Archive for the ‘hiking’ Tag

Adventuring Death Valley: Extremes   16 comments

I’ve posted this one before, but it’s worth a repeat. Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from Saratoga Springs in south Death Valley.

More than for most parks, appreciating Death Valley begs you to stop and smell the creosote.  Camp out and take a stroll out into the desert as evening is coming on.  Listen to the silence, perhaps broken by a coyote’s howl.  Wake early and experience day-break from the salt flats as Telescope Peak catches the sun’s first light.  Get off the beaten track and take off on foot up a canyon.  Have an adventure!

LAND OF EXTREMES

One of the main reasons I love this place is all the extremes.  The most obvious one, exemplified by the image above, is the extreme of altitude.  On my first trip to Death Valley as a freshman in a college group learning about its natural history, I found out how much I love extremes.  The instructor, who taught my 200-level series geology course, was also very much a biologist, birder and ecologist.  We learned about how the plants and animals are so perfectly adapted to the harsh realities of desert life.  It’s fascinating how everything here seems to work together as an integrated whole that reflects the park’s extreme heat and aridity, along with its extreme terrain and geology.

You have to be exceptionally clever to survive in Death Valley: coyote.

One day, with our teacher pointing out hawks and rock formations as we went, we drove the van up and out of the desert.  The narrow Wildrose Canyon Road leads to the high country of the Panamint Range, ending at the Charcoal Kilns.  These large stone beehives, perfectly preserved in the desert air, are ovens once used for turning trees into fuel to run smelters during the mining era of the late 1800s.  They’re lined up symmetrically in a forest clearing with views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada (image below).

We hiked from the kilns, heading up to snowy Mahogany Meadows, which lies in a saddle at the crest of the range.  While named for its mountain mahogany, the ancient pinyon pines here are especially impressive.  I remember wondering how we could have, in a few short hours, gone from toasty desert conditions to this other world, a cool, snowy forest.  From the meadows, which are perched at 8133 feet elevation, we peered down into the below-sea-level depths of the valley.  Talk about extremes!  We had a huge snowball fight.

The Charcoal Kilns with snow-capped Mt. Whitney and the Sierras in the distance.

CLIMBING TELESCOPE PEAK

The place impressed me so much I returned with friends a couple years later, again in March.  The three of us were set on climbing Telescope Peak, at 11,043′ the highest point in the park.  It had been a cold, snowy winter, with late storms that left deep powder mantling the high Panamints.   Though just a few inches lay at the Kilns, a couple feet of the white stuff greeted us at Mahogany Meadows, our planned campsite for the night.  And what a cold night it was!

We had an MSR camp stove with us, the kind that was euphemistically called a “blow torch” because there were just two settings:  off and rocket-blast.  It could also accept any kind of fuel, so when we realized we had forgotten to pack extra camping gas we had an idea.  Hiking back down to the car, we backed up onto a curb and tapped a small amount of gas from the carburetor.  Yes I’m old enough to have had a car with a carburetor; and no we didn’t have a hose to siphon from the tank with.

Magnificent old-growth pinyon pine: Mahogany Flats, Death Valley N.P.

After the kind of night where your body burns many calories just keeping warm, we woke just before dawn to find a half-foot of fresh white stuff.  We didn’t know it then, but tapping that unleaded was very smart.  It allowed us to eat a pile of hot oatmeal with raisins that morning, and we’d need all the energy we could get that day.

Telescope Peak is just under 7 miles one-way from Mahogany Meadows, with about 3300 feet of elevation gain.  Without snow it is a difficult but straightforward hike.  Years later when I repeated the ascent in much kinder conditions it was like I was climbing a completely different mountain.

What makes Telescope more difficult than it might seem is the necessity to hike over two large peaks (Rogers and Bennet) before tackling the main ascent.  Up until then I’d never really hiked a distance in deep fresh snow, but struggling that day through hip-deep drifts up steep slopes made a life-long impression (not least that snowshoes were a great invention).  By the time we reached the base of the mountain it was mid-afternoon and we were spent.

Descending into Death Valley.

DEATH VALLEY DATES

It was the dates that saved the day.  With only a PB&J each for lunch, it was lucky that we’d packed Death Valley’s famous dates for trail snacks.  Those dates, which you can buy at Furnace Creek where they’re grown, powered us up the steep, final icy slope to the summit.   A stupendous view, so different than any other in the park, greeted us.  But turning west, where the mountain had blocked our view on the ascent, one glance convinced us that summit time would be ultra-brief.  A compact but dark and angry storm was rapidly approaching from that direction, with lightning bolts shooting out of it at regular intervals.  It was headed straight for us.

We shoved a few more dates into our mouths and prepared for a quick exit.  As I took one last look around, I noticed something strange about my two partners.  We’d all taken our wool hats off to shed heat during the climb, and now their hair was standing straight up, just like in High School science class when you touch that electrified ball.  I heard a faint but very distinct buzzing all around, and growing louder.  It was the first time I’d ever experienced something like that, but it was clear what was taking place.  We were about to see what lightning was like, up close and personal.  That is, if we didn’t get the hell off that mountain but quick!

The two white substances in Death Valley: salt and snow.

The return hike was long and exhausting (those two peaks were again in the way).  We had been going hard since sunup, and the Death Valley dates continued to provide critical energy.  We disagreed on a return route and ended up splitting up.  When Gene and I finally pulled into camp at dusk, Mel was sticking his head out of the tent, puking up dates.

Although on paper Telescope Peak shouldn’t even be in the top 50 hardest climbs I’ve ever done, it sticks out in my mind as one of the toughest, #3 or even #2.  Even after all these years.  We didn’t relish another frigid night at 8100 feet.  So we quickly struck camp and hiked in the dark a few miles more to reach the car.  Then it was down, down, and back to summer.  That warm air felt so good!  Parking at the sand dunes we grabbed sleeping bags and headlamps and stumbled a couple hundred yards into the dunes to crash under a huge night sky.  The stars must have been spectacular that night, but darned if I can remember ever seeing them.

Thanks for reading.  Wishing all a very Merry Christmas!

Evening draws near in the dunes at Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park.

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Adventuring in Death Valley: It’s the Water   4 comments

Morning light and a clearing winter storm over the Panamints: Death Valley, CA.

Here’s a tip:  don’t run out of water while hiking in Death Valley.  I can already hear you: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”   But there’s a big difference between knowing something is a smart idea and knowing how smart, that is, from experience.  This is a little story about the latter kind of smarts.

