Our last foray into the Rocky Mountains was to be a five day, four night backpacking trip into the heart of the wilderness. This was the only hike on our trip that I had secured a permit reservation for before leaving home, having successfully navigated the antiquated application process. A lot of credit is due to the backcountry office in RMNP for being eager to work with applicants to help them find an available hike. Other parks I have applied through require you to fax or mail in your proposed itinerary months in advance. Then, if any portion of your trip runs into an unavailable campsite, they notify you several days later that your request has been declined. This invariably, happens every time. These parks don't provide you with any clues as to which portion of your trip might have been the problem. It's a bit like playing battleship.
The folks at Rocky Mountain still ask you to mail in your reservation request. Nothing like 18th century technology in the year 2013! The good news was, when my requested trip wasn't available exactly as I had requested it, they mailed me a slightly altered trip plan and asked me to call them if I wanted to discuss possible variations to this reservation. The revised plan still made it possible for us to spend five days in the same part of the park, while still visiting the same attractions. With a nearly ideal hiking trip reserved, we had been looking forward to this backpack since May.
The night before our hike was a wet and nasty evening of weather. Needless to say, we were delighted to wake up and find blue skies and a bright sun overhead to help us dry our gear. We packed up slowly, taking care to dry each piece of equipment out before packing it up. After all, wet gear is bound to be heavier to carry!
By the time we finally reached the trailhead it was after 11 am. It had taken us five hours from the time we woke up to eat breakfast, pack and drive to the trailhead! Thankfully, the day's hike would not be too tough. Our first night's destination was the Big Pool Campsite, reached by a five mile hike that ascended a little less than a thousand feet. It was a good thing we had an easy day ahead of us, as our packs were brutally heavy. We had to carry five days worth of food, and the park required hikers to carry heavy bear canisters needed to keep food safe from nighttime bear raids. We also were carrying heavy, warmer clothes for the cold weather above ten thousand feet.
We set off on the North Inlet Trail under partly sunny skies with a light breeze.. The trail followed a two-track still used by park vehicles across a pleasant meadow. We passed private ranch land on one side. The wooden fences and grazing horses lent a western aesthetic to this section of the trail. Meadows of wildflowers lined the path. Hummingbirds darted across the trail and chubby groundhogs munched on the tall grasses.
After passing the Summerland Park campsites, the trail gradually became more wooded. The shade from the stands of tall pines trees was more than welcome, as we struggled up hill with our heavy packs. Large rock outcrops began to become more common along the trail as we climbed.
The North Inlet Creek began to put on a whitewater show off to the side of the trail. The soothing sound of crashing water would be a constant soundtrack for much of our backpacking trip.
Cascade Falls came into view a little over half-way through our day. This tremendously impressive waterfall featured one large, thundering drop, and a series of smaller falls and whirlpools both above and below. It was a popular destination for day-hikers, and folks lounged about the area on the rocks in the sun. The trail would be much quieter above the falls.
Above the falls, the trail climbed much more steeply. We found ourselves hiking over large stone steps expertly placed by the hard-working trail maintenance crews. Many of the workers were out on this fine Saturday afternoon. It looked like terribly hard work, hauling chainsaws and other equipment miles on foot in order to keep the trail functioning.
Eventually, another waterfall came into view. The large, deep pocket of water beneath the falls made it obvious that this was The Pool. The spur trails to both campsites were located only a few feet beyond the waterfall. We found the first site to be already occupied and quickly made camp at the second one. The spur trail to the site climbed uphill for 20 yards or so, providing privacy at our campsite. We hurried to set up camp, aware that the threatening skies could unleash an afternoon thunderstorm at any minute. Happily, the weather held for a while, and we we had time to set up camp, go for a swim and filter water for the night.
Big Pool looked as if it might be possible to jump from the far river bank, into the base of the waterfall. The drop looked to be about 15 feet. We decided to check out the water more carefully first. By climbing down the near river bank and cautiously feeling our way upstream we were able to get into the deeper water and swim. The stream drained snowfields and glaciers high in the alpine country ahead, so it was no surprise to find it colder than Lake Superior. After a quick swim, we were both chilled and decided to abandon jumping from the cliff on the other side.
The first of a couple of thunderstorms rolled into the valley around early evening. We holed up in our tent with a couple of good books and waited out the storm. High in the mountains, the thunder sounded more threatening, and the lightning looked closer. The storm broke about an hour before dark, giving us just enough time to fix some dinner and hot chocolate.
After stashing our bear canister the required 70 steps from camp, we crawled back into the tent and hunkered down for a quiet, but cold night in the backcountry. Some more rain passed through in the dark, but the storms were done for the time being.
