Spruce Canyon

I started plotting this summer’s backpacking trips about a year ago. One thing I decided after the last couple trips is that, for where I want to go, spending one night in the backcountry isn’t sufficient. Another thing was that doing zone camping is less than ideal because you have to move your camp from night to night. So this year, my three trips are all two nighters in official camp sites. Hike in on the first day, go wherever I’m trying to get to on the second, and hike out the third.

The plan for this trip was to spend two nights at Spruce Lake and spend an entire day in Spruce Canyon, hoping to visit four lakes: Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, Lake Irene, and Sprague Tarn. In preparation, I had searched for descriptions of the area with very little luck. I found the report of a guy who wanted to summit Stones Peak but changed his mind due to weather. He had a few pictures of the Canyon, but not much description..

So I spent a lot of time studying the map. I had a route planned: about three miles each way, through unknown terrain, and a sprinkling of relativly steep sections to deal with. I’ve done enough off-trail hiking to, I think, have an idea how long it might take to get from one place to another. In this case, I decided I’d be able to go about a mile an hour, and it looked from the map that I’d be able to skirt the steepest bits. I might get a bit out of my comfort zone, but as long as I had a hiking companion I figured this would be a challenging hike, but with a decent chance of reaching my goals.

Gordon agreed to go with me. I hiked with Gordon last year. He races bicycles with some degree of success and thus is in much better shape than I am.

After my last backpacking trip I decided that I needed to buy a backpack. First I used a borrowed one, than one that was given to me. I didn’t particularly like the first one, and the second was too small. So a couple weeks ago I went to REI and bought one.

August 29

Since we were only going to Spruce Lake, about 4.8 miles and a fifteen hundred foot climb, we didn’t need to get to the trailhead early. My only concern was getting a parking spot right at the trailhead. If we couldn’t get a spot there, we might have to park at the bus stop and walk an extra three quarters of a mile.

We left my house by ten, stopped for an early lunch at The Other Side, stopped at the back country office to pick up the permit for the next trip (in two weeks), and headed to the trail. My concern about getting a spot was in vain. Enough folks hike to the Pool or Fern Falls that there’s some turnover in the parking lot and there were a few empty spots. We put boots on the trail at 12:30.

The only delay we faced getting there was an accident on Pole Hill, just before the overlook. A mail truck went through the guardrail and was hanging precipitously off the edge. I’m sure that was a brown-pants moment for the driver.

I’ve described the hike to Spruce Lake before, so I won’t dwell on it here. In the past, I always enjoyed the last section of trail, from just below Fern Lake to Spruce Lake. It’s an unimproved trail with a fair amount of character. Carrying a 35lb backpack changes the character of it a bit. With the backpack I certainly prefer the nice, wide pack trails. With short breaks at Fern Falls and Fern Lake, we reached our campsite a few minutes before four.

To now, I never thought Spruce Lake is anything special. There are many lakes in the Park in spectacular settings. Spruce Lake is not one of them. But Spruce Lake is not without its charms. It is absolutely loaded with fish. Sitting on the shore you can see the greenback cutthroat trout swimming within arms reach. A bit before dusk they were rising, breaking the surface with a soft “plop”, the expanding ripples marking the spot. And at any moment there were maybe two hundred sets of these ripples. That’s a lot of fish!

The fish weren’t the only creatures in the lake. A mother moose and her yearling calf were there. She, wading belly deep where the tops of the long grasses floated, repeatedly submerging her head to pull the grass by the roots, then shaking the water off, sometimes winding the grass around her snout. Her calf was lounging on the shore, mostly hidden. About the time Gordon wanted to get closer for a better view, they decided they’d had enough and moving up the hill away from the lake.

August 30

I was expecting my alarm to go off at six, but I’d forgotten that I’d turned it off. But we weren’t in any particular hurry. Even leaving camp at eight, if we managed a mile an hour we’d have plenty of time to spend at the lakes. So, off we were at eight.

We climbed to about 9800′ and contoured around Castle Rock. Rather than descend to Spruce Creek, we continued along the slope working our way west. When encountering obstacles, we typically climbed above them rather then descending. Making any progress was very challenging. The forest is quite dense, with a lot of deadfall. We came across rock slabs that I was unwilling to cross. We crossed talus fields that sometimes bordered on scree.

