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Trail to Katherine Lake, June 5, 2010

January 29, 2011


Early last summer (of 2010), I wanted to get up into the mountains, but wasn’t sure where to go.  I’d done Lumpy Ridge, with my son Will, in RMNP a week earlier, but was wanting to “get away from it all.”  Meaning, the people : )  That said, I knew I couldn’t hike up into the higher elevations yet due to the snow.  There was a trail I wanted to check out, actually, a entire canyon in the Zirkels.  So, I figured that I’d just stay low and everything would turn out okay.  Hmmm.  I should know better.

Before I go any further in the trip’s description, here is my standard comment. Please check my photo galleries here for all the larger and higher quality photos for this trip. The photos in the gallery are a quantum leap in size and quality compared to the little teaser photos I put in this site’s trip narrative (and there are more of them). In addition, I have two other links that will help locate the area if you are interested in making the hike yourself. A Google Earth map can be found here. You will need to use the scale bar on the left side of the Google map to help zoom in or out to help locate the area based on where you live. (If you want to see all my trips, this link will direct you to a Google map that shows ALL my trips.) In order to help you with the actual trail itself, you can use this link to view a topo map (care of the great National Geographic TOPO program( ) that one of my sons purchased for me : ) of the Katherine Lake trail. Please note that all links open a new browser window.


In addition to the Google map link above, please see a Microsoft Live map below. The red tack shows the general location of the trail from Fort Collins, CO. You can click on the map to bring it up in a “live” mode and zoom in or out (and move the map around) to get more detail.  Just make sure you don’t close the Microsoft “My Places” editor that pops up with map.  If you close the editor (it is small and you can use/scroll/zoom the map without the editor getting too much in the way) without first saving the new location, the location button will disappear.   If that happens, just close the map and click on it again on my web page.

Map picture



Anyway, I took off in slightly inclement looking weather, but decided that the worst case scenario was the trip would get me out of Fort Collins and I could possibly see my sister in Walden, CO.  By the time I got to where I could look at the area where my trail was, I could see that the snow pack was even heavier than I’d figured.  My plan was to go up to a trailhead pretty much right where the road was pointed in the photo below (well, the canyon just to the right of the end of the road).  Then hike along the edge of the mountains, and the Zirkel wilderness area, to Red Canyon off to the left.  Where you can see some steep cliffs.



Here is a close up of the area.  In the photo below, Red Canyon heads up into the mountains, and then back behind that big “red” rock face.  The trailhead I was going to park at is off the right side of the photo below.  I’d be hiking low along the foot of the mountains until entering Red Canyon.  Pretty cool looking canyon with a reservoir at the bottom of it.  There is a road leading to the beginning of the canyon that I don’t think I can get access to.  I need to check that out because it would take out the need of spending miles hiking in from the side.  There is an additional access road (that I think I’m allowed on) closer to the canyon, but it’s 4wd.  So, no-go in my little Hyundai.  On the map it looked like a 3 mile hike to get to the beginning of the canyon.  So, nice 6-8 mile hike round trip depending on how far up the canyon I go.


Well, yeah, maybe a little more snow than I’d first figured on.  Pretty looking area. It wasn’t cold, cool maybe.  Very “mountain fresh” smelling.  And, not many people stirring about.  Either on the road or in the ranches I passed.  Early green aspen leaves were looking good.


After a several mile cruise up a ranch/forest road, which was in good shape I might add, you hit the national forest boundary.


Another mile after that I pulled off to the side of the road at the Lone Pine “south” trailhead.  This is really just a section of the long Grizzly Helena Trail (1126) that runs the entire (close enough) length (north to south) of the Zirkel Wilderness area (along it’s eastern border).  It’s a very cool looking trail. I’ve hiked sections of it by myself, some of which were with my son Conor, but I’d like to hike the length of it sometime.  Fall would be very nice as it has lots of aspens along the trail.  Of course, that’s also hunting season.  But, if I wore orange, I’d probably be okay.  Probably.  Most likely.  Maybe during the bow season.  Anyway, I was the only visitor today that I could tell.


The start of the trail looked good.  Very good.


Cool.  A sign.  The Lost Ranger trail (great name : ) is the one that I was headed for that cuts off from the Griz trail and heads up Red Canyon.  Yep, 3 miles looked about right.  The Rainbow Lake trail is one I’m quite familiar with.  Hmmm, I didn’t get to do my annual Rainbow lake hike in 2010.  Must try that next summer.  I have quite a history with that trail.  Anyway, the green grass lined trail beckoned me onward.


After only a short hike, through a pretty meadow, I came to Lone Pine creek.  Reality hit.  This was late spring/early summer.  Uh, oh yeah, snow melt.  Oh yeah, water.  Sigh.  The creek was high.  Way too high to even consider wading across.  Do you think the water was cold?


