Extreme Hiking in North Park

A couple summers ago I decided to take advantage of a long weekend and head out at dusk to do some solo camping/backpacking.  I picked an area I was familiar with, since I had hiked and camped there a number of times.  My friends and I just used to refer to it as the Mountain.  To others it might be better known as the Cabin Creek area.  For a number of years, it was undeveloped, being on the other end of ranch land which prohibited public access to the area.  Laws changed, however, in the 1990s, opening public lands again, regardless of who owned the land in between access roads and public lands.  This also opened the area up to logging, which was instrumental in building roads to access timber, but also played a part in cutting out all sorts of old growth pine forest.

When I got to the trailhead, things were a lot different.  I hadn’t been there in at least 15 years.  Back then, a buck and rail fence with a gate marked the entrance.  The trail started off as a logging/service road that crept up through dense lodgepole pines until you reached the footpath which snaked its way up the mountainside, some of it very steep, but still obvious for the most part.  Twenty years ago, a friend and I hiked this area with three feet of snow on the ground, when there was no trail and we had the physical directions of Up and Down as a guide. Up lead to timberline, down would eventually take us to the valley floor and presumably a road.

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The other path less traveled

So much had changed.  Logging had erased any sign of the trail and after hiking along the road for a while, I soon came to realize that it was leading me north, miles away from where I needed to be.  So, I decided to break off from the trail.  With 50 lbs of gear in my old aluminum frame pack, which hadn’t been used since the last time I climbed this mountain, I had food for a few days, a tent, a sleeping bag, and a water filter pump.  In recent years giardia had found its way into creeks that as a kid, I would have drunk from without a second thought.

A hawk circled above me, calling out once in a while, reminding me of its presence.  I decided to use the same logic.  I knew that a trail meets the ridge-line of the Medicine Bow mountains at some point and from there, I could find the original trail I had missed on my ascent.  Straight up the side of a mountainside, through heavy pine forest, with a 50lb pack is not as easy as it sounds.  Especially when you are out of shape (nearly 20 lbs heavier then than I am now), asthmatic, and at about 9500 ft. above sea level.  And climbing.

Slow and steady wins the race, however, and eventually I found myself on top of “Sheep Peak” which is one of probably 400 Sheep Peaks in the state.  I’m glad I took the path I did, because this is what the alternate route was.

 

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Looking over North Park from Sheep Peak

Along the ridge, I was able to follow cairns, but I realized I was miles north of what I remember hiking in the past.  I kept on, following the ridge south, my feet killing me, my heart still racing from the climb. My pack was coming apart and if I wanted more water, I would have to drop down below treeline to find a creek to pump as it was fairly dry up on top.  The wildflowers were out.  Mosquitoes were kept at bay by the wind, but it was a warm, breezy day.  No signs of lightning yet on the horizon.

I continued along the crestline trail, snapping pictures on my camera phone.  Up at 11-12,000 feet, by yourself…there is no feeling to describe it.  I could see the patchwork below of clearcuts.  Though they look like eyesores, they actually provide areas for wildlife to gather and allow people to see more than just trees from their vantage point.  In time, the aspens take over, then the pines return.  All part of the cycle of life for an alpine forest.  Other than the few logging roads and the occasional tag, the Rawah Wilderness area is mostly untouched.  Difficult to reach, especially from the North Park side, I might have been the only person to take the path I had in decades, if not ever.  As a solo hiker, this is something you need to keep in mind, since one missed step could mean a snapped ankle or bone and you are essentially screwed.

The area has also become reacquainted with mountain lions, bears, and is choked with moose. Moose are possibly the most aggressive animal in North America and they will jack you up.  In wild terrain such as this, I carry a loaded pistol for protection against animals, for my own safety.  It would also be a decent way to signal for help if needed.  Three shots in succession is the universal code for emergency.  Whether or not there is anyone nearby to hear it is the question.  Along the way, I dropped a knife, as well as part of my backpack.  Those items are gone, ready to one day be excavated by an archaeologist in a civilization completely unknown to us.  Offerings to primal gods of forest and crags who hold onto such things.

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Wildflowers.  Very tired legs.  Rocks and stuff.

To the west, the clouds were forming into thunderheads.  I was tired, and one of the straps had completely come apart, making me feel like a big man on campus with his book bag slung over one shoulder instead of a backpacker.  My legs jerked with sewing-machine foot from the climb and didn’t seem like they were going to stop anytime soon.  As I hiked north, things became more familiar and eventually, I decided rather than be stuck on a mountaintop in the rain with a leaky tent that hadn’t been used in twenty years, with a backpack that was falling apart and a body that was screaming for help, I decided to use the obverse of my logic and hike back down the mountain.  I could see parts of the old trail through the trees.  A switchback.  A clearing.  A rocky outcropping.  I got a bearing with my compass and using my orienteering skills I set off down the mountain.

The path down wasn’t much easier than the path up.  Recent rains had made the ground slippery.  The trail, when I did come across it, hadn’t been maintained in years, making it impossible to follow.  Even with a new set of boots, it was hard to keep your footing.  Sometimes I found myself sliding down the mountain, trying to keep my pack in one piece as it continued to shake apart with every step.

Finally, I reached the trail and followed it back to the original, once-familiar trailhead.  Three clearcuts had nearly erased it from existence.  No trail was marked here anymore.  The mountain was claiming the path as its own again. By the time I reached my car, lightning was pummeling the peaks and the skies had turned dark.

Since then, I have gotten in better shape, my equipment has been replaced and upgraded, and although solo backpacking is a thrill, I have more people who will come with me now.  This summer, I am hoping to tackle the trail once again.  Better prepared. In better shape.  And ready for adventure this time around!

