There are 59 national parks in the United States. Most are isolated and have their founding roots from the administration of Franklin Roosevelt onward. Presidents often see national parks as a prestige project, with only two presidents since Theodore Roosevelt choosing not to establish a national park during their terms. Some presidents, like Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama, see increasing the amount of federally protected land as an important policy point. With the stroke of a pen, Carter set aside huge swaths of pristine Alaskan wilderness while Obama has drastically expanded protected coastlines and waters. While every national park is a special place protecting an area of unique natural value, the simple fact is some parks by virtue of their age, history, and nature go beyond being simply “special.” The park system has several jewels in the crown known the world over. These are names like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Denali, and Grand Canyon. One of these jewels straddles the continental divide up in the High Rockies of northern Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park was established by Congress in 1915 and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. Originally it was hoped that the park would stretch from the Wyoming border southward to the Chicago Peaks just west of Denver. Due to mining and logging interests, the borders of the park were reduced to their current size with several additions coming over the years, the largest being the 1929 addition of the rugged Never Summer Mountains on the western edge of the park.
The park quickly became a prime tourist destination and one of the premier examples of park architecture. Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps was put to great use in the park where they constructed lodges, visitor centers and the Trail Ridge Road which spans the park and crosses the continental divide through the alpine tundra of the high mountains, topping out near Iceberg Pass at just over 12,000 feet. Today Rocky Mountain National park protects the Atlantic-side slopes of the Rocky Mountains and Mummy Range, the Pacific-side slopes west of the Continental Divide and the aptly named Never Summer Mountains, as well as the shallow headwaters of the mighty Colorado River, and the perpetually frigid high tundra above the treeline of these mountains. It is one of the most visited parks in the national park system and a favorite of hikers, climbers, naturalists, and families simply driving along the Trail Ridge Road.
This park was Alisha’s and my target for 2016 in part of our grand effort to see all 59 national parks. Along the way we raced lightning, sweated in pine forests, froze in alpine tundra, passed through five states, stood on top of a volcano, and were mauled by Kansas’ turnpike authority.
One of the hardest parts about visiting a national park is that they are difficult to get to. By their very nature these are isolated places lost in the vastness of nature. Many parks in Alaska are only accessible by air taxi and Dry Tortugas National Park can only be reached by ferry or seaplane. While we didn’t have to play Indiana Jones to reach Rocky Mountain, we still had to pay our penance to visit and that came in the form of Kansas.
Let me make this as simple as possible, there is absolutely nothing in Kansas. The highlights include a touchscreen drive through Subway in Wichita, a massive interstate interchange in the middle of nowhere, and our Airbnb. The lowlights include spending 90 percent of the drive from Oklahoma City crossing mind-numbingly dull plains. In Kansas’ defense, a good chunk of that drive through nothing also occurred in northern Oklahoma and eastern Colorado. So it’s not so much a Kansas problem as it is a “wheat and cattle country” problem. In a counterpoint against Kansas, they force all traffic on the interstate from Oklahoma City onto a turnpike and gouge you just to get to Wichita. So much for the free flow of commerce and keeping the highways open for military use in the event the Soviets invade. Somewhere Dwight Eisenhower (favorite son of Kansas and creator of the interstate highway system ironically) is rolling in his gave as Sam Brownback effectively (but legally) taxes interstate commerce to fund his own budget screw ups.
After a pissy five hour drive from Oklahoma City to Hays, we stopped and enjoyed a pleasantly surprising 1914 craftsman Airbnb. A shower and a bed in the middle of the high plains of West Kansas was just what the doctor ordered. The next day we woke up early and pushed into the nothingness of eastern Colorado. Within a few hours of leaving Hays we spotted mountains in the distance and came upon Denver.
Denver is a cool city. That’s about the best way I can describe it. It’s design, its restaurants and bars, craft beer scene, sports scene, and proximity to the Rockies put this city on our “I can see us living here one day” short list. Alisha and I did a quick drive through Denver looking for a place to stop for breakfast but successfully found three places with 45+ minute waits. On a Friday morning. Ultimately we ate breakfast at a place we go to constantly here in Oklahoma City albeit in a Denver suburb. After a 30 minute search for Alisha’s phone which she successfully lost in the car, we ended our city derping and took off for the park.
While the city derping came to an end the derping in general did not. I’ll spare you a rundown of the touristy nonsense we did on first arriving and skip to the meat of our trip which was our hike to Bluebird Lake on the second day.
The Bluebird Lake trail is a 13 mile out and back hike from the Wild Basin Trailhead in the southeast corner of the park up to a glacial lake in the shadow of Ouzel, Isolation and Ogallala Peaks. On the way up the trail you cross three waterfalls, a meadow recovering from a 2010 wildfire that burned 1500 acres, and then increasingly exposed rock scrambles up into the mountain bowl where the lake sits. Overall there is about 2,500 feet of elevation change, most coming at the end, and about half the trail is either at or just above the treeline. It’s a harder moderate trail or easier strenuous trail depending on who you ask and takes a few hours to complete.
