Monday, October 26, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow on the peaks, elk in the meadows. Rustic lodges along the fringe; hiking trails leading off in every direction. Who could ask for more?

There are disadvantages to visiting the park in late October, most notably that Trail Ridge Road, which leads up above the tree line and over to the far side of the park, might be closed (It was.) and that the cold and darkness arrive too early in the evening to make camping appealing. Also, the trails are packed with snow in some places, making it advisable to put “ice stabilizers” on your boots. (We didn’t have any.)

The great advantages are that the crowds have thinned, the elk are bugling, and the peaks are a brilliant white against the evergreens. If anything, it seems too easy to arrive at pristine and staggering vistas. (Not that I’m complaining.)

On our first day in the park we hiked to Mills Lake, a 5.5 mile round trip through the subalpine spruce and Engelmann fir, with mountain chickadees chattering from the forest at every turn. The trail passes Alberta Falls, then passes along the west side of a massive gorge before winding on through the woods to the lake, climbing nearly a thousand feet along the way. Mills Lake stands at 9,950 feet above sea level, and it’s surrounded on three sides by imposing snow-covered peaks that rise much higher, among them McHenry’s Peak (13,327’), The Arrowhead (12,387’), Chiefs Head Peak (13,579’) The Spearhead (12,575’) and a series of prominent spires near the summit of Longs Peak known as the Keyboard of the Winds.

We started off at 9 a.m. and had the trail mostly to ourselves, though a family with two very energetic Asian children chomped at our heals from time to time, and we allowed a group of middle-aged adults to pass us at one point. “I sold my house over the phone in one day, and two days later I had a new job,” one of the men was relating in a very loud voice. “I’m not complaining, I’m very grateful… but there wasn’t much drama or uncertainty to the transition.” Once having passed us, however, this group stopped almost immediately to rest, and we re-passed them and hurried on. (I was happy when they took the fork to Loche Lake and disappeared into the forest forever.)

There was snow on the trail in many places, though only a few of the sections were treacherous. The lake itself was half-covered with clear ice. The sun was bright and the air was fresh as we sat on the rock shelf eating a few slices of cheese. We spotted an ouzel (a gray bird that feeds underwater, also known as a dipper) wandering amid the driftwood at the lake’s outlet. He would occasionally hop down onto the ice, slip around a bit, and then return to better footing.

A chipmunk arrived almost immediately to share our lunch, and three men on a promontory fifty yards away struck up a long and elaborate discussion about where the “keyhole” route to the summit of Longs Peak went. I don’t think they were planning to make the ascent any time soon, but they did march off to Jewel Lake, which lies only a few hundred yards further up the trail. We were content merely to stare up at the icy mountain-tops, shush away the chipmunk from time to time, and listen to the breeze rustling through the forest nearby.

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