I’m doing a series on one of my favorite national parks in the U.S., or anywhere.  It may not seem to be so, but Death Valley is a perfect destination this time of year.  Although I’ve been there plenty of other times in winter, last year I visited over Christmas for the first time.  I found it fairly busy (for Death Valley) and with a higher than normal proportion of international tourists.  As usual, that means a lot of Germans, plus miscellaneous others.  I like to believe I’ve traveled as much as a German who doesn’t travel too much, which is to say I’ve traveled 10 times as much as the average American.  It can be cool this time of year, but rarely is it actually cold.  It’s perfect for camping and hiking.

Hike deep into canyons at Death Valley and you’ll see plenty of paleo-Indian rock art.

A Hard Lesson

The story takes place a long time ago, at Spring Break during my Junior year of College.  I’d been to Death Valley twice at that point, for field studies in consecutive Spring Breaks.  This time I got a couple friends to come along, a fellow geologist and native Alaskan named Mel and another pal, Gene.  Gene was taking classes and also training to be a pilot, riding his bike 50 miles one-way to take flying lessons a few times a week.  He spent time as a bush pilot in AK, & later flew 747s.

After a trip through Nevada in which my Pontiac ended up in a ditch, we arrived with grand plans.  We climbed Telescope Peak through deep snow drifts and slept under the stars in the dunes.  But those are other stories.  One evening at camp we decided to hike the Marble-Cottonwood Canyon Loop the next day.  We weren’t sure of the distance, only that it was long.  But we were at that age when you feel indestructible.  It turned out to be a very long distance indeed, and no wonder it’s known as a backpacking trip (the park’s most popular).

Marble Canyon Narrows, Death Valley National Park.

We started at daybreak, hiking up through the spectacular narrows of Marble Canyon.  The loop is normally hiked in the opposite direction, but we wanted to be different.  We took only as much water as we thought was necessary for a full day, hoping to pass a spring or two.  I think we were engaged in group self-delusion.  We had enough water for a day in the cool mountains, but not nearly enough for Death Valley at the end of March.

At mid-day we were forced to admit we could not do the entire loop unless we wanted to hike in the dark, without flashlights.  We later learned the distance was 47 miles, and felt better about our decision to bail.  So instead of returning the way we’d come, the three of us put our heads together and hatched a crazy plan to cut distance by climbing up and over the high ridge separating the two canyons.  How many times has taking a shortcut worked out well for you?  Like I said before, self-delusion.

You have to hike quite a distance to reach the marble of Marble Canyon.

Climbing high meant leaving all possibility of shade behind.  We also succeeded in missing the springs, which in these parts are usually located in canyon bottoms.  A crucial error.  Climbing in the heat, we began to exact a real toll on our water supply.  Realizing this, we began to ration.  The ridge turned out to be more of a complex of ridges, and by the time we finally reached the high point and could see down into the upper part of Cottonwood Canyon, we had enough for one tiny sip each from a single water bottle.

A sobering reminder: upper Marble Canyon.

The rest of the hike was, it should be obvious, one of increasing misery.  We encountered a couple dry falls and had to take creative (and scary) detours to get down.  By the time the canyon started to broaden out, signalling the end was near, dusk was at hand.  All three of us were quite weak, with mouths like sand and epic headaches.  That car never looked so good!  To end things on an interesting note, we had wisely left a cooler filled with Coors and block ice.  Unfortunately we weren’t so wise as to leave any water in the car.

I don’t like admitting the state I drove down to Stovepipe Wells in.  On the plus side the beer was Coors, which at that time was marketed with the slogan “it’s the water.”  Rarely does a slogan come so ready-made for ridicule of the product it’s supposed to promote.  We diluted the beer even more by drinking our fill of water at Stovepipe, and the lesson was learned in the very best way to learn a lesson: painful experience.

Day’s end and the canyon mouth is in view!

Adventuring in Death Valley: Part I   6 comments

Easy walking in Death Valley: a recent flash-flood has left a smooth deposit of mud.

If you have followed this blog for awhile you know that this chunk of southeastern California desert is one of my favorite places to explore and photograph.  I’ve had a thing for it since my first visit in the early 1980s, and its more recent popularity hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm.  It seems that no matter how well I get to know the place there is always someplace new to hike and explore.

I’ve written of Death Valley before, posting a lot of photos along the way.  Most of what I’ve written of the place in this blog has been geared toward those planning a trip there, with recommendations on places to visit, hike and shoot.  For this short series of posts I’m sharing a few of the adventures I’ve had in this stunning part of the Mojave Desert.  I hope the stories will encourage you to take off and explore on your own.

The simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes beckons for a morning walk.

If you do plan to get off the pavement, if you strap a backpack on and take off into a canyon, up a ridge-line or across an alluvial fan, keep a few things in mind:

  • There are few trails here.  They aren’t really needed, as the landscape lends itself to following natural features like canyons and washes.  This fact brings with it the responsibility to take full charge of navigation.  Bring a good detailed map, and I’m not speaking of the one you get when you pay the entrance fee.  See below for more on this.

 

  • Death Valley is very very dry.  Depending on temperature this means you need to carry much more water than almost any other place you’ll ever hike.  If you visit spring through early fall you need about a quart/liter of water per person for every hour you plan to be walking.  In wintertime you can get by with less.

 

  • Cell service is close to nonexistent.  You are on your own, so be self-contained.

 

  • If you plan on driving off-road be prepared.    Think of driving off-road here just the same as if you’re hiking off-trail.  That is, with respect for the fact that help is nearly impossible to reach.  And even if you do will take a long time to arrive.  It’s also quite expensive.  See below for more on driving off-road in Death Valley.

 

  • Snakes are common.  While you’ll probably be fine as long as you’re alert while walking and don’t put your feet or hands anywhere you can’t see, be aware that the side-winder rattlesnake is not the most mellow venomous snake.  If you’re in a remote area and get bit by one, you may end up losing an appendage.

 

  • Last but not least, if you visit May to September limit your ambitions.  A general tourist itinerary on mostly paved roads is the way to go in the hot summer months.  It’s a good time for a first visit.  If you want to explore a lot on foot and/or four-wheel into the backcountry, go in the cooler months.  One exception:  summer’s a great time to hike in the high Panamints, climbing Telescope Peak or one of the other mountains in the park.

The classic view of Telescope Peak from Badwater.

 

Navigation in Death Valley

A topographic map, along with the ability to read it, is probably the most important of the “ten essentials”.  And this applies whether you carry a GPS, or are like me and still carry a compass, old-school-style.  Before going, practice crossing terrain you’re already familiar with, using a map to locate yourself in relation to landmarks.  Try navigating without the GPS, starting with out and back routes and progressing to off-trail loop hikes.  Whatever your approach, avoid following the GPS blindly like so many do.  Use it as a general guide instead, always being ready to alter your course from the straight-line GPS route to take into account features of the terrain, or interesting tangents!

