Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bear Lake to Odessa Lake to Moraine Park Shuttle

Distance: 9.2 mile shuttle
Elevation: 9,475 ft at Bear Lake, 10,675 ft at Lake Helene, 10,020 ft at Odessa Lake, 9,530 ft at Fern Lake, 8,800 ft at Fern Falls, 8,150 ft at Moraine Park.
Elevation Gain: 1,200 ft
Bathroom at Trailhead: Yes
Dogs: Not allowed (National Park)
Date Hiked: 28 June, 2008

Odessa Lake from the overlook
This classic shuttle hike in Rocky Mountain National Park is part breathtaking adventure and part death march. It starts at Bear Lake, goes up to Lake Helene, then down to Odessa Lake, Fern Lake, Fern Falls, the Pool, and then finally Moraine Park. The trip to Bear Lake and the return from Moraine Park is via the park’s shuttle bus, so you don’t have to worry about bringing extra cars.

The trip starts at Bear Lake
This route has all of the elevation gain up front. There is a 1,200 ft of elevation gain in the first 2.5 miles, with the steepest section being in the first 0.5 mile. At this point the trail splits off with the left heading towards Flat Top Mountain (a worthy hike), and the right heading towards Odessa Lake. This part of the trail is mostly in the trees. One of the folks on this particular trip mentioned he loved walking in the trees and seeing all the dappled sunlight. I am glad he was enjoying himself because I was falling asleep and wondering how far till the views. I am a spoiled Coloradoan for sure. I want to be dazzled by tundra and peaks.

You know you are close to the gorge when you reach this small lake on the right.  Across from the lake you can see a rock field and Notch Top Mountain. 
You know you are getting close to the views when the trail breaks out of the trees in to a wide meadow. To the left you can look up and see the two distinctive rock piles on the Flat Top Mountain route. On this trip, this meadow was still blanketed in several feet of snow.

Specular views abound on the overlook reached via the social trail located off to the right of the main trail. 
Shortly past this point is a small lake off to the right. This is a nice spot for a water break. At this stage I was beginning to perk up because I knew the views were just ahead and what views they are. Odessa and Fern Lakes lay within Tourmaline Gorge, a majestic valley filled with peaks (Flat Top, Notch Top, and the Little Matterhorn), lakes (Helene, Odessa, Fern), and waterfalls (Grace, Fern, and Marguerite). In my opinion, this gorge is one of the the most dramatic places in the park. If all you did were to hike to this point, the trip would be worth it.

Lake Helene
Just before Lake Helene (on the left) is a social trail that feeds off to the right. This trail ascends to a small rock pile upon which is a broad shelf suitable for an alfresco dinner party for you and 10 of your closest friends. This lookout provides a 270-degree vista both up and down the gorge. Odessa Lake sits far below like an oasis among the pines. Grace falls is clearly visible part way up the slope of Notch Top. Upon Ptarmigan point, the snows still clung in a delicate cornice.

Grace Falls
If you can tear yourself away from the view on this lookout, do take the short trail to Lake Helene to the left of the main trail. You will find at the stream crossing a peak into the lake that seems flush with the eye. The trail does continue around the east side of the lake, which affords a close up of Grace Falls, almost wispy in the distance.

Trail down to Odessa Lake
At this point the trails descends sharply down through rock and skree, hugging the west side of the gorge. Around a third of the way down, there is a snow bank that remains late into the season. It was particularly thick on this trip and it we had to go off trail thirty feet or so to cut across it at a shallower angle. These sorts of snow banks are no fun when slippery from the sunlight. A pole eases the crossing. The trail does eventually return to the trees on the final approach to Odessa Lake.

