Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sheep Mountain and area.

Sheep Mountain, aka Round Mountain, is another peak listed in the Eastern Perimeter section of Fosters book, which gives information on the destinations on the extreme eastern edge of RMNP, as well as places that are outside of RMNP, but fun hikes in the opinion of the author.  This peak falls in the latter category, with the trail head lying about 16 miles east of Estes Park on highway 34.
Before you go, know that you can't currently get to this trail head, with 34 closed from now until May or June of 2017 for post flood recovery work.  But once the road is open again, put this on your list!
The Round Mountain trail head lies on the south side of the road, at 1211 Big Thompson Road.  There are restroom facilities there.  The trail starts from beyond this small building.
After a short but steep climb, the trail starts to head east before turning south and then west, and gaining elevation again. 
The trail in this area.
Looking east down 34.  A great view of some autumnal colors.
After some uphill, the trail starts to weave through and around some pretty neat rock features.  Here is a place where you cut through a small notch between two shorter towers.
One thing I also rather enjoyed were the interpretative signs along the trail.  Each explained something about the area, flora, fauna, or geological features/processes that can be seen in the area.  They also provided a good excuse to stop for a break, catch my breath, and sip some water!
Still some vibrant golds from Aspen along the trail.
Up and up- this was one of those trails that when you think you must be about there, you still have some distance to go.  But soon enough I came upon a place where the official trail heads to the right (west), with a thin spur heading to the left (east), toward Stone Mountain.  It's still over a mile to the summit from this point, but it seemed to go a bit more quickly. 
I made it to the summit and looked around.  You can see the large man made summit cairn to the right here, and interestingly enough, it looked as though this was an artificial high point.  Which it to say, both the rock to the left and the area immediately around the tree center looked like they were higher than the base of the cairn.  The summit register was in good shape, and since I was the only person up here on this day, and 34 was set to close the next day, I might be the most recent signature.
The large summit cairn, 8450 feet, plus or minus!
While the summit is treed in, one can head slightly northwest to get some views of higher peaks.
The Mummy Range.
I decided to do this hike on this day because the weather at altitude was predicted to be extremely windy, and even here things were breezy.  That, and I'd had a long week and didn't want to get up super early and do a long drive.
While I was here and put in the elevation gain, I decided to just do a loop and visit the four other peaks in this area.  From the summit of Sheep Mountain, I headed in a WNW direction to visit peak 8092.
I made my way through some pleasantly open forest to this overlook.  The summit of 8092 lies to the north, or right in this photo.  I down climbed the rocky outcrop I was standing on (to find I could have easily avoided it completely, but hey, a little spice never hurts!), and headed up, staying to the right of the rocky ridge visible. 
The summit of 8092 was pretty open, and offered some good views in all directions.  Here I looked to the next goal of the day, peak 8310.
To points west. 
The summit of 8092.
I had a snack and planned a route to drop into the valley below.  From looking at the topo, it appears that crossing a small parcel of private property is unavoidable here, but I didn't see any signs.
I found the remnants of a very old road before heading up.  The travel here was a bit more difficult, both since the uphill was steeper, and there was a fair amount of dead fall to move over and around.  But I finally topped out on a grassy ridge, and made my way to the high point. 
Looking west from 8310.  A perfect place to be.
And a great register, placed in 1996 by Estes local Howard Pomranka(click to read a neat article about him).
From here I headed east toward peak 7567.  Again, you'll enter some private property along the way, and the summit itself is on private land, but there aren't any signs, and you can stay on the outside of any fences you encounter.  Basically, I'd guess that as long as you are being respectful and friendly, you probably won't have a problem.  Taking the path of least resistance won't put you near any residences. 
Peak 7567 in some afternoon light.  I took a short break here, looking back across the valley.
Sheep Mountain. 
And my last goal of the day, Stone Mountain, the lower but pointier summit all the way to the right here.
