More easy hiking in RMNP. Due to the unknown conditions of trails and access, I made this trip primarily to determine: a) driving time to trails in this part of the park (less than 1.5 hrs max), and b) to observe people using snowshoes and exactly when they might truly be necessary.
So I actually parked at the Bear Lake parking lot and initially just explored Bear Lake and the snowpacked travel in the immediate vicinity. Quite a few people milling around here on the weekend.
I decided I wanted more exercise and a change of scenery, so decided to hike to Beirstadt Lake, a short 2 - 3 mile hike. Trails had been traveled enough that the snowpack did not require snow shoes, though many people were using them. After hiking probably no more than 1 mile from Bear Lake, I encountered only 2 hikers.
Within about 1/4 mile of Beirstadt Lake I stopped to photograph the trail behind me and as I reached to grab my horiz/vert rotation handle on my tripod I discovered it missing. Because I had had this experience in the past, I knew what had likely happened: walking with my tripod on my back had set up vibrations that allowed the threaded handle to unscrew completely and fall to the ground. The extent of the threading is such that this occurrence would seem extremely unlikely, but it had happened previous. Naturally, I was quite unhappy with this recent discovery. And, equally naturally, I was determined to recover my lost handle
Hence my stopping short of my final destination. I knew with the slowed search pace on my return trip, I would only have enough daylight if I returned immediately. And so I did. And, breaking my string of amazing-tales-of-finding-lost-items-in-the-wilderness , I did not recover my lost tripod head handle.
Back to RMNP to make the hike I had intended the previous week. And I decided to rent snowshoes now that I knew exactly where the Mountain Shop was located (directly on my way into Estes Park), and that I could rent them at 8:00 AM and return them as late as 9:00 PM. Only $6 (with poles). Regardless of whether I truly needed them, I decided I could definitely use them for any off trail photography or exploring, and the experience would be useful for future hikes where the need was more imperative.
So this day I made the branch left to Mills Lake. Oh, and the weather was truly the nicest weather I had experienced in all of my hiking. Though forecasts predicted winds of 7 - 10 mph, there were none, and instead of partly sunny, it was completely sunny. Highs in the low 50's.
I did not actually need (nor don) the snow shoes until the last very steep ascents before Black Lake. Snowshoes are easy.
I hiked past Black Lake and put the snowshoes to the test by climbing a steep slope to get close to some ice falls just on the face of Chief's Head peak at the southern end of the lake. Had to use the shoes to dig some major footholds in order to take a few photos. Definitely an exotic/scary feel: standing in a one foot wide carved-snow foothold, on a precipitous snow field, several hundred feet above a frozen lake, 10 - 20 ft below giant hanging ice, miles from any human.
Learned something important about using snowshoes. By virtue of the design, snow will pack between the snowshoe and your hiking boot. And if the outside temperature allows this snow to melt, it is essentially equivalent to standing in shallow water for an extended period of time. So your hiking boots must have fresh water proofing, and/or I need to wear my gortex socks. Fortunately, the weather was warm enough on this hike such that even though my feet did get a bit wet, they were only slightly cold for a very short period.
This hike unfolded into an extraordinary outing. I wanted to add another hike to my winter experience and was looking for something new that did not begin at the Glacier Gorge parking lot where may last three hikes started. This hike sounded appealing because the initial part of the trail is the beginning of the East Longs Peak trail, and because getting to the trailhead would be 15 - 20 minutes quicker than entering RMNP through the Beaver Meadows entrance. This hike was challenging, a bit risky at certain moments, but provided some spectacular sights and an otherworldly experience.
Based on my 'net research about this hike in March, I had no doubt snowshoes would be required. I was torn between wanting to start this hike as early as possible and also wanting to rent snowshoes in Estes Park at the Mountain Shop where I rented them previously and it worked out very wellI. I actually arrived at the store parking lot nearly 15 minutes before they open at 8:00 AM, and fortunately I was let in about 5 minutes later. I wasted as little time as possible and was actually hiking by 8:30. I would have preferred 7 AM but had to make the trade-off. I definitely need to purchase some snowshoes as soon as I have the money.
The trail starts out in moderate forest and is fairly steep very soon. The snow on the trail had apparently been groomed mechanically but due to its steepness I was certain I was much more efficient with the snowshoes than without. I literally put my head down and tried to maintain a steady ascent. This trail starts at roughly 9,300 and climbs a couple of thousand feet in less than 4 miles, so I was a bit surprised at the pace I was able to keep. I was mentally comparing how I felt to how I recalled feeling on previous hikes at this altitude, with this rapid an elevation change. and the difference was striking. I concluded right there that what I had read about the difference between acclimation and conditioning at altitude is absolutely correct; one will generally acclimatize (breathing feels normal during low intensity activity) in less than 3 weeks, but conditioning for highly aerobic activity is very different. I had the physical sense that after a year of routine, high-level exercise at altitude, I had perhaps passed some threshold, because, again, it was quite noticeable. Or maybe it was just the extra carbo loading I did at breakfast knowing what this hike might be like. Regardless, I had decided before I started that I wanted to keep a fairly quick and steady pace so that I could get to my destination as early in the day as possible, because I did not want to deal with adverse weather if possible. During these first few miles the weather was beautiful: full sun, temp near 40, little to no wind.
In a little more than an hour the trees began to fade and soon I broke out and was essentially above timberline. An incredible (to me) sight lay in front of me. Out of the trees I was now looking into a broad snowfield (feet of snow), expanding to the distant horizon, nearly a full 180 degrees. Slightly to the south and mainly west, in the distance several miles, the prominence of Longs Peak presented itself quite dramatically. The "diamond" face of the peak was very apparent. Very lucky for me, the weather was still nearly ideal.
At this point, I looked across the snowfield toward the Diamond and tried to determine a line for continuing my hike. I saw several sets of tracks (no more groomed trail), but all soon disappeared due to the blowing and new snow. There were no fresh tracks that I could follow to Chasm Lake.
So I sighted a line and kept moving, still wanting to take advantage of my good weather. I was soon breaking trail through deep powder and at altitude this can be taxing. I began to ascend and parallel a ridge where I assumed the actual dry trail traveled on top. Pretty tough getting up that ridge, partly due to the uncertainty of my route, and the fact I was in the middle of this vast, truly dangerous place, solo. Too much to think about.
