Westward Wanderlust Day 22
Willow Creek, Colorado
July 31st, 2012
The morning dew had settled into small shadowed beads on the shell of our trusty red and grey North Face. This was to be our last morning waking up in the tent.
The morning sun shined brightly on Willow Creek Reservoir. A slight breeze quivered the surface, fracturing the reflection into brilliant crystals of light. The last vestiges of a dawn fog hovered over the water like lazy ghosts before they rose to the hills and faded away.
Osprey circled above us, suddenly swooping to the surface to snatch their breakfast of trout or salmon. They moved with such ease and expertise that it was difficult to capture them on camera, especially against the bright morning light.
Located in the Arapaho National Forest, Willow Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River. Lodgepole pines and aspens line the shore, broken by the large sage and grass area where the campground is located. As we drank our coffee and strolled around the campground, we watched an acrobatic chipmunk harvest his breakfast.
Refilling our water has become an automatic part of our routine these past few weeks, and today was no exception. As I filled our bottles at the campground spigot, I took a moment to admire the variety of hydration vessels we had been toting around with us.
We finished packing our belongings and began to follow the dirt road from the campground to the narrow bridge over the reservoir spillway. Osprey continued to soar above us, and we soon spotted a few in between hunts.
The pair in the nest had recently caught something and were swiftly tearing their prey into pieces. Distracted by the nest, we almost missed a much closer encounter just over the bridge.
Other than the brief backward glance that obviously excited us much more than the osprey, his eyes were darting about, searching for his next meal. His head bobbed from side to side, neck extended, stretching and adjusting his view of the landscape. When he turned far enough for us to see his stern yellow and black eyes, there were subtle differences in the focus of his stare.
We knew the moment when he had fixed his sites on a possible target. Eyes locked, his body froze. The laser gaze caught his prey before he even began his pursuit. In an instant, his wings burst into flight, and he was on the hunt.
The osprey caught a nice size rodent in the thick of the sage and brush. Though his strong talons cinched his prey close to his body, it was evident that the weight of the animal affected his flight. He coasted low, just clearing a nearby fence and rode the wind as far as he could before flapping his wings and soaring out of sight.
Excited by our early morning animal encounter, we couldn’t wait to get to Rocky Mountain National Park. We had been a bit road-weary when we arrived at Willow Creek last night and were unsure exactly how far we were from the park since we had just followed the Colorado River, hoping it would take us where we wanted to go. To our shock and delight, we were suddenly at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park! Consulting our map, we realized that Willow Creek was only about 10 miles from the park entrance. Having been prepared to be driving for a few hours before we reached our destination, this was a fantastic start to our day!
Our plan to follow the Colorado River to the Rockies has worked beautifully and we were now poised to spend and entire day in the park. It was about 9:30 am and 56 degrees when we entered the gates.
We headed north through the Kewaneeche Valley, which borders the western edge of the park. It was not long before we saw one of the Rocky Mountain residents that has made the park such a well-known location for viewing wildlife.
The cow moose had a calf hidden in the brush, but it was almost impossible to see. She was doing an excellent job as a mother, keeping her calf out of sight in the tall marsh grasses. Though other than a wolf, bear, or man, a moose has little to hide from in the way of predators. But I guess when you but it that way, she still has a lot to be concerned about.
We stopped at the Bowen-Baker trailhead and took a walk along the Colorado River.
The clouds lumbered across the sky like gigantic pack of white elephants. Heavy with rain, the clouds became grey and thunder rolled in the distance.
We continued on to Beaver Pond.
Then past Timber Creek and toward the Continental Divide. At two miles above sea level, we were the highest we’d been all summer.
We followed Trail Ridge Road around Medicine Bow Curve and toward the Alpine Visitor center. We were well above the tree line, and the road curved and bent with the ridge of the mountains. As D drove the twisting path, I peered out the window and down into the Forest Canyon. Little forgiveness was exhibited by the placement of the road. Lines of cars wound slowly around the road, each turn a flurry of brake lights and crawling recreational vehicles.
