Location:  Rawah Wilderness, northern Colorado
Maps: USGS Quad 1:24K Clark Peak :, Trails Illustrated 1:40K Cameron Pass #112
Access: Hwy 14 west 53 miles from Ted's Place to the Blue Lake trailhead on the north side of the road.
Trailhead: NAD83 zone 13 427584e 4492445n  Elev: 9450'
Trail: 7 miles one way. 1300 ft elevation gain. Begins in forest, several bridged stream crossings, ends in alpine tundra.
Fees: None
Dog Regulations: Voice control in National Forest (1st 1.5 miles), leash control in wilderness.
Weather: Current and recent conditions    Local Forecast

November 12, 1999
Despite failing to actually reach the destination on two previous attempts, once due to bad weather and another due to a 3:00 ecology class that cut the trip short, I was trying once again to grunt my way up to Blue Lake on the west side of Cameron Peak, the namesake of the popular highway pass in northern Colorado. The route drawn out on my USGS map looked like 5 miles, the Colorado Ski Patrol map estimates 7. Either way, the trail is not terribly long, but the terrain is not flat. The countless rolls and slants that the trail winds over make it much more difficult than one thinks when looking at the map. The hills strain the legs, and the ever-present snow dulls one's step. Even so, I determined to make Blue Lake regardless of obstacles or weather, and I planned the day accordingly.
I was up at 6, just before a beautiful November dawn. I sat behind the steering wheel of my girlfriend's Toyota Corolla (borrowed for this occasion) and was on the road out of town, into reality, by 7 AM. The front seat was loaded with a bag full of food, water, warm clothes and my camera, while the back seat was loaded with my faithful canine adventure companion, Frankie, ever eager to wander on pointless discourses over hostile terrain with me. Without traffic on Highway 14 up along the Poudre River, I made it to the trailhead in 1.5 hours. There are few things more frustrating than planning an outdoor excursion, getting up early and driving away from the smog of the city only to be held captive in your car by inclement weather. It has happened to me on occasion, but fortune smiled on me as I stepped out of the car into a dreamlike day. The sun was low on the horizon, casting a friendly warm glow in the morning mist of the pine forest which surrounded me. The sky was without clouds, and though cheery clouds on occasion will add to the enjoyment of a day's hike, in the mountains it is usually more comforting for clouds to be absent, for if they be friendly one hour, they will be angry the next. It was unusually warm for November in Colorado at 10,000 ft, and the snow was conspicuously absent. A bit of a breeze moaned through the pines, but it was mild. The lot was empty as I shouldered my pack, and I looked forward to a solitary trail.
 Trail to Blue Lake
The first bit of trail led through a very deep growth of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir, casting a cool darkness that belied the brilliant sunshine outside the dense evergreen canopy. The ground was carpeted with bryophytes, resembling, at a perfunctory glance, well-groomed turf.  Before I had gone 200 yards, I had to stop to pull off my down vest, gloves and cotton flannel. It is always difficult for me to correctly guess a comfortable layering of clothing while hiking. The body heats up rapidly while strutting over rough terrain, such that one is often comfortable in a t-shirt at 40F, as long as movement is sustained.  Cessation of movement invariably invokes an instant chill.  The sunlight and wind both wreak havoc on comfort-levels, having opposite effects but both appearing and disappearing as one enters valleys, rounds corners or encounters dense forest.  Thus, maintaining comfortable body temperature is a challenge in itself.
A bridge crosses Sawmill Creek, a stretch of water that flows rapid in the confines of a small groove sliced out of the forest soil.  It is nice, fresh and vibrant.  If I wasn't so terrified of Giardia, I might give in and venture a drink straight from it. Beyond the bridge the trail widens and appears to be well maintained, that is, free of ruts, trees, rocks, etc.  Frank enjoyed himself immensely from what I could observe; constantly hunting the unseen chirps and chatters in the underbrush beyond.  At about 1.5 miles, we reached a sharp bend in the trail that overlooked Chambers Lake, a deep blue bowl larger than just about every lake in the region.  We stopped only for a moment, for I had gazed at this sight before.  I was after the next thrill.
