I can only count on one hand the number of "dream trips" I've had in my lifetime, but in May of this year I was able to add another to my "done it" list. I headed off to Denver, Colorado with my brother-in-law and another friend for a hiking/camping trip in the Rockies and surrounding area. Though I've been out west a number of times, seeing these mountains was like seeing them for the first time. And, since this was the first time I'd been in RMNP, it was an absolutely amazing experience all-around. It is amazing how different each western state is from another.
Day 1: We left Dayton on Frontier Airlines Friday morning, May 27th. It was a beautiful day, and the flight was perfect. After landing in Denver, we did our typical housekeeping activities at the airport and then header over to the REI downtown Denver flagship store. Imagine one store having everything you could ever want or need for camping/hiking/backpacking, etc.! We spent at least two hours in the store, checking out equipment and drooling over gear we couldn't afford. It was a blast! While there, an REI employee informed us many of the trails in the high country were closed due to snow, and that this was the most snow they'd seen in a very long time this late in the year. We knew we'd have to alter our hiking plans to lower elevations for this trip. Finally, we picked up our rental Kingdom 6 and Coleman propane stove for the campsite. REI is like a playground for any outdoor enthusiast--but bring your pocketbook. You won't leave the store without buying something!
After spending half the day in Denver, we headed to Boulder and then on to Estes Park. We got into Moraine Park campground by late-afternoon, and set up camp. I was amazed at the shift in temperatures. We went from 70's and sunny to 50's and rain at the campground. Still, it was beautiful. Herds of Elk were everywhere in the park--grazing within feet of our campsite. Even after being at Yosemite and Zion in the past, I had never seen so much wildlife in a national park before, and having these large animals up close and personal was almost like our own personal (non) petting zoo. Just over the hill behind our camp was a gorgeous view of Long's Peak, covered in feet and feet of snow. I whipped out my DSLR and started snapping feverishly.
Day 2: The next morning, we decided to head into Boulder and do a lower-elevation hike to acclimate a little. Our first hike of the trip was to Royal Arch in the "Flatirons" region of the Front Range. Now, I'm going to state for the record that "day hikes" in Colorado are a lot different than day hikes in Ohio, and the people of Colorado are a different breed. The hike to Royal Arch was, in my opinion, a strenuous one, gaining several hundred feet in a relatively short distance. The trail is steep, rocky, and an un-acclimated soul (like myself) might consider the pinnacle height of nearly 7,000 feet a little exhausting. Still, it wasn't anything a normal person in relatively good shape couldn't do. Dressed in full hiking gear and pack, I almost felt silly compared to the families with young children and dogs walking, jumping, skipping, and literally running up the trail. It was everything for me to manage my breathing and not pass out, while others had no problem going up this trail. The view at the top, though, was worth every step. From Royal Arch, one can view the entire town of Boulder and far beyond. It's a sight that can only be experienced and not relived through photos.
Later that day, we went on to "Dinosaur Ridge", near Golden, to see some fossils and dino tracks. This "touristy" site ended up being one of the coolest places we saw. The walk up a former road (now just used as a footpath) yielded some awesome red rock views on the other side of the hill we were on. From there, we checked out the "Triceratops Trail", a small--and almost hidden--little area about 20 feet down in a ravine. Here we saw Triceratops footprints, as well as fossilized plants.
After all that walking, we were parched, so we went on to Golden for dinner, where we got to see the Coor's brewery and partook in some fresh Coor's brew at a local establishment. It was a great night.
Day 3: Day three was our longest venture, with a total mileage of somewhere around 14 miles from Moraine Park, up to Fern Falls, on to Cub Lake, and back down through the Moraine Park Meadow and back to the campsite. We hiked from Moraine Park campground up to "The Pool", a cool and inviting rapid of gorgeous snowmelt. From there, the hike got...interesting. We had decided to make the hike up to Fern Lake, because of all the great things we'd heard about it. Because of all the remaining snow cover, there was still anywhere from one to eight feet of snow in the higher elevation. As we trekked up the mountainside, the snow got deeper, the air got thinner, and the hike was rough on this Ohio boy's body. It was an absolutely gorgeous day for hiking, though, with a clear blue sky and temps in the 60's. Fern Falls was rushing with ice water as it came down the mountain. We hiked further up, and it was a rough go slogging through the melting (but still deep) snow. Finally, we made it to Fern Lake, still frozen over. What a gorgeous sight! Still, what would have been a merely "moderate" RMNP hike was, for me, an exhausting one, and I soon learned what it was like to have acute mountain sickness. This was a not a good feeling, but it quickly went away as we came down in elevation. We decided to press on to Cub Lake (well worth it), getting some great shots and playing in the snow along the way. Finally, we came back down to "The Meadow"--an amazing hike with unprecedented views of the Rockies. We saw moose, elk, and other great wildlife as well.
Day 4: On day four, we decided to take it easy on our aching bodies and explore more of Boulder. We headed back down to the "Big Blue Stem" trail--a four miler in relatively flat terrain, just outside the Flatirons. Along this scenic, almost desert-like environment I was reminded I was in the West, and was waiting for a cowboy to come riding out on a horse at any moment. Along the trail we walked right over a local snake, grabbed his picture and just kept going. After the day before, even four miles felt like ten.
From there, we came back and decided to take a drive as far up Trail Ridge Road as we could. We got up pretty far, but then ran into a "road closed" sign. The snow drifts alongside the road were 23 feet high in places. I hadn't seen this much snow since I was in Utah a few years ago. The wind was blowing and it was only in the 30's--it was incredibly cold. It was a good thing we had hats and gloves, even here in June. The western U.S. is definitely a wild and awe-inspiring place.
Day 5: Day five, our last day in RMNP before heading to Denver, we decided to do some driving and exploring around the area, and drove up to Bear Lake. Normally, there is a 1-mile paved trail around the lake which would be considered "easy". But, on this day it was covered in about six feet of snow. Without crampons or snowshoes, the slick, icy snow was treacherous to walk on. I opted to not even attempt it, while my counterparts took off and made a natural snow slide down a mountainside. I continued to capture amazing still shots of the surrounding mountains. From there, we went to Sprague Lake and captured even more amazing photos as we headed out of the park and down to Denver.
I literally could have spent another two weeks in Colorado with no problem, but my wife (and bank account) would have definitely disagreed. I have a secret love affair with the western United States.