Colorado 2012 – Rocky Mountain National Park

We pulled out of Riverview RV Park late Tuesday morning and headed up Thompson Canyon to Estes Park. The canyon is very steep and narrow. In 1976, at the height of the tourist season, a flash flood ripped through the canyon killing 143 people. 5 were never found. Observing how steep and rocky were the canyon walls, we could better understand how the disaster happened.  We stopped briefly so Chris could fish in the Big Thomson, a little more vigorous river than down at Riverview RV Park. Then it was on to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and our campsite.

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Entering Thompson Canyon

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Through the canyon

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Fishing in Thompson Canyon

Once at the campsite we backed in. The site was a little short, but we managed to get set up in no time. We’re in the Moraine Campground named after the adjacent Moraine Valley. We drove up to the visitor center and then down a road paralleling the valley. This is the headwaters of the Big Thompson River, although it is just a little stream meandering through the valley at this point. We watched a herd of elk head down the valley in a hurry. We wondered where they were going. Chris got out and hiked down to the “river” to fish. He quickly landed a couple of rainbow trout.

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Look closely–fish in hand

We headed back to our campsite and ran into our friends from Terre Haute, Bill and Jamie. They are on the last leg of a three-week swing through Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper in Canada, and most recently from the Tetons. With their campsite just two sites down from ours, we visited and had dinner together.

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Bill and Jamie

Then we went to a ranger presentation on hikes in the park. It was by far the best ranger program we had ever attended. The ranger had set a personal goal of hiking all 355 miles of trails in the park and had a great power point presentation with the sound of storms, rushing water, etc. to illustrate the various trails. Just before it got dark for the presentation, the clouds above Long’s Peak lit up with the setting sun. Melinda was on the spot and captured the view.

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Wednesday we got up early and headed off on a 7-mile round trip hike to Mills Lake, undoubtedly named after Enos Mills, who was the driving force behind the establishment of the park in 1915 under President Wilson’s presidency. We had the pleasure of meeting his daughter Enda Mills during our first trip to the park back in the 1990s. He died when she was very young and she had no recollection of him. She was quite elderly at the time. Enos had a shack/cabin on the south side of the park and she would open it to the public and answer any of your questions. She had all of his original correspondence including letters from John Muir.

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Starting the hike

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Along the trail

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Mills Lake in sight.

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Mills Lake, a pristine body of water.

Because the area south of Moraine Valley has several popular hiking trails heading off into the high country, the Bear Lake  Road is closed from 9:00 to 4:00. During that time period shuttle buses run from the campgrounds, parking areas and visitor center. Starting out well before the 9am road closure, we made the long hike up to the lake stopping at a waterfall/cascade. At the lake Chris fished for awhile and Melinda captured the scene with her camera.

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Cascading from Glacier Gorge.

On the way back to the truck we ran into Bill and Jamie who were doing their own hikes.

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We went back to the campground for a late lunch and a rest. Chris hiked over the ridge and down to the Big Thompson River, about a mile, for a couple of hours of uninterrupted fishing. After promptly catching a trout, he was feeling like a pro. Then he snagged his fly on some sunken wood and broke off his leader. Not having a spare, he trudged up the hill and back to the campsite.

That evening the men demonstrated their backwoods prowess with a couple of Dutch oven dinners, pizza and turkey shepard’s pie. After dinner we enjoyed companionship by the fire.

Thursday morning we were treated to a small bunch of bucks wandering through the campground (one of the perks to being outdoors at sunrise–5:30am). We’d seen single deer already, but not a bunch.

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Grazing in the campground

Then we decided to drive up and over the top of the park and have lunch at the Grand Lake Lodge overlooking, you guessed it, Grand Lake. We drove Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the USA, which reaches a high point of 12,183 feet. The trail slowly twists through the forest eventually rising above the treeline for the last several miles.

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We stopped at several pull-offs to enjoy the spectacular views and the crisp clear mountain air. We’ve been to the park before, but we had forgotten how beautiful it is.

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We stopped along the way, taking in various overlooks as well as hiking a steep trail at an elevation of well over 10,000 feet.  The views at the end made the huffing and puffing worthwhile.

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We saw a herd of elk in the distance and several marmots up close. One was chowing down on some particular vegetation and didn’t seem to care a bit about us humans. His cheeks were bulging. We’ve also had frequent visitors to the camp site–chipmunks, humming birds and magpies.