At about 10,400′ we descended to the creek and crossed it. My original plan was to cross the outlet of Hourglass to work our way up a gentler slope. But the terrain in front of us was a sea of willow. Gordon suggested we stick to the forest and climb straight up. About four hundred feet up, we emerged onto a large meadow. Being the last week of August, it was mostly dry, but generally it is a boggy marsh. We walked on the firmer bits of earth, but these were still quite spongy, even if dry.

At about 10,900′.

The outlet of Hourglass falls into this meadow from the west. The stream is running at only a fraction of its full flow; the rocks in the stream bed discolored a rusty brown, but water running over half the width, or maybe a bit less. It was fairly easy climbing up alongside the stream, but I think it would be much more difficult when the stream is in full song. After a couple of false summits we found ourselves on the eastern shore of Hourglass Lake.

It was 12:26.

That’s nearly four and a half hours to travel about two and a quarter miles.

Standing at the outlet of Hourglass Lake

We took a short break and continued our climb, looking for Rainbow Lake next. We worked our way through a maze of krummholz until we found ourselves on an outcropping with a fabulous view down the canyon: the Fern Lake fire scar, Moraine Park, and Lake Estes in the distance.

There looked to be one more fairly steep climb to the next bench and Rainbow Lake. I made an executive decision. It was after one now, and I had no expectation that the return trip would be any easier or quicker than our journey here. I called it quits. Gordon said he wanted to check out that last climb and I told him to go for it. I’d meet him back at Hourglass.

Spruce Canyon

He’s so much faster than I am, he’d made it to Rainbow Lake and returned to Hourglass in the time it took me to get back to Hourglass. Granted, I made a bit of a wrong turn and ended up having to navigate some willow. And Gordon admitted to running part of the way. Gordon is somewhat more comfortable on steep terrain than I am and he said it was a challenge for him. Based on this, even if there was no time constraint, I would have had difficulty reaching Rainbow and the other lakes.

In any event, we headed down from Hourglass at about two. Gordon said something about retracing our route in; I said I didn’t expect we’d be able to, but that any reasonable route would work for me. We did cross Spruce Creek at the same spot, and once or twice Gordon thought we passed by this spot on the way up. I wasn’t convinced. For the most part, we followed an entirely different route. Afterwards, Gordon said he thought the return route was worse than the way in. I won’t argue.

We crossed large talus fields then found ourselves descending a couple hundred feet down a gully. Back in dense forest we came to a point were we could see the stream again. I figured we had another hour to go, so I went down and filled my water bottle (for the third time today). I intended to climb back to where Gordon was, but he followed me down to the water a few minutes later and we continued our trek from nearer the stream.

When we’d descended to below about 9800′, we left the stream and worked our way around Castle Rock toward Spruce Lake. In this area we found a few cairns, both in the morning and on our way back. They were scattered so far apart as to be of little or no help to us, and we found them only in the vicinity of Castle Rock.

It was in here somewhere that I got stung by a bee. I haven’t been stung by a bee since I was about four years old. This little fucker got me on my right wrist. It hurt like hell and swelled up a bit. And I don’t know what I did to deserve it.

We returned to our campsite at 6:15. I was spent. It took us more than ten hours to go about five miles. It was physically challenging for me, and due to our slow progress, mentally challenging as well. Had I been on my own, I’d have turned back well before reaching Hourglass Lake. I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t reach the other lakes, especially given that we were so close.

Given the grueling nature of the hike, I’m not likely to make another attempt. Quite a number of times during the day I found myself asking “What am I doing here? I do this for fun, and very little of this is fun.”

Gordon packed in a six pack of beer. We’d had two of them last night and he put the other four in the lake to chill. He reported that our moose friends were back, browsing around the rock we’d sat on earlier. I went down to the water to watch them. The yearling nearly stepped on our bag of beers. They began working their way towards me. I didn’t really want to be closer to the calf than the mother, so I bushwhacked back to the camp site.

All the afternoon clouds disappeared and we enjoyed the starry night skies. After having two beers before sacking out, I was not surprised that I had to get up in the middle of the night. The Milky Way wasn’t visible when we retired, but it was out in full glory at 1:30.

See more pictures of Hourglass Lake.

