Bench Lake

Before I started this blog I had been posting trip reports to a forum for lovers of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of those reports, with only minor edits for clarity.

Hike date: 24 September 2011 — Originally posted: 28 September 2011 – 11:57 AM

Saturday I hiked the North Inlet Trail to Ptarmigan Creek, then off the trail to Bench Lake. Shortly after starting up the trail, I had a bit of discomfort on my right ankle. I have a couple of seasons of hiking in these boots and was a bit surprised that I’d be getting a hot spot there. Not a big deal, though, so I continued. It’s something like six and a half miles to Ptarmigan Creek, and the trail climbs very gently. In spite of my ankle I was making good time, something like 3 miles per hour. By the time I reached the creek I had only encountered 7 other hikers, 3 of whom started at Bear Lake.

I went up and down the trail a few yards either side of the creek looking for anything resembling a trail but didn’t see anything so I just headed up the hill. In the macro sense, navigation is trivial – just stay on the east side of the creek as you climb. It’s a fairly steep climb (for me at least), and I was more concerned with encountering terrain I would be unwilling to descend. I’m a bit of a fraidy-cat when it comes to steep descents, particularly when I’m hiking alone. My general rule is to never go up anything I need to use my hands on because I know I’ll get the heebie jeebies on the way down. Saturday, though, I broke my rule because I have hiked three times this summer where I didn’t make it to my destination and I was so close I didn’t want to turn around.

War Dance Falls are somewhere near the top of the climb. It’s a bit hard to tell where they are exactly, as the creek between the trail and the lake is basically a falls the whole way. I was unable to get a view I liked for a photo.

Bench Lake

I sat for about a half hour and had my picnic lunch before making my descent. I managed to go down pretty much the same way I went up. I was a bit surprised, as in the best places there is just a faint suggestion of a trail. When I got to the steepest bit, where on the way up I recognized I’d have problems, it’s steep enough that my fanny pack was in contact with the ground. I carry two water bottles, one on each side of my pack. At this point, one of the bottles got nudged out of its holder and bounced down the mountain towards the creek. I thought I saw it get lodged between a rock and a tree, but when I got closer I could see that I was mistaken. I lost my bottle. Murphy’s law applies here – I didn’t lose the half empty bottle but the full one. I’d have to ration my water a bit for the 7 mile hike back to the car.

When I got back on the trail my ankle really started bothering me. At one point, I thought I felt moisture there – I thought my blister had popped or torn open. Nothing for it but to continue as best I could. It was painful enough for me to alter my gait a bit. I tried taking longer strides or shorter strides, I tried walking slower and walking faster, but nothing helped. In the end, it really affected how fast I could hike and the same trail I was managing 3mph on the way up I was now doing less than 2mph down.

I made it back to the car with a few sips of water left. When I changed from my boots to my shoes, I expected to see a bit of a mess on my ankle. Much to my surprise, there was no blister. There was a bit of swelling but no redness. I’m guessing now that I got some sort of insect bite. It got red later in the day, and was puffy for another day or so. Now the swelling and redness are gone but I still have a bit of pain. Why couldn’t the damn insect have bitten me a couple inches higher?

Bench Lake is the 44th lake I’ve visited in the park. There are still a few more I can get to on my own, but they’re getting to be longer hikes and farther off the trails. I think I can probably do Nokoni and Nanita on this trail even though they’re quite long for day hikes. But the first seven miles of trail is so flat I think I’m willing to give it a try. Maybe next year.

Bench Lake verdict: It was nice to get there once, but probably not worth the effort a second time.

 

Pettingell Lake fail

Sunday, September 4

Last year, crossing back over the ridge that separates Lake Nokoni from Lake Nanita, I saw what looked to be a fairly well-defined trail crossing the ridge between Lake Nokoni and Pettingell Lake. Having successfully done the 22.2 mile round trip to Nanita and knowing that Pettingell is the same distance, it seemed like I should be able to bag Pettingell.

