ROCKY MOUNTAIN NP
Lost in Paradise
On previous trips I’ve taken, I’ve never felt I had the luxury of superfluous time. But that’s why this trip qualifies as something different—a journey. Today I spend strolling in quaint downtown Estes Park, a kind of real-life Disneyland. Mounds of cultivated flowers abound everywhere. Tourists mass the sidewalks. Every open door, it seems, leads to an ice cream shop or a taffy factory, interspersed with scattered stores selling mountaineering gear, T-shirts and “genuine” Indian rock art. As the streets tend to follow the topography of the local land instead of any human rationale, I manage to lose where I park my truck. But never mind; another leisurely hour spent wandering around until I find it.
The Grand Benevalent Order of Elks
Today I rise early. I plan to drive to the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of the famed Trail Ridge Road, highest continuous paved road in North America. At about 12,000 feet I break out above the tree line and follow the road another 11 miles surrounded by alpine tundra. Up here, plants are granted only a few weeks of weather above freezing to complete their life-cycle. They hug closely the ground, no more than three inches tall, the better to capture the meager radiated heat of surrounding rocks.
Now, at the height of summer, they are in riotous flower. There are so many varieties I can’t count them, let alone name them (and why was Adam and Eve’s first act in the Garden to name things?) Though the plants appear in miniature, with leaves only a quarter-inch across–some with tiny hairs to catch and trap heat–their roots may sink four feet into the stoney earth. Their survival is a miracle; their profusion is a wonder. Some, on exposed ridges, must bear 150 mile-an-hour subzero winds, battered by grains of sand and ice crystals all winter. By chance, some of their more fortunate brethren fastened to the earth on the leeward side of the ridge, in the windshadow, comfortably blanketed from the elements beneath 30 feet of snow drift.
There are really no words to describe the raw enormous panorama of snow-capped peaks rising in every direction into the farthest distance. Around every bend in the road lies another picture even more awe-inspiring than the one before, until one becomes besotted by the beauty of it all, unable to absorb more.
A hundred yards away I spot a herd of perhaps 30 resting bull elk spread out upon the flowered tundra, their stately antlers held high, their senses alert to, but not alarmed by human presence. A couple of miles away the cows and their babies are grazing, warily. I find this to be an interesting arrangement. No politically correct intermingling of the sexes here.
Reluctantly, I head back down the mountain. Thunderstorms are glowering in the middle distance and, as we learned before, above the tree line is no place to be when lightening threatens.
Why the Camel has a Hump
Late yesterday I visited an outfitter and purchased a 3.0 liter Camelbak hydration backpack. These packs have a removable internal plastic bladder with a thin hose leading up to a bite valve that makes it easy to take a sip of water anytime without fumbling around for a canteen or water bottle. The fill opening of the bladder is large enough that you can add a bunch of ice cubes, allowing for a continuous supply of cold water.
This morning, armed with my new Camelbak, I drive to the Cub Lake trail head and begin my hike through a lush flowered meadow with a fast-flowing stream, about 20 feet wide, meandering through it. After half a mile, the trail begins a relentless two mile rise toward Cub Lake, enough to get my core temperature up and my muscles loosened. The trail isn’t difficult, but it is rocky and uneven in places, requiring some concentration.
The thing about hiking, either cross-country or on trails, is that it forces you to focus on the immediate problem in front of you: your next footfall. A misstep can mean a twisted angle, a broken leg—or worse. The choice of where to place your next step, especially on rugged surfaces, needs to be instantaneous and sure.
Cub Lake is small, about 20 acres, half covered with yellow blooming lilli pads. There are several ducks, who spend their time skimming along and…well, ducking for morsels of food beneath the lake’s calm surface. From time to time there’s a quick flash of light and a splash as a trout breaches to snatch a hapless bug of some kind. I linger for a while, enjoying the pristine surroundings.
The next leg takes me to The Pool. I’m surprised that the trail trends slightly downward from Cub Lake for most of the next 1.2 miles. I’m surprised, too, that The Pool is no pool at all, but a roaring cascade crossed by a wooden bridge at a point where several trails converge. I find about a dozen hikers and backpackers lounging in the area, resting before their next great exertions. I enquire among them about the next leg of my hike, to Fern Lake Falls. I’m informed that the trail is a strenuous one-mile uphill slog, a real workout as one of them says.
