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Ouzel Falls and Copeland Mountain

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado


Author: Gary Swing

Participants: Gary Swing and Jim Harrington, private trip

Ouzel Falls
Round Trip Distance: 6.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 960 feet

Copeland Mountain
Elevation: 13,176 feet
Standard Rank: 502
Zenith Rank: 101
Round Trip Distance: 14 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,700 feet
Difficulty: Class 2
USGS Quads: Allens Park, Isolation Peak 7.5 minute

One Sunday morning, I picked up my friend Jim Harrington at his home in Boulder at 6:00 am for a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. We drove up U.S. 36 to Lyons, turned left on Colorado Route 7, and took this scenic canyon road up to the Peak to Peak Highway, Route 72. We headed north on the Peak to Peak Highway for 6.6 miles and turned left on a signed road for 2.6 miles to the Wild Basin Trailhead. Nobody was attending the park's entrance station when we came through. The trailhead parking area at the end of this good dirt road was already half full by the time we arrived. When we got our packs out of the back of my Dodge Colt, I realized that I had forgotten to bring my hiking boots. So, I would be climbing Copeland Mountain in my sneakers.

We started out on the Thunder Lake Trail at 7:30 am. About 0.3 miles up this easy trail, we reached Copeland Falls, a small cascade to the left side, bearing the name of local pioneer John B. Copeland. We departed the main trail here to follow a short spur along the North St. Vrain Creek to upper Copeland Falls, before rejoining the Thunder Lake Trail.

Calypso Cascades was another 1.5 miles up the trail. These were more impressive falls with a bridge crossing at their base. The cascades are almost 600 feet long with a vertical drop of about 200 feet. Botanist William Cooper gave the Calypso Cascades their name in 1908 for Calypso balbosa, a type of orchid that he found growing in the area.

The most spectacular falls along this hike were Ouzel Falls, 3.2 miles from the trailhead. These falls are just upstream to the left of the trail. It was well worth a short walk up the rough path to the falls. Jim and I both felt that this was the best part of our hike, and a more worthwhile hiking destination than Copeland Mountain itself. Ouzel Falls drop over 40 feet through a deep rock cut into a beautiful pool. There are some large boulders nearby where one can sit and enjoy the view. Some of the closer boulders are bathed in mist.

We took a long break at the falls while I ate two tofu salad sandwiches and Jim snacked. From here, we continued up the Thunder Lake Trail to its junction with the Bluebird Lake Trail, 3.3 miles from Wild Basin Trailhead. We turned left on the Bluebird Lake Trail and followed it up through a barren area scarred by a fire in 1978. It was quite hot hiking through this area, but there were nice views of surrounding peaks. We left the Bluebird Lake Trail on a 0.5 mile spur trail going left to Ouzel Lake, a total of 4.9 miles from the trailhead. Ouzel Lake, Creek, and Falls all take their name from a species of chunky gray bird.

Ouzel Lake marked the end of the easy part of our hike. At the east end of the lake, we crossed over a log to the south side of Ouzel Creek. Then we did an unpleasant, tedious bushwhack through the woods to the south and southwest amidst swarms of mosquitos and moths. A bit further to the west, we intersected a gully with sections of talus, snow, and grassy strips. We ascended this gully to treeline, where we discussed the dark, threatening clouds building above us. Jim and I agreed to continue at our own paces with plans to meet on the summit if the clouds passed over, or back at Ouzel Lake if the weather turned foul.

I pushed it for the last mile or so, hiking southwest up talus, grass, and snow patches to the summit. There was some light rain as I approached the top. I found the route rather uninteresting. The top of the mountain was broad with some nice views of more interesting peaks to the north and south. There was a stone breastwork a little to the west of the high point, and I was started to see a guy sitting there. I reached the breastwork at 12:50 pm, just less than an hour after leaving treeline.

I introduced myself to Steve, signed the summit register, and ate a Cliff Bar. Steve said he had been sitting on the summit for two hours. He lives in nearby Allenspark and decided to climb Copeland Mountain because he sees it all the time. He asked me how I decided to climb this relatively unknown mountain. I explained that I was climbing the 113 "Zenith Peaks" over 13,000 feet in Colorado. The standard definition of a "separate" summit is that there should be at least a 300 foot drop from the summit to a connecting saddle with any higher peak. I figure that if you increase that standard to 1,000 feet, you'll get a more "independent" group of peaks. Copeland was my 48th Zenith over 13,000 feet.

Just about ten minutes after I reached Copeland's summit, Thor cast down a thunderbolt. Steve and I decided it was time to go, and began a rapid descent. It started raining again, with more thunder and lightning in the distance. My sneakers did not provide much traction on the steep, wet grass. I slipped and fell a few times. There was no sign of Jim between the summit and treeline, so I figured he had done the sensible thing and gone back to the lake.

I found the going considerably easier on the way down than on the way up. I followed the gully a long way toward the lake, then drainages down to the west end of the lake. I followed some sketchy paths back to the log I had crossed earlier. Jim was on the other side waiting for me. Steve had gone on ahead, arriving at the lake just a few minutes earlier, and had told Jim I was on my way.

Jim and I followed our route back to the trailhead with intermittent rain and thunder. Despite the weather, we saw more than fifty people on the trail during our return. We stopped again at Ouzel Falls for some more food and a rest break. It began raining hard when we were just a few minutes away from the parking lot. We reached the car at 5:00 pm.


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