13 July 2016

Flat Tops: Island Lakes

White River National Forest

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6

(Day 2 of 6) The air is cold, but I am sweating as I wake. I made a new quilt that just barely tops a pound and am expecting it to be good maybe to 45°F on its own and hoping it will be warm enough in freezing temperatures when wearing the other things I might have along on such a trip. It has not been properly tested, but so far has been too warm on its own for a couple very mild nights. Whatever the temperature is now, it is not cold enough for quilt, puffy pants, and a jacket. I expect it is somewhere above freezing, but as I look around, bits of ice beg to differ. The top of the bear canister has a lovely layer of the stuff and once I leave the quilt, it ices over too. Actually, things seem to be quite actively freezing as I get my breakfast together and keep it up until the first rays of sun hit.

red topped Shingle Peak
The top of Shingle Peak starts to glow as the sun thinks about hitting it.

tiny pink bells
These bells are so small, I have to get right to the ground to have any hope of hearing them ring.

My speed yesterday has me worried I cannot hit both the high point of the local mountains and go searching the Lost Lake Peaks for a benchmark called LOST. I spent most of the day just getting to the supposedly five day loop leaving just four days to get around and back again. Well, four and a half because of the extra meal I grabbed. Okay, I did not think too much about the extra miles, somewhere north of fifteen, added on to this loop by taking the shorter drive. The high point seems more important than the silly benchmark, so I will keep to the plan for now. The weather is not the least bit threatening, but for now I will simply get somewhere close so I can go up it in the morning tomorrow. Somewhere. The main route goes past lakes marked no camping, but I will find something. First order of business is to try to follow the trail along the top of these flat tops that is randomly good or absolutely invisible.

good trail and cairn
Starting off on good trail passing by one of the largest and most visible rock cairns. The trail does fade in and out, but here there is always a dip to follow and more trail beyond to see.

leftover snow beside a pond
Still a little bit of snow left to melt in the middle of July.

The initial trail that is easy to follow past a big cairn changes quickly. It is often well established if it can be seen below the thick, low covering of willows. Then it passes a patch with different soil characteristics and very little is visible. It keeps dropping down to edge around some little pond while my instincts are to try to stay high. Whenever I have to play at guessing where the trail will be, I get over a hill to see a tall cairn or stick marking a route off to my left where the land is lower.

lakes on the high mesa
A taste of the Flat Tops from a higher perspective. The grassy plain dotted with trees and a few puddle lakes extends out until it drops in a cliff. Turret Peak is off on the right.

W Mountain
Back toward W Mountain with many valleys eaten from the flat top.

The little peaks in the area seem to all have a large cairn built at the top as if to invite all who wander past up to their heights. I can resist their call for now. They do look like fun little excursions. As the area turns more to grass, I notice the sticks and cairns marching off at an increasing distance from the trail I am following. The trail is well established, but a little too narrow for comfortable walking. The prints on it are almost exclusively elk, but there is also one set from a shod single toed creature with extremely small feet. The trail is going my way, so I keep to it even though I know it is wrong.

marmot and little peak
A marmot runs off toward one of the many peaks adorned with tall cairns.

much flat grasses
Passing a giant plain with Trappers Peak in the background on a good bit of some other trail.

The track I am following dutifully gets me to another trail with a handy trail marker of a backpacker in the stringy old man mold coming up it from the east. He says he is no such thing and there actually is a sign for W Mountain, so I have to admit I was probably on an elk trail. Someone did mark it with a fat cairn just over the last little hill where that could be used to confirm the route for those who already know how to find it, but not attract those who do not know it. A thin track continuing up the hill hints that some may have come my way who wanted to continue on W Mountain but had not noticed they lost it a while back. I would have corrected to the markers if I wanted to do that. Instead, I turn to drop down to Upper Island Lake. The trail is well worn and would have been easy to find even without the other hiker.

Derby Peak
Back on some obvious trail with Derby Peak in the background. Derby Peak will dominate the day, but it is too wide and varied to notice that.

Upper Island Lake
Upper Island Lake glistens in the morning sun below.

The trail makes its way to the lip of the flat, then over the edge and down tight switchbacks. Even through the lush meadows below, this trail is well established. And there are mosquitoes.

trail down the lesser cliffs
Just a little bit of ice to cross as the trail drops down into the bowl around Derby Creek.

side of Derby Peak
The little bit of Derby Peak visible from here has some interesting structures sticking up.

Not only is the trail clear through the meadow, it is quite soggy. Keeping the feet dry is challenging in some areas, but I manage it. There is a good trail marked by a large cairn with a bolt and large horse shoe to the lake, so I take a little stroll only to find a coyote doing the same. It is wary of me a moment, then continues on its way.

strolling coyote
Coyote at Upper Island Lake giving me a first glance.

Upon reflection, the bolt is probably what remains of a sign for Deer Lake Trail that heads the other way. There is a suggestion of a trail climbing the little hill a few hundred feet further. USGS shows it across from an access trail to Upper Island Lake, which seems conclusive enough. I am happy not to be following that. Even happier not to be hoping for the next trail down, although I had pondered it as a route down from above. There is nothing to hint at it. Two more backpacker in the stringy old man mold pass a bit off trail, but quickly refinding it. The trail does look like it might be easy to miss a turn going the other way shortly after I see them. It is still easy this way, so I head downward. The mosquitoes are getting worse as I do.

not Island Lake
Coming upon a little lake with the knob of Dome Peak in the distant background.

