Adams: Backpacking to Rocky Mountain National Park’s notorious Gorge Lakes
October 1, 2016
It has become a bit of a cliché to claim a highly desired experience as being on your bucket list. But this was the real deal for our crew of five sixty-somethings: backpacking to Rocky Mountain National Park's notorious Gorge Lakes. This includes the true headwaters of the Big Thompson River in Forest Canyon just below Forest Canyon Pass. Straddling the Continental Divide, this section of the park is easily and inspirationally visible from Trail Ridge Road at Rock Cut and Forest Canyon Overlook, but deceptively difficult to get to on foot. Difficult?
We had an early-September permit for Little Rock Lake, the only backcountry site in the entire area. How did we get to the lake? We left Trail Ridge and the Milner Pass trailhead at 10,750 feet and chugged 4.1 miles up to treeline, way past treeline, to 12,400 feet of elevation and just shy of the summit of Mount Ida. At this point, we began a long and complicated descent. We angled down boulder-strewn tundra ridgelines past awe-inspiring views of Inkwell and Arrowhead Lakes. Then down steeply tilted tundra, down below treeline to a very thick forest of fir, spruce and deadfall lodgepole pines. Down steep gullies, down slanted rock outcroppings and finally down to our high-country lake.
We saw birds. On the tundra, we saw ptarmigan that were already turning into their white winter camouflage. In the steep woods, noisy spruce grouse flushed and flew at odd angles. Along the lakes and connecting stream channels were families of high-country ducks. And of course, there were gray jays and camp robbers, Steller's jays and the ubiquitous robin contingency.
Every night, a little bit later each night, a waxing crescent moon dipped into the western horizon, and the stars "turned on" in a way you just can't see back in town.
We were there for the fish, the only fish in these drainages, the right fish — the native greenback cutthroat trout, oncorhynchus clarki stomias. We caught them in the lakes and feeder streams and in the Big Thompson itself, way up close to Forest Canyon Pass. It had been awfully hard getting there, but it was awfully easy to catch them on Elk Hair Caddis, Stimulators and Sparkle Parachute flies. Most of the greenbacks were eight to twelve inches, some bigger, all of them brilliantly marked, robust and beautiful. Did I hear a bucket getting kicked?
This was the most pristine area we'd encountered in RMNP and one of the most challenging in terms of orienteering and route finding. Among us we possessed over 200 years of experience backpacking and orienteering in RMNP's backcountry in all seasons of the year. We were guided by GPS, USGS topographic maps, compass, our collective intuition…and eventually we predominantly followed the tracks of the elk. How well the GPS and maps hewed to reality remained in question. But the "Elk-Can Highway," as we called it, showed us the way. Elk trail and tracks and scat meandered downstream from LRL another two miles to the confluence with the Big Thompson itself in Forest Canyon. We followed the Big Thompson and the elk tracks and scat upstream, crossing the stream repeatedly, climbing from subalpine forest back up into gradual transition to tundra.
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Scatologically, it was the most tracks and animal droppings I've ever seen. Everywhere. There was lots of Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep scat up on the tundra and throughout steep, rocky gullies. Deer and mostly elk scat dominated through the trees and streamside meadows, with ample signs of moose and bear as well.
So we checked something off our list. Or did we? There are a host of excellent reasons to return, including some unfinished business along the shoreline of Arrowhead Lake.
Tom Adams is a retired educator living in Greeley and working as a fly-fishing guide in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.