SEPTEMBER 9-11, 1994: GORGE LAKES, RMNP

By Alan Silverstein; ajs@fc.hp.com

Second of three pre-arranged permits; a great cross-country adventure to Little Rock Lake, the only designated backcountry site in RMNP with NO TRAIL to it. Two ways to get there: The long way from Milner Pass with little elevation change, or the short way from Trail Ridge Road, across Forest Canyon, with a big drop/gain and horrendous bushwhacking. Ron Miller's done both and recommends the first. Still, a killer!

FRIDAY:

On my way from Milner Pass just after 2pm. First hour on trail is easy toward Forest Canyon Pass, 11280'+. But overcast and lightly raining... It ends, yay. Hmm, where's the best point to depart south? This'll work... It does. Not bad, a grassy route, some willows, acceptable. I can see the peaks above the Gorge Lakes in the distance. They remain in the distance most of the afternoon... It's a long, long trek south.

Strange noises. Can this be elk bugling? High pitched and melodic. Yes indeed, there be elk! Who want nothing to do with me, and stay well clear. Many more sighted through the day, various distances, one huge lone bull. (Our friend from Timber Lake?)

How best to get to camp? Hold elevation and go longer around big valleys, or drop and rise directly? Some of each. Boggy creek crossing. Walking stick helps. Up the next hill. What's this? Bog EVERYWHERE? On a HILLSIDE? Try to avoid it awhile. Hopeless. Give up and wade through. Sigh, half a mile of hidden muck. Not getting there as fast as I thought!

Cross another creek. Now down in trees. Time for serious map reading... Need to round a ridge, pass a little lake, drop to camp next to the outlet stream of the Gorge Lakes. Bushwhacking begins. Hiking on intuition. Still should get there before dark. Had BETTER get there before dark. Stay high, way high. Aha, drop down to the little unnamed lake! I dub thee Locator Lake. (Later confer; Ron already claims the name Lion Lake for wildlife he sighted.)

It should be easy from here. No, still a long way, slow going... Eventually get a view out, triangulate. I'm half a mile too far east... Descend more westerly now. Added distance, wasted time. Pine needles and twigs in my hair, in my pockets. Slow progress. Hard work. Joyous though.

Suddenly drop into the well-worn campsite from above, an odd direction. One last bush push and I'm there with an hour of light to spare. Amazing, I thought it would be hard to find! Six miles, 4.5 hours, 1000' of gain (feels like much more).

Big dinner, fill water, no wasted time tonight, get to bed! Far away above I see and hear the cars on Trail Ridge Road... They have no idea.

SATURDAY:

It's a weekend in the "real world." Nobody here but me. A bit tired, and it dawns overcast. Hell with it, go explore anyway. 0800-1904, yes over 11 hours, visit and TOUCH all nine named lakes stacked in or near the Gorge, and two of three unnamed puddles in the area too, just for grins. The weather does not precipitate, it actually improves. I am blessed.

Little Rock Lake is nearby. Touch it (icy wet cold) and move on. Rock Lake isn't far. But rockhopping and bushwhacking is immediate. Progress is slow. Doubts about the ROI, I'm tired, will my investment yield suitable return? (Yes it does.) Tough getting up and through timberline... Wild, WILD country.

Strategic error. I take the easier (hah) way toward Doughnut Lake. Should have checked the map. Pass up a little puddle too, and it ends up the only one not visited. About 1000' to gain, I'm at the Doughnut, it's lovely, but Love Lake was closer, and it's now the wrong way. On the return I must decide whether to bag peaks or lakes, can't do both...

Up and over NE and NW down to slightly lower Arrowhead Lake. Words do no justice, and the photo is merely awesome. Glacial shield rock, color-turning tundra, old snow, waterfall... Down and around. Start NE toward Love Lake but, forget it, now that it is a long way out and back. See it later if at all.

I'm waking up a bit. Easier going now, mostly on rock, I love this terrain. Climb NW to Inkwell Lake, mountains abound and surround. On up northerly, the long way, more scrambling, to Azure Lake. Touch a little unnamed surprise pond on the way. Good thing I went this way and found it.

Azure is high and divine. Lunch break. Where's my visor? Not to be found. What was that splash I heard earlier? Go around the west side of the lake, big boulders, get up high... See it floating serenely across the water. Well it needed washing anyway I guess... Meet it on the SW shore. Ever so mellow it sails into my hand. Nice and cool now too.

Revisit Highest Lake? At 12400', the top water body in RMNP, but I've been there once before, last year. It was frozen over in September! Curiosity exceeds calmness. Might as well make one more big step to the last plateau... So up I go... It's fast and easy and I'm there and the lake's all green and clear now, this year, wow. 1pm, top of the day (savings time), top of the Gorge Lakes.