I hiked at a fast pace, about 3 mph I figure, and felt great.  Distant rumblings in my belly warned of the need for an early lunch.  Nothing makes me hungrier than hiking. I ignored it.  Mind over matter, and belly.  Lunch should come at the halfway mark of the trip and not before.  Soon we came to another bridge, not nearly as well-kept but quite functional.  The stream it spanned, Fall Creek, was much smaller than the first, yet not less inviting.  Immediately on the other side of this stream lay the imaginary demarcation delineating "normal" forest from "wilderness" forest, a distinction whose only implication is that you can no longer build a gas station or ride motorbikes along the trails.  To George Bush, there apparantly is NO distinction at all. The trail likewise becomes narrow and less "groomed"; consequently my approval increased.
It is through this section of the trail that I got tired. The path led up steep, long slopes that made my calves burn and ache, then led down steep, long slopes that fatigued my quads and jammed my toes. At 9:30 we made our first stop of the trip on an upward slope in the shade. I sat on a conveniently located log and ate some peanuts, throwing Frank a nut or two to keep him happy. Amazingly, he always enjoys whatever I'm eating. Ten minutes later we were off again, up and down on the trail.
The sun rose higher in the sky so that it consistently lit the path before me in flecks and streaks of brilliant white. The sun felt good, and warmed me in the chilly breeze. I knew by then that the wind I was feeling gently flitting by would be a gale on the open alpine shores ahead.  I could hear distant whistles of gusts through the tree tops.
A third bridge came up on the trail, this one spanning an even smaller and shallower trickle than before. This too was Fall Creek, but in its infant form. In fact, the bridge is quite superfluous, as any reasonably fit person could manage to leap over it.  While I utilized the luxury of the bridge, Frank rebuked, and splashed noisily through the icy water. (Although he took the bridge on the way back)  I halted briefly among the moss-shrouded firs to consult my map. I had reached the point of my turn-back the year before, where I had met two men who told me (and lied) that the lake was still 4 or 5 miles away.  I had since doubted that assertion, and the map told no lies. I was close, and getting anxious. By now my hunger had waxed voracious, and I was eager to devour my lunch on the shore of the advertised attraction. Confident that my destination was imminent, I continued on.
Here and there Frank would halt abruptly, dashingly handsome in his rigid regal point to the quarry. A positive word from me and he would tear off like a greyhound, only to have his would-be lunch scurry up the tree and chatter angrily at him from it safe perch high above. On rare occasions I've watched Frank, in a fit of blood lust, scale the trunk of a tree 10 ft or more before his momentum gave out and his claws slipped. To date, he has recorded 0 kills.
 Shore of Blue Lake
The landscape changed rapidly as I plodded quietly along.  Dense lush forest gave way to open brown tundra. A small wooden sign forbade camping within 1/4 mile of the lake. I walked 300 yards further and there, to my right, was a giant glacier-carved bowl filled with water. The time was 10:35. It was indeed Blue, but only on the edges that yet were free from the smooth expanse of silver ice that lay on the surface, crisscrossed with white cracks resembling a spider's web. The shoreline was rocky, and the trees were few (being alpine tundra). The predominant feature of the area was scrubby brown grass, and the wind howled under the white sun.
 Blue Lake, Rawah Wilderness
The trail didn't seem to go down to the lake shore, which was several hundred feet down a loose slope, but instead threaded around and over a distant ridge, onward to Tunnel Creek Campground 6 miles away. Given the bleakness of the surrounding terrain, I decided to venture a climb up the imposing slope on the west, 320 feet, to Hang Lake, Blue Lake's little brother. Hang Lake is not visible from the trail, and no trail at all was apparent to this destination. The only indications I had of the presence of any body of water was the map, and two ravines filled with ice cutting the slope toward me. One, or both, lead to the lake. I wasn't sure which ravine to take, so I guessed and took the wrong one.
 Sam and Frank above Blue Lake, Cameron Peak in the background
The going was hard to begin with. I was over 11,000 ft by then, and my leg muscles were tight from the fast-paced 6 miles they'd just reeled off. In addition, the slope kept getting steeper and steeper, and while Frank the Wonder Dog trotted up with typical dog ease, I found myself stopping every 10 steps to sit down and pant. I planned my ascent to the obvious ridge up above in 8 thirty-foot intervals. Each time I achieved a landmark, I rested. I realized too late how poorly my route choice had been. The slope I was on became absurdly steep, and wholly consistent of loose rocks and gravel. Every step I took caused me to slide back one, yet I couldn't bear the thought of turning around at that point. Great maneuvering was required to edge myself to the left, on all fours but almost erect, to a stretch of solid earth anchored by dwarfed timberline firs. It was on my way over that I lost my lens cap. It tapped a rock and bounced free. I watched unsympathetically as it bounced and slid 50 or 60 feet down. It finally disappeared under the loose rocks, destined to be buried for the next 12 millennia. Civilized ants will one day ponder the meaning of NIKON.
