A TRIP THRU PARADISE IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK (in wet boots)

Copyright 1999 by Ron Miller. Permission granted to Mike Dallin to post on the RMNP website. Permission granted to print out and share with others so long as no profit is involved in use of any part of this report.

By Ron Miller
August 1999

Background: Jeff and I have an annual backpack trip nowadays since his duties as father of 3 young 'uns tends to reduce his availability for backwoods adventures. We like to hike off-trail and go to unusual places that even the Rangers don't go. (see other trip reports on the Rocky Mountain National Park web page)

The Paradise Creek basin in RMNP had called my name for about 4 years now and I talked Jeff into enduring the long car ride to get from Ft. Collins to the west side of the park and the trailhead into the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area (IPWA). What appealed to me was mostly that it's off-limits to camping as a World Study Area. I figured that it had to be a place where no one goes (or where the U.N. conducts its training ops....) since there are no trails thru it or even near it. Paradise Creek lies along the southern edge of the park east of the Colorado River lakes (Lake Granby) and north of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.

THE PLAN:

Day 1- Car transit to Roaring Fork TH IPWA. Hike a few hours to some campsite in the Roaring Fork Drainage.

Day 2- Finish transit to Stone Lake/Upper Lake camping area.

Day 3- Head NW over the pass above Upper Lake and descend into the Paradise Creek drainage. Paradise Creek is a no-camping area and World Wildlife Study Area (complete with Black Helicopters????). The entire length of the drainage would have to be transited and exited via the N-S creek that Paradise joins with and we would have to climb south. It wasn't clear where the Columbine Creek Cross-country camping zone lay so we assumed we'd have to climb the entire length of this creek to get to a legal RMNP zone.

Day 4- From wherever we collapsed on Day 3 we would proceed either up the flanks of Mt. Adams or down and then up across the northern headwaters of Columbine creek and get to a pass between Mt. Adams and a point shown as 11721' on Trails Illustrated map . Descend from the pass into Watanga Creek basin (IPWA) and, if necessary, camp in the Watanga drainage.

Day 5- (if needed) exit to car and return home.

We included 15 year old Frazier MacDonald, a young hiking buddy of mine. In general, the grownups that Jeff and I invite along on our adventures seem to find other things they need to be doing (golf, Brewfest, etc) instead of knocking themselves out in the mountains. Frazier made a fun addition to the party and was bestowed the task of "Mr. Positive" since Jeff and I tend to turn somewhat negative on occasion. Frazier's mellow personality and desire for extreme sport of any kind was an excellent addition to the party.

THE TRIP

Thursday 8/19

0645 Underway from Ft. Collins to go pickup Jeff and Frazier at their houses.

0815 We hit the RMNP Backcountry office to pickup the RMNP permit. I had obtained the IPWA permit via mail months ago and neither of us had seen any reason to get the RMNP permit ahead of time. The older Ranger working the desk this morning was jealous of our adventure and was very friendly since we chatted a bit about past trips & why we figured this was going to work. He mentioned a possible disused trail to Adams L. from when the Paradise creek basin was campable. (I've seen a picture taken by John Fielder of Adams L. where he camped)

1030 After the big drive over the top of RMNP, down the other side and south along the lakes, we find trailhead for Roaring Creek. The parking area is next to an NFS campground. We are underway and climb hard & fast (1200'). The trail is steep with switchbacks, fairly rocky from erosion on the steep early section then levels off and transits thru woods until it meets the Watanga Creek trail & creek.

1200 We reach the Watanga turnoff. An NFS sign indicates a trail not shown on the map. This is a great possibility for the exit day since bushwhacking down from Watanga lake might be hard work.

The day is still young so we decide to keep going and maybe find a campsite near the summit of the ridge that marks the drainage. It is a harder pull further up (1200' MORE gain!). The trail rounds off into mixed meadows/woods and we find a cabin not shown on the map(4 walls but roof caved). We have a discussion about camping zones, and how we're feeling and decide to go ahead and go on to Stone Lake. We figure it's minor harm if we are out of the zone but have a permit and getting to the lake today would give us tommorrow to rest and recover for Saturday's ordeal. From the cabin we turn the corner to cliff & ledge country as the trail threads its way around and over to the lake. There are some great views of the west sides of the Indian Peaks ridge and various cliffs. This side is cliffy country!

1530 Finally we drag ourselves to the side of Stone Lake , exhausted. 6 miles and around 2200' gain. We look for a camp and find an appropriate site south of the lake.

Dinner is Beef Stroganoff (1 packet ea) for Jeff and I while Frazier has . Frazier and I mess with stringing up a 2-line food hang that turns into a marvel of complexity- but it works. Frazier then tries to demonstrate his fire starting technique in the existing fire pit between two rocks. He and Jeff fail miserably. Apparently they really meant it when the sign said " low fire danger." We briefly talk with another fellow who contacts us as he casts about for a campsite. He'd come from Gourd lake this day by himself.