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The west side of the park is a little hard to reach and out of the way, so it isn’t as crowded.  We made it down to Grand Lake Lodge in no time. After lunch we toured the Holzworth Historical site. The Hozworths were a German family that settled in the Kewaueeche in the early 1900s after prohibition killed off their thriving saloon in Denver. They tried ranching, but soon discovered that tourism and running a dude ranch was much more profitable. They build cabins to house their guests and eventually their son built The Never Summer Ranch, named after the nearby mountain range. In 1975 the family sold out to the park service with the provision that the original buildings be preserved. The valley had one dude ranch after another at one time. They were all taken into the park and removed. Only the original Holzworth compound remains. We toured the house and John Holzworth’s taxidermy studio. Mama did all of the cooking on this huge cast iron stove purchased from a Montgomery Ward catalog. It was the top of the line for its day.

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We headed down to Estes Park for a special meeting, while Bill and Jamie headed back to the campground. We hooked up with a college friend, Alex Ware, who had completed a hike up Long’s Peak.

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Alex and Chris

The peak isn’t the highest in Colorado, but it is one of the most challenging. It’s over 14,000 feet high. The trail is 15 miles long with around 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Even more, it has lots of “exposure” meaning you wouldn’t like the hike if you are scared of heights. We were enthralled listening to his accounts of the experience, including all the challenges he encountered once passing through the Keyhole, one of the landmarks of the climb.  It entailed crossing rock fields, traversing extremely narrow ledges, and scaling over boulders much bigger than himself. Not considered a technical climb, he had no special equipment to aid him, even leaving his hiking sticks along the trail in order to free up his hands for climbing over the boulders.

Alex has been out here for almost 6 weeks; acclimating to the elevation and climbing various other 14ers while working up to this one.  He got up around 1:00 am, was on the trail just after 2am and summited around 8:00 am. The trip took about 10 hours. Unfortunately, he never takes a camera so we don’t have any pictures to share. We got together at Mama Rosa’s Italian restaurant and spent a couple interesting hours with him.

Friday morning we got up early and said goodbye to Bill and Jamie. They are heading back to Terre Haute and the 100 degree temperatures. Our hearts go out to them, but only a little. They were up in Canada while we suffered through the longest stretch of 100+ temperatures since 1936.

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Early morning at our campsite.

Afterwards, we drove the same Bear Lake Road as two-days day before and hiked to Nymph Lake (should be called Lily Lake) and then to Dream Lake. We were supposed to photograph the mountains reflected in the lake, but there was too much wind (nearly gale-force!). Even worse, there was too much wind to fish, a true disaster. The lake was known to hold the native cutthroat trout, which Chris would have dearly liked to entice.  We spent some time exploring the area, taking photos of the surrounding scenery.

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Disappointed at Dream Lake

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Posing in the landscape.

We hiked down and stopped again at Nymph (Lily) Lake for some photo ops.  Fortunately, not as windy there.  The end of our hike dealt with hoards of hikers just starting out.  We were glad to have made the early 6am start where we had the trail mostly to ourselves.  It was known to be one of the prettiest hikes in the park . . . and obviously the visitors all know that!

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The lily pads on Nymph Lake

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A lily up close

We hiked around Bear Lake down near the parking area, and then headed back to the campground. Along the road there were “teepees” of stacked logs which had been cleared from the side of the road. The area is heavily infested with pine beetles, some sort of invasive insect, and they are laying waste to all varieties of pine trees. The park service clears the edges of the roads to prevent dead trees from falling on the road. Once the snow comes, they will burn the piles. On the west side we saw black circles next to the road, the remains of last year’s efforts.  It is an incredible task and very hard to comprehend the immensity of the entire operation.  It is also overwhelming to imagine the scope of the dead trees . . . the pine forests are no longer green . . . just brown, in various stages of dying. Fortunately, the spruce growing at higher elevations are alive and green, which still gives a mantle of green to the mountainsides.

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Stacks of dead trees

Then we packed up the camper and headed out for our next spot.  Farther west, but still in the mountains.

From the beautiful Colorado Rockies,

Airstream Travelers,

Chris and Melinda

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About airstreamtravelers

An Airstream Flying Cloud suits our lifestyle perfectly. The two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just beyond their horizons.
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