Punting in the Rockies

Wednesday, September 12

Aspens at Bear Lake

We had worked out an extensive and exhaustive 10 mile hike that would take all day and involve more than 1000′ elevation gain. But with the weather forecast calling for 50% chance of rain in the morning and only slightly tailing off during the day, and thunder shower in the afternoon, we decided a change in plans was probably a good idea. Instead, we worked out a much more diminutive hike. Our plan was to start off at the Bear Lake trailhead, pretty much the same starting point as our hike 2 days before. Only this time, instead of heading to the left up to the three lakes, we would go right, and hike around Bear first, then take a branch trail up to Bierstadt Lake, then down to the main road and take the shuttle back to our car in the Bear Lake parking lot.

Reflections in the still lake.

It was a very overcast morning when we awoke. Not raining, and not really looking like it would rain, but you can just never tell – especially in the mountains. We were up and out by 8:30 AM. No need to rush anything today. We just had to be sure to get into the construction area by the 9:00 AM cutoff. Getting to Bear Lake, it was clear way fewer people would be coming in. The threat of rain scared many people off I guess. I figured that even if we did get wet, we’d only be a few miles from the car. The total hike was now about 4.5 miles and we could bail at a couple of different points and return if it was too miserable. We dressed warmly, had our rain gear and set out.

Grasses in the lake

Pika on the rocks.

It was simply an incredible hike. The gray overcast was low over Bear Lake. It would rise and fall over the mirror-like water and present and ever changing scene. There was no wind and it really wasn’t very cold. There were other people strolling on the path. Far fewer than I would have expected and it was easy to ignore them. Around the lake is largely evergreen trees, but there is also a couple of large swaths of aspen in peak color. This was a bonus we didn’t expect. The cool even light, mist over the still water and showy color caused us to spend an easy 90 minutes just in the .5 mile path around the lake. There were reflections, colorful trees, interesting rocks and even a pika. By the time we finally got to the trail junction to Bierstadt, the sky was looking like it would hold it’s water. We headed up the trail.

Aspen grove on the way to Bierstadt Lake.

We had seen the aspen from the heights of the previous days hike. The trail to Bierstadt went right through it. The trail was wide and open and offered many vantage points to shoo the trees. Not a sole ventured past the trailhead. We probably took another hour just in this next .5 mile through the aspen grove. The hike was already a success.

Picasso tree on the trail

Once out of the grove, the trail became more of the rather expected and mundane forest walk. It was still really nice. Quiet, calm, cool and mostly level after the initial uphill trek. After about 2 miles, we arrived at Bierstadt Lake. Up higher here, the lake was shrouded in an ever changing fog and mist. Also dead calm, the lake was surrounded in grasses the sort of melted off into the distance.

Grasses at Bierstdat Lake

We stopped for lunch lakeside and were joined by a couple of Gray Jays. These birds are known for their fearlessness when it comes to begging. They would swoop in close, hop closer and hope for a handout. We resisted for a long time, but finally, they got a little bread. I made them work for it though. First, I would hold it in my fingers and make them take it mid-flight. Then I put it in my palm and one would land on my fingers, grab the bread, then take off. When one grabbed my thumb after the bread, I decided that was enough. No pain, just a little surprised.

Gray Jay at Bierstdat Lake

After lunch, we continued around the lake photographing. The trail down was all long switchbacks, but long gradual one’s. It being a horse trail, it was pretty easy to navigate. No horses have been on it for some time so it was very pleasant. The path down went through an old avalanche that now was populated by aspen in near peak color. The views from this steep hillside were nothing short of spectacular. The only downside was the overcast that still covered all the peaks around us. Bierstadt’s painting of the lake I’m sure included a spectacular mountain sunrise or set, but you would never know it today.

Mary on the trail

We got down to the trailhead and waited around 15 minutes for the next shuttle. Once back at the car, we refueled with coffee and goodies before starting back. Our day was not finished though. Just a couple of miles down the road, we encountered a big group of elk. The big bull was busy in the trees scraping his antlers in the branches or something. He was aggressive with his girls, bulging and huffing and keeping a bead on the several other males hanging around. At one point, I thought he was charging us in our car. He came right at us – and he was the biggest I’ve seen so far – but he veered off  and charged across the road after one of his charges. Mary got a short video of his action that starts off as a vertical then switches to horizontal in the way only Mary can do.

The big guy

Who YOU lookin’ at?

We watched for a while, then headed off for one more stop along riverside to a spot I had seen on our way up. Another cascading river shot was the way we ended our day. Our hike today ranks as one of the all time best. We never got rained on, saw spectacular scenery and wildlife, and only saw one other hiker the whole day. And it still took all day. We got back to camp at 5 PM. Amazing what a little rain and the willingness to brave it will lead to.

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