My third and final backcountry permit is for the 24th and 25th at Pine Marten, the campsite at the base of the spur trail to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. I’ve been to both of them on day trips. Once to Nanita and once failing to reach Pettingell Lake. This time, the idea is to get to ‘Lake Catherine’, the officially unnamed lake highest in the valley between Andrews Peak and Mount Alice.
The Foster Guide says it’s 12.8 miles from the trailhead with an elevation gain of 1,800′. This is not a fair description. Her route is from Lake Nanita, which has the hiker crossing a ridge at just over 11,000′ and another that reaches nearly 11,400′ to get to a lake at only 10,600′. There is another way to get there without gaining and losing so much elevation: follow the stream.
The Pine Marten campsite is at something like 7.8 miles in, and sits at 9,500′. The route via Nanita, then, is five miles and climbs a total of 2100 feet. The bushwhack is maybe 3.5 miles and gains about 1000 feet. The Nanita route is quite scenic and navigation is trivial. The bushwhack route is through dense forest with few views and constantly challenging route-finding.
After pondering for some time, I decided a loop might be the best way: take the Nanita route to get there and bushwhack on the return trip. As a bonus, it should be easy to pick up Lake Solitude.
Thursday, September 24
Gordon drove; we had our choice of spaces in the small parking lot at the trailhead and were hiking before nine. It was a beautiful morning, with some high, thin, wispy clouds. There was a fair amount of haze when you faced the sun, but a nice, deep blue with the sun to your back. No breeze to speak of.
Just a few minutes after passing the cabin at the Park boundary we heard our first elk bugle.
Not long after that a helicopter flew over. It was a cargo chopper, with counter-rotating blades. It wasn’t carrying anything. A few minutes later, it came back down the valley. This was the first of what ultimately was five round trips. After the empty run, it had what looked like a telephone pole dangling vertically; something as big as the telephone pole, but carried horizontally; a pallet stacked with large crates; and finally two nets full of smaller items.
This last drop we had a sort of front-row seat. Just before reaching the stringer bridge that crosses the North Inlet, we were stopped by a ranger wearing a fluorescent vest: “You have to wait here a minute.” They’re staging the materials to rebuild the bridge. The work won’t get started until next summer, but they said they were lucky to get helicopter time, given the demands of the Cameron Peak fire.
We chatted with them a bit. One gal had worked on the crew doing the big boardwalk project on the Onahu Creek trail. She said they still had three weeks to go. Another ranger said he’d been to Catherine. I asked if he went from Nanita or up the creek. “Up the creek. Not much deadfall.” Gordon heard “Lots of deadfall.” In any event, it confirmed the “Nanita there, bushwhack back” loop was doable.
We learned that the first, empty, trip of the helicopter was to hit the landing zone with its prop wash, knock anything loose out of the trees. The landing zone wasn’t a natural occurrence: it looks like they cut down a number of trees.
The bridge is looking pretty sad. There are a couple of patches on it, but it looks like a careless horse could break a leg. The materials they dropped looked to be an upgrade from the existing structure. I believe the current bridge is the second one, built in the 1970s.
Our campsite was just a few more yards up the trail. There are two sites here, we took Pine Marten #2, the higher of the two. Google maps has the location of the campsite wrong. I like the actual location over Google’s misinformation. It’s right on the North Inlet. Very easy access to water, and I find the sound of the rushing water quite pleasant.
We made excellent time, averaging a bit less than two miles per hour. It is a fairly mellow trail; when I day hiked it, I managed two and a half miles an hour. This is the longest stretch of trail in the Park that I can maintain that pace. Having arrived so early, we headed up to Nokoni. Then, depending on how I felt, we could possibly visit Pettingell.
They need to send a crew up this trail with a saw and clear the deadfall that blocks the trail in several places. The first, and biggest, was just below the campsite – we had to navigate that with the big packs.
It took us an hour to get to Nokoni. I decided I’d rather lounge about the lake than hike another two hours and climb a steep 500′ slope. Gordon thought the extra hiking was just the thing and headed off up the slope. I found a spot on the opposite shore and followed his progress. He made much better time than I could. Before he left, he told me he’d signal me from the top to tell me whether he’d continue on down to the lake or abandon the quest. I watched him climb most of the way but lost him just before he got to the top, so I don’t know what he signaled.
Ultimately, he was gone for an hour and a half. He put eyes on the lake but didn’t quite get there. I think I made a sound choice. It would have been more like two hours for me. I might think differently had Gordon made it, but I was comfortable with the day’s effort.
On the way back to camp we ran into a solo hiker. He was wondering if he could make it to Nanita. He was staying well below us, back by Ptarmigan Creek, at either Ptarmigan or Porcupine. Given how far he had to go back, I suggested that going to Nanita might put him in the dark before he got back to his camp. He told us he’d bought a permit for Lost Lake, but due to the Cameron Peak fire, they moved him to Porcupine.
Back to camp at 5:15, we chowed down and chatted and had a beer. It had been a nice, warm day all day, calm, very pleasant. The wispy clouds were gone by mid-afternoon. When the sun went down, it started to cool down fast. Before long, I was wearing nearly everything I brought: long underwear, t-shirt, sweats, hoodie, and the rain jacket on top of all that. A few minutes after eight, I called it quits and climbed into the tent and sleeping bag. It took me a while to get warm.
By the time of my inevitable nocturnal excursion, the quarter moon had set and the stars were shining brightly. I didn’t see the Milky Way but I could see the light pollution from Denver.