Canyon hiking is superb at Death Valley, and your options are near limitless.  From a short jaunt up Mosaic Canyon to a trek up lonely Bighorn Gorge, there’s a canyon hike that’s just the right length and remoteness for you.  Just remember that dry falls are nearly as common here as they are in southern Utah’s canyon country.  Take a rope or be prepared to turn around.

Distance and terrain can be very deceiving here.  It’s tempting to park off the side of the paved road and strike out for a canyon mouth.  But walking up an alluvial fan is much tougher than it looks.  Allow plenty of time even when rambling around the “flat” valley floor.  That said, some of my best adventures have started out by crossing the valley or ascending an alluvial fan.

Climbing the big peaks such as Telescope is well worthwhile.  Elevation can pose a problem, especially since you’re spending much of your time at or below sea level.  Snow can fall during much of the year too.  So you’ll need to be prepared for mountain weather in the higher reaches of the Panamints.

Hiking in the area south of Furnace Creek puts you in the badlands of the Furnace Creek Formation.  The clayey hills are quite unstable and crumbly, so use caution.  Most of all, do not attempt to traverse steep hillsides in the Golden Canyon/Zabriskie Point area.  It’s not only hazardous, it mars the delicate formations that people come to see and photograph.  For this area it’s best to use established trails.

When hiking Death Valley’s canyons geology is always front and center: Red Wall Canyon.

Off-Pavement in Death Valley

There are many unpaved routes in Death Valley, but not all are open to vehicles.  While driving in washes is allowed for some areas, off-roading is not allowed in the National Park.  Obtain up-to-date road conditions and restrictions from the rangers upon arrival.  Buy a good detailed map for the area you plan to explore.  As mentioned above, navigate with map and GPS just as you do if you’re walking.

Make sure your vehicle has excellent tires and at least one spare (two minimum for some roads, like the one to Racetrack Playa).  Most of the unpaved roads require high-clearance, and many of them are 4WD only.  Bring a shovel and portable air compressor (for re-inflating tires after softening them for sandy areas).  Lastly, don’t forget about the threat of flash floods.  Don’t park overnight in washes if there is any chance of rain in the region, and camp up on benches away from where water runs.

Evening is near in far south Death Valley, where the Ibex Dunes are known for the spring bloom of sand verbena.

The Path   4 comments

The Grand Tetons, Wyoming.

The Grand Tetons, Wyoming.

A worthy theme for this week, Photo Challenge: Path, so here goes.  Paths can be literal or figurative.  Each time I find myself on nature’s path the figurative comes to mind.  It is easiest to be present on the path I’m on and not elsewhere, possibly on another’s path.  It’s easiest to stay in this time and place for long enough to appreciate it before charging off to another place.  The constant need to move forward is not something that is easily avoidable, being human after all.  But I tire of the race sooner than many others do.  I don’t relish it as some do.  What I do relish is the feeling of climbing upward and outward into the world, and the contrasts of the descent off the mountain, and of the path home.

Have a happy New Year!

A path through the tall trees: Humboldt Redwoods, California.

A path through the tall trees: Humboldt Redwoods, California.

 

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Guadalupe Mtns., TX

 

The path down to Gokyo Ri, Nepal.

The path home:  Gokyo Ri, Nepal.

Rocky Mtn National Park Alternatives: Avoiding Crowds   13 comments

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

I’ve been stranded with vehicle problems lately but it has not been all bad.  I’m in a beautiful place, near to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Now this is not the most out of the way place I’ve ever been.  In fact Rocky (the name locals use for the park) is now the third most popular national park in the country, visited by more people than either Yosemite and Yellowstone.  So it can get very crowded, especially on summer weekends.

Besides visiting during the week, there are a few ways to avoid most crowds at Rocky.  One is to go over to the west side of the park, in particular staying away from Bear Lake, the most popular destination within the park.  Another is to go hiking but to summon the energy and continue on up the trails, past popular destinations in order to get more solitude.

But an alternative is simply to not enter the park at all.  The Rocky Mountains don’t stop at the park boundary and public land (mostly Forest Service) extends in three directions.  I’ve been checking out a few nearby natural areas recently, mostly to see something different.  As I suspected most of these places are also very crowded on weekends.  But since they mostly attract locals, they tend to be quieter than the park during the week.

It's peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

It’s peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

One place that is hard not to be impressed with is Brainard Lake Recreation Area.  It’s only 35 miles south of Rocky, about an hour’s drive down the Peak to Peak Highway.  A busy campground (get there early or reserve a spot) is located conveniently just below Brainard Lake itself.  Several small picnic areas are scattered about, and fishing is popular.  In recent years a population of moose has moved in.  Popular with wildlife photographers, these are Shiras moose, the smallest subspecies.  Although definitely smaller than Alaskan moose, bulls can reach 1200 pounds and are dangerous in the fall rut.

The area is also famous for its hiking.  Several trails head up into the Indian Peaks Wilderness to beautiful alpine lakes.  Energetic hikers and peak baggers continue up the spectacular valleys past glacial tarns and on up to rugged granitic mountains.  The hikes tend to be strenuous because of the altitude, but distances are not great.  For example I hiked to Blue Lake and it was just 5 miles round-trip with 900 feet elevation gain.

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Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Another amazing hike I can personally recommend is Isabelle Glacier.  In 8 3/4 miles you gain 1750 feet.  This takes you past two lakes, including lovely Lake Isabelle.  Hike beyond this lake and you’ll drop most other hikers, passing flower meadows and a high tarn before climbing into a huge amphitheater surrounded by soaring peaks, snowfields and waterfalls.

Lake Isabelle and Indian Peaks, Colorado.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

But several of the images here are from the lowest of the area’s lakes, and my favorite.  Red Rock Lake lies on the road to Brainard Lake, and most people blow right by it, in a hurry to get to their destinations.  It’s a peaceful spot that attracts waterfowl, and has a nice view of Indian Peaks from the east shore.  It’s quite a photogenic place, despite not being as spectacular as the high, hike-in lakes, which are closer to the peaks.  But because of the red rocks and a partial cover of water lilies I think Red Rock is more visually interesting than many of the area’s lakes.

Thanks for reading, have a great week, and happy shooting!

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

Visiting Zion National Park – Part VI   8 comments

A soggy-sneakers shot of the Virgin River, upper Zion Canyon.

