Rocky Mountain National Park: A Weecap

It’s 1:30 a.m.  Do you know where your coyotes are?

I ask because for the past 10 days, I’ve been a guest in Estes Park, Colorado, home to a variety of wildlife I’d not really seen before this trip.  All of that changed last week, when I began an up close and personal (and, truth be told, unwilling) meet-and-greet with some of Estes Park’s finest.

If you don’t know, Estes Park is about 30 minutes North of Boulder, Colorado, and a stone’s throw from one of the most amazing parks in the National system – Rocky Mountain National Park.  It’s also home to The Stanley Hotel, the film site for The Shining, that crazy Jack Nicholson movie where he runs around chanting “REDRUM” to anyone who will listen to his deranged self.  Which would not be relevant except for my run-ins with Nature Itself this week.

I’ve been to Estes several times in the past few years – lucky for me, I have a place to stay, a nice home which is currently furnished, but not lived in.  I usually head out with a few girlfriends, or one of my cousins, for a 4 day trip which involves hiking, occasional drinking, and some fine scenery.  This trip, though, I flew solo for six of the ten days- partly by choice, partly by necessity. 

When I had company, the hikes we completed were great – stunning vistas, beautiful waterfalls, and many, many stops along the trail (we claimed it was to observe the flowers, but mostly it was so I could suck wind without asking for a time-out.)  Because the city and park sit above 8500 feet (and, in some cases, 9500), walking just a few feet can wind many folks.  Luckily, some of that triathlon training seemed to have paid off this summer, because it didn’t suck as much as I thought it would…

The real fun started on Monday, however, when I woke up to snow after 75 degree days the weekend before.  Because I was not born yesterday, and I was on vacation, I decided to stay in my pajamas, and do some damage to one of the Nicholas Sparks books lying around (no judging, please.)  Midway through the predictable plot (and still pajama-bound), I’m pretty sure I experienced a heart attack when something began to throw itself at the house (on the lower level of the A-frame, just below the living room where I sat.) 

My first thought: BEAR!!!!  I had bears on the brain.  We had seen two in the park two days before, and there was a growing number displaying human-like dumpster diving capabilities in Aspen, so of course, I thought they were coming for me and the Wheat Thins next to me.  With adrenaline I hadn’t experienced since a car exploded outside my apartment 10 years ago (another story, another day), I jumped up on ragged legs, grabbed my cellphone, and, still pajama-clad, ran into the master bedroom, through the bathroom, and into the closet.  (None of which had real doors – what’s with these POCKET doors??? I yelled to myself.)  Shoeless and shaking, I dialed 911 like the city girl I am.  So help me God, I’m glad I’ll never have to hear that tape. 

Essentially, I claimed a bear was trying to get into the house.  In hindsite, I could have looked out the window instead of running from it, but I had just been told a story about how bears were climbing deck posts, and I assumed if I stepped outside, Mr. Bear might think I was inviting him in for tea.  Or me.   So, I simply told the 911 operator that I thought it was a bear because the whole HOUSE WAS SHAKING every time whatever it was was throwing itself at the window, and I figured it was just a matter of time before it came up the stairs, sniffed out my unshowered self, and thought “mmm, LUNCH!”

Ten LOOOONG minutes later, Estes Park’s finest were outside (long enough that I was able to stand in the closet and contemplate whether that shotgun the owners had left was loaded, and if my BB Gun skills from fourth grade would work on a 12-guage. )  I threw on some shoes from within the closet when I heard the doorbell, and a jacket to cover myself up, and promptly busted into tears at the site of the men in uniform.

How embarrassing.

Seriously, I consider myself a tough city girl – but this scared the ever-living daylights out of me.  And I was in my PJs in front of men in uniform.  Cardinal sin.

They took one look at me and knew I was toast.  “It’s just an elk, miss” they said.  (It’s rutting season, when the boys like to mark their territory and fight for the chics in the pack, and this one – this little guy with no points on his antlers, had seen his reflection in the window, and gone all crazyball against the window, siding, etc.)  The guys weren’t surprised that he scared me, but were surprised that he didn’t actually break the window (though he did leave a mark.)  In any case, once I got over the fact that I had been emotionally harassed by the Rodney Dangerfield of Elks, I thanked the men in blue and retreated to the couch.

