Slowing Down and Seeing Small

Pretty Things along the Path

 Flying on a plane, you’ll see a map view of what lies beneath. From a car, you can see the big pictures, the mountain peaks as they stand next to each other, forests of green that look like carpet, the images moving quickly like on television. It is on hikes that you see the tree itself, or the flower, drops of morning dew hanging from pine needles, or smell the white bushy flowers that filled the air with something like sweet honeysuckle or jasmine, hear the wind through the trees, or the sound of rushing water or, occasionally, a remarkable and rare. . . quiet.  A bird entertained us on the way back from Bridal Veil Falls with his rhythmic exercises: a descending minor third to a repeated tone, mostly in groups of four but, when we listened closely, occasionally five, sometimes three, or even two.

These photographs are a few of the small things that made the hike along Cow Creek in Estes Park so memorable.

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Creatures and Flowers and Falls, Oh My!

A long way from Kansas, we’re off to see Bridal Veil Falls

You won’t find the Bridal Veil Falls road, which is actually called the Cow Creek Trail, listed on rockymountainhikes.com, even though it is officially in the park. Protrails has it, but gives no directions to getting there. We finally found the route on summitpost.org, and were glad we persevered. During our hike back from Mills Lake a few days earlier, we’d encountered a friendly older couple on their way up who were very eager to tell us that Bridal Veil Falls was a stunning hike, and the “wildflowers were just amazing.” I promptly forgot they’re directions but remembered the name of the falls; how appropriate, after all, since our adventure had become an engagement trip less than a week earlier at Ohaver Lake. Thank you, fellow hikers, for sharing your secrets!

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To get there, just go north on MacGregor (off highway 34, the hotel strip, near the Stanley Hotel). It’ll turn into Devil’s Gulch Road (not nearly as scary as it sounds) and after about 3 miles you’ll go left onto a dirt road at a sign that says “McGraw Ranch.” There are only about ten parking spots along the road, so if you get there late, you’re out of luck. This has the advantage of keeping the trail unfettered with human traffic, and is probably why it is not listed in the more public RMNP hiking guides.

The path to Bridal Veil Falls

The path to Bridal Veil Falls

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

A curious young buck

A curious young buck

Here’s a piece of advice that has served us well on all of our hikes: HIKE EARLY! We tend to head out when the sun is up and arrive at trails no later than 6:30 or 7 a.m. Our reward has been wildlife, still unperturbed by humans, foraging or frolicking in dew-licked meadows. The wild turkeys didn’t seem to mind us, and the young buck was downright curious, gradually meandering closer to us until he was a mere 20 yards off.12_flowero

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The panoply of multi-colored wildflowers was truly astonishing; look for some of them on a separate post. And this trail, following Cow Creek up to the falls, is a great opportunity to traverse three different terrains in one hike. The first part is a meadow hike on a nice wide dirt path, fairly flat, full of flowers, and pleasant. We had a cloudy, misty, and slightly foggy morning, but I’d imagine if the sun was out in the afternoon you’d want to bring a hat, sunscreen, and bug spray.

At about a mile in, the path hugs the creek and dips into a thick forest, and we began to feel a more steady uphill climb.

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The final part of the hike is rocks. Nothing dangerous, but steep and rocky, the path sometimes hard to find. You don’t need rock climbing gear but for us amateurs it does provide a bit of fun!

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The falls themselves were spectacular, and we managed to get some selfies with the help of a couple of guys who’d arrived after us but beat us to the top.

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Onme Trium Perfectum

One Hike, Three Lakes: Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake

Choosing among all the possible hiking trails in RMNP proved to be a thoughtful undertaking. After our first hike in RMNP to Lake Mills, and having completed two hikes already, we searched for a hike that would offer the same beauty we had seen while being doable for our tired legs. The website, www.rockymountainhikingtrails.com, provides the should-be-considered information for such a decision. After perusing the site, pouring over the facts on length, features, difficulty levels, etc., we decided on the hike to Emerald Lake which would take us to two other lakes along the way. Score!

This hike begins at the Bear Lake Trail Head, and, like the Mills Lake hike, it is very popular. To avoid having to ride the shuttle to the trail head or hike the trail surrounded by others, get there early!

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Our drive to the trail head was briefly and pleasantly interrupted by an entire family of elk lounging on the road and grazing on the surrounding foliage. The mamas, grandmamas, and babies checked us out as intently, though probably not as admiringly, as we did them.

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The trail begins with a half-mile, non-stop climb to Nymph Lake. There, we were greeted by a curious and energetic chipmunk who did not want to give up his seat to let us rest. Who could blame him, though?

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From there, the trail continues for about a mile to Dream Lake.  After climbing steadily for the first half mile, I was expecting some reprieve, but no. This mile was, I think, even steeper and more exhilarating. Along this part of the trail, the views are simply stunning. Right before arriving at Dream Lake, the trail splits, offering a spur that leads to Lake Haiyaha. We considered elongating our hike by following that path on our way back from Emerald Lake, but, looking at the snow which covered the trail, still, at the base, we decided that trek would be better to take at a later date.

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After enjoying the views at Dream Lake, we headed out for Emerald Lake. This part of the trail was yet another climb and partly covered with slick, packed snow. Through the first part of the hike we were showered with sun and amazed with blue skies (You don’t see that kind of blue in Houston), but as we approached Emerald Lake, all that changed. Emerging onto the shore of the lake, at an elevation of 10, 110 feet, we were engulfed in clouds. The lake was covered partly in ice, and the surrounding mountains blanketed in snow.

On the way back down, singing, “I love going downhill. I love going downhill,” we ran into a couple of Park Rangers who were a little surprised that some of us made it all the way up to Emerald Lake, because of all the late-in-the-season snow still left on the trail.  We also pondered the bravery, expressions of misery, and altitude fatigue of tennis-shoe and t-shirt dressed families whose fathers carried wee children and babies in shaded, framed enclosures like donkeys.

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This is a great hike. We do recommend being the early bird in order to avoid the crowds, see some beautiful animals and flowers, and take advantage of the serene quiet and peace this trail offers before it is overrun with less than natural wildlife.

Views and Thrills on the way to Lake Mills

Hiking RMNP, Part 1

Approaching Mills Lake, RMNP

Approaching Mills Lake, RMNP

After three nights of camping at Ohaver Lake near Salida, we followed a Western route through curvaceous and vertiginous roads to Estes Park.   Here we stayed at the Stone Brook lodge in our own private cabin complete with a balcony and outdoor hot tub overlooking a roiling, swollen creek. Paula, the owner, was a gracious host, even providing us with a stick of butter for our grilled potato on our last night of the stay. Stone Brook has a strict ‘no children, no pets, no guests’ rule, which would have ruled us out if we’d been traveling with the kids but was absolutely perfect for two tired school teachers running from the cluster and bustle of Houston. The hot tub was listed as a ‘private’ hot tub on the web site, but we discovered when we arrived that ‘private’ meant ‘not shared with other residents,’ as opposed to ‘hidden from view of everyone else.’ Alas, we kept our swimsuits on when enjoying the soothing jets, which turned out to be just the remedy for tired legs and feets.

The view on the Trail to Mills Lake

The view on the Trail to Mills Lake

An Elk in the Trail

An Elk in the Trail

"Our" Elk, up close

“Our” Elk, up close

Our first hike was a 3.2 mile trek to Mills Lake, accessible from a multi-site trailhead down Bear Creek Road. Here’s some very useful advice for hikers at RMNP: get there EARLY! Parking spots fill up and you’ll have to take a shuttle if you can’t beat the crowd, plus RMNP is a popular place, so your trail will be filled with other hikers of various ages and physical condition with their extendable hiking poles, babies, and hurried expressions. We were rewarded within the first mile: an Elk was stopped on our path and after we watched her for a bit before she stepped aside to let us pass within a few feet of her. These animals are used to people but must have an aversion to crying babies and squealing children, because once the path was cluttered with humanity there were none to be seen.

Mountain Path

Mountain Path

Pines and mountains

Pines and mountains

Crossing Streams

Crossing Streams

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Alberta Falls

On the way to Mills Lake you’ll pass Alberta Falls, a respectable waterfall which serves as a great photo opportunity. Unfortunately, even at 7:30 a.m. there are other hikers along the path, so communing naked with the water was out of the question.

Flowers on the mountain

Flowers on the mountain

Cindy plays in snow

Cindy plays in snow

Hiking on snow

Hiking on snow

Colorado this year was unusually moist and there was a fair amount of snow on the ground as we got closer to our destination. Most of it was a bit slippery and squishy, and dirty from hikers plying the route, but it was ‘no big thang’ and certainly not persistent enough to warrant skis.