I headed NE from the summit to the small outcrop on the topo.  From there, I headed down almost directly north until I was around 7000 feet, and then cut NE again.  The USFS topo shows a trail running along the creek in the bottom of Saddle Notch Gulch, and I thought I spied it as I got close.  This supposed trail eventually turns north to climb steeply to the saddle between Sheep and Stone Mountains.
I refilled water from the creek, and then headed up.  The going was tedious, with lots of bushy growth, trees, and talus.  I stopped several times to empty debris out of my shoes.  Eventually I was high enough up that I realized I either missed the trail I thought I saw, or there wasn't one.  But I could see something above me...
It was alot higher than shown on the topo, and not in great shape, but very easy to follow!
While obviously rarely used today, this wall/trail was very distinct, so much so that it can be seen on satellite photos.  I can't imagine how much work it took to build this, running for miles and miles. 
Looking east from the ascent.
I eventually left this trail, as it went into a heavily wooded gully.  I was on a pretty open slope, and felt that the travel was easier there.  Soon after, I hit a thin trail and took it toward Stone Mountain. 
Looking back to Sheep Mountain.
Blue Mountain and Pinewood Lake. 
The summit of Stone Mountain, 7655 feet. 
With daylight waning, I now had about four miles to cover to get back to the parking area.  As seemingly usual this year, I'd obviously be making some of the return in darkness, and it became a race to get back as quickly as possible.  It's not that I'm scared of or uncomfortable hiking in the dark, it's just that some days it would be nice to be able to instantly transport from the area of the last thing of the day back to the car!
I was able to make pretty good time on the upper sections of the trail, enough that it only took me an hour to get back.  As it got darker, it was difficult to jog or run quickly because I couldn't see far enough ahead to prepare for what was coming.  But my movement higher up made up for it.
Back at the car, I had just what I wanted- a shorter drive home!  I'd had a busy and tiring work week, and didn't want to get up early and make a long drive.  Nor did I really feel up to a 12+ hour adventure, so the day served it's purpose perfectly.
As always, much fun was had in the mountains.  Despite going no higher than the 8450 feet of Sheep Mountain, I still put up a pretty respectable amount of elevation gain since the trail head lies below 5800 feet.  Sheep Mountain was a nice summit- just make sure you explore the area a little bit to get some of the better views.
Link to hike map/GPX on Caltopo.
Sheep Mountain and area (distances as part of the hike):
Sheep Mountain, 8450 feet: 4.6 miles, 2707 foot gain.  Moderate.
8092: 6.6 miles, 2349 foot gain.  Moderate.
8310: 8.1 miles, 2567 foot gain.  Moderate.
7567: 10.8 miles, 1824 foot gain.  Moderate.
Stone Mountain, 7655 feet: 13 miles, 1912 foot gain.  Moderate.
As a whole, this hike covered 17.54 miles with 5817 feet of elevation gain.  Moderate+.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hiking the Ute Trail.

It was just a few weeks ago that Dan and I hiked a section of the Ute Trail, going from Milner Pass to the AVC area and back.  On that hike I mentioned my curiosity about the trail- obviously, there are two sections that are well put in and well traveled- what we did that day, and the section from Beaver Meadows to Ute Crossing/Tombstone Ridge.  But the USGS and USFS topos show a distinct trail running all the way from Beaver Meadows to Farview Curve.  What, I wondered, was the status of this trail?  Was there anything at all there anymore?  How many people hike it, besides those two more popular sections?  
Foster describes it in her book as a "lengthy 16.8 mile passageway from Upper Beaver Meadows to Farview Curve".  To tell the truth, I'd already checked it off since I hiked those two popular sections, but after talking to Dan that day, I felt I should at least make an effort to see if the whole trail still existed.  If it did, I'd go for it.
I started the research online.  It didn't take me long to search satellite photos and determine that it looked like there might be a trail for most of the way, as indicated on the topos (though the USGS and USFS topos disagree slightly about location of the section from Lake Irene to Farview Curve).  
