Two Rivers Lake

Sunday, March 19

I talked Chad into hiking with me. Somehow, two weeks in a row. Last week we took the short hike to Emerald Lake. It snowed the whole time. I don’t know if it technically qualifies as a blizzard, but it was snowing and the wind was blowing. I told him it was some of the most dramatic scenery around. But we couldn’t see any of it.

After many months without hiking, followed by an unsatisfactory hike, I felt I had to do it again. So I asked Chad if he wanted to do another hike, a little longer this time, and hopefully better weather. He didn’t accept right away. Perhaps he finally agreed in spite of his better judgement.

It was a beautiful day, with a forecast high in Denver of over 80. One of the great things about hiking in the Park is that you can get away from the summer heat. It’s only March and it’s a bit distressing that I’m already looking to escape the heat. A March hike along the divide is one way to do it.

Before we hit the trail I warned Chad to be careful whose footsteps he follows. We’d be crossing a couple of open spaces where the footprints get blown away and the “beaten path” might be hard to find. And we need to stay on the beaten path because we’re wearing micro spikes rather than snowshoes. If we get off the path we could be postholing.

When we got to the first of these open areas we met a group of four hikers heading back to Bear Lake. They’d built an igloo and camped nearby. We didn’t find it until we were on the way back; must have walked right by it somehow. It was a big one – sleeps four!

We found ourselves on a fairly well-traveled path, but as we got closer to the lake I began to dislike it. We were following tracks that seemed to take a more difficult route than was necessary. We were climbing too far up Joe Mills Mountain for my taste. Before long we met another couple of hikers on their way back. These two said they visit Lake Helene quite often in the summer, even climbing up the canyon above it to a small unnamed pond beneath Notchtop.

Last year when I hiked here, everybody I ran into thought Two Rivers Lake was Odessa Lake. These two, who have visited here often in summer, told us that Helene was real close and that we’d already passed Two Rivers. They were wrong. What they thought was Helene was actually Two Rivers. It’s funny how a little snow can change the terrain.

Once at the lake, we found a spot out of the wind and settled down for a picnic. Actually, it was more standing around than settling down as all the snow-free rocks that would make nice seats were in the teeth of the strong wind. We opted for shelter in the trees, where there were no good places to sit. We stayed nearly an hour.

We followed a different set of footprints on the way back. On one of the steeper open slopes we spotted below us the route we followed in the morning. Then we managed to get off the tracks we were now following. I decided we were too high up the hillside and the tracks we really wanted to follow were below us. So I headed off into virgin snow.

I knew our morning route was below us but we were descending a bit more than I wanted to, so I decided to contour along the slope. With these warm, bright days and cold nights the snow was pretty crusty. Had to tread carefully, though, as I was often on the verge of breaking that crust and stepping crotch deep into the snow. A few minutes later we came across the beaten path again.

This morning when I told Chad he’d have to be careful whose footsteps he followed, I’m pretty sure he didn’t think I was warning him about me.

Shelf Lake, Solitude Lake

Saturday, July 27

I killed Victor.

We hiked to Shelf Lake and Solitude Lake. I don’t know why I have so much trouble finding where we leave the Black Lake trail. When I hiked to Blue Lake this spring I looked for the spot and missed it. I missed it again this time. We went a bit too far up the trail. We headed across a marshy meadow and made an easy crossing of Glacier Creek and headed upslope.

I heard water to our right and knew we needed to be on the other side of the stream so we worked our way over, passing through some nasty deadfall at one point. When I saw the stream, I also saw the trail and knew we were finally in the right place. I don’t think Victor was much of a fan of our little bushwhacking expedition.

We had just started a kilometer section of trail that climbs eight hundred feet. And it’s not really a trail and there are a few places where you need to use your hands. Earlier in the day Victor had joked about not wanting to do the Bataan Death March and here I am leading him off-trail and then up just about the most grueling kilometer of hiking I could have picked.

Here we ran into some other hikers. Two young guys came up behind us and passed us like we were standing still. We may have been standing still. Closer to the top we chatted with a couple coming down. They’d been up there since Thursday, said they’d had a couple cold nights.

