A Year of Planning“Just pick four awesome hikes we can do!” The task seemed simple enough. I was taking my nephew Dave to Rocky Mountain National Park in August 2008 and I was picking the itinerary. Dave gave me free reign as I was more familiar with RMNP than he was, as I had been there on hiking trips in August of 2005, 2006 and 2007. Finding four dayhikes to do seemed easy enough. The problem was picking what I thought were the best hikes. Hikes that would allow Dave to see some of the best scenery RMNP had to offer. The longer I thought about this, the more frustrated I became. I soon realized that there were about a dozen different hikes I wanted to do – but we only had four days! What hikes should we do?
Fortunately I had plenty of time to ponder the question. About 12 months to be exact. Dave and I decided back in August of 2007 to go on this trip. He had just gotten back from a family vacation to Estes Park with his wife and in-laws. Unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to do much hiking – only a short hike to Alberta Falls. When he returned I was just getting ready to leave for a seven day trip to RMNP – and I would be hiking every day. When I got back and showed him all my pictures he said we HAD to plan a trip for 2008.
Besides being my nephew, Dave happens to be my best friend. We have spent the last dozen years riding our bikes together through NE Indiana. And as for hiking, Dave and I had been on at least a dozen trips to Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. We started going to GSMNP in the summer of 1997 and had made at least one or two trips a year there. But by 2005 I desperately wanted to get out to the Rockies. Dave’s schedule didn’t allow him to go that year so I went with another friend of mine, and I quickly fell in love with RMNP. After two more trips, in 2006 and 2007, Dave finally decided it was time to go.
As for the itinerary, I actually only had partial free reign. Dave desperately wanted to climb Longs Peak. In 2006 I had a successful summit of Longs. He loved my pictures from that hike and his Longs fever started building. So once the decision was made to attempt Longs, I tried to pick hikes that would allow us flatlanders several days to adjust to the altitude before trying Longs on our third day in the Park. Two good hikes, followed by Longs, with a nice follow up hike on day four before heading home! That was the plan.
The Road TripFor several reasons our trip was on a compressed time schedule because Dave only had three days of vacation time available and RMNP is about a 20 hour drive from Fort Wayne, IN. To make the most of our limited time, our plan was to leave right after work Tuesday afternoon (August 12), drive all night and arrive in the Park before 9 AM, drive straight to the Glacier Basin shuttle bus parking lot, which would allow us to be hiking in Glacier Gorge sometime around 9 AM.
While this schedule may seem a bit insane, there was a method to the madness. Having hiked in RMNP in August the three previous years I have learned to assume that there is a 100% chance that thunderstorms will roll in no later than 2 PM everyday. If we arrived by 9 AM, that would give us plenty of time to hike to Sky Pond or out to Black Lake. If the thunderstorms didn’t show, well that would just be a bonus.
Fortunately, things went pretty much according to plan. We spent the previous week getting all of our gear and supplies organized and we had my wife’s Mazda Tribute packed by Monday night (August 11). I wanted to leave Dave’s house by 3 PM and I had told Dave this countless times the last month leading up to the trip. We pulled out of his driveway at 3:19 PM, to be exact.
We did end up driving all through the night, alternating driving time so each of us could take turns catching some winks. Over the years, we had pulled numerous midnight to 8 AM driving stints to GSMNP, so we were sort of used to this – and actually thrive on these road trips. And we came close to making our schedule, arriving at the Glacier Basin shuttle bus parking lot at 9:30 AM. We fortunately were able to get on the first bus to Glacier Gorge and were at the trailhead by 9:45 AM.
Day 1 - Sky Pond
As for which hikes I picked for us to do, I limited my choices to hikes that I had done on one of my three previous trips. While there are so many hikes in RMNP that I want to go on, that wasn’t the point of this trip. The point was to show Dave as much of the best scenery in RMNP in the four days that we had available.
Having been to Sky Pond two other times I knew that this had to be one of the hikes. Granted, it is an extremely popular hike, but for good reasons. On one short 4.6 mile hike you get all of the following: numerous views of beautiful mountain vistas; Alberta Falls; The Loch; Timberline Falls, Lake of Glass; and finally, Sky Pond. And I personally consider The Loch to be the most beautiful spot in RMNP (at least the portions that I have seen).
We were blessed with beautiful weather. The trail was busy, which was to be expected, as we got a late start. I would have preferred to hit the trailhead by 6AM for this hike, but our drive time just did not allow for that. With a 6 AM start time we would have avoided the crowds. But – you can’t always get what you want – so sometimes you have to take what you can get and – you get what you need.
When we got to The Loch, I told Dave “The scenery doesn’t get any better than this. So I guess for the rest of the trip it’s all downhill from here.” My sarcasm didn’t faze Dave as he was amazed at the great scenery on the hike. So if I’m keeping score on picking hikes, I was now one for one!
We did meet several people at Sky Pond. When we told them about how we drove all night, and had been in the park for less than three hours, they were amazed that we were weren’t doubled over with altitude sickness. I fortunately had never experienced any serious altitude sickness on my three previous trips to RMNP. While I always seemed to have a dull headache, that was always the extent of my symptoms. Dave fortunately was not showing any signs of problems.
