Activities: Hiking, Backpacking, Camping, Fishing
Closest City / Town: Grand Lake and Granby, CO (Estes Park is relatively close if Trail Ridge Road is open)
- On Highway 34, between Granby and Grand Lake, turn west onto County Road 4 between mile markers 9 and 10.
- Take County Road 4 to a junction, and turn right onto FR 120 (a.k.a. Kauneeche Road).
- Follow FR 120 for 9.3 miles to the North Supply Trailhead.
- FR 120 is a good road that is passable by most 2wd vehicles with moderate clearance. However, a 4wd with high clearance is recommended.
Trip Report (July 23 – July 27, 2011):
Day One – Car Camping at North Supply Trailhead:
We drove to the North Supply Trailhead from Denver to hike the Bowen Lake Loop. I had serious reservations about the snow that we might encounter during the trip to the aptly named Never Summers. The 2010-11 winter left most of northern Colorado blanketed in over 200% of the average annual mountain snowpack. To top that off, the spring – and some might not even call it that – was particularly cold and damp.
Car camping the first night was splendid. Despite the fact that we cleaned up a ton of trash from previous campers (we typically carry out more trash than we bring in), karma quickly rewarded us when a mother moose and her calf appeared in the meadow before us to mow down some lush greens. Our group of three (and two dogs) shared some wine, prepared a fresh vegetarian meal, and sunk into sleep beneath an illuminating moon in the back of our trucks.
Day Two – North Supply Trailhead to Bowen Lake:
6:20am, up an’ at ’em! After briefly packing up and scarfing down a lazy man’s breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, we drove the final two miles of FR 120 to the trailhead. Four cars were sitting in the parking lot. Two other full-time residents were also there – likely the same moose and calf we saw the night before. The trail rapidly climbed up to the Blue Ridge. By the time we got to Blue Ridge, we already passed by three of the four groups parked at the trailhead. All three groups were returning to their vehicles. Spectacular views of Rocky Mountain National Park and Longs Peak shot up to the east. But that wasn’t the half of it, North Park and the Park Range could be seen to the west and north, and the immaculate Gore Range rested to the south.
As we continued to climb the ridge, we encountered the last of the groups that parked at the trailhead. They, too, were heading back towards their car. The wilderness and Bowen Lake were all ours for the evening!
The climb continued until we reached a small saddle just below the summit of Cascade Mountain. Instead of venturing up closer to the heavens, we descended to Bowen Lake, which sits in a deep cirque. When you arrive at the lake, you’re surrounded by towering ridges and mountains that rise well over 1,000 vertical feet. The snow was becoming less of a worry for me, but we still hadn’t really ventured into the trees while hiking (the last 500 vertical feet in the trees typically hold more snow than any other portion of a hike). I knew that the next day likely had a little bit more snow in store. Water gushed from the side of Cascade Mountain as the last of winter’s grip was in its final release.
Day Three – Bowen Lake to Ruby Lake via Bowen Trail:
Okay, so I haven’t mentioned the little bastards yet. Mosquitoes!!!!!!! Their relentless humming is something that can wake you up in a cold sweat during the middle of the night. The most likely reason I have not written about them until now is because sometimes they just aren’t worth thinking about. Enough, enough…just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Our goal for the day was to hike to Parika Lake. That goal proved far too lofty because of what mother nature was about to throw our direction. Shortly after dropping from Bowen Lake, we lost the trail in the snow. It was extremely muddy between the large snow drifts, which only compounded the situation. The terrain, however, was relatively easy to read. We picked up the trail about 30 minutes after losing it. The detour proved costly, and we burned up quite a bit of energy hiking down very steep slopes in an effort to relocate the trail.
Wheels started to turn in full gear once we picked the trail up until, wham, we ran smack-dab into one downed tree after another. Crawling, climbing, jumping, ducking, scraping through trees quickly became the norm. At one point, I found myself on all fours crawling through the mud with a pack on my back, all this just to get under a tree because there was simply no other option. The creeks were raging, too. One wrong, slippery step on a thrashed log could have proven disastrous.
Traveling through whales of snow, ducking under and jumping over trees, and trying not to fall in crashing waters – all while attempting to save precious ounces of blood from squeeters – wore us down. We decided to enjoy the rest of the day by shortening our hike and staking tents down, sort of, at Ruby Lake.
Spectacular, gigantic, marvelous, beautiful, towering, melting, crumbling, vibrant, colorful, stirring are words that can’t even begin to describe the place! We enjoyed taking photographs, resting, and eating the remainder of the day. The sun’s rays pierced down through the occasional cloud, although some cirrus clouds were beginning to signal a change.
Three notable things happened that evening:
- I was writing on a cliff ledge where camp wasn’t visible. I put my pen down and went back to camp. Shister!!! There it was; it was four feet into the lake and sinking fast. I spaced out staking down the dogs’ tent, and a strong wind gust sent it flying into the lake. (When Liz and I backpack with our dogs, we bring a tent for us and a cheap children’s play tent for the dogs.) I waded out into the glacial lake and slowly dragged the tent back to shore. Luck was on our side that it didn’t end up closer to the freezing abyss of the center of the lake.
- We ran out of the worst bourbon I’ve ever had: Honey JD. I like Jack straight, but with the honey – uggh!
- It was a night for the coyotes. Howl, howl, hoowwwllll, one shrieked in the dark. Initially, the yelling seemed to be coming from the opposite end of the very large cirque we were cradled in. The howling grew closer as the evening progressed. The third time the coyotes yelled was alarming; they were probably no further than the other side of Ruby Lake, which isn’t very large.
Day Four – Ruby Lake to Bowen Lake via Bowen Pass, Ruby Mountain, and Cascade Mountain
What a day, what a day! We broke camp and set out towards Bowen Pass. A large snowfield blocked the trail at the top of the pass, so we scrambled to the east of it up some pretty nasty, loose rock. We then traversed back over the top of the snowfield on our way to Ruby Mountain. The entire day’s hike was on an exposed ridge located above treeline. Up and down, up and down, up and down, was the mantra of the morning. The elevation gain and loss made for a solid workout. We took our time and savored the views. The wildflowers were off the chart. Fairview, Bowen, and Cascade mountains dominated the landscape from the summit of Ruby Mountain (12,008′). The literal highpoint of the day was Cascade Mountain (12,303′). We stopped at Bowen Lake for the night, which was much more crowded than we expected, especially because we had the lake to ourselves two nights earlier. It rained fairly hard that evening.
Day Five – Bowen Lake to the North Supply Trailhead
The final day of the trip was quiet and peaceful…and primarily downhill. We ran into a few other hikers, but the hike out was relatively uneventful. It was nice to reflect upon and observe the world outside of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Worth Noting: Forest Road 120 has a number of first-come, first-served car camping spots. The area is heavily used by hikers, ATVs, and jeeps. Get there early if you plan to car camp on a weekend.