After about 30 minutes of hiking and probably 1/3 of a mile parallel along the north slope of the ridge I topped out. Whoa! Rather sheer on that south side, and a thousand feet down to Roaring Creek Gorge. And with the way the snow had drifted and crusted, the ridgetop was sort of peaked or crowned in places and I quickly knew to keep myself on the north side of those stretches. A slip or a wind gust, while trying to walk that crest and it could be real ugly!
Of course the Diamond was grower larger and to my great relief the ridgetop cleared of snow and I decided to pause and get my bearings. Looking at the ridgeline in front of me, it had the appearance of a trail, but I was still not certain, so I left my pack and went scouting ahead. After 50 or 60 yards I found what I had hoped for, the trail intersection sign, pointing left to Chasm Lake and right to Longs Peak. In checking my crude downloaded topo map later at home, I discovered had I bothered to reference it while hiking, I would have probably realized the ridgeline did correspond to the trail, and would have been much less uncertain about my route. Guess I was too preoccupied with making good time to pause to extract the map from my pack.
Now, standing at the trail sign, looking west toward the Diamond, I understood the naming of Chasm Lake. Close to the face of the Diamond is another lower peak and the gap between the two creates an enormous chasm (at least from my current viewpoint on the trail). The "lake" was not presently in view, but seemed obviously directly below the Diamond and in the chasm. From where I stood at that moment, with a slightly cloudy sky and some tinges of blowing snow, the sight down the trail and into that chasm reminded me of something out of an Indian Jones movie. Just not your everyday sight.
Looking down the trail, I now tried to follow traces of tracks in the snow that covered most of the trial as they headed in the direction of the chasm and where I assumed Chasm Lake resided. Probably 1/3 to 1/2 mile in the distance I could no longer detect tracks, so I was not certain exactly what route one would follow at that point to continue. And even if I did hike to that point, I was not certain it would be feasable to hike further once I arrived. But the sight in the distance was too sublime for me not to want to proceed. And so I did.
First, of course, I returned to where I had left my pack and then back to the signpost. The trail ahead was definitely a risky undertaking. As I mentioned, most of it was snow covered, but I did not describe this snow cover. Here, the dry trail was a leveled cut along a steep sloping face where the falling-off edge of the trail dropped precipitously at least 1000 feet into Roaring Creek Gorge. Naturally, where the snow covered the trail, it had essentially filled the leveled cut to create a continuous slope and so I was now faced with crossing section after section of this sloping snow. And that is what I proceeded to do.
Had the trail at this point been continuously covered with sloping snow I would not have gone forward. But it was, instead, as I described, stretches of sloping snow, punctuated by melted patches revealing dry trail. So I knew I could traverse a snow segment, then pause, recompose, and continue on the next segment. And that is what I did. I traversed the snow by placing every step carefully, angling the snowshoe slightly to maximize lateral grip, probing with my ski poles to test the snow, and never looking in the direction of the falling-off side of the trail. Total concentration on every step.
After probably 4 such stretches and traveling roughly 150 to 200 yards I stopped again to pause and recompose. Looking ahead I now saw a continuous sloping snow field for the next 1/4 mile as the trail neared the small ranger cabin just below Chasm Lake (still not in view). The rational side of me said, "Enough", "Too much risk already", "Stop here". The adventurer side of me said, "So close", "Imagine what it must look like above that shelf and into that chasm!" And as I was listening to these thoughts, probably 200 yards ahead, three bighorn sheep, coming from a higher point, galloped in a physics-defying way, down the snow field, crossing the trail (where I was guessing the trail went) on into the gorge, and stopped short of the bottom. I decided this was a sign for me to stop and not attempt traversing the next 1/4 mile of dangerous sloping snow, alone, with no human visible for miles, in snow-covered mountain terrain. Should have been an easy decision
And right then I also realized I would soon be required to make a second traverse along the same nerve-racking stretches from whence I just came. Time to take a long break.
Carefully maneuvering in my narrow, short clearing, I laid my wool blanket on the ground, took off my snowshoes, sat, opened my pack, fired up my butane stove, made a cup of tea and ate my lunch. I watched the bighorns still in view for a while, and started a mental mantra of affirmations regarding that sloping snow I would be traversing again.
Back to the signpost and a major sigh of relief and a chance to allow my legs to stop shaking. I proceeded along the ridge back to the nice spot where I had previously dropped my pack to reconnoiter ahead. Time for another break to check the weather and look at my watch. The weather was still quite good, though the wind was starting to gust some. Feeling good to be alive. Really should have had an ice axe (for self-arrest if necessary) on those traverses, and a second opinion. Time to start my hike back, rather than wait for the weather to possibly worsen.
Regardless of what I believed I understood about the terrain, and the landmarks I had noted on my ascent, I decided to try to retrace my tracks to minimize any anxiety regarding how to get back to the groomed portion of the trail. At one point as I was traversing the ridge, where the snow had crowned and was a bit crusty, the wind began to gust and I was forced to crouch and pause to assure it did not blow me down into the gorge. Exhilarating.
I was not able to follow my original tracks as far as I had hoped because the snow had apparently drifted over them. But as I looked around at the drama in view, the large snow fields all around, the prominent Diamond shedding snowy spindrifts, I did not care. I turned to meditate on the Diamond and the gusting wind blew stinging snow bits into my face. And there I stood, tiny in a truly vast space. Exhilarating, absolutely exhilarating.
Crystal Lake is now my favorite of all my hiking destinations in Colorado to date because: a) the trail head (Lawn Lake Trail head) is located in RMNP and consequently the door-to-door travel time is only 1 hr 15 minutes, max, b) though the trail is over 7 miles one-way and ascends more than 3,500 ft, 90% of it is one long grade, and the trail itself is mostly uniform, i.e, not particularly rocky, and most important, c) the destination, Crystal Lake, is the largest, most clear, most varied (in terms of shoreline, outflow pools, etc.) cirque-based alpine lake I have experienced.
