On the heels of my crotchety Arches post, here comes my cranky RMNP suggestion: quiet campgrounds, free of screaming children, free of bros tripping on mushrooms, free of a capella groups practicing with acoustic guitar accompaniment, free of neighboring tents a-rockin’ in the early evening…
Due to close quarters in the campground, we sought out, and succeeded in finding, low-traffic hikes. The first day we took the shuttle up to Bear Lake, a popular trailhead, and lost the crowd within two tenths of a mile as we set out on the snow-packed Fern Lake trail.
After the first mile, snow consistently covered the trail, so we followed footprints in the general right direction. Several times, we hit spots where footprints diverged and we had to hope we picked the prints of people with the best sense of direction. The snow often came up to mid-calf and we made slow progress, but regular gorgeous views rewarded our persistence.
Around three and a half miles in, just short of halfway through our intended hike, the sky started to darken and the wind picked up. We took a turn past a small lake onto a ridge where we were no longer protected from the wind; that wind also partially obscured previous hikers’ tracks. The weather forecast predicted 40% chance of thunderstorms, the clouds looked low and ominous, and sprinkles of rain start to fall. We opted to turn around, and slogged back through wetter, more slippery but still ankle- to calf-deep snow.
We found out after the hike that rangers were discouraging people from taking that trail due to a recent avalanche between miles three and four – not sure why the volunteer I’d asked pre-hike about hazards on the trail didn’t tell me any of that!
The next day we headed to the northeastern section of the park, the area where snow melts first, to experience the other side of what the park has to offer. We set out on a ten-mile loop around Lumpy Ridge, which provides nesting for multiple raptors as well as routes for climbers (along with snickers about its funny name).
The western side of the trail started out through a field belonging to a ranch nearby before climbing (and climbing, and climbing, from a low of 7800 feet to over 8900) around the side of the ridge before descending along a rushing stream. Around the backside of the ridge we discovered a sub-alpine meadow, so we got to hike through green grass and wildflowers, surrounded by aspens and blue spruce and across several creeks burbling with snowmelt.
After another steep climb over the eastern side of the ridge, we reached the reason for most of the cars in the parking lot: Gem Lake is a short 1.7 miles from the trailhead if you head out counterclockwise, or opposite from our route. The crowds congesting our home stretch helped us make great time down the frontside, after we paused to admire the stillness of Gem Lake.
We’ve done some hikes in the strenuous category that I didn’t think deserved that classification; this one earned it with its undulating elevation changes and varying terrain. I’d compare this to the Kaibab trail at the Grand Canyon for difficulty, but without the suffering brought on by unrelenting UP. We also got to hike down the last mile and a half, which definitely affected my opinion!
We packed up camp the next day and drove up the Trail Ridge Road, which the park had opened for the season mid-day on our first full day there. As we got closer to the highest point on the drive, over 12,000 feet, the snow drifts alongside the road grew to over twice the height of my little car. Sheer dropoffs flanked one if not both sides of the road, and we noticed tall sticks that we guessed were guides for snowplows: go past this edge and you drive off a cliff.
The first time I got behind the wheel of a car, in my dad’s old purple minivan in Minnesota, snow covered the road and big fat flakes hit my windshield. This year I’ve driven through an ice storm in Oregon and a snow storm in New York state, and even I felt a thrill driving this road, imagining what damage an avalanche could wreak. The road took us up high enough that we were in a precipitating cloud, first rain then little pellets of sleet/almost snow, and for kicks we hopped out of the car in our shorts and hoodies and ran into the Alpine Visitors Center.
Rain and cool temperatures kept us from exploring the other side of the park, so we headed on towards a weekend with some of Dan’s old friends.