Archive for the ‘Rockies’ Tag

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.

Wordless Wednesday: Late Fall in Colorado   2 comments

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

Yellowstone & Grand Tetons Sampler   6 comments

The Snake River's Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming reflects autumn colors.

The Snake River’s Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming reflects autumn colors.

I am in the process of updating my website with pictures I’ve made in the past few months.  Yes, I know.  I have been suffering that most common of website owner maladies: utter neglect!  I guess I don’t really love my website.  All I like is the color of the background and the photos, of course.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

Here are a few of the shots I have re-edited, spruced up, and made ready for the world.  All are from the first leg of my recent trip around the American west, of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts under a starry night.

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts under a starry night.

If you are interested in prints or downloads just click on the picture.  The versions here are very low-resolution, but when you click you will have the option to purchase high-res. versions.  All of the images are copyrighted and thus illegal to download, sorry ’bout that.  Please contact me for more information or special requests.  The direct link to my main website: MJF Images.

 Hope you enjoy them.

The Grand Tetons are a must-stop on any road trip through America's Rocky Mountain states.

The Grand Tetons are a must-stop on any road trip through America’s Rocky Mountain states.

An icy early autumn morning along Yellowstone's Firehole River and the enormous steam plumes rising from Grand Prismatic Spring.

An icy early autumn morning along Yellowstone’s Firehole River with colorful steam plumes rising from Grand Prismatic Spring.

Bare trees and a frosty meadow form a dramatic setting for lifting morning mist at Yellowstone National Park.

Bare trees and a frosty meadow form a dramatic setting for lifting morning mist at Yellowstone National Park.

Bison roaming the road at Yellowstone, and a tourist who had no idea they were that big.

Bison roaming the road at Yellowstone, and a tourist who had no idea they were that big.

 

The marvelous Swan River Wildlife Refuge in NW Montana, at the foot of the purple Swan Mountains.

The marvelous Swan River Wildlife Refuge in NW Montana, at the foot of the purple Swan Mountains.

 

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of  a crescent moon.

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