Another summer, another vacation with my good buddy TUBS. I built up some major comp time due to all the traveling I’ve been doing with work lately, and my reward was two full weeks off. What better way to spend it than drive out to Colorado and do some backpacking up in the mountains!
Itinerary: June 23-July 5, 2013
June 23: Drive out to Estes Park
June 24-27: Backpack in Rocky Mountain National Park
June 28: Climb Longs Peak, Party in Denver
June 29-July 1: Backpack Maroon Bells
July 2: Climb Mt. Elbert
July 3: Sand boarding in Great Sand Dunes National Park
July 4: Visit Colorado Springs & Manitou Springs
July 5: Drive Home
TUBS made his way out to Ames Sunday morning and we packed up the Dew Mobile and were off. The 10 hour drive gave us time to catch up and jam out. By the time we got through Nebraska and the monotonous corn and hay fields, it was getting dark. A lightning show did illuminate the sky enough to get our first glimpse of the mountains that make up the Front Range. We got into Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, around 10:30 and spent some time looking for a vacant spot in the campgrounds. Not finding any, we settled for a KOA campground that happened to be RVs and cabins only. No matter, we parked outside a cabin and slept in the car- We’re used to that sort of thing! We rose the next morning and got the hell out before anyone realized we had even been there. A set of breakfast burritos from a local Safeway did the trick, followed by a nice walk around the NPS neighborhood. When the back country office opened up, we were the first in line; procuring permits for the next four days. We then zipped back to Estes to pick up a required bear canister, before heading up Trail Ridge Road.The highest major highway in the country, Trail Ridge Rd (U.S. 34) peaks out at 12,183 feet, giving many visitor’s only view into the unique alpine tundra ecosystem that exists above treeline. The road also provided some wonderful views of the park’s main feature, mountains. But we weren’t there to just drive, we were eager to get out on the trail. Past the little town of Grand Lake, we parked in a small gravel lot at the trail head to the North Inlet Trail. With a PB+J in hand, we headed out on our first backpack of the trip!
It was 8 miles of Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine forest to the junction where our campsite, North Inlet Junction, sat. It was a pretty steady incline and the elevation was an issue for TUBS. He pushed on though, and we made it to our campsite at about 9,000 feet by mid-afternoon. Interested in seeing more of our surroundings, we day-hiked out to Lake Nokoni, an alpine lake much like Micah in the Tetons, though not quite as blue. Another 1/2 mile away was Lake Nanita. I pushed on to this solo and was rewarded with some views of about 4 elk, including a fawn, in a beautiful meadow. Unlike Micah, we didn’t jump into Lake Nokoni. It was simply too cold. Back at camp, dinner was a box of Rice-a-Roni with some canned chicken and some Tony Chacheres Cajun seasoning.Yummy! It was a windy night and I certainly worried a bit about all the nearby dead trees (beetle kill was persistent throughout the park).
The next day we day-hiked up to Flattop Mountain: elevation 12,324. We saw a baby moose with her mama pretty early on in the thick timber, nibbling away at some underbrush. Unlike the back country ranger had said, one of the campgrounds we passed, July, was not covered in snow. Nor was it impossible to reach the mountain. With that said, we did have to traverse a few snow fields. The melting snow was fairly easy, though each one did bring about an adrenaline rush. The summit was incredibly windy. Relief could be found behind the stacked rock cairns that signaled the trail.At 12,000 feet, the view was gorgeous.
Mountains penetrated the horizon on every side and glacial lakes could be seen in every valley. We stayed up top for awhile before retracing our steps back to camp and feasting on some Ramen supplemented with canned turkey. The following day we hiked downhill back to the car.The forest was mostly quiet, with the exception of a bull and cow moose we saw about 2 miles from the trail head. I snagged some pics without disturbing them too much. Back at the parking lot, I found out someone had rammed my car earlier that morning. At least they had left their contact information. Onto our second backpack trip in the Wild Basin Area!
