Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pear Lake, Finch Lake and Sandbeach Lake - Rocky Mountain NP

GoPro video from Finch, Pear and Sandbeach Lakes in RMNP

Rocky Mountain National Park is a treasure trove of alpine lakes, and some of its best are located in the Wild Basin section of the park, which lies in the southeast area between the small towns of Allenspark and Meeker. The landscape is shaped by the gorges of the North St.Vrain, Coney and Ouzel creeks, which flow down from lakes beneath Copeland Mountain, Ogallala Peak, Ouzel Peak, Mount Orton, Pilot Mountain, Mount Alice and Tanima Peak. The park is busier near Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge, and also on the west side of the park by Grand Lake compared to Wild Basin, so moose and other wildlife sightings can be more frequent in the area.

The three trailheads in Wild Basin include the Sandbeach Lake trailhead which only has one trail climbing up to Sandbeach Lake under Mount Orton. There is also Finch Lake trailhead which lets you take a less traveled southern route up to Finch and Pear Lake. The largest trailhead is the Wild Basin trailhead which can hold maybe 30 cars, but fills up early in the day. It's trails lead to every other lake in Wild Basin, including Finch and Pear. I have hiked to all ten of the lakes in Wild Basin (all ten that can be reached by established trails) and I will do a post about the others, but this post will describe just Pear, Finch and Sandbeach because I hiked to those in one trip.  The other lakes in Wild Basin are Lion Lake 1, Lion Lake 2, Snowbank Lake, Ouzel Lake, Bluebird Lake, Thunder Lake, and then sad little Copeland Lake near the road.

Late in July of 2015 I got a permit to camp at the Hole in the Wall backcountry campsite which is about halfway between the Sandbeach Lake trailhead and the lake itself. I started out the day by getting lost, trying to find a way to cross Ouzel Creek and hike up to Lion Lake #1. I was supposed to meet a friend there who had camped in the area the previous night. Unfortunately the bridge across Ouzel Creek had been washed out in the 2013 floods and I didn't know that the alternate route involved hiking past the backcountry campsite zone where my friend had stayed. So, after wasting a couple hours figuring that out, I threw in the Lion Lake towel and instead headed to the southern part of Wild Basin where I could hike up to Finch Lake and beyond to Pear Lake. 

The trail to Finch Lake is very classic RMNP, with mossy stream, fir forests, and aspen groves dominating  the route. For most of the trail you hike west towards Copeland Mountain, along the northern side of a wide valley. It alternates between steep climbs, level trail and some downhill as you approach the lakes. The last quarter mile to Finch Lake is down hill as you descend into the basin where the lake resides. The shores of Finch Lake are marshy and crowded with wildflowers. The area is inhabited by squirrels and many bird species, and I was pleased to be the only person on the shore. I had passed a few hikers on my way up, but as I said before, that part of the park is not as popular as the others. 

Finch Lake
The trail to Pear Lake turns back uphill near the western end of Finch Lake, and continues on climbing steeply towards the western corner of the valley. First the trail crosses Coney Creek and then goes due west for another couple miles before crossing Pear Creek just east of the lake. After climbing up a steep ridge you can see Pear Lake from above with Ogallala Peak and Copeland Mountain towering majestically in the background. Like most places worth hiking 6.5 miles to, Pear Lake's beauty can not really be described and must be seen (in person) to appreciate. However I will say it is deep and green, large and ringed by wildflowers including beautiful purple alpine columbine. The mountains along the north and west shores are stunning and the south shore kind of fades into a marshy, almost tide pool-like area of shallow, algae-rich waters where anyone interested could spend hours looking at aquatic insects, baby fish and micro-crustaceans. I have to say Pear Lake is my favorite lake in RMNP, I think. It helped that there were two adorably friendly chipmunks competing for my attention as I sat on the shores and ate lunch (they've been fed in the past methinks).

Ogallala Peak and Copeland Mountain behind Pear Lake

After chilling for a while at Pear Lake, I hiked back to my car, then parked it at the Sandbeach trailhead and hike two miles to the Hole in the Wall campsite where I set up for the night. That campsite is on a small ridge covered in fir, next to Camper's Creek. I'm not sure what hole in what wall the site was named after but I liked it and would camp there again. I was exhausted after hiking over 20 miles that day so I went to bed just after sunset.

