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.
This 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
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 thorough 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.
I 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.
Taking 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
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. 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.