Summer 2020: Arapaho National Forest

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Friday, June 5. Elizabeth pulled out from the parking garage in Denver, and with pinpoint navigation from Michael and myself, headed westward through Denver until she reached I-70. Looming directly ahead was the starkness of the Front Range – a phenomenon that really can’t be described unless you’ve driven that stretch of 70. It’s flatness all the way from Kansas City to Denver, and on the far side of Denver it’s literally MOUNTAINS right away.

Much to Elizabeth’s glee, we were up in the Rocky Mountains. Michael was still having a work video call in the backseat, so the two of us spoke in hushed tones about the awe-inspiring peaks around us. We didn’t really have a set location to camp at – Michael insisted the better way to go was dispersed camping, where you just drive up to a campsite. Unfortunately, it was already late on Friday afternoon so we knew we’d have to hunt out a dispersed site. The initial goal was to look at a spot we’d found just east of Tabernash, within the Arapaho National Forest just south of Grand Lake.

Getting there was the typical Colorado drive – take I-70 deep into the mountains, then pull off on a highway that switchbacks its way through a pass. This particular pass was on US-40, which I’d been on once before back in 2014 with my family. For Elizabeth, each turn was another wonder. Presently, we were in the town of Fraser, where we stopped (for the first of many times) at a Shell to ice up our cooler and take a restroom break. The views if you live in Fraser are pretty great:

The dispersed campsite we were looking at was just past Fraser, up by a little lake. Unfortunately, when we got to the road leading up to it, a Forestry Service ranger informed us that the road leading up to our campsite was closed – the snowpack hadn’t fully been cleared from the road. Disappointed but not daunted, Michael began to lead us on a great wild goose chase through the Arapaho National Forest. We wound through the unpaved roads that lined the side of the mountains, looking for spots on the side of the road to pull off and pitch some tents. Michael and Elizabeth were incredibly picky. We found some spots that I thought were pretty good, but each time they insisted that we continue to look for the perfect spot. At one point, we found ourselves having to back the car out of a road too treacherous to continue. At another point, we stopped to let a car pass us, only to find the car parked at a perfect spot for tent camping just minutes later. At another point, we found what looked like a promising spot in a meadow. Except, on the other side of the meadow, a moose was staring us down.

We even had to deal with lightning.

Finally, we’d rejected every spot along the side of the roads in the national forest and had once again returned to private land. Michael suggested that we head over to Lake Granby and try to find camping along the lakeshore. There was a campsite called Arapaho Bay that we hoped to find a spot in. Alas, when we got there every spot was either booked or occupied. It was beginning to become late, and I was worried and hungry. Michael suggested asking someone at the campsite if we could squat on their spot, which Elizabeth and I weren’t thrilled about. There were some cabins nearby, but they were all booked up. I was rapidly becoming fed up with the search. We either needed to find somewhere before dark, or head back to Denver.

We struck an agreement. There had been a relatively flat spot on the side of the road east of Fraser just inside the national forest that I was reasonably sure would remain unoccupied. I knew I could navigate back to the location, and we should get there before dark. Elizabeth took over for me behind the wheel and we headed all the way back down Us-40 toward town. By now, the sun was setting behind the mountains to the west. I told Elizabeth to take County Road 8 up into the national forest. Along the way, Michael and I disagreed about which way to go. I was sure that I was right, but we followed Michael’s instructions right into a private ranch. That’s when I finally lost my temper. I don’t remember exactly what I yelled, but it basically amounted to something along the lines of “You two wasted the entire day and now it’s dark, let’s just go back.” After I’d vented my spleen, the two of them asked me to just give it one more chance to find the possible site. I agreed with the stipulation that I do the navigating. And that is how, in the mountainous dusk on the night of June 5th, we came to our campsite as ignonimously as possible.

Once we were there, we discovered that although the ground was covered in small branches and twigs, it was reasonably flat. Some things look a lot better in bear country at 9:00 p.m. than they did at 4:00. With the help of headlamps and flashlights in the dying twilight, Elizabeth and I pitched our tent with the practiced expertise we were acquiring that summer. Elizabeth flicked our tent lamp on to inflate our air mattress, while Michael and I got started building a campfire from scratch.

The good news is that there was plenty of wood around to burn. The better news is that Michael, as a pyromaniac, was more than enthusiastic in building the campfire. He lugged in big stones from god knows where along the side of the road while I laid in some branches and logs for us to burn. Turns out the wood burned very easily, because there was a drought in Colorado at the time. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure if we were under a burn ban:

The good news was that we close enough to Fraser and Winter Park, and facing toward town on the mountainside (we were in the Devils Thumb Area, although I’ve never confirmed the name of the mountain we ourselves were on), that we were able to pick up reasonable service. That would be extremely beneficial the next day. In the meantime, we built up a little campfire for Michael to cook some (delicious) Whole Foods tortellini in and sat out under the night sky.

