A Discouraging Wind

Sunday, September 20

Denver’s forecast for Sunday was mid-80’s and clear. It sounded like ideal weather for one last hike above treeline. The goal this time was Isolation Lake. I’d been leaving my options open; there are two lakes above Bluebird Lake that I’ve never been to. Junco Lake is about a mile, across terrain I’ve not gotten a good look at. Isolation Lake is at 12,000′, accessed via a bit over a mile of open tundra. I was undecided which I’d visit until I got to the Park.

I wanted to be on the trail about 7:30. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get to Bluebird. It’s 6.3 miles, with the last mile fairly steep. I figured the stretch between Bluebird and Isolation would take an hour, so I wanted to be to Bluebird by eleven. I was between Boulder and Lyons for sunrise. Not a cloud in the sky. The drive all the way to the Park was pleasant – there was almost no traffic.

At the trailhead I snagged an end spot. The lot was perhaps a third full. Somehow I got the idea that the bridge had been repaired at Ouzel Falls, but they had signs up saying it was still out. I could try that way on the hike out, as it would only cost me a mile or so if I had to turn around.

Above Copeland Falls they’re nearly done with significant repairs to the trail, damaged two years ago. With the bridge out, I had to take the campsite route to the Thunder Lake trail. I’d been calling it an unimproved trail, but the bridge out sign called it “primitive”. It’s your basic forest trail that gains about seven hundred feet of elevation.

The trail to Ouzel Lake follows the spine of a ridge that was burned in the Ouzel fire in 1978. It’s like a big eraser went through there, removing a strip mature forest a half mile wide and several miles long. This time of year you get a better sense of how much of this strip has been filled in by aspen, the only aspen visible south of the St. Vrain. This section of trail is exposed to the wind and sun. The sun was shining brightly in a clear, deep blue sky. On a July or August afternoon this would be a fierce sun but this morning was quite pleasant. It wasn’t calm, just a light breeze.

Before exiting the burn scar and returning to the forest we pass just above Chickadee Pond and Ouzel Lake to the south. The trail makes climbs a quick four hundred feet, flattens out to cross a talus field, then climbs another four hundred. In this second climb I chatted with a hiker on his way down. “Did you spend the night up here?” “No, thank God. The wind is bad, maybe sixty miles an hour.”

That was a bit discouraging. From Bluebird to Isolation is open tundra, so I’d be hiking into the teeth of the wind. I can assume I might find a big rock to use as a wind break when I got to Isolation, but don’t really know. While it is probably quite pleasant to sit at 12,000′ in bright sunshine and calm, with any sort of wind it will be cold.

When I got to Bluebird I didn’t even take a picture. The wind was fierce. Maybe not sixty but easily forty miles an hour. I took one look in the general direction of my goal and turned around. Although the hike to Junco is more sheltered, the wind wouldn’t be any better. So Plan B is picnic at Ouzel.

Rather than go back to the trail junction, I bushwhacked the hundred yards or so from the Bluebird Lake trail, going between Chickadee Pond and Ouzel Lake. It’s a forest lake, without an abundance of rocks. I tried to find a spot on a rock, in the sun, out of the wind, close to the water. Today, no such place existed. I did find a spot in the shade, slightly protected from the wind. I didn’t set up for a time lapse as there still wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Below Ouzel Lake I ran into a guy coming up. “Boy, am I glad to see you and this trail!” He didn’t see the bridge out sign at the trailhead and made his way to Ouzel Falls. He went upstream on game trails until he found a spot to cross, but went a long way before regaining the trail. There was no point in heading to Ouzel Falls now that the missing bridge was confirmed. Ouzel Falls is only a nice spot for a break if you’re on the other side of the river.

I took another break on a rock outcropping on the campsite cutoff. Even so, with the shortened hike and abbreviated picnic, I was back to the car by 2:30. Traffic was not nearly as bad as I expected. I assumed lots of people would be driving around viewing the aspen. There was some of that; lots of convertibles and even a couple of early sixties British sports cars. But not heavy traffic, and everybody managed to go as fast as the speed limit for the most part. That is, until reaching Boulder where a biker raced to get to the front of the line then proceeded to putt along at twenty under the limit.

The hike itself was quite pleasant. Once away from the lake, even on the exposed ridge, there was no wind to speak of. And I didn’t see a cloud in the sky the entire day. I didn’t bag a new lake today, but that’s okay. I can pencil another attempt at Isolation on the calendar for next August.

