So, I'll try to describe this in a way that explains exactly what this area of the park is truly like. I don't want to over exaggerate, but I do feel the need to discourage your average or even above average hiker from thinking this is just an exciting adventure to tick off the list. I hesitate to even write a trip report as I know people like myself will see this as a type of personal challenge and a way to push oneself bit farther than normal. I all for pushing personal boundaries and expanding ones mental and physical limits, but this place, mixed with ones strong desire for "wild and untamed" corners of our world, with it's relative ease of access from Trail Ridge Road, could be a recipe for some serious trouble. So, I'll try to be accurate in my experience with Hayden Gorge and Forest Canyon.
Just for a frame of reference, I went with Erik Stensland, a fantastic photographer and dear friend from Estes Park. He routinely makes his way into remote backcounrty locations for sunrise, having to move very quickly through mountainous terrain carrying all of his ridiculously heavy camera gear and equipment. He does so no matter the time of year or the weather... basically, one tough customer that can push through just about anything. Hikes of 20 miles are fairly standard for Erik, while running on a couple hours of sleep with alpine starts( 2 or 3 am). And I myself, am in decent shape as well. Though just now getting back into my rigorous training for ultra-marathons, I have run countless marathon distances though the mountains, and a handful of runs/races at the 50 mile mark, including two double crossings of the Grand Canyon in a day (51 miles, 11,000+ feet of elevation gain).
Erik and I started about 11:50 pm from the Bear Lake parking lot making a routine hike up and over Flattop Mountain. We crossed the bighorn flats and started the first tough section of the day, the climb up Sprague Mountain. This beast of a hill is steep and relentless. There is a false summit that every time I climb I forget about. And then another few hundred feet to climb after that. So, huffing and puffing for 45 minutes, we made it just below the summit and contemplated our decent into Hayden Gorge. It was tough to fine the correct way to descend as we were looking into a huge pitch black abyss that is Hayden Gorge. We couldn't even see Hayden Spire which dominates the view here. After consulting the map a few times, we finally figured out where we should go.
We started the descent a few times, only to have to climb back up and try a different way. We just couldn't see what was below and were afraid of getting cliffed out deep in the gorge. We finally found the snowfield we were looking for further west and began our descent in earnest down sandy and scree filled slopes. We spread our to avoid knocking rocks down on each other, and actually, in my opinion, made good time in the dark coming down into the upper reaches of the gorge. But now is when it gets tricky, and stays tricky for the rest of the trip.
Our goal was to be at an unnamed lake just WNW of Hayden Lake by sunrise. But what was ahead of us didn't make getting there look promising. There was a boulderfield that makes the Longs Peak Bouldfield look like a childs nursery. Boulders the size of small home mixed with boulders the size of small cars, mixed with steep and unstable terrain is what was between us and the lakes. We picked our way through thinking that every little ridge would bring us to more stable terrain, only to be let down time and time again. Finally we could see Hayden Lake below us as the first light of the day was setting the east a glow. Making the unnamed lake by sunrise was impossible and we both though we'd be stuck in the dang boulderfield as the sun made its way up. But we pushed on and did make it to the outlet of Hayden Lake for sunrise. I took a little breather as Erik set up and took a few shots. Once we had our fill of Hayden Lake, we picked our way over a beautiful little glacial knob until we could see this second lake. Erik found a good spot on the knob to snap some more pics and I explored the knob a bit. We decided to lie down for a few minutes and relax, so we bundled up and took a 15 minute cat nap as the sun rose.
Now it was about to get interesting, as if it hadn't been already! We began our descent off of the knob and ever so slowly picked our way down into the trees. It was still very rugged, as what should have taken just a few minutes took twenty. The trees were getting closer, but seemed to be unreachable. However, we did make it into the forest of Hayden Gorge and were pleasantly surprised. It wasn't too thick and this was actually the most enjoyable part of the day. It was relatively flat with sparse forest and meadows, a meandering Hayden Creek and grand views all around. We walked in awe of our surroundings and just enjoyed the morning. I even said to Erik that if Forest Canyon was even twice as bad as this, it wouldn't be a big deal.
The deeper we walked ourselves into the gorge, the more the wild and ruggedness of the place began to reveal itself. Downed trees, cliffs, marsh, more downed trees, more cliffs and more marsh is what began to be the norm. The gorge kept dropping and dropping and we kept winding our way in deeper toward the Big Thompson River and Forest Canyon. We made great time for the first mile and a half to two miles, but the lower we got, the slower we got. We kept losing count of our river crossings. I'd be accurate to say at least 20 were required on the line the we chose. We crossed in a foolish attempt to find better ground, to avoid a marsh, or to avoid being cliffed out, only to find out that we walked ourselves into worse terrain and needed to recross to explore safer options.
The tediousness of the terrain was already beginning to get to us. It's not just hiking and it wasn't really my legs that were the issue (I don't feel like that was the issue for Erik either). It was a full body workout, my triceps were sore the next day, as were my abs. It's that we had to crawl under and over hundreds of downed trees, break our way through dead branches and hop and jump over marsh puddles and jump down/up small rock outcrops. Very tedious. But onward and downward!
