The Art of Exploration · a diary of day trips, natural places, and miscellaneous adventures

All the Way to Chasm Lake

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016 in Colorado
All the Way to Chasm Lake

I wake at 3:45 AM and make final preparations for a hike to Chasm Lake. I toss my gear in the car and set off. At this time of the morning, the drive is easy, enchanting even. The road is empty, the sky clear, the landscape dark and vast. As I drive, I am lulled into a contemplative mood. I think back to August 2014 and my first attempt to hike to Chasm Lake. I wonder how things will unfold differently today than they did in 2014. At least this time I know the hike I face is a long and strenuous one. I had no clue what I was getting myself into the last time.

Looking back, I now realize I stood little chance of safely completing the hike on my first attempt. By all measures, I was poorly prepared. Although I had hiked often during the summer of 2014, none of my hikes ventured further than six miles. The Chasm Lake hike is 8.5 miles long. None of my hikes involved an elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet. The Chasm Lake hike climbs roughly 2,500 feet.

And my deficiencies didn’t end there.

All summer long, I struggled to pack wisely or to take enough suitable food to power my exertions. On one of my first excursions in 2014, I packed cucumber sandwiches for lunch. What a sloppy mess that made. Fortunately, I’m wiser about the foods I select for my hiking meals now. I opt for high-energy, low-moisture snacks that are easy to transport: nuts, peanut butter, cheese, salami.

Longs Peak Ranger Station in the early morning light. Ideally, I would have been standing at this point in complete darkness but I’m running late and the sun is rising fast.

Of course, it’s no surprise that my August 2014 attempt to hike to Chasm Lake ended short of its target. I turned around about three-quarters of a mile from Chasm Lake, at the edge of the gorge that overlooks Peacock Pool. At the time, I knew that if I continued it would prove—in addition to everything I lacked in terms of fitness and preparation—I also lacked good judgement. Fortunately, even in my first year hiking in the mountains, I was happy to try and fail in my attempts. I was willing to admit when I wasn’t ready for something. And in August 2014, I wasn’t ready to hike to Chasm Lake.

Now, two years later, facing my second attempt to hike to Chasm Lake I’m better prepared and more realistic. I now know there’s a good chance I’ll have to turn around before I reach the lake. That’s simply the nature of this hike for someone at my level. The trail is long, steep, and demanding and I might have to call it a day at any point. But increasingly, that’s why I hike: for the uncertainty and the adventure of it. Not to bag a peak or even a lake.

Close-up of Alpine Brook, somewhere along the lower section of the trail to Chasm Lake.

Fortunately, so far, everything is falling into place nicely for my hike today. The forecast looks ideal and I get an early start, without even having to rely on the alarm clock. Last night, I gathered all my gear and packed my daypack. I chose my Osprey Sirrus 36 pack (the largest of my daypacks). It’s a hefty pack, but comfortable and it holds plenty of food and water.

At the trailhead I snag one of the last few parking spots. That’s a relief, the lot fills up fast this time of year. But then things begin to fall apart. For twenty minutes, I fumble with gear and I reshuffle things in my pack. I decide not to take my hiking poles, then I change my mind. I put on my sweatshirt, then I take it off. My thinking grows foggy and I feel suddenly tired. This is not a good way to begin any hike, especially this one. Time to focus. I lock the car, hoist my backpack onto my shoulders, clip the necessary straps, and start my hike.

Just before crossing the highest reaches of Alpine Brook and entering the alpine tundra.

The Chasm Lake hike is an 8.5 mile out-and-back route that climbs 2,456 feet in elevation from the trailhead to the edge of the lake. Most trail guides rank the hike as strenuous (although a few trail guides classify it as moderate). Though the guides might disagree on the difficulty of the hike, all describe it is a beautiful hike, well worth the effort for those fit enough to undertake it. That’s good enough for me.

The hike begins at the Longs Peak Ranger Station, where the trail climbs at a steep angle through a thick forest of lodgepole pines, spruces, and firs. I take it slowly, but soon I’m out of breath. It’s not long before I’m sweating profusely, so I stop to remove several layers. While I’m stopped, I snack on block of cheese. After this brief rest, I hike again at a slower pace. When I’m just over a mile into the hike, I pass the side trail that leads to the Goblins Forest Backcountry Campground. I remember this spot from my previous hike. It’s slow progress, but progress no less.

The view from the spot where I turned around in August 2014.

By about 2.2 miles into the hike, I reach the transition between the forest and the subalpine zones. In the subalpine zone, the trees are dwarfed and twisted by the hostile conditions they must endure. This unique landscape is referred to as the krummholtz. Now that I’m above 10,000 feet, the air grows noticeably thinner and walking becomes more labored. Despite the challenges, this section of the hike offers generous, breathtaking views. I now catch glimpses of Mt. Meeker, Longs Peak, and Mt. Lady Washington.

The final stretch to Chasm Lake. The lake sits atop the shelf in the middle-right of the photo.

Near the 3.5 mile mark along the trail, I reach the Chasm Lake Trail junction. This is where I turned around in August 2014. I’m certainly tired and at times a bit out of breath due to the altitude (here it’s about 11,500 feet), but I am feeling well enough to continue. From here, the trail skirts along the wall of a deep gorge. At the far end of the gorge, Columbine Falls pours over a rocky slope and drains into Peacock Pool. I move slowly, careful not to over-exert myself or misstep. The path is somewhat flat and not too difficult to hike, but there is some scree to step over.

Looking down into the gorge of Roaring Fork Creek to see Columbine Falls and Peacock Pool.

I come to a small alpine basin and things start to get confusing. It’s hard to decipher where the trail is and I soon realize there no longer is a trail, just a wall of rock. This is the headwall that forms the base of Chasm Lake and I must climb it to reach the lake. It’s an easy climb but the wall is large and I can’t find a good route up it. Halfway up the left side of the wall, I realize I can go no further. I climb back down and move to the middle of the wall. By now, other hikers have arrived and I follow them. But it’s slow going, know one seems to know the correct route.

A small alpine basin lies at the foot of the headwall that forms Chasm Lake.

Another round of climbing up, then climbing down, and I’m exhausted. Eventually, I move all the way to the right side of the wall (which, it turns out, is where I should have started in the first place) and I finally find the correct route. The altitude is really getting to me now and I am close to calling it quits. I’m fifteen minutes past my turn-around time (which was conservative so I’m not that worried) but I’m not thinking clearly and I’m fatigued.

As I sit, rest, and gather my thoughts, a man hikes past me. We nod to each other and smile, both too exhausted to chat. I watch as he climbs past me, then up the rocks just over my shoulder. He stops, looks around and steps forward. I realize that there, just above me, is the top of the wall. With a few quick steps, I’m at the top of the wall too, gazing out at Chasm Lake. I’ve done it. Or more accurately: I’ve done half of it. There’s still the hike back to the trailhead of course, and that proves to be tough. But well worth it.

A hard-won view of Chasm Lake.
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