Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Trail offers fantastic views of Longs Peak

Lower Copeland Falls. Courtesy Rocky Mountain NPS.
Map, Bluebird Lake Trail, Courtesy Rocky Mountain NPS.

Waterfalls, alpine lake await in Rocky Mountain National Park's Wild Basin  


At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is one of Colorado's most visibly prominent fourteeners – a mountain more than 14,000 feet high – on the Front Range. Among the best views of it can be had on the Bluebird Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park's Wild Basin.

The trail is not for the timid or physically unfit. This 12.6-miles round trip includes an elevation gain of 2,478 feet.

Your effort will be worth it, though. Along the hike, you'll pass four waterfalls, a cascades, an alpine lake, and be treated to spectacular scenery.

The trail sits in the park’s southeast corner. To reach the trailhead, from Allenspark village, take Colo. Hwy. 7 north. Turn left/west onto County Road 84, following it north to the Wild Basin Lodge. Go left/northwest onto County Road 115 (note that the last stretch is a narrow, gravel road), parking in the lot of the Wild Basin Summer Trailhead.

Take the trail southwest into the pine forest. You're at 8500 feet, which already is extremely high, so stay alert for altitude sickness.

At 0.3 miles from the trailhead, you can take a short spur to Lower Copeland Falls on North Saint Vrain Creek. It’s only about 5-feet high but a pleasant spot to take a break. About 0.1 miles later is Upper Copeland Falls.

Calypso Cascades
Next the trail crosses Sandbeach Creek and parallels North Saint Vrain Creek.

At 1.4 miles from the trailhead is Pine Ridge Campground. There the trail splits; go left/southwest. The trail crosses the creek once (If you pass the Tahosa Campground, you’ve taken the wrong trail.).

You’ll arrive at an unnamed cascades/waterfall with a 15-foot drop in 0.2 miles. Sometimes this is confused with Calypso Cascades. That’s coming up, though.

About 2.2 miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach the next trail junction. Go right/west. In short order, you’ll cross Cony Creek.

The 100-foot Calypso Cascades are downstream. The best time to see them is early summer, as by September waterflow can be a bit sparse. At the cascades, you’ll also get excellent views of Longs Peak – the highest in the national park – and Mount Meeker, both of which are to the north. The two peaks are referred to as the Twin Guides.

Ouzel Falls
Next the trail meanders to the northwest, gaining about 300 feet elevation until at the 2.7 mile mark from the trailhead it crosses Ouzel Creek via a log footbridge. Forty-foot high Ouzel Falls is upstream and visible from the log. For a closer look, you also can take a spur to the falls, which is at 9370 feet elevation. The spur adds about 0.5 miles to the hike.

At 3 miles from the trailhead, the route divides. Bluebird Lake Trail goes left/southwest while Thunder Lake Trail goes right/northwest. The National Park Service constructed the pair in 1926.

Take the Bluebird Lake Trail into Wild Basin. Along the way, you’ll pass the Aspen Knoll Campground. Ouzel Creek is to the left/south.

About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll walk through a forest of burned out tree trunks. In 1978, the Ouzel Fire, caused by lightning, burned more than a thousand acres here. The blaze took nearly four months to put out.

Bluebird Lake
A spur on the left leads to Ouzel Lake at the 4.6-miles mark. Taking it adds a mile round tip to the hike.

Continue straight/southwest on the Bluebird Lake Trail. The route now becomes rugged and steep with a fair amount of talus. Wildflowers abound in spring and summer, though.

Next you’ll cross Upper Ouzel Creek, which the trail hugs until arriving at Bluebird Lake, where it ends at the 6.3-miles mark. Three peaks surround the boulder-ringed lake – 13,176-foot Mt. Copeland to the south, 12,716-foot Ouzel Peak to the west, and 12,632-foot Mahana Peak to the northwest. The lake is at 10,978 feet elevation.

At one time, Bluebird Lake was dammed with a 58-foot high and 200-foot long wall. In 1989-90, the park service removed more than 5 million pounds of concrete and rebar from the dam – all via helicopter!

Whenever at this elevation, always keep a watch for fast-changing mountain weather. In addition, pack as if you are going stay the night, just in case weather makes heading back impossible.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.