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

Medicine Bow Curve

July 26th, 2015 · 2 Comments

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Today my continuing ascent to the high country reached 12,183 feet at the crest of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The destination was a little known trail leading west from Medicine Bow Curve.

The Park Service doesn’t publicize this trail, which starts at 11,640 feet and rises probably no more than 100 feet in its short length of less than one mile. I don’t know how long it is because it’s not mentioned in any of the four guidebooks that I have for the park or shown on any maps, including the USGS topo map or Google’s Earth map. The trail is all above timberline where the vegetation is tundra.

The trailhead is two hours from Sharon’s condo in central Boulder, meaning that we had to leave early to get started by sunrise. In fact, I woke up after a good night’s sleep at 2:45 a few minutes before my alarm was set to wake me.

Arriving at the trailhead at 6:24, a few minutes after sunrise because we had stopped several times for the view the temperature was 45 degrees, much cooler than in Boulder, which is more than a mile lower. I was glad that I wore my down jacket and would have worn my gloves, except that they make photography a little more difficult.

While this is one of our shortest hikes, requiring only 5,900 steps according to my pedometer, the rarified air takes our breath away even with moderate climbing. As short as the hike was, we remained three hours fully enjoying the weather, the scenery, the alpine tundra, the birds, and the animals. The weather was sunny with a light breeze, and only a few clouds on the eastern and southern horizons.

​Here are a couple of shots to establish the setting of today’s hike.

The Never Summer Mountains from the Trailhead

The Never Summer Mountains from the Trailhead

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​This Pond Along the Trail Still Had Some Ice

This Pond Along the Trail Still Had Some Ice

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Sharon and I chose to hike the trail at Medicine Bow Curve i part because we wanted to see a bird that lives only in the high country, the White-tailed Ptarmigan, the smallest bird in the grouse family. We had seen one when we hiked this trail four years ago, as I wrote then at “Back to the High Country.”​ A Guide to Trail Ridge Road that I picked up at the Alpine Visitor Center today says that “Ptarmigan live on the tundra, but they can be difficult to see because they are exceptionally well-camouflaged​.​” But Sharon ​is an exceptional spotter, and she found then just beyond the end of the trail.

A White-tailed Ptarmigan is Well Camouflaged ​

A White-tailed Ptarmigan is Well Camouflaged

Click on the picture above to enlarge

​Few other birds choose to live so high. But pipit​s​ on the tundra from Alaska as far south as the Rocky Mountains​.

​​This American Pipit Seems to Have its Own Rock Garden

This American Pipit Seems to Have its Own Rock Garden

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​As we slowly retraced our steps we looked up to the ridge and saw three bull elk. One of them was moving across the horizon.

A Bull Elk on the Horizon

A Bull Elk on the Horizon

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A few minutes later I looked down the slope and saw a smaller animal that interests me just as much. This was a Yellow-bellied Marmot, an animal that easterners often call a groundhog.

A Yellow-bellied Marmot Sits and Looks​

A Yellow-bellied Marmot Sits and Looks

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T​he foliage of the tundra is every bit as beautiful as the animals. Sharon brought this tiny flower garden to my attention.​

These Flowers Must Be Hardy to Live Here​

These Flowers Must Be Hardy to Live Here

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The Western Paintbrush Is One of My Favorite Flowers​

The Western Paintbrush Is One of My Favorite Flowers

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​At the end of the Medicine Bow Curve trail Sharon and I took turns at photographing each other.

Sharon, My Regular Hiking Companion

Sharon, My Regular Hiking Companion

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A Little Guy in an Old Hat​

A Little Guy in an Old Hat

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My recommendation to get up so early that you can get to the trailhead by sunrise may look extreme to some people. But it’s not.

I aim to get to the trailhead rather than a particular place on the trail because I want to see everything along the trail. But sometimes I know that I want to get someplace that requires a long hike.

I learned this lesson in 2007 when a professional photographer led me up to Lake Isabelle in the Rockies, as I wrote at ​”​Photo Shoot.​”​ He didn’t want to get to the trailhead at first light. He wanted to get to the lake, which took us almost two hours ​beyond the trailhead.

​I know seven reasons why I start my hikes early:​

​1. ​The light is better. It’s less harsh than midday. Our cameras are much more sensitive to the quality of the light than our eyes, but we can see it too. Photographers often say that the light is especially beautiful in the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.

​2. ​It’s less likely to be cloudy in the morning than at any other time of the day, at least in Colorado.

​3. ​Birds and animals are more active early in the day so we can see more of them easier and get more and better photographs of them.

​4. ​The temperature is cooler in the morning than during any other daylight hours, which is particularly important on hot summer days.

​5. ​The air is calmer in the morning, at least in Colorado. Less wind makes it easier to spot the movement of birds and animals.

​6. ​Fewer people on the trails in the early morning hours mean that it’s more peaceful both for me and the birds and animals that I hope to see.

​7. ​Much less traffic on the roads means a safer, quicker, ​and ​more relaxed drive to the trailhead.​

Sharon and I enjoyed all seven of these advantages of ​getting out on the trail at Medicine Bow Curve today.

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Posted in: Photography

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Geeta // Aug 26, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    A really good read! I am planning something similar myself. Could you show the trailhead on map please? :)

  • 2 David Mendosa // Aug 26, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    Actually, Geeta, Google Maps shows exactly where Medicine Bow Curve is. That’s not the problem. When you get there, you will see a place to park. But there is no trail sign, because it’s an unofficial trail. No sign, but it’s absolutely clear where the trail is. Enjoy!

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