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Shelf Lake

Above the trees it was quite blustery. The sun was shining brightly but it was cool, and the wind was cold. We had lunch at Solitude, trying to take shelter on the lee side of a boulder along the water’s edge. We needed a bigger boulder.

Even though I didn’t expect we’d want to sit there very long, I attempted to set up the GoPro for a time lapse. There wasn’t much cloud action but you never know how things will turn out. In this case, not at all. I couldn’t get the camera to work in multi-shot mode. It kept emitting a series of beeps, showing a message that said “camera busy.” So no time lapse.

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Solitude Lake

By the time we got back to the trailhead, Victor could hardly walk. He may never want to hike with me again, but at least he had a memorable day 🙂

Blue Lake

Saturday, June 18

Black Lake is one of the most spectacular places in RMNP. I came to that belief very early in my exploration of the Park and I continue to feel this way having visited over half the named lakes in the Park. Only now I expand upon that thought: the upper part of Glacier Gorge, everything above the outlet of Black Lake, is simply incredible.

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Black Lake

When the Rocky Mountains were named, is was for places like this. Standing on the shores of any of the lakes in the area – Black, Blue, Green, “Italy”, Frozen – you are surrounded on three sides by vertical and nearly vertical slabs of solid rock, hundreds of feet high. The western flank of Longs, Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, The Spearhead, McHenrys, and Arrowhead all tower overhead; desolate, massive, beautiful.

I didn’t encounter much wildlife on this hike. Near the end of the boardwalk section just above Mills Lake I came across two elk – a cow and her calf – just ahead of me on the trail.

At the little waterfall, where the outlet of Blue Lake crosses the trail to Black Lake, I paused to install the microspikes. Quite a few hikers were on the trail, but only a few were properly equipped. I wouldn’t have gone much farther than here without the spikes, but I’m an admitted lightweight. In any case, the hike was a snow hike pretty much all the way from here to my destination. Only the higher reaches above Black Lake were snow free; above treeline and well bathed in sunshine.

Black Lake is still half frozen over. Climbing the trail along the main inlet to the lake it’s interesting to see how the snow clings to the steep walls of rock. Occasionally, large slabs of snow break off, slide down the rock to the steep snow and eventually come to rest in the meadow below.

The entire area is alive with flowing water. A ribbon of water, perhaps forty feet wide, pours down the sheer rock below McHenrys. Much of the water running to the valley below is heard but still unseen – flowing beneath the snow.

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Blue Lake

The weather today was unbeatable. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day. I’d say it was calm, but that’s not quite true. There was only just enough of a breeze to prevent the surface of the lake being a perfect mirror. Normally, with it this calm, the flying insects will be a nuisance but today there was no problem with mosquitoes or flies.

Increasingly, over the last few years, I’ve felt that I need to go farther from the trailhead, farther off the trail, to find any solitude. That certainly wasn’t the case today. I take the “Fire” trail to bypass Alberta Falls and save some distance. As this trail isn’t on maps or signs I almost never run into other hikers. And today I didn’t meet anybody above Black Lake until I was on my way down. There I met a group of four who were asking if there is a lake above us. “There are four lakes. But you won’t find any of them without a map.” They elected to stop where they were and enjoy the view.

Timings Up Down
Trailhead 08:38 AM 03:41 PM
Fire trail Jct 08:48 AM 03:30 PM
Mills/Loch Jct 09:13 AM 03:02 PM
Mills Lake 09:28 AM 02:45 PM
Black Lake 10:48 AM 01:17 PM
Blue Lake 11:35 AM 12:25 PM

Two Rivers Lake

Sunday, June 5

For the first hike of the year, my latest first hike in eight years, I headed toward Lake Helene. Either Helene or Two Rivers. I figured this would be an unremarkable hike. This is the third or fourth year in a row I’ve hiked this way at this time of year. Familiar territory and conditions.

It’s a short hike, probably the shortest I’ll take all year. That meant I could have a leisurely morning and didn’t need to arrive at the Bear Lake parking lot until about 9:30. I arrived pretty much on schedule to a nearly full lot. I parked in the third or fourth spot from the bottom of the lot. I was on the trail by 9:45.