Because I have found the weather forecast for Estes Park to be a fairly good predictor of RMNP hiking weather (extrapolating temps for the higher altitude), I was expecting sunny conditions all day and the report did not let me down. Excluding the common on-and-off higher altitude winds, the weather was exceptional. At my start time of approx 7:00 AM and at the start elevation of 8,500 ft, the temp was in the low 40's. Mid afternoon, at 11,500, temp (minus wind chill) in the mid to upper 70's. Very, very nice to spend a day above 10,000 without rain or clouds.
On this hike I decided to give myself a break from being a photographer; this allowed me to shed the extra 10-12 lbs of camera gear and allowed me to spend my time strictly enjoying the hiking/exploring experience. When I am shooting I often will get so involved in that activity that I find myself either hurried to explore my surroundings or out of time. Today was the first time since hiking in Colorado I have given myself the freedom (hence, time) to simply hike and explore. And I was glad I did so.
Without the extra weight of camera gear and winter clothes, and given the nature of the trail as I described it above, I was able to ascend at my desired fast pace of roughly 3 miles per hour, and so I arrived at Lawn Lake (just below Crystal Lake) in around 2 hrs.
As I was making the short traverse around Lawn Lake I noticed another hiker probably 100 yards ahead of me and eventually I caught up. We talked a bit and he told me he was hoping to make it to the "saddle" above Crystal Lake. I was not aware of this destination but as we hiked upward (gaining nearly 800 ft in the next 1.5 miles!) toward Crystal Lake I could clearly see the mountain saddle in the distance which I knew would provide some very nice views and so I decided to hike to it as well.
The saddle sits at roughly 12,000 ft and I was quite surprised at how well I managed the altitude while making the ascent. Slow and steady is how I progressed, keeping stops to a minimum. Surprisingly, I actually felt more light-headed, or altitude-affected earlier in the hike, probably around 9,500 or 10,000. I was definitely pleased with my conditioning.
The view from the saddle was probably the most scenic I have witnessed since hiking in Colorado, and likely because I believe it may be the highest vantage point for me to date, combined with the atypical cloudless sky. The Mummy Range could be seen quite near, and the broad, large Never Summit Mountains were very distinctive and beautiful in the distance.
I sat and talked a bit with another hiker who had arrived at the saddle a few minutes before me (my other "friend" arrived several minutes after me). He looked to be in his early 60's and was reading from a book to determine a route for hiking to nearby Hague's Peak. He told me he had camped the night before at the Lawn Lake backcountry sites, and the previous day had hiked from there to the peak of adjacent Mummy Mountain. To me, the Hague's Peak climb did not seem wise, given his age, his less-than certain routing, and mainly given he was doing it solo. Nothing technical, but rocky and steep enough, and at a high enough altitude that a person could easily fall and die doing it. A RMNP ranger did just that in this part of the park last year.
I worried about the guy but lost sight of him while talking with my other friend as he and I took in the view from the saddle (Hague's Peak was essentially behind us).
My friend was going to immediately return to the trailhead (family obligations), so I descended with him for a short distance until I thought I recognized a ridge above Crystal Lake. I stopped my friend and told him I was going to peel off and do some exploring and we parted.
I was correct about the ridge and was soon eating lunch, seated on a shelf high above beautiful blue-green Crystal Lake. Several feet in width, some snow still bordered the side of the lake below me. At the edge of the snow, where it floated on the water, the color was a magical arctic blue.
Eventually I hiked down to the lake and spent the remainder of my time exploring its perimeter and outflow pools. And I was constantly thinking about photography. So my exploring gave me the pleasure of enjoying the magic that alpine lakes are for me, while also allowing me to scout for a return photo trip. Many times I said out loud, "Wow", at what I could imagine through the lens. Fantastic colors and shapes for trying to create art (not landscapes or scenics).
When I finally decided to head back home I decided to hike along the drainage from Crystal Lake to Lawn Lake as I had an unusually good overview of the route from my Crystal Lake vantage and could see that it would require little to no actually bush-whacking (unlike my Coney Lake experience) and would provide for some interesting exploring of small falls and pools. And as I proceeded on this little adventure, once again, I saw many sites I knew I would need to photograph in the near future.
Finally purchased an annual pass and made my first hike in Rocky Mtn Nat'l Park (RMNP) proper. I intentionally chose this relatively short hike due to my lack of experience/knowledge regarding snow and associated trail conditions. The route I took followed the club lake trail to Club Lake, and from there I continued on the short distance to "The Pool" and then looped back along the Fern Lake Trail (which meant hiking about 1/4 miles on the road back to the car).
For this trail, on this day, I did find that snow levels only affected hiking if I ventured off-trail. However, as was predicted, some strong winds early were quite biting, though fortunately the trail at that time was often sheltered by trees and low narrow valleys. The "pool" area offered some interesting opportunities for photography (formed snow, pools, and ice), but the lighting was tough so I'll have to wait and see after I get the film processed.
This hike was another hike to revisit a place in RMNP I had hiked to the most recent winter. On this second trip I wanted to allow myself as much time as possible to simply explore the area, so I did not bring my photography gear. I do plan to return before the summer's end, making photography the primary objective.
The hike to Black Lake (roughly 1.5 miles past Mills Lake), seemed relatively easy and I arrived probably a little before 9:00 AM. I did not realize the temperature in the morning might be as low as it was, 50 degrees. But this was a pleasant surprise, given the sky was sunny and there was essentially no wind, and I had just the right weight long-sleeve poly for the conditions.
I did not remember how tight Black Lake sits in a very large cirque. I suspect this lake is fully out of shadow for only 6 hours each day this time of year. Quite striking how nearly surrounded by high peaks it is.
The really fun thing about this hike was the discovery of what lay beyond Black Lake, the trail continuing to an area I had not been able or was not willing to explore during my winter hike. This area is reached by following the trail around the east side of Black Lake to near its most southern point, then making a left (essentially continuing south, southeast since the traverse around the lake will almost turn you back west) to ascend the steep drainage there. Though a significant incline, this ascent is relatively short and is inspiring as you climb out of the deep Black Lake cirque into a grand open arena where Frozen Lake and smaller pools lay on the shelves in view, and directly below Chief's Head Peak.
As I began to hike toward the upper shelf I soon encountered two other hikers with heavy packs and climbing gear. They informed me that the face just slightly west of Frozen Lake was a popular rock climbing route, part of which was called The Scythe, a formation they pointed out on the upper reaches. Apparently you are allowed to camp in this area only if it is strictly bivouac and you have acknowledged you will be technical rock climbing.
