Rocky Mountain National Park
and the Pawnee National Grasslands

  July 16-21, 2011

Trip 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

Elk bull in the alpine

Day 4: Ungulates

We forced ourselves up earlier than we wanted to get a head start on the day.  We packed up efficiently, filtered water, then left our packs and clambered back up the unimproved trail to the nearby rocks and meadows I'd admired the day before.  We easily hiked up the rocks and onto a promontory around the corner overlooking the valley.  We could easily see the two burn areas on the side of the mountain and the basin below and I finally felt like I had my bearings.  The rocky cliffs on the other side of the valley were lovely and we relaxed for a bit before heading back down.  There were no mule deer browsing on the dewy grass as I'd hoped, but the view and the grassy glen in the morning were worth it. 

Back at Pine Ridge we donned our packs and trudged our way across the creek and up toward Calypso Falls, leaving around 9:00.  The trail was a breeze compared to what we'd encountered the day before--clearly well trodden and built to accommodate all levels of hiker.  It was a climb, but relatively short and painless and, before we knew it, we were back on the trail we'd ridden two days before.  We dropped our packs at the junctions and wrote Cody a note telling him we'd meet him at the next burn site, attaching it to my pack so he could read it when coming down the trail from Allenspark.  Free of our burden, we grabbed some snacks and headed down to the burn site.  Unfortunately, I wasted considerable time looking for an area I had a clear image of with steep, flowery slopes above and below the trail and lots of young aspens, but I couldn't find it.  I wound up going much farther down the trail than was necessary, turning back, and climbing up into the first big opening we'd passed.  We were hungry then, so stopped on one of the many downed trees and had a snack.  The meadows were gorgeous.  Young aspens and evergreens grew up in clumps, but much of the mountainside was still populated only with grasses, wildflowers, and flowering shrubs, and we appeared to have arrived at a glorious time.  Trying to take a photo of every new flower I saw, I could hardly go anywhere very fast!  Among all the flowers were the great, gray logs of fallen trees as well as the silver spires of dead trees still standing, some black and charred.  The plan was for me to climb around while my mom kept a watch on the trail for Cody; based on the agreement to meet at the junction at noon, we thought we had some time before he showed up, but we wanted to be careful.  While I was making my way along a fallen log just after lunch, my mom briefly headed into the bushes around a nearby waterfall and I thought I'd better just keep an eye on the trail to be on the safe side.  Sure enough, I soon saw horses and called out to Cody, who stopped on the trail.  I grabbed the pack and hastened down the mountain to find a very cheerful Cody and four horses.  He grinned and said "I found your note!"  Then he told us that he'd found Pine Ridge, had, in fact, been dropped off at the Wild Basin trailhead via horse trailer in order to pick us up at camp!  Compass had mentioned how rough the unimproved trail was, so they'd gone out of their way to make sure we didn't have to return that way.  And here we'd made other plans!  He'd swung by camp about 9:30, half an hour after we left.  All in all, though, it worked out, and the horses only went .2 miles more than they would have had he met us at camp.  And we got to explore the burned area a bit.  Mom had War Paint again, and I had Fancy, Cody's favorite horse who he'd finished breaking the year before.  She was a lovely young mare and we got along extremely well.  She was motivated to get moving and pushed War Paint along the whole way.  The ride back along the edge of Wild Basin, the sun bright and warm, the horses well-tempered, was extremely pleasant.  We saw Long Peak and Mount Meeker on the other side of the basin, both of which we'd see later from other angles.  On the road back to Allenspark I nudged Fancy just a little to catch up and she slid into a graceful, short-lived trot.

North St. Vrain Creek in the morning sun

View down Wild Basin from the rocks (Mom's photo)

Debbie exploring the rocks (note burned area on the
mountain behind (Mom's photo)

The other side of Wild Basin

Cool tree shadows on the rocks

Junction trail sign

Debbie hiking to Calypso Falls (Mom's photo)

Our packs and note to Cody

Golden-mantled ground squirrel

Pine squirrel

Colorado columbine


Mom photographing flowers

Yellow peas (Mom's photo)

Burned area

Cody and the horses

War Paint (Mom's photo)

Riding to the Allenspark trailhead

Mount Meekr

Riding through the other burned area

Burned area

Longs Peak (left) and Mount Meeker

Reaching the trailhead (Mom's photo)

Debbie and Fancy back at the stables (Mom's photo)

And so we were back at Allenspark.  We said our goodbyes to horses and people and drove across the street to our hotel.  Which was closed!  Apparently the Allenspark Lodge takes a siesta, and we'd arrived just after it started.  With an hour and a half until it opened again, we walked down the street to the cafe and had a drink and relaxed.  When we were done, the lodge was still at a siesta, so we took it as a sign and went for a drive.  We were interested in driving into the mountains and over the continental divide, but weren't sure where to go, so we scoured our Colorado map.  It appeared that the only nearby road over the Rockies was through Estes Park, which sounded familiar, so we took off, immediately fulfilling one of my wildlife goals for the trip.  Not far from Allenspark on the right side of the road we drove right up next to a lovely, very skinny mule deer doe grazing on the side of the road.  Thankfully no one was behind us, so I quickly pulled over and watched as she grazed for a bit, then made her way across the road to graze on the steep slope opposite us.  I could see her ribs stand out as she moved.  What a beautiful thing!  Mule deer may seem a common and not-so-exciting creature to covet, but I couldn't be sure I'd ever seen one and, well, I wanted to.  The diminutive Sitka black-tailed deer of Southeast Alaska is, unexpectedly, a close relative.  Plus I like the big ears.

Delighted with our plan already, we continued on into Estes Park and from there into Rocky Mountain National Park.  Given the few roads crossing the Rockies, I was a little surprised at the $20 fee, but we paid it, drove by some lovely parkland, and promptly got stuck in a long road-work queue.  We were there so long that people around us were freely wandering away from their cars in the sunshine.  We snacked a bit and waited and waited, beginning to doubt our plans.  Finally they let us through and we started up the long switchbacks through the forest; I wasn't particularly impressed, although the views in the treeless openings were getting progressively more dramatic.  We stopped at an overlook and I eagerly limped over to the only interpretive sign in sight (my mother and I were both a little stiff from the morning's ride); disappointingly, the sign only admonished people not to feed the wildlife and gave some reasons why human food can impact the survival of wild animals.  Sure enough, as people gathered to enjoy the view, ground squirrels and chipmunks hurried over, followed by several bold Clarke's nutcrackers; people ignored the sign, or didn't read it, and freely fed them.  So we didn't really need to hike seven miles into the park to find them--all we had to do was throw down some seeds at a pullout!  But, we agreed that we had a much better experience seeing one flashing his tail feathers at us "in the wild."

 From there we drove on around the sides of the mountains until quite abruptly we drove through a patch of twisted, gnarled, stunted trees and into the alpine.  Suddenly we could see all the contours of the rounded mountains, carpeted in vegetation with a backdrop of other smooth or craggy mountains across the valleys, and then I was impressed.  We stopped at a pullout and started walking up a path just as a thunderstorm struck and it started to rain, quickly taking several photos of dense alpine flowers before it got too wet.  People were streaming down off the alpine, which is what you're supposed to do in a thunderstorm.  Disappointed, we turned around only to spot a huge, beautiful animal right on the side of the road.  A bull elk!!  He was no more than a few yards off the side of the road and cars were stopped right next to him.  We braved the rain to walk a little closer, snapped some photos, then retreated as the rain turned to driving sleet.  By the time we drove by the elk, he had crossed the road and was slowly disappearing down the steep mountain slope to the left.  This elk, wandering through summer wildflowers, his noble face wet with sleet, and the blue mountains on the far side of the valley behind made quite the image.  I'd never seen an elk, and had no expectation of seeing one on this trip! 

Keeping an eye out for more wildlife and a sign telling us we were crossing the continental divide, we drove on as the thunderstorm passed.  My mom spotted some likely looking white spots on a ridge ahead, and I happened to look back to see lots of brown dots on a hill behind us.  We stopped at the next pullout and glassed behind us.  Relaxing on the mountainside in the distance were more than 80 elk, most of which appeared to be resting.  I trekked back across the alpine to get a little closer, admiring as I went the carpet of \wildflowers and alpine grass I was walking on (trying to be gentle).  American pipits called and flew around me.  I got a better look at the elk, but we were still pretty far away.  We went back to the car and drove on, enjoying the scenery until we reached the visitor's center, which suggested we'd passed the high point of the road.  Although we mourned the fact that we'd miss out on good interpretive information, we decided we'd rather take the time to enjoy the alpine a little more, so we turned around and headed back, this time stopping closer to where my mother had seen the white dots.  Others had clearly seen something there, as we saw several people with cameras hiking off the road in the same area.  We never did find any large critters, but we did find several gorgeous birds singing and fluttering around the alpine--horned larks!  And so we'd seen the two quintessential Rocky Mountain alpine birds. 