Suitable contemplation on the glory of Life the Universe and Everything (LTUAE; to be revisited later in this tale)... I can't really capture it at all. Too vast, too rich. The memory grows more wonderful than the experience.

Should I continue up to nearby summits? Julian and Terra Tomah, I'm virgin to them, but more vertical is involved, and unknown challenges downclimbing back to camp. No, leave them for later and go see Love Lake. Time to head down, regretfully...

A different route, close to Cracktop, looser and snowier. Much caution, no hurry, easier terrain. A huge boulder on the slope is a nice place to kick back and nap for ten minutes. Awake as always to vast, silent surroundings. Ephemeral, I cannot linger.

My last chance to ascend 1100', the "easy" way to Julian; forget it. My route leads back to Inkwell Lake, the south side, around to the east. A cliff falls down to the water. Go up and over, maybe 100' more hard work, but so sweet the scene. Back in the drainage, a straight shot to the north side of Arrowhead, some bushes to dodge but it's not hard. I'm as surprised to see the small herd of bighorns as they are to see me.

Around the north shore, a long way, then a tough haul up to Love Lake at 1610. Mostly out of trees, but willows are a pain too. Onward east and up to the last puddle with no ID... Another long break here.

It's late. I can drop through the forest to camp a winner, no sin in that. But Forest Lake still beckons, out of the Gorge in Forest Canyon, around the corner south, a navigation challenge. Oh, go for it. (Was there any doubt?)

An hour of bushwhacking gets me there. First down to the creek, then way around from it. Try to hold constant elevation. It's definitely not easy. Several times I consider abandoning the effort. But there is enough time and I have a flashlight, I might as well. It's tedious. Finding the outflow creek helps, and leads me to the placid lakeshore at 1810.

Beautiful reflections in calm water. Late day colors. Wish I could stay longer, but I must be home before dark. Retrace my route a ways, then continue on the south side of the creek... Starting to get bouldery, better cross. Lo and behold, salvation, the short trail from the campsite to the creek! I'm back in time for dinner, and 15 minutes before sunset. Log 3000' of gain today.

SUNDAY:

Arrives too soon. But home beckons. Pack and leave at 0730. Fight the trees for the right to climb the hill... Find a lost camera, ALMOST functional, in a most unlikely spot deep in the woods. Other human debris noted too, sigh. Come across Locator Lake the easy way this time... But it took so long to get there!

Onward north, but this time take a lower path to avoid the bog. Some success with this strategy. More up and down though. More elk too. Finally I see one before he sees me, and I actually witness him bugle. Wow, what a treat. More elk. More boggy hillsides. More terrain than imaginable between hither and yon.

Ultimately a view down a cliff into upper Forest Canyon. The pass looks so close, but it's not. I'm strong and patient but it's so far yet. No rush, enjoy the ride, go out of the way to sightsee. Seek and find the source of the Big Thompson River high in two pools, surrounded by deep marshy grass. And then the pass, and the lovely trail home!

Cruise down; see people, the first in two days. Life is good. Reach my car at 1230. Five hours for about six miles? Par for THIS course. Drive home, soak at the health club, call it a weekend. Trip seven was heaven.

SIDEBAR: EMAIL SENT THAT EVENING

...I hiked out from LRL today to Milner Pass. What a bushwhack! What an adventure! Yesterday I spent 11 hours on the Gorge Lakes grand tour. I touched all nine named lakes and also two of the three unnamed puddles shown on the map in that drainage. My visor sailed across Azure Lake (oops). Bighorn in the gorge; lots of bugling elk up close on the hikes in and out. Tundra colors, wow. Water, ponds, and waterfalls everywhere. I didn't bother with climbing Julian or Terra Tomah; just as well that I passed on them...

I can report that the drainage from Highest Lake to Azure Lake is big, solid rocks, would be easy to descend. The route closer to Cracktop, which I went down, was long, steep, and rather looser -- would be no fun with a pack or with more snowfields. In general getting around in the gorge is not too terrible if you pick your route well; with a daypack, anyway. The worst is down in the scrub and trees, say below Arrowhead... I made good use of the "treeways" when there was a solid log going in my direction!

In both directions Locator Lake was a full hour and a half of disoriented bushwhacking from camp.

The LRL campsite is a weird place. I found it from above as I bushwhacked toward the lakes. From the wrong direction too, I'd gone too far SE on the descent. It took me 4:35 from Milner Pass, and 5:00 going back today because of the detour. Slow going under the trees isn't it! What a workout...