Green Lake

The upper end of Glacier Gorge is arguably the most scenic terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills Lake and its little sister, Jewel Lake, are fed by Glacier Creek. This creek is fed by half a dozen named lakes and a multitude of ponds and rivulets cascading down the slopes of some of the highest and steepest mountainsides in the area. The eastern side of the gorge is formed by a monolithic wall that is comprised of Half Mountain, Storm Peak, Longs Peak, and the Keyboard of the Winds. The western side is Thatchtop, Powell Peak, Arrowhead, and McHenrys Peak. Forming the southern end are Chiefs Head Peak, Spearhead, and Pagoda Mountain.

When you arrive at Mills Lake, the peaks to the east and west rise fifteen hundred feet above you. From Mills to Black Lake is about 2.8 miles and a climb of 700 feet or so. At Black Lake, you are surrounded by granite cliffs towering twenty-five hundred feet. It seems that no matter how high you follow these streams, the summits you pass beneath climb even higher.

This is my second trip to Green Lake, my first being back in 2011. That was before I began this blog, so the hike deserves the full treatment here rather than the abbreviated version that other repeat visits generally get.

Saturday, July 27

The weather report warned me that I could be dealing with storms as early as 10am but that didn’t deter me. I had wanted to get out of the house by six but I, as usual, ran a few minutes late. Traffic wasn’t too bad and I was at the Park & Ride by a quarter to eight. My plan was to put boots on the trail at eight o’clock, and I missed this by only ten minutes.

I generally take the Fire Trail, skipping Alberta Falls and the heavy trail traffic that goes along with it, but I got to chatting with a couple from upstate New York and missed the turnoff. Still, I arrived at Mills Lake in less than an hour. It is here, for me, that the hike really begins.

One of the interesting aspects of the trail between Mills Lake and Black Lake is the rather large debris field that was the result of a micro-burst that hit, I believe, in the autumn of 2011. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the thousands of trees were knocked down by the time I hiked to Black Lake in March of 2012. That first summer it took the Park Service quite some time and a lot of effort to cut through all the tree trunks that blocked the trail for more than half a mile.

A fair section of trail just above Mills Lake passes through some fairly marshy stretches. These sections are made passable by a series of crude bridges each a hundred or two hundred feet long. I’ve crossed these bridges for nearly forty years and now they’re mostly rotten and decaying. This year the Park Service is rebuilding them in an effort that may match that of clearing the path of the downed trees from that micro-burst.

Bridge Reconstruction

It had started sprinkling at about ten and before long the sprinkles turned to rain, so I donned my rain coat. It wasn’t raining heavily, but the cool of the morning was still lingering, and between the light rain and light breeze, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the rain gear. I ran into a hiker here who had been to Green Lake on another occasion; he said he’d prefer it in the sunshine over this morning’s grey skies and light rain. Perhaps the weather will remain dull and damp, but perhaps it will improve. Besides, even a dull day in the park is a good day.

The last few hundred feet of trail below Black Lake rises beside Ribbon Falls on a series of steps not quite hewn from the living rock, lifting the hiker onto the outlet of the lake and onto a series of large rectangular stepping stones. Even though these stones form the trail itself here, many hikers find them inviting places to sit, and I don’t recall a visit where I didn’t have to step over or around lounging hikers here.

There’s no doubt that the view from these stepping stones is spectacular, but it’s just as spectacular if you go another few hundred feet to the eastern shore of the lake. There, you’ll face the sight that is McHenrys Peak. Water pours off the stark cliffs on all sides here. The main feeder of the lake is behind you, and a crude trail climbs beside it, gaining four hundred feet of elevation in just 1,600 feet of distance. Even late into summer there is snow on the southern slopes here.

Levitating snow

At about 11,000′ of elevation, the terrain levels off and you find yourself on a large expanse of granite slabs, clumps of willow, and marshy areas where water flows nearly everywhere. Every time I’ve come up here, I’ve found many elk. Being so high, the wildflowers are much smaller than those lower down. They’re just as colorful and diverse, but are tiny in comparison. The scale is different: you won’t find entire slopes splashed with color, but that color is all around you. You just have to look closer.

Navigation isn’t particularly difficult here. After a while the trail fades away, but hikers have left a multitude of cairns. There are sometimes so many that they’re not helpful on a grand scale, but they often will lead you through the sections of willow.

