Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Estes Park: Balanced Rock

I had originally planned on climbing a summit this week to knock out one more smaller summit before doing the 14er this Saturday, but with so much snow in the mountains still and my next summit being Flattop Mountain at 12,324 feet in elevation with 2,849 elevation gain and 8.8 miles round trip, I thought it might be too much of hike to do with the trail all being still under snow. I’d get plenty of snow hiking in this weekend hiking up that 14er.

Felix was interested in hiking today, so this morning we met up and narrowed down our options before hitting the road. We wanted to do a longer hike at lower elevations to avoid most of the snow, so Rocky Mountain National Park was out, since most of the trails start at higher elevation. We narrowed it down to the Lumpy Ridge area, just east of Rocky. I still haven’t done the hike from Cow Creek TH to Bridal Veil Falls, but since this trailhead starts on a dirt road which was probably going to be all muddy and slushy, we chose to the hike to Balanced Rock starting at the Lumpy Ridge TH, that‘s the one I was going to do last time I was here in March but ran out of time and only made it just a bit past Gem Lake.

Looking toward the snowy peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park on this beautiful spring morning

It was a beautiful morning, the temperature in Fort Collins was supposed to get up in to the low 70’s today, it would be in the low 60 here in Estes Park. Just a few minutes in to hiking toward Gem Lake, it was obvious that there would be snow up here as well. There was lots of water on the trail near the trail head. At times the trail itself was a flowing stream a few inch deep, from all the snow melting snow at the higher elevations. The mountain peaks still had a lot of snow on them too. We continued to climb the trail, after a while the water turned to slush, then to snow on the trail but not too bad.

As always, I really enjoy the cool rock formations along this trail

Gem Lake

Past Gem Lake the trail disappears, covered by snow

We arrived at Gem Lake, there was no ice on it at all now. Just as the other times I’ve been here, as you get to the north side of Gem Lake it becomes very windy, the wind continues for a bit, then stops. From there we descended toward Balanced Rock. As we left Gem Trail it was evident that no one had hiked here since the new snow fell. There were no foot prints in the snow, so we had to figure out where the trail actually was. I had my Rocky Mountain National Park map with me, a few times we stopped to look at it. Even though I’ve been on this trail before, there were two places where it was a bit confusing to where the trail was. There was a quite a bit snow here now approaching the north side of Lumpy Ridge, way more then when I did the whole loop around the Lumpy Ridge in February. The trail went down and up and finally we reached the “Balanced Rock” sign. From here it was still another mile before we would reach the end of the trail at Balanced Rock.

Prairie Crocus mean that Spring has arrived in the mountains

They were so small I almost missed them, small purple fuzzy flowers growing right next to the trail. In order to write about them here in this post I had to figure out what they were, I have no clue about flowers, so I Googled “rocky mountains purple fuzzy spring flowers” and found out they were Prairie Crocus. lavender-purple in color, with yellow centers and fuzzy leaves and stems, which protect the plants from cold temperatures and snow. The fact that these flowers are were blooming, meant Spring has finally arrived in the mountains.

Black bear tracks along the trail to Balanced Rock

Getting to Balanced Rock meant going down in to a gulch and climbing back up

The trail to Balanced Rock is not as frequently used as the one to Gem Trail, at times it's hard to find the trail

We continued along the trail toward Balanced Rock. But with no foot steps to follow in the snow the trail was hard to find at first. We just made our way south, not much further after passing the sign for “Balanced Rock” we came upon some prints in the snow. I have never seen bear prints before, but there was no mistake, these were black bear prints. I told Felix that if I was hiking alone today, I might have turned around at this point., even though the tracks were heading in the opposite direction. We followed the bear tracks for about a quarter of mile, the bear was walking the trail. It was amazing, such a large area, he could have chosen any path but he chose to walk the hiking trail. I hope he wasn’t following his next meal.

Balanced Rock

This looks like a pussy willow

After a while we made it to an area where the trail was a little sketchy again. We checked the map again, but it was hard to say where the trail went. After examining the contour lines on the map we agreed that the trail continued in to the gulch so down we went, still continuing the bear tracks but only until we reached the bottom of the gulch. The bear tracks went off in one direction and we continued in another. The trail was easy to follow here, it traveled up again. We started to pass many rocks that could have easily been “Balanced Rock” one looked very much like Napoleon’s hat. But the trail still continued until there was no mistake, we here and this was the “Balanced Rock“.

Heading toward Gem Lake, lots of snow here

Looking northwest from the trail at the snow caped summits

A short stop at Gem Lake on the way back

I like the way the pictures come out in the afternoon at Gem Lake

It was time to take a lunch break. Unfortunately, the clouds were rolling in now and when we stopped hiking it got very cold. After resting and eating for about 20 minutes with some warmer layers on it was time to start back. The way back was easy, we just followed our foot prints in the snow and later on we followed our foot prints and the bear prints. I couldn’t help but keep turning around to make sure we weren’t being followed.

The rocky and wet trail coming back down from Gem Lake

A storm morning in, the weather changes fast in the mountains

Just below Gem Lake along the trail sits this rock with a hole in it called Paul Bunyan's Boot

Signs along the trail

We climbed out of the gulch and continued back to Gem Lake, parts of the trail continued to climb again and I could tell I was getting tired, needed to take more small breaks. We arrived at Gem Lake again, I think Gem Lake photographs much better in the afternoon, then in the morning. There were a bit more clouds now toward Rocky Mountain National Park and more snow had melted off the trail since we hiked it this morning. I’ve been on this section of trail from Lumpy Ridge TH to Gem Lake now 5 times, and I have to say that those “rock steps” are just not fun for me to hike. Going up them, is hard but on the way down my knees really start to hurt, since they are kind of tall. I much prefer a steep dirt or rocky trail to these giant rock steps. We made it back down to the parking lot in less then 6 hours. The round trip distance ended up being 7.6 miles.

Trailhead elevation at Lumpy Ridge: 7,920 feet
Gem Lake elevation: 8,830 feet
Balanced Rock elevation: 8,240 feet
Total elevation gain: approx. 1,500 feet
Distance from Lumpy Ridge TH to Balanced Rock: 7.6 miles round trip

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