Hunters Creek

Monday, September 14

I arrived at the Sandbeach Lake trailhead a few minutes after seven. The skies were without a cloud, and compared to the last several weeks, it looked like there wasn’t any smoke. Now that it’s mid-September, it’s starting to get a bit cool. It looked to be another glorious day in the Park.

I’ve decided that the timed entry passes aren’t being checked here in Wild Basin. As usual, there was nobody at the entrance station before eight. And when I returned from my hike at about 3:30, there was still nobody there. Perhaps the thinking is that there is fairly limited parking in this part of the Park and therefore it can’t get overcrowded.

Anyway, I put boots on the trail by a quarter after seven. My plan, I told myself, was to hike to Keplinger Lake. This is my third trip up Hunters Creek, first time falling short of Keplinger, second time succeeding. On my way down on my successful trip, I thought I had a pretty nice route. I figured it would be fairly trivial to retrace my steps and given my starting time I expected to arrive there by something like 11:30.

Keplinger is about seven miles from the trailhead. Half of that is on the trail to Sandbeach Lake. It alternates between fairly steep climbs (for a pack trail) and level stretches unencumbered by roots or rocks. I kept seeing small hoof prints. These were much smaller than those made by a horse, but looked almost the same: perfect horseshoe shapes, just a few inches across.

Tiny horseshoes?

I haven’t heard of anybody who likes my route. I just follow Hunters Creek, using a trail I believe to be frequented by people climbing Longs Peak from this side. The trail is not maintained but is quite easy to follow except for two places where some deadfall has blocked it. After about a mile and a quarter, a stream joins Hunters Creek from the north, while Hunters Creek turns to the west. I cross this unnamed tributary here and continue up Hunters Creek.

The forest isn’t very dense through here, allowing sunlight to dapple the ground. The trick is to cross Hunters Creek before it makes a turn to the north. If you continue following the creek, you’ll end up in the messy mass of willow that surrounds an unnamed pond at about 11,200′. There was the terminus of my first attempt to reach Keplinger.

Today, I crossed Hunters Creek fairly early. I figured it didn’t really make much difference. All I needed to do was work my way through some trees and I’d find a treeless gully I could follow up the slope to where the creek drains from another unnamed pond, this one at about 11,400′. From there, it’s maybe a third of a mile to the lake.

Getting to the top of the gully puts you back on the banks of the creek between the two ponds. I stopped here for a short break. At least, that was my plan. It was a very pleasant spot. Due north of me was Pagoda Mountain. An arm of the mountain reaches to the south, toward me. Just to the left of this arm, directly below the summit, lies Keplinger Lake. I could have made it there in twenty minutes or so. To the right of Pagoda are Longs and Meeker. From this angle, Meeker looks to be the highest and biggest, and Longs looks … unclimbable.

Pagoda Mountain, Longs Peak, and Mount Meeker

I decided I didn’t need to go any farther. It had been cool enough all morning that I never took off my hoodie. It wouldn’t be any warmer at Keplinger, a couple hundred feet higher. The view of Pagoda is much more dramatic there, but the other peaks are hidden. Keplinger is all rocks and water; vegetation is sparse. Here, there was almost no breeze. Directly above me, the sky was almost its usual brilliant blue but there was a noticeable smoky haze on the horizon.

From the time I started hiking until I stopped here for lunch, I’d watched a number of helicopters fly overhead. At first, I thought there were two choppers sporting similar livery. The first two passes overhead were in the same direction: from roughly the direction of Allenspark and passing between Pagoda and Longs to go over Glacier Gorge. There may have been just the one helicopter and I missed its return trip. I didn’t know what they were up to. My first thought was that they were dealing with the Cameron Peak fire somehow, but they weren’t carrying a bucket or any other obvious cargo. They stopped flying over at about 11:00.

View to the east, roughly. A bit of smoke haze, but not bad.

I let the world go by for half an hour, ate my sandwich, drank my beer, and relaxed.

If I had brought a map with me, I probably would have tried an alternate route back. That would be everybody’s preferred route, which goes by Sandbeach Lake. Looking east, I’d stay out of the trees then head over the forested hump at the eastern end of Mount Orton, then descend to the lake. I’ll come back here again and give that route a shot.

I did stay out of the trees for a longer distance than on my way up. It was easy walking and I made good time. I kept thinking I should make my way to the creek but kept delaying it. I found a game and followed it. It snowed that fell last week, several inches of wet, heavy stuff. Sometimes it was hard to tell if it had been walked through or if it was just knocked down by the snow. I saw several places where it looked like elk had bedded down, but hadn’t seen any elk, deer, or moose all day. I finally did spot an elk for an instant: she heard me coming and ran away. I saw a flash of her backside as she fled through the trees.

Game trail through the grass

When I got to the end of this series of treeless gullies I found myself at the top of an outcropping I wasn’t willing to descend, so I had to backtrack a bit and find a route that didn’t bother me. I came across a talus field I spotted on the way up. It wasn’t the greatest route, but the rocks weren’t too big for me to make my way down.

Back in the woods I slowly worked my way to the creek. I came across a small pond I didn’t expect to find. It’s not on my map, but I did later find it on the satellite image. Back at the creek, I found an easy crossing and was back on ground I’d navigated before. I didn’t bother sticking too close to the creek. I can roam anywhere I want, as long as I head downhill. Eventually, I’ll run into the tributary I crossed when I left the climbers trail or I’d be back to Hunters Creek.

Staying away from the creek made for easier walking. The forest is sparse enough that there’s no deadfall to speak of and it’s late enough in the season that everything is dry. In July, I’d certainly be running into various trickles of water and marshy/grassy leas, and route finding would be more challenging. I shortly reached the tributary and crossed it to regain the climbers’ trail. I was only about fifty yards upstream of where I crossed on my way up.

I took a short break when I got back to the trail to Sandbeach Lake. I refilled my water bottle and ate the last of my fruit. I considered making the side trip to the lake, figuring it would take me an hour or a bit more. I was up for it physically, but I didn’t want to take more than an hour and figured it wasn’t worth making the trip if I couldn’t relax for a while at the lake. So I headed back to the car.

When I started hiking again, I heard another helicopter. I paid more attention to them now, noting the times they flew over and which direction they were going. They passed very close to the west side of Longs Peak. I’m sure anybody on the summit got a good look down on them.

