Change of Plans
We were four days into a family backpack trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had done a 30 mile loop from Grand Lake in three days and successfully summited Longs Peak the day after that. Instead of doing two more dayhikes as we had initially planned, we chose to do a short, out and back overnight backpack. When we went to the Beaver Meadows ranger station, the ranger there suggested we head down to Wild Basin and camp at Ouzel Lake.
After reserving the site, we headed back to Estes Park to unload our daypacks and reload our backpacking packs.
When we arrived at Wild Basin after lunch, we were presented with two options: park at the visitor center and start from there or drive two miles further down the service road and park closer to the trailhead. We chose the latter and were lucky enough to find a parking spot. From there, we took a horse trail past the pavement parking lot and picked up the main trial.
The terrain at Wild Basin is strikingly different from the western half of the park. For starters, the Wild Basin area burned in 1978 and so the bare trunks of dead pines litter the area. But more importantly, poplars and shrubs, along with multitudes of tiny flowers, have moved in. The burned areas are wide open while the surrounding ridges and slopes are heavily wooded. The contrast keeps the hike interesting. Also, this particular hike stays much lower than North Inlet or the CDT.
The hike was just five miles, so we took our time and admired the views of Longs and Meeker. The trail parallels Ouzel Creek for the first mile or so and provides nice spots to sit and think at Calypso Cascades. It climbs gently as it moves up the valley. We stopped for lunch at Ouzel Falls and took some pictures near the falls. Soon after we stopped, a cold front moved in and brought with it the rain that had been threatening all week. We scrambled for rain gear and pack covers as the clouds rolled in. The rain pounded us for a few minutes before lessening enough for us to continue hiking. As we hiked along and got on top of the small ridge that leads to Ouzel Lake, the wind picked up and we had to switch to hardshells. We then watched as the rain clouds that had dumped on us moved northward to stall over Longs and Meeker, shrouding the summits.
We picked up our pace as more clouds moved in and slopped through the muddy last half mile into the campsite. It started to sprinkle when we were about 10 minutes out and increased to full on rain as the evening progressed.Once there, we hastily set up our three tents and then strung a plastic drop cloth as a dining fly. This square of plastic was worth its weight and bulk as it let us eat outside the tents, together, and in relative comfort. The site itself was great. A stream 20 yards away provided a good water source, the toilet had great views of Ouzel Peak, and there was plenty of flat ground for tents.
After dinner, we walked down to the lake and watched clouds circling and swirling around Isolation Peak, Copeland Mountain, and Ouzel Peak. Wispy clouds would run down the saddles and then hit the thermals on the cliff faces and shoot up and across the mountain before sinking on the back side and running down the saddle again. The six of us stood just watching for almost an hour, mesmerized by the display. Each peak would have its own ring of clouds and then a new, denser bank would move in and force the clouds to weave in and out between the tree mountains.
We awoke the next morning to a pounding rain. With the exception of a single 15 minute respite the night before, it had been raining for over 14 hours straight. We had a cold breakfast of bars and Swedish fish and then broke down our tents without taking the flies off and stuffed them into our packs still thoroughly soaked and hoofed it out of the site.
The hike out was rather dreary. We were getting colder and wetter by the second and our packs were stuffed with soaking wet gear. A heavy mist rolled in, obscuring our views of anything but our own ridge. The gnarled pine skeletons took on a very artistic quality as they glided in and out of view. The spiraling pattern on their trunks stood out even more in the rain. We moved along and made it back to the van by ten thirty. We tossed our packs in the roof box, grabbed dry clothes, and pulled out. It was miserable enough that we didn't even stop to get a final trip picture.
What Could have Been
The Bluebird Lake Trail runs an additional two miles from its junction with the Ouzel Lake Trial to Bluebird Lake, an above-treeline lake at the base of Ouzel Peak. From there, an ambitious and experienced person might consider climbing up to Ouzel Peak (12716 ft) and onto the CDT to Isolation Peak (13118 ft). We were told by one of the rangers at Beaver Meadows that some unofficial trails do exist from Bluebird Lake up the sides of Ouzel Peak. However, the Ouzel Lake-Bluebird Lake trail junction is a half mile below the Ouzel Lake camp site, and so it would be 5 miles round trip just to go to Bluebird and back, not including any side hikes.
However, we discovered that by cutting across a small swampy/boggy section behind our site and then doing a quick bushwhack up the side of the ridge, we could get onto the Bluebird Lake trail and save ourselves over a mile of hiking in both directions. Next time I do this backpack, I'm thinking about bringing along my daypack and trying to bag Isolation and Ogalalla Peaks, both of which are over 13000. It would require at least one day dedicated solely to peakbagging, possibly two if you want to get Copeland or Ouzel while you're at it.