We were closer to the herd of elk there, so I crossed the road and made my way a little closer to them (still a gully and a long ways away).  But, with my binoculars I had a wonderful view--lots of females with young bulls and calves, the latter of which seemed to be mostly lying in the grass.  I often wind up traveling to new places in the off or shoulder seasons, partly to avoid crowds and partly to avoid traveling during the summer.  This trip was an exception--I booked it during the height of a Juneau summer to make sure we were there at the best time.  It was scheduled, in large part, to coincide with blooming wildflowers in the mountains.  Although our hike in the Wild Basin area was primarily through forest, anywhere there was an opening in the trees or along the trail the ground was alive with wildflowers of all colors and varieties.  I enjoyed trying to figure out what general type of flower they were (e.g., pea, geranium, rudbeckia), even though I didn't know any of the species.  The wildflowers turned out to be prolific everywhere we went in Colorado: along the roadsides, in the parkland, and all over the alpine.  Seeing the elk lolling about the lush carpet of grass and flowers with a (seemingly) endless supply of more lush mountaintops to graze was an immensely gratifying experience.  It did make me ponder, and not for the first time, why the Park Service (which does such a wonderful job of preserving the wild character of national parks) wouldn't want to reintroduce wolves to the park.  Surely people would love to hear the occasional wolf howl, and wouldn't they help check the elk population?  I suppose it's not that simple, but it does seem a shame that such a big and wild area shouldn't see wolves again.  I wondered the same thing about grizzly bears, but I suppose people would be less enthusiastic about hiking and camping in grizzly bear country, and Rocky Mountain National Park is a heavily used area.  Still, it seems a shame.

As we drove back through the alpine, we came across two more groups of elk; the first, a small group of bulls, we drove by, but the second group (which my mother spotted) was more accessible, and so we agreed to stop despite our growing weariness and hunger.  Unfortunately, they were so far down the steep mountainside that they were out of sight from the road.  Although I was wearing out and feeling the altitude when I trekked around, I made my way down slope until I had a pretty good look at them, a group of about a dozen cows and young bulls.  One cow was collared.  Another thing I like about the Park Service’s management is the freedom to walk anywhere (with few exceptions) in a national park.  We were not required to stay on trails on the alpine, which surprised me, but made wildlife viewing much better!  Hopefully enough people stay in cars and disperse over the fragile vegetation that it remains healthy; it certainly seemed that way. 

After that, the evening was getting on, so we headed down to the parklands, grateful that road construction had halted for the day.  We stopped at some interpretive signs overlooking one of several natural parks in the area with a view of Long Peak and Mount Meeker in the background (the opposite side from Wild Basin I think).  Long Peak has been a landmark for a very long time, including for the Mountain Ute that were lucky enough to inhabit that area.  The valley parklands around us were unbelievably beautiful--lush grass and flowers, wandering streams, clumps of picturesque trees, all surrounded by tall mountains.  A little farther on and lower we drove past a confusion of cars parked on the side of the road; people clustered with cameras looking avidly into the grass.  Something exciting was clearly going on, so we parked in the middle, got out, and scanned the area to no avail.  We couldn't see anything exciting!  There was a strip of grass and wildflowers along the road 50 yards wide backed by a fence that ran along the edge of a forest, possibly along a low stream.  I finally asked someone what they were looking at and she said there was a coyote and started to give me directions.  Expecting to catch a yellow glimpse of it between the trees on the other side of the fence, I was surprised to see it stand up about 30 feet away and calmly walk past a couple of girls in the field.  Apparently people had been watching it stalking something.  With only one very casual glance at her admirers, this coyote walked parallel to the road for a minute, then sat down about 20 feet from the asphalt and focused her gaze away from the road.  She sat for several minutes before standing up, creeping forward a few feet, her whole body tense, then sitting down again.  She really did appear to be stalking something, though I can't imagine what creature would warrant that particular strategy.  The coyote was beautiful with a thick coat and long, coyote legs.  I'd never seen a coyote either, but couldn't imagine I'd be lucky enough to even hope for it on this trip!  As we watched, the rain set in again and we eventually tore ourselves away to head back home.  It turns out that the fences in that area are meant to protect the vegetation from overgrazing by predator-less elk.

As we drove back through Estes Park, we considered stopping for dinner, as we were both quite hungry, but decided we'd rather freshen up (we were still straight off the trail) and eat in Allenspark.  We arrived back at the hotel worn out and ravenous, so we quickly changed clothes, freshened up, and asked out host for dinner suggestions.  Alas, nothing was open that night, nor was there a grocery store of any kind in Allenspark.  He gave us directions to a lodge in Estes Park, and so we rather tiredly drove back there for dinner.  Thankfully, it turned out to be a good pick.  We ate on the patio overlooking a meadow and had a glass of wine.  Plus, I ran into a high school friend who I hadn't seen in years!  Of all the strange places to meet...

That night we called home from the little phone booth in our lodge (Allenspark doesn't have cell phone service), heard that all was well, and crashed.

Mule deer doe

View of Rocky Mountain parkland

Apline flowers

Alpine flowers

Bull elk

Bull elk

Alpine scene

Elk herd

Horned lark

Alpine stream

Apline flowers


Long's Peak from the other side

Brown-eyed susan


Next Segment (Day 5)