Ouzel Lake

Mike and I talked about hiking to Pipit Lake. It hadn’t really occurred to me to hike there in winter; I guess I’m still stuck in the “hiking is for summer” mindset. But after trading a few emails on Tuesday, we decided to go the next day. It would be the best weather for at least the next week.

I picked Mike up at the park and ride and we headed to the park. His bus was a few minutes late, and we were in the teeth of rush hour traffic into Boulder so we didn’t exactly get an early start. The Wild Basin entrance station is closed for winter – that is, there is no ranger there. That’s pretty much standard year around, if you arrive early enough. Up the road we go, only to find the gate closed before the road crosses the river. This was new to me. I really had no idea when that gate was ever closed. I thought perhaps it got closed when snow piled up on the road.

We geared up and started up the road. The thermometer read 44 degrees when we left the car at 9:00. On the drive up, the sky was mostly cloudy, with some rather ominous looking dark clouds to the west. At the trailhead, though, it was clear blue skies above us and to the west, with fairly strong winds. It took us twenty minutes to reach the trailhead; we figured we’d hiked a mile already.

We made good time on the first part of the trail to the campsite shortcut. We’d passed a few trees that had fallen across the trail, something I’d not seen here before. Approaching Calypso Cascades, there was a spot where water flows over the trail. There are several logs serving as steps; water had filled the spaces between the logs and frozen making terraces of ice – miniature skating rinks.

From Calypso Cascades to a bit past Ouzel Falls the trail is on a north facing slope and is now covered with ice or packed snow. There’s not much snow on the ground, just on the trail. I don’t know how this season compares to normal, I suspect it might be drier than usual, but it’s still early.

We took a short break at Ouzel Falls. A great mass of ice has built up at the base and it looks like the ice at the left side forms each night and melts during the day. A large chunk fell off while we were sitting there.

Continuing, we paused for a minute or two at the next trail junction, where the Thunder Lake trail goes right and Ouzel/Bluebird goes left. We would soon be atop the ridge which had burned back in 1978 and I anticipated it would be quite windy. Time to put on a hat to keep the ears warm. Gaining the top of the ridge, the wind was breathtaking at times. The occasional gust stopped me in my tracks. There is no shelter on this section of trail, which is not so good when it’s windy or in the summer sun. But it’s always good for the open views of the surrounding mountains.

At the lake I set up the GoPro for a time lapse. I didn’t bother with the SLR as there were very few clouds, just a few small ones above the nearby peaks that dissipated before they moved too far. Also, I found that the original battery for the SLR had died after taking only a handful of shots during the hike to the lake.

We looked for a place out of the wind to have our picnic lunches and ended up at the campsite. No view, but mostly out of the wind. After a short while, I went back to the shore of the lake and retrieved the camera. I had placed it on a rock only an inch or so above the ice. It was the best I could do, but not good enough. The wind had blown it over. I managed to salvage the footage. I didn’t do any fancy cropping to simulate pans or zooms; all the camera motion is caused by the wind. The first segment is at half normal speed (two seconds per minute) while the second segment is normal (one second per minute).

On the way out, we opted to continue a short way up the Thunder Lake trail to the upper junction of the campsite shortcut. It’s always nice to see a little different terrain. I think the shortcut saves six or seven tenths of a mile when hiking to Thunder Lake, but we had to go four tenths to get to it. So the hike out was a few tenths shorter than the hike in. We were also on the sunny side of the valley so we took another short break there.

By now I was figuring we were the only visitors to Wild Basin. I was surprised when we encountered three groups of hikers heading toward Calypso Cascades (two couples and a solo hiker). In retrospect, we probably would have met somebody at Ouzel Falls. We were the first ones to the end of the road in the morning, but when we returned to the car there were about a dozen other cars there. Not alone in Wild Basin, but only meeting five other people on that lower section of main trail is about as much solitude as can be expected.


Car 09:00 AM
Trailhead 09:20 AM
Campsite shortcut (bottom) 09:50 AM
Calypso Cascades 10:00 AM
Ouzel Falls 10:30 AM
Thunder/Ouzel jct 10:50 AM
Ouzel/Bluebird jct 11:35 AM
Arrive Ouzel Lake 11:50 AM
Depart Ouzel Lake 12:35 PM
Ouzel/Bluebird jct 12:50 PM
Thunder/Ouzel jct 01:25 PM
Campsite shortcut (top) 01:35 PM
Campsite shortcut (bottom) 02:10 PM
Trailhead 02:40 PM
Car 03:00 PM