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Estes Park, CO
Friday, July 22, 2011 - 6:45pm by Lolo
22 miles and 0.5 hours from our last stop - 2 night stay
We met up with the boys at Marys Lake Campground in Estes Park where I had reserved 2 nights. It was Friday, and things get pretty busy in these popular areas on the weekend, so I am glad we did, because the campground was full. It was pretty nice too, with views of the mountains, a small heated pool, and a laundry facility.
I knew about this laundry facility from the campground guide, so I had strongly urged Tommy to bring his dirty laundry on vacation, because I knew that he wasn’t spending his free time in Boulder in laundromats—too many fun things to do to waste time with such menial tasks. So, he actually listened to me and brought along a laundry bag the size of Delaware, which he proceeded to lug across the campground. He looked like Santa Claus.
While three full washing machines chugged away on 5 weeks’ worth of dirty laundry, we hung by the nearby campground pool and passed the time watching the boys demonstrate the art of “leisure diving.” For the uninformed, leisure diving consists of jumping into a pool, or other body of water, while striking a “leisure pose” in mid-air. The diver’s skill must be matched by that of the photographer, who strives to capture this idiotic moment at the exact point where the diver is at peak height and parallel to the water. It was hysterical.
I feared we were making spectacles of ourselves, but figured what the heck, no one knew us, right? It was then that we had our second encounter (in ten years of travel) with a fellow camper who recognized us as the family on the “Lolo’s Extreme” website. “Oh, great.” I quickly tried to think of what other embarrassing antics might have occurred since our arrival in the campground. I became totally self-conscious. The man was extremely nice and complimentary of our travel tips and recommendations. We tried to behave ourselves the rest of the evening. Well, at least until Tommy’s friend John decided that he would really like to sleep under the stars on the roof of the RV. The trouble was that the way the campground was laid out, the row behind us was slightly higher with a birds-eye view of what must have looked like a giant caterpillar (John in his sleeping bag) mating with our AC unit on the roof.
We rose early Saturday morning, our first full day at Rocky Mountain National Park and Tommy’s 20th birthday. The plan for the day was a nice full-day hike followed by dinner in Estes Park that night. I had found www.protrails.com, a website that described hiking trails in Colorado, so I had the boys look at it to select a good one. Our criteria was that it had to be challenging enough to interest three athletic young men while not simultaneously killing their mother, it had to have a lot of elevation gain, and most importantly, it had to have spectacular views. We unanimously chose the hike to Chasm Lake at the base of Long Peak, an 8.4 mile hike with about a 2,500 foot elevation gain. (http://www.protrails.com/trail.php?trailID=61). It was described as moderately strenuous to strenuous, but the rewards were supposed to be worth it. The end goal was Chasm Lake, a stunning alpine lake, surrounded by the steep flanks of Mt. Meeker, Longs Peak, and Mount Lady Washington.
The hike began at the Longs Peak Trailhead right off Route 7 around 10 miles south of Estes Park. Since the trail starts outside the boundaries of the park, there is no entrance fee. We knew the trailhead parking lot would fill up early on a weekend, so we got there by 6:30 am, but still had to park about a half mile down the road from the already full parking area. The other reason for starting so early was that afternoon thunderstorms are quite frequent, so it’s nice to get your hike done ahead of them.
There are two hikes that will remain forever etched in my memory – the cable route up the back of Half Dome in Yosemite and this one. They both share two qualities: scenery so breathtaking it could make your heart stop and the possibility of tumbling down to an untimely death and really make your heart stop. With the Half Dome hike I knew what I was getting into and felt comfortable, although nervous, with the situation. This one took me completely by surprise.
The hike started innocently enough through a lovely forest of lodgepole, spruce, and fir trees and across the top of a waterfall before reaching the treeline. From there, the forest was supplanted by “krummoltz,” a German word meaning “twisted wood” to describe the stunted, irregular growth patterns of the trees caused by the poor soil conditions, thinner air, and extreme weather conditions at this altitude. More than half the hike was above the treeline across open tundra with terrific panoramic views.
As we approached what I believed to be the end of the hike, I was so energized and inspired by the experience that I rambled on and on to Herb about this hike being one of the best, if not “thee best” hike we had ever done. Ah, there it lay before us -- Chasm Lake, a pristine alpine lake with cliffs rising from its shore. It was at this moment of epiphany that I was informed by one of our party that this was not, in fact, Chasm Lake, but just a warm-up. Oh. Okay. I would try to control my enthusiasm until the true climax of the hike.
The trail continued above the “false Chasm Lake” along the base of Longs Peak. Eventually we came to a snow-covered section where previous hikers’ footprints could be seen closely paralleling the cliffs that rose to the right. While the section they had walked on was flat, it was only about a foot wide before dropping precipitously to the left at about a 45 degree angle. But no worry about slipping on the snow and plunging to an untimely death in the lake below, because the boulder field at the bottom would be sure to stop me first—very comforting. I was having a heart attack. One false step and I was going to slide about 50 yards, at every increasing velocity, into those rocks. The family assured me that I was worrying needlessly and compared it to walking on a snow-covered narrow sidewalk. And, they added, my trekking poles would keep me balanced . With their encouragement, I began what had to be the slowest crossing of 200 yards in the history of hiking. Actually, I was wrong, because my way back would be much slower. After much coaxing and holding of hands, I finally inched my way to the other side, kissed the ground, and paused to let my heart stop pounding. It was at this moment of relief that I saw Tommy’s friend John, who was looking back at the snow-covered section we had just crossed, gasp and cry out, “Oh my God, someone just slid down into the rocks.”
