Last backpacking trip of 2011 season

October 20, 2011

Saturday, Oct. 15, to Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011

A meadow near the Forgotten Valley backcountry shelter at Golden Gate Canyon State Park

For the second year in a row, I went to Golden Gate Canyon State Park  for my last backpacking trip of the season. Coincidentally, this trip fell on exactly the same day as last year, Oct. 15.

Rogers Pass Lake on Oct. 7, 2010

I had intended to go for my last trip the previous weekend with a couple of buddies, but the forecast that weekend called for one of Colorado’s first serious winter storms.

The first weekend of October seems to be unlucky for backpacking. In 2010, I encountered a snow storm at Roger Pass Lake on Oct. 7 and, chickening out, returned to the trail head with my buddy, Ian.

Oct. 7, 2011, wasn’t much better.

The weather near Kremmling on Oct. 7, 2011, was just as bad as backpacking exactly one year prior.

Ditching our plan to backpack to Snowmass Lake, Ian and I decided to go car camping and fly fishing near Kremmling. We thought having the safety of retreating to the car would be the most reasonable plan for a three day weekend. It didn’t matter. We encountered a low of 27 degrees that Friday night and woke up to an inch of snow. The snow kept blowing throughout the day, and, after a few cold hours of fishing without success, we bagged the rest of the trip and headed home.

Oct. 15, 2011, became my new drop-dead date for a final backpacking trip of the season. I began to eye Golden Gate as the safest bet.

Oct. 15, 2011 was a perfect day with a short hike to Forgotten Valley in pleasant fall weather

My girlfriend reasonably expressed some concerns about joining me for this overnight trip. But we caught some great fall weather, and I think we were both were glad we got in one last trip before the skiing and snowboarding season.

Golden Gate Canyon is a low-elevation park with fairly easy trails. The hikes to the backcountry camping areas are fairly short. The park offers several three-sided shelters, so we didn’t need to carry the weight of a tent. Considering these things and the comfortable trips I’ve had there the last two Octobers, I’d say this metro-Denver park is a good late-season venue for easy overnighters. It may not have the most spectacular sights, but it offers warmer weather than the Indian Peaks Wilderness or the other high-elevation areas I usually frequent.

View from the backcountry shelter at Forgotten Valley

Destination: Forgotten Valley backcountry shelter, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Golden, Colo.

Distance hiked: about 3 miles round-trip, from Bridge Creek parking lot/Burro trail head

Elevation: This trip had very little elevation gain. The shelter where we slept was at about 8,600 feet

Weather: sunny and clear, some light breezes at times, perfect fall weather!

Temperatures: low to mid 60s during the afternoon; low of probably about 35 degrees at night (I didn’t have my watch and its thermometer, but it didn’t feel like it got below freezing.)

Pack Weight: 24 pounds + about 3 pounds for camera and its bag. I carried 2.5 liters of water, but it turned out that the small creek near the shelter was still running. I did not bring my tent, but I did bring its ground cloth to protect our inflatable sleeping pads.

Notes: I took my REI Halo 25-degree sleeping bag and my 35-degree Jacks ‘R Better Sierra Sniveller quilt. Although it seemed so warm at bedtime that I thought I didn’t need the quilt, it was nice to have it at about 4:00 in the morning when my feet became cold in the 25-degree bag. It really wasn’t necessary, but the quilt was worth its light carrying weight considering this was such a short trip.

Clothing List:

I had more clothing than needed, but I was comfortable the whole time.

green wool felt hat fedora
lightweight wool cap (only needed briefly before bed and in the morning)
lightweight waterproof bike gloves and liners (only needed liners briefly in morning)
North Face synthetic insulated mid layer (did not bring winter coat, this layer was just right)
long-sleeved Columbia Titanium SPF shirt
short-sleeved synthetic undershirt
yellow long-sleeved synthetic undershirt
hiking pants
two pairs synthetic underwear
two pairs synthetic socks, lightweight and heavy (used heavy weight socks only in the morning)
rain jacket and pants (carried, not used)
long johns (slept in these but did not need them in the morning)


This photo is not from my backpacking trip, but I had to post this great fall scene. This panorama from my Sony NEX-3 shows ranches surrounding the Williams Fork of the Colorado River near Kremmling, Colo., on Oct. 7, 2011.


Best of times, worst of times

July 13, 2011

Saturday, July 9 to Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rogers Pass Lake

After several failed attempts, I finally beat my backpacking nemesis, Rogers Pass Lake. I had tried to make that destination my final overnighter of my 2010 season in October, but I was snowed off the mountain on arrival by an unexpected early season storm. A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I post-holed our way up the mountainside in deep snowpack, but we turned around before finding the lake.

There is a ridgeline somewhere beyond those ominous clouds.

But this time I made it, only to be rewarded with a torrential downpour and rough winds as I camped at Heart Lake just above Rogers Pass Lake. There was a lot of route finding necessary on the way up to the lakes because there were still three and four feet of snow left in many areas. Thankfully, the south-facing sides of the mountains, including my campsite, were free of snow in open areas without trees.

The wind kept buffeting my tarp, and I had to reconfigure it several times.

Sunrise from open air tarp

I ended up using something similar to George Carr’s “Flying A” setup, although mine was more of a “Battened Down A.” During the worst of the storm, I worried my clothes and down bag might get wet and stay that way all night. I had visions of my tarp blowing off the mountain, posing a risk of exposure and hypothermia for me. But once I finally got inside my shelter and shed my wet gear, I was comfortable. It never got cold that night. In fact, I found myself sweating a couple of times. It turns out my bivy sack does not breath at all. There was a lot of condensation in the foot of the bivy in the morning. Fortunately, my down quilt did not become wet. That would have been bad.

