Monday, July 28, 2008

Rocky Mountain High (A Not-Quite-As-Long-As-The-Italian-Story Story, In Its Entirety)

Two Sundays ago, Monkey and I loaded up The Penguin and headed for Estes Park, Colorado. The Ambassadors had invited us to spend a few days with them out there where they spend their summer vacation each year. It was mighty generous of them, but, that's just the kind of folks they are.

The drive out took us a bit longer than we expected, after stops in Ogallala and three other places, most likely because we hit the congested area of I-25 and US 34 at a busy time, but, after an uneventful drive through Nebraska and southeastern Wyoming, we arrived at our destination. We had a nice dinner at a local establishment, walked around the town of Estes Park a bit (nice river walk), and then discussed the next day's plan over some wine.

We planned on a breakfast at a little place in a town just down the way called Allenspark, and then a hike to Ouzell Lake from the Wild Basin Trail Head. Round trip was about 9.8 miles.

Breakfast was tasty, and we were on the trail by about 9 am. It was a great hike, with wonderful views of several waterfalls, glimpses of distant (and not-so-distant) peaks, some good gains in altitude, and a idyllic lake at our chosen terminus (we could have hiked for another five miles if we'd chosen to).

This was my first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, and it was astounding. It was also my first visit to a place with any altitude since Monkey and I were in Oregon in 2005. It was strenuous at times, not being used to the rarefied air at 9000 feet and above (I think our highest point of the trip was just about 12000). However, even with short breath and a spot of dizziness here and there, this was one of the best hikes I had ever been on.

The only negative to the hike was the thunderclouds that rolled in just as we got to the lake. Our return route (after a short pause for lunch--you guessed it: PB and J!) left us exposed for about three-quarters of a mile along a ridge. It's not good to be exposed in a thunder storm. The rain is a pain, but the real worry is lightning strikes. If you are standing on a ridge with no trees around you, that makes you the tallest thing for miles. Lightning likes to strike tall things. So, we covered that stretch on the ridge pretty quickly. It didn't really start to rain seriously until we were almost back into the tree line, so we also stayed pretty dry as well as avoided the lightning. Beside the danger of being hit by a bolt of lightning and a little bit of rain, it was a great introduction to the Rockies. And, I saw a blue grouse on the trail (that's a bird), and, I'd never seen one of those before!

We made pasta at home and ate copious amounts that evening and then retired early. The next morning we planned to rise at 3 am to try and catch the sunrise at a place called Chasm Lake.

I know I said that the previous hike was one of the best I'd ever been on, but the in-the-dark-of-morning hike to Chasm Lake was head and shoulders above that one! We left the Longs Peak Trail Head at 4 am, and, with our headlamps lighting the way through the trees, ascended pretty quickly to the treeline. The sky was just beginning to lighten as we broke out of the trees and continued to ascend across a broad open area. At one point, as Monkey and I stopped to rest, I looked off to the northeast and saw, silhouetted against the just lightening sky, a female elk and a calf. I pointed them out to Monkey just as we noticed that we were standing not 100 feet from a herd of perhaps forty or more elk. It was amazing to watch them slowly move off to the southwest, but, we were trying to make it another couple of miles before the sun was up, and it didn't look like we were going to get there in time.

We reached the ridge top in full sun, took some pictures and enjoyed the alpenglow on the face of Longs Peak. However, we still had another three-quarters of a mile to go to the lake. We had gotten out pretty far ahead of our companions, but decided (on their assertion) to continue on. We were even higher than we'd been the day before, and I still wasn't completely acclimated, I guess (or maybe I was just hungry). I had to stop at one point and sit down for a few minutes, but, after some water and a Cliff bar, I was good to go.

After my "recovery," Monkey and I were treated to what I think was the most picturesque part of the whole trip. After crossing a thin trail along the side of a ridge, which included a snowbank, we found ourselves in a beautiful alpine meadow, with a creek running through it, columbines and other alpine flowers growing all around, the mountains looming all around us, and a spectacular view into a pond-studded gorge to the east. I wish I could have stayed there forever. It might be the most beautiful place I have ever seen with my own eyes.

