Friday, July 18, 2014

Marguerite Falls, Black Pool, and Raspberry Park via Fern Lake th.

Last week I set out for several destinations that are all in close proximity to one of the busiest trails in the park, but all of which seem to get very little visitation.  For reference, I could find only one photo of Marguerite Falls online, and none of either Black Pool or Raspberry Park.  While Raspberry Park is a bit of a slog, Marguerite Falls sits no more than one tenth of a mile from Fern Lake, while Black Pool is a rather tenuous half a mile from the Fern Lake trail itself.  
Of course there is no trail to any of these destinations, but the mountains are about exploration, right?  Some effort can be rewarded by leaving the crowds behind and sitting at the base of a beautiful waterfall all by yourself.  Or enjoying a snack while sitting on a boulder overlooking what has to be one of the tiniest named bodies of water in the park. 
Early morning on the Fern Lake trail.
The first few miles are rather mellow, with very little elevation gain up until The Pool.  From here, things take a turn uphill.  The next thing you will come to is...
Fern Falls.  Which is a pretty cool waterfall that is right off the trail.  If you have the desire to go to Black Pool, you will head north when the Fern Lake trail makes the first switchback turn left- Fern Lake is located at the next switchback after that.
But before that, I came upon these ants on the trail.  Just sitting there in deep communication with each other.  I could even touch them with no reaction.  It was strange.
Fern Lake with Joe Mills Mountain on the left, Notchtop center, and Little Matterhorn (mostly in shade) to the right of that.
From here it is relatively easy to navigate down to Marguerite Falls.  Simply follow the exit creek from the lake.  It looked and seemed like there was a little bit of a social trail on either side of the creek, but that proved to not be true.  The bushwhack was on, and it does get a bit thick at times.
But the falls aren't that far away, certainly obtainable in fifteen to twenty minutes.  And of course, it is less of a waterfall and more of a cascade, but there you have it.  When facing downstream, I started on the right side of the creek and crossed to the left when I could.  It may be easier to just stay on the left. 
A little farther down.
I kept going down along the creek just in case that wasn't it, to make sure I'd been there.  But this was the only thing that looked remotely like a waterfall.  
I did come across the ruins of a small wooden cabin.  There was nothing left but boards and some very large nails.  In this photo, you can still see a stack of firewood that stood outside of it beginning in the lower left corner.
Rather than go back up from here, I simply oriented myself to the north/northwest, and went in that general direction until I hit the trail.  Movement became much easier, and I soon found myself at Fern Falls for the second time of the day.
Fern Falls, rainbow!
I followed the trail down until it took a sharp right, and then found a place to move down the steep and at times loose hill to Spruce Creek.  I crossed the creek atop a fallen log, and then made my way up a forested dirt and talus slope.  
It took me quite a bit of time to figure out I was looking at Gabletop and Castle Rock here.  
Fern Falls can be seen through the forest almost dead center here.
I found that I'd veered too far east, and was on top of the domed granite features to the east of point 9246.  You want to be on the bench between those areas.  So I traversed west until things flattened out.
I made my way up one final gully.  And....
Black Pool was sighted.  The name is fitting.  While the water is not quite black, it is definitely a darker hue reminiscent of the Cedar Water I fondly remember from my younger days in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  The pool has no inlet or outlet, and the color comes from decaying vegetative matter in the lake.  There looked to be a thick layer of this black matter at the bottom of this tiny body of water.  It is maybe 2 feet deep in the center, and sports a few lily pads and a wealth of grasses around and in the lake.  
I had a snack sitting atop the rock bench on the right.  What an amazing and wonderful place to be.  
The only foot prints I could see were from Elk.
I walked around Black Pool, took it all in.  As I've often said, it is destinations such as this that my heart truly seeks.  I love just being out here in the middle of no where, seeing and hearing no sign of anyone else.
I headed northwest, paralleling the Big Thompson River up Forest Canyon.  As with my last experience here, travel got tough.  The bushwhacking is thick and steady, not only pushing through trees and chest high brush, but making your way over fallen trees, rock, and marsh.   
I occasionally stumbled over signs that at least someone else had once come this way.  I found a cairn here and there, though what trail they may have been marking is beyond me. 