My first encounter with other hikers was a bit of foreshadowing. Four young women were at the trail sign at the start of the Flattop/Odessa trail. Their discussion sounded a bit confused. I asked if they had things figured out. They didn’t. They were looking to go to Nymph Lake. I showed them Nymph on the map and told them how to get there, as that trail wasn’t on this map. They had no idea where they were and couldn’t make sense of the map.

Shortly after ten I arrived at the Flattop-Odessa trail junction. I stopped and put the spikes on. There was more snow here than any of the last few springs. About the only snowless patch from the junction on up is at a rock outcropping with a view of Bierstadt. Not far past that there’s a meadow. On winter hikes I’ve sometimes had trouble finding the route – the blowing snow erases most of the footprints. Plenty of steps to follow today, and here’s where we deviated from the summer route.

The summer trail crosses over to the flank of Joe Mills Mountain but the snow trail stayed on Flattop side. I soon caught up to three hikers: mom, college aged daughter, junior high son. Mom was in sneakers, none had spikes.

The daughter told me, “We’re going almost to Odessa. I was there yesterday and dropped something. We’re going to look for it.”

“You don’t have spikes? You made it to Odessa? I won’t go to Odessa this time of year even with spikes. Too steep.”

She confirmed that she’d been to Odessa.

A short while later I met a young couple coming down the trail. They didn’t have spikes and also said they made it to Odessa. The next hikers, two guys, said they wanted to go to Odessa but when they got to an overlook decided “no way.” They didn’t have spikes, either.

Continuing to follow the steps in the snow I soon arrived at the outlet of Two Rivers Lake. The trail stopped here in the rocks that will probably be under water in a matter of days. A few skiers had traversed the slope on the south side of the lake, and there were a couple sets of footprints, but this was the end of the line.

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It finally clicked – all those people who said they went to Odessa had no idea that they’d only been to Two Rivers. No official trails go to Two Rivers or Helene; they’re not on any signs. The only lake on any of the signs they’d seen was Odessa. Of course they thought they were at Odessa. Only about a third of the people I’d met had the slightest idea where they really were.

I managed to take only a handful of photos with the SLR before the battery died. I was disappointed, but not surprised. It’s been a while since I used the camera. It was breakfast before I thought to charge the batteries. I only charged one battery for a short time. But it’s not like I don’t already have pictures of place, no big deal.

I found a nice log to sit on, got comfortable, tucked into lunch, and proceeded to watch the world go by. Before long, a small bird arrived on a branch very nearby. Small, gray with a white head and black collar. Black stripes on the eyes, not horizontal like a raccoon but vertical. I don’t know my birds; I think this was a White-throated Sparrow. She sat on this limb and fluffed and preened. Spread our her feathers, rearranged a few with her beak. Birds never pose that nicely for me when I have a working camera. She flew off after a while but did come back later. She spent a lot of time on the ground looking for food.

Also notable was the mated pair of ducks that were feeding in the shallows. They motored past me to the outlet where they ran their beaks back and forth under the surface and occasionally went deep, putting their butts up in the air. They were the only two ducks at the lake.They eventually worked their way back past me, occasionally bobbing their tails up.

I stayed at the lake for forty minutes, had the place all to myself. The weather was great, bright sunshine, scattered clouds, calm. As the clouds moved eastward they darkened a bit, incipient scattered showers.

When I started back, I found it easy to exactly retrace my steps. I saw no other hiker using spikes, so my prints were obvious. That lasted until I met a couple hiking up. They were “just going to the lake”, Odessa presumably. Between the two of them, they only obscured about a third of my footprints. Then I met the hikers who had spikes.

As expected, I crossed paths with more people as I progressed down the trail. At the clearing, where our route regained the path of summer trail, a group of snowshoers were just leaving the trail and beginning to head up the side of Flattop. Just before seeing them I passed a couple of women who were switching to hiking boots, one from skis the other from snowboard.

I stopped and enjoyed my plum at the Bierstadt overlook. The plum was nearly perfect – skin still crisp, the flesh at maximum juiciness. Sweet and flavorful.

