As cool as it would have been to camp above the tree line, Rocky Mountain National Park didn’t offer that as an option. Instead, Elizabeth and I were planning on cramming Michael and Irene with us in our tent spot at the Glacier Basin Campground. Glacier Basin provided perfect access to the main hike Elizabeth and I were looking forward to the next morning, Glacier Gorge Trail. We got to our campground toward the middle of the afternoon, and after listening to the park ranger at the campground entrance lecture us about how NOT to get eaten by a bear, drove on in to our site. Unfortunately for us, our site wasn’t shaded, having been caught in a fire in recent years. That wasn’t even so much of a downer, though. We had a beautiful view of the mountains we would be hiking into the very next morning.
After a small mishap caused by my decision to use the bathroom at the campground instead of the more socially distanced woods surrounding us, we set up our tents – Elizabeth and me on the tent site, and Michael and Irene in the grass next to us. We didn’t have anywhere to be or anything to do, just a lovely afternoon in a beautiful valley. Elizabeth pulled out her infamous inflatable “pouch couch”, which turned out to be a disaster that no human being would want to sit in. Tucker had lots of grass to eat. As evening set in, Michael and I wandered over to the campsite’s firewood station, where Michael was sternly lectured by the old lady running it about his mask-wearing. I got us a cord or two of wood and walked it back to the campsite so we could make dinner. It was hobo pie night, and our companions turned out to actually be huge fans of them. That made me happy – it’s not like hobo pies are anything fancy, but it’s fun to get to share your family’s idiosyncrasies with other people and see their reaction.
We got the fire pit roaring nice and hot, and Tucker laid down with his food by the pit. Elizabeth set about to burning her Jiffy Pop, and Michael set about to stealing my fire poking stick. As the sun slide below the mountains, Elizabeth and I made a run to the bathroom, only to come back to such an incredible sunset scene that I rushed to take pictures of it from my iPhone.
Now *that* was the proper way to end a day that had been so eventful, it began two full blog posts ago. Michael quickly won the “first star” game, and night descended over the Glacier Basin campground, with little fires winking out in the blackness. As is custom when camping, we didn’t stay out too late – it was a literally perfect night to sleep, so Elizabeth and I left our tent flap off. The moon was too bright to see the stars perfectly, but that’s okay. We were deep into “good camping” sleep immediately anyway.
The next morning dawned bright, clear, perfect. Even cooler, the moon was setting directly over the highest peaks of the park when I got up.
I took that shot at about 6:00 a.m. (sidenote: the sun rises at 5:30 in June in Rocky). Given what we knew about parking at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, which is a small lot for a very popular trail, and given that Glacier Gorge was our creme de la creme hike, I got Elizabeth up and we prepared to hike. We ate a quick breakfast and waited for Michael and Irene. And waited. And waited.
They woke up late, and Michael showed little of what I would call “urgency”. Elizabeth was close to strangling him by the time they were ready to go by mid-morning. A ranger had told me the lot was usually filled not long after daybreak, so I assumed we were going to have to figure something else out. There was a shuttle we could take, but I assumed that would be a nonstarter with Irene. Elizabeth was talking open mutiny after 9:30, with the potential to go rogue and take the shuttle to the trailhead ourselves. I decided not to worry about it – it seemed like Elizabeth was doing enough worrying for the both of us. We headed up Bear Lake Road – a drive made more exciting by the elevation we steadily gained toward the trailhead. The Glacier Gorge Trail begins near the end of the road at an elevation of over 9,000 feet, which meant we were switchbacking by the time we reached the lot.
Incredibly, Elizabeth and I lucked into a parking spot immediately. I’m still not sure how we managed that. Michael and Irene followed, but no other spot was available for them. They began circling the tiny area, waiting with all of the other vultures. After a couple of minutes, I saw a family coming out of the trail area and walked up to them.
“Are you heading out? Mind if I follow you?”
And just like that, against all odds, we had secured our spots by late morning. There’s some sort of lesson in there about not worrying too much before you need to.
I had waited for weeks to hike this particular trail. Pretty much everyone who recommended a hike for us told us about this particular one. I was brimming with excitement. It didn’t take long for my excitement to be justified. The first part of the hike was simply getting out to a trail junction a quarter mile away, as the sign at the trailhead showed:
Even then, every few hundred feet a little trickle would tumble down the mountainside beneath our feet. From there, we began climbing in earnest, with Tucker leading the way. It was still relatively bright, but occasional clouds began blocking the sun, making me worry about the possibility of a summertime national park thunderstorm while we were at a high elevation. We crossed a little stream with no bridge, just rocks to jump across. Thank goodness I had waterproof hiking boots. The trail was pretty crowded. Anyone who has hiked with me before knows that I like to greet people cheerfully as they pass by, but I had not brought my mask with me to hike (hindsight: this was probably the epidemiologically correct decision, but we didn’t know that so early in the pandemic), so Irene implored me to stop spreading my covid juices with them. I begrudgingly agreed, especially in the early part of the trail, which was more crowded than when we reached the upper part.
