Thursday, February 25, 2016

Trail offers chance to see mountain wildlife

A view from the Lawn Lake Trail, courtesy Rocky Mountain NPS.
Map of Lawn Lake Trail, courtesy Rocky Mountain NPS.

Rocky Mountain NP trail heads to subalpine lake

Day hikers stand a good chance of spotting a variety of montane wildlife on the Lawn Lake Trail in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

The 12.5-miles round trip from Fall River to Lawn Lake is just a segment of the overall trail. Be forewarned, though: Because of its high altitude, the elevation gain (2447 feet), a rocky trail surface, and the length, this is not a hike for the unfit.

In addition, the trail usually is only open May through October, as heavy snowfall at the high elevation closes the road in winter.

To reach the trailhead, from Estes Park, take U.S. Hwy. 34 (aka Fall River Road) east into the park. Once past the Sheep Lakes Information Station but before Fall River, turn right/northwest onto Old Fall River Road. A parking lot is on the right/northwest.

Follow the access trail northeast and in a couple of hundred feet, pick up the Lawn Lake Trail. Go left/northwest on the trail. The elevation is about 8540 feet above sea level.

The trail heads through lodgepole, fir and aspen forest covering a wide, flat basin in the Mummy Range. As the trail heads toward the treeline, it offers habitat for a variety of animals.

Mule deer are quite common at this elevation. Up to three feet tall at the shoulder, they can weigh anywhere from a hundred to 300 pounds. Usually by midsummer, mothers bring out their fawns.

Elk, bighorn sheep
At 0.55 miles, the trail begins its steady climb up over Horseshoe Park. North American elk are common here in autumn. The large males can stand up to 5 feet at the shoulder and weigh several hundred pounds. Their new young usually can be spotted in early to midsummer.

During winter, bighorn sheep sometimes come down to this elevation for salt licks. The muscular males are no taller than mule deer at the shoulder and usually top out at 300 pounds. The females are about half that size.

At a mile from the trailhead, the route comes to the east bank of Roaring River, which is full of riffles. Much of the river valley was formed during the summer 1982 flashflood. Though scars remain, vegetation during the intervening decades has reclaimed most of the lost ground. Among those trees is aspen, which turn a beautiful gold each autumn along the river banks.

The junction for Ypsilon Lake Trail is at 1.4 miles. Continue right/north alongside the river.

Bears, coyotes
In late summer, berries and mushrooms growing along the river attract black bears. With adults about 5-6 feet long, they can weigh up to 600 pounds. Though appearing fat, they’re quite muscular and can outrun a human being.

At 2 miles, the trail runs on a level bank of the river, allowing for quick travel. Bighorn Mountain (summit at 11,463 feet elevation) is to the right/east while Ypsilon Mountain (13,520 feet) rises to the northwest along the river's west bank.

While some hikers have reported wolves and foxes in this area, they more than likely saw coyotes, which at a distance easily can be confused for their close relatives. About three to five feet long, they weigh up to 50 pounds and usually have gray-yellow-brown fur with white underbelly.

At 2.75 miles, the trail junctions a spur to a backcountry campsite. Upon reaching 3.5 miles, the trail begins a gradual rise in an increasingly diverse forest.

Cougars, small mammals
Another predator common in the national forest are cougars, though because of their solitary nature sightings are rare. If you see bark on a tree that is scratched off, a mountain lion probably was the culprit.

At 4 miles from the trailhead, you’ve reach 10,000 feet. Mount Tileston’s peak is to the right/east.

A number of small mammals also can be seen. Among the more unique ones is the yellow-bellied marmot. A member of the squirrel family, they grow up to two feet in length but weigh a mere 11 pounds. Usually they live in colonies of 10-20 individuals.

About 4.5 miles from the trailhead, the , surrounding peaks begin to emerge. Fairchild Mountain (13,502 feet), Hagues Peak (13,560 feet) and Mummy Mountain (13,425 feet) ring this basin.

Other small animals living in the park and likely to be seen on the trail are chipmunks and snowshoe hares. One creature you won’t see is the pika, which lives only above 11,000 feet.

Lawn Lake
At 5 miles, the transition to a spruce-fir forest begins. Then, about 5.65 miles from the trailhead is the intersection with Cow Creek Trail. Continue straight/left/north, briefly leaving Roaring River and paralleling a creek that flows into it. In short order, the trail rejoins Roaring River's east bank.

At 6 miles, the trail runs through a patchy forest of old growth spruce. This is the high point over Lawn Lake, which Roaring River flows out of.

You finally reach your destination – Lawn Lake – at 6.25 miles. Sitting at 10,987 feet elevation, it is the national park's largest subalpine lake. The lake was a reservoir until 1982 when the 26-foot earthen dam collapsed. An incredible 134,640 gallons of water roared down the river valley per second. The lake is now at its original level and popular with fishermen.

You can extend the hike by continuing around lake and into more rugged terrain. For a day hike, though, the trek to the lake is sufficient.

Notes: Watch weather reports; at high altitudes, thunderstorms can sneak up on you in summer. Horses, but not dogs, are allowed on the trail.

Learn more about the park's day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Rocky Mountain National Park.