It’s the end of July and, predictably, I’m all in a tizzy about how summer is half-over and I haven’t gotten to do nearly as much in the mountains as I’d hoped. I go through this every year and each year it leads to some ill-conceived, hare-brained fit of exploration. This year’s indiscretion was a quick run up to the familiar environs of Wild Basin in RMNP and the hare-brained part of it was to see if I could connect the Thunder Lake and Bluebird Lake drainages, the two major valleys within this section of the park. In the process, I saw a total of nine lakes, six of them off-trail and four of them new two me. I also learned the perpetual lessons about hydration and sunscreen and what the lack of either does to your athletic prowess.
The well-traveled and well-known trails up to Thunder Lake (6 miles each way and 2000′ of elevation gain on largely-unspectacular trails) and down from Bluebird Lake (7 miles, 2000′ of descent, quite spectacular) can be taken as read (if you’re looking for great destinations in RMNP, go for Bluebird Lake over Thunder, but also consider Lion Lakes). The interesting part is what happened in between.
From Thunder, I found a decent social trail on the far side of the outflow and followed it for a mile or so to the secluded (and buggy) Box Lake (#2), then followed a continuation of the purported trail up onto a bluff and found myself above the sweeping vista of Eagle Lake (#3). Eagle is big and the trail emerges in the middle of one side of it. I flipped a coin and worked my way west along the shoreline around the head of the lake and then up a very strenuous bit of vegetation and talus. Some of this involved a bit of dicey 3rd-class scrambling up some blocky cliff bands. Probably there are easier ways to proceed, but probably they’re not much easier.
A thousand feet above Eagle Lake sits the as-alpine-as-it-gets Frigid Lake (#4) lying in a deep hole flanked by the dramatic Eagle’s Beak and Moomaw Glacier. From here it was a gentle bit of tundra hopping to the broad saddle (12,300′) between Isolation and Mahana Peaks and the short steep drop down to the jade-hued Isolation Lake (#5).
More steep and surprisingly-solid talus brought me back into familiar terrain on the shores of Pipit Lake (#6) where I waded through wildflowers, past the small Lark Pond (#7), and made my way down one of two steep flower-clogged waterfall canyons flowing into Bluebird Lake (#8).
Bluebird is one of my favorite lakes of all time and by this time I was quite glad to take a break, reload on water, immerse myself in the lake, and reapply sunscreen. Nevertheless, it was hot even at this altitude and I hadn’t been drinking enough. The final seven miles back to the car started poorly (light-headed and poor balance), but finished okay in the last few miles. I tagged Ouzel Lake (#9) to round out the day and because I don’t think I’d ever officially been there.
It was a much-needed strenuous day in the mountains. Even though I wasn’t someplace completely new, I saw some new things and managed a connection between two basins which I’ve never heard of being done before (I’m sure it has, but I’ve never heard of it). Frigid Lake would have to take the cake as the most dramatic spot of the day, but all were nice in their way. It was a much-needed reminder that I’m not in the shape I thought I was (18 miles and 4700′ of gain) and that off-trail travel is a LOT slower than class-1 stuff. Ditto that sunscreen and hydration are things to take seriously.