Saturday, September 19, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 4

Day 4... the final day started out early. Everyone was to be up by 6am so we could break camp, eat breakfast, touch the glacier and be heading down towards the Wild Basin Trailhead by 9am. Again, it was a chilly morning at 10,600 feet, but perfect for backcountry living. It was sad to think that this would be the last morning in the Rockies for a while. I have grown to have a great desire to live in this part of the world. I've only got to convince the family of it. Maybe some day, but for now, I will settle for my occasional trips to the region and savor them when I get 'em.

First things first though. We've got a bit of business to do. We've got a glacier that needs to be touched. We packed everything up and carried it down to the trail junction. One way leading out and one way leading us to Thunder Lake. We dropped our packs at the trail junction and headed over to Thunder Lake. There is a trail between the Ranger cabin and the lake which will take you around the backside of the lake and lead you to the moraine where the glacier sits. On the west side of the lake, I snapped this picture as the sun was coming up. It was a very tranquil morning.

We arrived at the moraine by around 7am. By now, the temperatures were warming up, so we shed a few layers and headed up the short scramble to the glacier. For a Texas boy, touching snow in August is almost unheard of and is quite a thrill. What a fitting end to a great trip. The boys had put in a lot of hard work, and this was a great payoff.

We stayed up on the moraine for about 30-45 minutes, allowing the boys to engage in a snowball fight with Darren. Due to our time crunch, we had to head down. We got back down to the trail junction to filter some water, don our packs and head down the trail towards the Wild Basin trailhead parking lot. As planned, we were on the trail by 9am.

We made great time coming down. We completed the 6+ miles and 2,000 feet of elevation loss in 2.5 hours. We pushed hard to make sure we had enough time to drive into Meeker Park for a quick shower before getting on our planes to head home. After our showers, we headed to Westminster to return our bear canisters to the REI (aka Mecca for us gear heads) and grab some grub at the Rock Bottom Brewery. Mmmmm, burgers and fries! As I typically do after a big trip like this, I way over eat, but man is it good.

Unfortunately, we had flights to catch. We returned our car, said our good byes and headed home. It was a great trip. Everyone got along great, the boys did a fantastic job and we saw some unbelievable scenery. When I'm in the backcountry like this, I always have the sense of accomplishment that I'm seeing things that very few people in this world will ever see. It is a personal struggle. On one side, I wish more people would take the time to do the work to get into the backcountry while on the other side, I feel selfish, wanting to hold on to these places for a few of us.

In summary, I would highly recommend the Wild Basin area. It can get a bit crowded on the weekends, especially near the Wild Basin trailhead, Copeland Falls and even up to Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. The crowds diminish greatly beyond Ouzel Falls. A few fishermen do push on to Ouzel Lake and Thunder Lake, but that's ok. I think when I come back to this area, I want to possibly do some more exploring beyond Pear Lake, possibly up to Mt. Copeland. Additionally, I'd like to make it up to Bluebird Lake and I'd also like to make it up to the Continental Divide, which is a stones throw from Pear Lake and Thunder Lake.

Friday, September 18, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 3

On day 3, I again woke up early, around 6am, as I tend to do in the backcountry. It was another wonderfully chilly morning, hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I had planned to take a solo 1.5 mile hike down the unimproved trail between the North St. Vrain campsite and the Pine Ridge campsite. I was scouting the trail condition for our exodus the following day. By taking this trail vs. the trail back by Ouzel Falls and Calypso Cascades, we would cut off around 1.5 miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain.

Prior to setting off on my hike, I filtered a liter of water, but made the mistake of not eating anything nor did I pack a snack. I looked at the map and thought to myself "I can do 3 miles in a little over an hour, I'm ok, I'll be ok." How many times have we gotten over-confident and had it come back to bite us in the backside. Well, it did this morning. The hike down wasn't too bad. I dropped down about 400 feet. However, the hike back up those same 400 feet with no gas in the tank was brutal. At 9,000 feet, your energy gets zapped pretty easily. While it only took me about 15 minutes to get down, I struggled to make it back up in 45 minutes. As soon as I crawled into camp, I shoveled a Clif bar down and laid down in the tent. Lesson learned!

Everyone else was awake by around 8am. Our plan for the remainder of the day was to pack everything up and leave it at the campsite. I was going to don my pack with only enough supplies for a short 6 mile round trip day hike up to Ouzel Lake, gaining and losing 1000 vertical feet.

We set out around 10am for Ouzel Lake from our North St. Vrain campsite with lunch supplies and our water filters. Along the trail up to Ouzel Lake, there was more evidence of the large Ouzel Fire from 1978. The late morning sun was heating up and baking us. The temperatures had risen from the low 40's to near 90 degrees by lunch time. As we neared Ouzel Lake, we spotted a yellow-bellied marmot on a rock near the trail split for Ouzel Lake and Bluebird Lake. We stayed to the left and headed down to the lake. We arrived at the lake around 11:30.