Busy bee

To get to Green Lake, I kept the main stream on my right until I was nearly to the lake. I had my micro spikes with me, anticipating that I might be crossing some snow. Just below the lake I came across the solitary section I’d need to cross, and it was only a few hundred feet. Arriving at the base of this snow field, I found myself in the midst of a herd of elk. To my left was a large bull, antlers large and velvety. To my right was a cow and two calves, still sporting their youthful spots. The cow had an ear tag and wore a big collar with a large 9. I’m no judge of female elk flesh. Perhaps she was a 9. Or, perhaps, the collar wasn’t intended as an indication of her beauty.

Bull elk

They were really quite close, twenty or thirty feet. I’ve been close to elk fairly often. I’ve never felt threatened by them, but just the same I didn’t want to put myself between the cow and her calves. I also didn’t want to be closer to the calves than I was to the cow or bull. But to continue on the last few hundred yards to my destination, I’d have to walk right through them.

I sort of yelled at them, “I want to go that way!”, pointing across the snow. They looked at me quizzically. They clearly weren’t getting my drift. After further hollering and gesticulation I clapped my hands loudly. This got the calves to move to my right, on the other side of their mother, and I finally felt it was okay to proceed.

Had there been no elk there, I probably would have put on the spikes. I carried them all this way, so why not use them? But I didn’t want to sit there in the middle of the herd any longer than necessary so I proceeded without them. I didn’t need them, and on the way back down I again didn’t bother with them.

Green Lake

The rain had stopped some time ago, and the small breaks in the clouds had turned to mostly bright blue sky. There were still clouds, but they were white and fluffy and (as always) relatively fast moving. It would be hard to expect much better weather for a picnic beside an alpine lake than I was having.

There’s a snow field that sits on the eastern shore of Green Lake. I think it’s always there. Today, there were two little icebergs (or would they be snowbergs?) that were floating freely in the lake, recently broken off the main field. It might have been interesting to have the time lapse camera recording them, but instead I had it aimed at Spearhead and the clouds behind it. I would have liked to sit on the eastern shore, but there wasn’t a lot of shoreline there free of snow, and the flow out of the lake was running a few inches too high for me to cross without risking getting wet feet, so I stayed on the northern end.

On the way up from Black Lake I encountered a couple of climbers who had spent two nights on a bivy permit on Spearhead. I came across another couple of climbers on their way down at about the point where the route to Frozen Lake diverges from my route. So I kept an eye out for climbers on Spearhead. I don’t really know what interests climbers, so I didn’t know where to look. But I did see somebody wearing a pink jacket or shirt who hadn’t very far up the cliff.

Gathering storm

After half an hour I headed down. My herd of elk was still there, but they’d moved a bit to the east and I didn’t have to split them to make my exit. On the way up, you’re facing the stark cliffs in the immediate vicinity. Heading down, you get a nice view of the Mummy Range in the distance. The clouds there were no longer white and fluffy, but steel colored and menacing. With the divide just a few hundred meters to the west, you can’t see what sort of weather is headed your way, but it was obvious that on the way down I’d likely get more than the light rain I encountered on the way up.

I’d kept the rain coat on through my lunch and only packed it away when I refilled my water bottle on the descent to Black Lake. My shirtsleeved hiking was short lived, though, as the clouds opened up by the time I got to the bridge leading to the Glacier Gorge campsite. The thunder that was rumbling in the distance was now crashing in the immediate vicinity, so I kept my pace up.

Usually there’s a fair crowd on the slabs that form the Mills Lake shoreline but not now. Nobody wanted to sit in the rain. It wasn’t heavy enough to entirely obscure the view to the south, but certainly heavy enough to make the view less pleasant. Between here and the trail junction I ran into a young couple on their way up to Mills: she wearing sandals and a jacket, he shirtless and smiling. Even with my jacket on and hiking a brisk pace, I found it slightly chilly.

A bit farther down I found a solo hiker standing in the shelter of a tree, assessing the skies. I told him it would quit eventually, but no telling how long that might be. He was going to wait it out. That turned out to be a short wait for him, as the rain stopped when I was half way down the Fire Trail, and the sun was again shining brightly. It was about here that I realized I’d probably left the passenger window of the car open an inch or two. Oh well.