That was enough to pique my interest.  With more research, I couldn't find any trip reports of someone who'd hiked the whole thing, to give me some idea of what to expect.  In appendix b of her book, Foster gives figures for the trail in four separate sections, and in reality, I'd already covered most of the ground.  The only areas that were question marks in my mind were from Ute Crossing to Lava Cliffs, and from Lake Irene to Farview Curve.  
The Ute Trail was also a loose model for Trail Ridge Road, and sections of it now overlap the road, or I suppose sections of the road overlap it, as it was there first.  From many drives over the road, I knew the higher sections would be on tundra, and the worst part rock wise would be in the area of Lava Cliffs, and the 12355 foot Trail Ridge.  So even if there wasn't a trail, the terrain wouldn't be too bad.  If it was, I could simply bail to the road for some easy movement.
I started from Beaver Meadows at 6:12 am, and met sunrise upon the trail.  Ironically, it felt warmer at the parking area than it did at my house in Longmont.  
Sunrise coming.  I've seen just a few this year.  
After some easy undulation, the trail makes a distinct turn to the NW, and the pain starts!  I knew that this section, while short, would take down a fairly large amount of the total elevation gain for the day.  It's steep, going from around 9200 feet to top out on Tombstone Ridge in the 11600's.  Also of note, the current trail location is accurate on both the National Geographic and USFS topo, but shown too high up on the USGS topo.
The trail gets rockier higher up, and as I neared Timberline Pass, I started to hear the calls of Elk.  There was a fairly large herd in the area, and I was happy to let them be, except they kept moving closer to the trail.  Thus, I cut west, occasionally talking to them and making noise to ensure they'd continue moving NE.  My herding technique worked, and I was able to get back on the trail shortly after.
At Timberline Pass, out of the wind. 
While warmish, the day was quite windy.  I stopped behind a boulder to put on heavier socks and layer up. 
Longs Peak and others, covered in a delicate layer of snow.
Unfortunately, the amount of snow on the ground increased as I moved west.  I hadn't even made it to Ute Crossing yet, and was already going into drifts up to my knees.  While this was the exception, not the rule, travel slowed down a bit.
I finally made it to Ute Crossing, and with that Trail Ridge Road.  It was closed for a few days prior, and still wasn't open at this hour. 
Deserted Trail Ridge Road.
I cannot impress upon you enough the level of absolute silence here.  I've hiked by the road before, and I never noticed the sound of automobiles until this day, when there weren't any. 
It was here that I entered the first unknown of the day, the section of trail that goes between point 12036 and Sundance Mountain.  There was still alot of snow cover, and I was able to see what might have been a trail here and there.  Well, maybe.  I saw a cairn here and there, but couldn't see anything trail like around them.  Really, it was using the GPS app on my phone that allowed me to stay close to the "trail" in this area.
I dropped back to the road on the other side of this high point.  Here the trail supposedly crosses to the south side of the road, before crossing back and heading toward the Toll Memorial.
Some of my favorite mountains in the distance.
Rock Cut and the Toll Memorial in the distance. 
I looked, but I didn't see any sign of a trail on the south side of the road here.  Thus I decided to just stick to the still closed road.
I sure had some fun in this area earlier in the year.  It was my longest day mileage wise, up until this day.
I was able to find a trail in the area of Rock Cut, and followed that generally as shown on the topos.  On the other side of Rock Cut, I got on the paved path down to the parking area.  The Ute Trail once again joins the road for a short time before cutting more directly down to Iceberg Pass.
Tundra Curves in the distance.
This was one of the best sections of trail so far.  It was well put in, enough that I could see it under the snow, and marked with cairns here and there.  This section rejoins Trail Ridge Road right above Iceberg Pass, and stays on the road for a short time.  Looking forward, I could see a distinct trail leaving the pull off area on the south side of the road.  However, this became less distinct as I gained elevation, and I ended up taking the path of least resistance.
