It occurred to us the other day, that for some reason we haven’t been backpacking once yet in Colorado! Clearly this was unacceptable, so Kelly picked out a nice warm-up outing so we could get our backpacking legs under us for the season. We booked a spot at Ouzel Lake, which has an upper and lower site. The lower spots were filled so we settled for the upper sites. The upper site is a tad farther from the trail-head, though in either case the whole walk would have been roughly 10 miles round trip. Would have been…
We’ll return to that thought in a bit. Before all of that, we travelled over a gently climbing and well maintained trail that hugs the St. Vrain and then the Ouzel Creek, through sparse pine forests, over several aesthetically appealing timber bridges, past raging cascades and eventually onto a thinly treed ridge offering 360 degrees of views, at least 270 degrees of which are spectacular.
…And as you can see above, the trail was ultimately smothered by an expansive blanket of snow. The well traveled bits and the sun baked parts were plenty supportable and we hardly needed our spikes. In fact, all was well until we lost the trail somewhere after the lower camp area. No worry; we’d just use Backcountry Navigator and the USGS tiles I just downloaded for the region that morning. We navigated back toward the trail and followed it up hill and into the woods through increasingly deep snow and steep terrain until we found ourselves standing atop a snow-bridge under which the Ouzel Creek roared savagely in the spring melt.
After Kelly briefly dipped a foot in the water we agreed to follow the trail as closely as we could without crossing any buried water. We bushwhacked further up a convoluted pine forest that would have made for an absolute playground of midwinter tree-skiing: constant pillowy undulations, and perfectly spaced trees. We navigated off trail through cliffbands and around snowy canyons until we were approximately to the location marked on the map as the upper campsite. After a solid hour of travel, we had covered only one mile. Bushwhacking in shin deep snow is no joke!
A second, third and maybe fourth look at the map revealed that we should have been standing in the creek. Indeed, we were standing on a small ridge running east-west. The creek emerged from a cliffside roughly to our north, and traversed under us to the south. We pondered this paradox briefly before concluding that we were standing on a massive snow drift (25 feet deep at least!?!?!) with running water below.
We realized that the campsites were essentially no more find-able than the trail, so we backtracked down toward the lower site. The lower site was in a similar state of affairs. No gargantuan snow drifts, but all low lying, flat terrain was buried in who knows how much snow. At least it was flat. Somewhat indifferent with defeat, we settled on the first level spot, threw down our packs and made camp.
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Turns out, the spot we arbitrarily settled on could hardly have been better. Water was close at hand, and the views in either direction were great. We feasted, set up some time lapses, shot photos, strolled about and crawled into bed as soon as it was acceptably late. A nocturnal bathroom break yielded absolutely still air, a brilliant half moon, and surprisingly good visibility – no headlamps needed really, even though it was the middle of the night.
It must have been below freezing for most of the night, because the snow firmed up as soon as the sun set. Around 3 or 4 in the morning my 45 degree back became a little bit inadequate so I pulled on a down jacket snoozed happily until the sun woke us both in the morning.
When we crawled out of bed, our boots, socks and packs were covered in a light frost, which evaporated almost as soon as the sun hit them. The hike out was fast and cool in the morning air. In a couple of hours, backpacking number one was in the books and we were on our way to après-hike Mexican food.