Monday, October 12, 2015

September in Colorado: Part I (Rocky Mtn. National Park)

(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions.  I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)

For our big September trip, we were thinking of going to the Grand Tetons and Glacier National Park, but we changed our plans because of the smoke from the fires in Washington.  Colorado was our backup plan, and it worked out wonderfully – there was almost no smoke, the days were usually pleasant (in the high 60s), and the nights were even better (in the low 50s).

Tuesday, September 8: Even though we left home at midmorning, we made it all the way to Beaver, Utah, almost exactly 500 miles.  We stayed at a decent KOA – not too much road noise, and very well-maintained.

 Wednesday, September 9: We took Interstate 15 to 70.  Interstate 70 across Utah was pretty (lots of red rocks) but really empty – plan your gas stops ahead of time!  Once we got into Colorado, there were more towns (and more traffic).  Colorado has installed "roundabouts" on many of their freeway exits, which can be really tricky with a trailer.  We made it all the way to Gore Creek Campground in Vail (8700 feet), about 430 miles from Beaver.  We got a nice cool campsite right by the stream, which masked the road noise from the nearby freeway.  Note: there is no potable water at this campground.

Thursday, September 10:  We drove from Vail through Kremmling to the west side of Rocky Mount National Park.  The drive took us a few hours, through some very beautiful (and remote) "old West" ranch country.  As expected, Timber Creek Campground (8900 feet) was very barren because the Park Service had to cut down all of the beetle-killed pine trees.  The good news is that since there were no trees, there were terrific views of the surrounding mountains, excellent stars at night, and great sunshine for our solar panel.  The campground was "first-come, first-served," which was fine for a midweek arrival after Labor Day.

After we got set up, we took a short hike on the Coyote Valley Trail on the headwaters of the Colorado River.  The hike was nothing special – lots of dead trees in the forest.  The most interesting part was the river itself -- which at this point is just a creek, about twenty feet across and a few inches deep.  (Obviously deeper and wider in meltwater season, but still amazingly small.)

Late that afternoon, we talked to a very amusing (and knowledgeable) ranger about planning our hikes on the west side of the national park and the possibility of going to the east side.  In his opinion, the west side was better because the east side was so crowded: "There are so many people on the trails that you feel like you're on a religious pilgrimage, and maybe at the end of the trail you'll get to see Baby Jesus!"  (As it later turned out, we enjoyed most of the trails on the east side; only a couple of them were noticeably crowded.)

Friday, September 11:  On the ranger's recommendation, we took the Mt. Ida hike, which began at 10,800 feet at Milner Pass, on the Continental Divide.  The "commute" from the campground took about a half hour.  The first three miles of the trail were steep but smooth, contouring along the Continental Divide, overlooking the Never Summer Range to the west:

We stopped for lunch at about the 12,000 foot level and were greeted by some very friendly and photogenic marmots, who wanted to share our peanut butter sandwiches.

The marmots were not shy:

The terrain above 12,000 feet became much more challenging; instead of following a trail, we had to pick our way uphill on broken talus.  Even though we have done a fair amount of high-altitude hiking, this was the highest we had ever gone, and (to my surprise) I could feel the altitude in my legs, which felt strangely heavy.  We kept on going to about the 12,600 foot level, just below the crest, where we could peer down over the cliff into the glacial cirque far below:

But all of the effort was worthwhile – we felt like the entire world was spread out before us:

There is no way to really capture the sweep of the high country, but this short video provides a glimpse of the expansive view at 12,600 feet:

Speaking of feet, mine were bothering me a little that afternoon, so Felice engineered a wilderness cold water foot soak – a plastic bag in a trashcan:

It worked!  My feet hardly bothered me for the rest of the trip, which is amazing given the daily mileage and the terrain.