On our bus trip down to Glacier Basin I fortunately had to stand right behind the bus driver. We chatted the entire time, and she confirmed that the bad weather was coming, so if we were going to do Longs she said “You better go tomorrow.” Dave really wanted to attempt Longs. With bad weather forecasted for Friday, he started pushing hard that we change our plans and give Longs a shot on Thursday.
Leading up to the trip I never seriously considered climbing Longs on Thursday – for two primary reasons. One, our flatlander bodies would only have one day at the higher altitude. I was nervous that this was not enough time to adjust. By the time we would make it to The Keyhole we would have been in the Park for only 24 hours. And two, with my plan for a 2 AM start on Longs, which meant getting up at 1 AM – that would leave us short on sleep for a second night. Dave got about two hours of sleep during our all night drive. I managed four hours at the most. The lack of sleep concerned me as much as the altitude.
After getting off the bus, we drove across the road to Glacier Basin campground where we set up “base camp” for our trip and continued our discussion about whether to try Longs or not. Dave really wanted to go for Longs, so I reluctantly agreed. On my 2006 & 2007 trips I had been above 12,000 feet on my second day without any altitude sickness problems so I was somewhat confidant. But Dave had never hiked above 12,000 feet before. How would his body respond? Between the weather forecast and Dave’s persistence, it would only be a matter of hours before we would find out. We spent the final hours before bed getting our packs ready, so when we woke up we could be on the road to the trailhead right away. We went to bed in the early evening daylight – at 7 PM. Dave was worried about being able to fall asleep that early. Having done this several times on my trip in 2007, I told him it wouldn’t be a problem, and I was right. The all night drive and two hours of sleep caught up with Dave and he was asleep in minutes.
Day 2 - Longs Peak
Dave set the alarm for 1 AM and we both woke feeling amazingly fresh. Combine this with the fact that there were stars in the sky, and we our prospects for success looked good. We rolled out of the tent and headed for the Longs Peak trailhead.
We signed the trail register at 2:05 AM – the exact same time I signed the register on my successful 2006 climb of Longs. I took this as a good omen. As with most everyone on the mountain that day, we were doing the standard Keyhole route.
The predawn hike was uneventful, although when we were well above treeline and passed Chasm Lake Junction our group of two turned into a group of nine. As is normal on most of our hiking trips, Dave took the lead and I followed - and quite a few hikers passed me by. A group of five from Columbus, OH hooked up with Dave and followed his lead. There were also two other college kids from Indiana that passed me and hooked up with Dave. I was fine with this as in my usual way I like to take the back of the line. I don’t enjoy hiking when I have people nipping at my heels. So I was happy to let them all pass. The group never got more than 100 yards in front of me so I always had them in my sites. But when they all stopped near Granite Pass things changed quickly. They had stopped for a break and I could sense the tone of apprehension in their voices. And although I don’t claim to be an expert on summiting Longs, it was obvious that the group as a whole needed some reassurances – and I was the only one who had even attempted Longs previously. I remember my apprehension building at about this time on my 2006 trip, so I understood their concerns. It was still dark, and there was some apprehension about hiking up The Boulderfield in the dark. I assured them that we still had a good trek in front of us before hitting it and guaranteed them that it would be light by then – and I was right. I also went through my usual litany of advice: don’t go anaerobic in The Trough and on The Homestretch; if it looks like rain get down below The Homestretch before it arrives; slow and steady wins the day; and just follow the bullzeyes all the way to the summit, blah, blah, blah. My little pep talk seemed to help and we set off again.
Dave and I arrived at The Keyhole around 6:45 AM where we were greeted with a strong, cold wind. Stepping through The Keyhole is probably my favorite part of the hike. The view into Glacier Gorge is so amazingly beautiful.
The Ledges were uneventful, but The Trough was a different story. My stories of climbing The Trough in 2006 must have scared Dave. He told me later in the trip that he spent most of the hike worrying about being able to get up The Trough. I had an easier time on this trip than I did in 2006. But Dave had some troubles. He has a minor asthma problem and at this point started to have take more frequent breaks in order to get enough air.
We sailed through The Narrows and turned for The Homestretch. The Homestretch is my least favorite part of the hike. The steepness freaks me out a little. Although I will say that I felt much more comfortable this time than I did in 2006. We sat at the base of The Homestretch and rested. Dave wasn’t feeling any better and again, was frustrated with trying to get enough air. I told him “We can turn around now if you want. No problem.” He half laughed and half scolded me for verbalizing such a thought. We then set off, each at our own pace. I reached the summit about five minutes before Dave and sat at the summit cairn videotaping him as he made his last push up the mountain. We were on the summit right at 9 AM.
We were both pretty tired so there wasn’t much hooping and hollering. We had some lunch, and I wandered off alone to check out the views from the summit. I was now familiar with many of the different mountains in the Park so I wanted to get a look at them from the top of RMNP. We stayed on the summit for about 30 minutes and headed down. When we were on The Ledges I pointed out Black, Green and Frozen Lakes to Dave. I had decided that was going to be our hike on Saturday, before heading for home.