That night, I fell asleep around 1:30 with the TV on, wondering when I had become such a sissy.  Every sound made me think that there was a Papa Elk just waiting to crash through the window.  The next night, I fell asleep late, with the TV on again, and woke at 4:45 to the sound of a pack of coyotes outside my window. 

“Wooo woo wooo-oooooo” they claimed, chiming in, one after the other, like the dog version of “row, row, row your boat”.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  It was my birthday, and I chose to believe it was Mother Nature singing me a song.  Delusional? Yes, but better than chanting “redrum” while the Boys of Summer played outside my window…

Thursday the weather finally cleared, and I took on an amazing hike from Bear Lake, including a long, slow climb past Bear, Nymph, Dream, and finally, to Emerald Lake at the top of the Bear Lake Recreation area.  Heading up, it was cold and blustery, but every 20-30 minutes or so, I was greeted with the site of a new lake, prettier than the last.  I had checked in at the ranger station as a solo hiker before I went up (pretty unnecessary given the amount of people on that trail, but it did thin out towards the top, with only 5 of us at Emerald Lake).   By the time I came down the mountain, a brief snowstorm had settled in again, and I caught some amazing pictures of the snow covering the lakes.  Twenty minutes after it began, the storm was gone.  But I was reminded of the cardinal rule of being in the mountains: be prepared for anything.   I had the right clothes with me in my pack, and poles to help keep my footing.  All in all, a great day.

Friday, I visited a hike recommended by the rangers on Thursday – The Loch, a lake also in the Bear Lake area, North of Alberta Falls, and just East of Mills Lake (which I had done with friends Ann and Karen on Saturday).  It was 6 miles roundtrip with a 700 foot elevation gain – which doesn’t seem like much, until you realize you’re starting at 9,500 feet, and that means you’re finishing above 10,000.  Sheesh.  Suffice it to say, it took me a bit of time to get up there, but when I did, it, too was incredible.  An amazing, hidden lake, at the top of this mountain pass, which you would never know existed had you not hiked your way through ridges and whatnot to get there.  On the way down, I was tired- definitely used my hiking poles to their full advantage – but I was also exhilerated.  I had just completed two amazing days of hiking in a row, and I had seen things I’d never seen in the park.  I was feeling pretty darn pleased with myself.

Then came Saturday.  Again getting a late start (after 1:00), I headed out to Cub Lake, a 6 mile roundtrip hike that goes through the meadows at Moraine Park.  This is a great time of year for this hike, which starts in the basin, and gives you about a mile of winding, exposed, sunny path, with a view of lots of Elk activity, before snaking up through an Aspen and Fern grove, to the lake.  I knew from the elevation map that this one would be tough – with a 2.4 mile one-way hike, most of the elevation gain (520 feet or so) came in the last mile.  That’s a lot.  This was my third day in a row of heavy hill hiking, and by the time I reached the hard parts of the trail, my legs were protesting.  But I took my time, chatted with anyone unlucky enough to be coming down the trail, and eventually made it to the top.  On my way up, I met a nice woman who looked to be about 60.  She said that she and her husband used to hike the trails all the time, but that he had died 11 years ago, and that this was her first hike in 6 years.  She had told herself to start slow, and do what she could, but claimed her body had Exercise Alzheimers – that it continued to claim it had never done these things before.  I liked her spunk, and more than that, I liked what she was doing – just getting out there, one stop at a time.   

The hike back down from Cub Lake was tough, but I was flying with my hiking poles, using them as extensions of my arms.  It was like having superpowers to be able to fly down that hill and drop those poles into spots for leverage and balance.  Never again will I hike without my Extra Appendages!  They also came in handy when I spotted THREE snakes along the trail on the way back down.  Nothing like a little pole to help you feel armed against the slitherers.

I have some pictures, and some more trail highlights to share, but I wanted to get this out there since I’ve  been a bit absent for the past week.  More than that, I wanted to share that I DID manage to survive the trip, doing a lot of it solo, and I’m better off for it.  Yes, I could have done without the Things That Go Bump or Screech in The Night, and I’d definitely skip any bear sitings again – but mostly, I had a great time by planning well, taking the advice of rangers, and hiking in places that were fairly well traveled.  So if you’re thinking about getting out there, but don’t have a buddy, don’t let it stop you.  Or, you could just call me.  I’ve definitely got the bug – and it’s not going away anytime soon.

See you on the path!

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