Crossing the snowbank with Notch Top Mountain in the background
The trail to the Odessa lake splits off from the main trail and backtracks sharply back down the gorge. The short trip to the lake is a scenic wonder in and of itself. It follows a bustling stream embraced by Chiming Bells with the Notch Top Mountain providing a majestic backdrop. The southern shore of Odessa Lake contains a wide, sandy “beach”, which is perfect for a group lunch. The view here is unparalleled. The far northern shore of Odessa Lake is marshy and glitters verdantly in the sunlight. When I am Odessa Lake, I am filled with calm and am always thankful this little piece of heaven is in my back yard and most importantly is far from the hordes of visitors that invade the Glacier Gorge section of the park every summer. At this point in the journey, we had covered 4.1 official miles. I say official because the jaunt to the overlook, the walk around Lake Helene, and a stroll around part of Lake Odessa is not covered in the overall mileage in this pre-GPS description.

The creek into Odessa Lake
It is only another 0.6 miles from Odessa to Fern Lake. The trip is mostly through the trees but it is here in the shade of boulders that the wildflowers seem to grow. On this trip the most common were Columbine, Tansy Aster, and Indian Paintbrush. The best part of Fern Lake is the approach through a large boulder field. Fern Lake, while attractive to anglers, is less dramatic than Odessa Lake primarily because it sits lower in the gorge and most of the peaks are partially obscured by trees. An attractive backcountry ranger cabin is here but alas they don’t serve ice cream from the porch. On this trip I would have paid handsomely for some ice cream for it was very hot and very buggy. I am not used to bugs in the Rockies but this years late snows have seemed to have made them particularly numerous and voracious.

Odessa Lake viewed from the "beach"
For me, the journey from Fern Lake to Moraine Park is a death march. The trail is rocky, steep, buried in trees, and monotonous. It is 1.1 miles beyond the lake before you reach Fern Falls. For sanities sake, you’ll want to linger here a bit. Fern Falls is decent waterfall. It is tall and broad and is the primary destination for folks heading up the Fern Lake Trail from Moraine Park.

Fern Lake
Another mile beyond the falls brings you to The Pool, which is a welcome break from the grind. It is a small gorge filled with churning water. Several large rocks surround it, suitable for baking in the sun on a cooler day. On this trip I had to stop myself from jumping head long into the ice-cold tumult.

Twin Flower (Linnea borealis) grows in cold woods and bogs. It blooms from June to August. At this point on the trail we were approaching Fern Falls and things were getting more moist
The last slog back to the Fern Lake trailhead is 1.7 miles. The terrain is very different here than higher up the gorge. Ferns abound, the creek is broad and wide next to the trail and there are some interesting boulders to walk through. Still, by this point, most adventurers are foot sore. The last time I did this trip, we were caught in a raging downpour. I would have gladly accepted such a dunking on this trip because it was indeed hot. I think Denver had reached a lofty 102 that day and the elevation of Moraine Park was not cutting the heat by much.

Fern Falls
The cars at the Fern Lake trailhead were a welcome sight and we took a moment to sit on one of the benches to rest and prepare for the least fun part of the hike. It is another 0.7 miles up the dirt road to the shuttle point and after a long day, this segment can seem more arduous than any difficult 14er. Fortunately, I was with a large group and we were discussing our post-hike food options, which put pep in my step and made the trip less trying that it otherwise would have been alone.

The Pool
In all honesty, I prefer to hike down to Odessa and back up to Bear Lake when I hike alone in this part of the park, but most people prefer the shuttle because you get to see it all, and you don’t have to back track up hill. I have never done this shuttle going the other way, starting at Moraine Park and ending at Bear Lake. It certainly would be a better training hike that way, gaining 2,600 feet of elevation by the time you reach Lake Helene. One of these days I will do that. If you don’t mind trees, this shuttle hike will be glorious from start to finish. If you are finicky like me, then it will be a mixed bag. Everyone should do it at least once however. It is a quintessential Rocky Mountain National Park experience.


Anonymous said...

I must say that I completely agreed; Bear _ Odessa - Fern - Shuttle back to Bear is the quintessential RMNP hiking experience. Getting to take this hike again in 3 weeks. Can't wait.

Anonymous said...

I much prefer to hike Fern to Bear as the eyes are drawn to the peaks of Flattop, Notchtop and the Little Matterhorn. Yes, it is a harder workout this way, but I have not yet given in for the easier reverse.