Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lake Irene, Jackstraw Mountain, Timber Lake, Julian Lake, and Gray Jay Mountain.

Summer is indisputably here, along with those long drives I've not been looking forward to.  In reality, they haven't been that bad, though even with leaving my house at 3 am, the earliest I can hit the trail is around 5.  Which of course means that when I start hitting the really big days in the fall, I won't get home until quite late in the evening.  But that's ok.
There was quite a bit of cloud cover as I drove up on this day.  Eventually I ran into it on Trail Ridge Road, and visibility dropped to maybe 20 feet.  That made for a bit of slow going.  But I got through it.
My first stop was at the Lake Irene TH just a little bit past Milner Pass.  To add some confusion, there is also a Irene Lake in RMNP, which is located on the east side near Sprague Mountain.  I was the only car in the parking lot and made the quick jog to the lake by headlamp.  It was still dark and I didn't take a photo.  It was a nice and peaceful start to the day, with the just lightning night sky reflected in the still water.  In a few more minutes I was back at the car and on my way to the Timber Creek TH.
There were a few other cars already there as I parked and got ready.  The low clouds remained in the area and were playing with the peaks of the Never Summer Mountains.  Quite a sight.
There was a warning posted at the trail head that there had been a landslide at around 2 miles in and going around it required experience in back country travel.  No big issue for me.
Gray Jay Mountain as seen from the Timber Creek Trail.  At 10965 feet, this is another of those ranked but unofficially named peaks in the park. 
I hit the landslide area and worked around it.  The bypass trail here is definitely steep and somewhat loose at times.  Use caution!  Unfortunately on the way up I didn't stay on the well defined trail and did a little bushwhacking.  At some point during this I realized I had dropped my sunglasses!  ARGH!  I went back down a little and looked but I had no idea if I was even on the same path I'd taken up and gave up on them.  I could look on the way back.
I got to Jackstraw Campsite 2 (the higher one) and took a quick break.
It was pretty cool to look up and see the ridge that we'd hiked fifty one weeks ago en route to Mt. Ida.  I remember looking down at Timber Lake and Julian Lake from there and how beautiful it was.
I basically went through the campsite and continued uphill.  There were a fair number of animal trails, and I stuck to them in places.  Eventually I topped out a plateau.
Jackstraw Mountain has three distinct summits, this being the southernmost.  While this one held a cairn, it is not the true highpoint. 
Looking from the south highpoint to the true summit on the middle plateau.  It was just a few minutes of easy travel between the two.
Low clouds continued to play with the Never Summer Range, adding interest to the day.
It was quite difficult to determine the exact highpoint of Jackstraw Mountain.  I walked around a bit, could not find a cairn, and eventually decided that this little patch of trees was about as close as I would get.
I headed back down via the beautiful and lush gorge between the two summits, following animal trails and a small creek in the general direction of Timber Lake.  I met back up with the trail and saw the first people of the day, who'd spent the night at one of the higher campgrounds.  Near Timber Lake I saw another couple, who must've camped as well.
I made my way around Timber Lake on a thin trail.  I love these high lakes.  So peaceful and pretty.  In some ways they can be more rewarding than a peak in my mind.
From here I could clearly see a good route up to the saddle between Timber and Julian Lakes. 
There was minimal bushwhacking, the talus was pretty stable and large, and things generally felt right.  Until I saw a head pop up about 20 feet uphill of me.  And then a second.  A female and young male moose!  I made a little noise, but they generally (and thankfully) seemed totally unconcerned with my presence, and went back to eating.  I traversed a few hundred feet west to give them a wide berth before continuing to head up.
Remember those low clouds I talked about?  I essentially climbed into one.  At the top of the saddle I could not see a clear way down to Julian Lake.  In fact, I couldn't see the lake at all!  I waited for a few minutes and looked around.  I found a way to stay on rock slightly west of the steep snowfield on the north side of the saddle. 
The clouds kind of opened up and I got a glimpse of the lake.
The route I took down was solidly in the third class, and a little bit exposed at times.  But it went, and I soon found myself in a large talus field with the lake at the end.
Again, the rock was very stable, with most of the pieces being large and immobile.  The movement definitely gets slower in conditions like this, and it felt like it took me a long time to get to the lake.
Almost there!
I finally made it to the lake and sat for a snack.  What a beauty!  This is a very special place in the park, and the clouds certainly added to it all.  I had to let it all sink in, try to memorize every line, how the trees and clouds looked.
This is the rock face I made my way down.  If I had been able to see, I may have made my way farther west and taken the grassy ramps down instead.
After taking some time to take it all in, I started back up directly west of the lake, keeping north of the sharp ridge of rock running down from above. 
Near the top of this ridge I captured this view.  Pretty awesome.