I also found a bunch of old rusty cans from who knows when.  I couldn't see any markings on them, but it was interesting to still be able to see the tool marks from them being opened.
The one thing that may have made travel slightly easier was going through part of the Fern Lake fire area.  But moving through what was essentially charcoal left me absolutely filthy.  I was dirtier than I can ever remember being. 
More fire area.  The bushwhacking was less intense at times, but you can see that I was moving over talus!
I was looking at the topo to try to figure out how much farther I had to go.  I could see opposite where treeline was, and that looked like it was about where I should meet Lost Brook and find Raspberry Park.  I felt I would come to Lost Brook very soon, though I'd already passed a few small streams. 
I found two small creeks close to each other, both this one...
And this one. 
And this one looked to be big enough to be named.  Raspberry Park is so named for the tons of wild raspberry plants growing in the area.  Unfortunately, they were not yet in season!  Oh well. 
Though I thought I was there, again just to make sure, I kept going.  I made it out of the fire area and into the bush.  It was just as thick as I remembered.  About an hour later I hadn't hit another creek coming down from Stones Peak.  I decided that the creek I thought was Lost Brook, was indeed Lost Brook.  Back I went.
Back in the forest fire area, I looked for a place to take a quick dip in the Big Thompson.  Here I found a small eddy that looked deep enough to hold me.  In I went.  It was freezing, but the water felt good after sweating all day.
On the way back, I stayed a little bit higher up on Stones Peak.  This saw me hit some areas of 100% tree fall and have to deal with that, walk on talus that was quite loose and shifting under me at time, and still have some bushwhacking to do.  Then I started to see a cairn here and there and the faint outlines of a long ago trail.
In the name of exploration, I decided to follow the trail remnants for as long as I could.  In the end, it seemed to dissolve into nothing, though it was pretty well cairned for quite awhile.  But with no point a or point b, it is hard to call this a trail. 
It did take me by multiple wild strawberry plants.  And I ate heavily!  While tiny, they are so delicious.  They taste as if you'd shrunk a normal sized strawberry down and in the process, concentrated the flavors.  I will be on the look out for these in the future!
The trail ended up leading me to the west side of point 9249.  I decided it was easiest to avoid the steep slope to the south of point 9249 and just descended the more mellow drainage I was in.  Once I met Spruce Creek, I headed downhill for a little bit before finding another nice log to cross the creek on. 
I took this photo from below.  While I was trying to get a good one to give you some idea of where to go, it was difficult to do so through the forest.  But here see point 9249 on the left of the photo, behind the tree.  The granite domes are to the right.  So you'll want to aim between these to find Black Pool.
Along the trail on the way back, I looked up to see Windy Gulch Cascades.  Here is a view from the top.
Back at the car, I got unpacked and went back to the Big Thompson to scrub my hands off.  Even with that wash up, the rest of me was covered in soot, bug bites (I saw the largest mosquito of my life in Forest Canyon and briefly wondered if Pterodactyls weren't truly extinct), scratches, some of which were bleeding.  I bent both of my hiking poles.  Got a huge blister on my left pinky toe.  Forest Canyon will chew you up and spit you out.  It is one of the truly wild places in the park, with few signs of humanity, and no trails.  Thus, it is fairly difficult to navigate, but you are very likely to be the only person around.  Enjoy the peace and solitude brought by this magical place in the depths of nature.
Marguerite Falls, Black Pool, and Raspberry Park via Fern Lake th:
Marguerite Falls, 9420 feet: 3.9 miles one way, 1270 foot gain.  Moderate.
Black Pool, 9060 feet: 2.9 miles one way, 910* foot gain.  Moderate+.
Raspberry Park, 9000 feet: 4.1 miles one way, 850* foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Along the way, you will also pass:
Fern Lake, 9540 feet: 3.8 miles one way, 1390 foot gain.  Moderate.
Fern Falls, 8800 feet: 2.6 miles one way, 650 foot gain.  Moderate-.
The Pool, 8300 feet: 1.7 miles one way, 150 foot gain.  Easy.
Arch Rocks, 8220 feet: 1.2 miles one way, 70 foot gain.  Easy-. 
Hike total: 10.5 miles round trip, 2400 feet gross elevation gain.  Strenuous-. 