Island Lake
Island Lake with its tree covered island behind the trees.

Gradually, I am following a creek. More creeks converge on it and the creek grows. Flowers grow more and more under the trees and especially beside the creek. The mosquitoes are worse and I need the DEET for any time I sit still for a snack or something. They are not so bad that I need any when moving.

yellow and magenta paintbrush
Paintbrush here comes in white and tan and yellow and red and purple and magenta. Plenty to identify with all the lighter skinned peoples and a few extra.

edges of Derby Peak
Another view of Derby Peak, particularly the west side where Deer Lake sits, with one of a few waterfalls coming down the side.

There is a mysterious trail heading north just before coming to the wide meadow the middle fork of Derby Creek flows through. It is just the first of a few. Some are short cuts, but some probably have their own destination. Somewhere past the crossing, the trail should split and all the extra trails can make it difficult to get on the right one. Over a rise, there is the sign. It is a bit down the hill from me beside a trail that is much clearer than the one I am trying to follow. The other trail heads off looking like it is going to a camping spot, but starts up a little better further along. I grab the nice, clear trail to climb away from the middle fork for the long walk out to the north fork.

Mirror Lake
A long arm extending from Mirror Lake and more of Derby Peak.

Sheep Mountain
Sheep Mountain across quite a lot of blooms.

I am expecting the trail to split again just before a creek. As it comes over one hill, I can see two tracks from where I stand wandering widely apart across the meadow below. It is too early for the split. I pick left, that would be correct if it is the split. The right one might just come back around after taking a much longer route, or that might just be a wiggle way out there. The left one has trail markers in the form of vertical sticks. The meadow between is soggy and there are some places where the inattentive will come up with shoes that are the same. The split is just over the next hill, and there is a sign after the creek crossing. It only identifies one direction of the trail I am on and only by number, but it serves to indicate there might be an intersection.

two trails diverge
As two trails diverge across a sometimes soggy meadow with a creek down the middle, pick the one that looks best.

And so I continue around to the edge of the Derby Ridge where it starts to drop quickly toward the creek below. This is quite a spot to look out from. There is a new set of high snowy peaks, probably out past Breckenridge. Way off to the south there is an unmistakable plume of smoke from some wildfire. It is many ridges away, probably not even on this side of the interstate and the massive Colorado River.

stretching through a lot of the circle
The view for quite a lot of the circle from Flat Top Mountain and Dome Peak on the left and Sheep Mountain and Derby Peak on the right.

steps for a giant
Rock tiers roll away toward the Derby Creek forks.

Dome Peak
Coming over the edge of the ridge, Dome Peak on the right and Flat Top getting lost in itself on the left.

The trail drops quickly and a little unsteadily for a short way before leveling out for a bit. I can hear water below although I did not cross any. There is a spot where the trail seems to vanish, but following a rock cairn up a steep gully delivers me to more trail. It mellows out as it approaches Road Lake.

Road Lake
Road Lake with Derby Peak sporting a new face behind it.

Below the lake, there is a trail sign for my trail beside the hint of a mystery trail climbing toward Derby. No map I have seen shows one here. I go on to find the north fork of Derby Creek. There is a little more hiking and another creek crossing before getting there. Once there, things are a little confusing, but after two creek crossings with a steep hill climb between, I can sort it out. Neither creek crossing has a complete set of stepping stones, so it is a shoes off ordeal, although the water is not such a bad temperature. From above, it looks like I was to hug the cliff next to the water a short way before crossing to avoid climbing the hill... I move on a short way to the trail to Bailey Lakes and take that because I have decided to go for Edge Lake for the night.

meadow below Flattop Mountain
On my way to the lakes through meadows full of flowers.

The trail for Bailey Lakes is good until, well, it is not. As I lose it, I am along a ridge I will probably need to get to Edge Lake anyway. There is no trail between the two and I do not seem to have learned not to end my day with a little off trail excursion. How bad can it be? The area is decidedly devoid of bushwhacking.

a dip without water
Pondering a dip that seems capable of holding water but has none. Behind it is Derby Peak. Is that your derby?

Bailey Lakes
Bailey Lakes from up on the ridge to the west. Not the usual view.

There is forest along the ridge. It is a thick forest with close trees that have matured quite a bit and thick with mosquitoes. Sometime before they started growing, there was a fire that killed the trees before them, but did not burn them up. There are almost as many fallen logs scattered throughout the forest as there are standing trees and most of them are not even particularly decayed. This is more like tree-whacking. It is a little better trying to get through right at the top of the ridge, but some time I have to try to get down to the lake.

snowshoe rabbit
Accidentally flushed out a snowshoe rabbit while clambering over one log.

Edge Lake
Near the edge of Edge Lake.

After a lot more work than I hoped, I manage to get down beside the lake. There is almost a trail around the side of it, although with some breaks. Eventually I make it around to what looks like an earthen dam. There is always a trail across the top of an earthen dam and this lake is no exception.

Derby Peak
One more view of Derby Peak as it moves some more.

Edge Lake
The more usual view of edge lake from near the end of the trail.

After the earthen dam, it is easy to find the trail for the lake. Down it a short way are a few camping spots. Time to settle in and watch the fish jump. There are a few of them out there. The USGS map actually does show a route between these lakes, but it is not the one I took.

Continue reading: day 3

©2016 Valerie Norton
Posted 9 August 2016

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