A group of five young guys approached the Flattop trail junction from Bear Lake as I got there from Two Rivers. They turned to go up Flattop wearing flat soled canvas shoes. “You’ll be hiking on snow from here on, and you’re a long way from any kind of view!” But they were undeterred. I wonder how far they went before they turned around.

In the end, I didn’t get the expected “unremarkable” hike. It was another beautiful day in the park. Even though I’ve been through this area repeatedly, the snow cover and altered route breathed freshness into this visit. I found solitude after a short, easy hike and enjoyed watching the birds.

Iceberg Lake

Saturday, September 26

The first Saturday of autumn dawned clear and cloudless and looked to be another beautiful day. I didn’t have any plans.

Some time ago, I was browsing Foster’s guide looking for lakes I haven’t visited that aren’t found at the end of long hikes. Iceberg Lake jumped out at me – it’s only two tenths of a mile from the Lava Cliffs parking area on Trail Ridge Road. As Foster puts it, “millions of people view this lake” but very few visit it because there’s no trail. Today would be an ideal day to go there.

After breakfast I called Jerry. He also had no plans, so he agreed to go with me. As the journey to Iceberg Lake hardly qualifies as a hike, the outing would be more of a drive to view the turning of the aspen.

All the local news channels have been touting the aspen for the last few days, so I expected quite a bit of traffic. I wasn’t disappointed – the roads were packed. On the way to Estes Park, we seldom were anywhere near the speed limit. Arriving in Estes, traffic was backed up all the way across the lake. As we were headed to Trail Ridge instead of Bear Lake, I made the mistake of actually going through town. I was thinking I’d take US 34, but traffic that way was pretty bad so we went right through the center of town.

The lines into the Park on 36 weren’t too bad; we were third in line in the express lane. The card reader there was acting a bit wonky and each driver had to swipe their card multiple times to get the gate to go up. While I was struggling with it, a woman from the car behind us ran up: “Mind if I get a picture of your car?”

There aren’t really that many aspen on the way to Estes or in the Park, so I suspect folks were out more for a pleasant drive than to see the autumn colors. Signs at the junction with the Bear Lake road indicated that, not only was the Bear Lake parking lot full, but the park-and-ride lot was full as well.

From the entrance to the Park all the way up to Rainbow Curve, traffic moved pretty slowly, which was okay with us. The weather was as close to perfect as you could ask – clear, calm, sunny, and not hot. Our only concern was that all the parking areas were packed and had people waiting for parking spots. Of course, Lava Cliffs is well above treeline and there aren’t any aspen reasonably visible from there and we had our choice of parking spots.

Before I could get my boots on, an SUV pulled into the empty spot next to us. A guy wearing a Wisconsin Badgers cap on got out and said “Somebody’s a Packer’s fan!” My normal retort to this is “Puck the Fackers”, but I was relatively polite instead and just shook my head and gave an emphatic “No!”

The descent to the lake is pretty straight-forward. We worked our way to a steep grassy ramp, avoiding the worst of the loose footing. The ramp leads down to a pile of loose volcanic rocks. We zig-zagged our way down this talus to the lake and found a spot on the shore of the lake, out of sight from the parking area above. From the looks of things, I expect show covers our picnic spot until quite late in the summer.

To our surprise, although we were quite close to the road we could hear no traffic noise. We sat there for over an hour, watching the world go by. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I didn’t bother running the camera for a time lapse. It’s too bad I didn’t have this calm weather last week, but so it goes.

Given the amount of traffic we faced on the way up, I was expecting to crawl all the way back to Lyons. Evidently, our stay was brief compared to most other folks and we were in traffic that moved more or less at the speed limit all the way down..

It was a nice leisurely day – no need to be on the road before dawn, a hike that was less than a thousand paces each direction, and a pleasant drive to view the aspen.

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.

Fay Lakes

Sunday, September 6

I wanted to visit Fay Lakes last year. In October I got to the bridge over the Roaring River to find that it had been washed out in the previous year’s floods. There was a log that I could have used, but it was covered in frost. So I chickened out and went to Lawn Lake instead.

