Rocky Mountain National Park
and the Pawnee National Grasslands

  July 16-21, 2011

Trip Reports

Wet camp at Siskin

Days 1-2: Thunderstorms

On our second pass through Longmont we stopped at the same Walmart, resisting the urge to push ahead to the mountains through the fading light.  But, it had been raining for an hour (highlighted with jagged streaks of lightening toward the Rockies) and our better judgment persuaded us to buy a tarp, since I'd forgotten to bring one from home.  We wondered whether our long drive north to Loveland (and subsequent drive south back to Longmont) was simply the vehicle we needed to bring us back to Walmart for that tarp.  In the end, I think we were grateful, detour and all!

lodgeMy mother and I had arrived in Denver that afternoon for her birthday adventure, rented a car, and headed toward the mountains, mapquest map in hand.  I don't know how many wrong turns it's going to take me to finally buy a GPS unit or use my iphone more intelligently, but despite our careful navigating we apparently managed to leave Longmont's Walmart (where we stopped to buy stove fuel, bread, and cheese) by a different road than we arrived.  I still don't understand it, but that's what happened, and we wound up miles off track going in the wrong direction.  It took us a couple more wrong turns after leaving Walmart the second time (one of which landed us in a liquor store 24 blocks down Longmart's Main Street (the wrong Main Street it turns out) where we purchased a couple of raspberry wheats) before we finally left the plains behind, moving from endless flat farmland into steep, craggy cliffs and rushing mountain streams within about a quarter mile.  The change was abrupt to say the least and the scenery suddenly stunning.  Unfortunately it was full dark by the time we took the turn to Allenspark and, after aborting our search for our B&B and turning around, we stopped at one of the few lit buildings on a very dark road across from some very closed stores to ask a group of young folks beating drums on a porch for directions.  They enthusiastically pointed us back up the road and said we couldn't miss it.  As it turns out, the Allenspark Lodge, literally across the street from the Allenspark Livery, was quite easy to spot once we got there.  With some relief, we stumbled inside at 9:30 pm and were shown to our room on the second floor.  The walls were all log, the floor at a rather steep angle, and everything squeaked rustically, but all we needed was a quiet place to rest and pack.  Our hostess did not seem to appreciate that we didn't take her up on the hot tub downstairs or the offer of a hot breakfast the next morning (served at 9:00), but we were tired and had some repacking to do, not to mention an early morning.  We ate cherries and drank Shock Tops for dinner, then reorganized our gear for mountain camping.

All too early we rose out of bed to a clear blue sky day in the mountains.  As we checked out, our host gave us directions to the Park Service office in Estes Park and presented our bright yellow bear canister.  We headed out around 7:30 for a very scenic drive through mountains and valleys into Estes Park; I glimpsed a pair of deer in the woods on the way, but it was too quick to identify them.  Estes Park itself is probably the most scenic town I've ever seen, occupying a vale in the mountains with picturesque rocky outcroppings, a lake, fields of wildflowers, and pockets of verdant trees, all surrounded by mountains.  I was giddy on the walk to the backcountry office watching violet-green swallows sitting on tree branches overlooking striped chipmunks romping among abundant wildflowers.  I was also a little apprehensive, as our hostess at the lodge had warned us that there was still a lot of snow on the ground at our reserved campsite.  Thunder Lake, at around 10,500', is at the end of the Wild Basin trail and is, on average, snow free on July 14.  I knew it was a risk to pick it for a campsite three days later, but when I described to locals what I was looking for in a campsite, Thunder Lake kept coming up and I took it as a sign.  Sure enough, the young ranger who helped us said there was still 4-6' of snow in that area (later dropped to 3-5' drifts by an older ranger); people had been turned around 1/4-1/2 mile from the campsites by the snow.  We could either commit to hiking part of the trail ourselves (sans horses) or choose other campsites.  The latter seemed the best bet, as we didn't particularly want to camp on top of the snow.  There was some confusion about which sites might be available because we were taking horses in (some parts of the trail and campsites are off limit to stock), but in the end they opened the options up since we were to be dropped off and could then move around on people-only trails freely.  No sites were available for both nights, so we took Siskin on the first night (about half way to Thunder Lake) and Pine Ridge the second night, a mile and a half back toward the trail head.  All we could do was hope for the best.  On the way out we picked up a book on Colorado mammals (we already had plant and bird books) and drove back to Allenspark to meet up with the horses.