The first major landmark along the Glacier Gorge Trail is Alberta Falls, about one mile up. We thought we had found the falls at one point, but it turned out to just be one of the many sets of rapids along Glacier Creek.
The portion of the creek directly downstream of the falls itself cut a canyon pretty deeply below the trail, so that you get a cool perspective of the glacial waters far beneath you.
I was prepared for Alberta Falls to be a bit of a letdown, but it certainly wasn’t – I could hear the roar of water before we even saw it.
As an admirer of good waterfalls, this was almost enough to make my whole hike. But as Billy Mays would say, Wait, there was more!
We turned right around the edge of a prominent spot we had been hiking up and emerged into the actual Glacier Gorge itself. This was truly beautiful – there were big mountains off to our left, and we were hiking along the side of more peaks to our right, while slowly ascending a majestic canyon. We were nearly to the tree line, as well, meaning that the peaks themselves remained much more prominent than they otherwise would have been.
Michael fascinated us with his (probably made-up) knowledge of geology, picking up rocks and declaring them to be full of uranium. Snow became prevalent at some of the more shaded parts of the trail – an opportunity for Tucker to get a quick drink of water in. And the amount of people on the trail began to thin out. At one point, we took a steep decline from the trail down to the creek below us. The water was as cold as I expected, but also felt clean. For someone who hadn’t showered in days and probably smelled completely like smoke, that wasn’t the worst deal. I splashed some on my face and felt like a brand new man. On top of that, down at creek level I got to see the elusive snow bridge in front of me.
For the record, the trail is all the way up to the right of that shot, so it wasn’t easy getting back up to it. All in all, though, I found myself thinking that the hike wasn’t actually too difficult. We climbed about 1,000 feet over 3 miles – steep-ish, but certainly no Guadalupe Peak, or even Capulin Volcano.
The bigger issue, as it turned out, was the snow. Up toward The Loch, the trail became snowier and snowier, until we actually had a snowpack to deal with. The last little bit of trail before reaching The Loch turned out to be a hike through a hard-packed drift up to the rocks that dot the lakeshore. It wasn’t easy going up, although admittedly it was even less easy going down later on.
And then… and then we were there. The Loch, one of the truly beautiful places in North America. Mountains ringed the lake left and right, with the distant peaks just beyond rising over 12,000 feet. It was like a cathedral. Even the clouds darkening the sky couldn’t dampen it. Elizabeth and I had recently watched Ken Burns’ national park documentary. I was reminded of John Muir:
No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening – still all is Beauty!
It was, in fact, the kind of place where people talk in hushed tones, even if there are only a few of them. To speak loudly felt like it was disturbing some perfect piece of nature preserved for us to enjoy. I even felt guilty eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch – after all, that sandwich didn’t belong here.
We walked down to the water, and got pictures of the serene landscape as well as ourselves in front of it.
Even Tucker was overwhelmed by the beauty.
Far in the distance, we could even see a real glacier in 2020.
There was even a dude, knee-deep in The Loch, fishing in what had to be 35-degree water.
We stayed there for maybe half an hour, but honestly I don’t know if there would have ever been the right amount of time to see it. I wanted to commit every single tree in that valley to memory. Pretty sure that goal came up short, which is why I love pictures so much.
Going back down went relatively smoothly, especially after we got off the icy snowpack. The only hitch came when we heard someone mention that Tucker was emphatically not allowed on the trail we were on – Michael had lied about his ability to hike with us, but it was too late to do anything about that.
After a leisurely downhill stroll back to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, I popped the trunk of Elizabeth’s car and opened the cooler to share one last Everything Rhymes With Orange IPA with Michael. I left the rest of the pack with him. And then, just like that, Michael and Irene, our companions over the long weekend, were headed back to Denver. Elizabeth and I had our campsite for one more night, and decided to head into Estes Park for the afternoon.
Estes Park is a more authentic version of “tourist town on the outskirts of national park” than most I’ve seen. I really liked it – that’s one town I’d like to visit again post-covid. Our parking spot, just outside of the small downtown area, was basically right along the famous Big Thompson River, which excited me. Everything was within a few blocks, so it was easy to see all of Estes. We wore our masks conscientiously into each store, and to be honest, the crowd was so full in town that it’s probably a very good thing we had them. We did some gift shopping for a while, and then we ordered some ice cream. After a little longer, the two of us decided we had been good eggs in packing meals for days, and what we really wanted was to eat something that someone else had made for us. Besides, our cooler was nearly completely empty of useful food. We found a Mexican place downtown and walked in to place a carry-out order.
The food was… food. After being in the mountains, hiking and living off of cooler food for days, it was nice to be able to pig out on enchiladas in Elizabeth’s car. I was far more interested to discover that Fun Weather Things were about to happen:
It had been a reasonably warm day – I wore a sweatshirt, but no more than that. In fact, it still was relatively warm, but a cold front was pushing down the Front Range. Soon, upslope storms would develop over the park in the postfrontal regime, followed by heavy snow, with 4-8 inches in the highest elevations. In June.
