East Inlet Trail to Verna Lake: Of Moose and Men

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IMG_5286After one blissful evening off the trail and in an actual bed (we had completed the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop the previous day), we were headed back out for another backpacking trip, this time in Rocky Mountain National Park. We would be out only one night, hiking the East Inlet Trail from the town of Grand Lake, Colorado to Verna Lake, some seven-plus miles away. We planned to return the next day to participate in a time-honored and venerated tradition, held in the highest esteem within the annals of hiking lore. I am speaking, of course, of the celebrated and highly sought-after breakfast buffet. This event was to be held in the hallowed halls of The Grand Lake Lodge. I may have been a bit over-excited about the buffet.

We spent a leisurely morning in the Leadville Hostel. We awoke in a comfortable berth, showered, and relaxed for a good hour or two, cooking breakfast and chatting with other guests about hiking and travel. It may have been our most unhurried morning of the entire trip, so, despite having just spent four days in the Snowmass backcountry, we felt rested and ready for more punishment adventure.

IMG_5293We arrived at the trailhead just before 1:00pm. We donned our packs and filled our water bladders before having a short conversation with a gregarious ranger who was prowling around the kiosk at the trailhead. Then we set off. 300 yards down the trail, I couldn’t remember if I had locked the car. The thing is, I hardly ever forget to lock the car, but I frequently have no memory of the act. Back I went, annoyed with myself and certain that I would have to endure a wisecrack from the over-keen ranger.  “Too much beauty for ya, huh?” she quipped, and I had to resist the momentary urge to throttle her – that would just waste valuable time. I walked toward our rented SUV waving the fob over my head like an orangutan and repeatedly jamming the lock button until I heard the chirp that let me know for certain that our gear was safe. Turning back toward the trail, my frustration evaporated quickly. Still, I was pleased that the ranger was deep in conversation with another group as I passed the kiosk for the third time.

Back on the trail, we reveled in the day. The sun was shining brightly, and the temperature was hovering around 80°F. Roughly a half mile up the East Inlet Trail, a right turn led us down a spur to Adams Falls, a 55 foot cascading cataract that sparkled in the afternoon sun. A delightful group of hikers took our picture, and we enjoyed the falls for 5 or 10 minutes, but were itching to be on the move toward our campsite, and Verna Lake.

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Adejeania on thistle

Once off the Adams Falls Loop Trail, we hiked east along the East Inlet, a meandering waterway that flows from the slopes of Isolation Peak to Grand Lake. The fragrant pine forest eventually gave way to the expansive East Meadow, a great sward of tall grass flanked by Mount Cairns and Mount Wescott. Mount Craig looms at the head of the valley, reaching almost 12,000 feet into the bright blue Rocky Mountain sky. The East Inlet runs lazily through this pristine paddock and birds abound on the banks of the waterway. An older couple stood river-gazing. On their last visit, they told us, a bull moose had stood grazing on the opposite bank, mere yards away, while their young grandson stared, wide-eyed, his mouth gaping. This both excited and frustrated Lisa. Where was that moose now!?

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IMG_5339We hiked on through the meadow before re-entering the woods and beginning to climb in earnest. The further we hiked, the fewer people we encountered. We were threading our way between Mount Cairns and Mount Wescott and onto the foothills of Mount Craig. From our point of view, Verna Lake lay behind Craig, and we would need to skirt the mountain’s north slope to reach it. Much of our climb was on rocky steps, forcing us to clamber up the base of a craggy cliff, the view of Grand Lake behind us in the distance. We passed small waterfalls and crossed several roughhewn bridges over bubbling tributaries flowing into East Inlet. As the grade steepened, the river became much more dynamic. White water rushed over black rock, the soothing crush of frequencies our constant companion.

A little over six miles from the trailhead, a mirror-like alpine lake emerged from among the tangled shrubs and pines. This was Lone Pine Lake, and it could not have been more idyllic. A small lake, surrounded in lush green grass, it was nearly still in the afternoon sun. We sat for a while, enjoying the silence and scanning for moose. No moose were loose.IMG_5400IMG_5406We continued, coming up on 6.5 miles, which meant that we needed to be on the lookout for the spur to the Slickrock campsite, our home for the evening. Ahead was a towering mound of talus. In reality it was only around 120’, but we were starting to tire. I checked my GaiaGPS app. It showed our campsite, one of only seven on the East Inlet Trail, in the middle of the field of talus. That could only mean one thing: our campsite was on top of the mound of boulders. We continued our climb.

IMG_5414IMG_5418We found the spur and the campsite. “Slickrock” was an excellent name for it, as it was an area of relatively smooth stone, similar to the expanses of sandstone we had driven over on the Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park the previous summer. Included at no extra cost were one or two dead trees and a smattering of loose rock in varying sizes. We pitched our tent, tying off to the largest dead tree and various sizable rocks. Satisfied with a job well done, we explored the area surrounding our home for the evening and filtered water in a nearby gully, where East Inlet gushed through the jumbled talus. Prior campers had thoughtfully built a stone table and “chairs” near our tent, and there, we ate our dinner in style.

IMG_5428Ursacks are not yet approved for use in Rocky Mountain National Park, so, after a hearty meal of Beef Stroganoff and Santa Fe Chicken and Rice, we packed all our food and food waste into our rented bear canister (rent them here) and stashed it under an overhanging rock. We wedged it in tightly and piled some loose rock around it. The sun was low in the sky as we set off for Verna Lake, a mile of trail and 250 feet of elevation in the distance.