Heart Lake

The morning brought several rewards. I woke up to a pink and purple sunrise and a huge jackrabbit the size of my cat just outside the open end of my tarp. He did not seem to care about my presence at all.

After an oatmeal breakfast, I tried my Tenkara rod for the first time on a backpacking trip. The first fly I tried brought no results. I could see one trout try to take it, but the hook was too large. So, I switched to a smaller, Sakasa Kebari reverse hackle with size 16 hook I had bought from Tenkara USA. On the second cast with this fly, I hooked a native cutthroat. I had landed my first fish while backpacking, and it was a rare cutthroat to make things even better!

My first backpacking catch: a cutthroat

On the way back down the mountain, I pulled out my cellphone to show my trophy to another angler. Unfortunately, I managed to drop the phone screen-first onto the sharpest rock in the trail. Now I have a pretty spider web effect on my phone.

Trip Summary

Destination: Heart Lake and Rogers Pass Lake, James Peak Wilderness west of Rollinsville, Colo.

Distance hiked: 8.4 round-trip

Elevation: started from East Portal Trailhead at 9,200 feet, camped at 11,300

Temperatures: mid-70s in the day; mid-40s at night

Pack Weight: 20 pounds

Notes: You may need to bring snowbaskets for trekking poles, waterproof gaiters and waterproof boots when hiking in the James Peak and Indian Peaks Wilderness Areas in July. I missed having the baskets for my trekking poles.


Rogers Pass Lake

Heart Lake, marmot on boulder near center-left

Tenkara rods are great lightweight choices for backpacking.

Tons of runoff at lower elevations. Be ready to get wet on the trail.

Train at East Portal of Moffat Tunnel

First backpacking trip of 2011 season

June 7, 2011

Friday, June 3, 2011

I went on my first backpacking trip of the season this past Friday. Unsurprisingly, camping in the Colorado Rockies at the beginning of June was cold. Cold, but not really uncomfortable.

I wanted to test out the Jacks ‘R Better quilt I just bought. I woke up cold twice during the night: once at about 2:00 in the morning when my watch said it was about 37 degrees and again at 5:00 when it was about 34 degrees. JRB rates this Sierra Sniveller quilt at 25 to 30 degrees. I’d say it’s really a 35-degree bag for me because I tend to roll from my left side to my right and doing that sometimes untucks the quilt, letting in cold air. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough of an annoyance to keep me from falling back to sleep quickly on the bed-like luxury of my new Big Agnes pad. It’s an Insulated Air Core, and it’s a big improvement over the lightweight foam pad I used when backpacking last year and the standard Thermarest I use on car camping trips. The two and half inches of padding created by the Big Agnes make all the difference.

looking east along a valley in Roosevelt Forest near Lost LakeThe trip wasn’t much of workout or an opportunity to see the sights, but it did a good job of letting me work out the kinks in the new sleep system before my dad comes out for a backpacking and flyfishing trip in a couple weeks. I still need to replace the cheap, emergency bivy sack with something that doesn’t tear easily.

Trip summary

Original destination: Heart Lake at about 11,000 feet elevation, Indian Peaks Wilderness, west of Rollinsville, Colorado. The Boulder Ranger District office advised me that the Indian Peaks Wilderness was way above it’s normal level of snowpack for this time of year.

Destination after calling the Boulder Ranger District: much lower! — On the ranger’s advice I decided to camp in a valley along the Lost Lake/ Devil’s Thumb trail slightly above 9,000 feet, Roosevelt National Forest, west of Nederland, Colo.

Distance hiked: maybe 2 miles roundtrip, if I’m being generous.

Elevation gain: 600 feet (started at about 9000 feet, turned around at about 9600)

Camping elevation: ~9100 feet, ground was dry (snowpack of 3-4 feet was present at about 9600 feet and above)

Temperature range: mid 60’s during day, mid 30’s at night

Trip photos

This footbridge on the way to Lost Lake was still covered in a couple of feet of snow

This footbridge on the way to Lost Lake was still covered in a couple of feet of snow.

Here next to the footbridge is where I eventually turned around before heading down to find a dry campsite. The Lost Lake Trail and Devils Thumb Bypass Trail split here at about 9600 feet. I post-holed up to my calves for a while on the bypass trail as I looked for a suitably dry campsite. It wasn't happening.

For my shelter, I've switched to using a lightweight sil nylon tarp from Equinox, usually supported by my trekking poles or trees. I put my sleeping pad and quilt or bag inside a emergency bivy sack which acts as a good vapor barrier from the ground.

Sunrise. The temp shot up quickly from the 30s to the 40s after that.

This Casio Pathfinder watch is another new piece of gear. I got it for $100 from the REI Outlet. Its altimeter, barometer and thermometer features work fairly well. I don't recall if the measurement of 9100 feet in this picture was accurate, but, when the weather is stable and I've kept the watch calibrated, the altimeter has been spot on for me for the couple months I've owned it. I've had that Photon Micro Light in the top right for about a year. It's great, but I do wonder when the battery will die.

Clothing List:

green wool felt hat

mid-weight wool watch cap

lightweight waterproof bike gloves

Arc Teryx soft shell

North Face synthetic insulated mid layer

long-sleeved Columbia Titanium SPF shirt

short-sleeved synthetic undershirt

hiking pants

one pair synthetic underwear

two pairs socks (definitely needed both pairs even though this was just an over-nighter; first pair and shoes were both very damp from post-holing in snow at 9600 feet)

rain pants (carried, not used)

no rain jacket other than softshell

no long johns (other than a couple minutes hopping around and running in place when I got out of bed, I really did not miss them either)