I looked up and could see a very distinct trail ahead, popping out on TRR a few seconds later, just west of Lava Cliffs.  It took me a second of looking around to realize where I was!  I knew this short section of trail would be good, as I'd hiked it before, to summit Trail Ridge, the 12355 foot ranked peak that stands over Lava Cliffs and Iceberg Lake.
Trail Ridge summit.  The first time I hiked here from the Lava Cliffs parking area.  Now I'd gone about 12 miles and done 4000 feet of gain to get to the same place. 
Back toward Rock Cut.
While the topo shows the trail from here to the Gore Range Overlook staying pretty much on the highest part of the ridge between them, and I knew there was kind of a trail here from my previous outing with Dan, I don't know if that trail we spied was the one I wanted.  I do know there is a distinct trail that runs toward the AVC.  I found a few cairns, but couldn't see a trail, thus I again took the path of least resistance to the Gore Range Overlook.
Here is where things got a bit tricky.  The road had finally opened, and the former trail down from the overlook is well signed to stay off.  According to Fosters book, RMNP discourages use of this trail, but you won't get in trouble if you do use it. 
Nonetheless, I didn't want to just go for it with the people there.  So I hiked the road down for a short time before dropping west.  This downhill was fun, with enough snow to run at a pretty good speed.  I met the Ute Trail as things flattened out, and then met the new Ute Trail, which comes down from the AVC.  Two people had hiked up it earlier, so it was easy to follow their footprints down, and I made good time to Milner Pass.
The Ute Trail above Milner Pass, one of other well traveled sections.
I had run out of water, and planned to stop at Poudre Lake to refresh.  Unfortunately, it was already frozen over!  I was able to break through the ice where a small stream ran into the lake and fill up.  I was already wondering if I should just wait until I got to Lake Irene to get more water, and that would have been a good idea. 
If you stand in the parking and look at the bathrooms at Milner Pass, you'll notice a trail running down to the right.  I decided to take this, wondering if it might be part of the trail.  I followed a stream with clean, flowing water down (a far cry from the heavily sedimented stuff I got out of the lake), before the trail gained elevation the wrong way.  I crossed the creek and made my way back to TRR. 
There is a thin but distinct section of the Ute Trail right next to the road, here on the west side.  It's obviously not maintained, with dead fall over and on it, but it's there.  I jumped back on the road for a short time before walking into the parking area for Lake Irene. 
Lake Irene.
It's pretty easy here- you can either stay on the Lake Irene trail, or leave it before the lake to find the Ute Trail on the east side of the lake.  If you stay on the Lake Irene trail, you'll soon come to this sign...
Guess which way I went?  At this point, I was almost there, with just over a mile to go.  And then that entire distance back.
I found this section to be quite easy to follow, and very well put in.  There's a little dead fall here and there, but nothing more than what you find on other less maintained trails.  And then suddenly, it ends.  I could see the road ahead of me and dropped down a dirt slope.  It's not the cool view of Farview Curve, but here is where the Ute Trail ends.
This was just slightly west of Phantom Creek.  While the USFS map was definitely more accurate as to the location of the trail here, it has the trail ended east of Phantom Creek.  I guess the most accurate map of all here was the 1915-1945 map layer on Caltopo, as it has the trail end almost exactly where it does end. 
As usual, I'll include a link to my map on Caltopo at the end of this.  Click where it says US Forest on the upper right of the map, and you can change the base layer to one of these older maps, or add them as a stackable layer, and change the transparency to see how they match up with the map from today.
So, I was now halfway there, but still over 18 miles from where I started.  That was an interesting feeling.  I ate a snack, went up the dirt slope, and followed the trail back to Lake Irene.  I must've been quite a sight in all my gear to the people who were parking at the lot and walking down to the lake!
On the other side of Lake Irene. 
Sheep Rock.
