Rocky Mountain National Park
and the Pawnee National Grasslands

  July 16-21, 2011

Daily Reports

Days 1-2: Juneau - the Rockies; riding into Wild Basin (RMNP)

Day 3: Thunder Lake: hiking to the continental divide

Day 4: Exploring and riding out of Wild Basin; driving to the RMNP alpine

Day 5: Exploring and camping in the Pawnee National Grasslands

Day 6: Hiking to the Pawnee Buttes and home

Rest stop on the way to Thunder Lake

Day 3: Thunder Lake

When we awoke, the day was sunny and pleasant.  We drank cafe francais at breakfast and enjoyed the company of the resident squirrels.  The bigger, grayer squirrels that otherwise reminded us of our red squirrels back home turned out to be, in fact, pine squirrels according to our mammal guide, which is just another common name for red squirrels.  Apparently there are three varieties in North America but I haven't yet determined which variety lives in Southeast Alaska or whether it's the same type that lives in the Rockies.  More exciting (no offense to the red squirrel) was the smaller, striped squirrel that cruised around the area eating bits of false box that grew in clusters on the forest floor.  toeWe inspected them, but never found anything more tantalizing than its normal green growth, which is apparently delicious.  My mother immediately identified this squirrel as a golden-mantled ground squirrel, though he was much grayer than the ones in her home town of Flagstaff (only faintly golden colored).  As soon as we started munching, he boldly came over to us and sniffed around looking for tidbits.  Feeding wildlife in the park is strictly forbidden, so how that peanut found its way onto my shoe I can't imagine!

After breakfast we decided to go for a little hike before tearing down our tent and moving to our second camp site.  We traveled light--each with camera, binoculars, and one granola bar.  The trail was beautiful, rocky and dry and sun-dappled and started out winding along the side of a mountain (the opposite side than we'd traveled on the day before, so I think we'd entered a valley at the back of the Wild Basin area).  I wish my photos even began to do it justice.  Not far from camp the path opened up on the left to a smooth rocky outcropping with a stunning view of the valley and the surrounding mountains.  We felt surprisingly energetic after our exhaustion of the day before, and so continued on the gradual climb, stopping for birds when we spotted them.  We spent some time watching a gorgeous male yellow-rumped warbler (of the yellow-throated variety) singing away as he bopped through a pine tree.  We were feeling so good that we just kept going, turning to the right and away from the broader valley until we came across the first snow drift and knew we were approaching Thunder Lake.  The frequent drifts along the trail were easy to traverse, but some of them would have been tricky for the horses (I'm sure they would have post-poled through some of them that they couldn't avoid).  Most of the ground was snow-free, however, and the groundcover was greening up, sporadic flowers blooming here and there.  The forest opened up into soggy meadows with meandering sloughs and we followed a chipping noise off the trail to a three-toed woodpecker working away at a dead tree..  Yellow orchids, star flowers, and marsh marigold-type flowers caught our eye.  Finally we passed the junction to the regular camp sites, then the stock site where we were meant to camp (snow free, incidentally), and from there we descended into the Thunder Lake basin.  The meadow we emerged into was still entirely covered with snow, and the view to the lake and the surrounding mountains was stunning.  Several people were there along the edge of the lake, some fishing.  We decided to explore a little and headed to the right along the edge of the lake, much of the area beneath snow drifts.  As we curved our way around the back of the lake, the snow diminished and we picked our way through the marshy ground on and off the trail until we reached the back corner of the lake at the foot of a talus slope (we learned later that this slope led right up to the continental divide).  Large rocks littered the ground, one of which we'd had in mind for a rest spot from a distance; a marmot whistled and we soon spotted him crouched at the top of a sharp rock protruding from the snow a little farther up the slope.  It was a stunning spot.  The lake was gorgeous, rimmed with steep, picturesque slopes standing out against an azure sky.  Dramatic thunderheads built up behind the mountains back down the trail.  We sat on our yellow and lime green lichened rock spying on the reddish-brown colored yellow-bellied marmot, taking photos, and gazing up the mountainsides.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel eating false box

Getting breakfast ready

The bear canister

Lighting my new stove

Camp in the morning

The rocky trail

Boulder landscapet

View along the trail


A rare spot where people moved the large rocks

Cool light/dark shot

Cool tree shadow boulder shot

Snow patches in the trail

Colorado blue sky


Marshy meadows around Thunder Lake (Mom's photo)

Three-toed woodpecker

Flowers (Mom's photo)