Traffic down the mountain was heavier than last week, but what I’d call more or less the new normal. Until I got to about mile marker 10, where we came to a complete stop. At about mile 4 an ambulance had passed me going towards Estes, lights and siren on. It should have been obvious to me that I’d run into the scene of an accident but it didn’t click until we were stopped. It took nearly half an hour to get going again. They had the road down to one lane, letting a few dozen cars pass first in one direction then the other. When I passed the scene, I didn’t see any damaged vehicles. Had they already cleared the wreckage, or was it off the road, down the slope? I suspect the latter.

I can’t help but say that it was a very enjoyable day. A hike to the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge is always rewarding and satisfying.

Timetable

UpDown
Trailhead8:10 am3:31 pm
Mills Lake9:06 am2:42 pm
Black Lake10:25 am1:30 pm
Green Lake11:55 am12:30 pm

Mills Lake

Saturday, December 15

Chad and I hiked to Mills Lake. He drove. He didn’t want to make the trip on my summer tires in spite of my assurance that it would only be the last mile that’s dicey. We got to the Glacier Gorge parking lot around 8:30. It was about half full. In the summer, it takes me almost exactly an hour to get to the lake from the parking lot, but today it took an hour and a half.

We took the fire trail. When I came down it after visiting Ed’s igloo the tracks followed the summer trail but now it’s switched to it’s snowy winter route, up the gully. An outcropping of rock was covered with large icicles fifteen or twenty feet high.

There was a good crowd at the lake. It was pretty windy, but we stood in the lee of a small stand of pine. Even though it was out of the wind, I had a pretty nice view up the gorge. The sun is about as low in the sky as it will get as we’re just a few days from the solstice.

The view of the gorge as you near the lake is one of the most impressive views in the park. Today when we arrived there, clouds hung in giant curls from eastern flank of Thatchtop. Longs Peak  plowed the wind, leaving a wake of condensation. The wind whipped through at high speed, kicking up clouds of snow up throughout the gorge. The low sun backlit the blowing snow, showing the wind’s form; its flows and eddies.

We were there for nearly an hour. I thought we’d be doing good if we to stayed much over half an hour, but our spot was comfortably out of the wind and I managed to blather on about something or other until I sufficiently bored Chad and he suggested we make our way back to the car.

Half Mtn Glacier Knob

It’s been a busy couple weeks. LOG 35 ended four days of activities yesterday with the driving school. Prior to that I was in Albuquerque on business. The day before I flew down there I hiked in the Park. Ten days, and this is my first opportunity to make a few notes and glance at the photos.

Saturday, August 15

I asked Ed if he wanted to take me to the top of the glacier knob attached to Half Mtn. This is knob #10 by his reckoning, He visited the top of all ten in one day a few years ago. This is my 4th, all with Ed’s guidance.

HalfMtnKnobMap

Our route: Up in red, down in blue

I left the house before six, picked up Ed by six thirty; we were through the Park gates before they were manned and to Bear Lake parking lot by 7:30. The lot was already three quarters full. It was another beautiful summer day in the Park – bright sunshine and a brilliant blue cloudless sky.

Ed had us off the trail and into the forest at his usual spot and visiting two officially unnamed ponds, “Zone Lake” and “Joyce’s Pond”. After crossing the main trail we had to cross Glacier Creek, which is fairly substantial here. We looked around for a few minutes before deciding to ford it. The water was cold and the rocks were slippery but it was an uneventful crossing. Once across we worked our way east to the base of a steep gully and to the bank of a small pond.

The base of the gully is a cone of talus. We took a short break at the top of the cone, where the route gets much steeper. Here we’re about two hundred feet above the valley floor and have a nice vista to the north. From here to nearly the top of the knob it’s a steep climb culminated with a scramble through a tunnel. We were on top of the knob by ten thirty.

IMG_9739s

East Glacier Knob on the left and the Mummy Range in the distance

I often say there are two kinds of hikes: those to summits and those to lakes. On summits, the views are incredible but everything is miles away. At most lakes in the Park, the scenery is dramatic, and up close. These knobs are a sort of hybrid – wide vistas but not miles from away.

