A 5AM wakeup call signified our departure for Sheep Lakes. A first stop before heading to Lawn Lake trailhead to hike Ypsilon Lake trail to Fay Lakes.
Off trail hike to Fay Lakes on December 5th 2020. Hiking Distance: 12.5 Miles Total Elevation Gain: 3,300 ft Total Hiking Time: 9.5 Hours
We were out of the hotel room in half an hour and we arrived at Sheep Lakes much too early for a sunrise shot. As a continuation of the previous day, there were no clouds in the sky to create a stunning sunrise. Dave stepped out of the warm car to capture some starscape photos at Sheep Lake, then we hurried on to Lawn Lake Trailhead.
Hiking to Ypsilon Lake Trail from Lawn Lake Trailhead
Ypsilon Lake was on our list of destinations today, and depending on snow/weather conditions we thought we might try for Lake Chaquita.
As the only vehicle in the parking lot, we had the trail to ourselves. We flicked on the headlamps for a short spell as we gained elevation through a series of switchbacks. Route 34 and Horseshoe Park can be seen below through the trees. After over a mile of travel, we had reached the erosion area caused by a huge flood in 1982 just as alpenglow painted the surrounding mountains. It is tempting to peer over the sharp edges, but beware that this is still an active erosion area.
At 1.5 miles the trails for Ypsilon Lake and Lawn Lake diverge, but before this separation there are excellent views. Fairchild Mountain can be seen towering over the valley, while Roaring River rushes below. Today Roaring River was partially frozen, but water underneath could be heard from our vantage point on the cliffs. Following the turnoff, the Ypsilon Trail descends to a manmade bridge, then up a staircase. For the next 2.5 miles, we hiked through a dense forest of Lodgepole Pine without much variation, other than the occasional fallen tree across the trail. Some fallen trees could be avoided entirely by walking around, others we climbed over or under. Before leaving Lawn Lake Trail there was no snow, now we experienced patches of ice and packed snow; it was not quite enough to need traction, but just enough to worry about slipping here and there.
Walking through a forest of pine with gentle elevation gain was beautiful, but after an hour of this we were ready for a change of scenery.
Just in time, the trail traversed down a small ridge and we were face to face with Chipmunk Lake. Completely frozen and layered under snow, petite Chipmunk Lake hold some massive views of Fairchild Mountain and Mount Ypsilon. As evidenced in several Rocky Mountain National Park guides we’ve read, in the summer months on a quiet day a stunning reflection can be seen of Fairchild Mountain in Chipmunk Lake. We would make sure to return to this place when temperatures warm up.
The mileage between Chipmunk Lake and Ypsilon Lake is negligent; we passed one unnamed pond to the left, trekked down a hill and were on the banks of Ypsilon Lake.
Lack of wind and a bright shining sun added to the splendor of this alpine lake, and we took our time walking over the frozen surface. Much like Lily Lake the night prior, the ice was smooth and in great condition, I was itching to put on a pair of hockey skates. Cracks in the ice riddled the surface, and while we explored the lake we could hear more forming beneath our feet. Nothing I write could fully explain the experience of this.
Our original plan was to try for Lake Chaquita, but Dave decided to sow his wild oats and attempt Fay Lakes. I would consider this akin to our hike from Sandbeach Lake to Keplinger Lake, in regards to elevation gain and bushwhacking.
Hiking to Fay Lakes
We exited Ypsilon Lake on the side and started our climb up to a prominent ridge. This portion was predominantly a class 2 scramble with a touch of class 3.
Loose rocks amped up the difficulty level some, but the real kicker was the snow; sometimes there was little to no snow at all, other times we post-holed up to our knees. Dave strapped on the snowshoes but after 15 minutes they were tied back on his backpack. The conditions were rough and there was no trail. At least the weather was mild and the sun shone all day, keeping us warm.
Never rely solely on apps, even with both AllTrails and CalTopo we managed to climb higher than was necessary and had to slide down to the ridge leading to Upper Fay Lake. From here it was a relatively flat traverse to shallow Upper Fay. During this stretch we had the pleasure of spotting the symbol of RMNP and the official mammal of Colorado, a Bighorn Sheep. This beauty boulder hopped away from us up the side of but he did shoot some curious glances our way. We were content to admire him from a considerable distance.
Upper Fay Lake
After 6 miles and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, we had reached Upper Fay Lake. This small lake formed by runoff is flanked by Ypsilon Mountain and Fairchild Mountain. A 12PM turn-around time governed our future hiking, but we reckoned making a loop back to Ypsilon Lake to encompass the remaining Fay Lakes would be just as time efficient as returning the route we came. The best way to locate Middle Fay Lake is to follow the drainage. We hugged the creek through snow covered rock and meadow. Much of the ground here was frozen from the stream; in our Lisa Foster Guide it tells of soggy ground surrounding the lower two lakes.
As soon as we departed Upper Fay Lake, we spotted the round Middle Fay Lake below, a mere 0.4 miles and a 200 foot elevation loss.
Middle Fay Lake
A swell blocked Middle Fay Lake from our vantage point on the ridge, although we could see Upper Fay Lake and Lower Fay Lake from up high. Following the trend, Middle Fay Lake was frozen solid and free of snow; Dave stopped for a few pictures and soon we had skidded across to the opposite bank.
The trek to Lower Fay Lake/Caddis Lake was much the same; 0.4 miles and an elevation loss of 250 feet as we followed the drainage down. Lower Fay Lake could be seen through the trees for much of the journey, and we had to be careful with foot placement as the creek was covered in snow and partially frozen. I post holed deep near the creek and ended up with a wet heel (fortunately this did not pose any problems for me).
Caddis Lake (Lower Fay Lake)
We had reached our final destination of the day – Lower Fay Lake. This lake is rimmed with trees with Ypsilon Mountain and Fairchild Mountain a strong presence behind. A sign near Ypsilon Lake named this body of water Caddis Lake, we wondered for some time why the name had been changed. I summited Ypsilon Mountain earlier this summer; the difference between these Fay Lakes now and then is quite striking.
Our return trip was reminiscent of our return from Keplinger Lake. Bushwacking was a must, and it was hard to determine whether to trudge through sans snowshoes or not. Dave opted to wear snowshoes while I kept them hanging off my pack; either way conditions were not ideal for either. We said goodbye to the Fay Lakes drainage and made our way in a right downward direction toward Ypsilon Lake. We managed to spot scattered cairns though the snow, indicating some sort of social trail, which we lost quickly. A heavy reliance on maps, and still we ended up in the Ypsilon drainage a scant quarter mile from a walkable trail. The creek was impossible to navigate, with steep rock outcroppings on either side. As an added stressor, the creek was partially frozen and Dave plunged his entire right foot into the icy water. We doubled back and climbed a steep incline before tumbling out on the shores of Ypsilon Lake. As a warning: it is impossible to see Ypsilon to use as a landmark through the trees: caution is advised.
There is no better sight than a packed down maintained trail after miles of off-roading. Dave stopped to swap out his dripping socks, and soon we were underway. Both of us were feeling the aftermath of our excursion and our bodies were tired. Regardless, we powered down 4.5 miles of trail back to the trailhead. We encountered two other hikers at Ypsilon Lake upon our return, and a few other groups near the Lawn Lake intersection. Our decision to push for Fay Lakes was not the best, but we are excited to have three more under our belts. A return to the Mummy Range is a must this summer to knock out Chaquita Lake and Spectacle Lakes.