We emerged from the tent in the morning to find blue skies overhead. With the promise of dry weather for the time being, we decided to take our time and attempt to dry out the tent and rain fly as much as possible. We hung the rain fly over a tree in the sun while we made breakfast. The sun quickly climbed over head, and by the time we were done with breakfast our gear was mostly dry. We finished packing up and hit the trail around 10 am.
The hike up to the July campsite was much harder than our first day's trip. Although it was less than five miles of hiking, the trail climbed over 1,600 feet. As we hiked, the view quickly became more impressive. Climbing high above the valley floor, we now had views across to the other side of the valley. The stark,treeless tundra high above us gradually came into view through the thinning trees.
As we hiked, the skies quickly turned dark. The air higher up in the mountains was colder, and a light rain began to fall. We stopped to pull out our pack covers. What was once a pleasant, sunny day had now become a dark and ominously gray afternoon high in the Rockies.
The last stretch of trail for the day was a tiring series of switchbacks that climbed steeply above 10,000 feet. A lush, open meadow gradually came into view across the valley. A picturesque waterfall fell gently over a slanted sheet of rock, almost like a natural water-slide. Alpine wildflowers were bloomed throughout the meadow.
Right before we reached the July campsite we passed a foreboding sign on the side of the trail. The sign warned of the dangerous conditions that could be found beyond this point:
We joked that the mountains must be like the honey badger. The sign did have the intended effect of causing us to feel more cautious about the high country.
The spur trail up to the July campsites was a difficult and steep climb over wet, slanted rocks. Not wanting to climb uphill any more than necessary, we took the first campsite we came to. Our site sat on a steep hillside under some massive pine trees. Beautiful Hallet Creek rushed down the mountainside mere feet from our campsite.
The on and off rain showers stopped for a while, so we set up camp and started to filter water. The water filtering was interrupted when gusty winds began to blow through the campsite, driving plumes of cloud and mist. The clouds were like delicate tendrils, twisting in the air overhead. Each time the wind changed direction, a wave of cloud would plunge downward, soaking a small stretch of forest in water. We retreated to our tent and read for a while, waiting for a break in the weather.
Eventually, the rain stopped, and we set about making dinner. The early evening air was already alarmingly cold, and it seemed as if the sun was long gone, even though it wasn't yet night. We cooked up a pot of red beans and rice, the perfect meal for such a cold night. After eating dinner, we retired to the tent early. The plan was to get up before sun-up and day-hike up to the summit of Flattop Mountain and back before breaking camp.
This was my first night sleeping above 10,000 feet of elevation, and to my surprise, the altitude seemed to effect me. Around 1 am, I awoke with a start to the sensation of suffocating. After a few deep breaths, I felt normal again, and attempted to go back to sleep. The process repeated itself for the next hour or so. Recalling the dehydration can be a major factor in altitude sickness, I fished out a bottle of water and forced myself to drink all of it. It seemed to work, because by 2:30 I was asleep again.
The alarm sounded at 5 am. I don't think I had been asleep long enough to feel tired or groggy. Plus, the excitement of hiking above tree line was enough to overcome any fatigue. We fixed a quick breakfast in the cold, pre-dawn air. We stripped our backpacks down to only the essential items: rain gear, warm outer layers, first aid kit, food and water. Everything else stayed behind in the tent during our climb.
The trail crossed Hallet Creek on a precarious wooden plank that had broken in two. We managed to slide down one side of the plank, and then carefully side-step up the other without falling in the frigid creek. Within minutes, we were above tree-line and climbing steeply up switchbacks. The morning air was cold, but the exertion of ascending 1,500 feet in three miles was enough to keep us warm at first. The views of the valley below rapidly became spectacular.
As we broke out onto the exposed crest of the Rockies, the air grew brutally cold. A strong wind blew across the open tundra, and thick clouds drifted over the mountains, obscuring the view in various directions. Beneath our feet, the tundra was covered in wildflowers. There was a greater variety of wildflowers here than anywhere else on our trip. The hardy, little flowers seemed able to grow in the harshest conditions.
As the clouds drifted by, we were treated to occasional glimpses of the valley below and the surrounding mountain peaks.
I was soaked in sweat from the tiring climb, and the cold wind quickly chilled me. I stopped to put on all of the clothes I had brought with me. Some of the rock cairns that marked the path across the open tundra were taller than I was.
As the trail climbed above 12,000 feet of elevation, the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other became exhausting. On several occasions I found myself doubled over at the waist, hands on my knees. The altitude can't be affecting me this much, I thought, people climb mountains that are 14 and 15 thousand feet! Our pace slowed to a crawl as the trail turned away from the precipice and climbed straight towards the summit, and into a cloud.
The wildflowers vanished with the views, and it now felt like we were hiking across the surface of the moon. After passing the junction with the Tonahutu Trail, which was closed due to the Big Meadows Wildfire, we ascended another third of a mile before reaching the summit. Thick clouds blocked the view in all directions. We sat down on some large rocks and ate a snack. Once our breathing returned to normal the altitude didn't seem so draining. I had hoped to take the off-trail scramble to the summit of Hallett Mountain, but decide against it when I watched another party of hikers walk off into the clouds and disappear. The north and south faces of Flattop were steep cliff-drops. Getting lost in the fog could have disastrous consequences. We asked another hiker to take our picture at the summit.
Disappointed by the lack of views from the summit, but proud of ourselves for climbing to the continental divide at 12,324 feet above sea level, we started the descent. Hiking downhill was remarkably easier, and the effects of the altitude passed quickly. We soon emerged from the clouds and were rewarded with astounding views of the lush, green valley below, and the rocky and snow-covered mountain peaks around us.
As we hiked back through the alpine tundra we were greeted by the hill-pitched shriek of the pikas that inhabited this bizarre landscape. A member of the rabbit family, these small animals live above tree-line all year long, even in the long cold winters. Pikas accumulate vegetation in the gaps beneath rocks all summer long to live of off during the winter. They wrap their plants in a poisonous flower that acts as a preservative. Pikas have little, rodent- like faces, but huge ears that are disproportionate to the rest of their heads.
The descent back down the switchbacks was hard on the knees, but easier on the lungs, and in no time we were back below tree-line. A rotund Yellow Bellied Marmot scurried across the trail at one point, looking alarmed but curious of our presence.
We returned to our campsite at July, exhausted. We took a break to eat lunch and pack up camp. Our campsite for this night would be 1,300 feet below, at Porcupine. After taking our time to eat, and catch our breath, we strapped on our heavy backpacks and began the descent. The sun was now shining brightly overhead.
We arrived at our campsite at Porcupine before 2 in the afternoon. We threw up the tent, filtered enough water for the night, and crawled into the tent thoroughly exhausted. We had made camp just in time to wait out another bombastic thunderstorm. We dozed in the tent for three hours, only waking up for the particularly loud thunder.
When we crawled out of our tent around 6 pm, the skies had cleared and it was a beautiful night. Less exhausted, we discovered that we had one of the most beautiful backcountry campsites we could recall. It was situated right on the shores of North Inlet Creek, in a stand of pine trees. The park had provided wooden benches to sit on and even a fire ring. It looked as if trail maintenance crews had left us a pile of firewood cut from fallen trees.
We fixed mac and cheese for dinner and enjoyed the first beautiful night on our hike. Mary managed to get a solid fire going, and we sat around the fire and chatted as the day light faded. The forest seemed tranquil on this gorgeous night.
The moon rose brightly through the trees as we watched the fire wind down. We crawled into the tent eager for a long,restful night of sleep after such a tiring day of hiking.
We slept in until 8 am, and then read in the tent for another two hours. We had the same campsite reserved for another night and were looking forward to a relaxing day. After a leisurely breakfast, we packed our backpacks for another day hike and headed off down the trail.
The plan for this hike was to take the side trail to Lake Nokoni for a pretty lunch spot. The trail dropped steeply away from the North Inlet Trail, passing thundering North Inlet Falls.
Past the falls, the trail climbed relentlessly for over two miles, through a series of steep switchbacks. We found the hiking to be much harder than we were expecting, but the expanding views kept us going.
It didn't appear that many people used this trail. The forest seemed eerily still here. A mule deer shot across the trail and nervously watched us pass from below. Near the top of the climb, we found amazing views of Flattop and Hallett, as well as many unnamed peaks on the other side of the valley. The trail climbed through another beautiful alpine meadow before reaching the shores of Lake Nokoni.
The lake itself was an absolute gem. Lake Nokoni was walled off on the far side by the imposing mass of Ptarmigan Mountain. its waters were a mesmerizing shade of blue, likely from glacial silt deposited over the years. Mary was brave enough to go for a quick swim in the crystal clear water. She said the water was the coldest she had ever been in. We ate lunch on the shores of our own private alpine lake.
The return hike to camp was mostly downhill and went by with ease. We ate our last dinner underneath another stunningly beautiful evening sky. We headed to bed early, enjoying the quiet of the forest during the night.
We got up at 5 am in the morning and broke camp quickly. We had the trail to ourselves most of the way out in the morning, and were treated to the reflection of a beautiful sunrise on the surrounding mountainsides. The morning air was cool, and we covered the 6.8 miles in a little over two hours.
Our backpacking trip through the Rocky Mountains was one of my favorite trips we have taken. We were able to experience stunning mountain views, peaceful pine forests, raging mountain streams and waterfalls, and above all, wonderful solitude. This is a trip we are both certain to think back to for years.