August 31

We took our time breaking camp and were on the trail at 8:30. We made it back nearly to the Fern Lake trail junction when I realized I’d left my camera at camp. Gordon volunteered to “run back and get it”. I was selfish and let him. I figured it would take me forty five minutes without the backpack for the round trip. He was back in twenty six (“a nice warmup,” he says). We took short breaks at Fern Falls and the Pool and were back to the trailhead at 11:30.

It’s not a long hike down from Spruce Lake, and the day had not really started to heat up by the time we were done. But I was not exactly moving fast. The fatigue in my legs served as a constant reminder of yesterday’s struggles. My Fitbit tried to tell me I hiked more than twelve miles yesterday. It often overstates distances when I’m hiking. But it sure felt like I’d hiked much more than twelve miles the day before. I’m blaming my fatigue on all the talus we covered, particularly the sections where we were descending steeply. So I didn’t exactly set a blistering pace.

Many times this summer I’ve commented about the crowds in the Park. I think today was the extreme in my experience. The line of cars at the entrance station went all the way to Highway 66. I’d never seen it go past the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center before. And the entire way from Estes to Lyons the traffic heading to Estes was an unbroken line of cars. Assuming an average of 200′ between cars (but it was often much less), over 21 miles that would be 550 cars.

On Reflection

I’m pretty sore right now. I have a blister on my big toe and it hurts a little to go down the stairs in the house. I knew it would be a challenging hike before I started. I only made it to one of the four lakes, and the others were quite close. At times I wasn’t having very much fun. But I’m glad I did it.

I think the new backpack is an improvement over the others. My legs are sore but not my shoulders.

Maybe I should start a list of RMNP lakes that I’ll never visit.

Loomis Lake

Saturday June 16

Loomis Lake sits in a cirque at the top of the southernmost tributary of Spruce Creek. It is surrounded on three sides by the steep cliffs of Gabletop Mountain. The official trail ends at Spruce Lake. Although there is an unofficial trail from Spruce to Loomis, it can be challenging to find.

There’s a large storm system entering the state and so we expected cooler temperatures and a good chance of rain in the afternoon. When I hit the trail, the sky was mostly cloudy and there was very little wind. The main parking area at the Fern Lake trailhead was full, so I parked at the first overflow that’s just a few yards away. While I was putting on my boots, two cars pulled out, and by the time I got back to the car mid-afternoon there were plenty of empty spaces. I wonder if it ever really got full.

The first section of the trail parallels the Big Thompson River for 1.7 miles to the Pool. It’s easy hiking and I made great time. At the Pool there’s a trail junction that has given me a little trouble in the past. Somehow I once managed to misread the sign and ended up on the trail to Cub Lake and had to backtrack.

From the Pool to Fern Falls the trail climbs about four hundred feet. The Fern Lake fire didn’t do much damage to this area. The fire did cross the trail in a few spots but you can hardly tell any more. Occasionally the trail affords views of the opposite slope where the fire was intense erasing that part of the forest, north of the Big Thompson and south of Trail Ridge Road.

When I arrived at Fern Falls I was a bit surprised by the quantity of water in the stream. I’ve been here quite a few times but don’t recall seeing this much water before. I’m thinking this must be the earliest in the season that I’ve hiked here. If all my trips were in July, August, or September, that would account for the difference in the flow.

Although it’s another seven hundred feet or so climb from Fern Falls to Fern Lake, this part of the trail always seemed easier to me than the part between the falls and the Pool. There aren’t any views along this section of trail so it’s a bit pedestrian. Going to Spruce Lake we don’t actually make it to Fern Lake. It’s an easy side trip, though, being about a hundred yards after the trail junction.

To this point, I’d only encountered six or eight other hikers. But just before the Spruce Lake trail junction I got passed by some trail runners. A group of three came by, talking as they ran. If they could still hold a conversation, I figure they need to run faster! Then a couple more passed me. And then even more. It was a veritable marathon.

Turning up the Spruce Lake trail, I left the sudden crowd. I really like the trail from Fern Lake to Spruce Lake. It has character. For long stretches, it hardly qualifies as a trail as it crosses a number of rocky sections. It’s not so rocky that the trail needs to be marked by cairns, but there are a couple of prominent blazes posted on the trees. Spruce Lake is only about a hundred feet higher than Fern Lake. Even with the trail crossing a bit of a ridge between the two lakes there’s very little elevation gain.

