On Top of the World – A Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

The mountains are calling and I must go.

– John Muir

We like living in Florida.  While the weather during the summer is atrocious – hot and humid and rainy – the weather from October through April is glorious.  And, besides, summer in Florida is no worse than winter in New York.  We have found the people to be open and friendly where we live.  There is so much to do, especially with kids, that we are constantly on the go.  Overall, moving here has been a very positive experience.

I miss the mountains, though.  I grew up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.  While the Ozarks don’t have the lofty elevations of the Rocky Mountains, or even the Appalachian Mountains, they are quite rugged and beautiful.  My childhood was an outdoor childhood, and those mountains are a place I understand.  They are home, in a real way.  The mountains in New York are similar.  We never lived far from a good, rugged, up-and-down hike, with waterfalls and bluffs and incredible views merely a short drive away.

Florida doesn’t have much of that.  The area around here is beautiful in its own way.  The wildlife is spectacular, especially the birds.  There is little to match the thrill of a non-Floridian encountering the sight of a medium-to-large sized alligator floating in the water, or lounging next to a golf course water feature.  The sunsets and particularly the sunrises can be incredible.  The swamps, while claustrophobic and somewhat scary places to me, can be majestic, with tall cypress trees looking like columns stretching out to the horizon.

But there aren’t any mountains.

I have decided that the mountains are going to remain a feature of my life.  I am unwilling to let them go.  But I am also going to be living in Florida for the foreseeable future, so I am going to have to figure out what to do about that.  And the answer is that I am going to have to be willing to travel and make time to make that happen.  Recently, I got a chance to do that by extending a work trip out West – I got a chance to go for a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Entering the park a few hundred feet from the Allenspark Trailhead

For all of the time I’ve spent in “the mountains,” I have had very little exposure to the Rockies.  I went to a wedding in Winter Park once, but that was in February so I didn’t wind up leaving the resort all that much.  I spent a week in Boulder once that featured a hike up into the mountains, but I was 18 and really wasn’t paying attention like I should have been, or would now.  So when this trip came along and I realized I could flex my schedule and make it work, I got excited.  I spent a lot of time researching areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, and then looking at possible hikes and trails.  I worried about my ability to hike at elevation, especially with pretty severe changes in elevation – for a guy that lives in Florida, 2,000’ of elevation change is, um, a lot.  But I got it all planned up, and in late August the day finally came, and I was headed to the mountains.

The feedback you always get about hiking in the Rockies during the summer is that by late morning or early afternoon you are likely to get thunderstorms up on the mountains.  Apparently the afternoon thunderstorm is not just a feature of the tropical Florida climate.  And I was worried about timing for the day, anyway – I wanted to get my hike in and also get a chance to go to a visitor’s center and poke around – so I left my hotel room in Denver at 4:30am and headed up to the mountains.

I had chosen the southern area of the park for my hike, a place that they call the Wild Basin.  The trailhead was out of a little mountain town called Allenspark, and I was parked and on the trail before sunrise.  The trailhead was at about 8,500 feet, and I was hiking to a place called Pear Lake, which was at about 10,600 feet.  I had chosen that route for a couple of reasons.  First, it looked awesome.  Second, the reviews all said that it was relatively lightly traveled and also represented a good chance for spotting wildlife.  And third, I was worried about my performance at elevation, and there is another lake, called Finch Lake, about halfway up the mountain that would have represented a fulfilling and beautiful destination for me if I felt I needed to turn around before I got all the way up to the top.  The total hike was going to be right at 12 miles – 6 miles up, and 6 miles back.

I was on the trail before sunrise, probably around a quarter to six.  The first 1.5 – 2 miles of this hike was nice, but relatively featureless.  The trail can be quite rocky, and initially climbs through a thick forest that seems pretty impenetrable.  At just under a mile in, the trail from the Finch Lake Trailhead joins in … with a very steep approach … and then at just under two miles the trail comes to its first major junction and open view of the Wild Basin.

At the junction from the Finch Lake Trailhead

A pretty magical thing happened about 30 minutes into my hike.  The sun was starting to rise over the mountains behind me.  That initial morning light comes in at an angle, and it lacks the strength of the overhead sun that will come later in the day.  The first sunrise light allows itself to be manipulated by things – trees, mountains, the quality of the air.  As I was walking, the sun officially rose behind me, and the light did not bathe the area fully.  Instead, it lay down a path, directly on my trail, and curving with the trail as I walked.

The sun lit my path directly, as though to tell me, “Go this way.  This is the way.”

On very lucky days the trail tells you that you can relax and know that you are on the right path…

There are some days when you wonder if you are on the right path.  When you worry that the path you have chosen is going the wrong way.  And on those days, knowing how way leads on to way, you begin to doubt if you can ever get back.  On this day, though, I did not have to wonder or worry.  On this day, the sun came up behind me and said, “Go this way.  This is the way.”

Anyway.

I began to see wildlife almost immediately, and I was very much hoping – though not really expecting – to see a moose.  One day I will see a moose in the wild, and I hoped that this was the day.  Initially, though, it was the squirrels, and the birds.  Regular readers know I am crazy about birds, and this park did not disappoint.  In the first hour or so, I encountered my first Stellar’s Jay, and then a few minutes later a male/female pair of American Three-Toed Woodpeckers.

Stellar’s Jay

Struggled to make this picture work, but this is a male American three-toed woodpecker

I also was beginning to get views of the mountains.  Mt. Meeker was the most clearly visible, with Longs Peak peeking over its shoulder.  There was an interesting triangular peak that I discovered later was very appropriately called Pagoda Mountain.  And the basin itself was wild and deep and amazing to see for a guy that currently lives in Florida and grew up around mountains that topped out at under 3,000 feet.

Mt. Meeker, with Longs Peak saying “hi” in the background

Pagoda Mountain

The trail was climbing all of this time, sometimes steeply.  Rocks were everywhere, which is particularly OK on the steep sections – they almost act as stairs.  I climbed through a section that had once experienced a large forest fire and is still re-growing the forest.  And then, after I had climbed probably 1,000 feet, the trail turned and headed downhill for a half mile or so, losing 200 – 300 feet as it dropped down toward Finch Lake.  This downhill section was very steep, the only section of the whole trail that had switchbacks, and even steps, cut into the mountain.  While I appreciated the downhill, I also knew that I was going to have to climb this on the way back out, so … yeah.

When an otherwise very steep trail resorts to steps … buckle up

Finch Lake was about four miles into the six it was going to take to get to the top of my hike.  I approached the lake at about 8am, and had the entire view to myself.  This was my first ever experience with a sub-alpine lake, and – and I know this is cliché but I don’t care because the clichés are clichés for a reason – it was breathtaking.  There was a mist coming off of the water in the soft morning light, with the sunrise lighting Copeland Mountain, Ogalalla Peak, and Elk Tooth in the background.  Copeland Mountain, in particular, loomed over everything.  Here was my first real chance to see a moose, though it was not meant to be.  A flock of ducks landed on the water as I watched, though, and I could have sat there and smelled the forest and listened to the quiet for hours.

Finch Lake, with Copeland Mountain and Ogalalla Peak in the background

But I was making good time, and I had promises to keep (and miles to go before I sleep…).  In the first four miles I had gained probably just under 1,000 feet of elevation.  I was going to gain the next 1,000 feet in the next two miles.  Here was where I worried about my fitness, especially at elevation.  The trail was about to get steep, and I was already at well over 9,000 feet.  But I was not feeling any obvious impact from lack of oxygen, so I headed out around Finch Lake and started up the mountain.

The trail didn’t disappoint in terms of steepness, either.  Almost immediately I came upon a long, steep section that was more like climbing stairs than hiking a trail.  On the way back down, while I was at the top of this section, I met a couple of hikers that were just topping out right there.  They had clearly struggled with that section, and were hoping I would tell them that was the hardest part and that they were almost there.  It hurt to tell them that they still had over a mile and a half of climbing to go.  They looked … cowed.  I hope they made it to the top.

The trail then began to work through an area that had little bogs on the side.  This area looked very moose-y to me, and I slowed down and did a little exploring.  At one point, the trail bottle-necked in a section that was steep on both sides – no good way up, and no good way down.  Right in the middle of the trail at this point I found a moose print as big as my hand.  This got my heart-rate up.  They say to fish where the fish are, and that was clearly happening here.  But, alas, that print was all I saw of the moose that day.  Still a thrill, but I’m going to have to save the excitement of actually encountering one of the creatures for a different day.

Fish where the fish are … with my foot for scale

Eventually, the forest started to change.  I could tell I was gaining elevation when the big trees started to thin out a little, and in some cases give way to more open areas.  There were more bushes and shrubs, and the sunlight was able to penetrate much more heavily.  It was in this area that I encountered a bird that I did not recognize at all.  It was about the size of a large chicken, but colored perfectly like the bark of the trees it was living near.  The bird never did fly – when I asked a ranger about it later, that was the first question he asked me – but ran away slowly.  That ranger told me it was called a dusky grouse, recently recognized as a distinct species from a bird called the sooty grouse.  Together, they had been called blue grouse until fairly recently.  I love birds.

Dusky Grouse, disappearing into the tree behind it

And then, a short climb later, I topped out at Pear Lake, at about 10,600 feet.  Pear Lake is below the tree line, and stunning. Copeland Mountain and Ogalalla Peak are no longer looming off in the background – they stand guard right there, watching over the lake.  I was the only person there at about 9:15am, and I took the opportunity to head down by the water and explore around the edge.  I sat down to eat my breakfast / lunch (don’t granola bars and trail mix taste so much better when you’re out hiking?), and after a while began to see the wildlife around me.   There were goldfinch in the bushes, and little rodents that I assumed by their coloration were some kind of chipmunk – they looked like chipmunks, anyway, but were a bit bigger and less skittish than any chipmunk I’ve ever seen.  It turns out that they aren’t chipmunks at all, but are called golden-mantled ground squirrels.  Pro-tip – a chipmunk’s stripes go through its eyes.  If what you are seeing doesn’t have stripes on its face, it is a ground squirrel.

Pear Lake

A different angle, focusing on Ogalalla Peak

The outflow from Pear Lake

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

I probably spent 30 to 45 minutes at Pear Lake, just enjoying the scenery and exploring.  I tried to take pictures from multiple angles, in multiple directions.  I wandered down by the outflow of the lake and marveled at the view back down the trail, toward the mountains.  I tried to soak in everything – because, as beautiful as this place is, knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.  After a time, and before I’d gotten my fill, I knew I had to head back down the mountain to make sure I didn’t get rained on and to give myself plenty of time to get up to the visitor’s centers.  I headed back down the mountain and, for the first time, began seeing people.  On my way down I met several groups headed up, which reinforced a lesson to me – the early bird gets the worm.  I was glad I had left so early.

2017-08-24 12.01.21

Painted Lady butterfly, at about 10,000 feet

Words are inadequate to explain the feeling that I had on my way down the mountain – though they are all I have, so I’ll try.  18 months and about 75 pounds prior to the day I stepped out of my car in the Rocky Mountains, I would have not been physically capable of completing that hike.  12 miles would have been a challenge.  2,000 feet of elevation gain would have been an extreme challenge.  2,000 feet of elevation gain starting at 8,500 feet would have been nearly unthinkable.  But instead of physically failing, or even really struggling, I felt strong the whole day.  The lack of oxygen was not noticeable, and while the steep climbs were challenging, that was going to be true regardless of oxygen levels.  I powered up that mountain, finishing a 12 mile hike, including stops for food and mountain-gazing, in just over 6 hours, and was back to my car by noon.  Knowing that my physical abilities now include strenuous hiking in the mountains?  Priceless.

But I learned other things that day, too.  I learned that I love the mountains.  I learned that my home, regardless of where I live, is out in the woods, exploring and climbing and breathing the fresh air.  I badly wanted my wife and kids to be there, though I don’t think any of them would have been comfortable physically doing this climb.  I want to show them these places.  I want them to know what mist on a mountain lake looks like, and smells like.  I want them to know what rushing water at elevation sounds like.  I want them to know the anticipation of slipping up on a mountain bog hoping there is a moose out there looking back.  I want them to feel the sense of elation and satisfaction and pride that you feel when you reach your destination at the top of the mountain and get to bask in the beauty.  I want all of this for me, as much as I can get it, and I want to give it to them, too.

My soul is restored when I go outside.  The mountains, in particular, remind me what a beautiful world I live in.  At a time when people are fighting, and tension and uncertainty are high, and work is stressful, and life feels challenging – being alone in the wilderness is a tonic.  I can focus, and relax, and remember what I love to do.

And remember who I am.

Take a hike.  Go outside.  The world is an awesome place.

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