A couple weeks ago I asked the forum at ProTrails if the bridge has been replaced. It hasn’t, but one hiker said there was an easy crossing about 250 steps upstream. As it turns out, the water is low enough I was able to easily cross right where the bridge used to be. There are warning signs posted: “BRIDGE OUT – Flood Damage – River Crossing Not Recommended”. Hazards include risk of injury and drowning. Not so much in the first week of September – biggest risk is a wet foot.

Once past the Roaring River, the trail climbs to the crest of a ridge. There’s a section of forest here that fascinates me. I haven’t been anywhere else like it. The ground is covered with deadfall and dead pine needles, everything gray. I’d guess just about every place in the region has burned at least once in the last 500 years, but this one small area may have gone twice that long without.

Rewind a bit. I hit the trail a few minutes before 8. I had to park in the smaller lot at the base of the horse trail. I’m guessing I just missed the last spot in the main trailhead parking by a few minutes. Another hiker started at the same time I did. He was headed to Ypsilon Lake so we hiked together. We made good time, passing a few hikers before crossing the river and a few more just after. I neglected to get his name. He was visiting from northern Illinois. He makes a trip to RMNP every year about this time for bicycling and hiking.

We made it to Ypsilon Lake at about ten. I asked if he wanted to continue on to Fay Lakes with me, but he declined. I told him I thought we made great time; he said my pace challenged him a bit on the steeper parts. Based on how much bicycling he does, I’m not sure I challenged him all that much.

Foster says to “bushwhack northeast through dense forest” to Lower Fay Lake, but that it “is easier said than done.” Somebody has put a fair amount of effort into placing cairns along the route. Even so, it is challenging at times to follow. I lost it for a while on the way up but did manage it on the way down. The route climbs a shallow gully for a while; I regained the faint trail here and followed it to the lower lake.

Lower Fay Lake is pretty much what I expected. It’s small a small forest lake with no spectacular views. At this time of year the grass around it is dry, but is certainly quite marshy earlier in the season. The faint trail disappears entirely here; I didn’t see a single wildlife trail or cairn from here on.

Between the lower and middle lakes there is a section of dense forest that was some slow going. After that I reached the stream connecting the two lakes and followed it straight up. It got steep in one place and I had to scramble up a few rocks in one spot. I refilled my water here on the return trip.

Middle Fay Lake sits at the foot of Fairchild Mountain’s gentle southern slope. To the west, the easternmost buttress of Ypsilon Mtn thrusts itself into the sky at a jaunty angle above a grassy ramp. The summit of Fairchild is actually farther away than the summit of Ypsilon, but Ypsilon is much more dramatic.

From here, it’s a simple walk up the grassy ramp, about a quarter of a mile and two hundred feet of elevation, to reach Upper Fay Lake. I crossed the stream about half way up; the stream is so small now that it doesn’t take a long stride to do it. This puts me at the northeastern shore of the long and narrow lake. The water level in the lake is quite low, leaving a mosaic of vegetation and voids.

I found a nice picnic spot near the south eastern shore. After I ate I explored the area. There was a nice view of Fairchild and Middle Fay from the ridge behind me. To the southeast a grassy ramp rises and the map indicates that the other side is much like this one. Foster indicates a route directly back to Ypsilon this way. I considered going back that way but decided to retrace my steps.

After an hour I headed back. The walk from Upper to Middle is quite pleasant – grassy, with open views and easy walking. Most of the day is spent in the forest, with only glimpses of the peaks so I particularly enjoyed the dramatic vistas. There is no trail, but it’s easy to see where the big animals have been. Following the bent grass is like playing connect the dots with deposits of pellets.

The section between the Middle and Lower lakes is almost not so pleasant. It starts with the only part of the hike where I had to use my hands. I refilled the water bottle here, then negotiated a dense section of forest. I never had to deal with willow on this hike, but this section of forest was criss-crossed with maze of deadfall.

Approaching the Lower lake the terrain levels off and transitions to grass, and, finally, the marshy shores of the lake. This hike would be much different in July; much of my route would have been marshy or spongy. I wouldn’t call today dry, but there is little flowing or standing water and the lakes are low.

