Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rocky Mountain National Park

Friday, September 12, was another cold, cloudy day. We packed up our wet tent at the campground in Steamboat Springs and headed to Rocky. The only campground on the west side of the park is Timber Creek, and most of that campground has been closed all year. The mountain pine beetle epidemic is so bad on the west side of the park that park management embarked on a project to cut down most of the trees in the campground and reduce the likelihood of injuries to campers from falling trees. They cleared the A loop this past spring, so that’s the only loop that’s open. The other loops are scheduled to be cleared sometime this fall, and due to the danger, they’ve been closed all year.

Because it was Friday and the campground had only 18 sites available, we tried to get there early in the day. As it turned out, we didn’t need to worry – there were plenty of sites available. We picked a nice one and set up our wet tent. The lack of tree cover made for nice views from the campsite of mountains covered with snow that had fallen the past couple of days.

We had seen some elk in Holzwarth Meadow on the drive in, so after setting up our tent, we drove back. Sure enough, a bull was herding his harem.

September is elk rutting season. That means the biggest, baddest bull elk are rounding up their herds of females to impregnate. Herds of 20 females weren’t uncommon. The bulls are busy! Of course, when one bull takes possession of 20 females, that leaves a bunch of other boy elk out in the cold, and sure enough, we saw plenty of lone younger boy elk who didn’t have racks as big as the big bad bulls.

What’s most amazing about the rut is the sound that the bulls make. It’s called “bugling,” and in various forms, it seems to serve to round up the women and to call out to other bull elk, perhaps as a challenge or to tell others to stay away. But it’s hardly a bugle. It’s more like a scream from a horror film, and as we stood next to the meadow, listening to bulls all around us bugling to their women and to each other, it was very eerie.

Next we went to the visitors center, and while we were there, it started hailing outside! The hail balls weren’t golf-ball-sized, by any means, but they were still pretty substantial. The hail went on for quite a while before turning to rain. Then we drove out to the town of Grand Lake, just outside the west entrance, where we made dinner at a covered picnic area, waited out the rain, and then walked around the town when the skies cleared.

As we headed back into the park toward our campsite, the sunset was amazing.

As we lay in our tent, we could hear the bull elk bugling all around us. It was cold, so we occasionally woke up during the night and to bundle ourselves tighter in our sleeping bags, and each time, we could hear the elk bugling.

We woke up to a chilly morning, but the skies had mostly cleared.

Soon after we got out of our tent, a few cow elk showed up in the campground. Some had radio collars for tracking.

Sarah was enjoying the elk show.

We counted a dozen or more women elk. They were very interested in the fire rings in each campsite, probably attracted by food and trash left behind by previous campers.

Then, off at the edge of the forest, we saw their man. The bull was rubbing his antlers on the trees.

Eventually, he emerged from the forest and posed for some pictures in the sunlight.

He walked across the campground into a forested area by the road.

Here he is in a campsite near ours, in his “herding” pose. It looks odd, but it’s the way they round up the ladies.

Then he went back to his favorite tree to rub his antlers a little longer. We went to the tree afterwards and found that a three-foot section of bark was raggedly stripped off.

Here’s Sarah, pleased with her morning of elk viewing. The sky was looking clearer and clearer – it was going to be a lovely day!

Our first destination for the day was the Holzwarth Historic Site. It was an early guest ranch that was eventually gifted to the park. The Park Service removed some newer buildings and rehabilitated the meadow, where we’d seen the elk the day before. But they preserved the older buildings and some farm implements.

From the meadow, we could see snowy peaks in the Never Summer mountain range.

That afternoon, we hiked the Green Mountain Loop, a seven-mile loop. Most of it was in the trees, and we continuously marveled at how much damage the pine beetles had done. Big Meadow afforded some mountain views.

That evening, the visitors center had a slide show by a man who climbed Mt. Everest this year. Along the way, we reached a big group of people who had parked their cars and were looking at something off in the brush, so naturally, we stopped, too. It turned out to be three moose – two young males and a female. The males were horsing around, kind of gently butting heads and clacking their antlers against each other’s. Very cool! We stayed for a few minutes and then continued on to the Everest presentation.

Surprisingly, the Everest climber was an older guy with a paunch – he didn’t look like someone who could climb Everest. But as we listened to his presentation, it became clear that climbing Everest requires much more than physical fitness. Ability to withstand insanely cold temperatures, general mental fortitude, optimism, ability to follow a rigid set of rules that keep you and your team safe – it seems that these are just as important as fitness.

The most horrifying part of the climb sounded like a place near the top, where climbers have to cross a narrow ledge, with drop-offs of hundreds or thousands of feet on either side. Climbers are roped up when they traverse the ledge, of course, but what happens if one slips and falls off? He’d take the whole team down with him. So if you see the climber immediately in front of you slip off the ledge to one side, then you jump off the other side to balance the weight! Then if all went well, the other climbers on your rope haul you both back up. Crazy! It must be terrifying to take this “leap of faith,” but if the alternative is death, maybe you get over it.

It was pretty dark by the time we left the presentation. As we were driving back toward our campsite, we saw a herd of elk in the road. We stopped to let them pass and noticed that the bull of the herd was calling out to another bull somewhere nearby. We decided to park and see what would happen. Shortly, the second bull and his harem also crossed the road, coming out of the hills to the east of the road and heading to the meadow to the west. The two bulls sized each other up, bugling at each other, and eventually, one of the bulls just walked away, apparently relinquishing his harem to the bigger, badder bull. We were a little disappointed that no physical confrontation was involved, but at the same time, we were amazed at how simply the transaction took place.

That evening, the campground’s 18 sites filled up. It was another chilly night, filled with the near-constant bugling of bull elk. The next morning, when we got out of our tent, the elk were already in the campground.

They didn’t stay as long today, probably because the campsites were full, so there was less area to explore unimpeded. We made breakfast and noticed that our water bottles created an interesting pattern on the picnic table as the frost melted.

We wanted to drive across to the east side of the park, but the road had been closed since Thursday, when eight inches of snow fell at the higher elevations, drifting up to two to five feet. We’d heard a rumor that the road would open today, so late in the morning, we packed up our tent and started driving to see how far we could make it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find our tent bag – it seemed that we had misplaced it when we were setting up our tent. Oh well.

As we drove up, we got great views of the Never Summer Mountains.

We made it up to Milner Pass at 10,758’. By this point, it seemed like the road was open the whole way through

Then, up by the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796’, we were looking down on the snowy slopes.

We thought of doing a short hike in the alpine area, but we wanted to make sure that we got a campsite on the east side of the park, so we kept driving. At Aspenglen campground, we found that there were plenty of sites available, and we picked a lovely one that had great privacy and a nice stock of firewood left behind by its previous occupant. We were right by a creek, too, which made a peaceful sound – quite different from the bugling elk in our previous campsite.

Although we didn’t have elk right in our campsite, we didn’t have to drive far to find elk-filled meadows.

It was getting late in the day when we decided to do a short hike – a six-mile round-trip hike to the top of Deer Mountain. On the way up, a woman warned us that it was getting late in the day – we weren’t going all the way to the top, were we? (In fact, we had plenty of time – the hike took about three hours.) She also warned us that about the large piles of bear scat on the trail. They looked really fresh, she said. We hadn’t seen any yet, but we promised her that we’d be on the lookout for bears.

As it turned out, we never did see bear scat. We did see some large, fresh piles of horse manure, which must have been what she was talking about. We found it hilarious that she couldn’t tell the difference between horse manure and bear scat, and joked for the rest of the hike about these strange hay-eating bears that seemed to be everywhere!

Anyway, near the top, we met a bird.

We made it to the top and got a nice view of the surrounding area.

After hiking, we headed to town for beer and burgers at Estes Park Brewery. They also have a free tasting, so Brian got to try several of their beers, settling on the stout as the best.

The next day, we were about to head out from the campground when a fox ran right in front of our car and through our campsite!

We planned a big loop hike that would take us to some of the picturesque lakes in the Bear Lake area. We started our hike at the Glacier Gorge trailhead and hiked to Alberta Falls.

As we continued to ascend, we got nice mountain views.

The subalpine creeks and vegetation were very pretty, too.

Soon we reached Mills Lake.

Ascending from Mills Lake, we reached a steep, rocky area with a creek tumbling down.

Here’s Brian, taking a break from the climb.

Above the cascade, we could tell we were approaching the next lake.

Black Lake turned out to have a beautiful mountain backdrop.

At Black Lake, the trail ended, so we retraced our steps, taking a snack break at Mills Lake.

Then we headed down another trail to The Loch, from which we could see Andrews Glacier in the distance.

We retraced our steps from The Loch and then took a rough trail to Lake Hiayaha.

From there, we hiked toward Dream Lake. The views opened up, and Longs Peak stood out prominently as the only fourteener (14,000’ peak) in the national park. We had hoped to climb Longs Peak while we were in the park, but several rangers had warned us that it would be dangerously icy near the top, so they recommended ice axes and crampons.

As we hiked down toward the next lakes on our route, we passed some aspens that were turning yellow.

We passed Dream Lake and hiked to Nymph Lake, which offered a nice reflection of Longs.

A couple of ducks approached us, clearly looking for food.

When they figured out that we weren’t going to give them any, they curled up for a nap.

Finally, we hiked down to the Bear Lake trailhead, where we took a shuttle back to our car. On the shuttle ride, we saw a big bull moose just off the road. Back at the campsite, we ate dinner and made a nice campfire.

The next day, we went back to Bear Lake for a walk around the lake.

Longs Peak still beckoned, but according to the rangers, it was still as inaccessible as ever without at least ice axes.

Just above Bear Lake, we got a great view of the aspens changing color.

Then we hiked down to Bierstadt Lake.

The next day, Wednesday, we left Rocky for Fort Collins.

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