Monday, July 28, 2014

Fox Creek Falls, Lost Falls, and Kettle Tarn via Cow Creek Th.

The weather this summer seems to not be quite as spectacular as last year, or maybe it was just that I got lucky.  Either way, on this day I was getting predictions of storms starting at anywhere from 9-11am, so I decided that heading up above tree line was not a wise decision.  I wasn't motivated to make the longer drive to the west side, so what could I do?  
After studying the topo, I found three destinations I could access from Cow Creek th that I had yet to visit.  But this would stipulate hiking the entire North Boundary Trail to the North Fork Trail and then two miles or so of that, and then going all the way back.  Still, it looked okay and would keep me well below treeline for the day.
Mornings at Cow Creek th are the best.  Always very pretty.
The first obstacle is the moraine extending east from Sheep Mountain.  A few hundred feet of gain right away definitely warm up the legs, the body, and the spirit.  From there you loose almost all of the elevation gain you just put in to arrive at West Creek.  There is now a nice shiny new bridge there, so no rock hopping was needed to cross.  Again, the trail turns upward and another few hundred feet of elevation are gained.  Things flatten out before heading slightly downhill to Fox Creek.
Upon meeting the creek I crossed another new footbridge and picked up a small social trail heading down stream.  I followed it as best I could, but the flood had completely wiped it out in places and travel grew slow and tenuous.  I ended up crossing the creek again and bushwhacking down a little farther.
The base of the creek in this area is all rock that has been smoothed and shaped by the passage of time and water.  Several small cascades step down and make pools that looked like they would have been great to sit in and cool off. 
The cascades grow in height until several of them team up to deposit water in this larger basin.
A very pretty waterfall that will take some work to get to, but certainly worth the effort in my opinion. 
Though there were some low clouds around, I did get a brief view of blue skies. 
Fox Creek Falls though a window in the trees.
Since going back the way I'd come didn't seem like a great plan, I simply made my way back uphill and overland until I ran into the trail and continued on.
When I had first looked at the topo, I must not have been looking too carefully, because from Fox Creek you gain nearly 1400 feet of elevation before dropping down to the North Boundary Trail.  I thought this section was mostly flat, when there was a pretty good amount of up to be had.
It also didn't help that I mistakenly identified this high point extending east from Mummy Mountain as Mount Dickinson and thought I was farther north than I really was.
Again, I was expecting to hit the North Fork Trail at any second. 
Along the way I saw these absolutely incredible alien looking things poking through the forest floor.  It was the first thing I looked up when I got home, and upon searching the term 'pink asparagus like plant' (how else would you describe it?), I discovered that these are a somewhat rare flower related to blueberries.  They are called Pterospora, or more commonly Pinedrops.  An interesting thing is that this plant does not contain chlorophyll and does not produce its own energy.  Rather, it has a parasitic relationship with a certain fungi which are themselves living a symbiotic life with pine tree roots.  Pretty interesting stuff.  It was the first time I'd ever seen anything like it!
As I made my way to the North Fork Trail, I passed a NPS cabin.  I decided to go over and check it out.  I noticed the door was unlocked and got that uneasy feeling as there was no one around.  I walked around the cabin and saw another door on the back, and looked in to find a NPS employee standing there.  I hadn't expected to see another person all day, and I guess he didn't either as he asked if I was there on official business.  Haha.  He told me there were about 20 NPS people in the drainage doing trail work.  And shortly after I ran into one of the crews.
I took a left and headed up and up.  I was thinking back to the year before when Dan and I had climbed Dickinson and Dunraven.  What a memorable day!  And when I got back home, I discovered that had happened exactly a year ago to the day. 
I hit the Stormy Peaks trail.  It took me a decisively slow five hours to get here.  From here it is recommended to head directly south to hit the falls.  I followed the trail slightly farther as it flattened out slightly after this intersection.  Shortly after stomping into the woods, I came upon a very faint trail that led to the Big Thompson. 
Mount Dickinson as seen from far below.
I first hit this area of cascades.  From here I moved down as I could to see if the falls were any fallier downstream.  And then up, where I finally found what looked to me to be the largest definitive waterfall of the series. 
Lost Falls.  I got this good view of what I could actually call a waterfall when compared to things such as Marguerite Falls which looks alot more like a cascade.
I got back on the thin trail and followed it back to the North Fork Trail.   
Here is where it met the trail, maybe 100 feet past the intersection with the Stormy Peaks Trail.  As pictured, I made sure to build a cairn on either side of it, so look for those if you happen to want to go here.
I turned back downhill.  My plan was to pass the intersection with the North Boundary Trail and find the Kettle Tarn campsite and then make my way to the small body of water behind it.  I came to a place where it looked like there once was signage and a small bridge and trail on the other side of the Big Thompson, but it was all gone.  I could not find a downed tree to cross the creek on, so I went back to the North Boundary intersection and crossed there.
From this point, you simply need to stay on top of the small moraine that is immediately south of the Big Thompson.  This is easier said than done, as thick bushwhacking is encountered.  But you will soon notice the water on your right.  It is small, but very pretty.
Kettle Tarn.  Secluded and beautiful.  It has no inlet or outlet, and was formed by glacial activity.  This day was a study of time and geology.
It had now started to rain and I was occasionally hearing thunder.  Once I topped out on the North Boundary Trail, I mixed some jogging in with my hiking.  I ran into a father and son who were going to one of the campsites near the Big Thompson.  I found and ate a few strawberries.  I ground up over the final 600 feet or so of gain needed to get back down to the Cow Creek trail head. 
I captured this great sight of Lumpy Ridge standing out in front of the clouds behind.  How wonderful!
This was the day I needed.  Just a long day to meander around and see a few things I hadn't gotten to before.  Though I started around 7800 feet and went not much higher than 9800, I still ended up gaining around 5000 feet on the day.  So yes, you can have a challenging hike while staying low.  Though most of this was on trail, there is that sense of being out in the middle of nowhere, and with the Dunraven trailhead still currently closed, this is about the only way to access the North Fork Trail.  Count on a return trip soon!
Fox Creek Falls, Lost Falls, and Kettle Tarn via Cow Creek Th:
Fox Creek Falls, 8420 feet: 2.75 miles each way, 600 foot gain.  Moderate.
Lost Falls, 9840 feet: 8.4 miles each way, 2020 foot gain. Strenuous-.
Kettle Tarn, 9220 feet: 6 miles each way, 1400 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Of course, to get to any of these destinations, you will need to gain elevation both ways, so they are more difficult than the numbers might look.
This hike as a whole covered approximately 16.75 miles with 5020 feet of gross elevation gain.   Strenuous-.

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