At the Lower lake I find the trail to Ypsilon. On the way out I managed to stay on the trail. There’s a stretch where the cairns are quite close together and yet sometimes challenging to follow. I both appreciate all the work that went into placing the cairns and wish they’d done more. I felt a nice little satisfaction when I got to Ypsilon Lake without losing the thread.

I took a fruit break at Ypsilon, chatted with a couple of hikers there. One saw my Fitbit; she was wearing one as well. Back at the river crossing I met a couple I had passed on the way up, not far from here. The crossing was giving her some consternation. I crossed the same way I did in the morning and he followed me. Until he couldn’t – “Your stride is just a couple inches longer than mine!”

They asked if I was the guy who hiked to Fay Lakes. They’d talked to my companion on the way up. They, David and Deborah, are from Cincinnati and spend a couple weeks in Estes Park every year. They’ve been doing it for eighteen years. They make sure to take a lot of walks in the weeks before their trip, so they’re prepared for hiking.

I was back to the car by 4:30. Traffic was horrible. Leaving Estes I wanted to get around a trailer (just because), but an SUV got in my way. If I’d have gotten around the trailer, I’d have been happier. The car holding everything up was in front of him. I’d have easily passed one slow car, but I had no chance being fourth in line. The slow guy never went the speed limit and was often twenty below it. Oblivious to the line of cars that stretched out of sight behind him, he never considered using one of the many slow-vehicle pull-outs.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Cony Lake, Attempt #3

Saturday, August 8

Cony Lake sits lies at the upper end of the Cony Creek drainage, south of Mount Copeland at the southern edge of the Park. Starting at the Finch Lake trailhead, it’s a 9.2 mile hike climbing over 3,000 feet. If you start at the Allenspark trailhead instead, you save a mile each way and five hundred feet of elevation.

Two years ago I made it as far as Pear Lake. I took a break there to eat some fruit. After the break I hiked up the bench to the south where I came across a pond. Here I realized I’d abandoned the camera at Pear Lake, so I had to turn around. It was just as well – clouds rolled in from the east, just feet above the lake. Last year I got as far as Upper Hutcheson Lake. I struggled through a mass of willow only to see snow covered slopes on the other side of the lake. Between my lack of spikes in mid-July and losing time in the willow, it was an easy decision to stop there.

Third time’s a charm, right? Saving eleven percent of the distance and fifteen percent of the climb will make it easier. I’m going nearly a month later in the season this time, and I have a better idea of the lay of the land. I felt good about my prospects.

We’ve been having hot, clear weather lately but Saturday’s weather forecast degraded every day all week. It would be cool with a good chance for rain. I hit the road at 5:30, planning to be on the trail by 7:00. Low clouds obscured all the peaks. Meeker, Longs, and Pagoda were mostly clear, but everything to the south was in a layer of clouds with a ceiling not far above treeline. Above that, blue skies to the west and a layer of high clouds to the east.

IMG_8642sThis was my first visit to the Allenspark trailhead. I couldn’t see the parking lot on the satellite images, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to park. It’s a bit over a mile up a dirt road and if I couldn’t park there I’d have to use the Finch Lake trailhead. There’s room for a dozen cars in the trees, but the entrance has a giant rut. I pondered for a second and gave it a try. It was sketchy, but I made it in without scraping bottom.

I was on schedule: on the trail promptly at seven. Another solo hiker arrived in the parking lot after me; he passed me on the trail before I’d done a mile. I asked him where he was headed. He said “Pear for sure, maybe a bit farther.” I told him I was headed to Cony. He said perhaps we’d see each other again, but he was moving at a much quicker pace than I was managing.

From the trailhead to the Finch Lake trail junction just below the Ouzel burn scar is 1.8 miles. It’s been nearly forty years since the fire. It’s no longer an area of dead sentinels and wildflowers. The new trees are getting bigger, but it’s not forest yet so the spectacular view is relatively unobscured.

There were very few other hikers. In the six miles to Pear Lake, I ran into eight or ten folks hiking out and a few more who were still at the Pear Creek campsite. I did catch up to the other hiker, Jason, between Finch and Pear. He put the afterburners on after his break and he was quickly out of sight.

