A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Cobalt Lake, Glacier National Park

June 23, 2014
Tyson Sawyer

After consulting with several park rangers, we selected Cobalt Lake as our second destination. We had considered several others, but some were too far when carrying an Isaac and our first choice was missing a bridge over a river that, with spring snow melt, was too high to ford. Another chosen destination was reported to require crossing some rivers with dangerously undermined snow bridges.

The trail to Cobalt Lake was under snow for the last mile or so, with route finding being a consideration. However, it looked to be a very appealing hike and had the bonus of some falls we could call our destination if we weren’t able to make it all the way to the lake.

There is a long, lower lake right next to the campground. A tour boat does several trips each day to the far end which would take a couple miles each way off our planned hike, which was a bit of an ambitious distance. The first boat trip in the morning was a bit later than we wanted to wait for so we headed down the trail. The last return trip of the day would leave the dock at the far end at 5:15. Hopefully we could catch it.

Not too far into our hike we were passed by a ranger who said he was headed to the Cobalt Lake Campground to see about digging out the pit toilet. He gave us a few pointers and headed on his way. Our pace was much slower.

We came across a new yellow flower we had not seen before, and it was in great numbers. We later learned that it was a Glacier Lilly. We spotted some very fresh bear tracks and some bear scat, still steaming. Fortunately the tracks looked to be from a small bear.

Rockwell Falls is a worthy destination of its own. Where the terrain gets steeper the trail does several switchbacks, each giving a different view of the multiple drops of the falls. We stopped at one of them for an early lunch.

At the final view of the falls, the trail was suddenly covered with several feet of snow. Except for a few short breaks early on in some exposed sunny areas, the snow persisted the rest of the way up. In some places it was still 10-20 feet deep. As it was well consolidated spring snow, micro-spikes to reduce slipping were sufficient for travel.

Up higher, the grade lessened and the trees became less consistent. Bare rock, swampy areas and avalanche run-outs prevented growth in some places. The trail was also much harder to find; in some places it was impossible. There were no trail markers except at junctions and the snow had deeply buried the worn trail bed. One strategy was to try to follow the tracks of the ranger ahead of us. However, the combination of warming temperatures and bright sun were rapidly erasing his tracks. Additionally, it was clear that much of the time he wasn’t on the trail and wandered back and forth making his way. We found a couple of trail junction markers, saw cuts in a few places where the trail had been maintained, and in a very few places the snow had melted to reveal the trail bed.

Between the carrying Isaac (we took turns), the extra effort and slower pace of hiking uphill in snow, and wandering back and forth trying to find either the trail or a promising looking route, we were not moving very fast. We began watching the time and feeling that we were really pushing the schedule a bit late. As we were getting close to the destination, we came across our ranger friend. He seemed a bit surprised that this family of 4 and a half had actually made it up there! He very enthusiastically let us know that we were very nearly there and provided a few routing tips for the final 1/2 mile or less that remained. He also reported that though he did find the pit toilet, it was still too deeply buried to dig it out.

Cobalt Lake was beautiful! It’s one of those things that you can’t capture in camera, except maybe with something like IMAX. The lake was starting to melt through and show its blue water. Around it were wonderful snow fields that begged for a few tele-turns. …if only someone had brought my skis for me! Above the lake was a cliff with a reasonably large snow cornice that was still holding on.

We also located the pit toilet. Though the roof and sides of it had absorbed enough sun and warmth to melt the immediately surrounding snow, snow was still nearly up to its roof and it would have taken a heroic effort to make it possible to climb down to ground level and open the door.

We rested, snacked and planned our trip back. We had started at 8:30 and arrived at 2:30. It would be 3:pm before we were ready to start back. …the math didn’t look good. The simple analysis said that we would get back at 9:pm. The good news is that it didn’t get dark until about 10:pm. To expedite the return trip, I held the GPS in my hand while hiking and combined the track and information it had with the knowledge gained on the hike up. That, combined with the greater ease and efficiency of going down hill in snow instead of up, greatly improved our pace. We moved so fast, that we were surprisingly close to catching the boat. It was on a different side trail, but estimated that had we gone that way, we would have missed it by “only” 15 minutes. We arrived back at the trail-head at 6:pm for a return time of 3 hrs, half the time it took us to climb up to Cobalt Lake. We made it in time for more ice cream from the camp store.