We paused just outside a US Park Ranger patrol cabin, smelling coffee and bacon. The lake was close, but our companions were nowhere to be seen. We decided to walk back, hoping to run into them on the way. We might have to double back again, but, at least we would be all together. After getting only halfway across the meadow, we saw them coming across the snowbank. We signaled to each other, and Monkey and I waited for them to come on.

From the meadow, there was one more challenge before we reached the lake. We scrambled up about 100 yards of rocks, accompanied by several yellow-bellied marmots, and there, just below us, at the foot of the peaks, was our destination. It was very cold and windy at Chasm Lake, so, after a snack and a really quick nap (remember, we got up at 3am), we made our way back to the trail head. Today's hike was about 8.5 miles.

After breakfast, we napped for about an hour and then headed to Boulder (about 40 miles) for some wandering and a really expensive dinner. Both were good. We slept well that night.

The next day, we took it kind of easy, making breakfast at the cabin and taking a drive around the park. Old Fall River Road, a one-way gravel road ascends to an Alpine Visitors Center at about 12000 feet, with many unbelievable views along the way. Here we saw more falls, more elk, the Never Summer Mountains, and, on the way down Trail Ridge Road (the other park road), three moose! Monkey was especially excited to see the moose, since that and bears are the two animals she always says she wants to see (I was especially excited we did NOT see a bear). We then toured our way down to Grand Lake, had some ice cream, and then were on our way back to Estes. More pasta at the cabin (good pesto!), and more "what shall we do tomorrow" talk, and we were off to bed.

The next day, Monkey and I were set to depart, but, we rose a bit early (6 am) and headed out to Glacier Gorge Trail Head for a short (5.4 mile round trip) hike to Mills Lake. This was not a better hike than the night hike, but Mills Lake was probably the most beautiful lake I've ever seen (and the second most beautiful place, next to that alpine meadow). This was a pretty gentle hike, just the way to spend your last morning in the park. And, we left early enough that we mostly avoided the huge crowds out and about on our way back--very busy trail! On our hike back down, we saw lots of families hiking using child carrier backpacks to allow their tiny tots to accompany them into the wilderness, and hydration backpacks (Monkey is contemplating getting one of these) and BPA-free water bottles (I gotta get me one of those!) to combat high altitude thirst.

We had another good breakfast in Allenspark with The Ambassadors and The Ambassadors' Children (who had arrived in the wee hours and declined to accompany us on our hike). While we waited for our food, one of The Ambassadors and I walked down to a place called the Fawn Brook Inn, where they have about a million bird feeders out. I was surrounded by hummingbirds (rufous and broad-tailed). I had never seen so many birds in one place in my life. It was amazing!

After breakfast, we packed up and hit the road, departing at about 2 pm MDT. A shorter drive home than on the way out, and we were home by 11pm CDT, certainly tired, but mostly grateful that we had the opportunity to see the Rockies!

For more photos, click here.


comoprozac said...

Moving to Nebraska does have its're closer to the Rockies.

Laura said...

so... no mention in your journal re: hiking boots, hmm... we had a GREAT time. let's go again STAT.

ATR said...


True that. Oh, and BTW, does your dad really call you comoprozac ? ;)


Ah, the could I have forgotten? Let's just keep that one between the four of us.

comoprozac said...

Yes...except when he calls me by my new name: ass clown.

La Fashionista said...

It sounds like a beautiful and relaxing trip. Excellent pics.

I couldn't help noticing the gear. I'm a big fan of gear. I've been wanting hiking poles/sticks so was envying those. I also noticed something else re: gear: Were you planning on doing some, what, trail running around those parts? Those trails didn't look paved to me.

But I'm just sayin is all.

What a summer you're having!!!


ATR said...

I, like Chuck Norris, could walk those trails barefoot. Those TRAILS need boots when I hike them.


La Fashionista said...

Chuck Taylors what? :?