It was sunny, raining, and 55 degrees when we reached the Alpine Visitor Center, elevation 11,769 feet.
We parked our car in the crowded lot and walked to the visitor center. Beside the building, there is a large deck facing northeast, overlooking Chapin Creek and the Mummy Range. The deck is a prime location for watching elk much their way across the creek valley.
The wind began to pick up and the rain abruptly turned to hail. We raced back to our car and then continued along Trail Ridge Road.
The hail only lasted a short while and we continued along Trail Ridge Road.
We made out next stop at the Tundra Communities Trailhead. Eager to hike in the Alpine region, we grabbed the camera and our flannels and set out on the trail. The sun had strong-armed the dark clouds and we could feel the day warming. However, the wind was still quite persistent, making for beautiful hiking weather.
The Tundra Communities Trail stretches across the alpine tundra to a gathering of large rocks. Though this region is too cold and windy to support trees, there is a large variety of ground vegetation including wildflowers, grasses, and of course, my favorite, mosses and lichens. This region is also home to ptarmigan, marmots, and pikas.
In addition to drinking in the fantastic view, I was determined to photograph a pika. This is not as easy as it may sound. Pikas are small rodent-like animals, usually about 7-9 inches in length. Though they look like oversized mice without tails, they are actually closely related to rabbits. Pika can run up to 15 m.p.h. and dart swiftly in and out of rocks and crevices. They make their homes in piles of rocks located near meadows that contain their food source; grasses, berries, and seeds.
As we climbed around the rocks, I kept my eyes open for furry flashes between the rocks. Though it was hard to tear myself away from the endless variety of lichen colonies living on the immense boulders.
Finally, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. Sure enough, there was a pika. But as soon as I saw its fuzzy grey body, it was gone. I jumped across the rocks trying to anticipate where it would appear next. Landing on one rock, the pika would appear several rocks away, poking its tiny head out, nibbling a glade of grass, then quickly withdrawing. Trying desperately to find a happy medium between moving quickly enough after the pika disappeared to position myself to capture a shot of it, and moving slowly so I didn’t scare it when it did appear, proved to be quite the challenge. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic, scrambling across the rocks, before stopping suddenly and leaning slowly in one direction, then cursing to myself and hastily clamoring in another.
Finally, I arrived at a large boulder that seemed to either near a pika’s den or above a favored feeding area. I spread across the rock on my stomach and peeked over the edge, camera poised to shoot as soon as a pika appeared. My diligence was soon rewarded.
Bounding victoriously across the boulders, I found D and exclaimed my success. He smiled at me, glad I had achieved my photographic ambition. “Did you look at the view too?” he asked. We have often found on our travels that I spend much more time looking at the ground because of my penchant for the small details and ground dwellers of nature, like mushrooms, mosses, frogs, and snakes, while D spends more time looking up and around at the vistas and views. And of course, keeping an eye out for larger animals on thickly wooded trails. I have been trying devote attention to both equally, especially when I realize that I have been looking down for a while, but sometimes it can be a difficult balance for me. I just want to see it all!
Upon realizing I had spent much of our time on the rocks looking at, well, the rocks, we sat together and gazed at the amazing mountain view. The Mummy Range rolled north, leaving nothing before us but the mountainous horizon and sky. At an elevation of over 12,000 feet, it was like we were perched on the top of the world. Wind gusted across the tundra, the chilled alpine air shivering our spines. The sun warmed as best she could, but the wind was robust. It was like the mountains were exhaling, letting out vigorous sighs across the tundra, to declare their exhaustion after creating such a spectacular landscape.
Eventually, we headed back down the trail. I was enthralled once again with the beauty below our feet.
When we made it back to the parking lot, we enjoyed a small snack near our car. Wine, cheese from Yosemite, and California Smoked Almonds made for a delicious top of the world picnic.
