Mountain Mania: Two Weeks in the Rockies

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!

Snowmass Mountain

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. Rocky Mountain National parkA 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!

Trail head in Rocky Mountain National parkIt was 8 miles of Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine forest to the junction where our campsite, North Inlet Junction, sat. Flowers in Rocky Mountain National parkIt 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).

Rocky Mountain National 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.

Flat Top Mountain In Rocky Mountain National Park

Mountains penetrated the horizon on every side and glacial lakes could be seen in every valley. Moose in Rocky Mountain National ParkWe 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!

Rocky Mountain National parkAfter 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. Lion Lake Rocky Mountain National ParkSet 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. Rocky Mountain National parkWhile 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?” Rocky Mountain OystersThat 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.

Longs Peak Rocky Mountain National Park

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. Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National parkAs 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.

Longs Peak Summit

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!

After a nice breakfast in downtown Denver, we started the drive out to Aspen, about 3 hours to the West. I-70 was once again a bit nerve-racking, especially the long descent after the Eisenhower Tunnel, the highest part of the Interstate System (11,158 ft). However, the mountain driving had just begun with this. The way to Aspen also involved a long, curvy climb up to Independence Pass on Highway 82. During the drive, we listened to a c.d. that TUBS had bought in Denver. The artist claimed to be making Adult Contemporary Hip-Hop, but it was just your typical rap. It was amusing listening to his struggles on the “Hard Colorado Streets!”
Maroon Bells
Just past Aspen, we took a road down to the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area. We were starting another 3 day backpack journey. Our first sight: the postcard worthy views of the Maroon Bells! I tried to take my own postcard shot, but know that it will never be as good as it was in person. We circled Maroon Lake and headed West, towards the Bells. Right underneath them lay another beautiful body of water, Crater Lake. Avoiding the porcupine on the trail, we continued on for a bit until we got sick of the drizzling rain and decided to put up the tent and camp for the night. Another can of beans were dinner. The next day ended up being quite a long one. We traversed 3 of the 4 total passes.
First was West Maroon Pass, which involved a pretty gradual ascent and revealed an amazing valley on its far side.
Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area
Next came Frigid Air Pass, appropriately named for the biting wind that seemed to be relentless on top. Here we ran into several trail runners. Incredibly, they were doing the whole 26 mile loop in one day! Pretty crazy! Our last pass of the day, Trail Rider, was by far the hardest. Its first section was almost straight up it was so steep. What’s more, is when you finished that, you realized the pass was another 1,000 foot ascent at the far end of another alpine meadow.

It was a tough one, but the views of Snowmass Lake were easily worth it.

Lake Snowmass
That night, we camped along the lake, feasting on Ramen and scraps. We didn’t set up the bear bag like the night before, but instead hoped our farts would be enough of a deterrent, They were! The next day we ascended our final pass of the loop, Buckskin. We talked with a group of Texas guys on the summit; they had all just graduated too. Then we followed the route we had taken the first day back to the Maroon Bells, where crowds of people in flip-flops, button down shirts, and khakis were running around everywhere. It’s always quite a surprise after being nearly alone for a couple of days. The 4-pass loop had lacked the wildlife we were hoping for, but I think it made up for it with its astounding views!
After our backpacking trip, we drove back over Independence Pass and set up the tent in a campground called Twin Peaks. We checked out the nearby town of Leadville and drank some whiskey and moonshine from Twin Guns Distillery, before heading back to camp and gobbling down some brats. Summit of Mt. ElbertA fire ban prevented us from starting a real rager. The next morning we were up and at em at 5:30AM. At the advice of this 51 year old bad ass we had met on the 4-pass loop, we were climbing Mt. Elbert via the Black Cloud Trail. It was soon clear why he likes this route opposed to the two other standard ones; it was way harder! After a long, steep climb, we had to hike another mile or so along the ridge of the mountain before coming to the summit. We didn’t see a single other person during our hike, that is, until we reached the summit. Here crowds had formed. The highest peak in Colorado was definitely a popular one! Mt Elbert SummitWe snapped some pictures of the surrounding mountains that seemed to go on forever. Then it was time for the climb down. Back at the car, we drove out to Alamosa to reserve our sand board for the following day and to pick up some real beer. Little did we know, only liquor stores sell standard alcohol. The Budweiser we had bought from the grocery store was only 3.2% alcohol. Weird! At the Great Sand Dunes Campground, we had a wonderful feast of ground beef tacos, rice, beans, and Becks beer. When the wind proved to be too annoying, we crawled into the tent and took the cooler with us. It was a fun night.
Mt. Elbert Summit
Well, I had seen a couple videos about sand boarding, and I was finally getting my chance to try it out. By 9:30 we had picked up our board and were heading out in the deep sand to give it a whorl. Both skiers, neither of us had ever even tried snowboarding. Balancing sideways on one board was a bit awkward. The girl from the shop had stated that the steeper the dune the better, so I picked a real good one for my first go. Sandboarding in Great Sand Dunes National ParkI was shocked at how first I got going… it was too much for me to handle. WIPE OUT! TUBS had a similar first experience, though he bypassed the steep dune for a smaller one. So we spent the day seeking out new dunes to try out. I slowly got more comfortable on the board, though I wouldn’t say I was ever very good. I did make it down more than a few times without falling. Like anything, wiping out was no fun. The sand seems so soft when you’re walking on it, but smashing into at speed, it was unforgiving. I was pretty damn sore by the end of the day, when we drove back to Alamosa to return the board to Kristi Mountain Sports Shop. (Check the Youtube Video out!) We pushed onto Colorado Springs and found a shady RV Park to spend the night in. It claimed that it allowed tents, but all the sites were filled with hard gravel, so we opted to just sleep in the car. It was better than paying $33 to stay in the state park though. I can’t believe how much some places charge to just put your tent up in. I mean, what are you paying for? A slice of grass to lay your head in and maybe a gallon of water that you might use for drinking or cooking. It should never be more than $15. Sandboarding in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Our final day in Colorado started with a visit to the Garden of the Gods, a local park in Colorado Springs.
Garden of the Gods
It featured some neat red rock formations, reminiscent of Utah, but seemingly out of place here. The Game of Thrones references were abundant!After that we toured the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, one of the more touristy ones I have ever seen. It was small and way to built up, but still pretty neat. Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs neighbor, had a wonderful downtown area. We ate lunch and enjoyed the historical buildings and streets. Manitou Springs ColoradoWe also toured the Miramont Castle. Afterwards, we spent less than an hour at the Air Force Academy before heading to Denver for dinner. Walking through a park downtown, I got asked by three, presumably druggies, if I was “Good” or “Needed Something”. It was a bit sketchy. That night, we pulled into the Buffalo Bill campground in North Platte, Nebraska and watched fireworks go off all around us. It was the 4th of July after all. I definitely wished I was at home watching Tom & Sharon’s fireworks! The next day we finished the uneventful drive back to Ames. Sadly, another trip had come and gone.

Written by Jake G

I'm a 26 year old who loves to hike, bike, backpack, and explore the outdoors. I'm a Midwesterner who currently resides in sunny Arizona. I hope to inspire others with my adventures and maybe give some advice for your future vacations. Follow me as I travel around the country and...
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