That is the nice description you will find on websites outlining the various trails in the park. Here is the reality. This is a hard trail meant for experienced hikers. The 12 mile advertisement is false and must be point-to-point as the crow flies since our fitbits told us we were at 17 miles at the end. The elevation change will wreak havoc on you even if you are breathing fine since your muscles are working doubly hard without you even realizing it. Our progress slowed past the three waterfalls and we quickly found ourselves questioning our schedule. We purposely left early to start the trail as early as possible so we would be off the exposed parts of the trail before afternoon. That day we were expecting afternoon storms. The morning was clear but one of the most important lessons of hiking in mountains is that weather changes can occur quickly. A bright clear sky at the start of one hour can turn to thunderstorms by the end of the hour with ease. At the two-thirds point of the trail, thinking we were about to hit the lake at any minute, we realized we still had two miles left. By this point the sky was still clear but increasingly dark clouds were trying to push over the peaks around the lake. After some discussion and weighing the thoughts of other hikers we decided to ignore the pain in our legs and finish the thing. What we didn’t know was the final third of the trail is largely exposed, features several rock scrambles and is definitely the most difficult section. All we cared about was getting to the lake. At this point it wasn’t even really about the lake and became more about pride.
View from 10,000 feet
Also by this point we were both miserable and it was well past noon. We were clearly the slowest people on the trail and Alisha was hurting bad. After countless promises that we were almost there we came upon another rock scramble. To the north and south it was clearly raining and the clouds were doing all they could to break over the peaks above Bluebird Lake and come into the Wild Basin. Debating if it was worth pushing ourselves a bit more for a hope that the lake was over this “one last” scramble we then heard something that made us realize we had screwed up. Bad.
To quote the great philosopher Garth Brooks: “And the thunder rolled.”
I believe this was the last picture I took before our retreat.
Thankfully this was not nearby thunder and much of the sky above the Wild Basin was still clear, though clouds were breaking the peaks and gathering fast. We wanted to reach the lake about as bad as anyone who had sunk so much time and effort into anything but had to face the reality of our now terrible situation. Hurting and exposed above the treeline we turned and booked it as fast as we could down the mountain. We never saw the lake but thankfully had about another hour before more thunder began ringing consistently. By this point we were zombies shuffling down the mountain, had thunder booming way too close for comfort, got caught in several showers and were the most miserable people in Colorado. A four hour morning hike turned out to be way beyond our level of endurance given its elevation and length and we spent eight hours on the mountain altogether before getting back to the car. From this point on, our legs were Jell-O and any outdoors activities were off the table the rest of the weekend.
Here are my big takeaways from the hike. Firstly, hikes are supposed to be fun. If you are hurting bad and you’re not even half way there is no shame in turning around and getting a beer. Secondly, do not play with lightning and weather. We were very lucky to have been caught in a storm but missed the bulk of the lightning and thunder which appeared to occur over the ridge south of Ogallala Peak. Lastly, even if you aren’t gasping for air, elevation is a factor. Alisha and I have done long 10+ mile hikes before and been fine. But there is a huge difference between hiking at 2,000 to 7,000 feet and hiking over 10,000 feet. Your body is working that much harder even if you don’t think it is, and it will catch up to you quickly. This was a frustrating and humbling experience but ultimately no one died and we both got out with little more than damaged egos. A shift in the winds and we easily could have joined the statistic of the approximately 40 people struck by lightning every year in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We didn’t realize it at the time but Bluebird Lake sits up in the mountain bowl of these three mountains.
After the most delicious burger I have ever had in my life and approximately 12 hours of sleep, we come to Sunday. We decided to finish the Trail Ridge Road and explore the park with the car doing the bulk of the work. When we first arrived on Friday we had made it a good ways up Trail Ridge Road but had to turn around because, being fools, we had forgotten to get gas before entering the park. I promise we are good planners who have some clue about what we are doing and not absolute derps. This, luckily, ended up working to our advantage because our initial plan was to drive the road on Friday, hike to Bluebird Lake on Saturday, and hike the Mount Ida trail on Sunday. Needless to say, Mount Ida was not happening.
View from Trail Ridge Road.
We quickly passed our Friday turn around point and pushed up the eastern slopes, past the tree line, and into the alpine tundra of the continental divide. Like Big Bend and most other parks, the road offers plenty of scenic pullovers for one to stop and safely admire the view around them. Rocky Mountain National Park is very deceptive. From certain perspectives the entire park looks vast, which in reality it is. Several distinct ranges of peaks crisscross the park and offer impressive sweeping panoramic views. From the high summits of the alpine road we were even able to see the western slopes of Ouzel, Ogallala, and Isolation Peak. We saw Mount Ida which was covered in mists and clouds, thankfully with no thunder, but still clearly not a good day for a mountain hike anyways. From the Pacific side you can see the towering Never Summer Mountains in the distance while a small creek and marsh sprawls in a valley below; the meek beginnings of a river that goes on to carve the Grand Canyon.