We turn in around 2000 under gray skies.

2200 It begins pouring rain for about 1.5 hrs. The tent remains dry though with the door closed the condensation is significant. I get my usual bad first night's sleep. Jeff was pleased that he decided Frazier should get the 1 man tent as we heard his snoring.

Friday

0830 We are lazy at getting up.Everything is damp due to condensation and we have a slow start, puttering around with breakfast, sniffing the wind. Frazier stays sacked out. It is cloudy and overcast with foggy ridgetops. Everything is soggy.

1000 Jeff and I set off for a slow hike to recon the pass and leave Frazier asleep in his tent (We checked- he was still alive). We quickly develop wet boots due to plants & grass. My boots don't absorb as much as Jeff's though because my boot toes seem to dry as long as they aren't continously moving thru wet grass. We prowl the N side looking for sites to move up to if we could gain enough distance and altitude to justify the work. We find a few likely spots but still aren't very far away from current camp. We view the pass and it looks really gentle- this is encouraging. We head around Upper Lake (no fish seen), rest, then move onward back to camp.

1200 At camp we find Frazier just recently up. He'd slept well and was dry but had been very tired. We putter around trying to decide what to do next. It is still cloudy and hard to tell what the weather will do. We consider how far any improved campsite might be away and weigh it against the trouble of packing and moving. We decide not to move.

1330 Jeff talks us into descending the creek so he can fish(Stone L. has no fish either). Initially he was thinking of going all the way to Crawford lake about 800' down and 1 mile but we come to the 1st good spot and Jeff rigs up and tries to catch the fish we can see. He does. Then it starts to rain. I cover up myself and my pack in an Army poncho and sit still in my fleece coat. Then water sneaks in and my butt gets wet. So I stood around with Frazier in wind shelter in some trees. This gets old so Frazier heads back and I follow. Jeff decides to fish a bit more further down.

1500 Back at camp the rain stops, mild sun appears and I hang my poncho as a possible dry refuge for dinner if it should rain then. Our neighbor comes over to view our food hang and we trade itineraries and info. He also remarks on seeing an airplane engine at a remote location so I pump him for details since my other passion is relocating and getting GPS coordinates for airplane wreck sites. (see http://www.mtnds.com/hikes/txt/rm.htm)

1700 After a dinner of spaghetti , Jeff and Frazier try again for a fire. This time we use all the paper food trash and a squirt of stove pre-heat paste for tinder and actually have a fire.

It's a better night's sleep and we leave the tent door open for ventilation.

Saturday

0500 Alarm. We are off to a slow start in the true dark. Jeff and I stuff our bags in the dark while Frazier assembles his gear by headlamp. All our gear is very damp.

0520 After wadding up my bag, taking down the food hang and its intricate knots by penlight and chomping on some Bear Valley pemmican for breakfast we are all packed and ready to move as the gray dawn light grows.

0605 We are underway in the gray dawn. We have wet boots (toes squishing)immediately from the soggy grasses and plants along the path.

0710 We achieve the pass after some steady hard work. We've gained 800 ' and have some sun on the surrounding ridges but the weather is not clear. The walk up was indeed fairly gentle. A little zig-zagging was needed but not desperately so.

0740 After finding an elk trail to the left side of the pass Jeff and I are at the pass base after having lost 800'. This side was considerably steeper but still safely doable (would be better on dry grass though). Frazier tried to be clever and went right to get cliffed out over some smooth slabs but came back to the grassy center. On the way down, Jeff and I spotted a bull elk scraping his antlers against a tree. In the windless morning we could hear him breaking branches as he did his thing. We had a nice view of the drainage and could see that at least the upper part would be easy walking on drier hummocks of woods paralleling the marshy, mushy creek bed.

0830 We reach the first visible lake easily. It is cloudy & cold with no hint that the day will improve.

0930 We are walking on mushy grass, have wet boots, pant legs wet to the knees and the day remains cold. Travel has gotten a LOT harder as we travel across swamp grasses and short grasses and standing water. All of the plants are dripping with water so our boots are just swimming in water.

1000 It is still cloudy and we are travelling over swamp grass next to boulders. Then we try to cross a much larger area of swamp grass by travelling what look like dikes. They aren't much like dry paths. So we finally just wade. After getting clear of that we endure wet willows chest high and are thoroughly soaked up to our pockets . We finally walk past Adams L outlet creek and find no sign of a trail.

1230 We are nearing the outlet ramparts of the drainage and decide to trust an elk trail angling up and around to the south. We know that elk seldom get cliffed out and we are in a complicated area where cliffs are large. As we climb, the trail goes past cliffs in the woods 50 feet high. A very light rain begins. This is a scenic, hard climb. The elk must be 4WD with locking differentials around here! We turn the corner to the N-S stream and as the hill finally moderates we follow stream plants while the rain stops. As the summit rounds over I spot a bull elk. Even though I am following last, apparently I am seeing more because I walk slower.

