There were supposed to be six of us. We planned to meet at 3AM and hike to the summit of Estes Cone. Honestly, it’s not a top destination in the Rocky Mountain National Park — a little steep and scrubby for my taste — but it’s what fit the group’s constraints. And I wanted to hike with the group.
When the appointed time came, however, it appeared that there were only two of us who were prepared to hike. We would later learn that one friend decided to bow out the night before and communicated that decision to the person who was the de facto organizer. The de facto organizer accidentally set her alarm to 3PM instead of 3AM. And another friend who was hoping to join us accidentally fell asleep in a lounge area, where he didn’t have an alarm next to his bed. So it was just Marcel and me at 3AM. We decided to wait for a little bit to see what might happen with our other friends. And fortunately, around 3:20 AM, our friend Saul arrived — with his apologies for slightly oversleeping — and finally, at 3:30 AM, we decided that it was just going to be the three of us.
One of the upshots of hiking with half the original group was that we had half of the original constraints. And since we were already up very early, before the 5AM onset of the timed ticketed entry system to the Rocky Mountain National Park’s picturesque (but popular) Bear Lake corridor, we decided to pick one of those trails instead of Estes Cone. Ultimately, we decided to do a hike that included Bear Lake, Lake Haiyaha, the Loch, and Sky Pond. We pulled into the Bear Lake parking area when it was almost empty. And it was still very dark and cold when we set out… until the sun started to rise.
We caught glimpses of the sky starting to brighten when we were about halfway to Lake Haiyaha (see the photos above). And we made it to Lake Haiyaha itself right around the time that the sun was rising. We saw orange and yellow off to the East. And a pink glow settled about the mountains off to the West.
We ate some snacks. We talked about our lives (hiking conversations can be some of the best and deepest conversations of all). And then we decided to press on towards the other lakes, higher up into the mountains.
Bear Lake and Sky Pond have developed a reputation for being overcrowded. They are some of the most popular destinations in the Rocky Mountain National Park. And rightfully so, honestly. They’re pretty spectacular examples of the Rocky Mountains. But sometimes, the trails around Bear Lake and Sky Pond can be so busy that they feel more like walking through a Farmer’s Market than an undertaking an adventure into the wilderness.
Still, they’re enjoyable under the right circumstances. Especially Sky Pond. It’s got a great name (who doesn’t want to hike to the Sky?!?). It includes some rock-climbing through a waterfall to a series of beautiful alpine lakes. It’s an amazing hike! If it’s not too busy, if the circumstances are right. And fortunately, the circumstances for this morning turned out to be the perfect circumstances for enjoying Sky Pond. We definitely weren’t alone on the trails. But we were able to keep moving at our preferred pace.
We made good time until we got to the last 300 feet before the waterfall. There’s a narrow path along the steep side of the mountain, and it was completely covered with snow and ice. In the shadows and overnight chill, the snow was tightly packed and encrusted with ice, so it didn’t allow for easy footholds. We didn’t have micro-spikes or trekking poles to help grip the trail. So, we ended up making very slow, deliberate progress using hands and feet. And fortunately, we made it to the waterfall.
After we made it that far, the rest was easy. When we made it to Sky Pond, there were two other hikers — who were actually kind of helpful in helping to take some group pictures for us. But when they left, we had Sky Pond to ourselves for the next thirty minutes! It seems impossible, with such an iconic destination. But the early hour and the tricky snow and ice on the last approach gave us an amazing experience at the end of our Hike to the Sky (Pond). We rested on rocks and ate our lunch. We skipped stones across the surface of the water. And we even listened to some music together (I’ve recently been hooked on Joji’s ”Glimpse of Us” — and I think Saul is now hooked on it, too!). It was… celestial.
It was a long, hard hike back down. (It always is, as the miles add up). But the tricky snow and ice just below the waterfall were more easily navigated once the sun softened things up. We continued our conversation, as we hiked. Finally, we made it back to Bear Lake in one piece, never likely to forget our Hike to the Sky (Pond).