Delicious tree

View approaching Thunder Lake

Flower (Mom's photo)

mountainEventually we picked our way back across the meadow and along the lake on our way down.  It was tempting to try for the pass (which was our original intent had we camped there), but the route was snowed in and we needed to pack up and move camp.  As we walked I daydreamed about happening upon the fishermen we'd seen earlier just as they brought in a native cutthroat and asking to take a look (I'm fond of cutthroats).  While thinking about this, the path we were on dropped to the edge of the lake where I gazed down into the clear, slightly amber water and saw....a fish!  And then another fish!  Several gorgeous trout were hanging around the branches of a sunken tree and then cruising into shore just beneath the surface only a few feet away.  We could see them extremely well through the clear water and, if we were still, they were unconcerned by us.  We saw as flowersmany as five at once!  All were heavily spotted, some with deep red color on and around their gill coverings and down their sides.  One appeared to have some red gill exposed (possibly due to an injury); I got several photos of this one and some of the others.  They were gorgeous gorgeous fish and I wanted them to be cutthroats.  When we passed by the ranger cabin a few minutes later the fishermen were having lunch, so I asked them about the fish in the lake.  They told me it was all catch and release and that the lake was inhabited by native greenback cutthroat, rainbow trout, and the hybrid cutbows.  They said the greenbacks were very red underneath, so I'm not sure we saw one, but I like to think at least one of our fish was a cutthroat!  It turns out the greenback cutthroat had been nearly extirpated, but efforts are underway to revive them.  Fish watching from shore was one of the wildlife highlights of the trip!  I regretted mentioning our observation to the fishermen, for fear they would go and harass our fish friends.

troutFrom there my mother and I hustled leisurely down the trail, inspired by hunger and the need to pack our gear and find our way to the next campsite.  We ate snow to quench our thirst and hunger while it lasted.  While we were still among the snow drifts and near the lake we heard a raucous call that reminded us of a hawk or falcon and scanned the area for some sign of it.  But, the tall trees blocked our view and we'd just given up when we made a turn in the trail and spotted the bird at the top of a dead tree about 50 yards down the trail.  We trained our binoculars on him and discovered a stunning black, gray, and white bird.  The white tail feathers flashed dramatically as he called from his branch--a Clarke's nutcracker!  This fellow was independently on both of our lists of hoped for bird sightings while in the Rockies.

The rest of the hike was perfect, the temperature idyllic, the sun dappling the picturesque high country trail.  We later read a report of this portion of the trail as "monotonous" but it couldn't have been more beautiful and I took a ridiculous number of photos to prove it.  We did hustle down the last part, though, to accommodate our stomachs, and happily picnicked on the big rock near our tent around 2:00.  My mother was impressed with the dark-eyed juncos that visited the campsite, the same species but strikingly different than the ones back home, sporting reddish-brown backs.  I was pleased that that night's human occupants of Siskin hadn't yet arrived and that our clothes were dry (we'd boldly hung them back up while we hiked).  We packed our gear up as densely as we could for the hike down.  Neither of us had packed thinking that we'd carry our gear any distance, and it's a good thing that we brought backpacks at all.  We managed to fit everything into our big backs (including our day packs), but the bear canister wouldn't fit inside.  My mother put it in a spare mesh bag and I tied it onto the back of her backpack as well as I could. 

Ranger cabin at Thunder Lake

Back side of Thunder Lake


Looking up the slope from our rock

Thunder Lake through the trees

Rocky Mountain view

Thunderhead building over Longs Peak

Closeup of Longs Peak

Lichen on our rock

Yellow-bellied marmot


Meltwater and flowers (Mom's photo)

Flowers (Mom's photo)


Creek running into Thunder Lake

The trail down

Debbie hiking around a rock (Mom's photo)

