Last week when I described our aborted attempt to reach Bluebird Lake, I shared the comment made by the ranger we encountered at the end of that ride. We told him we planned to ride to Finch Lake on our next outing. He said,
I have done 3 rescue operations on that trail, and all of them involved people who got into trouble with horses!
After doing my “due diligence” using AllTrails and COTREX, we decided to try it. All of the reviews discussed an intense ascent at the beginning. Hikers don’t write their reviews with the intent of helping equestrians make good choices. Therefore, they rarely describe the terrain unless it is in terms of “muddy,” “snow-packed,” or sometimes, “too much horse poop on the trail!”
Expectations vs. reality!
Consequently, while we were expecting a steep incline, there were aspects to this ride that we weren’t necessarily expecting. For instance, the bulk of the trail is 10-12 inches wide. That’s not a huge problem, as we have experienced that on the switchbacks of Bierstadt. Again, much like Bierstadt, the trail hugs the side of the mountain, with drop-offs on one side and a towering mountain on the other.
However, in this case, the drop-off was quite a severe drop-off, with little chance of being caught by thick foliage. The incline was greater than what we encounter on Bierstadt. But most significantly, the entire trail was almost exclusively rock! Along the cliff side, rocks had been placed as a border of sorts, defining the point of no return. This border was only a few inches above the ground, so it wasn’t a barrier, just a visual edge.
The trail itself had very, very little dirt. We were either walking on rocks or climbing over them. Kadeen does a stellar job of carefully placing his feet. Sadie, not so much. At one point, I thought we were in big trouble. She lost her footing and started to scramble. She tried placing her right front foot on a boulder on the mountain side. The problem was, the boulder was smooth and sloped heavily down towards the trail. It didn’t work…
Alan couldn’t see anything because he was in front of us. However, he heard the commotion behind him. It was all over in just a few seconds, but it was a long few seconds. She recovered her footing and we proceeded on. I’m not sure how long it took for my heart rate to return to normal.
Utilizing safety precautions
We do everything we can to minimize our risk of serious injury. We have borium nails in their shoes. We buy these and provide them to our farrier. These specialized nails provide additional traction on slippery rocks. We couldn’t imagine riding our horses in the Rocky Mountains without having them shod, but those metal shoes slide right off of a rocky surface.
We wear helmets and Hit-Air vests. Of course, we also wear our ID MyHorse Emergency Information Tags. With complete honesty, I can say that it is during rides like the one to Finch Lake that I am very glad we are as prepared as possible. When Sadie lost her footing, my mind processed a multitude of scenarios, none of them good.
Nevertheless, we made it to the top. As described by numerous hikers, the trail did level off and morph into a “normal,” wider dirt trail (at least for a while.) I was far too busy riding my horse to take photos on the ascent. I did manage to get one photo of the incredible view during a brief stop. Can you get any kind of perspective of the drop-off?
Once we reached the level section, we were struck by how many slash piles we encountered. So many trees were killed when the Bark Beetle epidemic drastically affected our national forests. The number of dead trees combined with our profound drought is why forest fires threaten us constantly. The park service spends countless hours creating slash piles to burn over the winter when there is snow on the ground.
Finch Lake itself is beautiful. There was a hitching rack (of sorts) about a quarter-mile from the lake. (The hitching rack needed some attention!) The horses were quite happy to get a breather. We were hungry, and lunch tastes even better when this is your view…
I am certain that many of you have encountered hikers on the trail who think that you are “cheating” when you are astride a horse. There is no question that we don’t get the aerobic workout that we would if we were hiking it ourselves. Nevertheless, I earned my lunch during that ride on Sadie! I was constantly adjusting my balance as well as keeping her focused and balanced.
An alternate route home
As we headed back after lunch, the ever-present threat of afternoon thunderstorms appeared. I should say a few words about that…
This is our 4th summer riding the Rockies together. (I lived here for two summers nearly a decade ago.) The first summer was for merely a week and we camped on the western slope at Winding River Resort. In my blog about that week, I talk mostly about my struggle to survive while riding a quite challenging horse. I do mention that we experienced some rain.
During the summer of 2019, we spent about 10 days at what is now our home in the mountains. We owned it, but we hadn’t moved in yet. We didn’t have much rain that week.
Our first full summer here was in 2020. I kept telling Alan that we needed to be at the trailheads early so as to avoid the mid-afternoon thunderstorms that nearly always appeared around 1-2 PM. It is not fun to be on a horse, on a mountain, in a thunderstorm. It was hard to get him moving and we were rarely off the mountain and back at the trailer by 1 PM. Still, no rain so no problem.
The summer of 2021 was the same scenario… My dire prediction, no rain, no leverage, no change!
And then there is this summer. The afternoon thunderstorms are back. Alan finally believes me. Our part of Larimer County is actually no longer considered in the severe drought zone! Additionally, COVID is less of a threat and more people are visiting the park again. Parking can definitely be a problem. We have been much more successful in getting on the trail at an earlier hour.
Now back to my story… after lunch, we started back. The ominous clouds were gathering, a bit earlier than normal. We really, really didn’t want to go down the first part of the trail, especially if the rocks were wet. We had discovered that we could take an alternate route back to Calypso Cascades. We were familiar with the trail from Calypso Cascades down to our trailer. We were not familiar with the trail from above the rocky ascent back to the Cascades. But could it be any worse than the rocky cliff?
While it would be slightly longer to go that way, it wasn’t a significant distance. However, Kadeen was not happy about not retracing our steps entirely. He was sure we were going the wrong way. We assured him that we were making the right choice!
The trail was slightly technical in some places, but not bad at all. The descent was more gradual. The trail was still somewhat built into the side of the mountain, as you can see from this photo. It shows the incredible amount of work required to support the traffic.
Our total distance was 11.7 miles, but we climbed almost 1900 feet! I did remember to turn off the Garmin at lunch, so our total recorded time was 4 hours and 40 minutes of actual riding. Here is a map of our ascent, our ride to Finch Lake, and our detour down another way.
Next week, I will be discussing Prolotherapy, an amazing non-surgical treatment for both people and animals. Remember pinfiring or “soring” of horses? Check back next week for the updated version of that old-school approach. I have personally benefitted from this therapy!