The first flight of the afternoon was headed towards Glacier Gorge and it flew over me on its way back twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes after that, it was headed back to Glacier Gorge. This chopper made two round trips. Then a different one came from Glacier Gorge. It was a different model of aircraft, candy apple red instead of the orange and white of the earlier one. Instead of flying away, it descended into the valley below me. It took me a while to spot it through the trees. After a few minutes, it took off on its way back to Glacier Gorge. It made this trip twice.

The afternoon’s first helicopter

I made it back to the trailhead by 3:30. I was curious to know what the helicopters were up to. I’d have asked the ranger at the entrance station, had there been a ranger there. There was a group of motorcyclists there, taking a break and using the restrooms. So I asked the bikers if they knew anything. They hadn’t been there very long, and the red chopper never flew over here, stopping a bit west of Copeland Lake. They didn’t know anything about the choppers.

I was a bit surprised when one of them asked me what was on my hat. I’m always wearing my hat from Autobahn Country Club. The guy who asked was thinking my hat was from a track in New Jersey. I gave him points for knowing it was a track and told him it was Autobahn, in Illinois. He said he’d driven that track. I didn’t quiz him, but he did mention running laps at a few California tracks, so maybe he’s been to as many tracks as I have. I neglected to ask him whether he tracked a bike or a car.

He did ask me what I drove. He expressed surprise that I could fit in an Elise. And he was pretty well acquainted with Lotus. He asked if I’d “added any lightness” to it. “As a matter of fact, I have!” We chatted about track days for a bit.

It was another beautiful day in the neighborhood. I hiked about thirteen miles, climbing about 3100′. The weather was ideal. I saw only one person from 7:15 to 3:30 and didn’t see him until after 2:30. I’ve never had such solitude before. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Searching the news when I got home, I see that teams were out searching for a missing hiker. His car was found at the Glacier Gorge parking lot and he was assumed to be attempting the Glacier Gorge Traverse. That’s a “difficult 19 mile route” that crosses eleven summits. It seems they found his body today (Tuesday). The article I read says that they flew his body to a landing zone in Wild Basin. I can’t help but wonder if the article has the timing a bit wrong. Were they taking him out on the last helicopter I saw? How unfortunate. He was my son’s age.

Castle Lake

Before I started this blog I had been posting trip reports to a forum for lovers of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of those reports, with only minor edits for clarity.

Hike date: 15 October 2011 — Originally posted: 16 October 2011 – 09:18 PM

My latest hike was to Castle Lake. I went Saturday (10/15) and the weather was fabulous. To get to Castle Lake, the Foster guide says to go to Lion Lake #1 and contour around a prominent bench. I was thinking it should be pretty easy to get to Castle Lake by striking northeast from the trail, rather than going all the way to Lion Lake #1. Without GPS it’s not that simple. Although the lake is only 500-600 feet from the trail, there’s just no way to know where to leave the trail unless you’ve been there before. This is another lake I could easily imagine hasn’t been visited before. No trail, no cairns.

Castle Lake has no inlet streams and no outlet stream. At this time of year, the water level is quite low. It has also begun to ice over, even though it hasn’t been particularly cold yet. There is some snow on the ground – I first came across it on the trail at perhaps 10,000 feet. Seldom more than a few inches deep it didn’t cause any navigational issues. At the lake, I found a few “drifts” that were perhaps a foot deep. I didn’t see any large wildlife, but I did follow some deer tracks through the snow on my way back to the trail.

This time I carried a small GoPro HD video camera with me. Turns out it’s not a particularly good tool for landscape photography, as it has a very wide angle lens. The only useable footage was when I played with the time lapse feature while I was eating my lunch. Here’s 22 minutes compressed to 22 seconds:

This was only my second time up the Lion Lake trail. I really like this trail, at least the part from the Thunder Lake trail to Lion Lake. The forest isn’t dense, so you sometimes get glimpses of the surrounding mountains. Very pretty.

Junco Lake

Sunday, September 3

Leading up to this hike, I was telling myself that I only need to visit two more lakes in Wild Basin and I’ll have been to them all. I was thinking I only needed to go to Junco Lake and Isolation Lake and I’d “have the set.” I was a bit off. In addition to those two, I also have yet to hike to Frigid Lake and Indigo Pond. In any event, my goal for this next hike was to get to Junco Lake.

Originally, Chad was going to go with me but his plans changed. We were going to meet Bob at the trailhead. Bob wouldn’t go with us, but would accompany us the first few miles. But I didn’t properly communicate where Bob was to us me and we didn’t connect. I waited a few minutes past our appointed rendezvous for him then hit the trail. I discovered later that he was there, just at the wrong trailhead. Entirely my fault.

Anyway, to get to Junco Lake we will essentially start with Bluebird Lake. The hike to Bluebird Lake has a lot to offer. It has three notable water features: Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades, and Ouzel Falls. Then there are the open views where the trail goes along the top of a ridge that was burned by the Ouzel fire back in ’78. And the last three times I’ve hiked to Bluebird, other hikers have said they’ve spotted moose. I never can find them, but that’s just my luck.

Just above Ouzel Lake the trail passes through some talus and with no trees there, it’s an ideal place for raspberries. There are a number of stretches where raspberries grow in abundance. I couldn’t resist tasting a few. The berries may have been small, but they were delicious. The leaves were starting to turn dark, and there were no immature berries. The plants are much smaller than the ones in my back yard. But the weight of fruit as a percentage of the total weight of the plant is much higher. These little plants were densely covered with the sweet little tasty morsels.

A little farther up the trail I came across a couple who had passed me on the trail a bit earlier. Looked like they were picking berries, but there were no raspberries here. “We found huckleberries!” I’m sure I’ve had a slice of huckleberry pie, but I could certainly never identify them in the wild. These were growing on very small plants, close to the ground. Most of the berries were red, about as red as a not-quite-ripe raspberry. “You want the purple ones.” They were quite tiny, not much bigger than a BB but quite tasty.

The steepest part of the trail below Bluebird Lake is also quite lovely. The hillside is covered with an avalanche of wildflowers. I was thinking it might be a bit late in the season, but here the flowers were still quite vibrant.

I was pleased with my progress thus far, reaching Bluebird in a few minutes over three hours. It’s less than a mile from Bluebird to Junco, but there’s no trail and about a 750′ climb.

The Foster guide says to go around the base of the ridge and follow the stream. The last few times I went to Bluebird I spent some time studying the terrain and was never happy that that was the way to go. So I asked around. Kristin sent me a couple of pictures with two suggested routes. Each looked to be better than Foster’s suggestion.

So, without taking a break here, I headed up the ridge to Junco. It was easy enough to start, there are all sorts of grassy ramps and shallow gullies. But before long I managed to get to a spot that I didn’t like and backtracked a little. Then I ran into the couple I shared huckleberries with. I followed them for a bit, until they went down a section that made me uncomfortable. I let them go their way; I headed to the top of the ridge. Kristin told me it would be easier up top and I think she was correct.

I made it to Junco pretty much at the same time as the Huckleberries. I made my way to a comfy spot near the outlet and tucked in to my picnic. The wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but there was a faint haze from wildfires half a continent away. I brought the GoPro with me but didn’t bother setting it up as, without clouds, there’s no point in trying to do a time lapse video. Meanwhile, the Huckleberries had changed into their swim suits. She did a bit of sunbathing but he took a dip in the lake. I put my soda can in the water for a few minutes so I’d have a cold drink.

Ouzel Peak and Junco Lake

I headed back down after a half hour break. Having told myself that I’d be better off staying on the top of the ridge, I found myself heading down one of the many grassy ramps. It started off well enough but soon had me in a spot I didn’t like at all. I backtracked and chose another ramp. Again, no joy. As I was backtracking the second time, I ran into the Huckleberries again. I followed them for a good while, but they were moving faster than me and soon were out of sight. But by then I was pretty sure we were retracing the route we used on the way up.

Mahana Peak, Bluebird Lake. Longs and Meeker in background.

I took another break at Bluebird – snacked on my peach and slathered on another coat of SPF. At the Upper Ouzel campsite the trail crosses the outlet from Bluebird. I refilled my water here. By the time I was back to the car, I’d used up all the water. That’s the flip side of the open views in the burn area – there’s no shade and I feel a little broiled in the afternoon sun. I drank as much water in the last five and a half miles as I did in the first nine.

It was a full day, and by the time I made it back to the car I was exhausted. The Foster guide tells me it’s 7.2 miles from the trailhead to Junco Lake, with a 3,210′ net elevation gain. I’m guessing that with my backtracking I didn’t add much distance but did add a non-trivial amount of elevation. The hike was not only physically challenging, but I’ll admit to more than the usual difficulty route finding.


Out In
Trailhead 07:30 AM 05:04 PM
Calypso Cascades 08:12 AM 04:19 PM
Ouzel Falls 08:31 AM 03:56 PM
Thunder/Ouzel junction 08:41 AM 03:45 PM
Ouzel/Bluebird junction 09:20 AM 03:08 AM
Bluebird Lake 10:42 AM 02:00 PM
Junco Lake 11:55 AM 12:30 PM

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.

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.

Twin Lakes and Sandbeach Lake

Sunday, October 26

A couple weeks ago I met Gale on the trail to Lawn Lake and we exchanged emails. This week, she asked if she could tag along, if I was planning on a hike on Sunday. Well, I had no plans when she asked but that was easy to remedy.

A couple years ago I followed Foster’s directions in an attempt to find Twin Lakes in Wild Basin. She says “finding these lakes is a bit of an orienteering challenge”. I fell short of that challenge and figured it was about time I made a second attempt. I studied the map for a while, finally suggesting that Gale accompany me on my second assault. Over three or four days, my plan evolved a few times with my final idea being after we visit Twin Lakes, we cross the ridge, bushwhack up to Sandbeach Lake and hike out on that trail.

We met at the Sandbeach Lake trailhead shortly after eight. I left my car there and she drove us to the Thunder Lake trailhead. We put boots on the trail before eight thirty. It was sunny and mostly clear; the only clouds were hanging over the Divide. It was also windy. I think I used the phrase “a bit breezy.” What I really meant was more like “it was savagely windy.” But the hike would be through forest the whole way; the only time I expected to deal with the wind was when we were hanging out at the lakes.

Rather than follow Foster’s directions this time, my plan was to hike up the Thunder Lake trail until we reached about 9800′ elevation, then contour east along the slope to the lakes. I’m generally low tech when I’m hiking. I don’t carry a GPS unit with me. I do carry a smart phone, though. I use a speedometer app when I’m in the car because the car can’t be trusted to tell me how fast I’m going. This app also shows the elevation, which can be handy in cases like this.

Shortly after regaining the main trail after the campground shortcut, we arrived at a couple of switchbacks. The eastern end of one of these was conveniently close to our target elevation so we headed off trail there. As is usual when off trail, we couldn’t go in a straight line. I kept thinking we were going downhill, but every time I checked our elevation we were still on target. It was in here I saw the only wildlife on the hike: I spooked a very large rabbit who made very good speed in spite of his girth.

We weren’t making great time, what with finding the best route past rock outcrops or through dense pockets of trees. But it didn’t take too long to arrive at the larger of the Twin Lakes. This is the westernmost, larger one. These lakes are snow fed, neither has an inlet or outlet stream. They’re pretty shallow and, again, I’ve been to larger unnamed ponds in the park. But the view to the west from this lake was very nice. As expected, the wind was quite strong here. At times the wind gusts were so strong they kicked spray up ten or fifteen feet above the water.

We found a place more or less out of the wind and I set up the SLR to do the time lapse. We sat and ate part of our lunches and watched the world go by for about a half hour. Upon retrieving the camera I saw that I neglected to use my usual settings. There are a number of things I have to change from my usual shooting – turn off auto-focus, turn off stability, set it on full manual and set the proper exposure, configure the timer. And change it from storing raw images with large, fine JPG to a smaller image. This is the first time I’ve managed to forget this part. So I filled the memory card pretty quickly. Oops. I’ve been meaning to buy a bigger card; perhaps this error will be the impetus for me to get it done.

After getting our gear together, we headed the short distance to the other Twin Lake. It’s just a few yards away, and up a few feet of elevation. We passed through a little aspen grove. This one turned out to be perhaps the most interesting aspen grove I’ve walked through. Some beaver had been busy here, gnawing through dozens of trees. Some had been downed, chewed through completely. Others were still works in progress. The wood chips looked fairly fresh; I doubt this work was abandoned, but what do I know?

I didn’t see anything like a beaver lodge in either lake, and there are no streams here. The beaver must be in one of the lakes, though. These were pretty big trees; there was no other possible body of water this lumber could be taken to, unless that beaver has access to a helicopter or something. Which probably means I wouldn’t recognize a beaver lodge if I was standing on it.

There is almost no view at the smaller of the two lakes, so we didn’t dally there long. From here, we headed almost straight up slope. We only needed to gain about two hundred feet to top the ridge. We passed a couple of cairns and came across what I think is a wildlife trail. After topping the ridge, a small unnamed pond was next, just below us. The pond sits, as is common, surrounded by marshy grass. Being nearly November, it was mostly dried out.

Sandbeach Creek feeds this pond. The map also shows a gully a bit to the west of the creek. We found ourselves ascending this gully rather than the creek. The gully is clearly a flowing stream during spring and summer; now it’s dry but verdant, filled with moss covered rocks, darkly green in the shade of the forest. In places, it looks like there is dried mud covering some of the rocks. It’s not mud, but a dried fibrous sheet a couple millimeters thick.

The gully opened into a clearing where we hopped up a pile of rocks about thirty feet high before returning to another mossy section. Here I decided we needed to head a bit more towards the east. “Just over this next rise we’ll find the lake.” It wasn’t the first time I said it, but I was finally correct. We emerged on the shore of Sandbeach Lake just a few yards to the west of the outlet stream.

It was calm here on the lee shore. It was also mostly devoid of an interesting view, so we circled counter clockwise toward the trail. The wind was quite intense on the east side of the lake. And because this used to be a reservoir like Lawn Lake, there aren’t any trees along the shore to provide shelter. We retreated into the forest, found a nice rock to sit on, and ate more of our lunches. I decided not to set up either camera as I figured neither would be able to sit still in this wind. So it goes. It’s unlikely I have enough footage to bother with a video this time.

There were a few other hikers there. We talked to two guys who spent the night there. They had heard there was an alternate route back to the trailhead. I got my map out and showed them a route I considered for this hike. And, as we no longer needed it, I gave them the map.

The hike out was uneventful. The wind seemed to be dying down a bit, and the skies remained clear overhead. Crossing Hunters Creek, I wondered if there was a bridge there that was washed away last September. There are just sawn logs there now. Perhaps I’m just misremembering. We arrived at my car a few minutes before three, still feeling fresh and in agreement that it was a fun hike. The off trail excursion was pleasant and the beaver activity at the lakes was unusual and quite interesting.

On a final note… I regularly wonder how often my car shows up on Instagram or Facebook. People are always taking pictures when I’m at stop lights or in parking lots. This evening, my son found my car on Facebook. It’s a picture taken today, at the trailhead. Too funny.

Box Lake and Eagle Lake

Saturday I hiked to Box Lake and Eagle Lake.

I was hoping to hit the trail by 7:30, but I got out of the house a few minutes late and had to stop for gas in Lyons. I was late enough I had to show my pass at the entrance and the rangers were directing traffic in the parking lot. Again I was parked in a small end spot right next to the trash cans and bathrooms.

“You were here last week, weren’t you?” No, it was three weeks ago. “Yeah, you were parked at the Finch Lake trailhead.” Turns out he used to own an Elise. A red one – he said everybody asked if it was a Ferrari.

He asked where I was headed and told me the bridge at Ouzel Falls is out. It didn’t matter to me; I take the campground shortcut anyway. He then told me a sow with two cubs has been hanging around Thunder Lake.

I wasn’t much behind schedule; hit the trail at 7:45. To get to Box Lake you must first get to Thunder Lake. The distance is 6.2 miles with a climb of only a tad over two thousand feet. The first stretch of trail follows the North St. Vrain. This part is heavily traveled in the afternoon with folks out to see Calypso Cascades. You arrive at the campground shortcut just before the trail crosses the river. The shortcut meets the Thunder Lake trail above the second river crossing and eliminates Calypso Cascades, Ouzel Falls, and six tenths of a mile.

With the exception of the campground shortcut, the trail is generally wide, seldom steep, and often free of rocks and roots, allowing for a faster pace. The next milestone is the junction with the Lion Lake trail. This is about halfway from the shortcut to Thunder Lake. Next are a couple of stream crossings and finally a short descent to the lake. Rather than the usual hitch rack there’s a corral.

Once at Thunder Lake, the idea is to cross the outlet, contour around the eastern buttress of Tanima Peak and ascend a gully to Box Lake. Foster warns “be careful not to get too high on the steep, cliff-ridden slopes.” From Box Lake, climb to the top of the next bench to reach Eagle Lake.

The streams are running quite high for mid-August, and Thunder Lake was spilling into the meadow on its eastern shore in several places. The water flows through the grass in a great swath. It’s possible to cross without going more than ankle deep, but only just.

Once across the outlet, there’s a faint trail. I didn’t spot it at first so I headed around the slope. I quickly found the trail. Long stretches of it aren’t so faint, but it does fade in and out in the grassier parts. I think that without a trail, I doubt I’d have gotten there. For the most part, the trail took the obvious route. But there were times when I’d have gone a different way if there was no trail.

Longs and Meeker

The route alternates between forest and meadow. The meadows are vibrantly carpeted with blue, yellow, red, and white wildflowers. It was quite breezy at Thunder Lake, but here in the lee of Tanima Peak it is calm. The sun is shining brightly in a brilliant blue sky punctuated with the small, fast moving clouds so common here along the divide.

The trail dips a bit before reaching the gully. Here we climb through meadows bordered by granite. Water burbles down the slope, feeding the prolific flowers. There is a rich insect life here, as well. The mosquitoes were out in force. Every time I stopped I was swarmed by them.

Box Lake

Box Lake sits just over the top of the gulley. While it’s in a nice setting, the surrounding views are not dramatic. Eagle Lake is the true destination on this hike, and it’s just another quarter mile away. Climb another gully to the top of the next bench. Foster warns about “nasty krummholz” but the path I took it wasn’t a problem. There’s an unnamed pond here, bigger than I was expecting. It has a nice view of the valleys to the east. Continuing on over mostly bare rock, it was a simple matter of following cairns in a straight line to my destination.