A group was camping in an RV just a couple hundred meters west of us, which filled me with hope that if we were eaten by a bear at least someone would know. Michael and I chatted with them from a good social distance, before working with Elizabeth in the dark to carefully dispose of all food-smelling things and put out the fire. And, with an eventful first day up in the mountains behind us, it was time for sleep.

The next morning, I was up bright and early, enjoying the gloriously cool air (Norman summers can really get to a person). Before waking everyone else up, I checked in on the severe weather forecast for the day. It was not one you see every day in the intermountain west.

In fact, by 9:00 a.m. a line of storms had developed (!) by Arches National Park (!!!). It seemed pretty obvious to me that by mid-afternoon, things would be pretty windy. And I did not particularly have a desire to be at an elevation of close to 10,000 feet, surrounded by very tall, very thin trees, when that happened.

In the meantime, a line of showers had come through, creating a backdrop for the beautiful early morning scene in the Devil’s Thumb Area.

The cold light of day let us see the kind of campsite we had created out of thin air. It honestly wasn’t too bad.

Breakfast was made in Michael’s trusty cast iron – eggs and turkey bacon. It was slightly difficult owing to the showers in the area – right as I got the food up to an optimal heat, the rain started to come down harder. Fortunately, I was committed to the prospect of making a good breakfast and stuck it out through the rain.

The three of us had no firm plans for the day – just the expectation that we would meet up with Irene in the afternoon, since she doesn’t like driving way up in the mountains. That meant we would rendezvous with her near the tiny town of Berthoud Falls later in the day, when she became available. In the meantime, we chatted about hikes we could take to kill some time while Elizabeth searched Alltrails and I kept my eye on the storms to our west.

Presently, I had to go to the bathroom. Now, I’m not sure I’ve ever had to go number two in the woods before. I grabbed a roll of toilet paper and set off down the dirt road a ways, looking for an easy spot to hide along the side of the road. After a few hundred meters, I found a relatively clear area into the woods, and presently came upon a dead tree lying horizontally at about waist level. I will spare the rest of the details, but this is 100% the best backdrop I’ve ever had for a poop.

I could hear running water down the hill directly to the left in this picture. This naturally called for an exploration session to find whatever was calling it. I edged back and forth down the steep slope until the ground started to get squishy, and discovered a rill barely larger than the plants it wound through, with little waterfalls everywhere along it.

I named the creek after myself and traipsed slowly back up the steep slope to the road. I found Elizabeth and Michael prepping for the day. The three of us settled on a trail to hike – the Yankee Doodle Trail, just outside of Winter Park. We made the trek back down the mountain toward late morning and headed into the town to make the hike.

The Yankee Doodle Trail is a pretty tame trail that switchbacks east of town before straightening out and heading uphill. It gives a really pretty vista of the town in front, framed by snow-covered mountains in the background. Some of the early views were obstructed by trees:

But as we gained elevation, the view would gradually improve.

Meanwhile, Michael was in full-on geologist mode, identifying types of rocks as we walked. He managed to discover a dirt road just off of the trail, which according to a local was used for fire control. In Michael fashion, he decided to parallel Elizabeth and me for five minutes on the road as we continued up the modestly graded Yankee Doodle.

The trail, being as close as it was to the town of Winter Park, was apparently a favorite for locals to go mountain biking down. Every once in a while, we had to bail off the trail entirely as people went whizzing by. To compound the man-made hazards, I saw a rain shower to our southwest, whizzing toward us. Just as the trail broke into a young pine forest that looked like a premature Christmas tree farm, rain started to fall on us. Not that we were going to let a little bit of rain ruin our day.

If the Yankee Doodle trail had been a main lynchpin of our vacation plan, its upper terminus at a random dirt road may have been a modest disappointment. Given what it was, though (a nice, relatively short trail with pretty views and close to the town in case we needed to shelter from storms), I wasn’t too upset. Besides, a few minutes back downwards, we came to a perfect spot to get beautiful shots of the Vasquez Mountains to the west.

The sun had come out while we walked back down. I noticed that the summer bloom had fully come to the Rocky Mountains:

Just all in all, a lovely day.

And that’s when things got weird.

You can imagine the consternation Elizabeth and I, two meteorologists and creatures of the Plains, felt at being involved in a severe thunderstorm warning that made no sense on radar. I texted friends and asked them to check satellite. I openly wondered whether I was losing my mind. Turns out that yes, NWS Boulder has firm grip on the situation, as I came to realize when we neared the bottom of the Yankee Doodle trail. Weird, floofy cumulus clouds that all seemed to be carrying individual downbursts appeared above the mountains to the southwest and darkened the skies. I wasn’t too worried – we had, thanks to my skillful planning, gotten off of our campsite at 10,000 feet in favor of a nice parking lot at a lower elevation. Meanwhile, we had Whole Foods sourdough bread and turkey to make some delicious sandwiches for lunch – a task that got a lot harder as the wind started to pick up and thunder rumbled in the distance. After our rough-and-ready meal, we headed down into Winter Park itself just as the Great Rocky Mountain Derecho of 2020 swept in.