Thus encouraged by the weird weather things we were going to experience, Elizabeth and I drove back to our campsite and set up an evening campfire. Clouds rolled in and we could hear thunder in the distance. For a brief moment in time, it was actually quite peaceful and serene in Glacier Basin.
Things started to take a turn for the stormier as we looked off to the south, in the big, green-grey peaks over which the moon had set earlier. A precipitation core was coming for our campsite. Eventually, it got to the tops of the mountains, and we started hurriedly throwing everything that wasn’t in our tent into the car. I put the campfire out as thunder grew louder. Elizabeth was getting anxious by the time we both hopped into her Subaru – mountain thunder, as we had learned over the past few days, is loud. Off to the south, we could now see cloud-to-ground lightning hitting the peaks – not what you want to see when you’re at 8,000 feet. The storm rolled in, loud not only for its lightning but also the copious amounts of pea-sized hail falling on us.
Things had cooled significantly, so Elizabeth turned on her car heater and heated seats while we waited out the storm. We had made a fatal error, though – she never turned on the car. It only took 10 minutes of living in luxury for the battery to sputter to death. I desperately turned the ignition, trying to urge it to life, but no. We were dead, in a hailstorm, at 8,000 feet, with no cell service, going into a cold night.
Thinking quick on my feet, I walked over to the camp host, who fortunately was staying right next to us. After explaining our predicament, he got out of his RV (in a hailstorm!), pulled the red pickup truck you can see above around in front, and popped the hood to give us a jump. After I nearly electrocuted him (whoops), he competently wired up Elizabeth’s jumper cables. Elizabeth grinded the ignition, and the engine sputtered… back to life. A giant sigh of relief and profuse thanks to the camp host later, I was back in the comfort of the passenger seat. To make sure we didn’t have a repeat incident, Elizabeth and I decided to drive back toward Estes Park a way and just leave the car running for an hour. By now, it was completely dark, outside of the flashes of lightning around us. And… was that snow? It sure looked like snow. I looked at radar, which we had just enough service to pick up, and determined that we probably wouldn’t get struck by lightning if we went to bed, so we headed back to our campsite once more.
I slept horribly. I could still hear thunder in the distance, and occasionally the lightning strikes came from our southwest – not exactly a comforting thought. More than that, though, it was just loud, cold, and kind of scary. The hail and rain from earlier had transitioned to some sort of hellacous pelting sleet, and it was windy. I don’t sleep well in the tent when it gets windy – the tent gets battered all over the place, and it’s disconcerting. And, despite the fact that I wore a sweatshirt, sweatpants, socks, and a hat to bundle up inside my sleeping bag, I could feel the cold. With all of that sad, I was more relieved than anything else to wake up and realized I’d finally managed to get a few hours of fitful sleep.
I opened the tent – the wind had died down, and there wasn’t any sleet anymore. Instead, snowflakes swirled down among our campsite.
Colorado – if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.
Elizabeth and I were heading back to Norman on June 9 – after our 5th night in Colorado, and our 4th consecutive night camping, we were ready as all get-out to shower. But first, we wanted to take a morning trip all the way up Bear Lake Road to Bear Lake itself, to see it in its snowy glory. It was a little gloomy, but very serene, and very scenic.
And, for the last time, we were exiting Rocky Mountain National Park. We stopped at the entrance sign on the way out near Estes Park, because Elizabeth had never actually gotten her picture at the sign.
We hit one final (in hindsight) hilarious snafu, when Elizabeth received service and finally had time to check her email. It turned out she needed to turn in a signed form that exact day. Elizabeth began having a panic attack – after all, we were in the middle of nowhere, and her laptop battery had done the thing where it was too cold to turn on. Okay, so we needed to plug it in during a pandemic. Elizabeth started to freak out. Thinking quickly, I got out of the car in Estes Park, walked into a Verizon store, and asked the dude at the register if I could come in to plug in a laptop. He said sure, and 15 minutes later Elizabeth’s form was sent.
We descended out of the mountains on US-36 into Boulder – a really cool highway that cuts through the Front Range and into the Foothills. Eventually, the scenes began to fade as we cut across Denver and began to backtrack on I-70.
Remember that tweet where I sent the winter weather advisory? Well, the High Plains were under a High Wind Warning, and yes, it was super windy. We were taking strong northerlies, while also dealing with occasional strong rainbands. It was actually wild.
Eventually we made it back to Salina, and then, fueled by an outdoor trip to Five Guys, pushed onward to home. The drive was long, but not as crushing as I’d feared.
The shower I took when we got back into Norman was one to behold. I sat in scalding water for 15 minutes, trying to scrub the stench of campfire from my body. I’m sure it took days for it to not be obvious what I’d been doing, but even the first shower made feel like a brand new person. I slept like a rock that night.
What a trip it had been. The goods, the bads, the tents in trees, the derechos, the fights over campsite location, the hikes, the funny dog moments – this trip had far more than its share of memorable experiences. I mean, it took 4 blog posts to write about. What a trip it had been. And honestly? I can’t wait to go back.