But wait.  There must be a bridge, right?  After all, many, well, lots, um, some(?) people hiked this trail.  Sure, it wasn’t Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, but still.  I would look down stream.  This was probably the horse crossing.  Of course, gee how stupid of me.
Well, I beat through some bushes going down stream (funny, not much of a trail to the bridge) until I came to the, well, it was sorta a bridge.


Ah yes, time to consider the possibilities here.  Did I want to do a explorer type thing here?  It might make a great story.  Assuming I survived.
Ummm.  NO.  I did not. The reason being, my camera.  Right.  My camera.  Can’t risk my camera.  Wow, if I didn’t have to worry about getting my camera wet, I’d just skip across that in nothing flat.  In my dreams.  Maybe 30 years ago.  Maybe not.  Probably 40 ago years I would have tried it because I was even stupider then than now.  Hard to believe, but true.


Well, fine.  How about upstream?  I should be able to find a log or something that looked more doable.  And, in fact, I did find a log upstream. But, once I hiked over to it, I decided NO.  Not gonna.  You can’t see it in this photo, but the end of the log on the other side of the stream looked like it was just barely hooked on the top of the stump.  About 6 feet above the ground.  So, I could see myself, sliding across on my butt, getting halfway across and having the log slip off the stump.  And me in the water.  My camera.  Must be careful about the camera.


Ok.  As any true explorer, um, hiker that is, I have back up plans.  And, occasionally, backup plans for my backup plans.  Although those tend to be a little on the fuzzy side.  Anyway, I got back to my vehicle and decided I’d just hike up towards Katherine Lake as far as possible.  I even thought that I might be able to go all the way.  Yeah, you’d thought by now my brain would be fully engaged …………

So, I left the car where it was parked and started hiking up the road.  Only a mile to the end of the road and the trailhead to Katherine lake, so figured I’d get in all the hiking possible since I wasn’t sure how far up the trail I’d get.


The sun had come out, I had the road to myself, hey, this was okay after all.  Gave me some time to really check out some of the camp sites along the road.  Just for possible future use.  They looked pretty damn nice.  And quite empty.


Went by some small beaver ponds on the way up the road.  Course, this time of year the insects were pretty much zero.  So, later in the summer, a person just might want to make sure that they had some mosquito repellent with them.  Just in case.


Passed by the trail head for the portion of the Griz Helena (trail 1126) that headed north.  Conor and I took a great hike up Bear Creek, over Ute Pass, and then down Ute creek and back to the car on 1126.  Saw a momma bear and cubs up close while coming down Ute Creek. Quite the loop.  Quite the tiring loop.  Got back to Coops in Fort Collins around midnight and celebrated with some of their awesome pizza and brew. Great hike.  Great day.


Finally got to the end of the road and the trailhead for Katherine lake.  There is room for some camping if you get here late at night.


Close up of the signs.  I liked the fact that the aspens were getting some good growth.  It bode well for the trail ahead.  I hoped.


Ah, looking good.  Looking good.  Just a little patch of snow.  No big deal.


A little further up the trail I ran into my first “real” snow drifts.  But, I was able to walk along the trail on the bare ground above the snow which kept me from walking on the snow itself and possibly breaking through the crust.


Once past that section, the trail looked promising again.  Although, it was just a trifle “wet”.


And then, I happened to glance off into the trees to my right.  And saw an animal peeking back at me.  Almost dead center in the photo if you need help seeing the animal.  The photos on my web site (link above) are much larger.


Yep, looked like a coyote keeping an eye on me as I walked past it’s den.  It kept looking over to one side and I think I heard some young pups yipping.  Needed a better camera to get really quality photos, but I’ll wait another year or more before I splurge on that.  Was fun to watch.


The coyote did let me come closer.  I think I got to within 30-40 yards of it.  Decided not to try to get any closer because I didn’t want to stress it out.  The closer looking photos were taken with my old Olympus C770 using it’s 10x zoom.  Also put a couple of videos on my web site (from the same camera).






Anyway, after all the excitement with the coyote, I kept on heading up the trail.  Among the patches of snow, mud, and running water I did see some early flowers.  So, naturally I took photos.


Good time of year for the fungi also.


Close up.


‘Rooms breaking through the pine needles.


Eventually, I reached some snow fields that looked pretty extensive and decided to call it a day.   It was warm enough that I was breaking through the crust on top and sinking in to my knees.  Eventually, quite soon, that would mean wet feet.  No fun.  So, I headed back.


Even though I didn’t really make any of my destinations (either plan A or plan B : ), the journey had been worth it.  Nice to see the green stuff showing.  It wouldn’t be too much longer when the trails would open up.




Can’t really remember the trip back to Fort Collins.  Must have made it back : )

– Geoff Weatherford

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