Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 13.8 miles (round trip)Walking time:
day 1: 5 3/4 hours
day 2: 5 hours
Elevations: 2,930 ft. gain/loss
Wild Basin Trailhead (start): 8,500 ft.
Ouzel Lake: 10,020 ft.
Bluebird Lake: 10,978 ft.
Trail: Good trail as far as Bluebird Lake, but some miner scrambling is required over the last 0.8 mile to Pipit Lake.
Season: Late summer. There is usually snow on the trail from mid-November until mid-July.
Vicinity: Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park
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Isolated as it is in the southeastern corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, Wild Basin seems almost to be a private reserve for hikers. There are no paved roads here and no visitors centers-only pristine alpine lakes, rushing waterfalls, and about 30 miles of foot trails. In 1974 the Park Service proposed that Wild Basin be included as part of a new Enos Mills Wilderness Area. Congress still has not acted on their recommendations, but to their credit they are already managing the area as if it were a designated wilderness.
The hike described here visits three of Wild Basinís lakes and three of its waterfalls. It can be done in one long day, but in my opinion a single day is not enough to really appreciate the beauty of the area. Unfortunately, the area is very popular among backpackers and the Park Service will only allow campers in certain places, so reservations are a necessity if you intend to spend the night on the trail. You can obtain a reservation by calling the Backcountry Office of Rocky Mountain National Park at (970) 586-1242 between March 1 and May 15 of the year you are planning your trip. Sometimes camping permits can also be obtained without reservations at the Wild Basin Ranger Station near the trailhead, but only if there are sites available. The cost of a camping permit is $15.00/night.
The best campsite to use for this hike is the Upper Ouzel Creek Site, located 0.4 mile below Bluebird Lake. This site is situated in a picture book location with plenty of wild flowers, a cascading stream and a tent site with an unforgettable view of the canyon below. The Ouzel Lake Site is nice too, especially if you want to do a little fishing. A distant third choice would be the North St. Vrain Site.Day 1 (5.7 miles)
From the ranger station the trail starts out by following the North St. Vrain Creek, a rocky, fast-flowing mountain stream that sometimes seems to be just one continuous cascade. The torrent at Copeland Falls, ten minutes from the trailhead, provides a good introduction to what lies ahead. But donít stop too long-it gets better.
A mile beyond Copeland Falls the path crosses the North St. Vrain Creek on a foot bridge, then climbs south along Cony Creek for a short distance to the second point of interest: Calypso Cascades. Here the turbulent water of Cony Creek makes its final, chaotic descent down a steep ravine to the confluence of the two streams. The cold liquid dances wildly over the granite boulders in a kind of animated mating ritual as it prepares to join the equally restless North St. Vrain. Best of all, the trail crosses Cony Creek on another foot bridge just below Calypso Cascades, so hikers have a perfect vantage point from which to view to spectacle.
0.8 mile after leaving Calypso Cascades the trail comes to another foot bridge across Ouzel Creek, where hikers can again witness an impressive display of natures artistry. A hundred feet west of the bridge the creek plunges over a 30-foot vertical drop in the streambed to form Ouzel Falls. The view from the bridge is fair, but it is worthwhile at this point to leave the established trail and proceed along a primitive hiker-made trail on the south side of the stream to the base of the waterfall. Your reward will be a face full of spray and a full frontal view of Ouzel Falls.
Before the trail reaches Ouzel Falls you will begin to notice signs of a forest fire that occurred in 1978 after a lightening strike near Ouzel Lake. Twenty minutes after leaving the Falls the trail comes to a junction where the Bluebird Lake Trail separates from the Thunder Lake Trail, and as you climb out of the North St. Vrain Drainage towards Bluebird Lake the fire damage becomes much more pronounced. The fire burned for two months and destroyed a total of 1050 acres before fire fighters could extinguish it.
It has been 30 years since the fire and nature is well on the way to repairing the damage. Notice the thousands of little lodgepole pines that are springing up throughout the burned areas. Lodgepole pines are always among the first trees to germinate after a fire in this region. In fact they do not reproduce well in the absence of fire because the treeís resin cements the cones together so tightly that the seeds cannot easily be released. But when a fire like 1978 Wild Basin Fire takes place it softens the resin in the lodgepole pinecones and scatters millions of new seeds across the blackened landscape.
Ouzel Lake lies on the left side of the trail 1.6 miles from the Thunder Lake Trail Junction. If you are planning to camp there you will be pleased to see that the fire never quite reached the shore of the lake, and it remains a beautiful place to spend the night. The campsite is at the end of the spur trail leading to the north side of the lake. The lake is quite shallow, but nevertheless a significant population of brook trout and greenback cutthroat trout manages to survive the winters, making Ouzel a popular lake for fly fishermen. The greenback cutthroats are unusually pretty fish, with spotted green backs and blood red gills. They are a threatened species, however, and the Park Service requires you to use barbless hooks and release any greenbacks you might catch.
The Upper Ouzel Creek Campsite is situated another mile past Ouzel Lake, beyond the western boundary of the 1978 fire. This site would be my first choice for this hike. The Upper Ouzel Creek Site is conveniently located near Bluebird Lake, and, in my opinion, it is also one of the prettiest and most comfortable campsites in Rocky Mountain National Park.Day 2 (8.1 miles)
After leaving the Upper Ouzel Creek Campsite the trail becomes much steeper, climbing 400 feet before it reaches Bluebird Lake, 0.4 mile later. The trail is also much more primitive here, and if you are hiking before mid-July you will probably encounter snow on this part of the trail. This is all a preamble for the wild and beautiful Bluebird Lake which suddenly comes into view only a few feet before your arrival. The lake sits right on the edge of timberline, surrounded by gray granite and blue sky with Ouzel Peak rising above its western side.
Although no trace of the previous construction is now visible, it is interesting to note that until recently Bluebird Lake had a dam on its eastern side. The dam was built over a hundred years ago by irrigation farmers east of the Continental Divide. Then, in 1988, the National Park Service purchased the water rights to the lake from the city of Longmont with the intention of dismantling the dam. In order to minimize the environmental impact demolition crews broke up the concrete using only hand tools, and the debris was flown out by helicopter. Amazingly, not a trace of the old dam is now visible.
Pipit Lake is an easy 40-minute off-trail scramble from Bluebird Lake; if you like wild places you should include it in your itinerary. The easiest way to get there is to cross Ouzel Creek just before the outlet of Bluebird Lake and proceed across the north side of the lake in a westerly direction. Bear to the right of the granite outcropping on the lakeís west side and climb to the plateau above the lake. From there it is an easy walk up the drainage past Lark Pond to Pipit Lake. The total distance is about 1.0 mile and the elevation gain is 440 feet. At 11,420 feet above sea level Pipit is well above timberline. It is only 1,000 feet below the Divide in an almost perfectly circular bowl with Mahana Peak directly north and Ouzel Peak directly south. And it definitely has the wild feel of a place not too many people visit.
From Pipit Lake it is an easy scramble back to Bluebird Lake, and from there you can retrace your steps back to the Wild Basin Trailhead.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Bluebird Lake area
Rocky Mountain National Park (Trails Illustrated, map #200)
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