ridingPeople smiled warmly as we strolled into the yard between rows of horses; I ducked my head into what appeared to be an office and was greeted by Compass, the proprietor, who knew right away who I was.  Unlike our rather cool hostess across the street, Compass was warm and friendly, and treated us as though she didn't have a hundred other things to do at that moment.  A couple of guys took our gear and began packing it into saddle bags for our pack horse.  I kept only a fleece tied around my waste (it had been chilly earlier in the morning), binoculars, and my camera.  I gulped down lots of water, but didn't want to carry anything bulky for the ride (though a very gracious man tied a couple of water bottles around the saddle horn of my horse before we left).  Around 9:30 we mounted up and headed out behind Cody, our guide, and Raddles, the large white pack horse.  My mother rode a pinto mare named War Paint and I rode Simon.  I got the impression that Simon was having a bad day and was not at all in the mood for the trail (I've had days like that myself); in fact, after an hour or so, I began to think that this was the first time I'd had no rapport at all with the horse I rode.  But, I tried to show Simon I was grateful and enjoyed the morning.  We rode through Allenspark's sleepy street and continued to wind our way around dirt roads for a bit until we reached the Allenspark Trailhead to the Wild Basin area, although we didn't realize what trailhead we were at at the time (I was under the impression that there was a single trailhead to the Wild Basin area).  In any event, the trail was immediately stunning.  I wish the photos did justice to the sun splashing light through the ponderosas and landing on the packed dirt and cobble trail.  Simon had been rather pokey on the ride and took quite a bit of coaxing to catch up with the others, but I managed to push him into a brief trot once in the forest before the trail became too rocky for that.  My mom and I chatted later about how tough that trail was!  The easy dirt path quickly became a mess of rocks of all sizes, and the trail never really got better.  The horses had to pick their way through it and I was impressed that they could find their way over or between the jumble of sometimes quite large rocks as well as they did.  Sometimes Simon held his head close to the ground for a few seconds, and I think he was studying the route.  Through openings in the trees we could see that we were climbing along the side of a ridge; to the right was a wide forested valley and ahead of us rocky mountainsides and what looked to be lake-infested cirques. 

wet horsesAfter about an hour it started sprinkling.  Undaunted, I figured the shower would pass and the subsequent sunshine would dry us off--after all, thunderstorms are afternoon occurrences I'd been told.  But it kept sprinkling and sprinkling, and then raining, and then thunder started up in the distance and moved closer and closer and closer.  By the time another hour had passed it was pouring and the thunder was close enough that Cody asked us to stand down (dismount).  We were still on the narrow trail on the side of mountain.  I ungracefully slid down (landing on the vertical side of the mountain) and Cody tied our horses.  I took a few photos of our wet horses and huddled under the shelter of some trees at the edge of the trail until Cody suggested we move a little farther down.  I found trees that offered a little shelter and, becoming quite chilled in the downpour, I finally put my fleece on, dooming it to a good soaking.  We silently waited for the thunder to pass, listening to it fade and return again and again.  After about 15 minutes, Cody decided we could move on and we mounted up, only to have the thunder return again closer than ever.  Two minutes later and a couple of switchbacks down the mountain, a clap of thunder roared in so close that Simon jerked and trotted a little and we dismounted again.  My mom said it was hailing and almost before I had time to express my disbelief, a large pellet stung my neck and I yelped.  The biggest hail I'd ever seen started to fall around us--the size of large garbanzo beans!  They were lopsided, too--not perfect spheres (for some reason I thought hail was perfectly round).  The hailing only lasted a couple of minutes, but we huddled in the woods for about 40 minutes in all before the thunder finally moved far enough away to be safe on the horses.  Toward the end, Cody finally convinced me to let him dig out my backpack from the saddle bag so I could retrieve my raincoat; only when he told me he was about to put his own raingear on did I relent, and boy was I grateful!  At least I was wearing light cotton pants--Cody was wearing blue jeans and was thoroughly soaked.  As we swung up onto the soaking wet saddles, the rain diminished to mere sprinkles and we thought the storm had finally passed.  A few minutes later, however, the driving rain returned and I finally bundled my camera and binoculars, already very wet, under my rain jacket for good.   By this time Cody, rather taciturn at first, had warmed up to us a bit (I like to think that our good cheer in the face of the unexpected morning storm had something to do with it) and at one point turned around and shouted over his shoulder with a big grin, "You know, I don't mind turning around if you want to!"  I just smiled back--there was no way we were turning around!  We passed one sodden hiker after another, all wearing whatever rain gear they'd brought along (and most were also wearing shorts), some sheltering under overhanging rocks.  The rain and sleet continued in waves and we were all soaked to the skin.  Even the new waterproof hiking shoes my mother and I wore were filled with water from the top down.  Eventually the storm did pass and the sun began to warm us up again.  At one point, as Cody started to turn a corner, he pointed to the right and said "black bear."  We all stopped, but he wasn't in my view.  After a few moments, my mom and Cody moved on and I caught a glimpse of the bear about 50 feet away between the trees.  Hoping for a photo, I halted Simon a couple of times (he was reluctant to stay behind and kept moving on as soon as I focused my camera on the bear).  To my astonishment, the bear was not at all skittish; every time he caught sight of us through the trees, he moved purposefully in our direction!  It was most un-bearlike behavior.  Eventually Simon saw the bear and shied a little, and I let him catch up to the others.

SiskinAround that time the weather finally cleared and we were in sunshine, and shortly thereafter we came to a junction in the trail and, .1 miles beyond, the sign to the Siskin campsite.  We dismounted and, while Cody prepared to lead the horses home, my mother and I took turns behind rocks to change into dry clothes.  Then came a puzzling conversation with Cody trying to work out where our next campsite was located.  He'd never heard of Pine Ridge and my limited understanding of the Wild Basin trail system wasn't helping (I was unaware that there were multiple trailheads, so I couldn't understand his confusion about the map I was drawing in the dirt which was based on what we'd seen at the ranger station).  In the end we agreed to meet back up at the junction, which was only 1.5 miles back up the trail from our second campsite.  Feeling sorry for Cody in his soaking wet jeans, we bid him goodbye and set about setting up camp.  We read a little about Siskin from the trail guide I had and discovered that it had only a single campsite--we had no neighbors!  Feeling lucky, we carried our
campgear up the trail a few hundred yards, getting winded and feeling thoroughly worn out.  But, the sun was out now, and we busied ourselves setting up the tent and eating lunch.  My mother strung a clothesline around a couple of trees and we hung all our wet clothes out to dry; in addition to everything we'd been wearing, quite a few of my mother's clothes had gotten wet inside her pack and my sleeping bag was a little wet as well.

 Almost before we were done, the clouds moved in again and it began to sprinkle.  We hastily moved everything inside the tent and retreated.  It was just as well for me because I was feeling woozily tired and really just wanted to take a nap (I blame the altitude).  We got out our books and lay down and for a while, and nothing dramatic happened.  I started to think we'd been over-hasty.  I read a little, then drifted off to sleep, only to wake shortly thereafter to thunder.  The light sprinkles turned into a drenching downpour, splattering the sides of the tent with mud, and we were grateful we'd returned to Walmart for that tarp!  I couldn't nap anymore for the thunder and driving rain.  It was amazing.  Once the thunder struck so close and roared around us that it made me genuinely nervous.  We hung out in the tent for several hours, culminating in a 5:00 cup of wine.  Around 5:30 it stopped raining and we emerged from the tent ready for dinner.  We walked back down to the main trail and across it to the rushing, slightly amber colored North St. Vrain Creek to filter water, then heated some up on my new tiny camp stove for dinner.  I was pleased to see that it took only too six minutes to boil two cups of water at altitude.  We ate cheese, potato, and broccoli mush for dinner and admired the deep deep blue of the sky behind the lodgepole pines that surrounded our camp (too late to warm anything up, though).  It was a beautiful spot, open forest of pine and subalpine fir and big picturesque boulders.  After dinner, neither of us felt very energetic, so we soon retired to our tent for the night.  There were no more thunderstorms!

Packing at the Allenspark Lodge

Packing the saddle bags

Our horses left to right: Cody's horse, Raddles,
Simon, War Paint and another hors

Our pack horse Raddles all loaded up

Riding through Allenspark

A burnt tree on the trail

View of a burnt area ahead

Riding through a burned area

Mom and War Paint waiting out the storm

Hail on our second stop

Simon crossing Ouzel Falls

The sun finally comes out

Cody unpacking the horses (Mom's photo)

Muddy tent

Evening sun

Next Segment (Day 3)