About a month ago, a plan had been hatched with my friend and coworker, Dave, to do a backpacking trip to Lake Verna, a first adventure, from the East Inlet Trailhead inside of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). This would be the first backcountry backpacking trip for both of us! Most hikers who make the journey to Lake Verna complete the trek in mid summer or early in the fall. However, our adventure took place during the third weekend in October, which can be much more dicey with the weather. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had kept a close eye on the weather forecast and had just hoped for the best. Anything less than a few days out is always hit or miss and the forecast kept waffling between perfect and not so perfect (snowstorm). On the morning of our departure (Saturday), the weather forecast predicted temperatures climbing into the 40’s, with the winds increasing throughout the day. Sounded good thus far!
A week prior to our departure date (Oct 19, 2019), I had made a few trips to REI for essential gear, after all, I am a gear junkie! First, I had upgraded my backpack to the Osprey Kestrel 38 from the Osprey Talon 22. After a futile attempt at a dry fitting session with the Talon 22 there was no way to carry all of the things that would be needed for the upcoming trip, so a larger pack was definitely needed. A day or so later, Dave and I headed back to REI for a few last minute supplies: Jetboil, bear canister, dehydrated meals and a few other assorted items. Dave had borrowed a large Arc’teryx 80 liter pack from his friend, so we both had ample room in our packs for the essentials.
Bright and early Saturday morning we had arrived in Grand Lake and stopped at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center to pick-up the Wilderness Use Permit, which is required for overnight camping in the park. With that in hand, we headed to the East Inlet Trailhead where our journey would begin. The sign located at the trailhead indicated that it was roughly a seven mile trek to reach Lake Verna; however, the park ranger had said that it was about a six to seven hour trek to the lake. Upon hearing that, I had difficulty understanding what she meant. At a typical hiking pace of two mph, you should be able to reach camp within three to four hours, not six to seven hours! That day, we had learned that the trail to Lake Verna is greater than a seven miles hike, despite what the sign read at the trailhead.
After a quick jaunt to see Adams Falls, we hit the trail and began trekking into East Meadow. East Meadow is a beautiful, open meadow with commanding views of Mt Baldy (technically known as Mt Craig). The East Inlet “Creek” runs through heart of the meadow, before spilling into Adams Falls and finally Grand Lake. At about two miles into the trail, you will see a rock outcropping, which provides wonderful views across the meadow. Hiking through the meadow is relatively easy; however, since Dave and I had been carrying forty pound packs on our backs for the first time, it was a tad more difficult for us than it would have been without the extra weight. Once we had reached the far end of the meadow, we took break, before beginning the ascent to Lone Pine Lake and Lake Verna.
The climb to Lone Pine Pine Lake was nothing short of spectacular. A word of caution: it is at this point where it becomes critical to watch one’s step due to steep drop-offs alongside of the trail. We had gained close to one thousand feet of elevation in about three miles. Eventually, Mt Baldy had slowly disappeared from view and became hidden behind the ridgeline. We continued our trek for a few miles and then stopped for a quick snack break. On the bluff that we had rested upon, we were able to see Mt Bryant to the south and Grand Lake to the west – amazing views! We continued on, crossing back over the East Inlet Creek and had finally made it to Lone Pine Lake. Removing our packs once again, Dave and I chatted about our accomplishment to get to that point, while taking in lake and surrounding views. We were stoked that Lake Verna was not too much further, so we could set up camp, eat dinner and rest for the evening.
The final push to Lake Verna consisted of one last steep incline before leveling out on a bluff over looking Lone Pine Lake. At that point, we figured that we would have been alone on the trail, since the people that we had seen earlier turned around at Lone Pine Lake. However, we first noticed fresh boot tracks in the snow and what also appeared to be some type of animal tracks – very large tracks. Through the use of deductive reasoning, we had concluded that the tracks were those of a mountain lion, which appeared to have been traveling west – the direction we had just come from. Side story: Stella and I have hiked/snowshoed many backcountry trails in RMNP and she is sometimes anxious about coming across a mountain lion because of the stories she’s read. But as I always tell her: you will be dead by the time you realize it was mountain lion that had attacked you, because you will not see it – it will see you.