I topped out the high point west of Julian Lake and found a small cairn there.  This point does not seem to be named (at least as far as I can find) but it seems to offer a good view and is a cool little feature.  May I propose the name Julian Ridge?  My GPS had me at 11922, while it looks like the USGS topo has a closed loop at 11880.  So we can call it 11880+ feet, or give the height as halfway between this and the next loop, which would be 11900.
I looked west to Gray Jay Mountain.  Two words popped into my mind- "arduous" and "bushwhack".  But...
I could see a series of meadows working downwards to Long Meadows.  If you look at a topo map, you'll see a creek heading down that starts almost directly west of Julian Ridge.  The meadows essentially followed this creek.  When there weren't meadows, I was able to make use of animal trails.  In reality, it didn't take me too long at all to get down to Long Meadows.
A single tree in the meadow.
Though some maps show a distinct trail running through the meadow, I didn't cross one as I headed up to Gray Jay Mountain. 
This was what some of the terrain looked like on Gray Jay.  Fun, fun, fun!  Well, after bushwhacking down Spruce Canyon last year, and Forest Canyon the year before that, everything else has gotten easier.  Which is to say those two were so bad I can't imagine anything more difficult.  Here there was some dead fall to move over and around, but that was about it.  I was again able to follow animal trails at times.  Thankfully animals are lazy (or efficient) and don't create pointless switchbacks and generally go around any difficulties.  The trails are often quite easy to follow.
As I neared the summit, the terrain changed and became less treed and a little bit more open. 
I found the summit cairn about half an hour after leaving Long Meadows.  The mosquitoes had found me by now and I was wearing my rain jacket.  I had a quick snack and started down.  My original plan was to head NE and pick up the trail near the Longs Meadows intersection.  I didn't veer east enough and essentially climbed down the somewhat steep north face of Gray Jay.  At one point I could see the landslide area through the trees and decided to veer east of that since I would have to spend a little time exploring there to look for my sunglasses.
I crossed Timber Creek on a downed tree and made my way up.  In what felt like a short time, I hit the Timber Creek Trail.  Someone was coming down and I asked him if we were above the landslide.  He confirmed that we were.  I mentioned that I'd dropped sunglasses in the morning and asked him to pick them up if he found them.  He said he would and leave them at the sign at the trail head.  I ate some food and then headed down.
I got to the landslide area and tried to retrace my footsteps from the morning.  I had little luck and figured the glasses were gone forever.  I was angry with myself because I didn't stow them properly, and now I needed to buy new ones.
But farther down the trail I ran into the same guy who was taking a break.  He'd found them!  He handed them over to me.  That really made my day!
There was a ranger back at the trailhead.  I talked to her and the two guys with her for a little bit.  I ate a snack and ended up giving the guy who found my glasses a ride back to the Timber Creek Campground.  Sorry I don't remember your name now, but thank you again.
It took me about half an hour longer to drive home than it did to drive out.  It was mostly Elk related traffic in RMNP.
This was a great day in the park, and I am actually coming to like (as much as I can) bushwhacking.  At least that virtually guarantees you will have a summit to yourself.  Timber Lake is obviously the easiest of these destinations to get to, as the trail goes right to it.  The peaks probably see a few summits a year.  I'd guess Julian Lake sees maybe ten people a year at most.  Like some of the other lakes that are high up, the difficulty in getting there likely keeps most people away.  I did find this cool trip report from 1996 which is worth a look.
Though it might not be any easier, I could see starting from Milner Pass and descending from Mt. Ida to the saddle between Timber and Julian Lakes as a possible method to get to Julian Lake.  For some easier terrain, you could also stay on Julian Ridge until you end up south of Julian Lake and have a much easier hike down to the lake on grassy slopes.
Link to Caltopo map of hike.
Lake Irene, Jackstraw Mountain, Timber Lake, Julian Lake, and Gray Jay Mountain:
All distances given are as part of the hike.
Lake Irene, 10600 feet: .5 miles each way, -60 foot gain.  Easy.
Jackstraw Mountain, 11704 feet: 4.8 miles each way, 2644 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Timber Lake, 11060 feet: 6.2 miles each way, 2000 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Julian Lake, 11100 feet: 7.2 miles each way, 2040 foot gain.  Up to third class.  Strenuous.
Julian Ridge, 11880+ feet: 7.5 miles each way, 2820 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Long Meadows, 10330ish feet: 9.1 miles each way, 1270 foot gain.  Strenuous.*
Gray Jay Mountain, 10965 feet: 9.6 miles each way, 1905 foot gain.  Strenuous.*
As a whole, this hike covered approximately 13 miles with 5800 feet of elevation gain.  Strenuous.
*= it would obviously be somewhat shorter and easier to go directly for these from the trail head.  The elevation of Long Meadows could be anywhere between 10400 at the north upper side and 10200 at the south and lower side.   

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