We’re almost finished with Zion National Park!  I’ve gone into a bit more detail than I expected I would.  Last post was a guide for first-timers.  This post suggests places to go if you’re planning a return trip.  But even first-timers will find the following useful if planning a little more time for in-depth exploration of the park.

IF YOU ARE RETURNING TO ZION

Do the Narrows:  A return trip is the time to get off the beaten track by visiting one of the northern areas and/or hiking into the backcountry.  The Narrows is the most famous back-country hike at Zion (closely followed by the Subway below).  You’ll need a permit and car shuttle to do the usual one-night backpack trip, but it can be done as an out and back from the end of the road in Zion Canyon. 

Do some research and planning for the Narrows, starting of course at NPS’s site.  And for any back-country exploration a great website is Canyoneering USA.  Tom Jones (no not that Tom Jones!) writes for this site, and he also has a classic guidebook for Zion.

Hike the Subway:  Situated in the Left Fork of North Creek off of Kolob Terrace Road, the 9+ mile hike to the Subway has become extremely popular in recent years.  In fact, so popular that the NPS has a lottery permit system in place if you’re doing it from March through October.  Check the NPS site for details.  Another popular slot canyon with a lottery system is Mystery Canyon.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

Of course your pictures of the Subway itself are not exactly going to be breaking new ground.  But it’s a fantastic canyon filled with photo opportunities.  It’s also a great challenge if you’re trying to “up your game” in terms of canyoneering.  If you plan to do an overnighter here, you’ll need a permit from the Park Service.  You can hike the Subway from the bottom-up and back or as a top-down semi-technical descent (entering from above the Subway).  Either way plan to get your feet wet.

Almost posted my shot of the Subway itself, but I don’t want to ruin it for you in case you’re not looking at any photos before you go there. This is looking down-canyon in Left Fork at sunset.

Do an off-trail canyon adventure.  Several companies offer guided hikes in canyons where you’ll generally need a shuttle and knowledge to get to remote trailheads.  You can also descend one of the amazing technical canyons at Zion. 

Canyoneering here (called canyoning in Europe) is renowned far and wide.  It requires rope and other gear, plus experience if you’re not going to do a course with one of the outfitters.  For photography you’ll need to leave the DSLR behind or have a foolproof way to keep your gear dry.  One of the best sources of information on canyoning at Zion is Tom Jones and CUSA

Hike Kolob Canyons.  This is the separate part of the park to the north off I-15.  The Taylor Creek trail is wonderful and feels very uncrowded compared to Zion Canyon’s trails.  For a longer walk, Kolob Arch (one of the world’s largest arches) is amazing and even less peopled.  I did the roughly 14-mile round trip and saw no other people.  No campground exists at Kolob Canyons, but there is one to the south at Red Cliffs Recreation Area, at the mouth of a gorgeous canyon I strongly recommend exploring.

Red Cliffs Recreation Area, although it isn’t in the park, is nonetheless a marvelous place to go.

Drive to Lava Point.  The Kolob Terrace Road, which starts near the town of Virgin, is a beautiful drive up to Zion’s high country.  Go past the trail-head for the Subway and let your imagination be your guide.  You’ll pass large monoliths that beg to be explored off-trail (remember, don’t trample the biological crust).  Or hike one of the trails near Lava Point.  Sunset from this area offers the opportunity to shoot unique pictures of the park.  There’s a campground up here too!

Hike Zion Top-to-Bottom.  A memorable way to enter Zion Canyon is to do a long one-way hike from the high plateau to the canyon bottom.  For West Rim, you’ll leave your car in Springdale (outside of shuttle season leave it at the Grotto).   Then drive or get shuttled up to the Lava Point Trailhead.  Then it’s about 14 miles and 3700 feet down to the canyon.  Healthy knees required!

For East Rim, get shuttled or drive a second car to the trailhead near the east entrance and hike 11 miles one-way to Weeping Rock trailhead in the canyon.  At first you climb gently, then it’s rolling until the big descent to the canyon floor.  From there you take the shuttle or pick up the car you left outside of shuttle season.  You can also start from East Mesa Trailhead; local shuttle drivers know where this is.

If you’re cheap like me and don’t want to pay for the shuttle you just hike from the east entrance, descend to the canyon, then climb back out for a very exhausting 20-miler.  I did it in combination with my mountain bike, but that’s because I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed!  For West Rim without a shuttle, do it from the bottom up: a 2500-foot elevation gain and drop.  You don’t go all the way to Lava Point unless it’s an overnighter.  Instead turn around at West Rim Spring.

Both of these hikes can be done as overnight backpack trips (where you’ll need a permit) and both are fantastic.  The West Rim route is longer and more diverse while the East Rim trip accesses more side-trails for a backpack trip.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Ride a horse up on Sand Bench.  In season (March – October) you can ride horses at Zion.  Though you can do a short jaunt along the Virgin River, a better way to become one with your mount is on a longer ride on the enormous slump block (type of landslide, see Part I) that is Sand Bench.  Prices are fairly reasonable I believe, though I don’t pay for riding horses (spent too much feeding mine!). 

For photography, hiking the 3-mile Sand Bench loop at sunset is a winner.  Pack a good flashlight for the hike down.  I personally resist the temptation to join all those other photogs. on the bridge over the Virgin River in the lower canyon.  I don’t want the same exact picture as everybody else has.  Which brings me to the topic for my final post in this series: Photography at Zion.

That’s it for now.  Enjoy ‘going deep’ at Zion, and have a wonderful week.

Prickly pear cactus growing up on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Prickly pear cactus growing high above the Virgin on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Visiting Zion National Park – Part V   2 comments

Fall hikes in Zion’s side-canyons can bring you to splashes of color like this.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park with specific recommendations on places to go.  I’m not really one to try and “guide” people on their travels.  Sure, I’ll have to get used to it if I decide to hang out a shingle and start leading photo trips.  But I believe once you have a general feel for an area, and as long as you have an adventurous spirit, you can do just fine on your own.  The key is having the time and desire to fumble around on your initial visit.  So to avoid some of that read on.

Sandstone detail on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.

Detail of fractured cross-bedded sandstone on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.

IF THIS IS YOUR FIRST TRIP:

Zion Canyon is a must-see.  So considering its popularity it’s a good idea to plan your first trip for a less-busy time. Try early spring, say mid-Feb. to early March.  The front or tail ends of fall color are good too.  Forests of tripods sprout at Zion during peak fall color in late October & early November.  The NPS actually publishes visitor numbers by month, so by all means check that page out when planning a trip. 

