The Newly Wed and the Nearly Dead

After spending almost a week on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I still hadn’t had enough of the mountains. Steamboat was beautiful, but the ridiculously expensive RV park where I was staying was too far in the opposite direction from the hiking trails, requiring a tedious drive through traffic to get to any areas suitable for a hike. A look at the map reveals it won’t be that far to backtrack from the I25 corridor to Estes Park to visit the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Estes Park’s historic Stanley Hotel, opened in 1909, was the inspiration for Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

The famous hotel has a storied past with tales of haunted rooms. There is even a ghost tour offered.

The hotel has served as a set for several movies.

The Stanley’s famous Whiskey Bar, which is reported to offer 1,200 varieties.

I go online knowing campgrounds inside the park book up six months in advance. By some fluke, there is an entire week of consecutive nights in the same spot available in the very popular Moraine Campground. It had to be a cancellation. My nervous knuckles and sweaty palms race across the keyboard to claim the space before it’s sold out like the other 246 sites.

I am particularly happy about being in the Moraine Campground because of its bus stop on the east side shuttle system. Not only will this save the Little Tracker from having to climb the mountains and do the road work to get to the trail heads, but I won’t have to jockey for position in RMNP’s over-crowded parking areas.

The Park & Ride facility inside RMNP is the hub for three different shuttle routes, including a Hiker Express that shuttles people in from the town of Estes Park.

The shuttle bus is an excellent way to do one way hikes such as the “top down” hike from Bear Lake back to the campground.

Beautiful, uncrowded Bierstadt Lake is my lunch stop on my one way hike down the mountain.

Mill Creek, runs through Mill Creek Basin.

Hiking from Bear Lake back to the campground leads me through the site of the Fern Lake Fire, started from an illegal campfire in 2012.

I think we hikers are going to see a lot more of this “scorched earth” in the days ahead.

Five years after the fire, the vegetation is regenerating in vibrant colors.

Overlooking Cub Lake, which is much larger than the round shape, as much of it is covered in water lilies.

But even more fun is the freedom that the shuttle service brings for doing one way hikes without having to backtrack. Rocky Mountain National Park has 350 miles of trails, many of them which intersect like tangents of a spider web. Having access to the shuttle system means I can take off in many directions without having to worry about getting myself back to the same trail head. Just head down any trail that feeds in to a bus stop, which ultimately takes me back to the Winnie!

My first morning on the shuttle’s Moraine Line, I am the only person on the bus. I remark to the driver that I got an early start, fearing the bus would be crowded. I express my delight to find that the park is much quieter than I anticipated. He responds, “That’s because you hit it at the right time! Here in the park, we call this ‘the season of the newly wed and the nearly dead!’ It’s the time of year when the kids are all back in school, and the only people who have vacation time are young people without children, or the retirees. So….the newly wed and the nearly dead!”

I nearly fell over dead with laughter!

A couple of the “newly wed.” Check out this fancy Osprey Kid Carrier, retails for $300 (sun shade not included.)

But…it’s not just the two-legged newlyweds. Love is in the air! It’s mating season for the elk, and love songs can be heard throughout the evening. Cooler temperatures and shorter days signal the start of the mating season called the “rut.” Bull elk can be heard bugling in an effort to attract females or challenge another bull.

The elk spends all day grazing, and consumes on average 20 lbs of grasses, pine needles, bark, and shrubs. During the summer growth cycle, a healthy diet can mean antler growth for the bull elk at a rate of an inch per day. They grow a new pair of antlers every year which can weigh up to 40 lbs, then shed them in early spring to start over. I find it fascinating that the antlers actually have feeling before they harden, as the “velvet” which provides blood supply to the antlers begins to itch when it sheds. Knowing this will certainly add to my discomfort when viewing the “rack wall” at Cabelas.

I am fortunate enough to run into a large herd of elk on two of my hikes in two different places, though likely the same herd. The first time, I can hear them long before I can see them. Along the path, I can hear the bugling, but having little experience with the signals, I have no idea how far away they are, or how many there are. I am stunned to crest the trail and see them so close, and in such large numbers. There must have been fifty of them.

My first sighting of the herd. Note the bull over in the bushes to the left.

I try repeatedly to capture his loud screeching bugling on video, but my timing is never good.

However, my lack of video is not due to infrequency of the mating call, but rather due to my nervousness in locating the record button. When he turns towards me, I start to backtrack (Not as close as he looks, as this is a zoom shot.)

The next day, I choose a different hike in close proximity in hopes of seeing them again, and come upon them just as they are crossing the river. I try to keep my distance, but they are right alongside the path, so I wait, while standing behind several large boulders. Meanwhile, it’s fascinating just listening and watching the bull and his harem interact. The cows and calves make mewing sounds and chirp back and forth at each other like a small town social.

The next day, I find them crossing the Big Thompson River. Such majestic animals!

The big bull is always bringing up the rear, herding his harem.

They seem to be very social animals.

I enjoy hearing the bugling sound, a screeching scream of the bull elk, just as I enjoy the howl of the coyote, especially in the wee hours when I am safe inside the Winnie. When the night is still and quiet beneath the thumbnail moon, their sounds make me feel like I am someplace in the wild.

“Without parks and outdoor life, all that is best in civilization will be smothered. To save ourselves, to prevent our perishing, to enable us to live at our best and happiest, parks are necessary to find ourselves, in which to think and hope to dream and plan, to rest and resolve.” Enos Mills, father of the RMNP, internationally known naturalist, author, lecturer, and nature guide.

The hike to Fern Lake starts out along Fern Creek, where many fly fishermen (two seen in this photo) report success, though it is catch and release.

The Fern Lake Trail passes through house-sized boulders called “Arch Rock” for obvious reasons.

The trail passes Fern Falls, a 60 ft waterfall. The trail was built by loggers in early 1900’s, and is now on National Register of Historic Places.

Fern Lake Patrol Cabin, built in 1925, and functioned as a ranger station until 1949.

Fern Lake, though actual lake is on the other side of this row of bushes.

More Fern Lake.

Another lovely hike to The Loch passes Alberta Falls.

I loved this hike, as it was scenic the entire way.

Approaching The Lock is a stunning sight.

Directly across from the foot of the lake is 13,153-foot Taylor Peak and Taylor Glacier.

The Lock, Scottish name for lake, is 10,190 ft in elevation.

It actually snowed here for about 30 seconds…

A Sense that Summer’s Ending

Connecting the quiet west side of Rocky Mountain National Park with its more popular east side near Estes Park is the NPS’ highest paved road, Trail Ridge Road. The scenic, twisting, winding road traverses through the heart of the park from Estes Park on the east side to Grand Lake on the west. It’s the only way to get from one side of the park to the other. But more noteworthy, it’s the highest paved road in our national park system. The two lane road is 48 miles long, ten of those miles above tree line, topping Continue reading

Summer in the Never Summer Mountains

As I continue my northern trek up through Colorado, I sit at the crossroads. I want to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Though I’ve been there before, it’s been many years, so I remember very little.

Besides, I am longing for some “ready made hiking.” I grow weary having to research every inch of my life. What are those noises and hiccups that the Winnie and Tracker make, and where can I get them fixed? What are the road conditions ahead?  Weather research now includes not just storm clouds but smoke clouds as well. Where are the legal overnight spots? What are my best options for campgrounds? Continue reading