IMG_9743_stitch_crop_resize

Glacier Gorge

We relaxed until noon or so before heading down the western slope. It’s a series of shelves. Navigation is generally a matter of finding the ramps from one to the next; ramps which are sometimes clogged with obstacles. After another short break at Mills Lake, we kept to the trail as far as Glacier Gorge junction, where we cut through the woods.

It was a nice hike. I’ll definitely do it again. Rather than make the steep climb, I’d take the trail to Mills Lake and go up the way we came down. I could be to the summit in half the time, trading variety for speed. But that would let me sit up there for three or four hours if I wanted.

 

Mills Lake

Friday, November 29

My last hike was a few days before the big floods in September, nearly three months ago. That’s the longest time between hikes for me in nearly three years. All the roads to Estes Park are open now, so I figured it was past time to head up to the Park.

On the drive up I stopped in Lyons to mount the camera on the car. The repairs to US 36 are temporary and I was expecting a fair amount of flood damage in Apple Valley and just before Big Elk Meadows. The video does not do a great job of showing the extent of the damage, but I’ll see if I can put together a few minutes of interesting footage. I’m guessing it will be of little interest to anybody who is unfamiliar with the road.

Jerry and I were in Lyons last week for some pinball and a beer at Oskar Blue’s so I had already seen the debris lining the road from the light at the junction of CO 66 and US 36 into town. The water clearly was deep enough through here to deposit trees on the north side of the road. In some places, the river is about 500′ from the road in this stretch.

The next stretch of serious damage is in Apple Valley. The riverbed here has been scrubbed clean, no plants or structures standing in a rocky, sandy riverbed that is now much wider than the stream it accommodates. Where the road bends west the water ate away enough earth to cause the temporary road to be placed fifteen or twenty yards from its former “permanent” location. Yet only a few yards upstream the bridge at Apple Valley Road stands with no apparent sign of stress.

The worst stretch of damage starts here, where the canyon narrows. The road was washed away in several places. Most structures here were on the opposite side of the river from the road, and all the bridges were washed away. Somebody spray painted “We R OK” on a garage door. The occasional car is on the shoulder of the road at the bottom of a pile of other debris.

From where the road opens up and provides a passing lane to the top of the hill at Pinewood Springs there are only one or two spots that had minor damage. On the other side of Pinewood, the road goes through a short stretch of canyon alongside the Little Thompson River. The road is damaged from here to the turn for Big Elk Meadows, except where it was washed away entirely. I think there’s only one house in there, but I didn’t get a good look to see its fate. From there to Estes there is only one short stretch of additional damage, just past the trailhead near mile eight.

Being headed out for a short hike, I was on the road a few hours later than I’d normally make the drive. Traffic didn’t disappoint. For the most part, people were going ten to fifteen miles per hour less than the speed limit. It took me a hour to get from Lyons to the Glacier Gorge trailhead.

I brought spikes but not snowshoes. Based on my rather limited winter hiking, I figured the “beaten path” would be packed well enough that spikes would be sufficient. It wasn’t long before I was at the “Fire Trail” shortcut. I left the main trail here. It was a bit “thready” at first, with skiers going one way, snowshoers going another. The stream that flows here also tends to be a bit braided, and in winter the trail crosses the stream several times. These crossings were interesting at times. Without snowshoes, I postholed a few times and nearly got my feet wet. In several places, the trails of skiers and hikers coalesced, only to split again.

Sometimes it was easy to see which way I should go, sometimes I went up an unsuitable path and started postholing again. At other times, the path seemed to meander in an almost random fashion. By the time I got to the trail junction at the other end, I was fairly tired. What has always been a shortcut for me in the past probably took me longer than the route past Alberta Falls. So it goes.

The plan was to go to the Loch. In winter, I’ve always followed the Mills Lake trail to the bridge over Icy Brook, then follow the drainage up. This experience is based on hiking more in March than November. Right now there isn’t enough snow to go that way. It looks like nobody has even set foot off the trail here. So rather than backtrack to the trail to the Loch, I forged ahead to Mills Lake. Again, in winter I’m used to just going up the drainage but for now at least, I had to stick to the summer route.

Slogging up the “Fire Trail” I was overheating a bit. I just kept telling myself I’d be happy to be so warmly dressed when I got to the lake, and this turned out quite true. As expected, the wind was quite fierce here. I might even say “breathtaking” as that’s about what happened when a gust hit me when I got to the top of the large granite slabs just before reaching Mills.