We stayed close to the creek and tried to pick the best way down, though I think that is pretty pointless. If I did it again, I would say to heck with keeping your feet dry, they'll get wet anyway, and just bulldoze downhill. We wasted a lot of time trying to pick the driest terrain (which sometimes meant the water was only two inches deep instead of four, whoopee).
Finally, and it seemed like it took waaaaay longer than it should have, we were crossing the Big Thompson River. We stopped here, ate a bit and filled up our water then began the ascent up to the Ute Crossing Trail Head. Over two thousand feet just about straight up! We knew it would be tough, but had no idea what was in store. It started off fairly decent and we allowed ourselves to be hopeful, but this only lasted a few minutes. Aside from being incredible steep, the terrain was loose, mixed and to say it was rugged would be an understatement like I've never heard. Boulders mixed with steep loose dirt, mixed with a thick tanglement of undergrowth, mixed with a weave of small aspen trees so thick it takes you five minutes to go 20 yards, mixed with thick thorny bushes, and all that mixed into an infinite number of those glorious downed trees (some on the ground, some knee high, some lying at your waist level, some at your face) That you would have to crawl under, over, or around.
Now, I have been in some rugged terrain. And I have been in some very rugged terrain (following the outlet stream from Arrowhead Lake to Little Rock Lake comes to mind), but this tops it all. It often took a large muster of willpower to to walk up 20 vertical feet to see what was around the next corner. It usually involved crashing through deadfall, crawling under a tree, immediately climbing a steep slab (with an array or sharp dead branches below to catch your fall) only to be let down time and time again by what lay just previously out of site, followed by another mustering of willpower to do it over again, and again.... and again.................and again.....you get the picture. There were numerouse time Erik or I would simply fall. Our feet would get tangled, or we get knocked over by a stray branch that went unseen, and we each did a face plant into some of those thick thorny bushes I mentioned earlier. Sticks, dirt, braches, and pine needles were all over us...and I mean everywhere - places I have never had debris before (use your imagination).
We could see the slope to our right, it was part of the ridge system that makes up Tombstone Ridge (accessed from Trail Ridge Road) and we knew we only had to go as high as that, if not a little short of its elevation. We could see we were nearing the tree line on that hill, so once again, let ourselves become hopeful sparking a new surge of energy from both Erik and myself. But the next time we had a view of that hill, we saw we were above the trees on the other side, but were still in the densest of forest on our happy slope with no end in sight. It was getting hot and we were now out of water. It was here that Erik hit a pretty hard low.
We stopped for about five minutes (which I was very happy about) and we got the last of our fluids in us and ate just a bit before heading up for what we hoped to be the final push. I knew that I just had to keep Erik moving, even if slow, just moving would be key. He kept saying he just wanted to stop for a few hours to rest and sleep. But with no water or food, I knew this would only get worse, even if we stopped to rest for a while. So I tried to keep the breaks as short as possible. If we had had ample water and food, I would have been fine with taking a 2 hour siesta, but with no fuel, I knew Erik would feel even worse after resting for a while. His body would be eating itself and start metabolizing muscle in addition to fat and that never feels good!! Trust me ;)
So onward and UPward. When Erik started feeling bad I had a second wind and was feeling pretty good so I would blaze the trail and try to find the easiest way through the deadfall, not doing a very good job of it. But I don't think it's my fault...the terrain is simply unrelenting and shows zero mercy. Thankfully though, my low had come and gone on the lower slopes of this hill, so I was hoping this second wind would carry both Erik and I up to the car.
I finally heard the faintness of a car driving. I excitedly told Erik, but he just said something about a walrus, elephant or a lion...I dont know, he talked a lot about his animal friends out there! Looking across the gully we were climbing, we were now a good deal above the trees. I knew we had to be close, when the trees finally started to thin out on our slope and I found a small game trail that led in the direction we needed to go. The sound of cars was getting closer and closer and as we neared tree line, the terrain opened up and the going got much easier. There were still the occasional trees to cross, but the cliffs were gone and the boulders were no more, however, it was still very steep so took a lot of energy.
Then I saw it! The small parking area where we left the car just west of the Ute Crossing trail head! We were 200 yard away! We had finally made it! We were both so overjoyed! We were ready to get off that mountain and get to bed. At this point it had been 32 hours since either of us had had any real sleep and just under 15 hours since we left the Bear Lake parking lot. We were pooped. We were just glad we didn't have to take another step.
All in all a great adventure. Some notable thoughts in my head about this trek:
Anyway, it was a memorable day out! I told myself I would never do this again, but I am a Special Idiot after all, so I think I would do the exact same route again if Alan wanted to do it with me. It seems my brain forgets the horrendousness of some of my experiences. Oh well...
Erik's Trip Report: HERE
My Photos: HERE
|until next time...|
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