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.
Upper North Inlet valley
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.