Ouzel Lake is a sizable alpine lake, and apparently chock full of fish. There were two fishermen floating around in their inner-tubes. As if scripted for the tourists, both men hooked some greenback cutthroats as we walked up. Unlike most of the lakes we had visited so far, there are not many areas to sit near Ouzel Lake. There is one small outcrop of rocks that make a great picnic spot and that's about it. There were another couple there in addition to the two fishermen, so we found us a small section of the rock where we could all sit and enjoy our lunch. On the menu for today's lunch special, tuna or chicken in a tortilla with Chick-Fil-A Jalapeno Salsa. Or, you can enjoy some summer sausage and pepper jack cheese.

After lunch, we made the hike back down to our campsite. At camp, we loaded our packs and headed northwest to Thunder Lake. From North St. Vrain, it is roughly 2 miles with an elevation gain of 1000 feet to Thunder Lake. This is a fairly steady gain with only a couple of really steep spots. However, being day 3 and having already done a 6 mile hike earlier in the day, it was a killer for everyone. We left North St. Vrain around 2pm and didn't arrive at Thunder Lake until nearly 6pm. But like most places that I've visited in RMNP, it is worth the effort.

There are roughly 4-5 campsites, including a large group campsite, at Thunder Lake. All are smashing good campsites. The first site is closest to the privy (see pic of the Privy below... nice eh?), which can be both good and bad. Arriving a bit late, we were designated the last campsite, farthest from the privy and the lake. We set up camp and started cooking dinner. Tonight's dinner was an experiment, Terriyaki Chicken, a recipe from Scoutmaster Jerry.

While dinner was cooking, someone must have rang the dinner bell for the mosquitos. Darren says he attracts them, so we'll blame him. Dinner cooked in about 15 minutes, now it was time to try out the new recipe. Here is another lesson learned. Always try out your recipes at home before trying them on the trail. I may have done something wrong, who knows, but it wasn't too good. It was downright awful. That was the sentiment even after 22 miles and 3 days of hiking. Sorry guys! Fortunately, we had one more package of Natural High Cinnamon Apple Crisp which saved the evening.

Darren hurried through his dinner and immediately jumped in his tent to get away from the mosquitos. Amazingly, they disappeared shortly after he left. Maybe he does attract them. We cleaned up camp and wanted to take a walk down to the lake to take a peek. We got Darren back out of the tent, and the mosquitos came back. Incredible!

Darren and Jamie went down to the lake first, while Brandon and I hung out around camp for a bit. Brandon and I ventured down that way later and were in awe when we arrived at the lake. This has to be one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Thunder Lake is nestled between a meadow on the east side and 12,400 foot Tanima Peak on the west. Below is a fabulous panoramic of the lake. On the east side, in the middle of the meadow is a small backcountry ranger cabin. What a great gig that would be. Just behind the lake, on a moraine below Tanima Peak was a small glacier. We all decided that we could probably make it up and "touch the glacier" in the morning prior to descending to civilization. We asked one of the other groups in camp and they said, "most definitely do-able and worth it!" So, that was the plan for the morning.

Monday, September 14, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 2

On day 2, we awoke to a brisk morning of around 40 degrees fahrenheit. I woke up around 6:00am and went down to Pear Lake to take a look around. The sunrise reflected against the mountains surrounding the West side of the lake. As with most scenes in the backcountry, pictures don't capture the full feeling you have when you see something awe inspiring. This was one such futile attempt.

My son finally got out of the tent around 7:00am and joined me down by the lake. It was pretty cool until the sun came up fully around 7:30am. Brandon decided to attempt to build a boat out of the deadwood along the shore. He didn't get very far. He and I did some exploring around the camp waiting on our two Canadian partners to arise from their den.

Around 9:00am, everyone was awake and we had an oatmeal breakfast with coffee to help warm everyone up. We packed everything up and were ready to head out by about 10:00am. We took one last group pic near our campsite and headed off.

Day 2's plan was to hike from Pear Lake back down to the Allenspark Trail junction, then head towards Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls to our campsite at North St. Vrain. We would log around 7 miles and drop down about 1,500 vertical feet.

Around noon, we stopped at Finch Lake for lunch, in hopes of lightening our food stash. As you can see by the bear canister below, we had barely made a dent in our rations, and we have two of these. We pulled together some Mango Chipotle Salmon and Pepper Jack cheese on tortillas as well as some Hickory Smoked Tuna on tortillas. Eating good for day 2.

We made our way down the trail. Along the way, and for the next couple of days, we would see remnants of the damage caused by a giant fire in 1978. The fire was started by a lightning strike and burned over 1,000 acres near Ouzel Lake towards the town of Allenspark. You can see in this picture the large swath that was taken out of the hills. There is a lot of new growth coming in, but it will take quite a while before this damage is no longer evident.

At the junction of the Wild Basin trail, we stopped for a rest at Calypso Cascades. We took this opportunity to cool our feet which were being hammered by the amount of downhill we did. I would highly recommend making the short dayhike up to Calypso Cascades anytime you are in the area. This was a fantastic spot, and again, the pictures will never do it justice, so I'll just include a great pic of my son and I.