In springtime of course you’ll have longer days than in late autumn.  Plan at least two and probably three days for the main part of Zion.  That’s one full day for the canyon and a day each for East Zion and a longer hike.  The 3rd day could also be spent driving up Kolob Terrace or Kolob Canyons.

Walk along the Riverside:  Do an easy stroll along the Virgin River.  Or better yet two walks: in the lower canyon from the visitor center, and at the upper canyon’s Riverside Walk.  Both the Pa’rus Trail from the visitor center and the Riverside Walk up-canyon are wheelchair-accessible.  

At sunset there are many photo opportunities along the canyon bottom, especially with fall colors.  For the upper Riverside Walk, if you’re willing to get your feet wet, your photos will be better for it.  Photographers more prepared and more averse to wet feet than I am use hip-waders.  If you continue up into the Narrows, make sure you’re prepared by talking it over with a ranger.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Short Hike to Emerald Pools or Hidden Canyon:  If it isn’t too busy (go early morning), Emerald Pools is definitely worthwhile.  The trailhead leaves from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop and it’s about 3 miles round-trip.  Up-canyon from Emerald is the trailhead for Weeping Rock.  Do the short walk to the crybaby rock then take the trail on up to Hidden Canyon.  It’s a fairly short but steep hike.  For more strenuous hikes, read on…

Climb to a Canyon Viewpoint:  If you have the energy and time, do a longer hike in the Canyon.  The same trail to Hidden Canyon climbs steeply beyond to an amazing bird’s-eye view at Observation Point.  It’s 8 miles round-trip with a 2100-foot elevation gain.  There is another way to get to this outstanding viewpoint, but it requires driving to East Mesa trailhead over a rutted road.  Any vehicle with decent clearance should have no problem, though if it’s wet or snowy up there forget it.  

On my first day in the canyon back in the early ’90s I hiked to Observation Pt. then got lost coming back down off-trail.  Got cliffed-out, had to turn around, saw big cat tracks, and hiked back in the dark.  In other words a typical hike for me at the time.  But it was such a great intro. to the area.  

Zion Canyon from a high viewpoint along a sheep trail.

Angel’s Landing, despite its harrowing reputation, is quite a popular hike.  So do it early.  From the Grotto shuttle stop, you ascend the west (left) canyon wall 2.4 miles and 1500 feet to a jaw-dropping view.  The last 1/2 mile is true mountain-goat territory, so no small kids and no fear of heights allowed!

Explore East Zion:  East Zion is a spectacular area of the park, and is also your best chance to see bighorn sheep.  Don’t miss it.  Head past the turnoff for the main canyon and drive up the switchbacks, through the tunnels and into a land of slickrock and pinyon pine.  Park wherever you see an interesting side-canyon and simply walk up it, turning around as you please.  If you keep going you’ll be stopped sooner or later anyway by intimidating cliff walls. 

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Canyon Overlook is a wonderful little trail that begins at the first (longer) tunnel’s east entrance.  The trail is quite popular and parking is limited.  So I recommend doing this at dawn for the great photo opportunities at trail’s end.  Except for this trail and the long one near the park’s east entrance, no other marked trails exist in East Zion.  But don’t let that stop you from exploring the area on foot.  

About Foot Travel at Zion:  

  • Be kind to the environment and if you’re off-trail walk on sandy canyon-bottoms or on bare sandstone slickrock.  Avoid the crusty and fragile soil at Zion and throughout the Southwest.  It’s actually alive!
  • At Zion you have quite a lot of choice, anything from simple hikes (on- or off-trail) to technical canyoneering descents.
  • Not to discourage you from exploring off-trail, but use good judgment.  If you head up (or worse, down) some random canyon on your own, realize it’s quite easy to get in over your head.  You may end up wondering when your simple canyon walk turned into technical canyoning without a rope (which I can say from cruel experience is not a very good feeling!).
  • Putting all the above together, think about signing up with one of the specialty outfitters for a guided canyon adventure.  I’m sorry I can’t make personal recommendations since I haven’t used any guides at Zion.  To research the park’s guides, Google away!

Next time we’ll go deeper with some lesser known places to explore at Zion.  Perfect for repeat visitors or people who have more time on a first visit.  Have a wonderful week everyone!

This spectacularly cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone could be mistaken for being at Zion, but it’s not far away in Snow Canyon State Park.

 

Visiting Zion National Park – Part IV   6 comments

A fall scene along the Pine Creek canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

A fall scene along Pine Creek’s canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

Happy New Year!  Friday Foto Talk will return next week.  Let’s continue the travel series on Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion is the 7th most popular national park in the U.S.  More than 3 million people visited last year alone!  What makes it feel more crowded than a park like Yellowstone (which sees at least a half million more annual visitors than Zion) is that most people come to see a single strip of ground: Zion Canyon.  The mandatory shuttle system has helped greatly, but the main entrance at Springdale is very much a hectic bottleneck at busy times. 

Zion is popular for good reason; it’s spectacular!  By all means plan a visit.  This post (plus the next one) is to help you navigate the numbers of people and have a great time.  I’ll begin with some basic tips on travel to Zion, then next time get more specific with recommendations on places to see and photograph for both first-time and repeat visitors.  For planning online, start with the Park Service’s Zion site.

One of Zion’s best-known landmarks, the Great White Thrown rises far above the Virgin River.

WHEN TO GO:

Summer is busier than other times of course, and the heat can get pretty intense while hiking the usually shade-free trails.  I would avoid summer weekends unless you’re planning on getting way off the beaten track and well away from Zion Canyon. 

One good thing about summer, at least for photographers, is the late summer monsoon rains.  This weather pattern, widespread across the Southwest from July to early September, can bring spectacular clouds in the afternoon.  Just be careful.  Don’t get caught in high, exposed places when lightning is in the sky.

Spring is a great time to come to Zion.  The flowers are blooming and crowds are not normally what summer and some fall weekends can bring.  Higher elevations like Kolob Canyons may remain snow-covered well into spring. 

The mandatory shuttle up and down Zion Canyon begins in mid-March, so weekends leading up to that time can be pretty busy in the canyon.  If you’re planning to hike the narrows or do any other canyoneering, spring is when water levels are highest, making some canyons difficult or impossible.  In fact, if you plan to do much slot canyon exploration at Zion, I’d recommend summer or early fall.

Spring is the time of blooming cactus!

Autumn is a fantastic time to visit the park.  Fall colors in the canyons start around mid-October and run to about mid-November.  Starting 1st of November the shuttle quits running and cars are allowed in Zion Canyon.  Since this is usually prime time for fall colors as well, early November (especially weekends) can be quite crowded. 

