Thursday, May 5th, 2016– Estes Park, Colorado
We took a morning dip in the hot tub on the porch before checking out of our favorite Estes Park lodging. The juxtaposition of the cool mountain air and the bubbling hot water made for an intense sensory introduction to our day. The sky beamed bright blue making the snow-capped mountains stand out even more brilliantly. They seemed to beckon us and welcome us to come play beneath their peaks. After checking out and making a few other stops, we entered Rocky Mountain National Park around 11:00 a.m. and headed straight to Moraine Park Campground.
To our delight, we had our pick of sites at Moraine. Being so early in the season though, a limited number campground loops were open. Even so, we were two of only a few other campers. We found a site with a small “private” trail that eventually met up with an established park trail, perfect hammock trees, and an unbelievable view of the majestic Rocky Mountains. We set up camp and decided that at that moment, enjoying our awesome campsite was exactly what we wanted to do. We strung up our hammocks and drank in the view.
As Derrick and I both love to hike, explore, and experience the parks by really getting out in them, it can be challenging sometimes to sit still and enjoy just being in these wonderful places. In addition to carving out time for me to write while we travel, it’s important for us to making time for just enjoying. Sometimes in our efforts to be everywhere all the time while traveling as efficiently as possible, we can rush. We move through these spaces of beauty and wildness with intensity, urgency, and a desire to not “waste time.” We forget to leave time to let the mind wander.
In daily life, the mind is distracted and consumed in every moment; worry, anticipation, emails, texting, social media, politics, bills, work, news, appointments, commitments, and everything in between. It is when we allow the mind to unwind and wander that we can just BE. We are not telling the mind what to do or distracting it, we are allowing it to wander without expectation, unencumbered. We relax, we are inspired, we come up with new ideas. We wander toward wonder and follow a new path, often noticing some of the details that are were overlooked.
When allowed to move freely, there’s no telling where our minds might go…exactly how many snowflakes does it take to cover the Rocky Mountains? How many elk are in those trees that I cannot see? How do cacti survive in this climate? How many desert-like plants are in the Rocky Mountains? Could I walk a straight line from my hammock to the mountain peak before me? How long would it take? If I snuggled my sleeping bag into this hammock, could I sleep here all night? What kind of bird that? What does it feel like to fly over mountains?
After spending a nice amount of time “being” in our hammocks, we decided to drive whatever roads were open on the East side of the park. A sign on the ranger station informed us that Trail Ridge Road, the road that connects the two sides of the park, was closed at the Continental Divide. We followed the road that runs between Moraine Park Campground and the valley we could see from our site. It was not long before we ran into one of Rocky Mountain N.P.’s champions.
The elk’s antlers were covered in soft velvet. His hide looked fluffed up and scruffy, as he had no doubt started to grow out his super insulated winter coat. We kept a safe distance as he munched away on the long-desired tender spring shoots.
After a sufficient amount of elk watching, we head to Sprague Lake for a hike. (A “thumbs up” hike from Mike, which continues to be a reliable endorsement at any National Park.) This time of year we found Rocky Mountain N.P. very reminiscent of Glacier N.P. The snowmelt cascades into countless waterfalls of all sizes throughout the park. The landscape of snowy mountains, masses of ice wedged between the peaks, and crystal clear lakes brought to life memories of some of our favorite hikes in the National Park System. We hoped to make it to Glacier to celebrate our anniversary if we are able earn enough time off at Mt. Rushmore.
I couldn’t help but put my feet in the freezing mountain creek on our return journey. Yep, feels like snowmelt! After our hike, we drove up to the snow-covered continental divide then back to the campground.
Back at camp, Derrick consulted his RMNP map while we discussed a possible hike for tomorrow. We enjoyed a bit more hammock time, this time switching spots and positions so that we could enjoy a new perspective. Every time we looked at those splendid snow-covered mountaintops all we could do was gasp and say “Wow. THAT is awesome.”
