I’ve mentioned in some posts and Instagram updates that it’s “more about the moment than the milage.” This has been a recurring thought I tell myself when I’m not able to complete a hike for whatever reason. Having to turn back can be devastating, especially when you’re almost there and you’ve worked so hard to get there in the first place. But, calling it off is usually the smarter thing to do, like when bad weather risks may loom ahead, landing you in a difficult spot.
But, there is the opportunity for redemption. And it is a sweet, sweet redemption when you complete a hike you’ve had to give up on in the past. I think redemption hikes are better than initial summit accomplishments.
Exactly one year ago I attempted to hike Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park solo, in only boots – no traction devices, no spikes, no poles, no snowshoes. I ended up postholing, sliding around, and stopping at The Pool. This is what a good number of people end up doing on Fern Lake Trail in the winter. In fact, you’ll see people in lovely dress coats taking photos along the trail, some lighthearted hikers stopping at The Pool and having a picnic, more dedicated hikers going up to Fern Falls, and the die hards getting to Fern Lake. This year, I was bound and determined to complete the trail, and even more so now that I had all of the gear to do it right.
Fern Lake Trail is rated as moderate or strenuous in difficulty during the summer, depending on which rating system the trail reviewer uses. This is due to length and elevation gain, with almost 10 miles roundtrip and 1,400 feet of elevation changes. It’s a little more difficult than that in the winter, mostly because it’s a multi-gear use trail where you need both snowshoes AND microspikes to get to the top, and anything you do in the winter takes twice as long as it does in the summer.
With 20 pounds of gear shoved into my day pack, and a gorgeous Bluebird day that resulted in hiking in base layers, I got to it. I started the trail in my Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultra’s, which were perfect for the bottom half of the trail. With the beginning of mud season in the lower elevations, it’s the beginning of ice season in the high country. You need something that’s going to help you stay on top of the trails that turn into ice skating rinks. I do think you need something more durable than Yaktrax for the whole trail, considering the length, trail conditions and incline, but you’ll do just fine with them if you’re stopping at The Pool.
From the trailhead, to the Arch Rocks, to the bridge at The Pool – everything is pretty easy. It’s about 1.7 miles to get to that point, and about the halfway point to Fern Lake, I suppose.
A mile up from The Pool, you’ll reach Fern Falls. This is where you really need more substantial microspikes because parts of the trail are on thin snow ledges that are too narrow for snowshoes and icy enough that you can slide down the side of the cliff. I saw skid marks from people who made that mistake. In the winter I highly suggest taking a photo of the trail map to navigate, because even though the snow trail is worn in and packed down, there are random backcountry spurs that people have created, and they are just as worn and packed as the main trail. It can be difficult to tell which way to go if you’re not familiar with this area. I ended up taking a spur before pulling out the photo of the map, and I had to help direct a few other people on the trail to get them going in the right direction.
It’s about another mile up to the lake from Fern Falls, and it’s relatively easy even with the gains. And, it’s beautiful being in the subalpine trees. I love it!
Once you reach the lake you’ll notice a snowdrift/rock shelter where people layer up and put on snowshoes. This is where snowshoes are essential, because you can’t make it over the snowdrifts without them. The drifts are so deep, thanks in part to the high country winds, that they nearly cover the entire historical Fern Lake Patrol Cabin.
It took me about 3 hours to get to this point and I had the whole place to myself. Everyone else on the trail stopped at either The Pool or Fern Falls. Nobody else went above that.
I hung out, enjoyed the view, hydrated, and snacked in the wind, then packed up to make my way down… in only an hour and a half. I hauled ass, and it was AWESOME. I was on such a Rocky Mountain High from reaching the top, pumped full of endorphins and thrilled beyond belief to have completed a redemption hike. It was one of the best hikes that I’ll remember for years to come, and in fact, it was the first high alpine winter solo snowshoe/hike that I’ve completed, let alone with the difficulty rating. So, it was extra special to me. I hope I never forget that feeling.
The snow is going to stick around for just a bit longer, and March usually is the snowiest month of the year here in Colorado, so you still have time to hike this trail in the winter for your own Rocky Mountain Adventure. Grab your gear, be prepared, and go get some Fresh Air!
One Way Length: 3.8 from the trailhead, 4 or so from the parking lot
Beginning Elevation: 8,165 ft.
Peak Elevation: 9,540 ft.