Not wanting to tag along, we parted, following our own different routes to the upper shelves. Shortly I stopped to rest, take in the view, and to consider where I wanted to go. I soon saw another hiker approaching, and realizing he may be avoiding me simply to not bother me, I slowly walked over to talk. Quite surprisingly we both quickly recognized each other from my hike to Sky Pond this past April. We had briefly talked on that occasion. Today, Bob was heading toward Stone Man Pass that crossed the Continental Divide west and slightly north from where we stood. He asked if I wanted to join him and I told him I would hike with him for a while, but that I was not certain about trekking to the Pass. I had cycled a hard 45 miles the evening before, had only slept about 5 hrs, and my ankle sprain from 3 weeks earlier was still mending to a degree. I had actually already hiked further and harder than my original plan, which was to make Black Lake my final destination.
But I was definitely anxious to hike with another person for a change, and Bob was very experienced so I knew his route-finding would be good. So I followed and we immediately began a sharp ascent through alpine grass and occasional rock exposure. I was breathing hard. Too hard, given my conditioning.
In a few minutes we reached another shelf, with a pretty green pool slightly north and below us about 50 yards. I knew I would be foolish to continue with Bob for the reasons I stated above and so I regrettably told him I would not be following him through the pass (which held much snow in view that Bob realized would be something to negotiate eventually). Bob soon moved on and I headed to the pool for some exploring.
I did my usual thing of taking an icy dip, meditating and taking in the views. I then headed back toward Frozen Lake, keeping to the high ground above it and allowing myself to pass directly below the climbing route I mentioned earlier. No climbers in sight by that time. After exploring another small pool directly above Frozen Lake, I began my descent.
At Frozen Lake I repeated my alpine lake routine with several dips into the icy pool, followed by sunning on the rocks. Also making lots of mental notes for any future photography trip; the relatively expansive drainage area below Frozen Lake seemed to offer lots of opportunities.
Still limited to relatively short hikes due to a recent back re-injury, and due to rapidly shortening days. Also looking for hikes that require no more than an hour of driving. This hike was just right relative to both criteria: barely an hour of hiking from the trailhead, and barely an hour to drive.
A nice discovery. This trail is actually part of RMNP, but at this time of the year it can be hiked without a fee as the trailhead is outside the main entrances. And the trailhead, is immediately off Devil's Gulch Rd, coming from the north to Estes Park, through, by the way, certainly one of the most beautiful high valleys in all of Colorado, dotted with the occasional ranch/retreat home.
Not a high mountain type hike, but some wonderful rock formations along the trail and great views of Estes Park and the surrounding mountains. Gem Lake is the usual pool of water, but in a unique setting, squeezed tightly by two tall ridges on two sides, with an opening on one end to a view of Estes Park. A nice little sandy beach along part of one edge. The setting is very picturesque as a whole. There is probably less than a foot of water at the deepest this time of year.
I hiked to the top of one of the ridges (just cannot stop myself from pursuing physical challenges) and managed to get myself lost on the return. This would have been much, much more scary had the terrain not made it obvious how to bushwhack down by heading toward Estes Park, worst case. But I did wander, uncertain, for probably 20-30 minutes, searching for Gem Lake or an official trail. This degree of mislocation on most of the other trails I have hiked would have been potentially life threatening. However, on such trails as those I am always much, much more attentive whenever I step off the main route. Nothing adventurous or exciting about getting temporarily lost in a relatively remote area. I am actually fortunate to know how easy it is to get lost.
Since this hike is working for me at this time, I returned. The water was frozen to about an inch thick on this visit. Overcast and a bit breezy, so kind of cold. I hiked to the top of the opposing ridge (from my last visit) and was able to see clearly from this vantage point how I managed to get lost on my last hike. I came down too far away from Gem Lake, relative to where I made the ascent, and then when I turned back toward the Lake, I actually swung too wide and ended up on the "back" side of the ridge where I had climbed on this second visit. Hence Gem Lake was no longer viewable and consequently my disorientation. From this other ridge I could see exactly where I had wandered. And this perspective made it clear why I hadn't deemed it necessary to be that attentive as I hiked away from Gem Lake; the terrain seemed too obvious. On my descent that day I had decided to make safety (with respect to falling) a priority, and so rather than descend more directly to Gem Lake, I took a longer, gradual route, and hence returned from the ridge at a point much further away than where I had ascended. And, I did not recognize how far. Good lesson: don't take the terrain for granted, and keep landmarks in sight.
After my previous hike (Chasm Lake) I decided I should probably do something with a much lower risk factor and perhaps more relaxing, so I had planned to make another hike to Loch Vale, to hopefully visit it in less windy and cold conditions than previous and to just spend time mainly doing photography. But I found myself at the Loch relatively early, with the weather very nice, so I decided to keep hiking and that's how I ended up at Glass Lake.
But this was one ridiculous workout. Because I wanted to get an early start and because I was quite certain I would not really need snowshoes to get to the Loch, I bagged a stop at the Mountain Shop and did not rent them for this hike. That worked regarding the early start and hence my relatively early arrival to the Loch (probably just after 9 AM), but then that extra time and the very nice weather compelled me to keep hiking at which point I definitely should have had those snowshoes. Someday, hopefully, I'll have my own.
Hiking beyond the Loch, I was simply following (parallel, to avoid corrupting) what appeared to be an occasioned cross-country ski trail. And I recalled from my previous hike that this eventually led to higher, open country, so I was interested in investigating that.
As I said before, ridiculous. Trudging through ankle and knee deep snow, post-holing, with increasing elevation. But I just kept going, as usual wanting to see around that next bend or wanting to get to that next opening. At least a mile of this before I finally broke out of the trees.
Out of the trees and the sun was still shining, no wind, upper 40's; it was practically hot with the reflecting snow and my level of exertion. Good! I could now clearly see Taylor and Powell Peaks in the distance. I also could see distinctly the shelf above Timberline Falls where Glass Lake resided. Actually, at the time, because I had not planned to do this hike, I thought Sky Pond was the "pond" just above the falls. Well, I told myself, wouldn't it be cool to get above that shelf and see Glass Lake? And I was thinking: lots more snow to trudge through, significantly more incline, already past noon, looks tricky immediately above the falls. And: I could just enjoy the nice weather, get into some meditative photography, take my time getting back. Finally I asked myself: Do something relaxing? Something where I'm not pushing my physical limits? My answer: Not a chance.