The weather forecast for Denver predicted a high of 91 with mostly sunny skies and only a slight chance of rain. I probably should have checked the forecast for Grand Lake. Between Granby and Grand Lake the road was wet. I might have thought it had rained in the pre-dawn hours but there was so much standing water it would probably be more accurate to say the rain had just stopped falling. But the rain had stopped, and that’s what counts.

I planned for a 7:30 start, which means leaving the house at 5:30. I was pretty much on schedule, putting boots on the trail at 7:37. Two guys started hiking while I was changing my shoes and I caught them shortly before the first campsite at Summerland. They looked to be traveling oddly light, carrying only a plastic bag containing a couple of rolls of toilet paper. I chatted briefly with them. They spent the night in camp there but managed to forget one important item, thus their early morning trip. They were visiting from Mississippi and had just spent the first of several nights in the park. I expected to see them later in the day as they said they’d be heading to Nanita.

Not long after leaving them at their camp I saw some moose tracks on the trail. I always expect to see moose in these parts but tracks are all I saw. There were these fresh tracks on the trail, still very distinct so I guessed they were put down after the rain stopped. Just moments after seeing these tracks it started raining. Just sprinkles at first, but before long I had to don my rain jacket.

It rained for two hours. It wasn’t a hard rain but enough to cause rivulets of water to run down the trail. Rain drops would hang on the brim of my hat, dance back and forth with my gait for a few steps, then fall to my feet. The rain pattered softly on my hoodie while occasional larger drops falling from the trees made louder plops.

As the morning wore on, I passed several groups of backpackers making their way out. The weather wasn’t exactly conducive to stopping and talking, so we just exchanged greetings. I did ask most of them where they were hiking from; all were in camps along the North Inlet.

It stopped raining after I passed Ptarmigan Creek. About here the trail finally starts gaining some elevation. The first six or seven miles are pretty flat, passing through some wider sections of U-shaped valley where the river meanders in big loops and the occasional pond lies near the trail. After Ptarmigan Creek the trail starts working its way up the side of the valley.

I arrived at the trail junction as quickly as I made it last year. I make a right turn to head to Nokoni whereas most traffic goes on the trail to the left, towards Flattop and Bear Lake. One of these days I’ll have to arrange logistics such that I can hike from Bear Lake to Grand Lake. It’s well over twenty miles, but I no longer have any doubt I’m capable of it.

The roughly two and a half miles of trail from North Inlet Falls to Lake Nokoni is quite the feat of trail making. Last year I didn’t pay particular attention to the trail itself. I took in the views and was always concerned with my progress. More relaxed this time, I couldn’t help but notice how the trail facilitates quick travel.

This is a pack trail, so it is constructed according to whatever codes apply – minimum width, maximum grade, and so on. But the thing that stands out on this section is the absolute absence roots, rocks, and stairs that interfere with your gait. And although I’ve seen many pack trails that have sections that climb four hundred feet in a kilometer, this trail has no steep parts.

But what amazes me about this trail is that it does all this while traversing some incredibly steep terrain. In the mile below Lake Nokoni there are several sections where the trail is literally carved out of the rock. Words and pictures don’t do it justice. These two and a half miles are perhaps the easiest two and a half miles of hiking in the entire park. That, in conjunction with the relative lack of incline on the first six or seven miles make this ten miles of trail easier than many trails half the distance.

I had no sooner stood on the rock shelf along the east side of Lake Nokoni than I heard somebody coming up the trail behind me. It was a solo hiker, a trail runner, and the only person I encountered all day who was older than me. He started where I did, at about eight. His pace was only a couple of minutes per mile faster than mine which was quite the ego boost for me: I’d covered the ten miles in 3:47, or about 2.6 miles per hour.

Now I confess that I forgot to bring a map. I wasn’t concerned, though, because as I said, I saw the trail last year. All I needed to do was find the trail and I’d be on my way. I figured I couldn’t miss it if I just started working my way up the slope. So that’s what I did. The slop turned out to be a bit steeper than I anticipated. I did eventually find a trail of sorts. But it’s loose gravel and I wasn’t happy using it. My footing was much better without the trail. And it’s not really a trail – it fades into nothingness on both ends.

Without a map I was expecting to be able to see the lake when I topped the ridge. So I was a bit disappointed that my target wasn’t in sight. I decided that it must be farther to my left and that I’d need to cross a talus slope. By now it was noon, which is my “bingo” time. I want to be at my destination, or in sight of my destination, by noon. No lake in sight, so I pondered my options.

I could continue, expecting to arrive at the lake within another half hour. That’s not so bad, but it puts my return to the car an hour behind schedule. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still threatening. The only blue sky I could see was a thin ribbon along the divide. The “mostly sunny” forecast looked to be true, if you were east of the divide. Here, it looked like it might rain again. Finally, I’d managed to keep my feet mostly dry until I headed off trail. Once I was walking through grass my pants were wet below the knee and my feet were thoroughly wet. And today I wore my hiking shoes, not the boots. With the boots my feet probably would have stayed dry. And I’d certainly be happier in boots when crossing this talus field. (New rule: wear the boots if the hike goes off trail.)

So I decided to turn around.

No big deal. I can get to Pettingell if I decide I like camping. Or, if I hit the trail at 7:00 instead of 7:40. And wearing boots and carrying a map. (It looks like I didn’t need to cross the talus field after all. That would have been the hard way.)

I cautiously worked my way down the slope back to Nokoni, where I selected a large flat boulder to sit on and eat my lunch. By now the clouds had broken up a little bit, providing alternating sunshine and shadow. I took off my shoes and socks, wrung out the socks, and set them on the rock to dry. But the sunshine was fleeting and a breeze kicked up and my socks never had a chance to dry out. I wasn’t looking forward to hiking ten miles with wet feet.

The weather did clear up quite a bit. Back in the valley, once I got below the lake, I was in sunshine again. The clouds were just hanging around the peaks. About half way back to North Inlet Falls I was finally able to take off my rain jacket for the first time in five hours.

Upper North Inlet valley

Upper North Inlet valley

On the way out I took a couple of short breaks. The Upper North Inlet valley is one of the remotest areas in the park and the steep terrain below Nokoni means the view is often unobstructed by trees. I paused several times to take in this view. I also took a short break at Big Pool to eat some fruit. I was back to the car shortly after five. I was happy to put on dry shoes and socks and surprised that the wet-footed hike out wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable.

Timetable

Up Down
Trailhead 07:37 AM 05:11 PM
Cascade Falls 08:40 AM 04:02 PM
Big Pool 09:09 AM 02:41 PM
Ptarmigan Creek 09:51 AM 02:20 PM
Lake Nokoni 11:24 AM 01:01 PM

Lake Nanita

Friday, July 17

This hike has been on my list for three years. I decided this spring that I would finally go there. I’ve been psyching myself up for this one for about two weeks. This would be the longest hike I’ve ever attempted – 11.1 miles each way according to Foster. I’m struggling to come up with the right words to describe my feelings. I wasn’t exactly anxious (as in filled with anxiety). Intimidated isn’t the right word either.

I hiked a portion of the North Inlet trail a few years ago when I visited Bench Lake. You go nearly seven miles up that trail to Ptarmigan Creek before heading straight up the slope. Those first seven miles are fairly mellow – you gain only about a thousand feet of elevation. The last few miles to Lakes Nokoni and Nanita are steeper, but the net climb for the eleven miles is only about 2400′.

So even though it’s quite a long hike I expected to be able to make good time. My plan was to arrive at the trailhead by seven and I guessed I could make it to Nanita in five hours. Allow an hour of lounging at the lakes and I should be back to the car by six. The drive to the trailhead is a bit over two hours (I-70 and Berthoud Pass) and the trip home another two and a half hours (over Trail Ridge Road) and it would be a very full day – leave the house before five and return at eight thirty. That was the plan, anyway.