A mound of ice forming on the west side of Mills Lake, near the outlet.

The challenge on these winter hikes is to find a nice spot to eat lunch in comfort. Ideally, I’d find a rock sitting in the sun but out of the wind. But this is winter at an alpine lake and such ideal spots are in short supply. I found a good enough spot to set up the cameras and managed to keep somewhat out of the wind, but after half an hour I was ready to head back down. I had to take my gloves off to deal with the SLR and in just those few moments my hands were quite cold. But just a few minutes down the trail, once back in the forest and out of the wind, I was comfortable again.

The Longs Peak massif from just below Mills Lake

Rather than slog down the way I came up, I headed down the trail past Alberta Falls. Again, my usual path in winter is to leave the trail just east of East Glacier Knob and head down Glacier Creek, but more snow is required. I’ll just have to come up again in a few weeks and see if there’s enough snow then.

View of the interesting north face of Flattop Mtn from near Mills Lake.

Here’s the video. I used both the GoPro and the SLR. The small tripod I take on hikes was insufficient against the wind at the lake and thus the SLR footage is too shaky to use. Meanwhile, the GoPro was shooting into the sun until it went behind Thatchtop. Tough conditions, but not a bad result.

 

Mills Lake

Many people consider Mills Lake to be the prettiest lake in the park. It sits at the northern end of Glacier Gorge and has nice views of the peaks to the south. It’s an easy two and a half mile hike, climbing only about 750 feet to an elevation of 9,940. Its beauty and ease of access mean it is generally quite crowded. Yesterday, though, I spent an hour or so watching the world and saw nobody else at the lake or on the trail.

Mills Lake is named for Enos Abijah Mills (1870-1922), who was instrumental in the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills purchased Longs Peak House in 1901 and turned it into the famous Long’s Peak Inn and acted as a climbing guide on Long’s Peak. He summitted the peak 304 times.

It was somewhat windy at the trailhead, and maybe a bit cooler than I was hoping for. The forecast for Denver was a high in the mid-60’s, but at 10am at Glacier Gorge Junction the outlook didn’t seem so warm. Once on the trail, the wind wasn’t an issue. There were only a dozen or so cars in the parking lot and the only people I saw on the trail all day were two couples within a few hundred yards of the trailhead.

I took the Fire Trail shortcut to the Mills/Loch/Haiyaha trail junction. The snow on the “beaten path” was well packed, and my microspikes were sufficient. It was obvious, though, that stepping off the path meant postholing in deep snow. Just below the lake, the trail crosses the outlet stream. In the depths of winter, rather than hiking up the summer trail it’s easier just to follow the stream. By now, though, the stream was thawing enough that I stayed on the summer trail.

I arrived at the lake just in time to see the peaks to the south disappear in a cloud of snow. By the time I got the camera set up for the time lapse, the little squall had come down the valley and a light snow was blowing in my face. You never know how long these little storms last, though, so I let the camera roll and had my lunch.

I had picked a spot mostly out of the wind, which can be extreme on these alpine lakes, but I didn’t really have a comfortable place to sit. So I stood, taking a few bites of my sandwich and setting it back in my pack to grab a few chips or a sip from my soda. Before long I heard some noises. I thought perhaps some hikers had arrived but when I turned to look, I saw it was a small bird sitting on a tree branch about a foot and a half from my shoulder. It sat there nicely, as if posing for a photo. The camera was busy doing the time lapse, so I reached into my pocket for the phone. I had taken my eyes off the bird to do this and when I turned back to face him, he was gone.

He didn’t go far. He was now perched on my pack and managed to peck at my sandwich, the corner of which was poking out of its plastic bag.

Brash BirdThe storm cleared after a short while, revealing a dramatic view of Pagoda, Chief’s Head, and Keyboard of the Winds. Had I managed to get the camera rolling ten minutes earlier, I’d have captured the whole thing. With the “storm” over and lunch consumed, I headed back. While the weather at Mills was wintery, the view to the north was much more spring-like.

Mills OutletIn summer, I like to take longer hikes to get away from the crowds. But the rest of the year, it’s possible to get away from everybody and enjoy the scenery without taking the whole day. This hike was less than three hours start to finish, including an hour at the lake.

Here’s the time lapse: