Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park Backpacking Trip: North Inlet Trail to Flattop Mountain

The end of our six week trip across the west was in sight.  After spending time in seven national parks and visiting a remarkable variety of terrain, it was almost time to head home.  Thank god we had saved the best hike for last!  

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.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park Day 8: East Shore Trail

In reading about Grand Lake and the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I learned that moose sightings were quite frequent in this area.  I figured this would turn out about the same as in previous trips to Isle Royale, Vermont, New Hampshire and the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.  All of these areas promised high concentrations of moose, but none of the gentle giants were interested in showing their faces to us!

Well, they weren't lying about Grand Lake.  Only a couple hours after spotting a cow moose with a calf, and then a bull moose on our drive back to camp, we found even more moose.  We were driving along the county road that ran from our campground back out to 34 in order to run into town and grab some ice for the cooler.  Two vehicles were pulled over on the shoulder of the road near an obvious osprey nest.  I remarked that they were probably just gawking at the ospreys.  The osprey chicks were visible from the road.  "Or maybe they're looking at the HUGE bull moose right there," Mary exclaimed.  

It would turn out to be three large bulls, less than thirty feet from the road.  They were busy eating the underbrush near the edge of the lake, and didn't seem to pay any attention to the growing crowd of on-lookers.  This sighting brought our total for the day to 6 moose, the most we've ever seen in a day, by far.

After another quiet night of camping at Green Ridge, we headed out for some more hiking.  Our backpacking trip was now only a day away, so we figured it would be wise to avoid a challenging trail.     The East Shore Trail followed the edge of Shadow Mountain Lake for several miles of easy hiking.  The sun was shining brightly overhead as we set off down the trail.

The trail itself was fairly unremarkable.  The path passed through a forest that had been devastated by an invasive beetle in the past five years.  The hillsides were lined with fallen trees through most of our hike.  The view to our left was much better, though.  Shadow Mountain Lake stretched for several miles  to the north, framed by the barren, rocky tops of the Never Summer Mountains.  

We spotted several parties out skiing and tubing on the large lake.  The scenery was great, but the busy lake made for less than serene hiking.  We tried our best to enjoy the interesting blend of wildflowers growing on the lake's edge while we walked.  

Just after we reached our turn-around point, the monotony of the hike was interrupted.  Two cow moose were wandering through the shrubs to our right, not more than ten feet from us.  This was the closest either of us had ever been to a moose.  We took some photos, resisting the temptation to get closer to the moose.  While they looked harmless, a sudden charge by an animal that weighed over a thousand pounds didn't appeal to me!

The rest of the hike was fairly routine.  We had the excitement of our moose encounter to keep us entertained while hiking back to the trailhead.  The familiar rumble of thunder reminded us that it was now the afternoon.  As we approached the spillway of the Shadow Mountain Dam, we could finally see the skies to the south.  Dark blue clouds, whirled into threatening-looking formations, were moving fast over the valley.  Within minutes, the air was twenty degrees colder, and a howling wind was roaring.  

We drove back to the campground to close up our tent for the imminent rain.  While we were in camp, we watched one of our neighbor's tents go flying.  A gust of wind had pulled it off its stakes.  It was now blowing across the campground and towards the lake, like a tumbleweed.  With the help of another camper, we managed to get ahold of it and drag it back to their campsite.  We had just succeeded in staking it down when its owners drove back into their site.  Needless to say, they were quite appreciative that we had been nearby!  

The severe weather passed quickly, and a steady, soaking rain moved into the area.  We headed for a coffee shop in Grand Lake to escape the wet weather.  Hopefully, things will dry out before we start our backpacking trip tomorrow.  Rain aside, any time I can see 8 moose in a 24 hour period, its a pretty fabulous day!  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park Days 6 and 7: Colorado River Trail and the West side of RMNP

After five days of serious hiking in the mountains, we checked out of our campsite at Moraine Park and headed for Estes Park.  It was our 8th anniversary, and we decided to celebrate in style.  We've had a bit of a tradition of celebrating our anniversaries in picturesque locales.  From Mackinaw Island in Michigan, to Sherburne Pass in the Green Mountains of Vermont and Glacier National Park in Montana, we've been lucky enough to celebrate in some stunning landscapes.  

Before heading into Estes Park, we took one more hike in the park, our last on the East side of the continental divide.  We selected the trail to Cub Lake as an easy day hike.  It was a chance to stretch our legs while letting our muscles rest and recover from recent harder climbs.  

The Cub Lake trail is a very popular route that meanders along the edge of beautiful meadows and verdant wetlands for 2.3 miles.  The last half-mile of the trail climbs close to 500 feet in a hurry to the shores of the pretty little lake.  Cub Lake is a small lake, its surface nearly covered in lily pads.  The Fern Lake fire of 2012 did extensive damage to the surrounding trees and hillsides.  I think this was probably a more picturesque lake prior to the forest fire.  