After about 20 minutes rest, I set out. I soon find that the descriptions are apt. The trail is studded with embedded cinderblock-sized rocks (watch that next footfall!) and many “steps” that are one and a half to two feet high. My old knees complain and my lungs, used to breathing in air at a mere 1500 feet, are rebelling at the meager oxygen at 8500 feet above sea level. But I’m here, and likely never to be again, so I push on.
Finally, near my last gasp, I hear the thunder of the falls ahead and I quicken my pace. Then, around a curve in the trail, I’m confronted with a massive torrent perhaps 200 feet high. The amount of water surging over the crest, the mist and spray, the noise—are astounding. Again, other hikers have stopped to rest here. One must shout to be understood over the roaring water.
Here I decide to double back to the Cub Lake trail head rather than push on to Fern Lake, another 1.7 mile uphill battle. After descending the Fern Lake Falls trail to The Pond, where several trails intersect, I pick a different path back around the north side of Cub Lake. It’s a three mile lope back to my truck, easy because I can “smell the barn.”
The hike turns out to be 8.2 miles, exhausting yet exhilarating. I think it’s the Camelbak that basically saved my ass, as I suffered no symptoms of dehydration as I had on earlier hikes. Best investment I’ve made in a long time. And that, dear reader, is why the camel has a hump.
I take over 40 pictures and a video with my iPhone on this hike. When I get back to camp I connect the iPhone to my PC, open the iPhone as a portable drive, select all the images and drag them to my PC, an operation I’ve done a thousand times. Then I delete the pics from the iPhone, only to find out too late that just the first picture of the series had transferred. So if anybody knows how to undelete files from a (jailbroken) iPhone, please share.
Technology is Like Water
If you’ve ever lived in a house that’s serviced by its own water well, you know the consternation that instantly arises when the well goes out. Bathing, cooking, cleaning and toilet flushing are suddenly impossible. No coffee in the morning; teeth to brush; plants to water. Then there’s livestock, completely reliant on us, and they consume lots of water. Our faith that when we turn the tap water will emerge is total.
Same with technology. Cut off the information spigot and we flounder helplessly. Without really realizing it, our immersion in technology is as total as our reliance on the water well.
For several hours today I’ve been sitting awkwardly in my truck trying to pull in a weak wifi signal so I can research in-depth the inner workings of the iPhone file system, a secret purposely withheld by Apple to cheat its customers of the full use of their devices.
Conditions for this work are not ideal. There is lots to google and plenty of consequent bullshit to sift through and discard. There are utility files for both iPhone and PC to find, download, install and configure. All at the mercy of an intermittent, and at best, cranky internet connection.
All my attempts to retrieve the lost Cub Lake photos have so far ended in failure. At least, however, it’s given me a chance to recoup physically from yesterday’s hike as well as return to my campsite in time to cook up some nice grilled chicken and steamed broccoli.
I have no idea how it came to be, but without technology…I’m a fish out of water.
A String of Pearls
The entire State of Texas has only one natural lake: Caddo. And we can’t really claim it as our own because it sits on the border with Louisiana, so we’re sharing it. To add insult to injury, engineers altered the lake in the 1900’s, so today it’s only semi-natural.
But in Rocky Mountain National Park, just a small piece of Colorado, there are perhaps dozens of lakes, many of which can be seen from Trail Ridge Drive.
I set out early in the morning to visit a cluster of five: Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha. Bear Lake, the lowest of them at a lofty 9,475 feet, is where the trailhead begins. From there it’s all uphill.
I circumambulate Bear Lake on an easy .6 mile footpath. The trail has gentle grades and is graced with scattered benches, offering the visitor a rest or a place to sit in contemplation of the surrounding massifs, still streaked with snow-pack. The lake is billed as “Accessible.” A special shuttle bus brings passengers virtually to the lake’s edge, and many folks who would otherwise be unable, because of physical infirmities, have the opportunity to see nature close up.