Saturday, September 12:  Again on the recommendation of our friendly ranger, we headed up to the high country on Trail Ridge Road.  We first climbed up the path above the Alpine Visitors Center at 12,000 feet, with terrific views far into Wyoming to the north.  We then took the Tombstone Ridge trail, which crosses the flat tundra plateau on the roof of the national park.  In this shot, I think that the Mount Ida area is directly above my head, but I'm not certain:

From Tombstone Ridge, we could see far out onto the Great Plains, seemingly for a hundred miles to the east.  To the south we could see Longs Peak at over 14,000 feet, on the left side of this picture:

The “roof” of the national park, the tundra plateau, was fairly level, with both sides plunging away into glacial valleys.  It looked as though the entire plateau had been uplifted and then dissected. 

That night, we again hiked down to the headwaters of the Colorado River near the campground, which is really just a creek at this point.  We found a calm pool that reflected the Milky Way.  Even without the aid of a time exposure, we could actually see the reflection of the Milky Way in the water, which is something we've never seen before -- this picture may be worth clicking on:

What the picture does not show, though, is what was going on in the dark forest all around us -- as we stood by the river, there were at least two (and maybe three) rival herds of elk close by, with the bulls bugling furiously at each other.  Eerie, wild, and magical.

Sunday, September 13:  On an overcast day, we first stopped at the Kawuneechee Visitor Center not far from the campground.  Based on the recommendations of the rangers, Felice suggested that we really had to spend some time on the east side of the National Park, crowds or not.  Even though all of the east side campgrounds within the park were completely full, the rangers helped us make contact with the Mary's Lake Campground run by the town of Estes Park, and we snagged a reservation for Monday.

After taking care of those details, we headed out on the East Inlet Trail, near Grand Lake.  The fall color was good, but the light was not great for photography.  This is a view back toward the trailhead:

And this is taken looking up the valley, with the creek meandering across the meadow:

On our way back down the trail, Felice came around a corner and was greeted by a bull moose:

It turned out that there were two of them, wandering around the forest:

We stayed back until the moose strolled away.  Later, on our drive back to the campground, we came upon two more bull moose in a meadow, right by the road:

One of them was really impressive, with huge "paddle antlers:"

Viewed from a different angle, his antlers looked like a crown:

Eventually, they ambled away, but not before the bigger one gave us a rather odd parting glance.  We had trouble reading his seemingly-apologetic expression:

(We tried to come up with a good caption for this photo -- something like. "What's the matter, have you never seen the south end of a northbound moose?" If you have a better caption, add it to the comment section at the end of the post!  Anything seriously off-color may be deleted, but otherwise, give it your best shot.)

Later that evening, a herd of elk wandered right past the campground.  The bull was bugling fiercely, trying to control his harem.  (It was almost dark when I took this shot, so I had to use a high ISO, which meant that I could not get a very sharp picture.) 

Monday, September 14:  We drove on Trail Ridge Road to the east side of the park.  Even though the road topped out at over 12,000 feet, the truck had no problem pulling the trailer, and the infamous hairpin turns were not at all hair-raising.  We got a nice site at the Mary's Lake Campground, with a great view of Twin Sisters:

The Mary's Lake facility was a decent campground, well-run and conveniently located.  But it is in a semi-suburban area, with a lot of vacation homes, and the campground is pretty dusty.  (We have been badly spoiled by pristine boondocking, unfortunately.)

Tuesday, September 15:  We drove south to the Wild Basin area of the park to take the Ouzel Falls trail.  The trail was very pretty, right by the creek for most of the time, with several pleasant cascades:

This is Calypso Cascade:

In a few areas along the trail, there were maintenance crews composed of sturdy-looking young women wielding large sledgehammers, breaking granite boulders into gravel for the trail surface.  We asked why the crews were almost exclusively women, and we were told that most of the men had been sent to the Far West to fight forest fires.

Along the trail we encountered this baffling sign – the llamas must have hired an excellent lobbyist:

Felice and I climbed up to the falls to pay our respects:

The bridge near the falls was under repair, so we made our way up a small canyon alongside the falls to get to the top.  There was a beautiful valley above the falls – it would be worth exploring on another day.  Although we were too late for the summertime wildflower show, the remaining foliage was still colorful:

Later that afternoon, we again admired the view of Twin Sisters from our campsite:

Wednesday, September 16:  We took the free shuttle into the Bear Lake area and hiked to Black Lake, a long, beautiful, and arduous hike.  We were initially skeptical of the shuttle system (too regimented!), but it wasn't a problem at all – the shuttles were frequent, and the shuttle system meant that hikers could string together various segments of the hikes, without necessarily returning to the same trailhead.

The trail was a little crowded up to Mills Lake, but the views of the surrounding mountains were excellent:

Black Lake, at the head of the valley, is set in a cirque above tree line.  Despite the crowds in the lower elevations, we only saw two other hikers up at Black Lake.  It was very dark and cloudy when we got there:

  The sun came out as we headed back down.  We stopped off at Alberta Falls:

That evening, on the drive back to the campground, we came across a large herd of elk, with one big bull controlling a harem of about 20 cows.  In this video (composed of several clips stitched together), he first digs a bed for himself with his antlers.  Then he chases his herd into a tighter group.  Finally, he cuts loose with a loud bugle:

This is a still shot of him in mid-bugle:

Thursday, September 17:  We started out by hiking to Dream, Nymph, and Emerald Lakes.  They were very beautiful, but there were simply too many people for my tastes.  This is Dream Lake:

Along the trail (and at the trailhead), we spotted several young men carrying large futons, not exactly standard hiking equipment:

We asked whether they were giving massages to tired hikers and were told that these were "crash pads" for rock climbers.  Aha!

Later that day, we hiked to Bierstadt Lake from the Bear Lake trailhead, and we ran across some of the best fall color we had yet encountered.  The jagged ridge in the top center of this photo is called the "Keyboard of the Winds."  I should add that the intensity and brilliance of the color in this shot is as close to "real life" as I could make it -- I had to dial back on the color saturation during the editing process.  We just could not get enough of the backlit fall foliage set against the craggy mountains.  The slanting September light (especially in the late afternoons), along with the clear mountain air, made every vista seem cinematic:

As it turned out, Bierstadt Lake itself was not particularly lovely, but the hike down from the lake on the east face of the cliff was terrific.  There was lots of fall color, and we could see the entire Bear Lake drainage area:

Friday, September 18:  After a rainy and windy night, we awoke to a light dusting of new snow on the higher elevations.  We decided to take the Lake Helene hike, which provided us with some great views of the frosty peaks:

We passed a small marmot huddling on the cold rocks:

At the high point of the trail, we found a great place to eat lunch, on an exposed rock outcropping:

Down below us, we could see Lake Odessa, and we even spotted Tombstone Ridge, high above us on the tundra to the north.  The entire cirque was very wild and craggy.  (The lake itself was nothing special, but that didn't matter.)  On our way back down to Bear Lake, we just had to stop in the prime aspen area for another shot:

Saturday, September 19:  We hiked to the top of Deer Mountain (a very well-graded trail), with excellent views of the high tundra up on Trail Ridge and of the entire Bear Lake region:

This is Ypsilon Mountain, as seen from Deer Mountain -- we were told that it was originally named "Y" Mountain, because of the pattern of the snow gullies, but the name was changed to a classier version:

Late that afternoon, we had to go into the town of Estes Park to do some errands.  The town was very congested, but that's typical of Colorado resort towns, as we discovered.


living.boondockingmexico said...

Awesome is all I can say. You guys take great pics and videos. I love the night sky. Isn't nature amazing!

Rexlion said...

The moose says, "I'm not nuts about sharing the trail with you humans. Kiss my rump!" ;)

Unknown said...

And the moose says ....... "You ain't gonna put those on the internet are you ?"

Glad to see your accounts for this great adventure. Always wish we were there with you guys so yes, your efforts do inspire. The night sky shot would make a great Christmas Card :-)