The long Thanksgiving weekend is the de facto finish to the season at Zion.  The shuttle runs then however, making the canyon much nicer without all the cars of other November weekends.  Visitors largely disappear after Thanksgiving.    

Winter is a delightfully uncrowded time to visit Zion.  Last week of December can see a jump in visitors, but generally low temps. keep numbers down.  In some years, December and then again starting in late February, Zion is blessed with perfect late autumn or early spring-like weather. 

Unless you want the best chance for snow, I’d avoid January.  But in any shoulder season expect cold mornings.  Snow is not infrequent at these times, more so in East Zion and to the north in Kolob Canyons.  Cross-country skiing is possible at these times.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion's Kolob Canyons area.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion’s Kolob Canyons area.

GETTING THERE

Zion is located in the southwestern corner of Utah.  The nearest city of any size is Las Vegas, but Salt Lake City is not too far either.  St. George, about a 45-minute drive from Springdale, is the largest nearby town.  It’s the best place to fill up with gas and stock up on groceries or camping gear.    

Most visitors either drive their own cars or fly into Vegas or Salt Lake City and rent a car.  You don’t need four-wheel drive unless you’re planning to go into remote areas of the Grand Staircase.  But you’ll be happy to have a vehicle with decent ground clearance if you’re doing a self-drive tour of the Southwest.

And for many, Zion is part of a grand tour of the desert southwest, one that includes other parks in the area like Bryce Canyon, Arches, etc.  Just be careful you’re not leaving too little time for this kind of trip.  Don’t make the common mistake and do what ends up to be one long drive with short stops to look at rocks!  If you’re coming from afar, consider two separate trips to the region.   

There are two entrances to the main part of Zion.  One is at Springdale on the west end and this is by far the busiest.  The east entrance is perfect if you’re coming from Page, AZ or Bryce Canyon.  There are two areas to the NW of Zion Canyon: Kolob Canyons is accessible off I-15 between Cedar City and St. George; and Kolob Terrace (including the Subway hike) is accessed by a road heading north from the town of Virgin, not far west of Springdale.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.

WHERE TO STAY & GETTING AROUND

The choice of whether to camp or stay in a motel or lodge depends on the nature of your trip and your preferences.  Either is perfectly suitable for Zion.  By camping you have a bit more versatility, but the two campgrounds near the Visitor Center (Watchman and South) fill up every day in the busy season.  Besides those two, there’s only one other campground inside the park, Lava Point high up on Kolob terrace. 

For camping March through November at these two campgrounds you can make reservations up to 6 months ahead of time.  A loop with electrical hookups is kept open through the winter at Watchman Campground.  Lava Point is first-come first-serve and closes for winter.  Several campgrounds exist outside the park, open seasonally.  Check the NPS site for details on camping.

If you have a small RV/van you can find spots to free-camp in remote areas outside the park.  But that depends to some extent on season and whether you’re the type to fly “under the radar”.  For either camping in the canyon or staying at a lodge/motel in Springdale, make reservations as far ahead of time as possible.  Failing that show up in the morning on weekdays.  Zion Lodge is an option if money is no object.  If you stay there you get to drive your car up the canyon during shuttle season.

You don't even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

You don’t even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

The great thing about staying in Springdale or camping in the canyon is that you can park your car and not get back behind the wheel for the duration of your visit.  A free town shuttle runs along the main highway from Springdale to the entrance area, where you can hop on the park’s free shuttle and continue all the way up-canyon, getting off and back on as you please.  The last shuttle heads back down-canyon at 11 p.m.  You’ll need a car to visit East Zion and also for Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons. 

Several companies offer shuttles and tours throughout the park.  It’s a nice option if you want to limit your driving and concentrate on sight-seeing.  A shuttle is necessary if you have only one car and you’re planning a thru-hike of the Narrows or other one-way hikes.  Let’s face it.  Getting around is easiest when chauffeured by a local.  So whether you hire a one-off shuttle or spend one or more of your days fully guided, going with one of the local tour companies means you have one less thing to worry about. 

That brings us finally to the point of recommending places to go and photograph.  And without presuming to tell you exactly how your visit should go, the next post in the series is a guide to making the most of your time at Zion, whether it’s your first, second or tenth visit.  Have a wonderful 2016!

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.

 

Rocky Mountain National Park, Part II   10 comments

The Colorado River looking like any old mountain stream near its headwaters where it flows through and defines the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Colorado River looking like any old mountain stream near its headwaters where it flows through and defines the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

This is the second of two posts on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  Make sure and check out the first part, where I cover some logistics, along with things to do on the popular east side of the park.  This post will take you over to the west side on your one-way tour, entering via Estes Park and exiting through Grand Lake.  You could also do it the opposite way of course.

Trail Ridge Road 

Trail Ridge Road is a famous highway that traverses a high ridge over the Continental Divide.  Local American Indian tribe, the Utes & Arapahos, maintained a foot-trail near where the highway now runs.  They accessed hunting grounds on the Great Plains, where those big mammals you now see mostly limited to the high country in the national parks (elk, buffalo, etc.) used to congregate in huge numbers.  In fact, one of the park’s most popular trails is called the Ute Trail.  It doesn’t involve much climbing and yet accesses high country.

A hike in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road reveals some interesting rock formations along the ridge-line.

A hike in the tundra along Trail Ridge Road reveals some interesting rock formations along the ridge-line.

Find the Ute Crossing Trailhead roughly half-way between Rainbow Curve and Forest Canyon interpretive trail on the east side of Trail Ridge Road.  There is not much parking.  You can walk out a couple miles to a large rock and small pass and then retrace your steps.  Or with a car shuttle you can continue steeply down Windy Gulch a few more miles to Beaver Meadows in Moraine Park.

For sunset, you can’t do much better than drive up to the top of  Trail Ridge Road.  This high highway, reaching over 12,000 feet, traverses alpine tundra with fantastic views of Long’s Peak to the east and the Never Summer Mountains to the west.  Get an early jump on sunset so you can enjoy a walk on the tundra.  Well, not on the tundra, on a trail through the tundra.  It’s delicate.

The sun sets behind the Never Summer Mountains as viewed from Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The sun sets behind the Never Summer Mountains as viewed from Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Stop just before the summit at the Rock Cut pull-off.  From here a trail takes off north of the road and winds its way up onto the ridge.  Try your best to tear your eyes away from the incredible vistas and pay some attention to the tiny flowers and other tundra vegetation at your feet.  You won’t see tundra like this in many places outside of far northern Alaska.  There is a visitor center just west of the summit where you can learn about this tough community.