IMG_5427IMG_5449The final approach to Verna Lake is an exercise in the geographical fake-out. After the initial climb up from Slickrock campsite, the trail leveled out and ran almost due east along East Inlet. There are two, small unnamed lakes along the inlet prior to Verna. Ponds might be a better term, although each time one came into view we got excited, thinking were had reached the western tip of our destination. Twice we were disappointed. When we did reach the lake, it appeared, as had the previous two tarns, as a slight widening of the East Inlet. This time it continued to widen. As we broke through the trees to the water’s edge, there was Verna Lake, rippling slightly in the waning afternoon light. A thick bristle of pines encircled the pool and climbed partway up the grey peaks that surrounded us. A bright blue sky hung like a backdrop behind the ashen ridge beyond. Much of the lake was already in shadow, and we crept quietly forward, the stillness of the scene inspiring our prayerful silence.

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Lisa is awed by the magic and majesty of this beautiful scene.

As we stepped onto a massive stone incline at the western end of the lake, we noticed a man. We had encountered no one since leaving camp, so this took us by surprise. He sat on the rocky slope, hugging his knees to his chest and reverently soaking up the solitude. A barely perceptible nod was his only acknowledgement of our presence before resuming his reverie. Not wanting to intrude, we gave him a wide berth. I circled behind him and down to the water’s edge, admiring the lake and the sun-splashed mountains beyond, while Lisa sat in quietude, a short distance away. Moments later, we turned from the stunning scenery to find that the man had, wordlessly and soundlessly, disappeared. IMG_5502Lisa and I exchanged curious glances. Then we caught a glimpse of the mysterious stranger a few hundred yards away on the north bank of the lake, walking east. As he disappeared into the pines, Lisa spotted a rustling in the brush farther down the lake shore. Convinced that the disturbance had been caused by a moose, Lisa led the way along the north bank, following in the stranger’s footsteps. After five minutes walking, we passed him sitting silently on another rock and gazing serenely across the lake. We continued on. Fifty yards farther on, an enormous rounded rock jutted up and out into the rippling lake. That seemed to us a good vantage point, and I bolted up the outcropping, surveying Verna from this new angle. There was a thick tangle of brush and pine to my left. Lisa joined me on the rock, and we soaked in the view, awed by the stillness and beauty, but disappointed in the mooselessness of the evening. I asked Lisa to take my picture and turned to face her. As she raised her camera she froze, eyes as big as dinner plates and mouth open in wonder.

MOOSE!

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Grazing peacefully at water’s edge

There, through the tangle of brush, was an adult female placidly munching on leaves from a nearby bush. We were less than 25 feet from a full-grown moose! Now both of our mouths were hanging open in shock and surprise. Lisa confessed later that her heart was beating so fast that she was afraid it would leap out of her chest and go visit the moose on its own. The RMNP rangers advised us that, to gauge a safe distance from a moose, one should fully extend one’s arm, thumb out. If the animal cannot be fully obscured by the thumb, you’re too close. I extended my arm – and my thumb. It barely covered the moose’s head. I swallowed hard. We were way too close. The moose, however, was on the other side of thick brush and we stood eight or ten feet above it on an outcropping of rock I was sure it could not climb. Also, the moose seemed every bit as unconcerned about our presence as we were enthralled by hers.

IMG_5509She occasionally gazed dolefully up at us as she chewed, a leafy twig slowly disappearing into her moosey maw. We stood, riveted, for 20 minutes before gingerly retreating back to the trail, where we then moved quickly to put some distance between us and the magnificent creature.

IMG_5566The sun was disappearing, and we stepped out onto another rock prominence to record the golden light as it set the Rockies ablaze. We were on the same spot where we had seen the enigmatic hiker the second time. As we ogled the Colorado sunset, Ms. Moose stepped out of the brush into an open, marshy sward of grass across a small cove from our perch. What an incredible moment! We now had an unobstructed view of this beauty. She eyed us suspiciously but did not seem threatened, and so we watched her as she ambled closer and closer to us. As much as we would have liked to continue admiring her, if she chose to continue on her present course, she would cut off our access to the trail. As she bent to nibble the grass, we took our leave, post haste. We never again saw the mysterious stranger who had, in essence, led us to the moose. He had not spoken a word, nor crunched a twig underfoot. Perhaps he was Lisa’s spirit guide, shepherding her to the animal she so longed to see. A strangely comforting notion.

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IMG_5606Back in the tent a couple hours later, we lay, listening to the melodious gurgling of East Inlet as it danced through the nearby rocks. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, a tiny, childlike voice, full of innocence and wonder, rang through the tranquil night.

“I’m still thinkin’ about the moose”.

I have only heard this voice a few times before, usually when Lisa is, for all intents and purposes, asleep. I immediately dissolved into peals of laughter, waking Lisa. Then we both laughed until we could no longer breath, and it was another 20 minutes before we had calmed down enough to sleep.

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Rain on East Inlet

Sleep we did, awaking at ten of six to a gentle pitter-pat on our rainfly. We struck camp quickly and hightailed it for the trailhead, bagging the rocky seven-mile descent in under two and a half hours. As expected, the Grand Lake Lodge breakfast buffet was epic, but not nearly as epic as being guided to a moose by a ghost! ♦

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The view from the restaurant at the Grand Lake Lodge


Date: July 26, 2018
Location: Grand Lake, CO
Trailhead: 40.239407, -105.799871
Distance: 15.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,029 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous

3 thoughts on “East Inlet Trail to Verna Lake: Of Moose and Men

  1. I was just googling Slickrock Campsite and what should I stumble across but this post! My mom and I are about to do this exact hike, so this was very helpful. Thanks!

    Like

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