Colorado Vacation, Part 3: Spruce Lake/Sourdough

This is a multi-part trip report, if you haven’t already you should start with Part 1. Remember too that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

Moraine Park

This morning we pick up our first backcountry camping permit before driving into Estes Park for breakfast and to pick up our bear canister. We resolve a strange mixup about the container, buy Bryan a funny collapsible Chinese hiking hat thing, and hurry back to Moraine Park to pack up camp. At the Park and Ride lot, we disgorge the entire contents of the Subaru into the parking area. After packing for our first two-night loop, we catch the shuttle to the trailhead.

Our gear hauler

It’s a great day. The sky is blue with cheerful puffy clouds, the mountains are beautiful, and the temperature is perfect: slightly too warm when hiking but slightly chilly when we stop. There are lots and lots of people crowding the trails for the first two or three miles, though past Fern Falls the tourists thin out. I begin to think we won’t make it to camp before dark, but after the trail junction at Fern Lake our path to Spruce Lake goes mostly downhill and we make good time. The spruce trees here look silly, like pines with heavy bodies and short arms. We’ve walked about five miles in about five hours, which isn’t bad considering that we have heavy loads and we’ve walked uphill all day; we’re at nearly 10,000 feet now. We have the tents up and water boiling before night falls on our own private lake.

The privies at these campsites are well done; Mandy says “Haha! I peed in a can in the woods!” There are no structures at all, just a dugout hole below a plywood platform and a metal toilet with a cover, facing away from the trail into the woods. Mandy’s up first this morning, racing down to the lake with her camera before coming back to her tent to read a bat book. The lake is beautiful in the morning light: the trout swim in clear water under the glass-calm surface, rimmed with spruce, framed in mountains. We lie in the warm orange tent enjoying the stillness before a busy day.

Spruce Lake

A little later, we cook breakfast next to the lake and then lie on a big warm rock together at the edge of the water, dozing in the sunshine.

Breakfast at Spruce Lake

The hike out to Fern Lake is pleasant; the trail builders have laid half-timbers across the marshy spots where wildflowers still bloom. It’s a dry, breezy day, and there’s lots of traffic on the main trail here; we stop for a snack at the ranger patrol cabin before walking along the edge of the lake. Sitting next to her baby carrier, a mom rests on the shore of the lake nursing her baby. (She’s at least five miles from a trailhead: good for her!)

Odessa Lake

We stop at Odessa Lake for lunch and to pump water. The chipmunks here are convinced that we’re cooking just for them and we have to keep a close eye on our packs and lunches. We’ve been walking through postcards all day, quiet lakes reflecting green trees, with treeline not far above us, topped with layers of rock and snow and deep blue summer sky.

Chipmonk at Odessa Lake

I walk down a bit to find a better place to pump water and enjoy a little quiet. I can barely hear the murmur of Bryan’s and Mandy’s voices nearby. Mandy has started saying things like “In a few years, when you come here to visit me…” She’s decided to move here as soon as possible. Apparently this conclusion was reached somewhere between The Pool and Fern Falls, without the need for much discussion with us.

This week feels like a gift, some kind of grace, a few days stolen between the busyness of summer school and Tulsa trips and the beginning of fall classes and chores.

Pumping water

After Odessa Lake, the trail goes up. And then it goes up, and up, and up. These mountains are big in a way we didn’t understand from just looking; it’s something one realizes quite clearly when one has hiked uphill for two days straight. The views from this section of trail, from the big boulder fields we traverse, is stunning. We’re all still cheerful; even Mandy is happily slogging along in her big pack. Today we hike 4.3 miles in 5.5 hours, including the lunch stop, and we’ll sleep tonight at just over 10,000 feet.

Mandy faces

Just after arriving at Sourdough camp, a big mule deer comes to visit, and he returns several times during the evening. Bryan and Mandy go after water and I cook supper a distance from camp. Our packets of warm food are tucked inside my vest to cook, and I have time to sit and think: why do we backpack? I say it’s to get away from people, to have places like these all to ourselves, and that’s true. Crowded campgrounds are sad and irritating, too close to too many people. But there’s something else, too, something that isn’t so easy to explain. Backpacking, I think, reduces the day to its essential elements. We walk. We get water. We cook food. We set up shelters. We are a family. And that’s all. Life is so complicated, sometimes; backpacking reduces it to its essentials, if only for a few days.

Mule deer at Sourdough

After supper and a trip to the privy, we all sleep well. We’re up early to hike out, and easy hike downhill to the trailhead.

Pond near Sourdough

The story continues…
Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4