A little side-trail leads right up to the ridge-line where interesting mushroom-shaped rocks (hoodoos) will compete for your attention (see image below).  Climb up onto the summit rocks for some great views of Long’s Peak and surrounding mountains.  I found some great light and beautiful far-reaching photos here (image at bottom).

Hiking in Rocky Mtn. National Park.

Hiking in Rocky Mtn. National Park.

A Warning

I rarely do this on my blog but feel I must in this case.  In Part I I mentioned starting early and finishing before late afternoon.  There is a reason I’m stressing that again, and adding an important point.  In summertime the Rockies are prone to very fast-moving and violent thunderstorms that build up in the afternoon.  Lightning is a very real threat, a threat made clear a few days ago when two hikers died from lightning strikes.  Both died while hiking off Trail Ridge Road, one of them a woman hiking with her husband on Ute Trail.  A total of 13 people were taken to the hospital from one of the strikes alone!

Now there is no reason to fear hiking up high in Rocky in the summer.  These events are rare.  But you’d do well to keep a close eye on the weather.  If big billowing clouds start to catch your attention, it’s time to move to lower ground.  Do not get caught out in open terrain where you’re the tallest thing around.  Do not take shelter under a big lone tree.  Get into a low depression or down into thick forest if you can.  Of course you can mitigate the danger by finishing your hike by 3 or 4 p.m.  But situational awareness is always the best tool you have for this (and all) dangers in the outdoors.

Meadows along the upper Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Meadows along the upper Colorado River, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The West Side

At first glance it seems as if the west side of the park is not as full of things to do as the east side.  But look a little deeper.  Though the views may not be as frequent, it is a wonderful place to hike, photograph and watch wildlife.  And this is in no small part because of the Colorado River.  The Colorado is one of two great rivers of the American West (the other being the Columbia).  And this is where it starts.  The Colorado’s headwaters are accessible via a trail that takes off from where Trail Ridge Road finally levels out after a long looping descent.

The Colorado River Trail takes you on a nice level foray through lovely meadows bordering the Colorado (see image above & top).  It’s amazing to see the river in this way if you have experienced it like I have, in the desert southwest.  You’re far upstream from the cactus-lined rocky desert canyons here.  And that includes the biggest of them all, the Grand Canyon.  It’s a mountain stream up here, with bighorn sheep descending the steep rocky slopes to sip from its cold waters.  Keep an eye out for moose as well.

Bighorn sheep ewes browse the steep slopes along the Colorado River Trail.  They let me get within 50 feet of them.

Bighorn sheep ewes browse the steep slopes along the Colorado River Trail. They let me get within 50 feet of them.

The trail heads out to Lulu City, an old silver mining town.  Well, not a town now.  There isn’t really anything left outside of some cabin foundations.  But that’s really okay, because the miners sure picked a pretty spot on which to site the town.  Located in a meadowy area along the river, it makes a fantastic place for a picnic.  Lulu City is about 3.5 flat miles in.

If you’re hankering for more of a hike, keep going to the Little Yellowstone Canyon area.  It resembles the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, though like it’s name suggests is quite a bit smaller.  You can keep going to La Poudre Pass about 7.5 total miles in, and thus reach the true top of the Colorado River system.

From small beginnings:  a spring on a forested hillside in the Rocky Mountains will gather to become the river that serves major U.S. agriculture needs, along with water for major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

From small beginnings: a spring on a forested hillside in the Rocky Mountains will gather to become the river that serves major U.S. agriculture needs, along with water for major cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

For photo opportunities, wildlife seems particularly abundant in this part of the park.  A walk near sunset along the winding Colorado is bound to result in beautiful shots of the river and mountains.  If you’re lucky a moose or elk will grace your foreground.  There are a number of other hikes in the area.  I hiked to Big Meadows, a fairly easy 3.2 miles round-trip to a big sea of grass.  Wildflowers were in bloom and I saw plenty of wildlife sign, though no animals.  It would be a great early-morning or evening option.

There are several routes up into the Never Summer Mountains that I didn’t check out.  The hike up to Michigan Lakes Basin seems to me a particularly scenic, if steep, hike.  The hike up to Lake Nokoni features a great wildflower show.  The short walk to Adams Falls is a great family option.  All things to do on my second visit!

Big Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Big Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

 

Final Thoughts & When To Go

As I already mentioned, a good way to tour Rocky is to do a loop from east to west (or vice versa), camping along the way.  I visited in late June, and a few of the hikes I did (especially the Bear Lake to Fern lake one-way) crossed abundant snowfields.  The flowers were blooming big-time in the meadows below tree-line.  In July the wildflower show moves up to the subalpine areas as the snow melts, so right now is a perfect time for a visit.  And so is autumn, with the Rocky Mountains’ signature quaking aspen adding their spectacular golden colors to the mix.

The Colorado River not far north of Grand Lake meanders across a verdant valley beneath beautiful mountains.

The Colorado River not far north of Grand Lake meanders across a verdant valley beneath beautiful mountains.

It’s worth repeating that this is quite the popular park.  You should avoid it during summer weekends or holidays.  If you come in May or early June (depending on how much snow fell during winter), be prepared for snow blocking access to many trails and even roads.  If you look at a map of the park you’ll notice that it covers a big area with limited road access.

What this means is that it will at first seem crowded (as it did to me).  But as soon as you put a couple miles or more between you and a road you’ll find big empty mountainous country.  Just make sure to take it easy and go at a measured pace.  The high altitudes will humble even the most fit flatlander.  Thanks for reading!  I hope your summer is filled with fun and sun!

 

Long's Peak, the highest mountain in Colorado, catches the evening's last sunlight from high up on Trail Ridge.

Long’s Peak, the highest mountain in Colorado, catches the evening’s last sunlight from high up on Trail Ridge.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Part I   13 comments

The view from Glacier Meadows Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The view from Glacier Meadows Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Time for a travel post.  After all, that’s supposed to be a major focus of this blog!  I’ve been to a bunch of America’s National Parks.  In fact, there are not many that have fallen through the cracks, parks that I haven’t yet had the chance to visit: Sequoia & King’s Canyon in California, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Nevada’s Great Basin, the Everglades and Acadia on opposite ends of the East Coast; not many.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is an exception.  It seems strange that I’ve been to all of the other parks in the Mountain West but never this one.  It loomed large in my mind as a blank spot.  I felt I was missing something, until recently that is.  I’m splitting this post up into two parts, because I want to share a lot of pictures of this place.  I only had my little point and shoot camera, but what the heck, it did a nice job of documenting my trip.