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Looking south towards North Rawah and Clark Peak

 

RMNP for Complainers

I used to complain a lot about how there is nothing good to do around here.  Social media has a way of infecting your mind with this notion.  I have a collection of friends that spans the globe.  A lot of them do things that I consider extremely interesting.  They travel to places I haven’t been but have lusted after for years.  They get there on motorcycles, airplanes (sometimes their own), ships, trains, and even on foot.  I have seen the omnibus of their collected travels and wonder what the heck I’ve been doing all this time!  The funny thing is there are actually psychological studies about this, and how social media actually makes you feel worse about yourself.

I live on the Colorado Front Range.  If I were to go outside right now, I could see the mountain range that makes up Rocky Mountain National Park.  Much like inhabitants of New York City, not a lot of Coloradoans go to RMNP unless they have friends from out of town they are showing around.  I can tell you from experience that getting a year long National Parks Pass is worth the investment when you live only about an hour away from this place.  Who knew that all this time, I was making my friends from other places jealous that this is what I can see after a 45 minute drive up the canyon.

Bear Lake

This is where all your Denver friends will take you if you are visiting town.  It is a big, beautiful glacial lake surrounded by mountains and there is a good chance if you have seen RMNP in pictures, this was the setting.  Avoid it like the plague.  Bear Lake is crowded.  I’ve seen less people at the Denver Zoo on a weekday.  Due to its popularity and ease of access, buses shuttle tourists in by the droves about every fifteen to twenty minutes. Their primary goal is to get off the bus, use the bathroom, try to adjust to the altitude before taking some pictures at the lake and then filing back onto the buses to head to lower elevations where they can breathe again.  Also, there are probably no bears.  Maybe some freeloading squirrels.

The good thing about Bear Lake is the shuttle makes other stops  One of these is an area called Glacier Gorge.

Black Lake

Hop off the bus at this stop and start walking.  Not as easy a trek as Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge Trail offers a little less foot traffic, a more challenging hike, and some stunning vistas heading up towards Black Lake and the North West side of Longs Peak.  The area itself is the backside of Longs Peak, which is just about the only mountain most people in the Northern Colorado end of the Front Range can name.

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Mills Lake (better than Bear Lake!)

 

It was carved out by glaciers descending Long’s Peak and other mountains, crushing and grinding rock into majestic valley during the Ice Age.  Along the way are roaring waterfalls, Mills Lake (more impressive than Bear Lake, but with a less impressive name).

Even if you don’t make it all the way to Black Lake, there is some excellent hiking, less people, and actual wildlife to see other than squirrels and mosquitoes.  You can hike all the way back to Bear Lake too, if that’s your thing.

 


Gem Lake

 

Much like Bear Lake, this is a very popular destination.  Just a few miles of moderately difficult, yet well-maintained trail.  The attraction is an area that allows wading, a strip of rocky “beach” and a nice bluff of rocks where you can climb and catch some sun.  Very crowded at times, this trail has the advantage of being challenging enough for kids and adults to feel like they are on a good, healthy hike, without being lost in the woods.  Interesting rock formations, such as a natural keyhole, and a good vantage point which overlooks Estes Park are nice features too.

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Gem Lake. You have probably seen this pic on someone’s dating profile.

Ideal for groups of people with varying skill-levels of hiking and plenty of places to stop and rest.  Gem Lake is the perfect place to get your boots off and soak your feet before returning to the car.  It’s also not a bad place to take some pictures to make your friends jealous on social media without beating yourself up too bad.

The trailhead actually starts not far from the Stanley Hotel!

Lawn Lake

More challenging and less crowded than Gem Lake, Lawn Lake is at the end of a six mile hike to the base of the Mummy Mountain.  The elevation gain is gradual, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with altitude sickness issues.  The trail is well-maintained, yet challenging at times.  The Lawn Lake trailhead used to be more popular until decades ago when a dam burst and washed the area out entirely.

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Mummy Mountain. And someplace in those trees is a hungry wolf and rumor has it, Lawn Lake.

I hiked the trail in November.  I brought snowshoes but didn’t need them due to lack of snow.  Only in a few places was the trail very snowy or icy.  Fun fact.  I never actually made it to Lawn Lake, since I saw a freakin’ wolf about a half mile from the lake.  I have seen my share of dogs, huskies, coyotes, and from 200 yards off, I could tell it was a wolf.  Since it was getting dark and I was hiking solo, I decided to listen to my instincts and head back down the trail before nightfall.  At this time of year, the trail had not been hiked for about a week about three miles in, so I was blissfully all on my own. Just off Fall River Road.

Hidden Valley

Not very hidden.  Everyone in Estes Park comes here to sled.  It’s a decent enough hill.  A little crowded for my tastes and nowhere near as good as the Walden sledding hill.

Trail Ridge Road

This is a beautiful place if your thing is tundra, craggy peaks, snowy alpine passes, and lots of elk.  The wildlife here is diverse, from adorable pica, to chipmunks, to giant marmots.  You might even see ptarmigans!  Unfortunately if anyone sees elk, it can turn into a parking lot.  A nice windy drive to the western side of RMNP which is often more wooded, but less crowded.  Also a good way to explore Grand Lake, Granby, and even Winter Park beyond!  The gift shop at the top of Trail Ridge Road is a lot of fun to visit too.  But don’t forget Specimen Mountain and the headwaters of the Colorado River! Warning, the pass is very, very high and caution should be taken if you are not used to the altitude.  Also, traffic can suck.

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Trail Ridge