The Ute Trail in the area petered out, and I hiked the road for a few minutes to get back to Milner Pass. 
Despite knowing how far away I was from the car at this point, I knew the hike in this direction would be easier, with less elevation gain, and now I knew if the trail was there or not. 
I had a snowy slog back up the the Gore Range Overlook.  Very far in the distance, you can indeed see some of the Gore peaks, but I'd say the draw for me here was the spectacular look at the Never Summer Range.
Re-nearing Trail Ridge.  This day would bring my third and fourth ascents of this peak all time, and I was happy to count both, as I started from two different trail heads for each. 
The downhill to Iceberg Pass went quickly, and I started up to Rock Cut.  
A cairn marking the trail.
As I approached Rock Cut, I thought about the options here.  There are a bunch of signs there telling people to stay on the paved path only, and I wanted to set a good example.  I decided to stick to TRR for a short time, both avoid being off the paved trail while there were many other people present, and because it was getting later in the day, and a short distance of easier hiking on the road would hopefully speed things up slightly. 
I was nearing Sundance Mountain when things started to cool down.  After the earlier wind died, the day was pleasantly warm, but as darkness creeped over me, temperatures dropped.
This trend reversed as I lost altitude.  One the way up the trail, I'd noticed a large amount of cairns and felt them perhaps unnecessary.  But on the way down, I was very thankful for them.  The trail is pretty difficult to follow in darkness.
I got back to the car at 9:05 pm, changed, and started the drive back home.  It took me just under 15 hours to do an out and back on the entire Ute Trail, ending with nearly 37 miles of hiking and just under 8000 feet of elevation gain for the day.  
What the trail looks like in places, which is actually better than it looks in other places. 

I noticed these short wooden posts in a few places where the trail intersected TRR, so look for those if you want to hike it.  I didn't see them everywhere though. 
My thoughts on this trail are many.  Most of it still exists in some state, and where it seems to have gone back to the earth, you can still follow the line it once took, as the terrain isn't challenging.  The most popular sections are in no danger of disappearing, but it is disappointing that this trail doesn't get the attention that some of the others get as a method to cross the continental divide or through hike RMNP.  
In my mind, the limiting factor is the lack of campsites anywhere near it, so it could be broken into two or more days.  It's not a good idea to just pitch a tent on the tundra, and I feel like RMNP would have a big problem with you setting up in the most obvious areas, the parking lots and pull outs along TRR.  At least I know they don't want people sleeping in cars at these parking areas.  
One could also have the option of doing the trail in shorter out and back sections, say Beaver Meadows to Ute Crossing, Ute Crossing to AVC, and AVC to the end near Phantom Creek.  This would split it up into three approximately equal segments.  
Sadly, parts of this historical trail are disappearing, but I suppose that is the circle of life.  I am fond of exploring, and in the end, that's what this day was really all about.  
Link to hike map on Caltopo.
Hiking the Ute Trail:
36.64 miles out and back, 7979 feet of elevation gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lost Creek Wilderness Four Pack.

Last week my friend Dan got in touch and suggested an outing.  I was more than happy to oblige, but our look at the weather showed a bad forecast in our normal haunts- in fact, I had planned and then cancelled a two day trip to Cameron Pass due to this.  
So we passed around a few ideas, and in the end, decided on the one that would be the shortest drive as well as get us above treeline.  Lost Creek Wilderness it was!  While Dan has been more than a few times, I've only been once, though I do remember that trip quite fondly.
We met in Boulder, and started the drive down, arriving at the North Ben Tyler trail head about half an hour before dawn.  We hiked through darkness for a bit, but found ourselves greeted by a spectacular sunrise, mostly owing to the Aspen and other various species of tree and undergrowth that were in the full autumnal fire of color.
Golden slope.
We also enjoyed and talked about that sweet and distinct aroma of decay in areas where all the leaves had fallen.  For an obvious reason, this aroma always brings to mind a Sylvia Plath poem, and I'm sure high school me would be pretty impressed that I still remember this line from The Colossus:
Incense of death.  Your day approaches.