Although the trail remains in forest, approaching Spruce Lake you get glimpses of Castle Rock and the Gables. The outlet end of Spruce Lake is fairly marshy and has been closed to hikers for a number of years. This area is the habitat of the boreal toad. I don’t think the toad is endangered, but it may be threatened. So the park service has posted maps here indicating what’s off limits. Anybody entering the area may be fined.

The trail officially ends here at the campsites. However, there are social trails that thread along the northwest shore. The lake is popular for fishing and these trails provide access at least as far as the inlet stream. To get to Loomis Lake, we need to stay on the west side of this stream, so I don’t know if these trails continue farther around the lake.

Here’s where the challenge starts. The trail is faint near Spruce Lake. We’ll be climbing about 400′ in an eighth of a mile, so it’s pretty steep here. I gained and lost the trail a couple of times before finding it for good. After this steep climb the terrain levels out on the approach to Primrose Pond. The first time I was here was in late August, and the water level was about two feet lower. Navigation was easy – I could walk along the dry edges of the pond.

Primrose Pond

In mid-June, though, the pond is at its fullest. And, of course, the trail pretty much peters out. I found a series of cairns that led me on the north side of the pond but before long it became obvious that this was not the best way to go. I backtracked and crossed the outlet and bushwhacked along the southern shores, recrossed the stream, and found the trail again.

The trail dumps you out onto large granite slabs that have no access to the shores of Lake Loomis. The first time I visited, I was content to sit here to watch the world go by while I had my picnic. This time I wanted to get down to the water’s edge, so I crossed the outlet steam and scrambled across a section of boulders spilling from Gabletop Mountain and forming the southern shore of the lake.

I relaxed here for about an hour. This was not only a break from walking, but a break from the constant attack of mosquitoes. I’m not generally bothered by the critters and so I don’t carry mosquito repellent. Sometimes I regret that habit for a few minutes when I pause for a sip of water in dense forest. Today was different. For most of the hike I was besieged by them. I swatted at them constantly. Generally I’d smack them before they had a chance to feed on me; even so, I still managed to have bloody spots all over my arms and hands.

Loomis Lake

Sitting on my rock by the lake I couldn’t help but notice the gathering clouds. That’s not exactly correct: the clouds were ever present. But now their nature appeared to be changing; getting darker, pregnant with rain. Clearly it was getting time to hit the trail for the hike out.

I’ve said before that I often hear voices when I’m alone at these lakes. I’ve decided that they’re generally delusions. Today, though, I didn’t hear voices but breaking branches. A few moments after crossing the outlet I caught a glimpse of other hikers. It was just a glimpse, though. They weren’t close to the trail and I never saw them again.

Nearing Spruce Lake on the way down I managed to lose the trail. Usually I can manage to follow these faint trails once I find them. Today I think I lost the trail on the return farther from Spruce Lake than when I managed to find it on the way up. This time I found myself atop rock outcroppings a couple of times and had to work my way more side to side than downhill to find an easy way.

Satre famously said, “Hell is other people.” When I got back to Spruce Lake I found it inhabited by about eight people. I could hear them well before I gained the lake. They were a noisy bunch, yelling and laughing, splashing in the water. One had even brought a small boombox which could be heard clearly from quite a distance. It’s easy for me to get spoiled on my hikes. Aside from the brief non-encounter with the hikers at Loomis, I had had about three and a half hours of solitude.

It started sprinkling about when I lost the trail above Spruce Lake. It never really rained. From Spruce Lake back to about Fern Falls it alternated between no rain, a light sprinkle, and a thin drizzle. It was never heavy enough for me to bother with my rain jacket.

There are a few lakes nearby that I haven’t visited yet. Hourglass Lake, Rainbow Lake, and Irene Lake all feed Spruce Creek. A fair amount of bushwhacking looks to be involved in reaching these three from Spruce Lake, but I think if I get an early enough start they may be reachable for me on a day hike. I won’t know until I try.

Timetable

There Back
Trailhead 07:40 AM 02:37 PM
The Pool 08:11 AM 02:00 PM
Fern Falls 08:35 AM 01:30 PM
Spruce Lake trail jct 09:07 AM 12:53 PM
Spruce Lake 09:35 AM 12:27 PM
Loomis Lake 10:34 AM 11:54 AM