Because It Is Here
I had never been to Colorado before, and I hadn’t heard a single bad thing about it. After crossing the Great Nothing that is Kansas, I was looking forward to seeing so much as a rock, let alone getting my first glance at the Rockies. Another hour and a half past Colorado’s borders, I hit Denver and stopped downtown for lunch. I passed the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which I’ll have to come back and see, and witnessed a group of people holding signs that said “Fuck Cops.” I didn’t stop to participate.
Driving through Denver and Boulder, I was headed north to Rocky Mountain National Park. One of my graduation presents was something called the “America the Beautiful” pass. For $80, you get a year of free admission into any federal land in the country, including national parks, monuments, and refuges. I happen to be a person who loves all of those things, and with this job in the heartland of America’s parks and monuments, I can easily make this pass worthwhile.
The drive up to Rocky Mountain was gorgeous. The Highlander took the windy mountain roads like a champ, and I’m sure I only pissed off a lot of people with my constant looking at the scenery. I trained my eyes forward to the snow-capped peaks in the distance and completed this purely American experience by putting on Born To Run.
I stopped at a welcome center just inside the park to ask about camping arrangements, et cetera. The rangers there were very friendly, and reminded me that I probably should have registered a campsite online. The website was giving me problems on my phone (god, what am I, 70?), so I decided to bite the bullet and head up to the campground anyway to see what’s available. My chances were good that there’d be a spot available, as I got there on a Tuesday. Pro-tip: hitting the national parks during the week is the best time to do it.
My first night would be spent at the Moraine Park campground on the eastern side of the park. It’s a pretty sizable campground, and the rangers hooked me up with an awesome site. Site 150 was at the far end of the campground, jutting out just a little farther than the others, with an awesome view of the mountains and a trail that leads down to a meadow that was constantly populated with elk. I set up my tent opening toward the view and went out for my first hike.
Now, being from New York, we like to think we have mountains. We like to think we’re rugged and wild and untamed. In some cases, we’re right. When you get to the Rockies, your perception of anything else as a wilderness is shattered, and you’re thankful for it. Living in a land that has such natural beauty is a privilege, and it’s our right to be able to enjoy it. The Adirondacks are awesome, but they’ve got nothing on mountains that literally create the weather for the surrounding states.
They’re also a bitch to climb if you’re not used to them.
My first hike was from the Bear Lake Trailhead, which leads to several isolated glacial lakes up in the mountains. I looked at the map and planned an afternoon for myself, with hopes of seeing several of these lakes. I saw 2 and was completely winded. Stunned by the beauty of it all and happy that I was out there, but winded. Nymph Lake was beautiful, covered by a layer of thin ice. But the real treasure was sitting at Dream Lake, a bit higher up in elevation.
Dream Lake lives up to its name. The water is crystal clear, fed entirely by melting glaciers and snowpack from the mountains surrounding it. The mountains themselves, in the cool of the late afternoon, were shrouded at the very top by gray mist. No, not mist — clouds. Actual clouds. They rolled from the peaks into the valleys below like a cauldron bubbling over. I sat on the root of a bristlecone pine and took it all in. Donned in shorts and hiking boots, I could see my breath as I exhaled. Alone, on top of a mountain, staring at a completely still lake. If I ever decide to devote my life to the cloth and become a monk, that’s where I’ll be. Mark my words.
On my way back to camp, I pulled over to take photos of a few elk in the meadow below the campground. The bulls were grazing or fighting with each other, rearing up on their hind legs and boxing. Some had sizable antlers already, but they were all in velvet. All deer (including elk), as you may or may not know, shed their antlers annually and completely regrow them for the rutting season. The velvety skin surrounding the antlers supplies the growing protrusions with oxygen and nutrients to help them grow. In the spring, most of their time is occupied with eating and mingling.
I popped into the campground quickly to buy firewood before they closed up for the night, and went back out to take photos. I turned down a road that ran below the campground to a spot where there were dozens of elk, bulls and cows alike, grazing alongside a perfect glacial stream. I sat and watched them go through their daily routine, with more and more making their way down from the surrounding hillsides in small herds. Cows and calves came bounding from over the horizon to join what became well over a hundred elk. The sun was setting over the mountains, filtering light through the clouds coming from the peaks. The complete Rocky Mountain experience, in one scene.
The next day, I woke up to the view I was looking forward to: a completely clear sky, with the bright white snowcaps in sight from my open tent door. A mule deer was browsing not too far from the campsite. Birds and bugs were beginning to wake up as I packed up my tent and prepared for the day. I planned on hiking to Fern Lake, not far from the campground.
Let me preface this by saying that I am not a small man, nor am I fit in any respect. I’m totally out of shape, but I love hiking. Even if it kicks my ass, which it did, I love spending time outdoors and being able to appreciate it at my own pace. Which is slow.
My hike to Fern Lake began with the walk from the area where I parked to the trailhead itself, which was a mile away. Not bad. Totally flat, lined with streams and golden-green aspens. The trail itself was gorgeous, winding its way through a variety of habitats as it climbed in elevation. I was able to appreciate these habitats along the way, as I found myself stopping after pretty much every switchback. Like I said, not fit. Slow.
I ran into a scout troop on my way up and struck up conversation with them. They were nice, a group from Kansas, so they were even less accustomed to elevation that I was. I hiked ahead of them for the final leg of the trip to Fern Lake. I overheard them say the Lord’s prayer before lunch, and the kids busied themselves by throwing rocks into the otherwise still lake. Not as zen as Dream Lake.
The way back down was, naturally, all downhill. This fact kept me motivated on the hike up to the lake. It took me a third of the time to come down as it did for me to get up there, and I collapsed once I got into the car. I ate some apples and peanut butter, which is the greatest post-hike food I can imagine.
My plan for the rest of the day was to take Trail Ridge Road across the mountains and camp on the western side of the park. Trail Ridge Road is an actual paved road that goes high above the tree line and into the other side of the park, so it was a great chance for me to rest and still feel like I was doing something with my day. The drive took a couple of hours, but I found myself stopping along the way at every vista I could. The hikes to Dream Lake and Fern Lake seemed like walks to the mailbox after seeing these mountains from even higher. I drove next to walls of snow that were easily approaching 20 feet high.
At one point I stopped at an informational sign and was overcome with excitement to realize that I was standing in a tundra. The alpine tundra, in essence, is the land that is so high in elevation that it might as well be above the Arctic circle. No trees grow there — short grasses and lichen were all I saw among the boulders. It’s an honest-to-goodness tundra. I took a moment to appreciate the fact that in a day I had gone from lowland aspen groves to treeless tundra before collapsing into the car again.
Trail Ridge Road spat me out in the western half of the park, at a campground called Timber Creek. Surrounded by trees, the campground itself is suspiciously lacking in large coniferous plants. Only pine saplings were scattered throughout the sites. The more I looked, however, I saw that the campground lives up to its name — the gray, dried stumps of old trees are everywhere, lying almost flush with the ground. I don’t know when the area had been used for timber, but the evidence was there. I set up my tent at Site 79, facing another mountain and looked out over a reed-choked wetland (my favorite kind). A couple from Wisconsin, Matt and Kelly, were setting up at the site next to me. They were wonderful — they came for the week, backpacking the Continental Divide trail and using the campground as their home base. Frogs were shrieking their choruses as the sun began to set, deafening in a serene kind of way.
I heard what sounded like someone plucking handfuls of grass right outside my tent the next morning. I had seen a herd of elk in the campground the evening before, so I only assumed that they were back to continue their grazing. I was right, and the herd was busy with their heads down right across from where our cars were parked. I watched from the trunk of my car as a bull grazed a dozen feet away. The cows kept their distance, but eventually crossed the street. Unfortunately, I had already packed up my tent by the time they were walking through it. One approached my picnic table, maybe drawn by my fluorescent water bottle. The herd moved into the wetland and kept eating. I packed up and hiked the Green Mountain Trail up to Big Meadows, where I dipped my feet into an angler’s paradise of a stream.
Nothing in this country has filled me with more awe and wonder than the Rocky Mountains. So big that they create weather, so high that they are capped with tundras and glaciers. Ancient, unmovable gods dividing east and west. And yet, from Rocky Mountain National Park, I drove to a landscape that was more than twice as old when it reached its peak…