Unnamed pond

Eagle Lake is fairly large. I sat on a rock above the lake with views of the Continental Divide over the lake to the west and Mt. Meeker and a sliver of Longs to the South. I set up the cameras then broke out my picnic lunch. It never ceases to amaze me how much better food tastes when I’m sitting by an alpine lake.

Eagle Lake

As is usual in these places, it was a bit breezy. I was looking forward to a breeze thinking it would minimize the mosquito situation. Unfortunately, the damn things managed to buzz around my head the whole time I was there. I don’t think I got bitten, but they sure were annoying.

After about forty minutes I started packing up. The weather was still quite nice. With all the moisture we’ve been having lately I was concerned a thunder shower would brew up, but there was never a threatening cloud.

There wasn’t much traffic on the trail in the morning. Near the trailhead I passed a group of six or eight guys loaded down with gear. Three runners passed me about a half hour apart and I chatted with a solo hiker on the shortcut section. On the way down I ran into people as soon as I returned to Thunder Lake.

Pilot and Alice from Thunder Lake

Just after I passed the spur to the campsite, I encountered another group of heavily laden hikers. They were going to do Mt. Alice tomorrow, via Lake of Many Winds and Boulder-Grand Pass. It wasn’t until a few after we chatted that I realized this was the same group I passed first thing in the morning. Made me feel sort of good. I made it to Thunder Lake in two and a half hours and it took these guys half my age six. Of course, they had heavy packs, were only going as fast as their slowest guy, and for all I know they took a side trip to Lion Lake.

Shortly after talking to them I met another solo hiker refilling his water from a stream. He had hit the trail at five and spent most of the day above treeline. From Lion Lake he summited Mt Alice, Pilot Mtn, and Tanima Peak. Quite an ambitious hike. He probably beat me back to the parking lot by a half hour.


There Back
Trailhead 07:45 AM 04:25 PM
Shortcut (bottom) 08:10 AM 03:50 PM
Shortcut (top) 08:50 AM 03:05 PM
Lion Lake trail jct 09:20 AM 02:30 PM
Thunder Lake 10:15 AM 01:25 PM
Box Lake 11:15 PM 12:30 PM
Eagle Lake 11:35 PM 12:20 PM


Hutcheson Lakes

About a week ago I decided it was time to hike to Cony Lake. Last time I tried to hike to Cony I took a break at Pear Lake where I managed to leave my the SLR and tripod. Although the mission was aborted, I enjoyed a long lunch at Pear.

It’s 9.2 miles to Cony. I’d forgotten how long it was until I checked the Foster guide for a refresher. I wasn’t sure I was ready for an eighteen and a half mile hike. I spent a couple days telling myself I could do it. By Friday morning, there was no wavering. All systems go for a 6am departure, boots on the trail by 7:30. Last year it took me three hours to get to Pear. It’s 2.2 miles from Pear to Cony, so that shouldn’t be more than an hour and a half. Two hours tops. Lunch at Cony by 12:30, half hour lunch, back to the car by 6pm.

Saturday dawned cool and cloudless but a bit hazy – smoke from the fires in Washington and Oregon? I hit the road a few minutes behind schedule but traffic was light and I put boots on the trail promptly at 7:30. I brought micro spikes with me, but at the last moment decided not to carry them.

The trail climbs steeply from the parking lot to the top of the first ridge, about six hundred feet in a bit over a half mile. The climb ends with a hairpin; turning west the trail borders a meadow then enters an aspen grove. At the junction with Allenspark trail, another long climb begins – six hundred more feet in a half mile. Shortly after the junction we enter the eastern end of the burn area from 1978. Nice views of Meeker, Longs, Pagoda, and Chiefs Head can still be had, but the trees are getting big enough the view will not be do open for long. From this vantage point, it’s clear how Chiefs Head got its name.

From here the trail flattens out again before a short descent to Finch Lake. We are five miles and 1400 vertical feet from the car in a shade under two hours. Finch Lake isn’t much to my taste – what it lacks in a nice view it makes up for with an abundance of mosquitoes. To now I’d only encountered a few hikers. Here I met a large family. They spent the night here and asked me about the trail to Pear.

From Finch to Pear is two miles and seven hundred vertical feet. Two short steep parts with an interlude in between. The east buttress of Mt. Copeland rises from the forest on the right as we pass a small pond on the left.

Pear Lake was a reservoir for most of the 20th century. There’s still a visible bathtub ring, but the vegetation is slowly overcoming that. Even another thirty years won’t erase all evidence; a large boulder on the northwest shore will be two toned for some time to come. I made it in three hours almost on the dot.

Last year I went around Pear lake to the right. I followed Foster’s route and took the vague trail on the left side. This petered out pretty quickly and by the time I started climbing I was on my own. A short distance away were some folks getting situated on a large rock overlooking Pear Lake. By now I’d seen only about a dozen people.

A small stream feeds Pear here, not a large amount of water, but in several small courses braided up the hillside. I went up the east side, far enough away to avoid the marshy spots. There are a couple of unnamed ponds showing on the map here, and perhaps a couple more that aren’t on the map. After passing one of these I came to the top of the ridge and saw Middle Hutcheson Lake below me.

I headed down the hill a bit to Cony Creek. According to the map in Foster’s guide, I should cross to the south side of the creek about here. It runs in two or three major channels and I could cross it fairly easily. But after having a good look around I decide to stay on the north side. After climbing a hundred feet or so, I saw another hiker on an outcropping below me, on the south side. I don’t know that he saw me; it didn’t look like he was climbing any further.

I didn’t want to deal with the krummholz and willow, so I tended to be higher on the slope. Just below Upper Hutcheson Lake I saw an older couple headed the other way. The were a bit upslope of me and said that was the better route. A few minutes later I arrived at the ponds immediately below Upper Hutcheson and saw another couple. They had been to Cony before and thought it was too early in the season to continue to Cony. There was too much snow. I followed them through a couple patches of willow and to the shore of the lake.