Since only a few loops of the campground were open, we decide to walk and talk in the closed loops before we started working on a fire and dinner. Surprisingly, our home in South Dakota was going to place us only about 6 hours from this park. It was simultaneously and exciting and comforting to know that we could easily make it back to RMNP again in the next few months. This realization resurfaced the conversation about our idea of heading to Mt. Rushmore via Yellowstone.
Among the many questions we have yet to answer about our new jobs is how time-off requests and vacation works for an NPS employee. We had a rough idea of how much vacation we might earn, but we were’t certain. As I mentioned earlier, if we earned any time off, we hoped to try to use it to get to Glacier N.P. Largely because the drive to Glacier from Mt. Rushmore is 11 hours shorter than the drive from Wisconsin to Glacier, but also because we hadn’t been to Glacier since 2014. In 2015 there was also a devastating wildfire; an aggressive reminder to appreciate these places before they could be changed forever. Most importantly, Glacier is one of our absolute favorite parks. What better place to spend our anniversary?
Keeping this in mind, one place we are fairly certain we will not be able to make it to while we are living at Mt. Rushmore is Yellowstone N.P. Though the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore tend to be a popular stop for many people on their way to Yellowstone, you are still 8-10 hours from an entrance to the park.
Having been to Yellowstone several times, we also believe that you have to be able to stay in the park four days at the very least if you really want to be able to enjoy it properly. Yellowstone is a 2,221,766 acre park that protects an active volcano, its own grand canyon, 67 species of mammals, 285 species of birds, 290 waterfalls, more than half the world’s geysers, and over 10,000 thermal features. You have 92 trail heads to choose from, over 15 miles of boardwalk to enjoy, 1,000 miles of backcountry trails, 12 campgrounds, and 9 visitor centers.
There are 466 miles of roads that weave through the park, 156 of which are unpaved. 142 of these miles make up the Grand Loop road, which brings you through park. An average speed limit of 45 m.p.h. accompanied with the very real danger of encountering a bison, elk, or grizzly on the road leading to frequent “critter jams” it can take anywhere from 4 to 7 hours to just drive the Grand Loop. This does not even take in to account stopping in the park to actually enjoy these natural wonders and wildlife.
(And this is the short list.)
No, we won’t have time to go to Yellowstone while we are working at Mt. Rushmore…but what about now? We made our way back to camp and Derrick got his maps out. We continued figuring and and calculating while we made a fire and prepared dinner.
We planned to spend at least one more day in RMNP. And being that the Trail Ridge Road to the other side of the park was closed because of snow, the question of where to spend tomorrow was considerably less challenging to answer. There are many excellent trails very close to Moraine Park Campground. We were also happy to spend some more time in our awesome site before moving on.
We headed to the tent with the intention of being in motion by 7:00 am and then hiking to Fern Falls. Curled up in our sleeping bags, we talked about the possibilities that lay ahead until our conversation became drowsy mumbling.
How high will the creek and Fern Falls be with all the snow melt?
How long could we stay in Yellowstone? When do you think we will make it back here?
Is your alarm set?
Can you hear the coyotes?
Friday, May 6th, 2016
Moraine Park Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park
43 degrees, 7:26am
Coffee in hand, we headed to the Fern Falls trailhead down in the valley below our campsite. On our way to the trailhead, we encountered a small herd of elk.
The hike to Fern Lake meets several trail junctions, connecting hikers to popular destinations like Cub Lake. Our path followed Spruce Creek and eventually, Big Thompson River. Spruce Creek was swollen with spring and snowmelt. Ribbons of melting snow zigzagged the banks and the morning sun splashed light and shadow on the rocky forest floor.
Water rushed and glimmered beside us we marveled at the warmth on this beautiful spring day. Even the trail was flowing in some places.
As we gained some elevation our path crossed deeper water.
The higher we hiked the more the deep green of the trees gave way to bright blue sky, and the more the trail was covered in snow.