I was out the door at 4:30. Traffic was very light and I made good time, jetting over Berthoud Pass. The sun was beginning to light the sky; the mountains to the north were still in silhouette but the wispy banners of clouds above them were lit pink and periwinkle. It was still fairly chilly and I had the heater on. The Fraser valley was blanketed with a layer of ground fog.

I made the trailhead by 6:30 and was on the trail at 6:40. It was cool enough I could have worn a light jacket but I expected to work into a lather fairly quickly. The first mile or so is more a dirt road than a trail – this provides access to a private cabin that’s on Park land. I started working the math in my head. If I manage the first three miles in an hour (a very quick pace for hiking), I would only need to average two miles an hour for the rest of the hike to maintain my schedule. I couldn’t help but recall than I failed to maintain that rate on my last three hikes.

I passed Cascade Falls in exactly an hour, and was at Big Pool in ninety minutes. I was thinking that Big Pool was five miles in, but that couldn’t be right. That would mean I was averaging well over three miles per hour. (Big Pool is 4.8 miles from the trailhead.) After two and a quarter hours I crossed Ptarmigan Creek. I was making very good time. The trail was every bit as easy as I remembered it.

My hike to Bench Lake was not the most pleasant hike. All was going well until I began my descent from the lake. I have difficulty with steep descents and this one was no exception. At my moment of greatest unease, one of my water bottles came out of its pocket and tumbled out of sight, lost. Of course it was the full bottle and not the half full one. So I had to manage my water on a warm day. Then, back on the trail, my ankle started to hurt. I thought perhaps I had an insect or spider bite. It was swollen and red, but I hadn’t twisted it. So the hike out was warm, thirsty, and somewhat painful.

But that was then.

Passing Ptarmigan Creek I was finally on new trail. From here to the Lake Nanita trail spur the trail remains fairly flat. It’s about a mile from Ptarmigan Creek to the junction. From there the trail descends a bit to cross the stream at North Inlet Falls. It is here that the (modest) climb to the lakes begins.

After about another mile the trail begins a series of widely spaced switchbacks. The slope is quite steep but the trail makes the ascent fairly painless. Up to this point, the hike has been through forest or alongside meadows and featured no views to speak of. About three quarters of a mile before Lake Nokoni, the trail traverses the top of this steep slope and the trees have thinned out considerably, opening the rich vistas of the Continental Divide to the east. Below lies the upper North Inlet valley, one of the more remote areas of the park.

It’s easy to concentrate on the majestic views to the east and overlook the profusion of wildflowers on both sides of the trail.

Ptarmigan Mountain pops into view at Nokoni Lake. The trail runs alongside a large slab of rock ten or fifteen feet high. On the other side of this rock lies Nokoni. According to the map, I figured it would be a bit farther away, but it’s right there. The lake is bigger than I expected; it’s a substantial body of water.

Lake Nanita is another 1.1 miles along. The trail crosses a saddle between Ptarmigan Mountain and point 11218. It zig-zags up the slope, mostly clear of trees, with a nice view of Nokoni below. Here I noticed it was a bit breezy. It is exposed here, and the wind gets an unobstructed run across the lake. The tree tops were swaying six or eight feet.

This is the last two hundred feet of climbing, reaching perhaps 11,050′ of elevation. Both Nanita and Nokoni are just below 10,800′. On the other side of this saddle, the trail descends alongside an open meadow and affords an unobstructed view of the western face of Ptarmigan Mountain. It is the better part of a thousand feet straight up. On the topo map you can’t make out the intervals – it’s a solid brown bar.

Unlike the other side of the saddle, where Nokoni was on full display, here you get only glimpses of Nanita. Only upon arriving at the shores of the lake do you get a good view. Foster says, “Lake Nanita is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful tarns in RMNP.” It is difficult to argue otherwise, but it must be noted that there are many lakes in the area that would easily feature on the list of “most beautiful”.