It was 12:15. From here, I’d have to cross the talus slopes above Upper Hutcheson to the inlet, then up two hundred feet to the ledge that hold Cony. I quickly decided to stop here and put Cony on the to-do list for some August or September. Even had I brought the spikes, I was still at least a half hour from Cony. Next time I try this, I think I can save at least fifteen minutes between Pear and Upper Hutcheson having now scouted the route.

I set up the cameras and ate my lunch. The clouds building over the divide were darkening and at 12:40 it started to sprinkle. I packed up and started down. The couple were fishing and decided to wait out the squall. It took me an hour and a half to hike up from Pear but only an hour down. I considered stopping here for a fruit break. The few sprinkles had stopped pretty quickly, but now it was starting up again with bigger raindrops.

By the Pear Creek campsite the sun was shinning again. Here I met a back country ranger. We chatted for five or ten minutes. I learned that much of the park is designated wilderness. I thought it was just a park, but everything a mile from any trail is wilderness. I refilled the water bottle from the creek and headed to Finch. To my chagrin, my knees started getting a bit sore on the steeper downhill sections.

I polished off half my remaining fruit but didn’t dally long. The mosquitoes made a snack of me. I carry some mosquito repellant wipes in the pack, but the seal had broken and they were dried out. Oh well.

On the uphill section immediately after Finch Lake, I came across a couple who had spent the night at Pear Creek. As it was mid afternoon by now, I asked what they did all morning. They had hiked to Cony Lake. Somehow I didn’t see them, but they must have passed me while I was eating lunch. They described their route and said it wasn’t difficult even with the snow.

After this point, my progress slowed considerably. Every downhill stretch gave me a fair amount of pain in the knees. This sometimes happens, but not often. In my ignorance, I will blame it on taking such a long hike without getting in proper hiking shape. I don’t normally tackle the longer hikes until I’ve done a few intermediate length ones first.

By the last mile, fatigue had set in as well. Too tired to properly pick my feet up, I was now stumbling over roots and rocks. This added to the discomfort. The first couple times I rested, my knees felt better for a while, but for the last couple of miles rest did not aid. I made it to the car promptly at six; were it not for the pain I would have finished 30 or 45 minutes earlier. So it goes.


Up Down
Trailhead 07:30 AM 06:00 PM
Allenspark Trail Jct 08:05 AM 04:55 PM
Calypso Trail Jct 08:30 AM 04:25 PM
Finch Lake 09:25 AM 03:05 PM
Pear Lake 10:35 AM 01:45 PM
Upper Hutcheson Lake 12:10 PM 12:50 PM

Pipit Lake

Sunday, August 4

Within days of my failure to reach Lake of the Clouds, I decided that Pipit Lake would the be the next destination. I was all set to go on July 28 but the weather was bad so I delayed the hike for a week. Then on Saturday night I consulted the maps again and thought perhaps I’d hike to Junco Lake instead. Both Junco and Pipit require reaching Bluebird Lake first, both are the same distance, and Junco is at a slightly higher elevation. At one point I thought I’d make my decision only when I reached Bluebird, but as I’m hiking alone I thought it was better if I had a definite route planned before leaving the house. Always let people know where you’re going.

Before going to bed I decided to stick with the original plan – Pipit it was. I’ll save Junco Lake for next summer.

On my last hike, I walked alongside the Grand Ditch, a water diversion project started a century ago and still in operation. Bluebird Lake features in the history of water projects in Wild Basin, too. Back in 1915 the Arbuckle Reservoir Company received approval from the state engineer to build a dam at Bluebird Lake (Arbuckle Reservoir #2). I’m having a hard time imagining the effort required to get tools and materials to the lake. Bars of steel reinforcement were chained in bundles to an axle beam connecting two wagon wheels, with the end dragging along the ground behind a team of four horses. Sacks of cement were carried by donkeys, as were the parts of the disassembled rock crusher and the car engine used to run it.

Today, the trail between Ouzel Lake and Bluebird Lake hardly looks like a pack trail. While most pack trails in the park are quite wide and much improved, this section of trail is narrow and rocky with relatively few obvious improvements. In places, it’s packed dirt a few inches wide running through waist high grasses. The last section of trail is quite steep, switching back and forth. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

I hit the trail a bit before eight on another brilliant, nearly cloudless morning. Based on the cool temps when I left the house, I was expecting it to be a bit brisk at first but was pleasantly surprised it was quite nice – warm and calm. The first few miles of this trail can be quite crowded; the sandals and no water crowd visiting Copeland Falls, those with a bottle of water making it to Calypso Cascades or Ouzel Falls.

Not long after Ouzel Falls, the Thunder Lake trail meets the Bluebird Lake trail. I stopped here for a few minutes to apply sunscreen. After the junction, the trail climbs to the top of a ridge that was burned back in 1978. Lower on the trail, before Ouzel Falls, the forest almost seems back to its pre-fire condition when you’re hiking through it, but from above the fire’s path is still clear. Here on top of the ridge, the forest has made little progress and the views of the surrounding mountains are still clear and dramatic. While the views are fantastic, it means the hiker is left exposed to the sun and wind for an extended time. It was too early to be hot yet, but I was expecting it to be a bit on the warm side on my way down.

Here I chatted with a couple who had spent the night at Ouzel Lake. He said he’d heard moose were in the area but he didn’t see any. “If there were moose here, they’d have been around the lake where there’s lots of vegetation for them. There are no moose here.”

Spot the hikers

I was dreading, a bit, the section of trail between the Ouzel junction and Bluebird Lake. The trail climbs quite steeply, gaining about a thousand feet in less than two miles. As soon as the trail reenters the forest, there’s a large field of debris left by an avalanche that roared through the trees a few years ago. I stopped here to snack on some fruit but was hounded by mosquitoes so I didn’t dally long.

After a short forest section the trail passes through a series of meadows and rock piles. The meadows are a riot of wildflowers – red and yellow, blue and purple, white. When I say I hiked through mile after mile of wildflowers I’m not being hyperbolic. The last mile or so of the trail to Bluebird, plus the mile from there to Pipit were through these fantastic fields of flowers.

I reached Bluebird in good time. There were six or eight other hikers here, perched on rocks here and there near where the trail ends at the outlet stream. I made my way down into the little chasm the outlet stream passes through; crossed it on some rocks and made my way up the other side. This is where the dam was. There’s no sign of it; a testament to the skill of the rangers who cleared it out. Lisa Foster notes the obvious “bathtub ring” around the lake as indication it used to be dammed up, but I think nature has done a good job of erasing it.

