It had been a seriously long time since my last adventure (aside from a small hop on Sundance Mt with Lee Lasson last Saturday). I wanted to hike to a good vantage point for views, preferably somewhere nobody goes to often. Joe Mills Mountain fit the bill.
Joe Mills was the younger brother of Enos Mills (a naturalist who was a major force in the creation of RMNP). Joe Mills worked at Enos' Longs Peak Inn for several years, but eventually the brothers had an acrimonious split, and Joe started his own hotel -- The Crags. Joe was also a force in the park creation, and it is fitting that he has a mountain named after him.
The mountain is across the Odessa Lake gorge from the Continental Divide. The departure point was Bear Lake, and if I felt good when I reached the summit, I would try for nearby Mt. Wuh and possible views into Forest Canyon and Spruce Canyon.
I arrived somewhat early (around 8am), and was maybe the 10th car in the football field-sized lot. I readied my gear, put on a ton of sunblock (no clouds were in the sky, and heat was predicted), and departed along the Flattop Mountain Trail. Roughly one mile from the trailhead, I took the Odessa Lake fork.
I had hiked this stretch once before, but then it was mostly under several feet of snowdrifts. This day it was absolutely dry -- the only snow covering the trail was a five foot long drift in a very shady spot. A little past the Sourdough backcountry site (before reaching Two Rivers Lake), I left the trail and headed in the general direction of Joe Mills Mt's south ridge.
Joe Mills Mountain has three ridges. The north ridge is somewhat craggy, and leads up from Fern Lake. The east ridge is very broad, but it has some bushes and krummholz to navigate through. The south ridge, which I climbed, is somewhat craggy, but the shortest of the three approaches. It is also the most interesting.
After 5 or so minutes of climbing up an easy class 3 gully, I reached the ridge. I was high enough to see Two Rivers Lake, as well as the awesome view of Notchtop, Flattop and the Little Matterhorn. Stones Peak was also very prominant from the ridge.
By my reckoning, if you stay on the east side of the ridge, the climb is simple and uncomplicated. However, being in a very adventurous mood, I decided to climb on the western side of the ridge, find a shallow gully near the top of the ridge, and climb it to the summit. A nice sidewalk-sized shelf extended around 50 ft below the ridge. I found a few interesting candidates for routes to the top, but each became too hard to climb without a belay (class 4, some even harder). Two or three times I had to nervously back down to the shelf. Following the walkway, I passed the summit and entered a nice grassy (albiet steep) slope. There, at the top of the slope, was a nice easy looking gully that offered access to the summit. I made my way up, all the time noticing the Odessa Lake Trail 1000ft below me. Not a good place to tumble down! However, the gully was very easy, and amazingly, put me about 10ft from the summit.
And what a summit! The peaks of the Divide looked spectacular. The view down to Odessa Lake was tremendous. I almost shot an entire roll of film just from the summit! Luckily, the summit was rather bare of trees, so the view was not blocked. After eating a snack, I felt so good I decided to try for Mt. Wuh, by way of Round Pond.
Unfortunately, Round Pond is small, and was not readily visible through the thick forested blanket on the Wuh/Joe Mills saddle. There was no trail, so this became an adventure in orienteering.
I descended the eastern ridge. The ridge is covered with krummholz and bushes, a bit of grass, and then thick forest at the saddle. It was a bit of a breezy day outside, especially when descending. I could occasionally see an opening in the forest below that I assumed was Round Pond. Just for fun, I climbed a few trees to get a better view (being extra careful not to damage the trees in any way).
At the saddle, the trees were too tall to climb and too thick to see through. I attempted to get a compass bearing to figure out exactly where on my map I was, but the forest was too thick to see any landmarks or high peaks. Little did I know that Round Pond was only 100 feet away! It took me a minute to reach it.
Round pond is, of course, round. It is also rather small -- you could probably fit 7 or 8 of Round Ponds into Bear Lake. The pond is surrounded by a glorious meadow which showed signs of recent draining (evidently this meadow gets rather marshy when it is wet outside). I could also see traces of deer, but they were long gone. I took another compass reading to make sure I was headed for Wuh's summit, and went off.
The climb up was a little tiring, but mostly uneventful. The forest is a lot thicker here than on Joe Mills Mt, so no decent views were to be had. I reached the summit ridge, and still didn't have a good view because of the trees. In fact, I had to climb a tree just to get a good shot of Forest Canyon and Spruce Canyon. The summit itself is a long, backbone-type rock ridge, surrounded by trees. At the summit (whose cairn is several times larger than that on Joe Mills Mt), trees blocked some, but not all views. Below it had become hazy, especially in the direction of Moraine Park.
After eating lunch, I headed down, due south. This slope down was much steeper than any slope I had been on that day. Also, the forest in this area was much thicker than the saddle. After descending over fallen timber and boulder outcroppings, the steepness soon subsided. I was still heading due south, mostly following game trails, and keeping my eye on a rock outcrop on Flattop which was my southern landmark. I crossed one creek, which I assumed was Mill Creek, and then a second creek. Most likely they were just tributaries of the same creek. Within a few minutes of the second creek I reached the trail, and soon enough was back at Bear Lake.
Of course, when I arrived the lot was full, and quite a few cars were continually circling. It seems that the park service quit running the shuttle a few weeks earlier. Pity! It was such a gorgeous day out; I'm not surprised so many people visited the park. The instant I reached my car somebody was waiting for my space.
Overall an interesting day. Mt. Wuh is somewhat anti-climactic, but Joe Mills Mountain is definitely a fun experience. And of course, Round Pond is a wonderfully tranquil place. From the moment I left the trail to climb Joe Mills Mountain until I reached the trail again after crossing Mill Creek, I saw no other signs of people (aside from the cairns at the two summits, and the Odessa Lake trail visible from below Joe Mills' summit). If you are looking for a good view vantage point, I heartily recommend Joe Mills Mountain.