The descent was very difficult for me. I never really felt great all day, but by the time we were almost back to The Keyhole I started to slow down. By the time we were below The Boulderfield I was very tired. This was a first for me. I had never struggled going down a mountain until today. The last five miles coming down were rough.
We signed out the trail register at 3 PM and started feeling better once we were in the car. I told Dave to head to the Estes Park Brewery so I could buy him a celebratory beer. After this we headed back to camp where we had a few more beers and celebrated with an awesome dinner of some very large ribeye steaks.
It was a tough day. A tougher day than I think Dave had expected. But climbing Longs was his big goal for the trip – and we were successful. So my record for picking hikes was now two for two. What would day three bring?
Day 3 - Waterfalls and Cascades
Leading up to the trip I told Dave that the trip would not be complete unless we spent at least one day in Wild Basin. In reality I could have spent all four days in Wild Basin. Since our legs were shot from climbing Longs, I told Dave that we would sleep in and maybe shoot for Thunder Lake or Bluebird Lake.
At 1 AM we were awakened by a good hard rain storm. We felt vindicated as we realized that if we would have stayed with my original plan we would have just been getting up to heads to Longs Peak. It looked like we made the right decision. We went back to sleep.
The alarm went off at 5 AM, but it was still raining. We decided to go back to sleep, and by 7 AM we were up to cloud filled skies and light drizzle. It didn’t look like there would be any mountain vistas today. We headed off for Wild Basin anyway. And we made a great morning out of dreary weather, with our destination being Ouzel Falls. Of course we stopped at Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades on the way.
When we started I had decided that we would go to Bluebird Lake, hoping that the clouds would clear. But I knew when we left Ouzel Falls that that wasn’t going to happen. I told Dave that what makes Bluebird Lake so beautiful are the mountain vistas – and we weren’t going to see any of those this day. We agreed to head back, and maybe it would clear up by late afternoon. If so, we could hike to Lake Haiyaha, a lake I had not yet been to in Glacier Gorge.
Dave agreed with this plan and we headed back. But since we didn’t need to be in any hurry we spent some time doing some scrambles down to the rivers so we could get some better views of the many cascades along the route. This scrambling took our minds off the cold, damp weather.
After the hike, instead of going back to camp to grill lunch in the rain we headed into Estes Park to dry off and warm up and had hot pizza in a warm restaurant instead. Afterwards we went back to camp and took a long afternoon nap, to catch up on some much needed sleep.
When I woke up around 3 PM I started to get frustrated with the rain. It was now Friday, and we would be heading for home sometime on Saturday. Hopefully after a nice long hike out to Frozen Lake! But I had the sense that the rain wasn’t going to let up, and I started to feel like I was just lying in my sleeping bag waiting to go home. At this point I told Dave we were going hiking. I had read about Fern Falls earlier in the day. I told myself – and Dave – that since it was raining and we couldn’t see the mountains through the clouds we might as well go see another water fall. So we piled in the car and headed for Fern Lake Trailhead. The hike out to the falls was nice, seeing The Pool on the way, along with several nice shots of cascades along the river.
It started to rain hard on the way back which led to a cold wet evening. It was dark by the time we got back to camp so we had to grill supper in the rain. We ended up going to bed frustrated as it had been raining for 20 hours straight.
But despite the weather we did manage to get in over 10 miles of hiking and we saw some beautiful water. So even though the weather didn’t cooperate, as for hikes went, I was three for three.
Mother Nature WinsSurprise! Surprise! We woke up around 5 AM and it was still raining. I didn’t feel much like singing, but the one song that came to mind was Couldn’t Stand the Weather. Dave and I really wanted to hike. I had planned to take him through Glacier Gorge out to Frozen Lake. This hike offered so much beautiful scenery: Mills Lake; Jewel Lake; Ribbon Falls; Black Lake; Green Lake; Frozen Lake along with excellent views of Longs Peak and the other mountains within Glacier Gorge. But the weather had the mountains socked in, and since I didn’t have any other waterfall/cascade hikes I wanted to do, we reluctantly agreed it was time to roll home. So we broke camp – in the rain.
We were clear into Nebraska by the time the rain stopped and by now we were in better spirits. We realized we had two blue sky days in the mountains, and we made the most of a cloudy, rainy day on Friday. Nearly 40 miles of great hiking in three days! And to top it off, Dave summitted Longs Peak. On the drive home I told him that until Wednesday I never realized how bad he had wanted to climb Longs. He never spoke about it all that passionately leading up to the trip. He told me that was the one hike he absolutely wanted to do. “It would have been a great trip still, but deep down I would have been disappointed.” How soon we forget! When I was on my first trip in 2005, on my last day, I attempted Longs but was turned around at The Keyhole due to high winds. I left the Park utterly disappointed. My whole focus that first trip was Longs. The passion was real – and not reaching the goal was painful. Fortunately for Dave we were successful – and it made his trip.
Thanks to Mother Nature my itinerary didn’t work out to plan, but we still had three great days of hiking. And three out of four isn’t bad.