The Colorado River on its way to the Gulf of California.
Conversely, from certain perspectives the park looks small. Once you are above the tree line the moss covered high meadows look like something you could sprint across if you were allowed off the paths. For every mountain peak that towers with rock scrambles, vertical walls, and year-round glaciers there are peaks that gently slope up and are covered in windswept tundra. A ten-minute walk from the road to the top seems like a pleasant stroll with the hardest obstacle being the biting wind. Even on the hike to Bluebird Lake for much of the trail we truly felt the lake was 30 minutes away. Even the towering Long’s Peak, one of Colorado’s quintessential 14’ers, looks suspiciously easily. Alisha, before our legs fell off, wanted to make a try at Long’s instead of Ida when we first arrived in the park. She is not alone in being deceived. Many novice climbers are lulled into this sense of false security and attempt to make Long’s their first 14,000 feet climb only to be defeated long before reaching the approach to the summit.
Long’s Peak towers over the park and can be easily seen from Front Range towns like Boulder and Longmont.
At the halfway point of the road you top off at a little over 12,000 feet and can stop at the Alpine Visitor Center. This building offers a respite from the cold winds in the summer and is designed to withstand blizzard conditions in the harsher winter months. Shortly after this point you begin your rapid descent down through Milner Pass and across the continental divide to the Pacific slopes where you see the source of the Colorado River lazily spilling out across the Kawuneeche Valley. From this section of the park visitors can get closer to the Colorado to view Moose or try some fly fishing, or take longer trails into the western slopes of the central mountains or the eastern slopes of the Never Summers. Shortly after, the road exits the park and takes you to the town of Grand Lake. Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby are fed by the Colorado River which continues south from Lake Granby. Much of the eastern shores of these lakes are park land but this marks the effective southern border line of the park. Instead of backtracking into the park, we decided to continue south through Winter Park and across the Arapaho National Forest to Interstate 70 and backtrack a scenic route to Estes Park, the main town just outside Rocky Mountain National Park.
That afternoon we felt we had knocked out everything we could realistically do in a short weekend. From the road we were able to see across much of the park except the southeastern Wild Basin corner which, you can trust me, we will remember well for the remainder of our lives. About the only section of the park we didn’t see were the far northern borders which are not accessible by road and require hikes of 20+ miles. Nope. Not Happening.
We actually expected the trip to have ended there. Originally it was our intention to cut back across Kansas since it was the fastest route to Oklahoma City. While eating breakfast in Denver (being the first person in line at 6:30 a.m. does have its perks) we audibled to an alternate route and decided to take I-25 south from Denver, flank the mountains into New Mexico and cut across the Texas Panhandle back into Oklahoma from the west. It added 45 minutes to the drive but if I can take a big L and see nothing the entire way or another big L and at least have mountains and stuff to see for a portion of it, I’ll take the additional 45 minutes every day of the week. This route allowed us to see the Air Force Academy and Pikes Peak from the highway in Colorado Springs as well as Raton Pass and the Spanish Peaks further south. Once we had driven out of Raton we expected a whole lot of nothing the rest of the way.
Then we stumbled upon a volcano.
In the middle of nowhere northeast New Mexico there is a small town called Capulin which is basically five houses, two stories, and a gas station, all of which look abandoned. A short turn in this town takes one to Capulin Volcano National Monument, protecting a dormant cinder cone volcano jutting abruptly out of the New Mexican prairie. Capulin Volcano is a small park and you could see everything and walk every trail in an afternoon with time to spare. This monument however is a gem in the middle of nowhere. You can drive a road to the top of the volcano and take stairs down to the crater (long covered up by erosion) or follow a trail around the upper rim. With our legs still trying not to fall off we didn’t take either but I was able to steal some great pictures from the top of eastern New Mexico.
The volcano is a relatively young geologic feature, dating back only roughly 60,000 years old. It rises to an elevation of 8,182 feet and its crater is roughly 400 feet deep. The circumference of the rim is roughly one mile. From it you can see into four states: New Mexico (obvi), Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. In the far distance one can still make out the outline of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains beyond Raton. From the top you can see the vastness of the New Mexican prarire sprawling before you, interrupted only by the town of Capulin and random small peaks, mostly small dormant volcanos in their own right, in the distance.
Alisha and I were originally going to take this route just to avoid tolls and be close to mountains a little while longer. It ended up providing us another unique opportunity to see this country and to see something most of the population doesn’t know exists in a corner of a state it often forgets. The Panhandle of Texas and western Oklahoma are as boring as they come (fix your roads Dalhart!) but when we arrived back in Oklahoma City we had just navigated a massive circle across five states, the Rocky Mountains, an extinct volcanic field, and the heart of Dust Bowl country.
Not a bad Labor Day if you ask me.