There are few hikes in the American West, or anywhere else, which allow you to
observe two beautiful waterfalls, three alpine lakes, glaciers, colorful
fall foliage, and the snowy 13,000 foot (3962 m) peaks of the Continental Divide.
Especially a moderate, ten mile round trip hike from a convenient trailhead.
However, it's not all easy. You do get a rather exciting climb up a rocky
waterfall chute to reach the final destination. And the weather is extremely changeable here.
Our hike arises in the Bear Lake region of Rocky Mountain National Park, one of
the park's most beautiful yet accessible areas. For good reason, the most
popular and congested area in the park. However, the crowds diminish quickly
as uphill progress becomes more strenuous. You then get to enjoy a great mountain
wilderness with limited distractions and unlimited beauty.
(Photo Above, left): A sample of mid-September fall colors near the start of the trail.
The wide, manicured trail with its heavy foot traffic reaches to beautiful
Alberta Falls, (photo, right), about a mile from the trailhead. After the falls, the crowds
thin out quickly.
They say that there are only two seasons in Colorado: summer and winter. On our
arrival at the park's Morraine Campground, we had been experiencing gorgeous
late summer weather, lots of sun and temperatures in the 80s°F (26°C). The next day when we
were ready to hike the weather had changed to temperatures in the 40s°F (4°C),
gusting winds, plus rain and snow squalls. We did not bring winter gear but we didn't
drive a thousand miles to not hike. Dressing in layers did the trick, four layers
of flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and sweaters. Key to this was our gore-tex style rain
gear which now proved its worth.
(Photo, Above): The going gets rougher beyond Alberta Falls. The narrow trail continues
across the slide area above a steep canyon. Note the final few colorful aspens
which grow here around the 9,000-9,500 foot (2743-2896 m) elevation. Beyond this point there
are only evergreens. The Continental Divide appears in the background, shrouded
with snow squalls. To this point, there have been intermittent showers of rain
and sleet but we have remained warm and dry.
After a push up some hillside switchbacks, we arrive at the Loch, (photo, right). One of the park's
most scenic lakes, it is only 3.1 miles from the nearest trailhead, and at an
elevation of 10,200 feet (3109 m). The temperatures is perhaps around 40°F (4°C), with light
snow flurries. The Continental Divide towers in the distance. Taylor Glacier
is just barely visible in the lower right of the notch. Powell Peak (13,208 ft, 4026 m)
is above and left of the glacier. McHenry's Peak (13,327 ft, 4062 m) is further left.
The Loch is a beautiful place to enjoy a picnic or do some fishing during better
weather. There are nice flat rocks at water's edge offering unobstructed views,
a place to eat, and easy places to fish. During a sunnier and warmer previous visit
we had noted many native cutthroat trout in the lake. Fishing is catch and release here.
(Photo, left): A fine view from the west end of the lake.
(Photo, right): A beautiful view of the Loch facing east. The shot was taken on
the way back when the weather had lifted somewhat.
From the Loch onward, the trail becomes rougher and less used. Lots of rocks
and downed wood. The trail follows the aptly named Icy Creek through heavy
woods in a steep canyon. It is deep in shade and very damp, making the going
(Photo, Below left): We are nearing the end of the woods and approaching timberline.
Note the wooden planks crossing a marshy area. Also, Timberline Falls which is
also aptly named is visible a short distance ahead (see enlargement).
(Photo, Above right): A view from the base of Timberline Falls shows our route. The Loch
is visible in the distance, actually only about two miles away. Part of the
trail can be seen in the lower left at the edge of the woods.
The Photo, left, provides an excellent view of the locale. Taken from a distance
with a telephoto lens, you can see the edge of the woods where timberline ends,
Timberline Falls in the spotlight, and the Continental Divide above, with Taylor
Glacier easily visible at right. Click on the image for a spectacular view
without the spotlight. (Photo, right): A closeup of eighty foot Timberline Falls, elevation 10,800 feet (3292 m).
Here's where the going becomes tricky. To reach the high country lakes, Sky Pond
and Lake of Glass, you must ascend the ledge which creates the falls. The route goes
through a relatively dry chute of the waterfall, to the right of the main
branches. (See the photo, below at right.)
The chute is simply a boulderfall from the top of the ledge to the bottom. It has
a small seepage which must run heavily during the spring melt, making the route
inaccessible. You must scramble up this very steep rockfall to gain the top,
boosting yourself up in a couple of places. The steepness and wetness make it a
nice challenge. However the high winds and freezing weather also made it
rather scary as well. Click on the photo, right, for an enlargement without the line.
Upon reaching the top of the ledge, the environment immediately changes to arctic
tundra. The stark Lake of Glass lies in front of you (Photo, left).
The most noticable effect is the harsher weather. The temperature immediately
dropped about ten degrees, close to freezing (32°F, 0°C), and the wind is howling
without letup. I estimated the wind chill temperature as zero°F (-18°C). Our layers of
light clothes are no match at all for these conditions. It is clear that it's unsafe
to stay here, and that we must retreat down the ledge immediately. The larger Sky
Pond is just beyond the ridge at the west end of this lake but it's all rock
hopping from this point onward, making for slow going. So, it's time to leave.
(Photo right): A photo of Sky Pond, reprinted by permission from the site,
Rocky Mountain National Park - the High Peaks. Mr. Gordon Novak has many other fine images from this area.
Photos, left and right, are excellent vistas looking back towards the Loch from above
Timberline Falls. Note, left, that the lichens and shrubs also turn color in the fall,
becoming a bright orange. As we quickly descend, the bad weather lifts a little, and the day becomes
warmer. We finally feel comfortable enough to stop for some lunch which consists
of gorp, cookies, and crackers.
As we again approach the Loch, Gerry stops in a clearing to take some photos
of Timberline Falls and the mountains with a telephoto lens. This effect
spectacularly demonstrates the huge vertical rise of the Continental Divide,
which couldn't be captured up close. It provides an excellent view of Taylor
Glacier and, to its right, Taylor Peak (13,153 ft, 4009 m) which was previously obscured (Photo, right).
Once past the Loch, we continue down the mountain without further lingering as another squall approaches. (Photo, left): Some colorful aspens with dark clouds hovering overhead.
We make it back to our vehicle without further rain. Our modest, ten mile hike has provided more than its share of beauty and adventure.