In all honesty, the impacts from the storms in Winter Park were rather light. It rained moderately hard, and it got blustery, and that was about it. But in each direction around us, the mountains were swallowed by wild-looking clouds carrying big, angry rain shafts that I figured were accompanied by 70 mph winds. As it turned out, that was an underestimate.

Since we were officially in “ride-it-out” mode while we waited for Irene to come up to Berthoud Falls, Michael, Elizabeth and I decided to check out a brewery in Winter Park – Hideaway Park Brewery. As one does in the middle of a storm, we showed up in masks and ordered a 6-pack to go.

Finally, the conditions outside calmed down enough for us to go meet Irene at the rendezvous point. She was driving directly through the derecho to meet us, and poor Irene had to deal with the wind and blowing rain on I-70 in the mountains – exactly what she had feared. My deepest condolences to her.

The pull-off we met at was right at the spot where US-40 stops following Clear Creek and begins to tackle the continental divide. As one might imagine, Clear Creek was more than full after the rain. And in the time-honored tradition of people waiting for someone to show up somewhere, Michael and I found a trickle flowing on the side of the road and dammed it up.

Eventually, Irene arrived, which put a stop to all the dam fun. We all loaded into our two vehicles and headed back for our campsite, but not before enjoying some rare and beautiful mountain mammatus:

It was on the way back up the county road to our campsite that we first realized just how bad the storms had been at higher elevations. Every few hundred meters, we came across a tree that had fallen across the road and was neatly cut away to open the road back up to traffic. I mean, the forestry service must work FAST:

When we got to our now-familiar campsite, I cringed at the thought of our tents being blown all the way to Boulder County. As it turned out, that fear wasn’t entirely unfounded:

Michael and Irene had to fish their tent out of a tree 100 yards away and patch up some small rips in it with duct tape. This was perhaps not what Irene had signed up for. However, by this point in the day the skies were clearing outside of some poofy clouds and a beautiful sunset promised to be in store:

After Michael and Irene mitigated their tenting crisis and Tucker got to work eating all of the grass within a 50-yard radius of the site, the four of us settled down with the mercifully still-dry firewood to build an evening campfire. Given the ample kindling, it took no time at all for Michael to have a roaring blaze going. Inside my trusty blue cooler, we had some primo Whole Foods steaks just waiting to be cooked, as well as Michael’s entire supply of beer (there was a lot of beer). I grabbed a sour and settled into my chair as Michael greased up his cast iron to throw the steaks on.

Periodically, the strain of the day’s storms proved to be too much for the trees of the forest surrounding us:

The occasional gunshot sounds of collapsing trees formed a backdrop for a pleasant evening. Tucker settled in with his food by our campfire circle. The steaks took quite some time to cook, surprisingly, given how hot Michael had made the fire. Even after they’d been on the fire for a long while, our steaks still came out pretty pink. Which made for an interesting eating case, especially since we only had plastic silverware.

While chowing down, a Forestry Service ranger came by doing their evening rounds. They informed us that there was a burn ban in the Arapaho National Forest, if not Grand County, and that our fire was illicit. It was an honest mistake on our part, and one that was borne out elsewhere across the national forest the two nights we were there. We asked the ranger if we could finish our steaks before dousing the fire, and she said yes. Michael took that as a reason to continue cooking one last steak for as long as he felt like, but shortly after dark the other three of us rebelled and prevailed upon him to douse the fire. We retired to our tents early, for another beautifully cool night of sleep. At one point in the middle of the night, I woke up, needing to use the bathroom. When I got outside I was astounded to see that a full moon lit up the entire mountainside. I’ve never seen a moon quite that full.

The next morning, I was once again up early. I munched my favorite camping breakfast (Pop-Tarts) and set off for the same vantage point I had used the bathroom from the day before. It was quite a bit more difficult to get there this time:

When I got back, we began the process of breaking down our campsite. On day three in the mountains, we would be heading to Rocky Mountain National Park. Michael and Irene suggested we head to Grand Lake before our entrance time, so we planned on getting there by late morning. Elizabeth and I began the routine of breaking down the tent – deflate the air mattress, fold all the blankets, transfer laundry to the car, fold the tent into its tiny carrier bag, shake out the tarp. Michael and Irene did the same with their tent while Tucker supervised. Finally, we had our lawn chairs all put away and the only sign that this wide stretch of road had ever been used recreationally was two patches of grass that had been stripped bare of branches and the handmade fire pit we left behind. I wonder if I’ll ever see that spot again. I wonder if the fire pit will still be there if we get back. I wonder if other people, seeing the improvements to that spot, have used it since.

Our little convoy of two cars drove back down into Fraser one final time. We made one last provision stop at the Shell in town, which had been such a useful source of ice for our cooler and a place for Elizabeth to use the bathroom over the last few days (as well as being a place where I accidentally backed into a concrete post at one point). Our next stop, due north of us on US-34, was Grand Lake.

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