At that point I was on the northwestern side of the valley that drains into The Loch. Seemingly reasonable at the time, I sighted a route that ascended the long sloping snowfields on that side of the valley, in the direction of the shelf. Too bad I had not known this at the time, (from here) "I had always heard that the place where you must climb to get above the falls was very difficult while covered in snow and ice. I did it a few years ago, but couldn't remember anything about it. Plus, there was tons of snow on the slopes near the falls and I didn't want to get caught in a small slide or anything. With all of that in mind I decide to head to the eastern side of the valley, crossing Embryo Lake, and then try to find a more gentle slope in order to gain the shelf, above Timberline Falls, that contains Lake of Glass and Sky Pond. This would take me along the lower slopes on Thatchtop Mountain." Where he says, "eastern", it's really southeastern.
Well, as Johnny Carson would say, "I did not know that." Actually, I had considered that route along the opposite side of the valley, but given I did not have snowshoes and wanted to keep my snow plowing to a minimum, and given I could not be certain about that route until I got closer to view it, I chose to continue along the southwestern slope and follow the route I had sighted. In order to lessen the effort I soon decided to drop my pack and only take my camera and tripod (with strap).
A serious workout. And I was somewhat concerned (and not as educated as I should have been) about the possibility of avalanche when I crossed the highest, most sloping, and longest snowfield that reached just above Timberline Falls. And it was starting to get cloudy.
After crossing the snowfield, I stood looking 60 - 70 degrees up to the shelf and saw a route that skirted to my right, but it definitely looked tricky, i.e., steep and snow covered. It did, however, have some protection with rock outcroppings soon available on its shoulder. I had come rather far, was damn tired, but I really wanted to reach my goal.
The short, steep pitch turned out to be, not surprisingly, a minor exercise in fortitude. As I climbed, the snow eventually became so hard and icy I was forced to kick footholds. And even when I reached the rocky shoulders, I still had to step out into a short hard snow chute, and was forced to rely on my grip on a small scrub brush to pull me through it. Also, more than I would have liked, I had to reposition my camera and tripod that were strapped to my upper body. The scariest part was simply how much longer it required to climb than I had guessed from below. I thought the shelf came much sooner. So it became scary because of fatigue. But as anyone who has ever climbed into situations like this knows, turning back is just too dangerous. Fortunately, I made it.
By then the sun was covered by diffuse clouds (typical mountain condition), and the wind was probably 5 - 8 mph, so colder. I stood on Glass Lake (thinking it was Sky Pond), blue ice at my feet, with Taylor and Powell Peaks prominent in the near distance. In the cloudy conditions, the scene had a mysterious, otherworldly appearance.
So I started shooting, believing I might get something interesting, but also wishing the sun would burn through and light the scene.
Standing at the Falls end of the "lake", and looking back, I had an expansive view of the valley and could even see The Loch. I also had a much better view of the southeastern slope and was thinking it probably would have been an easier approach. I definitely thought it would be the preferred route for my return to The Loch, but I had left my pack and gear on the northwestern slope. And though it was far from where I stood, I knew where my pack was sitting as I had carefully noted very specific landmarks before hiking away from it.
I hung around only for a short while, watching the sky, waiting for the sun to return, hoping for a shaft of light to pierce through. Eventually I decided it was getting too late, and I was getting too cold.
Though it would require traversing southeast to northwest across the valley, I sighted such a route back to my pack, deciding that trying to return the way I came was not wise. A good decision, and I did hike directly back to my pack using my landmarks.
I returned to The Loch, literally retracing my tracks as much as possible. Definitely easier than the hike in. And then back the 2.5 miles to the parking area. I was drained.
I chose this trail (actually another, read on) mainly to investigate this location as a possible place to try some winter camping in the near future (I already got the scoop on permits in RMNP during winter) as it was recommended by someone at REI. A park ranger I contacted prior to hiking felt I would need snowshoes for my planned destination, but I opted to take my chances, assuming better snow pack (due to hikers) than the ranger might have guessed.
The forecast (for Estes Park) predicted wind, and the forecast was accurate. Winds at least 20 mph in the parking lot as I left the trailhead. Windchill no doubt in the low teens. But my philosophy is you can't wait for the weather to be right. You just have to go. I believe this mainly because mountain weather forecasts are not the most reliable, i.e., this windy day could possibly have been much less than predicted. So you could stay home and miss a beautiful day if you take the forecasts for gospel. Regardless, I was prepared for the weather.
After the first 1.5 miles of mostly ascending, I was surprised to encounter a T in the trail. As I was analyzing the terrain I encountered two hikers who also were puzzled by this junction in the trail. They told me they had ventured left and right and had run into deep snow in both directions. I decided the terrain immediately ahead looked easy enough, i.e., lacking much snow, to explore as if the trail continued forward from the T. So the three of us (they also lacked snowshoes) hiked straight from the T for only about 30 yards and stopped to look around. One of the two hikers said he had hiked this trail several times in the summer and thought he knew where the various lakes lay in the landscape before us, but did not feel he could locate the trail. My fellow hikers soon concluded the trail had not been traveled enough to be able to follow from that point and decided to turn back in order to have time to visit another part of the park. In retrospect I believe they were not into being in the wind and cold we were experiencing. Not that they could not handle it, just that it was probably not the kind of relaxing day they had planned.
I had no intentions of venturing far from the trail juncture, but the landscape was quite open at this point so I could easily explore ahead a bit with no chance of getting lost. In truth, I was assuming I too would probably be returning and looking for an alternative hike. But to my surprise, less than 30 yards further (and a little 15 ft scramble) the trail we were seeking was very obvious.