Lake Nanita, too, is a large lake. It’s bigger than Nokoni. I’m left wondering just how many lakes in the park are bigger. That would be a short list.

It took me four hours forty minutes to arrive here from the trailhead. I exceeded my expectations, and that included a ten minute break for a snack part way up the hill to Nokoni.

I plopped myself down on a rock and tucked in to my lunch. I didn’t bring the tripod, as the mount is broken, but considered making a time lapse by setting the camera on a rock. Unfortunately, the shutter timer is in the tripod’s carrying case, so that was a no go. It was a moot point anyway – the sky was absolutely cloudless. I was about 40 minutes ahead of schedule, and it’s typical that clouds don’t feature in the skies until about noon.

I sat there for an hour, enjoying my lunch and watching the world go by. A large bird (an eagle? too far away to identify) soared over the south end of the lake for a while. Fish were active within a few yards of my rock.

The sky was so clear that jets weren’t leaving contrails. A four engine jet flew over, each engine leaving a trail only for a couple of degrees of arc; the plane like the tip of a white spear. It was on a path that would take it between two of the spires of Ptarmigan Towers; it might make an interesting picture. I fumbled the lens cap when I went to take it off. I grabbed for it as it fell, missed it twice before it landed and bounced off the rock, down four feet into the lake. It was lying under four inches of water, but well out of reach. I missed the shot and lost the cap.

I did manage to find a way to clamber down and get it. It required hanging on to the branch of a bush. Had that branch broken, I’d have fallen into the water and been awarded the trifecta: cold, wet, and miserable. The retrieval was successful; a small drama.

Clouds began bubbling up at noon. I was packed up on on the trail by 12:20. After an hour of inertia, I was glad the climb up the saddle between the lakes was not so steep on this side. Once I had sight of Lake Nokoni, I knew that it was all downhill from here. Looking at the hillside above the north shore of Nokoni I could see a trail. This would be the route to Pettingell Lake on the other side of the ridge. Pettingell is the same distance from Nokoni as Nanita, and the route looks to be clear of trees so it shouldn’t be much more difficult than Nanita. It should be doable.

Back at Nokoni Lake I chatted with a group of four. They were the first people I’d seen since about 9:15. I asked if they were going to Nanita. “We were just there.” They must have been very quiet, as I never saw nor heard them, and I sat right where the trail dumps you on the shore of the lake.

I took my time over the next section of trail, where there were nice vistas to the east, taking in the view before rejoining the forest. After this it wasn’t long before I began encountering more hikers. Several folks asked me where I was staying. I was the only day-tripper out there.

I stopped just above North Inlet Falls, refilled my water bottle and ate some fruit. I stopped on the bridge to snap a photo of the falls. I never get a falls picture I like, but I’ll keep trying. At this moment it started to sprinkle. I was standing in bright sunshine but a gray cloud was immediately to the west, with blue skies beyond.

It didn’t look like it would rain hard or for long. I have a poncho, of course, but I didn’t want to mess with it for sprinkles. The cloud was small, and we were moving in opposite directions. I could manage a few drops. About a mile later it was no longer a light sprinkle, and the clouds looked distinctly bigger. Most of the oncoming hikers had donned their rain gear. At Ptarmigan Creek I put the poncho on. A minute later I was thinking it was the right choice – the rain was now mixed with graupel. Another minute later it stopped.

I took another break at Big Pool. Ate more fruit and put the poncho away. It had taken me ninety minutes to get here in the morning; even though I’d been hiking for nearly eight of the last nine hours, I felt pretty good. It was easily twenty degrees cooler in the morning, and I was fresh then, but I felt like I could match that time. I did.

I’ve never hiked so far before, but I’ve certainly done more strenuous hikes. Clearly, it’s all about the elevation gain. But I’m still a little amazed I hiked over twenty two miles in a day.