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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Ute Crossing to Upper Beaver Meadows

September 23rd, 2012 · 2 Comments

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Hiking down all the way sounded easy. Even for a 6-mile-long hike. But it turned out to be tough.

A few days ago when Sharon returned from Peru to visit Machu Picchu and Amazonia, she mentioned that she wanted to get back to the high country above tree line and asked me to pick a trail.

Rocky Mountain National Park has several trails above tree line, which is about 11,000 feet here in northern Colorado. I yearn for new trails, but I had hiked most of those in the high country before. The big exception was one section of the old Ute Trail, so named because the Ute Indians who lived here had used it to cross the Continental Divide.

The main reason why neither of us had ever made this hike before is that it is 6 miles each way. The only reasonable way to hike it is to take two cars so as not to have to retrace our steps. So we drove separately from Boulder, and Sharon left her car where we would come out at Upper Beaver Meadows in Moraine Park at about 8,100 feet. Then we drove on together in my SUV to the Ute Crossing Trailhead on Trail Ridge Road.

We started our hike at 11,470 feet and hiked a level but rocky trail through the tundra up just a little to 11,600 feet past Tombstone Ridge, named for the rock formation there, to Timberline Pass. I had hiked this 2-mile section section of the trail twice before, in September 2008 and July 2009. I had also hiked the 1.4 miles at the end of the trail, once in September 2007 and then with Sharon in September 2010.

Those four hikes didn’t prepare me for the 3 miles in the middle. Quite the contrary. They were so easy that in fact they tricked me into thinking that the middle section wouldn’t be hard. I didn’t count on how steep it is.

Normally, I like to be at trailheads by sunrise to catch the first light of day. But I had just returned late the night before from a business trip and needed more sleep. And mornings are cold in the high country in the waning days of summer. So we didn’t get to the trailhead until after 10 a.m., when the weather was delightful under sunny skies with little wind. The only problem with the late start was that the hike took so long that it was already dark by the time we reached Upper Beaver Meadows after 7:30.

Ever hear the expression “personal best?” How about “personal worst”? We set new personal records for slowness and time on the trail. The 6 mile hike took us more than 9 hours.

I found the hike much harder than Sharon did. She didn’t even use trekking poles, while I had to have then for the steep middle section of the trail.

Actually, it isn’t a trail. Track would be a better description, because it was rocks all the way, often requiring a step down of more than a foot. Of the total 3,500 foot descent, about 2,000 feet came in the first mile after we crossed Timberline Pass. That’s steep and was by far the slowest part of the hike.

The beauty we saw was worth the effort. We saw more wildlife and birds along the steepest mile of the trail than all of the other miles combined. Part of it was because we stopped more often, looked around, and let them come to us.

We spotted a pair of Yellow-bellied Marmots in the distance and stopped to get a bite to eat while we watched them. One of them was interested in us — or our food — and came closer. I left a couple of almonds for it to eat after we moved on.

A Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris) Comes Up to Check Us Out (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/1500, ISO 800)

A Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris) Comes Up to Check Us Out (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/1500, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Marmots live where it’s rocky, like in this photo. At this time of year they are fattening up for the winter ahead when they will hibernate.

About 40 minutes later we came what you might call a glade, except that like the whole area it was steep. We had already descended below tree line, but this was an open space surrounded by evergreen trees. In this glade we saw the most amazing profusion of birds, at least six or seven species and many individuals of each. Sharon says that the birds like to eat what they can find in the open area and then retreat to the trees when they spot a predator.

A Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) Watches (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 800)

A Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) Watches (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge
A Male Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii) in the Distance (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 800)

A Male Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii) in the Distance (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge
This Female Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii) Came So Close That I Had to Turn Off the Focus Limiter on the Lens (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO 800)

This Female Cassin's Finch (Carpodacus cassinii) Came So Close That I Had to Turn Off the Focus Limiter on the Lens (Canon 7D with 100-400mm lens at 400mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO 800)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

By the time we were just half way down I was already feeling quite unsteady. Sharon gave me an energy bar, and it helped, but only for about an hour. Wobbly again, I recovered somewhat when we reached a real trail at the far upper end of the meadow. There, at 5:20 Longs Peak peaked out at us from between the trees. Longs Peak, the highest mountain in northern Colorado at 14,259 feet, is special to those of us who live in Boulder, and this view of it differs a lot from the face that it usually presents to us.

Longs Peak above the Forest in Rocky Mountain National Park Canon 7D with 18-200mm lens at 50mm, f/16, 1/180, ISO 800, and Photomatix HDR

Longs Peak above the Forest in Rocky Mountain National Park (Canon 7D with 18-200mm lens at 50mm, f/16, 1/180, ISO 800, and Photomatix HDR)

Click on the picture above to enlarge
The Aspens are Turning Early This Year Because It Is So Dry (Canon 7D with 18-200mm lens at 18mm, f/16, 1/180, ISO 800, and Photomatix HDR)

The Aspens are Turning Early This Year Because It Is So Dry (Canon 7D with 18-200mm lens at 18mm, f/16, 1/180, ISO 800, and Photomatix HDR)

Click on the picture above to enlarge

This was the steepest trail I have ever hiked. And I had always imagined that this downhill hike would be a piece of cake. But now, a couple of days later, my thighs are still aching, and Sharon tells me that hers are still sore too.

We aren’t planning to make such a steep descent ever again. But we are both glad that we got the chance to make this hike once.

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Posted in: Photography

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Vern Ball // Oct 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    The phot above of Gray Jay is a mis-identified Clark’s Nutcracker.

  • 2 David Mendosa // Oct 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Dear Vern,

    Thank you. I will have it corrected.

    David

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