I immediately backtracked this now-obvious trail to determine where it met the trail I had come up on. I wanted to be certain I would have landmarks on my return at the end of the day and I also wanted to make sense of why I had not connected to it. What I discovered is that because of all the snow cover, multiple paths had been created along the ascent route, and the one I took apparently did not follow the RMNP trail. I was pleased with myself for having been patient to explore a bit, because now the trail was very obvious and there was not even a need for snowshoes. And within a relatively short distance I found signage to my destination Mills Lake and possibly on to Black Lake. That had actually been my original plan for this hike.
Not too long after the signage I saw two people on cross-country skis about 80 yards ahead of me. I started hiking hard (and it was hard because it had started to incline significantly at this point) to close the gap so that I could stop, set up my tripod, and capture them going through a somewhat narrow pass. Looked kind of interesting.
I eventually caught up with them and learned that one of the guys owned the outdoor gear shop in Estes Park I had put on my list as the place to rent snowshoes if I was going to do that only for the day. Rob owns Estes Park Mountain Shop, and he was celebrating his 50th birthday.
I also learned that I was not on the trail to Mills Lake... I was instead on the trail to Loch Vale. Rob's friend told me I had missed my trail just shortly after the signage I mentioned earlier. I had not looked carefully at my map (because I thought the snow pack would be obvious) and I missed the left turn because during the snow season it followed a path that turned before the untravelled bridge of the true trail. And I had noticed the bridge but seeing that it was untravelled I assumed I needed to continue on the path of snow pack.
Rob and his friend assured me that the Loch would be as good or better a destination than my original plan and that it was essentially the same distance as Mills Lake. And they were right. A stunning frozen lake in a significant bowl of snow covered mountain peaks.
After trekking the length of Loch Vale, I explored probably only a half-mile further as there snowshoes were definitely needed. Windchill on the lake when I first arrived was harsh. My thermometer (not a true windchill) was around 6 F. I learned that my hand layers of wool gloves and OR wind shells were really not sufficient, so a good test for future reference.
Saw my first porcupine in the wild. High in a tree, the quills were backlit as I turned around (a rule of thumb for photography) while hiking back from my short jaunt beyond the lake. He was munching on a small branch, but too distant to get any kind of a decent image with only 200mm of zoom.
By late afternoon the wind had dropped to almost none at all, so the return hike was quite pleasant.
Another hike without camera gear, keeping it light and giving myself more time and energy for exploring and observing, rather than continuously locating, setting up, waiting for conditions, and shooting; two considerably different hiking experiences. Without the extra weight of camera gear, the hiking is significantly less taxing and it really does allow me to have more of a pure outdoor experience. On most of the hikes when I have carried my camera, the photography has dictated everything: time, distance, how much and what I saw.
I had originally planned to hike only to Fern Lake and back off of my usual pace to make this as much an outdoor experience as possible, with less emphasis on the physical push. From the Fern Lake Trail trailhead, Fern Lake is only 3.7 miles, with an elevation change of slightly more than 1,500 feet. Even at the slower pace, I arrived at Fern Lake before 9:00 AM and felt very much like more hiking, especially as I discovered the trail continued toward the prominent peaks in the distance and a trail sign indicated Odessa Lake as the next destination. Looking at the map, I guessed no more than another 30 minutes of hiking.
Roughly another mile, and just a little over another 500 feet, I arrived at Odessa Lake in just about 30 minutes, In my opinion, anyone who hikes to Fern Lake via the Fern Lake Trail absolutely should make the extra distance to Odessa Lake. Roughly 1/5 of a mile before you reach Odessa Lake, the trail levels and follows, within just a few feet, the channeled outflow of the lake. The look of the perfectly channeled stream leading into the lake, with forests on either side and Notchtop Mountain in the distance, reminded me of something out of a fairy tale, it was that picturesque. And once on the boundary of the lake, the striking peak of the Little Matterhorn was that much more visible than from Fern Lake.
Though I've found at least two sources on the internet that referred to the hike to Odessa Lake as "strenuous", the hike seemed relatively easy to me. Apparently my conditioning is very good on hikes sans camera gear, where the elevation change is no more than 2,000 ft over 5 miles.
So still feeling quite fresh, with reasonably good weather, i.e., very light wind, mostly sunny, and with an obvious shelf in the distance just below and to the east of Notchtop, I decided to follow what appeared to be a common footpath that led from the southern end of Odessa Lake and paralleled the drainage in the direction of the shelf. I had no intention of attempting a summit of Notchtop (or saddles in the vicinity), but I was interested in exploring any pools or small lakes that might be sitting in the cirque formed by Notchtop and the surrounding ridges, i.e., just above the shelf I had sighted.
The footpath did take me in the direction of the shelf and I soon found myself needing to decide between a more direct route, paralleling the drainage and a large waterfall, and what appeared to be the more common but much longer switchback. I decided to attempt a more direct route and consequently was required to ascend two sections of fairly steep snow. I had already assessed the snow and it was well compacted, but on the second "pitch", I did grab a small stick to use as a pick for extra security. Taxing, but not particularly dangerous. Taxing because stopping on those snow pitches increased the possibility of slipping, so once I committed to each pitch I had to move quickly and constantly. Also, for traction, I had to turn my feet almost perpendicular to my body. The route was definitely shorter and I got a good look at the large waterfall flowing from the shelf.
At the level of the shelf and just below Notchtop, I did find two small "lakes". I spent a few minutes exploring the perimeter of the uppermost lake, but because it was now windier and much more cloudy I headed back toward the edge of the shelf to find some shelter (from the wind), and to where I could have a view of Odessa Lake far below while I ate some lunch. Because Notchtop has an elevation of 12,129 feet, I estimated I had hiked to about 11,700 and roughly 5.5 miles. Probably because I had finally started treating my intestinal bug (likely, giardia), I did not really feel tired at all from the hike. And even though I had been winded by the short snow pitches, it was nothing like a year ago a few times at the end of 7 miles, at 10,000 to 11,000.
From my vantage point I discovered two more lakes below me and decided I could hike to them relatively easily on my return trip to Odessa Lake. I believe these lakes were Lake Helene and Two Rivers Lake.
Opposite to the "side" of the shelf I ascended, I made my descent toward the closer of the two lakes below, Lake Helene. During my descent I stopped frequently to determine the most direct but possible route to Lake Helene, and used the vantage point to also sight a route I could take from Helene to Two Rivers once I arrived at Helene. The descent did not always go smoothly and required the occasional annoying push/scrape through dense scrubby pine and brush. And unfortunately, at one point, while making a short jump down, I twisted my ankle.
