Worst case scenario: just run back out the way I went in. Admittedly, having to see the same set of gorgeous alpine and subalpine lakes twice doesn’t constitute much of a worst case, but there were more compelling options to be had. Let’s see what happens.
Armed with a map, way-pointed GPS and a fully-loaded UD Wasp pack, I started at 7 am from the Wild Basin Trailhead, jogged down the road for a quarter mile, then took a sharp right up the Finch Lake trail into territory unknown (to me). Wild Basin is great for long exploratory runs. 90% of the people who visit do the short hikes to Copeland, Calypso, or Ouzel Falls. These destinations are nice enough, but not up to the level of the stuff elsewhere in RMNP. Those willing to put in a long day (12+ miles), however, get to visit some really stellar features. I’ve been slowly exploring the various valleys and peaks in Wild Basin to see how, or even if, they reasonably connect.
For the first-course, a nice seven miles of steady climbing past the wooded, sunny Finch Lake to Pear Reservoir nestled under the impressive bulk of Copeland Mountain. Officially, the trail dead-ends here, but I found a faint track leading onward and followed it to the flower-strewn lawn at the inlet of the small but surpassingly lovely Lower Hutcheson Lake.
Trying to follow the faint trail became more trouble than it was worth here at I was more or less at treeline, so I struck out across the willows and braided streams, past talus and knobs of gneiss, for the multifarious Middle and the large Upper Hutcheson Lakes. The latter, in particular, is beautiful, but a trail here would have been very handy. I eschewed the marshy shore for the left-side talus slope finding it arduous going.
By the time I got to Cony Lake, the highest lake of the drainage, I was pretty winded. Cony Pass loomed overhead and looked horrendous. But the weather was still fine and it was only 10:20. It seemed like a shame not to give it a try since I was all the way back here.
Cony Pass was definitely arduous, but not nearly as bad as the descriptions had lead me to believe. After an initial 500′ of gain above the lake on talus and snow, I started the final 500′ climb on 40 degree scree. I stuck to the extreme right hand side of the slope where rock outcroppings and vegetation bespoke a slightly higher degree of solidity than the middle, but I was still very grateful to have my running poles for stability and power-leaping when the slope underfoot started to sliding south beneath (which was all too often).
The view revealed when I abruptly crested the pass was superb. Immediately below was the large Junco Lake (one of about 8 in wild basin named after one species of bird or another), and the rest of the peaks of RMNP looming beyond that. Going back down that route was definitely not my first choice, but the descent to Junco Lake looked appreciably worse. Onward and upward!
Getting to the Divide 300′ above Cony Pass appears quite daunting. However, there’s a trick. Thanks to some on-line research, I found an easy-3rd-class gully about 100′ to the right (north) of the pass. There were a few exposed and/or loose sections, but it lead nicely upward without the 4th-class difficulty of the direct ascent. At the top of the gully, I scrambled across a ledge, then up some low-angled blocks to the tundra. This route was easy to find from below, but using it as a descent would be challenging. For reference, the top is marked with a cairn about 100 yards north of the promentory directly above the pass. The coordinates are longitude: -105.668628, latitude: 40.177431, altitude: 12,767′. I wouldn’t recommend it as a descent route, but your mileage may vary.
Okay, on the Divide for the first time in six months… what to do? Ogalalla Peak was half a mile to the south; Ouzel and Isolation Peaks to the north. Since my only viable descent route was to the north and it was a little later than I would have liked, I eschewed the southern option in favor of bagging the two peaks to the north. Ouzel Peak is quite dramatic from the lakes below, but it was a gentle tundra buttress a few hundred feet higher than the surroundings Divide. I tagged it and moved on without much ado.
Nice tundra gave way to a narrow, rocky ridge with a 500′ descent to a saddle before the steep climb up to aptly named Isolation Peak. I picked my way down and sat, considering my options. It was 12:30 and I’d already logged 4500′ of vertical over 11 grueling miles. The weather was beginning to deteriorate, but it didn’t look like anything was going to happen for at least a couple more hours. This was by far the most significant hike/run I’d done in many months and my conditioning is pretty woeful. When it came right down to it, I just didn’t think I had another steep talus climb in my tired legs. The descent down to Pipit Lake and beyond was going to be arduous enough.
So Isolation Peak retained its isolation and I picked my way down 700′ of talus, tundra, and a couple nice snowfields (glissades!). Somewhere in there, I’d run out of water as well, so I refilled at the first rivulet I found and waited out the requisite 20 minutes for the chlorine dioxide to kill whatever critters might live in it. This, of course, means 20 minutes of cotton-mouthed anticipation and bonking as I stumbled over the talus around Pipit Lake (another bird lake), but the refreshing, cold, glacier water was more than worth the wait. At this point, a line of cairns marked, if not an actual trail, at least a route to follow around past Lark Pond (another bird), and finally down to Bluebird Lake (ditto). The going wasn’t any easier, but it removed the mental effort of large-scale navigation.
There’s great satisfaction in closing a loop, or at least getting back into known territory with known trails. This is my second visit to Bluebird Lake, one of the two best lakes in Wild Basin (the other being the Lion Lakes complex). I lounged on the shore for a while and soaked my tired feet before heading out at what speed I could manage down the remaining 6.5 miles of steep trail to the trailhead. A few hikers were seen up at the lake and many more in the final few miles of trail. The weather deteriorated finally with a few healthy thunder booms, but only very spotty rain.
The total distance for the day came in at about 20 miles with one peak and nine lakes (four of them named after birds). It was a nice jump-start to what has otherwise been a pretty poor year of wilderness adventure. The Cony Lake drainage is spectacular, much like the Gibraltar Lakes drainage to the south in the Indian Peaks. Isolation and Ogalalla Peaks remain untrodden by me and may remain so for quite a while, but that’s okay. The point is not to tick a list, but to explore the world.