And so we started down the trail, 1.6 miles to Pine Ridge.  As soon as we passed the junction .1 miles along (taking the route we hadn't traveled the day before), we discovered why that part of the trail was closed to stock (except lamas).  Or at least we guessed that the narrow, extremely rocky and steep trail would be too hard on large animals.  It was hard on us.  I'd originally thought that the stock restriction was to accommodate pedestrians, but now I realize that it is simply snakean "unimproved trail."  We started by descending through a rocky, meadowy area that was stunningly beautiful, a place I thought I'd like to return to explore another time.  I discovered a little snake there that allowed me a nice look and a photo.  From there the trail descended into pine and fir forests, which became increasingly interspersed with aspen.  I found it really interesting to see the change in tree species as we went from Thunder Lake down nearly 2,000 feet to the floor of Wild Basin over the course of the day.  Not far from our destination we passed through some really gorgeous, lush meadows between the trail and the edge of some rocky bluffs that begged to be clambered on and explored.  But that would have to wait for another day!  My mother and I were pretty exhausted from lugging our gear down the rocky trail (after hiking 6.8 miles at altitude already), and my mother was especially heroic for carrying the food (she stubbornly refused to give it up, but wound up carrying it under her arm  to prevent it from swinging around on her back).  At last I came across a sign post, but it turned out to be for the other end of the trail junction and not for our campsite.  Thankfully, about 100 feet down from there I found the sign for Pine Ridge and teased my mother by surreptitiously leaning against it to block it from her view when she showed up, pretending that I was discouraged we hadn't found it yet.  We then trudged up the trail, found where another party had camped already, then discovered the second of the two sites a good 50 yards away on another level, which may as well have been the only site there.  The Park Service does an amazing job of splitting up the campsites (if there are multiple to a site) so you get a wilderness experience and placing them just far enough from the main trail.  Pine Ridge was even lovelier than Siskin.  A wide, level area between rocks and pine trees probably could have housed half a dozen tents or more.  We dropped our gear, set up the tent, and wandered down to the main trail and up to North St. Vrain Creek to freshen up and filter water.  Then we relaxed for a bit, observing more gray-headed juncos, Steller's jays, and, one of my favorite bird sightings of the whole trip, the large and striking mountain chickadee with his bold voice. 

After recovering a bit, we wandered back down to the main trail and toward the Wild Basin trailhead.  By now we'd started scheming about how to avoid the arduous climb back up the way we'd come in order to meet Cody the following morning.  When we told him we'd meet him up at the higher junction,, we didn't know that the 1.5 miles between was so tough or at such a grade.  My mother suggested that we go up the other (improved) trail and hope to run into Cody before he made it to the junction.  I was initially quite wary of this, as I thought it wisest to stick to the plan.  In the meantime, we walked down the trail looking for the burned area we'd passed through on horseback the day before.  The trail description I'd read said it was not far along the trail and we were only 1.6 miles in from the trailhead at that point.  We could see burns on the mountainside above the trail, but it had apparently not crossed North St. Vrain Creek; we verified with some hikers who were headed out that there was no burn area between us and the trailhead.  It was all so puzzling....  Finally, back at the camp site, it all came together as we reread the trail description I'd printed off.  The missing link was that there were multiple trailheads!  I'd tried to understand everything from the perspective of the Wild Basin trailhead, which is what everyone writes about when accessing Thunder Lake, and which is where the rangers tell you to go.  We hadn't just used a side trail to get to the Wild Basin trail, we'd come in on an entirely separate trailhead--the Allenspark Trailhead, which adds considerable distance to the trail and doesn't merge with the Wild Basin trail under Calypso Falls, which is beyond Pine Ridge.  Calypso Falls is between two different burn zones, which explains why we could look up at a burn site on the mountains above the nearby trail (but which doesn't intersect it) and also meet up with a later burn site on the same trail.  Basically, the Allenspark trailhead takes you along the side of the mountain on the south side of Wild Basin, meeting up with the main trail where it climbs from the valley floor to Calypso Falls.  Anyway, once we figured this out, we agreed to change plans.  Assuming that Cody would be coming from the Allenspark Trailhead, we'd make the climb to Calypso Falls (one third the distance and the elevation gain) early in the morning, then leave him a note with our packs and hang out in the burned area to hike around and check out the wildflowers.  It was a good plan.  If that's all very confusing, don't worry about it--it was confusing to me!  Because I expected to be hiking in the Thunder Lake area, I hadn't memorized much about the rest of the trail.

That evening we ate wild rice and pilaf for dinner with raspberry crumble for dessert and red wine.  In lieu of a fire, we burnt a couple of candles.  The day had been so fine I thought about not putting up the rain fly at all until my  mom reminded me about dew (from what little I knew of thunderstorms, I thought they happened as the heat rose in the middle of the day, and theorized that it was too late for one to build up).  It was a good thing I took her advice!  Not long after we retired a thunderstorm moved in and we soon had rain--and lightening and thunder!  Shows what I know about thunderstorms I guess.  We were both pretty exhausted, but the flashes of lightning (enough to illuminate the whole tent for a moment) and the close thunder kept us awake perhaps an hour longer than we would have been.  So far the thunderstorms had been far more erratic than the daily ~2-3:00 afternoon phenomena I'd been told about.

Rocky trail

Getting into aspen meadows

North St. Vrain Creek below camp

The burn on the other side of the creek

Pine Ridge camp (Mom's photo)


Next Segment (Day 4)