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The destination of choice was Solitude Lake en route to Thatchtop Mountain. This hike has been known for its rugged beauty. Shelf and Solitude Lakes sit in a basin above Glacier Gorge with The Arrowhead, Powell Peak, and Thatchtop Mountain towering above.
Matt, aka waterrat from the RMNPforums, and I had decided some months ago to try this spectacular hike, which I now believe to be a must do for any Rocky enthusiast. We both agreed that this is the ultimate hike for seeing waterfalls and lakes inside of Rocky Mountain National Park. The route takes you by many unnamed waterfalls that were breathtaking to say the least. Most just as outstanding, if not more so, than many of the more popular falls in the park. It also takes you by a few lakes. Mills Lake, Jewel Lake, Shelf Lake, and Solitude Lake are all visited and are all classic alpine lakes. We were then going to climb the remaining thousand feet to the summit of Thatchtop.
We met at the trail head at 6:00 and were off. Time went by quickly as we took the winter trail directly to the junction of the Mills Lake/Loch Vale trails. Before we knew it we were grabbing a bite to eat on the shores of Mills Lake. After a few photos we were off, in search of the faint trail that leads to the start of the real hike.
This trail is notorious for giving people trouble. It is very faint and not well established until you cross Glacier Creek, which is done on some conveniently placed boulders. We didn't have any trouble finding it at all, thanks to Matt's sharp eyes. There is an avalanche debris field with a bridge through the middle of it. Just before you get to the bridge (literally a couple of feet before) just head downhill to Glacier Creek, cross the creek on the obvious boulders, and the trail becomes apparent. I clocked this at .72 miles from the very end of Jewel Lake. BUt others have said it to be as much as .82 miles from Jewel. Either way, just stop when you see the avy debris field.
Now the trail gets steep. Very steep. Luckily there is plenty of trees, roots, rocks, etc.. to grab on to to help you along the way. At times the trail peters out and a little route finding is required, but for the most part, the trail is fairly well cairned. Make sure to take the time to peek at Shelf Creek (running beside your "trail"). You will never be disappointed with what you see, as there is sure to be an amazing waterfall around every corner, literally. Unfortunately, almost half of my pictures seemed to vanish into thin air or I would have many more waterfall pictures and a lot of great pics to help with route finding. But, I guess this trail wants to remain a little elusive to the masses.
With the waterfall pics that did decide to stay in my camera, I was not too thrilled with the way they looked, and I didn't even come close to doing the amazing scenery any sort of justice. So here is a shot by Jesse Speer of the most special waterfall along Shelf Creek. Booyah. Matt and I wondered why more people don't visit this truly classic spot. Then we remembered what we had gone through to get there. The average rocky visitor will be content to see Alberta Falls and be on their way. And the trail we had just come up was anything but "tourist friendly."
We slowly picked our way up steep, wildflower ridden slopes, rock out croppings, and dense mountainside before we felt we were nearing tree line and the shelf that contains our first destination, Shelf Lake. This was the trickiest part of the day, trying to find a route through the rocks and crumholtz. But before long, we were on the shores of Shelf Lake. Wow! This place is truly one of the most amazing places in the park. The surrounding peaks, the waterfalls leading into Shelf Lake, and the views of Longs Peak and the rest of Glacier Gorge behind you, make for a dreamlike landscape that you have to experience to believe.
We spent a little time admiring Shelf Lake (too bad those shots left my camera), and then we began to climb the granite slabs that lead you to Solitude Lake. Aptly named, this lake is absolutely breathtaking. We sat on its shores and stared in awe. With The Arrowhead rising to the south, Powell Peak to the west and Thatchtop to the north, we were surrounded by castle walls.
I took a few shots and we took notice of the gathering storm clouds moving in and decided we should probably turn back, aborting our goal of Thatchtop. But, what a day! One of the most scenic places in the park, for sure. We made our way back down the steep mountainside in a light drizzle, but by the time we got back to the trail, the weather had cleared a bit so we decided to make a quick trip up to Black Lake.
At Black Lake, the storm began to move in quickly. We could see the clouds rolling up the valley and in minutes, we were engulfed in a see of fog and a cold wind. We headed back down the trail in drizzle with thunder behind us and clearing skies ahead. By the time we got back to Mills Lake the clouds parted for a few minutes while another wave made its approach. We were soon back to the trial head and headed into Estes after a very memorable day in the park.
This is a hike that any rocky enthusiast should make a point to do. This is the "Longs Peak" of lake and waterfall hiking. It's tough, but well worth the effort.
|until next time...|
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