With a week and a half off, and considering I’m working within a (long) day’s drive of Denver, I finally got the chance to visit the park.  The hot weather we’ve been experiencing made the decision easy.  I was longing to get out of the unrelenting flatness and heat of the Great Plains and back into the mountains.  The first night camped at elevation, not far from Colorado Springs, was also the first time I’ve used my sleeping bag in quite some time.  It was blessedly cool.  Perfect sleeping weather!

A common sight on the southern Plains these days, on the way to the Rockies.

A common sight on the southern Plains these days, on the way to the Rockies.

 

Getting There & Camping

After a short introductory hike through Garden of the Gods, I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver.  The usual gateway to the park that locals simply call “Rocky” is via Estes Park, a little tourist-town on the east side of the park.  Estes Park is about a 2 hour drive from Denver.  From here, after some last-minute stocking up, you have the choice of two entrances: Beaver Meadows, closest to Moraine Park, or Fall River to the north.

An alternative gateway town is Grand Lake, on the southwest side of the park.  At about 2 1/2 hours, this is a bit further to drive than Estes Park, but because I’m recommending a loop through the park anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether you enter or exit through Grand Lake.  However you get into the park, you won’t have to drive far before you find camping.  Campsites (without hookups) cost $20/night.

You can make camping reservations (which in summer is a good idea) at Moraine Park or Glacier Meadows campgrounds.  These are located in the most popular part of the park, the Bear Lake Road corridor.  Moraine Park is the more popular of the two, but I camped at Glacier Meadows and thought it was just fine.  It has a fantastic view (see image at top) and a very friendly ranger to check you in.  At either campsite you can show up early in the day to get a decent campsite.  Not too early before people check out; about 11-1 is a good timeframe.  Campsites are not huge and forested like we have in the Pacific Northwest, but they’re available.  That is, providing you don’t try to do Rocky on a summer weekend.  Do yourself a big favor and go during the week.  It’s a very popular park, and close to a big city.

The terrain at Wild Basin includes this area that was subject to recent flash flooding.

The terrain at Wild Basin includes this area that was subject to recent flash flooding.

One of the many wildflowers I found along the trail.

One of the many wildflowers I found along the trail.

 

 

Rocky is For Hiking

This is yet another national park that is best seen from the trail, whether on foot or horse-back.  One note: days often start clear, with clouds showing up mid-day and thunderstorms always possible late in the afternoon.  I don’t mind storms (call me strange), but if you want a better chance for calm weather start your hikes early and finish before late afternoon.

I drove up on a Monday afternoon, entering the park via an entrance I haven’t mentioned – Wild Basin.  This is a short gravel road, driveable in passenger vehicles, that dead-ends at a trailhead.  The hike in from here to Ouzel Falls is an easy 2.7 miles.  But you can hike further along to a glacier-gouged subalpine basin, ultimately ending up at beautiful Bluebird Lake 6 miles in.

Another key trail-head lies between Wild Basin and Estes Park.  Long’s Peak is the highest mountain in Colorado at 14,259′ (4346 m.).  You can climb the mountain from the trailhead along Hwy. 7.  In late season when there is little snow or ice, the climb is not technical.  It can be done in a long day, starting before dawn.  Or you can do one of a number of shorter hikes from here.  There’s a small tent-only campground at the trailhead.

The Loch is a beautiful place to hike to in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

The Loch is a beautiful place to backpack in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Flowery grassy meadows are found everywhere at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Flowery grassy meadows are found everywhere at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Another great hike, one I highly recommend, takes off from Bear Lake Road at Glacier Gorge Trailhead.  This is located just before road’s end at Bear Lake.  A short jaunt up the trail and you find yourself at a gorgeous (and popular) little cascade called Alberta Falls.  But keep going, the best is yet to come.

The Loch, a lovely lake popular with backpackers, is your next destination.  When you come to beautiful Timberline Falls 4 miles in, you’ll need to do a little steep climbing.  But the reward for that comes quickly, in the form of two spectacular tarns.  A tarn is an alpine lake set into a depression carved by a glacier at the base of steep mountains.  Lake of Glass and Sky Pond (image below) are aptly named.

Sky Pond is your final stop before turning around.  Unless you want to do some mountain-climbing that is!  You will be hiking across rocky tundra at the foot of the granite giants.  It’s what you come to Colorado for!  The total mileage for Sky Pond is 9 miles round-trip, with about an 1800-foot elevation gain.  Not an easy hike, especially with the high altitude, but definitely worth it.

 

Sky Pond is a glacial tarn sitting high in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Sky Pond is a glacial tarn sitting high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

One more great east-side hike takes off from Bear Lake at the end of Bear Lake Road.  You will need to take a shuttle for this one-way hike.  First park your vehicle at the Fern Lake Trailhead near Moraine Park Campground.  Just back up the dirt road from here is a shuttle bus stop.  The park operates a free shuttle bus that runs daily from mid-June to mid-October, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.  You never have to wait long for a bus.

You’ll actually take two shuttle buses with a change mid-way along to Bear Lake, your starting point.  From Bear Lake, hike along the lakeshore to the right, quickly leaving the crowds behind when you veer right at a junction and begin climbing to a gentle pass.  After skirting a beautiful alpine lake at the base of rugged peaks, drop steeply down to Fern Lake and then out through a lovely valley to the trailhead, where your vehicle is parked.  You’ll pass some spectacular scenery on this 9+ mile hike, with the chance to see bear or mountain sheep along the way.

Elk browse in one of the park's many grassy meadows.

Elk browse in one of the park’s many grassy meadows.

Other Things To Do

After all that hiking you may be ready for some mellow pursuits.  If you have fishing gear (you can rent in Estes Park), fly-fishing along the Big Thompson River as it winds through Moraine Park is so perfect you won’t need to catch any fish to have a wonderfully relaxing time.  Early morning in Moraine Park is also a great time to break out the camera and tripod to get some pictures.  Herds of elk frequent the huge meadow that makes up Moraine Park.

The Big Thompson River, popular with fly fishers, is a crystal clear stream that flows conveniently through beautiful Moraine Park.

The Big Thompson River, popular with fly fishers, is a crystal clear stream that flows conveniently through beautiful Moraine Park.

There are several stables in the park that offer trail rides.  All of them seem to be centered around Moraine Park.  Those that I saw were your typical long trains of tourists perched uncomfortably on bored-looking mounts.  But I’m sure you could arrange to ride in a smaller group where they cater to a more experienced rider with a quicker pace.  However you do it, it looks to be well-organized.  And the scenery is truly spectacular for horse-back riding at Rocky.

Stay tuned for the second part of this post, where I’ll cover spectacular Trail Ridge Road and the west side of the park.  Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Bear Lake at dusk.

Bear Lake at dusk:  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

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