Shortly thereafter, Lake Verna had finally come within view and we both felt a great sense of pride with having accomplished what we had set out to do. We had admired the lake for a few moments and then located our reserved campsite. I mentioned earlier that Dave and I figured we would have been alone, but that was not the case. Somebody had squatted in our campsite (meaning they setup camp without having a permit/reservation to do so). We were tired and hungry, but instead of being able to get things setup, we had to go search for the person who had setup in our campsite! Fortunately, Dave had located the guy at the far end of the lake, fishing. After a quick conversation, the guy packed up his gear and moved elsewhere; he was unaware that a permit was required at this time of the year to camp in the park.
With daylight quickly fading, we had first set up the REI Co-Op Half Dome 3 Plus Tent and shoved our gear into it. Next order of business: dinner. When Dave and I went to REI earlier in the week, we had each picked out different packs of dehydrated meals, where you just add boiling water to make a delicious, hot meal. For dinner that night, I had the Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai with Chicken and Dave had the Mountain House Beef Stroganoff. Oddly enough, both Dave and I enjoyed the these dinners immensely! Afterward, we dutifully cleaned up camp to avoid having any large, unwanted guests. *Side note: when camping in RMNP, it is required that you have a bear canister for food/trash from April through October. We had rented one from REI, which was very heavy and large! For future backpacking trips, we will invest in something smaller and lighter. By the time we had finished eating and cleaning things up, it was dark outside, so we retired to the tent for the night.
The weather reports had indicated a snow accumulation of anywhere from four to ten inches at altitudes above nine thousand feet and I had suspected that the temperature was going to dip below zero that night. But we were well prepared! We had both changed into fresh, dry clothes, before settling into our sleeping bags. My Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20 sleeping bag is rated to twenty degrees, but I had also packed additional warm weather gear to compensate for the cold temperatures. Dave’s sleeping bag is rated to ten degrees and he had been prepared in a similar fashion. And, he also came up with the brilliant idea of throwing a couple of hand warmers into the bottom of his bag to keep his feet warm, I quickly repeated his ingenious idea.
As we had settled in, the wind had begun to pick up substantially and I was very curious to see how the tent would handle the heavy gusts, even though we were somewhat sheltered within the trees. Somewhere near 1AM, the snow had begun to fall. Finally, at about 3AM, we both fell asleep and awoke around 6AM. Let me say this: after a hike like we had that day, three hours of sleep is not enough! We had originally planned to have breakfast and then take our time heading back down to the trailhead. However, when Dave stepped out of the tent, he said that about two to three inches of snow had fallen, which changed our decision – we needed to get back down to the valley below before the trek out became difficult.. We had quickly packed everything up and headed down the snow-covered trail.
Thankfully, we both had our trekking poles for added stability; they were a vital element of safely making it back down and were definitely needed for the entire journey back. At Lone Pine Lake, we had once again removed our packs and snacked on trail mix and granola bars. It was not the type of breakfast that we had planned for the trip, but that was okay. Our shoulders were definitely sore from hike the day prior, along with every other part of our bodies. It had taken us about three-and-a-half hours to reach East Meadow, with several ankle twists and near falls due to the trail conditions. We had rested frequently on the way down, but had enjoyed the trek back as much as the adventure to Lake Verna the day prior. After almost five-and-a-half hours, we had made it back to the Tahoe, where it had all started the day before.
Before heading back to the city, we went to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center to changed into dry clothes, before heading to Azteca in Fraser (Stella’s and my favorite Mexican restaurant in the area). Over dinner, Dave and I had reminisced about our backpacking adventure and talked about where our next camping foray would take us. Over the course of those two days, we had traversed over twenty miles and had gained approximately two thousand six hundred feet in elevation. I would rate that trek as “difficult,” even in good weather conditions and wouldn’t think twice about doing it again.
Final thoughts: the hike was worth every minute on the trail, from the camaraderie, the views were spectacular and being able to share that experience with a good friend was priceless! So, go find your base camp… find your adventure…