A cacophony of wildflowers

A cacophony of wildflowers

Foster says, at Pear Lake “follow the unimproved but recognizable trail”. The first time I tried Cony, I went on the other side of the lake. The second, I followed the trail along the shore until it faded out, then headed up. I was thinking this was the unimproved but recognizable trail. I found out on the way back that I wasn’t even close. Anyway, I’d been here before so it was no trouble to find Lower Hutcheson Lake.

According to Foster’s map, the route is to cross Cony Creek just above the lower lake, then recross at the outlet of the middle lake. The crossing at the lower lake was easy – the stream has split into two narrower channels. Up slope a ways I found myself blocked by krummholz and willow. After squeezing through one gap I noticed my water bottle was missing. It must have fallen out right here.

But no. A thoIMG_9691srough search yielded nothing. Clearly, I lost it earlier. I made my way back down, not exactly sure how I’d come up. I think I was backtracking correctly, but did I go on this side of this clump of bushes, or that side? Shortly before I was back to where I crossed the second portion of the creek I saw Jason on the opposite hillside. I hollered at him to hold up.

I made my way over to him, told him I’d lost my water. I’d have to turn back with no water. He kindly gave me a liter of water. He was going to keep going for a while so I got out my map for us to consult. I have it marked with Foster’s route. I told him I’d look for my water bottle a little while longer before giving up. I found it almost immediately, sitting on the bank of the creek.

Following Foster’s route we found ourselves back where was when I realized I’d lost my water. It didn’t take long for us to decide to switch back to the north side of the creek. A couple minutes after crossing we found a nice trail. This dumped us on to a series of rock slabs. We were able to follow a few cairns, but that was it. From here, it’s a good idea to climb upslope a bit to avoid the krummholz and willow. Above the middle lake, Jason called it quits. He’d told his wive he’d be back at a specific time, and this was all the farther he could go.

FeatherI had no fun in the willow along the north shore of Upper Hutcheson last year, so I decided I’d stay higher up on the slope and avoid it. Foster’s route was on the south shore, but her route below was wrong and I no longer trusted it. So off I went, climbing slowly but steadily up the slope of Mount Copeland as I worked my way west. It didn’t take long to realize I still had quite a way to climb to avoid the krummholz. I paused to assessed the situation.

The north shore is a longer route than the south shore, as I’d need to go south to get to Cony. There was much less willow on the south; it looked like I could go right along the water and avoid it. If I went straight downslope where I was, it was a pretty easy route. The willow weren’t too thick there.

On the south shore, at this time of year with the water low, it looked like I could hop across the rocks right at the waters edge and avoid the bushes. It almost worked – I made it quite a distance but right at the end the rocks were too far apart, and the water had gone from a few inches deep to well over boot height. So, another short backtrack.

I finally find myself at the south western end of Upper Hutcheson Lake, just a few tenths of a mile away, at the top of a four hundred feet climb. I find myself at the base of a vast sea of willow. I either have to backtrack to go over the outcropping on my left or wade through the willow. It’s 11:30. I clearly won’t make Cony by noon. The sky is blue to the west, but some of the clouds to the east might drop some rain. I decide to abort the assault on Cony Lake and have my picnic here.

I haven’t replaced the tripod yet, but I did remember to bring the shutter timer this time. I found a nice rock to use as a base and set the camera. I faced a bit of a dilemma. To the west,  small clouds were coming over the divide then boiling away but the foreground not interesting. To the east the clouds were higher and slower moving and the lake is in the foreground, Too bad I only had the one camera.

It was cool and windy. I was in sunlight for the most part but had little shelter from the wind. I sat in the lee of a small boulder and ate while the camera clicked away. After a short while I realized I didn’t hear the camera shutter. Was I too far, was the wind blowing the sound away from me? No, the camera had stopped with “Err 99”. I’ve had this happen occasionally. Just turn it off and back on and it’s cleared. It ran only for a few more minutes before getting the error again.

After restarting it the second time, I started to have second thoughts as to what I should be shooting. I let it run a while longer before switching it to the west. Then, of course, those clouds seemed to be going away. Have I made a mistake? Ah, well. You never know what you’re going to get.