*= Though there is not much net gain to reach these places, there is some up and down along the way that will add a few hundred feet of elevation gain to these totals. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Snowdrift Peak and its lakes.

The last time I'd attempted this peak was with my friend Dan and it was nearly winter.  It was the first of many times I'd go on to summit Flattop, and I think my hands were totally numb for at least a good three hours that day.  It was cold and windy.  And cold.  Did I mention windy?  I was freezing.
Despite the discomfort, we did actually make it most of the way there.  But upon unnecessarily topping out point 12277, we sat for lunch, talked, and found on that day neither of us had the motivation to go farther.  Back to the car it was...
A year and a half later I was looking for something to do that wouldn't require a super long drive.  Snowdrift Peak!  And, to make a day of it, I could hit all the lakes around it.  And with it being July second and all, I didn't think I'd have to worry about it being too cold.  Or windy.  But you never know.
I set out early and could see low clouds the whole drive up and at the trail head.  I wondered how the predicted nice weather would turn out. 
Along the Flattop trail, grey and blue peaks in the early morning.
The bottom of a cloud engulfs the east ridge of Otis and Hallett.
I worked my way up into the mist.  Visibility dropped to 50 yards.  How would I ever be able to find my way to anything in this?
Flattop is up there somewhere.
As I gained in elevation, things grew otherworldly.  A trail to nowhere. 
I thought of the Stephen King short story "The Mist".
And then I saw a glimmer of hope.
Some blue skies poking through gave way to bright sunshine and very soon I was above the clouds. 
Literally.  And I could not get enough of one of the single most spectacular things I have ever seen in my entire life.
It was so beautiful to see some of the high peaks just poking out, like islands in the water.  It was surreal to look back east and see nothing at all but an ocean of clouds.
Deer and Notchtop float above the clouds.
A trail to the clouds.
The Mummy Range pokes out.
Little Matterhorn and the Gable.
I topped out Flattop, and was greeted by my first view of my highest but not furthest destination of the day.  And it lived up to the name, with snow swathing the peak. 
I walked by Ptarmigan Glacier and saw the clouds filling it up part of the way.  But this would not be the last of the great sights of the day.
I made my way towards Ptarmigan Lake.  After a little confusion over where to drop down, I found the correct place.  Simply head towards point 12277 and turn left before you get there.  It is almost directly west of Ptarmigan Point.
I made my way down some grassy slopes and stable talus.  There was a north facing snowfield that couldn't be avoided which I glissaded.  Much to the chagrin of my butt, since it was still very hard and I was sore for a few days afterwards!
At Ptarmigan Lake, which was still very much ice and snow covered.
Looking back up.  A pretty neat place to be.
Now came the next challenge: I had to loose elevation and traverse over to the basin holding Snowdrift and Wonderland lakes, but I didn't want to loose too much.  This led me to take a rather adventurous way down, which involved bushwhacking, climbing on wet talus and rock, and was basically a pain in the butt.  Not literally this time.  I would recommend to follow the drainage down from Ptarmigan Lake to the unnamed pond below it, and then start to work your way west as you can.  That would certainly be easier than what I did, which was to stay as close as possible to the rock face on the western side of the lake. 
Though of course I did get up close and personal with this pretty spectacular unnamed waterfall.  Ptarmigan Falls seems an appropriate name.
Once I was past the bushwhacky and wet rock stuff, I stopped for a snack break.  This was my view.  Not bad at all!  From here around to the basin, I would recommend staying close to that cliff face I advised to not stay close to above.  The talus here was again mostly stable.  There is a closed contour loop on the USGS topo, and I suggest staying between that and the cliff face to get to the small pond south of Wonderland Lake. 
From this pond, continue up into the basin and start to work your way west as you can to get to Snowdrift Lake.
I came to the lake pretty quickly.  Here it is, like many of the high alpine lakes still topped with ice.
From here I reversed direction and headed back to Wonderland Lake.
Above Wonderland Lake.  I guess I should have expected it, but the snow ramp to the left was my planned ascent route back up to the saddle, and I didn't have crampons.  I suppose I could've just went for it, as it was likely soft enough, but I decided to play it safe and stick to the scree gullies to the right of the ramp.