A selfie, thanks to a couple of helpful hikers

A selfie, thanks to a couple of helpful hikers

Cindy at Mills Lake

Cindy at Mills Lake

Mills Lake

Mills Lake

The views along the route were wonderful. We debated, even as we reached the trail juncture, of traveling an additional 2.7 miles to Sky Pond, but took the shorter route to Mills Lake and were rewarded for it. A serene, mountain lake surrounded by trees, it was mirror clear when we arrived. A swarm of large and logy mosquitos descended upon us as we ate a mountain snack, but they quickly dispersed when repellent was applied.

Whiskey Flight at the Historic Stanley Hotel

Whiskey Flight at the Historic Stanley Hotel

Having conquered our first RMNP trail we hit the hot tub, rested, then went for dinner at the historic Stanley Hotel. Supposedly Stephen King got some inspiration for The Shining from this place, possibly at the restaurant, which offered a whiskey tasting flight. Choosing three from the hundreds of selections proved difficult, but the Sazerac won the day with its smooth yet complex flavor that settled well into the throat.

Reaching Climax

Johnson Tunnel, Camp Dick, and other things along the road

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From Salida we traveled north on 285, gaining a spectacular view of the Collegiate Peaks to our west (Mt. Princeton, Mt. Yale, Mt. Harvard).  Once on highway 24 we stopped for breakfast at Jan’s Family Restaurant in Buena Vista, a lovely dining place with amazing food (the omelet must have been made with a dozen eggs, and the Huevos Rancheros was a giant plate size spectacle slathered with refried beans and green chili sauce).

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Once in Leadville, highway 91 took us to Frisco and I70 via Climax, Colorado, also known as Freemont Pass, at 11,318 feet. On the way down we passed through the Johnson Tunnel and then found our way to Frisco and I70 was its usual catastrophe of high speed vehicles and bad drivers, but once we got off at Highway 6 the route turned frantically scenic.

The route into Estes Park involves highway 119 to Nederland, then highway 72 for 23 miles and finally highway 7 into the city. There seems to be four ways to travel this path. First and least popular, hitchhiking. We saw a father and two young children trying to catch a ride going south. Folks, you know, in movies this activity never turns out well, either for the hiker or the. . .picker-upper.

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Bicycling seems to be quite popular, though I can’t imagine it is very relaxing. There are more hills and twists and turns than candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential ticket, and the cyclists we saw seemed to be in genuine (not imagined) pain, spinning their tires in the lowest possible gear and moving up a 7% grade at about 5 feet per minute.

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Motorcycles (or choppers, baby) were also prevalent. Here’s a tip: don’t flip off the roving packs of cyclists you see on the road—they’ll follow you for miles.

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Cars were by far the vehicle of choice, and from your car you can see plenty of scenery on the way and occasional turn outs, but don’t expect to see a gas station or any semblance of civilization once you’re past Nederland. There is Camp Dick, just south of Estes Park; recreation.gov will give you more information about this seminal camping institution.

Politics Free Suzy G

Our Recalcitrant Window Driver

Suzy Garmin is our navigator. We stick her to the window, plug her in, enter the destination, and she tells us—in her non-melodic, slightly nasal fembot voice—how to get there. “In one and a half miles, take the exit, on the right, to Highway 69 south,” or “when the road ends, turn left.” She can lead us to the nearest Starbucks, or grocery, and is totally apolitical when it comes to directions. Hers are always the most efficient routes, on the fastest roads, in the quickest time, and for this we love her.

Except when we’re not in a hurry.

Heading north from Salida, Colorado, our destination was Estes Park. Suzy’s plan was to take us N. on 285 and directly into the Denver area via 470 and then through Boulder. Ugh. Just because George W. Bush destroyed the nation’s economy doesn’t mean I have to drive around Denver. I’d sooner vote for Mitt Romney than drive on crazy, crowded highways (and by the way, you other drivers out there: you’re all assholes). I had already planned my route, and it is a good one. Take 285 N to 24 W, then hook up with Colorado 91 and pick up Interstate 70 at Frisco. Once I got on 24 W, Suzy recalculated and, in a surprisingly reluctant voice, gave in to my route choice, at least until we hit 70. Suzy was sure that we wanted to drive right into Denver and pick up on the route she’d originally planned, but when I took the highway 6 exit (exit 244, on the left), she recalculated again and seemed genuinely pissed. She even tried to loop me back to 70 via highway 40, but Colorado 119 to 72 to 7 is much more scenic, far less traveled, and genuinely peaceful.

We arrived safely in Estes Park and all is well.  Suzy must have forgiven us, because she seemed pleased to tell us:  “you have arrived at your destination.”  One thing to note about this route: there are no gas stations or places to stop and leave pee (unless it is in a bush or a stream).