Bluebird Lake and Mt. Copeland

Now on the north side of the lake, I gained elevation slowly as I worked my way west. I wanted to be above a large rock outcropping on the west side of the lake. There is no trail here. I occasionally found a faint path, but the route traverses a lot of talus and I saw few cairns. I made my way up a gully above the rock outcropping and ran into a wall of willow. I immediately flashed back to my hike to Keplinger. But here I was back in the clear after only a few feet and a few minutes later found myself at the edge of Lark Pond.

It occurs to me how many lakes in the area are named after birds: Finch Lake, Bluebird Lake, Lark Pond, Chickadee Pond, Falcon Lake. Those are the obvious ones. Pipit, Junco, and Ouzel are also birds. A few miles away, as the ptarmigan flies, is Ptarmigan Lake. How many more lakes here are named for birds?

Lark Pond

From Lark Pond it’s only a few more minutes and a few more feet of elevation to reach Pipit Lake. I was going to say “walk across the tundra and rocks”, but it’s not really tundra here, is it? I don’t generally think of wildflowers when I think tundra. Although the flowers aren’t as dense here as lower on the trail, they’re still quite abundant. I made a point to walk on rocks where I could. Not just to avoid stepping on the flowers, but the ground is marshy in places as well. It looked to me like water was flowing in braids through this area only a few days ago.

Reaching Pipit Lake, I set up the cameras and tucked into my lunch. There’s no shade here, and no shelter from the wind. But it was fairly calm, so not a problem. After only a few bites I was wishing there was a bit more of a breeze, to keep the rich insect life out of my face. I found it better to pace back and forth a bit.

Pipit Lake pano

I’ve been taking a can of soda with me on these hikes for as long as I can remember. I’ve never had a problem with the carbonation before. But today when I opened the can, it fizzed right out of the can. I kept sucking it up but it kept boiling over. By the time it calmed down, I was left with only about two thirds of a can and a sticky hand. I was nearly out of water now, so it was a great time to refill.

I’ve been using a SteriPEN for about a year now and am quite pleased with it. I used to carry two one liter bottles of water. On the longer hikes, I found myself husbanding my water supply somewhat so that I didn’t run out of water before making it back to the trailhead. Now I don’t worry about it at all. I carry one bottle and the device and can drink as much as I want. On this hike, I refilled twice – once at Pipit Lake and again at Ouzel Falls on my way out.

So after getting more water at the outlet of Pipit Lake, I head back past Lark Pond and down to Bluebird Lake. Before long I see another hiker thirty or forty yards ahead of me. How can this be? I hadn’t seen anybody for quite a while, certainly not at Lark Pond or Pipit Lake. I caught up to her a few minutes later and we hiked together until just below Bluebird. She hit the trail at 5:45 and hiked to Isolation Lake. This lake is nestled at about 12,000′ in a cranny between Isolation Peak and Mahana Peak. Looking at the map, I had decided it was beyond my ability, but she told me the hardest part of the hike was crossing the area where we met. Just angle up the slope a little higher than I went to get to Lark Pond and it would be easy to get to.

Wildflowers abound

Further down the trail, still above Ouzel, I met a couple of hikers who told me they’d seen two bull moose farther down the trail. They were below Chickadee Pond and heading west. The next hikers repeated the story. I kept my eyes peeled and occasionally used the camera’s telephoto lens to aid in the search but no luck. The next hikers I caught up to also failed to see the moose. So, contrary to the hikers I met in the morning, moose are in the Ouzel Lake area if you’re lucky enough to see them.

On the hike out, it clouded up a bit (as is not unusual). This made the section through the burn area more pleasant than I was expecting; instead of dealing with bright sunshine on a warm afternoon it was slightly overcast and quite comfortable.

I took a final break at Ouzel Falls for more fruit and a refill of water. Fatigue was finally setting in and my pace slowed a bit. From Ouzel Falls on down the trail is quite crowded. I could see or hear other hikers the rest of the way.

Back at the car I was approached by a couple of park rangers. “We saw your car and wanted to chat with you.” They told me they’d seen me parked at the Sandbeach trailhead last month and were happy to see I didn’t have any hail damage. Evidently it hailed hard enough to set off the car’s alarm. I had no idea. We talked about how often people take pictures of my car. They were amused that with such natural beauty around people would take pictures of a car in the parking lot. We also talked about the sorry state of the dirt road to the trailhead. It’s in serious need of grading. I had to crawl along quite slowly not to fall into the holes. It’s noticeably worse now than it was when I hiked from the Finch Lake trailhead.

And here’s the obligatory time lapse:


Up Down
Trailhead 07:40 AM 04:00 PM
Campground shortcut 08:05 AM 03:35 PM
Calypso Cascades 08:15 AM 03:20 PM
Ouzel Falls 08:35 AM 02:50 PM
Bluebird trail jct 08:45 AM 02:40 PM
Ouzel trail jct 09:35 AM 02:05 PM
Bluebird Lake 11:00 AM 01:05 PM
Pipit Lake 11:50 AM 12:30 PM


Keplinger Lake

Sunday, July 7

Lewis W. Keplinger was a student of John Wesley Powell at Illinois State Normal University. Keplinger was a member of Powell’s expedition that first successfully climbed Long’s Peak in late August of 1868. The group first attempted the summit by starting near what is now Lake Powell. They climbed the sharp ridge that connects McHenry’s Peak with Chiefs Head and Pagoda Mtn. They found themselves cut off from their destination by “impassable chasms.” They retreated and made camp near Sandbeach Lake. The next day, Keplinger set off on his own to reconnoiter. He found a couloir winding up the south flank and managed to reach within several hundred feet of the summit before returning to camp after dark. On August 23, the group set off on Keplinger’s route at 7am. In a couple of hours they had attained his highest point where another member of the party remarked that no man could scale the point and live. By 10am, the party made the summit, led by Keplinger.

