Imagine a verdant shelf set high on a stately mountainside above an unspoiled, heavenly creek valley. Add a series of lovely lakes to ornament the shelf and place it in a location so remote that few humans would ever have the ambition to go there. Put it all together and you’ve got Ten Lake Park.— Lisa Foster
I studied the map of the terrain between Lake Verna and Ten Lake Park for quite some time. The first thing I noticed is that there aren’t ten lakes in Ten Lake Park. My map shows only five. And three of those look more like puddles than lakes. Regardless, it looked to me that I might be able to reach the place. I know that a forty-foot contour interval on a map can hide a multitude of terrain that might give me difficulties. But half or a bit less of the way was in forest so route finding should be simple for much of the way.
Tuesday, August 18
We had another leisurely morning. I slept until nearly 7 and we took our time with breakfast. We started off at about 9:30. The smoke cleared considerably overnight.
The obvious route from Lake Verna to Ten Lake Park is to follow an unnamed creek up the eastern flank of Mount Craig. Once out of the trees, look for the pass between the two prominent points east of Mount Craig. Cross the pass and descend into Ten Lake Park.
Rather than backtrack the quarter-mile to the creek, we crossed East Inlet west of the creek and went up the slope toward the creek at an angle. It was fairly steep for my taste, but there wasn’t much deadfall. Still, it was slow going. We came to a bit of a cliff that we bypassed by crossing the creek. After crossing the stream again, there was a big section of slick rock we had to cross that bothered me. I knew I’d be able to go down it but I also knew it would have my heart rate up.
We often looked back at where we’d just been, making sure we got a good look at the route from this vantage. Ed stacked up some cairns as bread crumbs. He used a couple chunks of wood as a marker where no stones were available.
As we climbed, the forest thinned and receded from the creek, which ran through a grassy meadow filled with wildflowers. Most were still blooming nicely, but the Elephant Heads were past their prime.
We saw only a few small lingering drifts of snow. Earlier in summer, these grassy areas are filled with water; big spongy masses. But now that the snow has melted and we’ve had about half the normal precipitation this year, things are dry. Judging by the watermarked rocks, the creek was running at a small fraction of its spring flow.
Not long after coming out into the open, we came to a gully on our left that climbed quite a way. I suggested that what we saw was the pass we were looking for. This proved to be a … well, not a false summit but a false pass. We weren’t so much looking for a gully as a grassy ramp. When we got to the top of our false pass we spotted the real thing.
Or, more accurately, a choice of passes. We could continue up and left, climbing a wide grassy area or a slightly steeper, narrower, rockier one a bit to the right. It looked like the one to the right was a bit lower and would be a few steps shorter, so that’s where we headed. It didn’t take us long to reach the top and take in the view of the other side.
I knew going into this that there aren’t actually ten lakes in Ten Lake Park. And I know that these sorts of places can look considerably different in, say, June than in mid-August in an abnormally dry year. A little trickle of water emerged from a nearby spring, making a narrow band of green across an increasingly brown expanse. Below us, we could see a couple of small lakes and ponds, along with two dry lake beds.
In an ideal world, we’d have taken some time to enjoy the place, but it was approaching 1:30 pm, and assuming it would take about as long to return as it did to get here, we’d be back in camp well after 5. So, after a quick reconnaissance of the upper reaches of the park we turned around and climbed back to the pass.
The descent down the slopes and gullies was fairly quick and painless and once back into the upper reaches of the forested slope below us, we came upon the first of the cairns we’d set up earlier. We successfully found our route in, and Ed knocked down the cairn as we passed it.
Approaching the top of the slick rock we crossed on the way up, we made a change to our route. On the way up we saw a game trail at the top of this rock. Deer and elk won’t often cross rock like this and we figured it was worth a shot at following the game trail. As often happens with these things, it looked good for a while before petering out. But we continued to go down the steepening slope, climbing over the occasional dead tree trunk, regaining and re-losing game trails on the way.
It sometimes seemed these game trails haven’t seen much use lately, but there is game in the vicinity. We came across some deer in the upper meadows and here in the forest we came across a cow elk with two or three calves still in spots. We didn’t spy any moose, but there was ample evidence of their passage, and I don’t mean footprints.
Ed is a big fan of glacial knobs. At one point in our descent we had a very nice view of the opposite slope, which is the southern exposure of Andrews Peak. To Ed it must have looked like glacial knob heaven.
As on our way up, we crossed to the west side of the stream on the way down. This time we didn’t recross it and stayed to the west. The slope was not quite as steep here, and we had a relatively easy time of it. Before long, we saw the East Inlet just below us. The stream is wide and shallow here and Ed just headed straight across. I’d have followed, but I don’t hike with poles and without poles I’d have undoubtedly slipped so I went upstream to find a crossing more to my liking.