We reached Fern Falls and stood listening to the water gush downstream. A fair amount of snow and icy was still frozen over the rushing water, creating a cavernous echo to the river’s song.
We did not run into anyone else on the trail until we were more than half way back to the trailhead. Even though it can be tough to peel yourself out of a warm sleeping bag and dive into the chill of morning, it is worth the possibility of having the trail to yourself.
We finished our hike just before 11:00 a.m. and headed to End’o’Valley Picnic Area for a picnic lunch. I built sandwiches under the watchful eye of a stellar jay perched in the pines above. A bold, notorious scavenger and highly successful snatcher of unguarded human food, the stellar jay makes its presence known at RMNP. Within their bold behavior and curious antics, signs of human interaction can easily be detected. The jay eventually approached me in mid-mayo spread, head cocked to the side as he hopped up to the picnic table. It was obvious he had succeeded in begging for food more than once in the past and was making another attempt. I shooed him away and made sure to keep one eye on him and one eye on our sandwiches.
Unfortunately, we see this behavior by animals often in the parks, even though harassing and feeding wildlife is illegal in all national parks. Many people do not understand how damaging it is to the animal when they become habituated. When an animal becomes used to receiving handouts from people, it can lead to an inability of the animal to feed itself and a tendency of aggression toward humans in order to get food. It is especially crucial to not feed animals and to keep a clean camp in places like campgrounds and picnic areas where this destructive action is repeated again and again in the same place, making not only the behavior but the location part of the habit. So, animals, a message for you: No matter how beautiful my sandwich is, don’t even try. Excited and often well-meaning park visitors: No matter how cute it might be to lure a chipmunk or bird or deer to eat out of your hand the next time you are in a national park, DON’T DO IT! (Click here for information on how to help keep wildlife wild in the parks.)
The sky was began to darken as we drove toward the campground. The air felt heavy and wet; a storm was certainly on the way. We saw many more elk on our drive back, none of whom seemed deterred by the impending weather.
Back at camp, we took another walk around the closed campground loop and eventually figured we had better get a campfire going if we wanted a warm dinner later tonight.
We had just finished our dinner when the rain finally began. Camp cleaned, we climbed in the tent. Snug in our sleeping bags, beneath the din of the thunderstorm, we talked about our travel plans. Tomorrow we would get up early and head to Fort Collins. From there we would head north into Wyoming, then all the way over to the northwest corner of the state. The Yellowstone is located in northwest Wyoming and southwestern Montana.
Even though we were not exactly sure, what would be open, where we would be able to camp, or what the weather was going to be like at Yellowstone, we were optimistic about the possibilities ahead. The rain seemed to be letting up, but the lightning continued to flash occasionally. In between flashes I studied the shadows on our tent.
When we bought this tent four years ago, we started hanging Tibetan prayer flags on the wide side of our rain fly. Their silhouettes hung like a hazy garland across the tent wall toward which our feet were pointed. Throughout time and travels, the flags have faded and grown thin, as they would be expected to do after many days and nights of exposure wind, rain, sun, and snow. The actual purpose of Tibetan prayer flags is to blow in the wind, releasing the prayers and mantras written on the flags to bring good will, compassion, and positive energy into the world and surrounding space. Since Buddhism also teaches the importance of elemental balance, each flag color is representative of an element: blue for space, white for air, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for Earth.
At the moment though, none of these colors could be distinguished. The flags were soft, grey transparent squares suspended in a slight arc over our feet. It is only when we are camping, exhausted and reclined in our sleeping bags, that we see the flags quiet like this.
When there is no artificial light inside in the tent, and very little light outside, we can see how the wind has blown prayer after prayer through the space we occupy. It is in this light that I recognize these gentle shadows of our desire, for happiness, fulfillment, and compassion; I thought about how this shadow seemed to spread before us, in our tent only for us, while also hanging outside while we sleep, for everyone else, at the same time…