Upon reaching the intersection with the Craig Park trail, we took a left, and headed up to the saddle between Kenosha Peak and Platte Peak, affectionately referred to as Little Platosha by Gerry Roach.
From the saddle, we simply turned left (east) and headed up the slope to Platte Peak, with the climb split approximately equally below and above treeline. 
Nearing Platte Peak.
Looking across the valley to the Alphabetizer- Zephyr, Peak Z, Peak Y, and Peak X.
And north to the Mount Evans Wilderness.
We neared the first summit in good spirits, enjoying a beautiful day with just a little bit of wind. 
More Alphabetizer.
Looking ESE to our next goal, Shawnee Peak.
The summit of Platte Peak, 11941 feet, and our highest point of the day.  From here on out, it would be an easy follow the ridge to the next high point.  Well, mostly easy- there was a bit of rock to contend with here and there, but the bushwhacking wasn't ever too bad.
After some down, and some more up, we arrived at the summit of Shawnee Peak.
Looking along the ridge to the future...
And back to the near past.
Shawnee Peak, 11927 feet.
As we continued along the ridge, we dipped back below treeline and found some of that rock I'd mentioned.  The going wasn't too bad really, but a little route finding was needed to keep things on the easy side.
The next ranked peak has the unofficial name of No Payne, and it felt like it took a rather long time to get there.  Well, if you look, you'll notice that the ridge between Shawnee and No Payne is indeed longer in distance, and with more time below treeline, than the area between Platte and Shawnee.
Looking back to Shawnee.
Peak X.
The summit of No Payne, 11789 feet.
We were almost there!  Or almost almost, as we'd still have to visit Payne and then head back.
Again, we faced some rocky stuff and a bit of route finding in the area, but soon found ourselves crossing the Brookside Trail, our way down to the Craig Park Trail, which would take us back from whence we came.
Looking back on the day from the summit of Payne Benchmark, 11780 feet. 
This rock looked to be the true summit, while the benchmark lies a few feet away.
Payne Benchmark, 1944.
From here we headed back in the direction we'd come.  About half an hour after leaving the summit of Payne, we were on the trail and headed into a beautiful valley.
Trail intersection.
While I imagine this valley is incredibly green and lush in spring and summer months, at this time of the year it's all the colors of autumn one can imagine, from the light blonde of the grasses to the rich burnt umber of the brush.  Different, yes, less beautiful, no.  
The trail only gained about 600 feet for the time we were on it, and with that short gain being pretty well spread out, we were able to make quite good time.  This trail is any where from well put in to barely there at times.
Back at the Little Platosha saddle, we simply headed back down the Ben Tyler Trail, back through the Aspen.  
Heart of gold.
We finally saw the first person of the day on this trail, someone who was obviously backpacking.  We saw a few others lower down, closer to the trail head.
What a fun day!  It is certainly good to be looking elsewhere in Colorado, as there is so much beautiful scenery to see.  I will admit it- one of the things I am looking most forward to about finishing off RMNP is the idea of going elsewhere, and not feeling guilty about it.  There are, after all, only a certain number of days in a year on which one can get out for big, all day hikes.  Next year I can hopefully focus some of those efforts else where, and also hopefully complete some of the big days I've mapped in RMNP.
Link to hike map/gpx on Caltopo.
Lost Creek Wilderness Four Pack (distances as part of the hike):
Platte Peak, 11941 feet: 7.2 miles, 3680 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Shawnee Peak, 11927 feet: 8.8 miles, 3666 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
No Payne, 11789 feet: 11.3 miles, 3528 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
Payne Benchmark, 11780 feet: 13.2 miles, 3519 foot gain.  Second class.  Moderate+.
As a whole, this hiked covered 26.54 miles with 6270 feet of elevation gain in up to second class terrain.  Strenuous.