Our return trip was quite a bit faster, taking only two and a half hours. In retrospect, we could have spent a bit longer at Ten Lake Park. But the future is hard to predict, and we did start getting rained on a bit on the lower portion of our descent. I’m not at all unhappy with our little hike.
I found the upper area of this unnamed valley beneath the eastern flank of Mount Craig quite beautiful. Add a small lake here and it might even be ideal, but I’m a big fan of alpine lakes so I admit my bias.
It should come as no surprise that we encountered no other people on our little trek. In fact, we saw no sign that people had ever walked here before us. At some of my more remote destinations, I wonder how many other hikers make the trip in a year. I often see cairns or bootprints and surmise dozens or maybe a hundred. Here, perhaps only a handful of people come through here each year.
Because we were back in camp a little earlier than planned, we had a bit of an extended evening. Although the smoke from the wildfires was quite mild in the morning, it had steadily increased throughout the day. Now it was quite thick. I couldn’t taste it yet, but the odor was very noticeable.
The late afternoon saw a succession of rain storms. That overstates it a bit: we got sprinkled on several times. The smoke made it nearly impossible to tell if clouds were overhead, but we were still seeing our shadows, so we kept telling ourselves that the rain wouldn’t last. It never did, and the little rain had no effect on the smoke.
In fact, it might have been tempting to think that our sprinkles of rain had somehow turned to a light sprinkling of snow. But it wasn’t snow, it was ash. Each little particle of ash was rectangular, rather than the hexagonal shape of an individual snowflake. Like snow, sometimes the individual rectangular ashes clung together making larger bits of ash.
The big fires that I was blaming for the smoky air are well to the west of us. The nearer fires are north and south. And so I was quite surprised to note that the ash was falling on us from the east. I’m guessing that this was ash from the Cameron Peak fire, which is the nearest one, and so the complex winds along the Continental Divide carried this payload east, then south, then west.
The ash fell all evening, but the smoke thankfully never got much worse.
We nearly went the entire day without seeing or hearing another person. Sitting in camp chatting, we heard nearby voices. I climbed to the top of a rock where I could see the trail along the shore of Lake Verna and spotted one hiker. Unless she was talking to herself, there was at least one more hiker. Nonetheless, I can’t think of a day in the Park when I saw so few other people.
As the sky darkened and the stars started to appear, we could tell that all the clouds were gone now, we would get no more sprinkles, and if ash was still falling we could at least no longer see it.
Wednesday, August 19
We awoke to another beautiful RMNP morning. Like yesterday, the smoke was much reduced. And no more ash was falling.
We were packed up and on the trail not long after eight. We made somewhat better time on the way out and were back to the trailhead at about 2:30. In all my years of hiking the Park, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen horses on the trail. I see lots of road apples, but not many horses. In addition to the two horses we met while on our break on Devil’s Ladder on Monday, today we were passed by two park rangers on horseback, leading two pack horses. And closer to the trailhead another pair of riders. I think Ed was trying to work out how big of a bribe it would take to ride out rather than to walk.
At the trailhead, there was a ranger picking up litter. It’s sad that this is a part of anybody’s job. Why do people go looking for wilderness and then promptly pollute it?
Another ranger was at the trailhead checking timed entry passes. This trailhead isn’t outside the Park, but you don’t have to go through an entrance station to get here. When we arrived on Monday there was nobody performing this check.
Ed stopped in Grand Lake for some ice cream before we re-entered the Park for the drive over Trail Ridge. Approaching the entrance station, Ed’s ice cream cone suffered containment failure and he nearly wore the last few bites.
To the north were the smoke plumes from the Cameron Peak fire. The smoke blew to the east, and when we descended down the east side of the Divide we drove down into quite a thick soup. Some rain clouds made it look even darker but a look over our shoulders when we passed Deer Mountain showed us that the smoke here was much, much worse than we dealt with on our hike.
I’ve hiked the East Inlet Trail three times now, once as a day hike, once with a one-night stay, and now with a two-night stay. I’ve visited all the places along this trail that interest me with the exception of Adams Falls, which is the easiest feature to visit on this trail.
In general, the valley of the East Inlet is a beautiful place to visit and worth the effort of climbing all those stairs. And Devil’s Ladder is a dramatic piece of trail offering an expansive view of the Grand Lake area.
More specifically, our visit to Ten Lake Park was a bit of a challenge but, I think, well worth the calories burned.