1400 We finally reach the top of the ridge in a combination of trees and flat grassy areas and pick a campsite. The weather starts to clear off as we drop our gear, exhausted. A good gear drying session follows as we spread our bags over dry rocks in the sun and setup the tents to air out. We have a good view of incoming weather to the west and a pretty good view of the drainage to the north. This is a very fine camp. We have a nice view directly north to the E. Inlet and can spot many other mountains from here. Even the tree for the food hang is textbook perfect with a high, long, lower branch which is lassoed on the first throw of the rock. Frazier asks for the stove to be cranked up for a meal and I do so. Jeff and I have our breakfast oatmeal now too. With a sit-down rest, and a warm meal in our bellies, we are quite satisfied with our day's work.

1600 Incoming weather! We pack up and hide in tents for a short time but this was very light rain then clearing.

1800 We have dinner in the clear. Stroganoff AND Sweet & Sour pork for Jeff and I (we share two dinners). Frazier pigs out on chicken stew and ice cream. (Ice cream? Dehydrated ice cream.)He finally figures out that he's brought enough "just in case" food to feed all of us until Thursday. While Jeff's and my food bags are very light now, Frazier's food bag remains pretty hefty. (This is good. It keeps him a little slower than he would be otherwise :-)

1900 While Jeff and I are very slowly walking the tundra above camp looking around at the views, a black cloud moves in and we scurry for the tent. We get a hard rain for 1 hr.

2000 Jeff checks outside and it has turned foggy and cold. There are two cow elk 30' away from the tent until they bolt at the sound of the rainfly zipper.

2100 I am roused from sleep by yipping coyotes and a full bladder. Frazier, apparently heard the coyotes, tried to go see them before returning to his tent. I make a piss call in the fog shining my flashlight out into cloudy woods. We leave the tent door open until about 0500 when both Jeff and I come awake to the sound of drizzle on the rain fly as we quickly close the door and cover the gear in the vestibule. (why? It's just our wet boots.....)

Sunday

0710 The drizzle stops so we get up. It is foggy, and as we eat breakfast we discuss that we have a navigation problem. We need to travel on a ridge contouring elevation and getting ourselves above the right drainage to descend. Without seeing the drainage, this could be very difficult.

0805 We are underway and immediately have wet boots again. My carefully saved 3rd pair of socks turn squishy soggy in about 30 min.

0830 With toes squishing, sidehilling over lichen wet rocks and wet grass we are trying to contour in fog along rockpiles overhanging who knows what. Eventually the ridge seems to round off as the map shows. Note- wet lichen has the traction of snot. This meant that neither the wet grass nor the wet rocks were very secure footholds.

0945 The round off seems good so we move to the top of the ridge and get a glimpse of a lake. A LAKE?????? Adams by shape, NE bearing. But Jeff doesn't buy it. We independently get out maps and compasses and try to get oriented with brief glimpses of the surrounding terrain thru small breaks in the fog. We stop behind a krumholtz while we work map & compass. We simply can't descend until we're sure of where we are and which drainage we are dropping into. Just in time it begins clearing all around. It IS Adams Lake! Watanga creek is dead South. We have an awesome view of Isolation Peak & others. It's clear that we didn't turn the corner hard enough to reach the pass we'd intended but a southerly heading will put us into the Watanga creek drainage and there is literally NO possibility of it being the wrong drainage.

For the record- a descent from the ridge down to Adams Lake would be a significant problem. We saw corniced snowfields and very, very steep rock to be negotiated.

1015 Now sure, we descend along the Watanga creek headwaters as the weather turns to severe clear.

1030 We tried to stay in the slightly drier woods and come to cliffs with a great view of Watanga lake and elk feeding in the water up to their knees.

1045 We came off the cliffs on a steep elk trail and walked thru the woods to the edge of the clearing and try to put the sneak on the elk. We got pretty close before they bolted. We cut the edge of the lake for the alleged trail and find it. It's a pretty durn good trail compared to nothing.

1110 After a 20 min rest we are underway on the trail steep with switchbacks. A trail now is A Good Thing.

1205 After crossing water several times where bridges had been dis-improved we reach the junction with the Roaring Creek trail. All downhill from here- we cruise. Toward the bottom I shift into low gear to save my aching squishing feet and enjoy the warming day even though the final mile of trail is very steep & rocky.

1330 We reach the car, our clean post-hike clothes and pronounce the trip a success.

Great fun! (and no black helicopters in there....)

Learned:
Wet boots not fatal.
Wet pants not fatal either so long as body heat is up from exertion

Ron Miller
ron@fc.hp.com