Saturday, August 23, 2014

Heart Lake

Distance: 10 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,224 ft - 11,340 ft (at Heart lake), 11,418 ft (up the trail a bit)
Elevation Gain: 2,116 ft (net), 2,370 ft (cumulative)
Bathroom at the Trailhead: Yes
Dogs: On leash, James Peak Wilderness
Date Hiked: 6 August, 2014

Heart Lake in the James Peak Wilderness
The trail to Heart Lake in the James Peak Wilderness near Rollinsville is a long slog through bogs and rocks to a surprisingly alluring series of lakes nestled up against the Continental Divide. This area gets above average rainfall, which means the wildflowers will stun you like a taser and drive all the air from your lungs.

The main parking area was full, even mid-week
Starting out in Aspen and some minimal sunshine
The trail starts out at the Moffat Tunnel. Even though we hiked mid week, the ample parking lot was nearly full, so this area gets a lot of use.  The first mile of the route follows the stream, crossing several inlets on wooden planks or logs. Willows and sunshine dominate this short segment.

The trail gets rockier and dark the further up you go.
The trail junctions are well marked.
At 1.2 miles is the junction with the Forest Lakes Trail. After this point, the trail begins to climb steadily while the forest becomes a damp enveloping blanket. Immune to the increasing humidity, the rocks along the trail multiply until they form an obstacle course that drove one hiking group ahead of us screaming back to their cars. Tree roots, slick with moisture, creep mischievously across the trail in an effort to capture an ankle or two.

Where the Heart Lake Trail splits off from the Crater Lakes Trail
The waterfall at 4 miles. 
At 1.54 miles the trail switchbacks sharply upward and at 2 miles is the turn off to Crater Lakes. While the trail to Heart Lake continues up the basin, you have to look twice to see it. The vegetation was so over grown that I missed it altogether while looking for head-hunters in the shrubbery.

Finally breaking out of the trees
Rogers Pass Lake
From this point on, the trail just continues steadily through the trees until it comes to a small waterfall  (at 4 miles) near treeline. I was so excited to see the sun again that I hurriedly stepped off a rock onto what I thought was solid ground only to have my foot sink above my boot in an oozing mass of pine needles and mud.

Heart Lake is on the shelf ahead
Looking down on Rogers Pass Lake
The trees thin gradually as you approach Rogers Pass Lake (at 4.65 miles), the largest lake below Heart Lake. This is a lovely spot that had drawn several anglers who were fly fishing on the far side. In the midst of a meadow, this lake does not have many places to sit except for a few rocks scattered along the shore.

The last climb to Heart Lake
Heart Lake itself is another steep climb up a glacial moraine to a broad shelf well above treeline. The lake was too large to capture well in one frame, and was surrounded by the usual tundra plants. The trail to Rogers Pass, visible from below, traveled right by the lake and we were able to get a better perspective an additional hundred feet or so further up near a small sign posting the wilderness regulations. The are is popular with backpackers and their tents could be seen nestled in the trees down by Rogers Pass Lake.

Heart Lake is so large I couldn't get it all in one frame. 
We got a slightly more expansive view walking up the trail towards Rogers Pass. The only way to see the entire lake would be to climb up even further. 
The wildflowers were located halfway between Rogers Pass Lake and Heart Lake in a large swath of Willows near the moraine. I lost count of the number of species present and just pranced joyfully from one area to the next taking pictures in a fevered staccato.

Just one swath of the many wildflower near the lake
I am glad I went to Heart Lake simply because I had never been there before but I am not sure it is a place I will revisit often. There are other trails that are more open and less humid. One thing you should know, is that the Moffat Tunnel uses spaceship-sized fans to suck the carbon monoxide out of the six-mile tunnel after a train has passed. If the noise does not annoy you, the brown cloud will. Fortunately, this is only an issue near the trailhead, but it can be startling if you happen to be near when it starts up.

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