Here is another view which gives a better look at the gullies on the right.  The snow was entirely avoidable except for a brief crossing.
Above Wonderland Lake.
In the saddle between Snowdrift Peak and point 12277, I headed toward the peak.  This was on large and very stable talus.  It is not necessary to top out the first high point you come to. 
Almost there and I was feeling the excitement!  This was going to be my 222nd named destination in RMNP, which means I was about to be halfway done with my goal of hiking to every named destination in the park.
Snowdrift Lake from above.
And there I was.  Destination 222.  I am now fifty percent done with the park!
The clouds near Longs were starting to look threatening, but I decided to continue on.  Moving quickly now, I passed over the high point of Snowdrift Peak and then descended a grassy slope until I hit snow, and then pulled off a short glissade.  I found myself at a place where I faced a steep talus slope down climb to Murphy Lake, and decided to go for it.  I planned to come back up the same way.
I made it down to the lake, but the slope was so unstable that I decided going back up was not an option.  After another snack break, it was time to get going.  I contoured east from the lake, at first picking my way through huge boulders, and then moving over smaller talus, grass, marsh, and snow.  Once I saw point 12277, I aimed myself to the south side of it.
In the end, this might not have been the best option.  There were still a few steep snow fields here which had me gain some elevation that I didn't intend to. Going over directly or making contouring around on the north side might have worked out better.
Farther away...
I was pretty impressed when I made it from Snowdrift Peak to Flattop in a little over two hours.  It is only 3.5 miles or so, but that is definitely not on the best and smoothest of terrain.  I'd been thinking about possibly descending Chaotic Glacier, but reading the description of 50-60 degrees of steepness made me think twice.  I went and checked out Tyndall Glacier to find it has shrunk significantly, and that decided it for me.  The trail it was.  Since I'd run out of water, I did take some of the glacier with me to rehydrate.   
Back at the trail intersection.  Check it out in winter here.  I was thinking on the way down, and I think this was the first time I'd been up the Flattop trail in a season other than winter (or in anything other than winter conditions at least).
There were a fair amount of people on top of Flattop and Hallett, and I passed a few on my way back down.  But otherwise, it was an uneventful walk back to Bear Lake (which was teeming with people).  Route 7 is still the preferred route to get back to Lyons.  I remain hopeful that the work on 36 will be completed ahead of schedule, as the lower section is now completely repaved, while the higher section between Pinewood Springs and Big Elk Meadows is still dirt.
This was a pretty awesome day.  From the clouds in the morning, to the absolute silence and solitude of most of the hike, every second of this day was a joy.  The real difficulty in obtaining any of these destinations lies in that they are so far from any trail head and a good portion of your day will be spent above treeline.  Even taking the short way as I did from Bear Lake will give you 8.3 miles each way, while the western accesses add 2-3 miles to that.  This of course necessitates a very early start in the summer, or a day predicted to be free of storms.
Going from Ptarmigan Lake to Snowbank Lake was the section of the hike that took the most time relative to the distance covered.  Obviously there is alot of bushwhacking, talus hopping, and route finding that slows things down dramatically there.  But these lakes are true jewels, and I have to imagine not visited all that often due to their proximity to nothing.  Ptarmigan Lake is probably the 'easiest' of the four since it is the closest to Flattop.  It is certainly worth a visit.
Snowdrift Peak and its lakes (all distances given from Bear Lake th):

Flattop Mountain, 12324 feet: 4.4 miles each way, 2874 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Ptarmigan Lake, 11460 feet: 5.9 miles each way, 2010 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
Snowdrift Lake, 11060 feet: 7.6 miles each way, 1610 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
Wonderland Lake, 11060 feet: 7.8 miles each way, 1610 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
Snowdrift Peak, 12274 feet: 8.3 miles each way, 2824 foot gain*.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
Murphy Lake, 11220 feet: 8.3 miles each way, 1770 foot gain*.  Strenuous-.
This hike as a whole: 17 miles round trip, 6054 foot gross gain.  Up to third class.  Strenuous.
*= Of course, once you top out Flattop at 12324 feet, you will need to loose elevation to drop to these destinations and then regain that on the way back.  The gross elevation gain will therefore be significantly higher than the absolute gain, which is given here.