The next pearl is Nymph Lake, no longer handicap accessible. The trail to Nymph Lake from Bear Lake trends steeply upward and is fairly rough with rocks and protruding boulders. Only .5 miles long, it’s still enough to give me an aerobic workout. Nymph Lake is the smallest of the five lakes, covering perhaps five acres (about two football fields, for you Texans.) Part of its surface is strewn with scattered groups of lily pads, yellow blooming in the cool summer air. I rest for a while on a large boulder at the water’s edge, listening to the susurrations of the surrounding pines. With a name like Nymph Lake, I can imagine delicate water-sprites dancing from one lily pad to another, cavorting in the sun (meh, probably just altitude sickness….)
Rested, I rise and begin the ascent to Dream Lake, another .6 miles. To my mind, Dream Lake is the most beautiful of the five. Piercing, jagged peaks, laced with snow, rise directly behind the lake, framing it with stunning beauty. A lush green band of spruce and fir spill down from the treeline right to the water’s edge. Sheltered from the wind in the lee of surrounding peaks, the surface of the lake shines like glass; countless trout swim in the crystal water. From time to time one breaks the surface with a startling flash. Along the shore, several anglers are trying with some frustration to cast that perfect fly the wily trout are looking for today. A Dream Lake indeed.
Next, at around 11,000 feet, is Emerald Lake, a “mere” .7 miles farther, all uphill. Parts of the trail traverse snow-pack, from which rivulets of water course down the path, creating reaches of mud and wet rocks. Footing is treacherous. Frequent small streams cross the trail at right angles as they plunge down the mountain side. They can be cleared by hops from one stepping-stone to another, usually no more than two. Approaching Emerald Lake—can you guess what color the water is?—the air becomes distinctly colder and the wind sets my teeth on edge. Prominent at this lake is a broad solid rock saddle that stretches several hundred yards between two high cliffs that stand to windward of the water. As the air pours between the cliffs, the saddle acts like an airfoil that slams the cold wind down onto the chaotic surface of the water. Here are found what the locals call “pennant trees,” because all their branches emanate from the leeward side of trunk. This is not merely from the force of wind—as we see in Live Oaks on the Texas coast near Rockport—but because any fledgling branch is literally blasted away by wind-born ice crystals during the long winter months.
Curiously, at this altitude I feel the sun’s ultraviolet heat beating into my skin, yet at the same time the wind is chilling me right to the bone.
One more pearl remains, strung together like the others by cascading tumults of water as overflow pours from the highest lake to the lowest. The last is Lake Haiyaha, another 745 feet of elevation gain at the end of a 1.1 mile trail. Unique among the pearls, Lake Haiyaha is surrounded to the water’s edge by a massive jumble of boulders ranging from boxcar size down to shoebox size, all tilted at crazy angles and nearly impossible to negotiate. But by climbing, stretching, reaching, sliding and leaping, I can work my way along the lake’s edge. On the far shore are what appear to be college-age kids, plunging into the frigid water amidst a pandemonium of wild shrieks and screams. Though wishing for a little more serene wilderness peace and quiet, I feel satisfied that I’ve made the trek to the topmost lake—the more so because I know its downhill all the way back.
Round trip: 6.8 miles
Last Day in Colorado
Today is prep day for the next leg of my journey. With my generator, I’m charging up the house batteries. Tire pressures need to be checked. I’ve washed my woolen hiking socks in the galley sink and hung them out to dry. Things that have been strewn around the fifth wheel need to be stowed in their secure locations.
One last trip to Estes Park to pick up some fresh produce is probably in order; I’m finding that the many canned goods I’ve brought along—actually, emergency rations—are not very appealing. Which is probably a good thing.
Early tomorrow morning I’ll hitch up the fifth wheel, drive to the park dump station to flush the gray and black tanks and refill the fresh water tank. Then I’ll start the drive to Yellowstone, which, at about 700 miles distance, I plan to divide into a two-day drive.
So tomorrow once more up Trail Ridge Drive, this time pulling the fifth wheel (should be interesting.) But this time I’ll bypass the Alpine Visitor Center at the top and descend the western flank of the park, then pass through Granby, Steamboat Springs, Craig and beyond. I should be somewhere in Wyoming by tomorrow night, but I have no idea where. I’ve left that to serendipity.