 Blue Lake from above
By the time I reached solid footing, all strength had deserted me, apparently going directly to Frank, and my muscles quivered with fatigue. Ruefully, I looked to the south and saw Hang Lake shimmering some 50 feet lower and 300 feet to the south of my current precarious perch.  Dangit. Couldn't be helped. I had targeted the ridge above me, and I was going there, by gosh. I pressed on 10 steps, rest, 20 steps, rest, 30 steps, big rest, 40 steps, and I was there. I reached a small area of flat ground on the edge of a giant boulder field that sloped gently up towards a spire that stabbed another hundred feet towards the sky. This was Clark's Peak.
 Hang Lake, Rawah Wilderness
I immediatly broke out my lunch and ate. In matters of etiquette I am reasonably refined, but something animalistic came over me on top of that ridge. I  tore into my food without thought for taste or even chewing. The cold, the wind, the long hike, the aching muscles; all contributed to an eating style wholly unacceptable within city limits. I ate voraciously. My hands were heavy and unresponsive from the cold and rough treatment up the loose rocky slope, but they managed to shovel in food all the same.  I began to enjoy the mistake I had made as I commanded a magnificent view of both lakes below me. Cameron Peak, opposite Blue Lake, rose up even higher, a slumbering hulk of raw rock with, oddly enough, absolutely no snow to grace its cap in November.
After eating all available food and throwing Frank some peanut shells to abate his begging, I pulled out the camera and loaded new film. I also donned my previously-shed warm clothes to combat the wind. I took a few photos of Frank and I and the surrounding area before finding a reasonably sheltered crook in the rocks to relax. Turned out to be only partially shielded, for I soon took note that the wind blew alternately from two opposite directions. Periods of calm interluded the raging wind, and in those times I could've napped for hours. I tried, but the bite of the wind prompted me to keep moving.
 Hang Lake
The clouds began to move across the sky in ever-increasing numbers. They sailed along with the same apparent speed and mechanical precision of a locomotive. It always amazes me how fast clouds move to the terrestrial observer at 12,000 ft. At that elevation, the clouds often pass by below you. When they blocked out the sun it became cold, instantly, but rarely did this last for more than 10 seconds before they were out of the way. Although the clouds were puffy and white, I was wary of what lay behind the wall of rock to the west.
I made my way toward Hang Lake by scrambling over sideways and crossing the aforementioned ravine. I encountered thick, knotted growth of elevation-stunted fir. This peculiar growth pattern results from the fact that the ground freezes solid in the winter and the plants have no access to water.  For the most part they are buried beneath snow which blocks out light, inhibiting photosynthesis, thus inhibiting respiration and subsequent water loss to evapotranspiration. However, if any part of the plant protrudes above snow line, it will photosynthesize, respire, and lose water which it cannot replace, whereupon it will dessicate, and die. This growth pattern results in a plant architecture known as Krumholtz, after the botanist who first described it. Thus is the stunted growth maintained, and a century-old tree may be but 5 feet tall. Absolutely impenetrable when taller than 4 feet, Frank and I picked our way through the maze of Krumholtz, drawing closer to the lake most of the time. As we neared the shore, an especially sharp wind howl prompted me, reflexively, to look up out onto the lake whereupon I saw something I'd never seen before. A tight whirlwind had sucked water up in a vortex 70 ft high to create a fleeting tube of white mist. I pulled up my camera to capture the mountain waterspout, but by the time I had the shutter speed set, the show was over. I waited around for the encore performance, but it did not air.
The water in the lake was crystal clear, true to mountain lake form, and we strolled along the shore towards the outlet, and the formerly passed over ravine down to Blue Lake.  I snapped a few photos and plunged through the Krumholtz to the ravine, my easy ticket back down. For all the work invested getting up, I made it down in less than 15 minutes.
 Hang Lake
As I began backtracking into the sheltered forest, I removed clothing as the wind was diminished.
The way back was more downhill, but because of my tired legs and a raging headache, took me 45 minutes longer to complete. I stopped a few times, at one point endeavoring a nap to rid myself of the throbbing headache, but the sunlight waned and it grew cold enough to induce continued movement. We got back to the car, and completed the hike, at 2:45.  Thus was the destination of Blue Lake checked off my list.

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Page Created December 16, 1999
Updated January 3, 2003