Early the next morning I hiked the approximately 2.5 miles to Sandbeach Lake, which sits in a basin of its own under impressive Mount Orton to the northeast. Sandbeach Lake is aptly named, as it's shores are broad and sandy and very beach-like. You could easily set up a volleyball game on its shores, if you wanted to, although I personally have no interest in volleyball and a ranger would likely ask you to cut it out if they saw you. Sandbeach is shallow and pale green, and a good spot for catching trout I am told. After a simple breakfast sitting on the whitish-tan sand, under bright blue skies, I hiked back to my car and drove home to Denver. I love RMNP's Wild Basin and recommend it to anyone who likes to hike to alpine lakes. The area doesn't see the crowds you find at Bear Lake and camping permits can be easier to get than in other places in the park, plus you may be more likely to see moose and bears in Wild Basin. Like anywhere in the park, bear canisters are required for backcountry camping and although I have never seen a bear in RMNP, my friend said his pack was stolen by one at the Aspen Knoll campsite. However, he wasn't using a bear canister and had beef jerky in his pack... Camp smart, and have fun!!

Sandbeach Lake

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ice Lakes Basin in Silverton San Juans

Ice Lakes Basin in the San Juan Mountains!!

In all the time I've lived in Colorado and all the hiking I've down in various parts of the state, I had never hiked in the San Juan Mountains until this last summer. The San Juans rise in the southwestern part of Colorado encompassing the old mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, Lake City, Creede, and Telluride. They form the largest mountain range in Colorado and include many dozens of peaks over 12,000 feet, six of which are 14ers. The San Juans are rugged, steep, and receive more rain and snow than most ranges in the region, which makes them rich with plant and animal life. I have now seen them only once but the day I was hiking in the Ice Lakes basin I repeatedly told my friend Keith that it was the most beautiful place I had seen in Colorado, perhaps in the country.

We spent our first night at Little Molas Lake campground, which was a great place to wake up in the morning, next to a picturesque lake with the spiny peaks of the San Juans jutting skyward in the background. From the campground we headed down to Silverton for a quick breakfast before heading to the trailhead for the Ice Lakes. A long dirt road follows Mineral Creek up a stunning valley with steep red walls towering on all sides to the campground and trailhead at the end.

The trail up to the lakes is about 3 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation gain, making for a very steep climb across lush meadows and dense forests, first aspen and then conifer, up to double tiered basin and the lakes beyond. I wish I had more pictures from the hike but my camera was almost dead so I only have a few. Regardless, pictures cannot convey the beauty of the experience you have on a bright and beautiful day hiking in the San Juans. We looked out on a sea of green, red brown grey black mountains and jagged white peaks against the clear blue sky.
After winding up switchbacks through forest and flower-filled meadows, wading through streams and passing a beautiful cascading waterfall, and mining ruins, we climbed one last steep switchback and suddenly came out into the breathtaking lower basin. Surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, the lower basin is filled with wildflowers, tundra plants, snowmelt streams and even a small lake. It is a classic landscape typifying the idyllic beauty of the Rocky Mountains. This is the source of the Colorado Rocky Mountain High! Not to mention, an awesome place to camp!!

The trail continues up the western wall of the basin where the landscape transforms to low grass and rock. We climbed up a steep slope towards the upper basin where Ice Lake sits. From below the lake Mt. Ulysses S. Grant towers high to the north, and in the shelf below it sits the fabled Island Lake. We stumbled up the last bit of trail to the upper ice lakes basin, and stretched out before us, white and covered in snow and bright blue ice that reminded me of blue raspberry syrup on a snow cone, was Ice Lake. I had seen pictures of it's powder blue waters and shores covered in fuchsia, yellow and blue wildflowers. But we were there on the 4th of July, perhaps a month too early for the lake to be free of snow. Behind the lake Golden Horn, Fuller Peak and Vermilion Peak rise in the spire-like form typical of the San Juan mountains. 

I would have loved to hike another mile further west beyond Ice Lake to Fuller Lake, and climb up to the hanging basin where Island Lake sits, however the storm clouds were starting to come in so we ate lunch and hurried back down the mountain.

Here's a brief video from the hike