Snow Lake and Michigan Lakes
September 15, 2018 · Rocky Mountain National Park
What an absolutely beautiful day for a hike in the Never Summer Wilderness to Snow Lake and Michigan Lakes, big huge blue skies and not a single cloud all day. The weather was perfect on this long dawn-to-dusk hike that started in Rocky Mountain National Park then crosses over Thunder Pass and into The Never Summer Wilderness. You could not have asked for better weather or better views to complete mile 200 for the summer season. For me this hike turned out to be 18.5 miles roundtrip in twelve hours, almost to the minute.
The morning started out at a brisk 37 degrees along the Grand Lake side of RMNP and the drive into the Colorado River trailhead was nice and peaceful with plenty of Elk sightings and you could hear the bull Elk bugling. The rut has begun for Elk, Moose and Deer, but it's the Elk that are the most noticeable with their bugle calls that fill the valleys. From the trailhead up to and on the way back from the Grand Ditch you would hear bull Elk often. Additionally, there was next to nobody on this trail, making for a very pleasant trek.
I came across one guy on the way out after three days in, and he had come from Michigan Lakes where he told me of two Moose that walked into his camp and got to watch bull Elk sparring. A little surprised by how close the Moose came to his camp, but later I saw the Moose at Michigan Lakes and it is believable they would get that close.
The trail from the Colorado River trailhead to Lulu city, an old abandoned mining settlement is a quick and gentle trek. However, from Lulu City to park boundary at Thunder Pass is a different story. It's more-or-less a b-line up and it does not give in until you reach Thunder Pass. The grasses in the meadows and along the mountains have rusted and are now yellow. Given the views and the density of the grasses I would imagine this is a beautiful hike in July and August when the grasses are at their greenest. Nonetheless, the fall colors in the trees, bushes and faded grasses made for incredible views against a massive big blue sky without a single cloud in the sky.
The weather was perfect at Thunder Pass, a very light breeze, huge blue skies and breathtaking views of the mountain range that cuts through the center of RMNP with Flattop Mountain being instantly recognizable with its distinct shape. Then looking north over a fast meadow, the views of Iron Mountain and North Diamond Peak come into view and are spectacular against the blue sky.
It's here, at Thunder Pass that you begin to see people, there is an access point from the north via Fort Collins that will take you to Michigan Lakes. There are a number of anglers as well as mountain bike cyclists. From here you drop down across a plateau to Michigan Lakes. It was here when I saw the Moose the guy I talked to earlier was talking about. There were three that I could see. They were along the far shore of upper Michigan Lake slowing making their way along the shore line.
There were two bulls and either a cow or a juvenile bull. Things got interesting when the two bulls turned to each other and faced off in a mild sparring contest. I decided to sit a watch this play out. They would engage and then separate, and one would keep himself between the other bull and the smaller Moose (I suspect the cow Moose). This went on for some time, I watched them for about a half hour and at one point the sparring heated up when both bulls in the lake slapping the water with their front legs then charging each other and engaging antlers. It was absolutely fascinating to watch. Though I was just a short distance from Snow Lake, which sits just above upper Michigan Lake. I opted to push on to Snow Lake.
The half-hour push to the lake is steep and over large talus rock, so the going is slow. Once at Snow Lake I was surprised by how many people where there. The accessible shoreline is small, so it gave the feeling of being crowded. Snow Lake sits in a steep walled bowl and is a green, almost turquoise color. I had lunch there and began to make my way back down to upper Michigan Lake.
The three Moose had moved on into a thick of bushes along the edge of the lake and had bedded down for their afternoon nap. Where they had bedded down you would not be able to see if you were on the ground at their level. It brought to mind that bushwhacking may be fun at times but, because the bushes are well over six feet tall, you never know what you might run into.
By this time the sun was directly overhead and had turned the bushes and the yellowed grasses into a deep gold that seem to fill the valley with this incredible goldish color. In the hour or so since I got to Michigan Lakes and on my way down from Snow Lake, the entire area looked completely different.
The trek out goes quickly, and shortly after crossing Thunder Pass on the way out I crossed over my season goal of 200 miles for the summer season. That was awesome that it happened in a place with such incredible views; it was a great feeling. However, doing some quick math, it became clear that I would not step off of the trail until sometime after the sun had set. So, the marching orders were "hustle and don't stay in one place too long, so you can get off of the trail before dark."
For the trek in I did not see any Deer or Elk along the trial, but you could hear the bull Elk bugling at regular intervals. On the way was a different story. The first Deer I saw was a Mule Deer bouncing across The Grand Ditch, then shortly after that I just happened to look to my right and there was another Mule Deer laying down behind a thick of dead trees. I was able to get a picture of this Deer and as I was putting my camera away, one of my trekking poles drug across the ground. I looked up at the one Deer and it slowly got up and bounced away. Right after that four more Mule Deer stood up and bounced away too, I never saw the other four Deer while I was trying to get a picture of this one Deer laying down.
Shortly after than I went through a meadow and heard a bull Elk bugling in the trees just beyond the meadows edge; I did not see this Elk. Then shortly before reaching Lulu City I happened to look down a ravine and saw at least seven large cow Elk. They heard me and began to bound up the opposite side of the ravine. They moved so quickly that I did not have time to get a picture of them, and there were more than seven, though that was all I was able to count before they disappeared into the trees.
Once at Lulu City I stopped to take a break and have a bite to eat when I heard another bull Elk bugling. He was close, I suspected he was in a meadow that I could barely see through the trees on the opposite side of a small dried up stream. Thinking he was too far to try and see, I started to continue my trek out. However, almost as soon as I started walking I heard the same bull Elk bugling. I opted to walk down a small path to the streams edge, and I saw a large bull Elk with a huge rack starring at me from across the meadow. He was not alone, there were at least five cow Elk with him and they were all looking at me.
I stood still and tried to get a picture of him, I watched him use his massive antlers to tear up the tall grasses in front of him then move to round up the cow Elk he had. Feeling content to see that many Deer and that many Elk so close to each other I pushed on, it was dusk now, and I knew things could get livelier in the forest now that the had temperature dropped. The final wildlife contact I has was shortly before stepping off of the trail. It was a White Tailed Deer. I was interesting, there was nothing between us other than a small meadow. The Deer knew I was there and watched me as I took a picture and began to move on. I looked back once I passed this Deer and it was grazing away, as if none of this ever happened.
What an amazing twelve hours on the trail. Perfect weather, incredible views and a surprising amount of wildlife viewing. And I crossed over my 200 mile goal for the summer hiking season. What a perfect day.