Long Lake Fens, Colorado

By Mohlenbrock, Robert H. | Natural History, August 1992 | Go to article overview

Long Lake Fens, Colorado


Mohlenbrock, Robert H., Natural History


Near the dwindling mining town of Ward, Colorado, a well-maintained Forest Service road climbs steadily westward toward the Continental Divide, the boundary between the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds. A backward glance to the east reveals the Great Plains, here only twenty miles from the Divide. After passing Brainard Lake, a popular recreation area and campground, the road ends at the Long Lake parking lot. Long Lake lies a little beyond, within the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a 43,000-acre region administered by the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. The wilderness gets its name from several mountains more than 12,000 feet tall, including Arikaree, Navajo, Apache, Shoshoni, and Pawnee.

The trail to Long Lake begins in a small patch of subalpine forest. Engelmann spruce is the dominant tree at this elevation, 10,521 feet, while thickets of the wiry-stemmed, pale-green-leaved bilberry, a relative of the blueberry, occupy much of the understory. A myriad of shade-loving mountain wildflowers--including a blue Jacob's ladder, a white lousewort, a yellow arnica, and twisted stalk (a cream-colored, lilylike flower) brighten other parts of the forest floor.

The trail soon emerges into a huge opening containing Long Lake, with a backdrop of towering mountains more than 13,000 feet above sea level. The high peaks within view include Mount Navajo to the west on the Continental Divide and Mount Audubon to the northwest. As it approaches Long Lake, the trail divides. One branch continues west along the north side of the lake, the other leads south across a bridge over bubbling South Saint Vrain Creek. Hikers can walk around the lake either way or turn off to more remote destinations. One route leads across the Continental Divide at Pawnee Pass, while another goes to Isabelle Glacier, a nearby reminder of the Ice Age glaciers that sculpted the region.

Immediately east of the bridge, in a shallow depression carved out long ago by glaciers, lies a five-acre meadowlike area kept moist by the seepage of groundwater fed by the abundant snowmelt. This type of wet meadow is known as a fen because the water has become alkaline (a result of flowing through limestone rock). A narrow band of the shrubby flat-leaved willow, growing in foot-deep standing water, forms the fen's tangled border. …

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