I knew the jump required a little caution, so I had actually seated myself and did a kind of lowering, controlled drop. But the landing spot was a narrow ledge (no real exposure though) and not uniform, and so unfortunatley my right foot came down (from about a 4' drop) onto the top edge of a rock. Literally out of the corner of my eye (as my main focus was in the direction of my other foot and the ledge in general), I saw my right ankle flex out unusually far and snap back. And I thought, hmmmm, that's probably not good. And it did hurt some, though not much really. Still, I tried to be smart and so on my return hiking I avoided getting that ankle in full body weight-bearing situations as much as possible.
I finally made it to Lake Helene and then a short meander over to Two Rivers. I actually took a dip in Two Rivers, fully submerged. Cold, yes, but not the numbing, direct-ice-melt cold of the surrounding drainages. A very pretty small lake nestled tightly in the mountains. Lake Helene is smaller and not as pretty.
Eventually made it back to Odessa Lake and took a dip there also. Again, full submersion. Surprisingly colder than the higher Two Rivers Lake (some solar effect I'm sure), and more shallow. A number of brook trout swimming around. Then back to Fern Lake and another dip. A much deeper lake, and the warmest of all. Would liked to have spent more time in the water, but did not want some unsuspecting person to see me from the trail on the other side. I do these "swims" sans clothes unless I am carrying an extra pair of dry shorts. These dips are a regular aspect of my hiking experience. The cold water is certainly a kind of test and surviving the shock can be highly invigorating. Also, I just think one has to grab unique opportunities, and I consider sitting in the crystal clear flow of a mountain stream, or plunging my body into the crashing water of a mountain waterfall, a unique opportunity. And my spirit is strongly attracted to water.
Epilogue: My ankle was quite swollen the morning following my hike, but strangely it was not hurting. After the fact, I realized I hiked from a spot off trail for over a mile, and then back to the trailhead for a total of 6 miles on a sprained ankle. Still surprised how I barely noticed it. However, because I must have good ankles for future hiking, and running and cycling, I tried to keep my weight off of it for the next several days and iced it regularly. Today, a week later, still some swelling, and some tenderness when squeezed, but I've got to start using it again. I will be taping it at least for the next week whenever I hike, bike or run.
First Hike (in snow)
Having learned after my hike on March 31 to Glass Lake that Sky Pond was only .4 mile further, and having discovered Michael Hodges comments regarding an alternative route in winter, I decided to hike again to Loch Vale with the planned goal of continuing on to Sky Pond.
The weather was much better on this hike than my previous: mostly sunny and temperatures approaching upper 40's, and so I was feeling quite good as I crossed The Loch, still-frozen, though now slushy in some parts. Probably less than 1/2 mile after leaving The Loch, I began sighting a route along the southeastern slopes per the description above and per my own thoughts during my previous hike. Though this route consisted of mostly bouldering (snowshoes off), it was definitely more direct and did not present the steep snow slopes of my previous hike. By around 10:30 I had made it to Glass Lake.
And it was a much different scene than on March 31. On this day, with the sun shining, instead of the opposite side of Glass Lake looking like the base of Powell Peak, I could now see the terrain continuing on, with Sky Pond apparent in the distance, very close to Powell Peak.
Somewhat skeptical of the surface strength, I skirted the edge of Glass Lake and continued my hike to Sky Pond. On the other side of Glass Lake, the scene was quite beautiful: an undulating landscape, an interesting oval depression, and all covered with smooth snow. There was no visible trail to follow, but the terrain was open and above timberline, and Sky Pond seemed an obvious slight rise just below Powell and Taylor Peaks. With my snowshoes back on my feet, I enjoyed the hike through this winter wonderland.
Soon I arrived at Sky Pond and shortly was joined by two other hikers I had seen earlier, one of whom I had talked to briefly. I spoke again with the hiker I had talked to earlier, but he wanted to keep moving to explore Andrew Glacier and headed on. The other hiker and I decided to sit at the edge of Sky Pond and have our lunch. Frank was probably in his mid fifties and was one of those guys who should not be judged by appearance. His outer clothes were definitely not state of the art and his day pack was a relatively large, worn, external frame pack. And his snowshoes were of the older woven variety. But as we traded stories I learned of the depth of experience Frank had with the outdoors, the kind of experience for which I personally have a lot of respect. For example, spending over 20 nights solo, winter camping in the Adirondacks.
After eating our lunches we went our separate ways and I slowly began hiking back. I had intentionally hiked the forward trip relatively quickly with few stops so that I could hike back with as much time and cooperative weather for photography as possible. That is exactly how I spent the remainder of the day.
Second Hike (summer)
Having hiked to Sky Pond in the winter season, I decided to return to explore the area in the summer. And because I was familiar with the terrain, and the distance involved was not particularly long, I opted for the extra weight of my photography gear.
Quite interesting to compare the area with and without snow and ice. No treks across the surface of The Loch or Glass Lake or Sky Pond. Instead I made my way by following a surprisingly well maintained trail extending all the way to Sky Pond. On this day I actually encountered several trail crews involved in various upgrade/maintenance projects.
Wanting to allow for the time I knew I would sink into doing photography, I hiked rather briskly and arrived at Sky Pond probably around 9:00 AM. The weather was sunny and just breezy enough to be annoying in terms of trying to capture still surfaces, but otherwise very pleasant and excellent for the mountains. Another beautiful RMNP spot: a crystal clear pool, close mountain peaks, and numbers of small waterfalls.
I probably saw at least a dozen hikers at or near Sky Pond on this day, but not by any measure was this a crowd. I encountered the largest number of hikers in late afternoon as I was getting relatively close to the trailhead on my return. These were folks apparently getting in short hikes before the sunset; a nice time of day to hike if the skies are clear.
I decided to explore a somewhat new part of RMNP for this hike and chose the trail to Snowbank Lake that began at the Wild Basin, Thunder Lake trailhead. Based on my odometer the distance from Estes Park to the Wild Basin turn-off is 13.8 miles, not 10.8 as stated in the "trail info" link. Also, it's useful to know that the first .4 mile after the turn-off is a paved road that passes through a tiny mountain neighborhood.
Another day of sunny skies, and as usual, not a coincidence, as I had been monitoring the detailed forecasts for Estes Park. Because I anticipated hiking at least 16 miles total, I decided to strike a balance between camera gear and no camera gear and brought only my camera (no tripod, no flash, no extra lenses, etc.) with the assumption I would use it simply to document the scenery, as opposed to trying to work on any fine art photography. And because of the hiking mileage I also decided to get to the trailhead an hour earlier than normal, which meant leaving the house a little before 5:00 AM.
Before I started down the trail I noticed what looked to be a relatively fresh warning posted on the trailhead bulletin board regarding the presence of mountain lions in the area, and I kept it in mind. Since I was certain I was quite alone as I hiked in, on stretches where I felt the habitat looked good for mountain lion, I hiked with my feet clapping hard to make noise and to hopefully sound large; this required little extra effort and so I figured it was worth it.
Relatively speaking, the trail offered only the occasional scenic stop and because I really wanted to maximize my time at my final destination, I kept a quick pace and arrived around 8:40 AM at the first lake, Lion Lake #1, in the trio of ascending lakes that end with Snowbank.
As you break into this alpine lake area, the trail is visible along the east border of Lion Lake #1, and an obvious shelf can be seen north and west in the distance. I followed the trail around Lion Lake #1, but then did not immediately see any well-worn route or cairns leading to the shelf. I referred to my written directions and my printed square of topo and decided on a route mostly straight north that I thought might be more direct to Snowbank.
Some relatively steep stretches at first but presenting little exposure and all on grass. Not exactly certain at what level I would find Snowbank, I decided to keep moving north, maintaining the highest ground possible and eventually actually found myself above the north end of Snowbank. My return trip revealed this was not the best route in terms of effort and probably not in terms of time either.
On the northern end of Snowbank there are superb views of the high country, with Mount Alice looming close just to the west. Mount Alice is one of the more jutting peaks I have personally seen in RMNP. From where I stood I could see an obvious ridge to the saddle below Mount Alice, so I dropped my gear on a high rock above Snowbank and hiked up to look around.
The hike to the ridge was steep but not tricky as it was over grass and without the weight of my pack it actually felt kind of good pounding away up the hill. I reached a point where I was essentially on the lowest point of the ridge to the saddle and could see into all valleys below, including the severe wedge between myself and Mount Alice. Had it been my intention to reach the saddle on this day I could have done so without particular difficulty, but I had already hiked further than planned and had no reason to make the saddle. I instead came to spend my time exploring the lakes here.
Snowbank is one of the larger lakes I've experienced at this elevation and there was a substantial snowbank still on the north end. This was also the quietest alpine lake to which I had hiked. Being so near the summit, there was an absence of any strong falls, and at the distant drainage end there was a substantial buffer from Lion Lake #2 below. Usually in these alpine lake areas the sound of water flowing down and over rocks creates a constant audible background. But on the north end of this lake, I could sit in near silence.
I finally made my way down to the drainage end of Snowbank and walked out onto a long arm of rocks extending into the water there. As usual, I slipped into the brisk water not able to resist the chance to "swim" in the beautifully clear, emerald lake.
Below the drainage of Snowbank is a 10' to 15' drop to Lion Lake #2, another emerald body, and actually smaller than Snowbank. I skirted around to the west, dropped my pack, grabbed my camera, and then picked my way along the lake border back to the drop below Snowbank to photograph the waterfall there. I then headed to the drainage end where I found a wonderful grassy landing for resting in the sun after more dips into the cold water.
Finally ready to hike back, I decided to investigate the drainage of Lion Lake #2 to Lion Lake #1, and from the vantage point just past the south end of Lion Lake #2 I could see what appeared to be a nice path down. By staying 20 yards or so west of the drainage, a relatively easy route can be followed. This route takes you past Trio falls which can be seen in the distance when you first enter the area at the south end of Lion Lake #1. I actually stopped here and maneuvered my way under one of the falls and let it crash down on me. The weight nearly knocked me off my feet, but it was exhilarating! A great shoulder massage. Continuing to follow the drainage I was soon down to Lion Lake #1, where I made another swim at its southern end, finding, as I suspected and hoped, the water temperature almost tolerable.
For Future Reference!!
The best route to Snowbank is to follow the drainage below Trio Falls (the Falls will be visible west of the middle of the shelf looking from the north end of Lion Lake #1), staying 10 - 20 yards west (or left) of the drainage as you hike. Don't worry about the drop that creates Trio Falls, you will see non-risky paths as you get closer. Hike to the Falls, scramble around on to Lion Lake #2, and then to Snowbank just above.
Still trying to keep my hiking somewhat short. On this day, given the time of year, I thought I might actually be able to hike inside the main entrances of RMNP without a fee (or at least at a reduced fee ) and so I had originally gone to the Beaver Meadows entrance thinking I might be able to hike the Deer Mountain Trail. Nope. Still $20 just for the day! Seems to me they could consider some kind of graduated fee schedule relative to the number of visitors. But I did not give the tubby, young girl in the booth, in full ranger dress, a hard time. I simply asked if there was a discount for the season, and then said, nicely, that I would be turning around. And I did.
Plan B. I had factored in the possibility I would not be hiking the Deer Mtn Trail so I had brought my Colorado DeLorme Atlas in case I needed to scout for another trail, one that would be close to where I was, but outside the fee entrances. And 20 minutes later I was at the pull-off for the Twin Sisters Peak trail.
Very, very nice weather (I had been watching it for the last few days) and a really nice hike. Though it ascends over 2000 ft, the 4.0 miles (had to hike an additional .3 miles to the trailhead as the road was closed for the season due to snow cover) to the summit seemed relatively gradual. There was snow on the trail most of the hike, but almost all of it packed by hikers, melt, and settling. Some drifted snow was more than a foot, but this was rare, and almost all off trail. Great 360 views at the summit. Actually encountered four other hikers: one arrived before me, one after, and two on my return. Temperature, around freezing in the shade, but warm in the sun (without wind). Even in the shade, absent any wind chill, I was comfortable hatless, with simple glove liners, a single microfleece top layer and wind pants. Gaiters were not necessary in the packed snow.