John was the only one of us that saw it happen. Just as I feared, a hiker slipped a bit on the snow and careened down the hill at really fast speed. He bounced off a lone rock halfway down the hill, which probably slowed him down, and then continued all the way to the bottom where he hit more rocks. Herb, the boys, and John tried to clamber down to see if he was alright, and John, who is a Wilderness EMT, eventually took his own chances crossing a lower section of snow to get to him. Although very badly shaken up, the guy was pretty much okay. No serious injuries, although we did hear later that he broke his wrist. A ranger showed up to help escort him back down. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if he had hit head first.
Great! Now I was on the other side of this mess and the only way back later was to cross it again. I kept asking anyone we encountered, including rangers, if there was another way out of here. I would have been willing to rock climb up Longs Peak and over rather than repeat what we had just done. Less than reassuring, everyone said that going back was the only way out and that conditions would actually probably worsen throughout the day as the snow became slushier. It was very hard for me to relax and enjoy the real Chasm Lake, which really was incredibly beautiful. Herb insisted on taking our family Christmas photo here, but as I expected, the expression on my face was more appropriate for Halloween. Everyone else was having a great time, eating lunch, taking pictures, and just enjoying the scenery. I just wanted to get it over with.
When we got back to the gorge, John scampered across like he was on a walk in the park. Herb stayed in the rear, I found out later, to film the fiasco. Meanwhile, my very sweet sons stayed with me to both emotionally and physically move me across the expanse. Tommy went first. He held my hand and kicked his shoes into the snow with each step to make a deeper and more secure spot for me to place my foot. Andrew came behind me and held onto my backpack in case I started to slip. We looked like some bizarre Conga line. Herb said we were actually making things worse, because in some sections the snow was just a bridge between rocks and that our collective weight could have broken through causing us all to fall a dozen or so feet to rocks below the snow. Luckily I didn’t know this at the time, because the last thing I wanted to do was endanger the boys as well. Boy, do I love those guys. I really think I couldn’t have done it without them (and my trekking poles). Herb got lots of photos of me stooped over like Quasimoto being escorted from the bell tower. I’m glad he found it entertaining.
When we got to the other side, I was so incredibly relieved. I didn’t feel that my fears were totally unwarranted, especially in lieu of the fact that someone actually did fall. I then noticed that there was a young couple sitting on the rocks who had had a ring side seat for my rather embarrassing hiking performance. They were trying to decide whether to make the crossing. I feel kind of bad that my pitiful display might have been the deciding factor in their decision to not go on, because they did miss out on a truly awesome view beyond. However, then again, maybe they would have gotten hurt. Probably not, but I’m sure it was going through their minds.
Later on we got into a philosophical discussion as to the role the national parks should play in preventing people from hurting themselves—whether they should provide people with the freedom to take risks or close off areas that could be dangerous. Herb argued the freedom point of view and asked me if I willing to see the Grand Canyon rim enclosed by a fence so people couldn’t fall off the edge. I agreed with him that it shouldn’t, but just felt that it would be nice if people could be warned as to what they were getting themselves into, so that they could decide for themselves whether they were ready to handle the risk. I think that is generally the case, but in this instance it was a matter of changing conditions that created a situation that normally wasn’t a problem. I spoke to a man that did this hike every year in July, and he said he had never seen so much snow at this time of year. Also, people have to be somewhat responsible for the wisdom of their behavior. For example, the guy that slid down today was wearing Sketchers rather than hiking shoes, so he probably didn’t belong out there in the first place.
We always tease Tommy that he gets special treatment on his birthday, because if often falls on one of our trips. In fact, it was his 7th celebrated on the road. He had spent his 9th birthday lunching at the beautiful Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton-Glacier National Park, his 10th mountain biking down Whistler-Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia, his 12th rafting the Colorado River near Moab, his 14th desperately searching for something to do in Newfoundland (link), his 15th listening to a fiddler in Seward, Alaska playing such hits as “A Week in Eek” (link), his 16th lunching at the incredible Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite (link), and now his 20th hiking the spectacular Rocky Mountains. Not bad. Poor Andrew—his birthday usually falls during final exams.
But the birthday bash was not over yet. There was still a night out in Estes Park. On the hike down, I got a recommendation for a good restaurant from a woman that lived locally and worked for the park system. Without hesitation, she said Mama Rose’s.
Mama Rose’s was a fine choice. It was located in Barlow Plaza, right alongside the Big Thompson River which flows through town. Funny coincidence. When researching this trip, I had found some free music concert possibilities for this night. One of them was in Barlow Plaza, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find Barlow Plaza on any map, online or otherwise. Well now here we were, sitting on the steps watching the river flow by, listening to live music by Dick Orleans. I felt quite smug for having pulled this off
After a nice dinner, a walk through town, and some ice cream we headed back to camp to settle in for the night—or in John’s case, to settle “out” on top of the roof of the RV again. Sadly, the next day (Sunday), we had to part with the boys. Tommy had to return to work in Boulder and Andrew was to continue west to Napa Valley to visit his girlfriend. The RV was certainly going to be a lot lonelier, but quieter and neater too. Herb and I would try to cope.
Located at the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park serves as a base camp for exploring the park. Surrounded by gorgeous vistas of the Rocky Mountains, the town and its Riverwalk along the roaring Big Thompson is a destination in itself. While the year round population is 3,200, the town comes to life in the summer when tourists flood the town after a tough day on the trails to enjoy its many restaurants, galleries, and shops.
Estes Park location map in "high definition"