We resumed our drive along Trail Ridge Road and headed toward Estes Park, the town in the east side of the park.
On our way we were lucky enough to catch a unique glimpse of a buck elk with an impressive rack.
Since tonight will be last night of our trip, we had decided ahead of time we would look for a room, hopefully with a hot tub. We wanted to do more hiking into the evening, but knew that we would need to get to town and book a room to have any chance of finding what we wanted. After trolling the town and inquiring at a few places, we were able to obtain a room at the Fawn Valley Inn. Not only were we able to get a nice room, but we also had an outdoor hot tub on a deck overlooking Fall River.
After we checked in to our room and then headed back to the park with the intention to hike enough to make the hot tub really worth it.
Mike’s Book gave a thumbs up to the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lake trails, which starts at Bear Lake. The temperature was much warmer than it had been in the Alpine, reaching 80 degrees in the Estes area. It was about 4:30 when we reentered the park from the northeast Estes entrance and headed toward Bear Lake.
Nymph Lake looked like just the kind of place a nymph or faerie might frequent. Close-knit pines surrounded the lake making it feel protected and hidden. Hundreds of lily pads freckled the surface, the sunlight emphasizing the bright green undersides of each upturned leaf. The lily pads that floated flush to the surface seemed to create secret paths across the lake, able to be traversed only by buoyant bullfrogs and weightless wood sprites.
We hiked on, deviating from the trail to climb around on the rocks to get a view of Bear Lake.
The trail followed a tributary of Glacier Creek toward Dream Lake, then along Dream Lake’s rocky inlet to Emerald Lake.
Gnarled and knobby Rocky Mountain Juniper and Red Cedar cling to the steep rocky shores surrounding Emerald Lake.
Emerald Lake is a deep basin that was carved by Tyndall Glacier. Located east of Emerald Lake, today Tyndall Glacier is barely holding on to its “active glacier” status. We climbed around the stony shores and explored.
After sitting and enjoying our surroundings a bit longer, we decided we had better start back, as the light was fading. We were tromping along the trail when D halted suddenly and cast his arm out in front of me, stopping me in my tracks. His keen eyes, which were clearly not looking at mushrooms, allowed us a very up close and personal experience with a beautiful elk stag.
After taking a few pictures, we passed the elk slowly, trying not to alarm him. Giddy with our up close elk sighting, we focused on keeping quiet enough to possibly see another animal, but not so quiet that we would startled and alarm it. My ground-viewing eyes noticed our next wild encounter, a ptarmigan hen with chicks.
The light was fading fast and we headed back to the beginning of the trailhead, stopping for a moment at Nymph Lake.
Night seems to come quickly in the mountains, as the height of the horizon is increased with the towering peaks. The mountains from the west shadow those to the east, allowing only the crest of the western-gazing face to capture the vibrant hues of the sunset.
Once the sun has set below the last mountain summit, the clouds collect the colors and unfold them across the evening sky. The great Rocky Mountains become dark, brooding silhouettes against a pastel backdrop, then soon dissolve into the darkness of night. Mountains no longer distinguishable from the black sky, the shadows draw in to a tight, unwavering embrace; like mother to child, lover to lover, passion to desire.
The full moon broke the dark embrace of the wild mountain night as we head back to the inn. We spent the night simmering in the hot tub on our deck, listening to the wind murmur confessions through the trees, the moon shining her response between the leaves.
Westward Wanderlust Day 22 Soundtrack –
Arapaho National Forest
“The Letter” – Joe Cocker
“Think for yourself” – Yonder Mountain String Band (Beatles cover)
“Skinned” – Blind Melon
“Wild Mounatin Nation” – Blizten Trapper
Estes Park to Bear Lake
“Hotel California” – The Eagles
“Oh Well” Fleetwood Mac
“Old Man” – Neil Young “The banjo is the butter in this batter! It makes it work!” – D
“Tuesday’s Gone” Lynrd Skynrd
“Rock-n-Roll Stew” – Traffic