IMG_9684sTaking an hour break gives you a lot of time to take in the surroundings. It was windy and the nearby willows not so much rustled as hissed, at times almost loud enough to drown out the sound of falling water. I wasn’t hearing the inlet in the willows but a waterfall on the canyon wall two hundred feet up. There was quite a bit of water coming down but the talus twenty feet below the bottom of the falls was dry. From the looks of it, it’s always dry, even in max flow.

The windbreaker was beginning to feel inadequate after an hour of lounging. It was time to pack up and get moving again. My next navigational problem was getting back to the other side of the creek. I wanted to avoid the willow as much as possible. Perhaps Foster’s route here on the south side was correct after all. Being above the landscape gives a much different perspective on things than being in the landscape, looking up.

There’s a small pond below the upper lake. With water levels so low, it’s easy to skirt the southern shore to a nice crossing to a grassy slope on the other side. Easy, peasy.

It was here that I started to reflect on the day so far. I lost my water bottle and had to backtrack to retrieve it. I made a few navigational errors and I didn’t achieve my objective. Instead, I sat at the edge of a beautiful alpine lake for an hour and watched the world go by. Okay, the camera futzed out a couple of times. But all in all, there’s nothing to complain about. It’s just another beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Above Pear Lake I managed to stumble upon the trail Foster mentions. It’s quite well defined here and going is easy. I soon see Pear Lake below me – I’m well above the shore. And yet the trail refuses to descend. How can this trail not go down to the lake? I cut cross-country. About halfway from the trail to the shore I come across a nice outcropping of rocks with a view and decide it’s time to take a break.

It’s peach season. Lots of people think of Georgia when they think of peaches, but I think the best peaches are grown on the western slope of Colorado. I have one of these Palisades peaches with me. This particular example is top rate: perfectly ripe and perfectly juicy; sweet and full of flavor. I always say food tastes better at alpine lakes, but this peach would be one of the finest peaches ever, even in my kitchen.

So I’m luxuriating in this wonderful peach, enjoying the now clear and brilliant blue skies above. What could be better than this? As I’m eating the peach, I spot an eagle soaring over the lake, fishing. She circled a few times then dove. The water erupted in a big splash and momentarily she arose, the silver of a fish clearly evident in her claws. Then she made a couple of wide circles above the lake, as if to show off her kill, before heading to the trees on the other side.

Bear left for Hutcheson

Bear left for Hutcheson

Break over, I got back on the move. There’s a hitching post where the trail arrives at the lake. It’s here that you get the trail to Hutcheson Lakes. This is the trail I was just on. I walked right by it at least twice without figuring it out.

My next stop was the stream crossing at the Pear Creek campsite. I needed to replenish the water supply. Not ten steps on the other side of the creek I stumbled over a rock on the trail. I do this countless times each hike; it’s never a big deal, I never lose my balance. This time I “went over the handlebars” as Michael might say. My left foot slipped, I went down on my left knee and put my hands out to stop my fall. My left hand slipped as well and I ended up on my elbow. This resulted in an ugly abrasion on my left forearm.

It stung, and it was bloody. At least the stream was right there. I had it washed off in no time and used one of my paper towels to stanch the flow. I basically lost the skin along the bony part of the forearm – five or six inches long and a quarter inch wide. I took a couple of ibuprofen and was back under locomotion ten minutes later.

Most of the day I’d been shrugging off all the minor mishaps – I was having a great time in spite of losing my water bottle, the camera acting flaky, minor navigational issues. I’m in a beautiful place and it’s hard not to enjoy it. But the gods wanted to test my limits and had that rock grab my toe.

Chief's Head and Pagoda

Chief’s Head and Pagoda. From left to right, see the chief’s forehead, nose, and chin. Pagoda would be his pointy bra.

I was back to the car by 5:20. Turns out there are two entrances to the parking lot; the southern one lacks obstacles and I was out without any additional drama. Even though it was nice and sunny, it wasn’t hot so I headed down the road topless. Traffic wasn’t bad and it was a pleasant drive home.

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.