Snowbank Lake – Rocky Mountain National Park
Date: August 19, 2017
Elevation Gain: 3,700 ft
Start Time: 5:51 am
Duration: 8:53 hours
As the title of this post would indicate, we hiked to Snowbank Lake. However, this was not a sure thing when we arrived at the Wild Basin trailhead. In researching this hike I knew that there was a trail to Lion Lake #1 but not to Lion Lake #2 and Snowbank Lake. In large part we have just stuck to the trail in our hikes but in an ever increasing sense of adventure we would like to learn how to explore off trail. Our attitude was that this was a hike to Lion Lake and then we’ll see how things go after that.
Within a mile of the trailhead we followed the signs to a side trail to lower and upper Copland Falls. Since these “Falls” appeared to just be a series of attractive cascades for the most part we concluded that the definition of an official waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park is mostly based on how close it is to a trailhead.
About a mile and a half up the trail we came to a very nice bridge that crossed the river. We then began to climb more steeply. The river quickly receded below us on our right which was a problem. We were supposed to leave the main trail that led to Bluebird Lake onto a trail to the right that went to Lion Lake. We must have missed the turnoff but I know there was not a sign that I missed declaring Lion Lake as a destination because that’s what I was looking for. All I could remember was a sign on a small side trail that led to some campgrounds. After studying the GPS for a short while I decided that it must have been our turnoff. Sandy, always the one to take the news that we have been going the wrong way for a quarter mile with great humor, quickly turned and beat me to the bridge by about five minutes. A little past the bridge we found the campground sign again and headed up that trail. Not sure why Lion Lake didn’t earn it’s own sign since there was a trail leading to it.
This new trail was steep and rocky which was a sharp contrast from the Bluebird Lake super highway we were just on. It turned around various natural obstacles of boulders, creeks and overgrowth for several miles. Long after we were resigned to idea that this was going to be our fate the remaining climb to the lake we came up onto a more worn trail junction with a sign that pointed out that Thunder Lake was to our left. After a short distance we came upon another trail junction to our right that actually had a sign for Lion Lake. Although not as steep as the previous section we were back to a single lane trail leading up through the rocks.
The trail gradually leveled off and we eventually came out into an opening with a large grassy meadow in front of us. There was a small stream running through it surrounded by wildflowers. We had to step carefully through this area to keep our feet dry as we made our way over to the edge of the meadow where the trail skirted a side hill. There was small pond that we first thought was Lion Lake but the lake was not much further up the trail. As we looked for a dry path down to the shore of Lion Lake #1 we noticed that it was longer than we thought it would be. Yes, its official name includes “hashtag one” in it to distinguish it from Lion Lake #2 which was above us to the west.
As we rounded the lake to the north we notice a few waterfalls coming off of the cliffs around us. The trail led up to a long rock slap as we began our climb us the hill to the east of the lake. I had read that there was no trail after this point so we were pleased to find cairns on the rock leading us to a trail on the other side. We made our way through some trees as the trail led us to stream cascading down from where I knew we needed to go. I could see a faint trail leading up the hill on both sides of the stream and since we would need to get wet at this stream crossing we decided to take to trail up the same side of the stream hoping to find a better crossing.
Before we headed up we were struck by just how incredibly beautiful this scene was. We were surrounded by cliffs with waterfalls, standing next to the bank of a beautiful cascading stream covered in wildflowers with a view of Lion Lake below us. It was perfect. After a short walk up the hill we crossed a tributary leading into the stream and then was able to cross the main stream above that. We knew Trio Falls was above us in the cliffs somewhere but still couldn’t see it. After a bit more climbing we could see water coming through the rocks to our right so we walked over. This was the falls but there wasn’t much water coming off it and we could not make out three separate falls.
This was where any sign of a trail ended. There was a snow field to our south that we headed to that appeared to go up through a gap in the cliff. It was a fairly steep climb up the snow field but not enough to put on our microspikes so we headed up. There were no signs of other footprints so we found our way up to some rocks to the right that we climbed on the rest of the way up to the top of the cliff.
It wasn’t far before we passed through a rock formation and found ourselves at the shore of Lion Lake #2. What a beautiful lake! It had very high cliffs to the west and north and a waterfall leading into it through a snow field on the southwest side of the lake.
The next step was to find a route up to Snowbank Lake above us to the west. It was obvious that we were going back onto an even bigger snowfield to our south. Again we found ourselves climbing up a fairly steep snow field but just barely not so steep as to make us don our microspikes. It was about twice as long as the last snowfield we climbed but we eventually found dry land again at the top and made our way over to the lake. Snowbank Lake was very similar to Lion Lake #2 in that it was bordered by large cliffs and a snowfield. It occurred to us that this really should have been Snowbank #2 and Lion Lake #2 should have been Snowbank #1 but…whatever.
This was our last hike of the trip and we felt very good about our decision to go to Snowbank Lake. On the drive home we both concluded that this was our favorite hike of the week.
Below is a video of our hike: