Friday, August 26, 2011

Rocky Mountain National Park - A Week in Paradise

(This is going to be a long post as it spans 4 days)
Day One
Due to weather delays, I got off the plane about 3 hours later than expected.  I rented a red, convertible Camaro, which I admit was super sweet.  The drive from Denver International to Estes Park was starkly beautiful.  The jagged peaks of the Rockies became more clear with every passing mile.

Starving, I finally located a McDonalds when I arrived in Estes Park.  The scenery here was amazingly different from home.  Pine and aspen trees rule the hillsides there.  Rock juts precariously from every  exposed surface. The landscape is a uniform brown dappled by bits of greenery.  It's easy to see why this rugged place draws so many hikers.  My home turf is a menagerie of green encroaching in from everywhere.  The stifling humidity seems to saturate everything in a damp haze and the wind only blows as a precursor to a storm.  Here, there is no humidity in this semi-arid climate.  The deep rooted ponderosa and lodgepole pines creak in what seems to be a ceaseless alpine wind.

A black bear cub obviously thinking I had
a pretty sweet ride.
After my 'dinner' I went through a quick drive in the park, staying close to town.  I didn't really have any expectations and was looking to take in some scenery as a means to blow-off steam from the flight delays. On the way to the first trailhead I wanted to glance at, I rounded a corner of a gravel road to find a black bear walking down the road with a cub - large and fuzzy - in tow.  They were both larger than the black bears here and I found myself clumsily trying to pick my phone up off the floor where it had fallen with my quick braking and trying to put the top up on the car at the same time.  I hadn't even thought to bring my real camera because I knew my jaunt in the park wouldn't be long and hadn't expected a bear! I nabbed my phone and, though momma bear had already meandered to the dense underbrush, the cub was still in view.  Crappy pic, sure... but still a pic!

Twenty minutes later and on a main road I saw, in the fading light of day, my first elk.  It was immense... and too dark to try to get a picture.  I was actually pretty impressed with myself that I had even seen it.  I ruefully wondered if that would be my only photo op for a bull elk.  I jokingly thought to myself that if a bighorn sheep bounded across the road with a mountain lion in chase, I could leave and feel satisfied.  Alas, however, no lion padded across my path that night.

Exhausted from my day, I returned to my lodge for the night.  The lodge was historic, which I think is code for "we lack air conditioning".  Actually, from what the front desk said, most of the residences and businesses didn't bother with a/c here as it was rarely ever hot.  This week, however, seemed to be an exception.  With all the windows open, I attempted to sleep.  By 4 a.m. local (MDT) I finally resigned myself to being "up" as the heat was annoying and the dry climate had made every bit of me feel dried out - skin, nose, eyes, mouth... I was parched in the true sense of the word.  I dressed, made coffee, and wandered out to enjoy the pre-dawn hours from the comfort of the lodge steps.

Day Two
The pines creaked noisily and rabbits scurried hither and dither within feet of me.  The air, constantly moving in the alpine breeze, was actually chilly outside.  I was glad I brought some thermals for the night in backcountry.  Even my coffee didn't retain heat for long.  My shoulders, aching from carrying a 48-pound, single strap duffle containing my pack and gear, were screaming at me.  The elevation here, close to 8,000 feet at the lodge, was already tangible to my body.  I wondered if I would be ready to hike with any sort of load.  Following on that thought, I wondered how much wildlife I was going to incur on my hike and how safe I was going to be.  Thoughts flitted across my mind as I watched the sky lighten from black to deep blue.  I knew the world around me would soon wake and my day would officially begin.

Herd of elk crossing a meadow.
I had time to kill before the backcountry office opened, so I decided to snag some real coffee and do a quick drive into the park.  Driving on a whim, I found myself on road leading to the Beaver Meadows trailhead.  Once again, my animal magnetism was in full form and before I knew it I was stopped watching a herd of elk - cows and calves - crossing a field.  I watched them casually walk across the field and the setting was something out of a movie.

The Fearless Coyote
A mile down the road, I had to nail the brakes as a coyote came loping towards me.  It walked right next to my car, not giving me (or the car) so much as a sideways glance.  I opened the door, stupidly sure, but rather in amazement that the coyote had really not even registered that he was sharing the road.  I snapped a few pics of him as he looked off in the distance.  I noticed then that he was watching a single elk with her calf off in the meadow.  I snapped a photo of them, but was more intrigued by the predator so casually standing not 20-feet from me.  I snapped another picture of him and he turned to look at me - I snapped another.

At the trailhead, I sipped my coffee and casually talked to a volunteer of the park.  Bolstered by talking hiking for an hour, animal sightings, and now a surplus of caffeine, I headed back to the backcountry office.  I talked trail for another hour there and finally had A Plan.

Marmot - I have a ton of these pics!
...well, at least a plan for later in the week!  Satisfied, I decided I wanted to first drive Trail Ridge Highway over the Rockies to Grand Lake.  The sky was a flawless, robin's egg blue with only an occasional puff of a cloud to break it up.  Well above the tree line, which is about 12,700 feet above sea level, I decided to stroll along the Ute Trail where I encountered my first family of marmot.  Cute buggers, these... rather like groundhogs interbred with prairie dogs.  Cute and noisy, they became the mainstay animal of my trip.

Bierstadt Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
I had to cut my drive short as they were doing roadwork - I swear I am plagued with travel woes! - so I turned around to find something more productive to do.  I drove down Bear Lake Road to the Hollowell Park trailhead and got on the trail to Bierstadt Lake.  The hike was nice and a relatively easy course.  Glad for a sharp eye, I noticed a tree with some very obvious claw marks and, scouring the ground I found a distinct paw print in the soft dirt - it was a mountain lion!  (Go here for pictures from my trip - they are the last two in the series).  The hike to the lake was relatively easy for the majority, saving for the elevation (the lake is apx 9,200 elevation).  I enjoyed the company of a fearless female duck and a chipmunk while I virtually drank in the beauty and solitude of the place.  I could have sat there for hours, but true to my usual hiking self, I soon packed up for a hike down the mountain.  The rest of the day and into the night was uneventful.  I sat at a picnic area until after dark, however, and FINALLY got to see the Milky Way with my own eyes.

Day Three
Otis Peak on left, Hallet Peak on right - in the
finally-still reflection of Sprague Lake.
Some people think I'm nuts for hiking alone.  On day 3, those people would freak.  Today I intended to hike to Cutbank - a single-site, backcountry camping area.  Admittedly, it was my first time camping in the backcountry all alone.  Before I headed that way, since it wasn't a long hike (just 4 miles), I decided to take a couple of 'quick' trips.  My first was, on the advice of professional wildlife/nature photographer Dick Orleans, was to Sprague Lake where I snagged this amazing photo of Otis and Hallet Peaks.  I had hoped to see a moose, which was rumored to like the lake, but no joy.

After Sprague Lake, I was hoping to finish my journey across Trail Ridge Road... traffic and construction permitting!

Moose looking for shade.
Every curve on the road introduced a new and breathtaking view of the Rockies.  My only wish was that I had managed to find a chauffeur so I could gawk openly instead of being forced to pay attention to my driving.  The road, while boasting amazing scenery, is precarious because often, just off the shoulder of the road, would be a precipice that scared the living heck out of me.  On the west side of the park and mere miles from the exit, my animal luck showed up again.  My intent that morning was for a bull moose... and while I never saw a bull, I did manage to lay eyes on a cow and her calf - awkward with so much leg under such a large animal.  I watch the mother - at first not knowing that she had her calf at all - as she climbed from a stream and meandered to shade.  As I was about to turn back to my car, I saw a flicker of ears and a moment later the calf exited the bank of the stream as well.   Satisfied, I turned around to head back across the tundra.

Bull elk, living large on the tundra
As I crossed the now-familiar scenery, my mind drifted to the bull elk I had missed the photo of on my first day there.  As if I had thought it into existence, I rounded a corner and glance to my left to spot a bull who had already claimed a harem.

From here, and feeling quite smug, I headed to my trailhead to start the hike to my overnight spot.  The trail to my site was labeled at just under 3 miles one way... but gaining 1,500 feet. And, just to pay me back for my smugness I'm sure, it started to storm not 10 minutes into my hike.  I had to unload, get out the rain gear, cover the pack, don the gear, and then reload.  My pack wasn't light - having the extra weight of the required bear can as well as my camera and extra lens and 6 liters of water.  Before long, the elevation was wearing on me and my legs and shoulders ached.  Seeming to take forever, at one point I convinced myself I had missed my break-off when I had to go through a family that had their horses completely surrounding the trail.  I glanced at a map - not my awesome topo as it was stowed in my pack - and decided I had missed my turn.  I trekked back down the mountain for a half a mile.  At least the error had me going down hill, right?  I got to where the horses had been... but to my chagrin there was no break off trail.  I had just walked all this way nothing!  Furious with myself, I unloaded and grabbed the topo.  Sure enough, if I hadn't turned around, I was maybe a 20 minute walk from my spur trail.  Talk about a 'face palm' moment.  Now, instead of 20 minutes, I had a 45 minute walk back UPhill. I was so angry at myself I wouldn't even allow myself to take a break during the make-up hike, regardless of the steep incline.
The Roaring River in the foreground with the
elegant backdrop of Long's Peak (the sheer face
is called 'The Diamond' and is a mountaineers
playground) in the distance.

Finally, I was at camp and set up and allowed myself to soak my feet in the frigid waters of the Roaring River while I ate my dinner of trail-mix and jerky.  After dinner I stowed my food in the bear can - double zipped inside and 200 yards from my camp - and reveled in the wonder of solitude.  The only sounds, aside from the occasional plane, was the ceaseless chatter of squirrels and, at once point in the evening, the distant sound of a bobcat yelling (there's audio on that link - various 'sounds').

Day Four
The night in the forest was cold... like REALLY cold.  I had my thermals and my spring bag (i.e. a 45-degree sleeping bag) and it was no where near enough.  The elevation at my campsite was around 10,500 feet and the temperature dropped between 35-40 degrees.  I didn't get much sleep but when I finally woke up - at least for the final time that night - the tips of my finger's were blue and a sickly yellow.  It took almost an hour of me keeping them tucked under my arms to get them nimble enough to breakdown camp.  I hiked off the trail, treated myself to a breakfast and hot coffee, and then made one final attempt to find a bighorn sheep.  My animal luck, it seemed, had finally worn off.  Before long, with still not so much as a distant 'baa' from a sheep, it was time to head to Boulder for the Expedition Impossible finale party.

Expedition Impossible Party Quick Thoughts
The finale party was great and insane.  It was SO crowded with over 500 people jammed into a place intended for maybe 400.  I finally got to hang with my guys, Team No Limits: Jeff Evans, Erik Wiehenmayer, and Ike Isaacson.  I also had the pleasure of meeting the Modern Gypsies - the winners of Expedition Impossible - John Post, Eric Bach, and Taylor Filasky... all super nice guys.  I also got to meet Shooter - one of the assistant producers on the show - and really enjoyed talking with him on his part of the project... of everyone I met for the first time that night, he was by far my favorite.  Photos of a sunburned and extremely exhausted me with the guys are below.

Finally, I turned in for some well-earned sleep only to wake at 4 a.m. and head back to Denver International Airport for the ride home...

Me and Ike

Me and Erik

Me and Jeff

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