Here’s how the Foster guide describes this hike:

Bushwhacking up the length of Hunters Creek valley is a grueling exercise in backcountry slogging, but it travels through one of the most pristine and beautiful valleys in RMNP. From the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead follow the Sandbeach Lake Trail for 3.2 miles to a bridge that crosses Hunters Creek. Leave the main trail and locate a faint path that travels along the northeastern side of Hunters Creek, heading northwest into the heart of the drainage. The path dips and rises with the rolling topography, climbing steadily up the valley. The trail disintegrates, but keep hiking along the creek for 2.4 miles to a beautiful, shallow, unnamed lake at 11,180 feet. Getting to this lake involves fighting through marsh and willow-choked terrain. From the unnamed lake, bushwhack west and around the butt of a small ridge for 0.25 mile to an unnamed pond south of Keplinger Lake. Turn north and scramble through a large boulder field for 0.6 mile to Keplinger Lake.

I tried to get to Keplinger Lake last year but only achieved the unnamed lake she mentions at 11,180′. The reason I only got that far was the willow. I got to this lake about lunch time and decided the only way to proceed was to backtrack down the creek a ways, cross the creek, and avoid all the willow. I decided I didn’t have enough time or energy, so that’s as far as I went.

I put boots on the Sandbeach Lake trailhead at 6:45, forty five minutes earlier than my abortive attempt last year. This earlier departure should ensure I’m at my destination in plenty of time for lunch. The forecast for Denver was low nineties with a 40% chance for rain. The morning was clear and cool, with only a few broken clouds visible.

The hike to Hunter’s Creek is pretty basic. From the parking lot, the trail climbs quickly to the top of a ridge, then levels off somewhat. The climb to Hunters Creek is roughly 1,800′ of elevation gain in 3.2 miles. There is one vantage point that St. Vrain valley but after that no views are afforded. The trail passes mostly through mixed forest, lodgepole pine with aspen mixed in. The fun begins when leaving the main trail.

The next section of trail is about a mile and a quarter long, from the Sandbeach Lake trail to a creek that joins Hunters Creek from the north at about 10,500′ elevation. This trail is quite easy to follow, except for the occasional spot where it is interrupted by recent deadfall. I’m guessing this trail is used mostly by folks climbing Long’s using Keplinger’s route, as to continue up Hunter’s Creek you must leave it where this other stream meets the creek. From here on, there really isn’t any trail and the bushwhacking begins in earnest.

The forest thins out about this point and soon the hiker is presented with a nice view of Pagoda Mtn. The creek climbs steadily but not very steeply. I found it was often easier hiking to stay ten or twenty yards away from the creek. Before long a large snow bank becomes visible on the flank of Mt. Orton. The creek bends a bit to the right (north) and leads you into the willow Foster mentions.

Although I had been on the lookout for a suitable place to cross Hunters Creek, I crossed too late and ran into the masses of willow anyway. This was a bit demoralizing. The terrain under the willow is hard to see – a false step and you could be in a wet bog or drop a couple of feet off a rock. Finding myself in the same predicament as last year, I felt there was no real option but to power through it. I eventually made it out into clear meadow, where the creek falls down the slope in braids.

From there to the next unnamed pond (at just a shade under 11,400′) it’s an easy climb. Here, I found some cairns stacked up – the first sign of a trail for quite a way. I followed these to the west side of the pond. Turns out this was a mistake. From the west side of the pond you get dumped right back into the nasty willow. At first it wasn’t too bad, sometimes only knee deep. But it got worse, much worse. Being so close and getting stymied by the willow a second time was not an option, so I put my head down and powered through. After clearing the willow, I was deposited in a boulder field, which was easier than the willow but not by much. It took me nearly an hour to go just over a half mile. By the time I reached Keplinger I was exhausted. Time for a picnic!

I set the cameras up, the GoPro looking over the lake at the rock walls of Pagoda Mtn and the SLR the other way, with a view of Mt. Copeland to the south. It had taken me a bit longer than I’d hoped to get here, so I didn’t stay my usual hour. I ate my lunch and filled up my water bottle and headed back down at 1pm. From above, it’s clear which way to go. I crossed the outlet and walked down the east side of the valley, a fair distance above the unnamed pond below. From there, I crossed the braided stream and continued almost due south, keeping all the willow and trees to my left. After a while, I headed into the thin forest and looked for a place to cross the creek.

Anybody going up to Keplinger should take this route, as it completely avoids the willow and boulder field. Unfortunately, I didn’t make note of where I crossed. I was just so happy to have avoided all the hard parts. So, really, going this way makes the hike fairly easy. The hardest part is the section between here and the stream crossing at 10,500′. The main feature of this part is the seemingly unending maze of deadfall that needs to be navigated.

On the way up, it took me nearly four hours to get from where the Sandbeach Lake trail crosses Hunters Creek to Keplinger Lake. On the way down, the same distance cost me less than two. Obviously, a good part of this is due to the fact I was going downhill instead of uphill, but I can’t overstress the importance of avoiding the willow. I’m certain I’d have saved an hour had I made the correct navigational choices on the way up.

I took a short break when I returned to the main trail, eating another bunch of grapes and refilling my water again. Here I met two hikers coming down from Sandbeach Lake. They were the fourth and fifth people I’d seen all day. A few minutes before reaching the Meeker Park trail junction, the skies darkened somewhat and I could hear the distant rumble of thunder. Another couple ran past me, trying to get back to the trailhead before the rain. At the trail junction, graupel started to fall and I donned my poncho. The graupel quickly turned into BB sized hail. After a few minutes the hail stopped and the sun shone at my back. The storm worked its way toward Lyons, the thunder sounding closer now, even though it was past me.

I didn’t see a bear this week. Two guys I met in the morning said they had a bear in their campsite as they were cooking breakfast, which must have been a thrill. I know how thrilled I was to meet a bear thirty yards away. In fact, the only wildlife I encountered (other than squirrels and birds) was the deer I saw in Lyons. They must train their deer well – this velvet antlered buck crossed the highway using a crosswalk.

And here’s the time lapse video. I particularly like the bug walking across the camera lens.


Up Down
Trailhead 06:45 AM 04:25 PM
Meeker Park trail jct 07:20 AM 03:50 PM
Hunters Creek 08:20 AM 02:50 PM
Stream crossing 09:05 AM 02:15 PM
Unnamed lake (11,400′) 11:25 AM 01:15 PM
Keplinger Lake 12:15 PM 01:00 PM