The hike was a nice change of pace for us.  We took our time, surveying the adjacent wetlands for moose while we walked.  The largest member of the deer family would not make an appearance for  us on this hike, though.  We were lucky enough to spot several  hummingbirds along the way.  

After a brief lunch stop at Cub Lake, we returned to the trailhead via the same route we had taken out.  We were looking forward to the comforts of town for a night.  We stopped at a laundromat and did some much needed laundry on our way to the hotel. 

We found a room at the Discovery Lodge, a short walk from the downtown business district.  Our room was decorated in "log cabin" style furniture and wall hangings.  From the outside hot tub we had a view of the front range of the Rocky Mountains.  It was the perfect place to relax for a night.  

For dinner, we stopped at Momma Rosa's in downtown Estes Park.  They served delicious homemade italian entrees in a charmingly non-pretentious atmosphere.  The patio seating afforded views of the Big Thompson River.  While we were eating dinner, a storyteller was presenting some of the history of the area on the river walk next to us.  A public sing along was held in the city park earlier in the evening.  Everything about Estes Park screamed "charming, mountain town."

We hung around the hotel in the morning, soaking up every bit of modern convenience until check-out time.  We grabbed breakfast at The Egg and I, which has quickly become one of my favorite breakfast joints.  Caffeinated and fed, we were ready to make the drive over the continental divide to the west side of the park.

The Fall River Road is a one-way, dirt path that climbs above 11,000 feet to the Alpine Visitor Center.  The drive had some white-knuckle moments.  The road switchbacked up steep slopes with exposed drop-offs mere feet from our tires.  The drive took us through a enchanted forest of fragrant pines and by babbling mountain streams.  

The 11 mile drive took us over an hour.  It was too beautiful to hurry through this stunning landscape.  At the Alpine Visitor Center, the road intersected with Trail Ridge Road, the modern replacement for the dirt road, and the highest, maintained, paved roadway in the world.  

We stopped in the visitor center and listened to a presentation on the animals of the alpine tundra, before beginning the drive down to Grand Lake.  Heading west, the road was paved and much less scary to drive.   In another hour, we were in Grand Lake.

Grand Lake was much smaller and less fancy than Estes Park.  The town had a western feel to it.  Three massive, interconnected lakes dominated the valley around Grand Lake.  We drove to our campsite for the next three nights, the Green Ridge Campground.  Located right on the shore of Lake Granby, this Arapaho Forest Service campground was mostly empty when we checked in. 

The surrounding lakes appeared to offer a very different ecosystem than the mountains.  We spotted several ospreys near the lake, including a couple that were nesting on telephone poles.  While we were setting up camp we watched an osprey fly away from the lake with a big fish in its talons!  Lake Granby was also home to a large flock of Wood Storks.  These giant, white birds looked startlingly out of place in the mountains.  Watching their graceful flight over the lake was a special treat for us.  We also spotted a beaver, cruising around the river mouth of the North Fork of the Colorado River.  

It was a quiet night of camping in the mostly empty Green Ridge Campground.  In the morning we headed out for our first hike on the west side of the continental divide.  We decided to take it easy, with our backpacking trip just a couple of days away, so we selected the Colorado River Trail.  A 3.7 mile hike on this trail took us through tall pine trees and open marshy areas beneath the towering mass of the Never Summer Mountains to Lulu City.  

Lulu City was the site of a mining town in the 19th century.  Once home to 200 hardy pioneers, the city is now a ghost town, with no signs of human activity.  Hiking next to the Colorado River here was fascinating to me.  The impressive force of nature responsible for the canyons of Utah and Arizona that we had hiked near earlier in our trip was a gentle mountain stream as it wound its way out of the Rockies.  

  We ate our lunch on the shores of  the quiet stream.  Harmless, puffy, white clouds drifted by overhead.  The mountain weather, so often full of unpredictable fury, was delightfully mild on this mid-summer day.  On our hike back to the Jeep we spotted several piles of moose scat along the trail.  We scanned the wetlands areas we passed carefully for moose while hiking, but to no avail. 

While driving back to the campground, we noticed a large crowd of people gathered on the edge of the road.  Mary pulled the Jeep over while I rolled down the window to ask what they were looking at.  "Moose!" one of the men said in a hushed town.  Mary quickly found a parking spot, and we pulled out the binoculars.  A cow moose and a calf were quietly eating willlow leaves in a small marshy area near the road.  The crowd snapped photos and whispered to one another in wonderment.  The cow had dark black fur, with a fine silvery gloss to it.  The calf was a lighter shade of brown.  Its long ears flopped around trying to ward off bugs. 

No sooner had we gotten back on the road, when we noticed another roadside gathering.  We were delighted to find this crowd had spotted a bull moose.  Its antlers looked soft and fuzzy.  Truly a gentle giant, the bull moose was eating his way through a thicket less than 30 feet from the road.  I couldn't help but marvel at the luck of spotting three moose within a few minutes of driving.  We had once taken a 70 mile, three-hour drive around northern Vermont looking for moose, with no success!  I guess today was make-up for previous efforts.  

The west side of Rocky Mountain National Park appears to have a lot less people, and more wildlife than the east.  We're looking forward to exploring this new terrain more in the days to follow.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park Day 5: Twin Sisters Peaks

Having logged almost thirty miles and almost six thousand feet of elevation gain in the park, we decided we were ready to attempt our first summit hike.  Making a summit of a mountain in Colorado requires a certain amount of caution and planning.  Most of the peaks are well above tree-line.  The frequent afternoon thunderstorms mean that hikers must make sure they are back beneath that line before the daily storms arrive.  

With this in mind, we set the alarm for 5:30 am.  The gusty winds from the night before had passed, and it was still in the campground at this early hour.  A few songbirds darted about while we hurriedly at breakfast and loaded our day packs.  Our destination was the Twin Sisters Peaks.  This summit, about ten miles outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, can be reached via a tough, 4 mile, 2,300 foot climb.  It would be our first foray above 11,000 feet of elevation in our lives.

We were on the trail before 8 AM, under the cover of brilliant blue skies and abundant sunshine.  Judging by the number of cars already at the trailhead, this was a popular hike.  The trail wasted no time in beginning its abrupt climb through a dense pine tree forest.  The first stretch of trail ascended east, directly into the blinding rays of the morning sun. The intense light cast picturesque shadows through the neat stands of tall, skinny pine trees.  

The hike followed a seemingly endless procession of switchbacks.  The pitch was severe enough that we were both breathing heavily throughout the hike.  As we climbed, views of Long's Peak occasionally shown through gaps in the forest.  It was easy to imagine that the view at the top would be tremendous.  

About thirty minutes into our hike, we passed a large group of teenagers headed in the opposite direction.  They were part of a youth group or summer camp that had hiked up at 3:30 am in order to watch the sunrise from the summit.  I marveled at the exuberance of teenagers as we huffed and puffed our way uphill.

About 1,500 feet into our climb, the trail passed through a stunted forest of tiny pine trees.  The cold, thin air at this elevation made it difficult for trees to grow to their usual heights.  A few switchbacks later, the trees dropped away entirely.  For the first time on our trip, we were above tree-line.

The terrain above the forest was a stark, dramatic one.  A maze of boulders, rocks, and slabs of granite littered the mountainsides all the way to the summit. Tiny, fragile looking wildflowers peaked through the dry rock in places.  The views, no longer obstructed by trees, were astounding.  Snow-capped peaks stretched to the horizon, and the city of Estes Park looked like a model.  

The further we climbed, the tougher the hiking got.  This was likely a combination of the jumbled mess of rocks we were climbing over, and the thin air above 11,000 feet.  Gradually, the communications tower at the top came into view.  Beyond the tower, the trail climbed to a false summit with amazing views of Long's Peak, a 14,000 foot mountain to the west.

We stopped here for a much needed rest and some snacks.  The true summit of Twin Sisters Peaks was off-trail.  A short scramble up a mass of boulders and rocks was required to reach the actual highest point, one most hikers never visit.  

Mary was tired and ready for a rest, but I thought I had some energy left.  The skies looked friendly, still, so I thought I would go for it.  The walk to the base of the climb was arguably the toughest part.  With no trail to follow, I had to pick my way through boulders and slabs of rock.  It made for precarious walking.  Eventually, I reached the base of the climb.  From here I simply picked the path that looked the least resistant.  The scramble up took less than five minutes, but it did require me to use my hands to pull myself up and over boulders and ledges.

At the top I found the survey marker stamped into the surface of the rock by the Bureau of Land Management that indicated the true summit.  The winds threatened to knock me over as I took a few photos.  Mary took my picture from the communications tower, which I've included below.

The climb back down was a slow one, but within ten minutes I was back at the trail.  Nervous about getting caught in an afternoon thunderstorm, we began our descent in earnest.  We passed hordes of hikers heading up the trail while we hiked.  I couldn't help but wonder how they would fare in a thunderstorm.  

The hike down was brutal on our knees.  The resistance muscles needed for downhill hiking just don't get as much use as other muscle groups.  We were more than ready to be done by the time we walked through the final set of switchbacks.  Right on schedule, the loud crash of thunder echoed over the mountain.  Rain began to fall as we hopped into the Jeep.  We felt vindicated in getting up so early to hike.  Our first summit experience was an exhausting one, but a gorgeous hike.