After another wonderful drive over Trail Ridge Road, back to the Eastern side of the park, we began our second backpack up Wild Basin Trail. This was a much busier part of the park. The gravel parking lot was full and people almost formed lines on the early parts of the trail. But like always, 2 miles in and we were almost alone. Our hike to our campsite, Aspen Knoll, was quick and easy, so after setting up the tent, we went on to check out Ouzel Lake. Expecting a deep blue glacial lake, we were a bit disappointed by the clear, shallow one that was in its place. Not to mention, the bugs were terrible; we didn’t stay long. Back at camp, we each devoured a can of beans. “Beans, beans, beans!!!” Before going to bed, I randomly read the warning label that’s attached to my tent. It mentioned that Death by Suffocation could occur in the tent. We figured tonight there was a strong possibility for that: we both had the bean farts! The next morning we made an 8 mile round trip trek out to see Lion Lake. Again, it wasn’t exactly what we had expected, though this one was very beautiful in its own way. Set in an open meadow with numerous clusters of wildflowers and several large mountains looming overhead, Lion Lake made for a great resting spot. I took a little dip, though the lake was too shallow to fully jump in or swim. After enjoying this serene setting for some time, we marched back to our campsite, packed up, and made the hike out. While TUBS fixed up his nose, he had gotten a bad sunburn and it had started oozing, I had a nice chat with a young ranger about working for the National Park Service. Her advice: just keep trying! To get a little break from the outdoors, we headed over to Estes Park and did some normal touristy stuff. We wandered up and down the streets, popping in and out of various T-shirt and souvenir shops.We checked out some photography galleries with some amazing shots of the park. We sipped on some shakes at an outside table, and headed into Wapiti for some beer and Rocky Mountain Oysters. TUBS confused our waitress by ordering a lemonade for his second round: “Just lemonade? Really?” That night we stayed at Longs Peak Campground, in preparation of climbing the 14er the following day. We tried to get to bed early, but, as far as the noise went, it was like the campground from hell. We had some weird chanting going on from a group of what could only be devil worshipers in a distant campsite. Much closer, there was a baby crying and a dog barking, and right next door we had a guy playing his guitar and belting out popular tunes. I didn’t get any sleep until I gave in and moved into the car around midnight. Should have went earlier: we had a 2AM start!
With maybe 2 hours rest, my alarm rang and I was up. I laced up my boots, woke TUBS up, finished packing my backpack, and set off. The moon was bright, but our headlamps were still necessary to see the trail, which began in the thick sub alpine forest at about 9,400 feet. Less than 2 miles in, TUBS realized he had a bad stomach ache and could no longer continue. It was now a solo climb for me. For another 2 miles I followed steep switchbacks through the forest, until I emerged above the treeline and into the alpine tundra. First light appeared just in time as I approached the boulder-field (elevation 12,760 feet). I had completed 6 of the 7.5 mile long route, but the hardest part was just about to begin.
The last 1.5 miles involved scrambling over boulders, shimmying along narrow edges, and doing anything you could to just keep ascending. The route was marked with bulls-eyes painted on rocks. One of the hardest parts,The Trough, involved hand over hand climbing for over 600 vertical feet. As if this wasn’t tough enough, it was done at over 13,000 feet, meaning the altitude really had its effect. I kept pushing on though, taking mini breaks every couple of feet. And finally, I was groping my way up the Homestretch, climbing up over the lip and onto the summit. I was absolutely drained! But I had done it. I was now part of the 14,000 foot club! Three other guys were up there too, but other than that, we were alone. I replenished with a PB+J and some Chex-Mix, taking pictures and enjoying the astounding views. Then it was time to do it all over again! The descent was almost just as hard, and maybe even more dangerous. By the time I reached the campground again where TUBS was waiting, I was absolutely wiped out.
But I couldn’t rest now, it was time to party in Denver. And party we did. We found a cheap overnight parking lot downtown, checked in at the nearby 11th Avenue Hostel, and hit the 16th street pedestrian mall. Bars and restaurants lined both sides of the street. We started at The Yardhouse, where we got some beers and ate some spicy tacos. Then we headed over to a Mexican joint near our hostel for some margaritas. Across the street, a fun joint called the Living Room had live music and a vibrant atmosphere. We hung out here for a long while, enjoying the music and making fun of the band members- they had over 12! The last stop of the night was this interesting hippy club that was playing live club music. We bobbed our heads to the music along with everyone else, thinking we were probably one of the only ones who weren’t high as well as drunk. As soon as we got back to the room I passed out on the bed. It had been a long day!