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

Lake Irene

Published Monday, August 8th, 2016 in Colorado« · »

It’s two weeks since I last ventured into the mountains and I wonder if I’m getting lazy. To combat a growing sense of stagnation, I resolve to find a new high-country destination to explore this weekend. After an hour of hemming and hawing over where to go I’m still undecided. That’s when I stumble across a lovely photo (below) in my instagram feed showing a fog-shrouded alpine lake that looks both enticing and unfamiliar. It turns out it’s Lake Irene—a small tear-drop of a lake nestled in a thicket of conifers at about 10,640 feet, not far from Milner Pass. I am intrigued by the photo and in an instant I have a destination for my next excursion. I pencil-in the hike for the coming Sunday.

Even on a misty day Lake Irene provides a mysterious beauty. The loop hike around Lake Irene begins from the Lake Irene Picnic Area, located 15.2 miles north of the Grand Lake Entrance, and 4.7 miles south of the Alpine Visitor Center. The trailhead is located at the far end of the parking area, just beyond a couple of picnic sites. #findyourpark #visitwestside #rmnp #lifeisgood #weather #mountainlife

A post shared by Rocky Mountain National Park (@rockynps) on

In recent weeks, I’ve worked much overtime and it’s catching up with me. As a result, the weekend of my planned visit to Lake Irene begins poorly. I wake on Saturday groggy and grumpy and my mood deteriorates from there. The day is consumed by a litany of tiresome chores—lawn mowing, grocery shopping, laundry. It takes me four mind-numbing hours to clean and organize the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. By the end of the day I’m exhausted. In the evening I sink into the couch and wonder if I will have sufficient energy to go exploring the next day. But I set aside my doubts and shift into planning mode. I must find out more about Lake Irene.

I thumb through various guidebooks and maps searching for facts. But the facts are few and far between. One guide has no entry at all for Lake Irene. Another guide makes a passing note of the lake and instead aggrandizes the adjacent parking lot, picnic area, and pit toilets (they are after all conveniently located near the midpoint of the drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake). The topographic map is no better. It doesn’t even bother to mark the trail around the lake. Defeated, I resort to an online search which produces a few novel facts but no clear profile of the area. I am left with a powerful sense that Lake Irene is an underwhelming and remote destination.

It is at this point that I might be tempted to abandon the excursion altogether. Why drive for four hours round-trip to visit an unremarkable little puddle on the dark side of a distant mountain? But instead my stubborn streak triumphs and I dig-in my heels. I decide that come hell or high water I’m going to get to Lake Irene and discover its undocumented merits.

View from Trail Ridge Road near Medicine Bow Curve.

Thus on Sunday morning I find myself driving along Trail Ridge Road in a moderate but tolerable queue of sedans, heavy-duty pick-up trucks, and rented Cruise America RVs. Many of these vehicles and their inhabitants are headed to the Alpine Visitor’s Center where they will stretch their legs breifly before heading back down to Estes Park. I, on the other hand, have my sights set on the more remote and less populated west side of the park. I pass the traffic knot in front of the Visitor’s Center and continue along Trail Ridge Road. There is a sharp bend in the road at Medicine Bow Curve, after which point the road descends into the Cache La Poudre River Valley. A few miles along, I spot the Lake Irene parking lot on the west side of the road and turn in.

I park the car and indulge in a pre-hike snack. Finally I’m ready to explore. I set out on the Lake Irene Trail which passes a small picnic area and then descends a gentle slope into a valley towards the lake. The path is wide and flat and as I walk I notice an elderly woman and her young companion making their way along its length. I am reminded of the valuable role an accessible trail such as this plays for those who are less able to hike the park’s more rugged trails.

An accessible stretch of trail leading to Lake Irene.
A bench with a view.

The trail continues along the shoreline of Lake Irene. Although the lake is not cloaked in fog (as in the photograph that inspired my visit) it is no less breathtaking. It is, though, a small lake and soon the trail extends beyond it.

Another view of Lake Irene, this one from the southwest.

I continue on and in a few minutes arrive at a scenic overlook. Below, the view is vast. A lush meadow stretches into the distance flanked on either side by ridges thick with conifers. A gentle breeze rises from the valley and carries with it a chorus of natural sounds—the gurgle of a nearby creek, the chatter of birdsong. The soundtrack is one of quietude and peace. I hear no human sounds, no chatter of voices, no traffic, no planes overhead.

The trail leading to the scenic overlook …
… and the scenic overlook.

Near the overlook, a narrow side-trail descends into the valley. A small sign indicates that this is the Ute Trail. In fact, it is one of several sections of trail within Rocky Mountain National Park that all bear the same name. The Ute Trail was once used by Arapaho and Ute Indians when they migrated seasonally between their hunting grounds. Today, there are only a few disconnected sections of the original Ute Trail that remain in the area (view descriptions of other Ute Trail sections here and here).

The Ute Trail as it descends along Phantom Creek (which is not visible in this image).

I follow the Ute Trail for a short time. To once side of the trail, a small creek trickles out of Lake Irene. Wildflowers decorate the slope. I try to identify a few (harebells, common yarrow, broadleaf arnica, rockyscree false golden-aster) but I’m not familiar with many of the species.

After about a mile, the trail grows narrow and starts to fade. I pass a family hiking towards me, back to Lake Irene. They tell me that the trail disappears not far ahead, near where Trail Ridge Road crosses the valley. I decide to end my hike and head back to the parking lot.

When I get back home, I look up the Lake Irene area on the USGS National Map website. I discover that the small creek that flows out from Lake Irene is called Phantom Creek and that it joins the Colorado River, not far from where I hiked. At that point, the Colorado River is very young, only about a mere half-dozen miles from its headwaters. I realize that the water that drains from Lake Irene into Phantom Creek—though gentle, calm, and seemingly insignificant—are in fact among the most remote, pristine tendrils that form the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River.

Phantom Creek, as it drains out of Lake Irene.
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
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