was too deep for them so they turned around.

By now the parking lot was full. To keep folks from clogging up the parking lot, they have several rangers directing traffic. “No, you can’t wait for them to leave. There are spots on the other side. If you don’t find one, go around again. Keep moving.” I think I chatted briefly with each ranger. “People sure take a lot of pictures of your car!”

Lake Helene

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been wanting to hike to Tourmaline Lake. It’s in a small canyon west of Odessa Lake, which can be reached from either the Fern Lake or Bear Lake trailhead. I was all set to go there via the Fern Lake route when the fire broke out and every trail north and west of Bear Lake was closed. The Fern Lake trailhead is still closed, but hikers are now allowed to get to Odessa Lake from the Bear Lake side.

Taken from Bear Lake road in Moraine Park.

Once snow is on the ground, I’m less inclined to take the longer hikes. From Bear Lake, Tourmaline Lake is about 4.5 miles. That’s about two-thirds of a mile less than from the Fern Lake trailhead but it’s probably not any easier – the highest point on the trail from Bear Lake is near Two Rivers Lake, which is higher than Tourmaline Lake. Then you descend about 600′ to Odessa before gaining those 600′ back. On the return, you get to do the up and down again.

I didn’t really know how much snow to expect. The updates for the fire said it snowed two inches one day. I figure that probably won’t obstruct the trail but there’s no trail from Odessa to Tourmaline. Also, it’s always pretty windy up there, so two inches of snow could get redistributed in drifts. And always wanting to travel light, I didn’t want to take snow shoes. So I set off toward Tourmaline Lake with the expectation that I might not actually make it there.

The day started off crisp and clear but a bit on the breezy side. I arrived at Bear Lake at about 8:30 and was thinking at first that I might not have dressed warmly enough. I was expecting a fairly warm day for this time of year and wore a couple of shirts and a windbreaker, along with gloves and a knit cap. But I figured it was still pretty early; it would probably get 20 degrees warmer by noon and the hike would get me warmed up. By 8:45 I had my boots on and was on the trail. As I said, I didn’t take snow shoes but I did put my micro spikes in the pack.

The path around Bear Lake was a sheet of ice. The first part of the trail is the same as that for Flattop Mtn. The trail goes up the side of a ridge, initially on the sunny south facing side, then crosses to the north face. Where the sun shines on it, it was covered with ice but once reaching the north face it is just packed snow. There isn’t a lot of snow on the ground yet and the trail is quite easy to follow.

Although I thought I was hiking slower than usual, I reached the Flattop/Odessa trail junction in my usual time. The trail is in forest and affords no views except for a couple of places where you can see Bierstadt Lake and points east. From here the trail bends more to the west along the foot of Flattop Mtn, climbing slowly but steadily. Two Rivers Lake and Lake Helene are off the trail to the left under the craggy north face of Flattop and the dramatic Notchtop.

After catching a glimpse of Two Rivers Lake through the trees, the trail starts to descend slightly. Here the snow was getting a bit deeper on the trail where the wind piled it up in small drifts. The trail makes a sharp turn to the north but all the footprints in the snow headed off the trail towards Lake Helene. I continued along the trail which gets a bit steeper now. Very quickly Odessa Lake came into view, partially frozen over. Also very quickly, the drifts on the trail got much deeper. I decided I can wait to reach Tourmaline Lake until next summer, but I still wanted to go a bit farther down the trail with the idea of getting a better view of the burn area. Alas, there was no end of the deep drifts in sight so I turned around and headed for Lake Helene.

I left the trail a bit before I came to everybody else’s footprints. There is a vague trail that leads to Helene’s outlet stream. Topping this small scramble of rocks I found myself at the northern end of the lake. Winter hiking is still new for me, and I’m still surprised how much lower the water level is compared to spring and summer. I could walk twenty feet or more from the grassy summer shore to the edge of the ice today. And it is solid ice, already supporting my weight.

I walked around the lake taking pictures and looking for a sunny spot on a rock, out of the wind. There aren’t any. I might have been disappointed, if it had been closer to lunch time, or if the sky wasn’t absolutely cloudless. After wandering around for about twenty minutes, I headed back toward Bear Lake.

I thought about stopping at Two Rivers Lake, but figured I’d also fail to find a sunny spot out of the wind and there was no prospect of clouds for an interesting time lapse. And I’d stopped there back in April so it’s not like I haven’t been there recently. I was a bit hungry, though, and didn’t want to wait to eat until I got back to Bear Lake. Before long I found a nice sunny becalmed rock and tucked in.

My sandwich was already a memory when the birds arrived, begging. Two little chickadees (I think; I don’t know birds) were interested in my lunch. I don’t feed the wildlife, at least not intentionally. One bird was quite brave, flitting from one spot to another, all within arm’s length. After a few minutes of this, he got even more brave and landed between my feet and found a crumb of bread I’d dropped.

On my way again, I shortly arrived at a place where the trail traverses a talus field and has a view of Joe Mills Mtn. By now some clouds were forming. I decided to set up the GoPro and grab a quick time lapse. I found myself in the shade with no place to sit down and relax so I wandered up and down the trail a bit to keep warm. There was one spot with a small break in the trees where I could see to the north – a slightly obstructed view of the fire area.

By now it was a very pleasant day; it had warmed up nicely and the winds had died down a bit. Because I was hoping for a longer hike, I was back to the car quite early. And because my little time lapse segment was quite short, I set the camera up with a view of the parking lot and let it run a few minutes.


Out In
Trailhead 08:45 AM 01:10 PM
Flattop/Odessa jct 09:12 AM 12:44 PM
Lake Helene 10:35 AM 10:55 AM