If you make the trip up to Calypso Cascades, you might as well push on another 1 mile to Ouzel Falls. These are terrific, short day trips from the Wild Basin trailhead. I hear it is recommended to check with the Backcountry Office during the spring runoff on Ouzel Falls, as they can get quite intense and may be a bit dicey to access. This was a pretty dry time, so the falls weren't running that heavy, but in the spring, they say you might not even be able to stand where I took this picture from and the falls will engulf the entire frame shown in this picture.

We finally arrived at the North St. Vrain campsite around 6:00pm. This is a fantastic campsite with some really great choices for tent pads. If you've got children, there's a ton of area to roam around the campsite and it is fairly accessible for a backcountry campsite. I believe it is only 3.5 miles from the Wild Basin trailhead. There is plenty of accessible water, as you are right on the North St. Vrain creek. There's even a privy! If you've never seen a privy, picture a toilet in the woods. Most of the time, they are surrounded by 3 1/2 walls, but in the case of the North St. Vrain privy, it's au natural!

Anyway, we settled into our campsite and cooked another delicious dinner. This time we prepared some Knorr Rice and Vegetables with Tyson Packaged Chicken. We also made some Richmoor Natural High, dehydrated Cinnamon Apple Crisp to reward the boys for a hard days work. Mmmmm, tasty! FireMan (in the picture below) stood watch over dinner for us.

After dinner, we played a fun game of cards. Jamie and Darren taught us a new game called President. I believe Darren finished as President, Brandon was Vice President, Jamie was Secretary, and I was the Janitor! It was a great evening... looking forward to another great day.

Friday, September 4, 2009

RMNP Backcountry Trip - Day 1

Day 1 of this 4 day trip started at the Wild Basin Trailhead in the Southeastern section of RMNP, near the towns of Meeker Park and Allenspark. The plan was to hike past Finch Lake to Pear Lake where we would camp for the night.

The crew on this trip consisted of myself, my son Brandon (12, aka Fire Man), a good friend of mine Darren and his son Jamie (11). All of us except Brandon were seasoned backpackers. Darren and Jamie have done numerous trips including treks in New Zealand and Australia. This would be Brandon's first foray into the backcountry, just as his mother did the week before in the Smokies. He was definitely excited as was I.

We ate lunch near the truck in the Wild Basin Trailhead parking lot, where we took the above picture. Lunch was a Subway sandwich, chips and a drink. After loading up on protein and carbs, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out at around 12:30pm.

We made the short .2 mile walk from the Wild Basin Trailhead parking lot to the Finch Lake Trailhead. This would save us about .5 miles and a couple hundred feet of elevation gain. From the Finch Lake Trailhead, it is approximately 6.5 miles to Pear Lake with an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. A good chunk of that elevation gain is in the beginning and ending sections. Most of the middle is a moderate incline, with some spectacular views.

On the Finch Lake trail up, we would see Long's Peak most of the trip. Below are a couple of the many good shots we got of the RMNP iconic peak. Additionally, the second shot is in the clearing created by the 1978 Ouzel Fire that burned about 1,000 acres in the park.

About 4.5 miles in, we passed Finch Lake. It was a nice spot to stop and take a rest. Below is a shot of Brandon standing near the water. At this point, the afternoon clouds were rolling in and the temperatures dropped about 10-15 degrees from when we left the trailhead. At Finch Lake, you are at about 9800 feet, nearing our top out elevation of near 10,600 feet at Pear Lake. We grabbed some energy bars and continued on towards our first nights camp.

Brandon was doing a fabulous job on his first time to carry 18 pounds on his back. However, we started having some issues with his pack. He had grown so much in the past two years that he had outgrown his pack and it was causing some extreme discomfort on his shoulders near his neck. In hindsight, I should have been a bit more persistent with him on testing it out at home with the full weight. We fought through it and made some adjustments which helped, but he was pretty uncomfortable most of the trip with his pack on.

We arrived at the Pear Lake campsite around 6:00pm, set up camp and started preparing dinner. The temperature had dropped from 75 or so at the trailhead to near 50 degrees at Pear Lake. The Pear Lake campsite is a great site offering a couple of primo tent sites and a terrific dining area that is shielded from the wind by a large boulder. There is a nice flat rock which makes an excellent cooking surface and dining area.

Dinner for tonight was a fantastic Zatarain's Ready-to-eat Jambalaya and Sausage kicked up a few notches with a little Tabasco sauce from Chick-Fil-A. Just the right amount of protein, carbs and spice to keep us warm for the night. The temperatures would drop down to 37 overnight. Perfect backcountry sleeping temperatures.

Above is a great panoramic image of Pear Lake. The campsites are situated behind a strand of trees adjacent to the lake. Behind the lake is Mt. Copeland which provides a dramatic backdrop to the lake and has some great color including pinks, oranges, whites, grey and yellow, particularly at sunrise. I am told that it is possible to get up on top of Mt. Copeland and see all the way to Grand Lake. I'm sure that would be a spectacular view.

If you continue past Pear Lake, I am also told there are some cross-country sites as well as some additional lakes which are chock full of the Greenback Cutthroats which are being rejuvenated in this area.

Overall, the first day was a success and everyone had a tremendous time. Dinner was a hit! As always, thank you Zatarain's.